Archive for The Thirteenth Chair

Brandy and Soda

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 16, 2012 by dcairns

Oh look, it’s Death! Hello, Death!

This is THE UNHOLY NIGHT, a magnificently stagey old-dark-house comedy thriller from 1929, a year when they KNEW how to make films — by sitting a camera on some sticks and saying things in front of it. Lionel Barrymore directs, or supervises, or at any rate at least watches, probably, and the manly, hard-drinking ex-military hero is played by… Roland Young.

This casting is so deliriously awry it deforms what ought to be a dull, badly-made film into a triumph of creative mismanagement. Young, who doesn’t suit being actually young at all — he has no talent for youth — nails all the comedy, usurping the more dramatic aspects of the story, except where they involve weakness or sorrow, which he does well. The idea that he’s a tough guy who takes mass murder in his stride is a non-starter, but the scene where he thinks all his friends have been strangled (one of the film’s two sequences of camera movement strikingly glides across a roomful of garotted men) is disturbingly mournful, tearing a hole in the hi-jinks that leaves a cold wind riffling through the flapping script (story by Ben Hecht, presumably on a dare).

It is, as Micheal MacLiammoir said of Orson Welles’ audition for the Gate Theatre, “a remarkable performance, wrong from beginning to end.” Perhaps that’s unfair, but certainly if you ever wanted to see an actor conclusively disqualify himself from leading man roles, this would be a good place to look. Apart from that, he’s really good, credible and not stiff, which isn’t easy in this creaky thing. The script creaks as if typed on balsa, the unwieldy cast creaks as if whittled from teak (I never saw so many unemployable actors in uniforms just hanging around waiting to be murdered, or for this film to be over so they can go back on relief), the camera creaks – it’s forever attempting those adorable little false-start pans which don’t quite go anywhere, as if the operator started to think he was pointing in the wrong (a forgivable mistake in the circumstances), started looking for a better subject, then either gave up in despair or lapsed into an insulin coma.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as Tod Browning’s similar THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR, which has as many different, revolutionary kinds of “acting” as it has chairs (that’s thirteen of them, in case you hadn’t guessed), but that’s the same as saying I enjoyed it extravagantly, without actually ascending all the way to a non-refundable state of satori. In addition to Young, we get the massive Edinburgh-born features of Ernest Torrence (Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Snr), who looks as if he could wedge a cricket ball between his nose and chin and spin it like a globe of the Earth, and there’s a quick turn by Boris Karloff as a suspicious Arab. Boris may only be around for about fifteen minutes, but he does his best to cram a full feature’s worth of acting into them… if this involves telegraphing three subtexts at a time, that’s a challenge Boris is not only willing but anxious to meet. You’ll never see such sheer quantity of acting. He makes up for the rest of the cast (and there’s a lot of them). The credits don’t mention Boris, but they do list the entire “doomed regiment.” The doomed regiment are entirely forgettable apart from the guy with the prosthetic scars, but Boris does his best to embody an entire doomed regiment with every swing of his cantilevered eyebrows.

Barrymore, who if nothing else must have had a fine eye for grotesquerie, also gives us Sojin, wearing his best store teeth, and playing a suspicious medium (these films are NOT complete without a trick séance), and THIS dazzling Adonis, whose chin could be used to dig roads. I could look at him for hours, whoever he is.

I’m convinced that if this guy could only dance, he’d have been a big star. “The Dancing Jawbone,” they’d have called him. And everybody would have clapped.

Take a seat.

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , on October 26, 2009 by dcairns


THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR is a Tod Browning murder mystery from 1929, which pushes so far into staginess that the walls break apart and we find ourselves in a Lynchian space of puppetshow poetry. Amazingly, it features Bela Lugosi as a detective, two years before DRACULA made him a star. Even amazinglier, such is the panoply of theatric convulsion on display, Lugosi comes across as one of the more restrained and fluent performers. The whole thing is like a mass audition for acting styles for the new talking pictures. Who will win? The rigid enunciator? The sepulchral weirdie? The tremulous incompetent? In fact, NOBODY in this film gets anywhere near any of the popular modes of screen acting which would  dominate the coming decade: everybody here is an evolutionary dead end.


Plot: a murder at a seance, in the dark. Whodunnit? Solution: recreate the seance. This leads to an innovation in sound film — two lengthy sequences taking place in total darkness, with the only illumination falling on some empty wall-space. A static shot of nothing, lasting minutes. “Well, they’ve got the soundtrack, what are they complaining about?”


My two favourite moments were probably mistakes caused by bad reel changes, but they’re worth celebrating anyway. In one, Lugosi is standing and the man he’s talking to sits a few feet away. Lugosi exits his own medium shot and advances upon his man. Cut to a matching medium shot of the sitting man, with a nice space for Lugosi to step into. But Lugosi does not come. For long seconds, we wait for him to arrive. He has a distance of precisely three feet to cross. He’s walking briskly (well, briskly for Lugosi). What’s keeping him. The sitting man waits, apparently unperturbed. Finally, Lugosi arrives. Nobody seems bothered.

I want to recut this sequence, cutting to random shots of Lugosi in other movies, fighting a strong wind, wading through a swamp, wrestling an octopus, all while the sitting man watches, impassive. Then Lugosi arrives, none the worse for his adventures. But it still wouldn’t be as good as the sequence the way it is.


The other best bit is also probably a reel change. We cut to a crowded room: all the suspects have been gathered (“I expect you’re wondering why…”) and told to wait. They wait, in silence. Frozen in position. Then, all at once, action! Everybody simultaneously bursts into animated conversation. Rhubarb, rhubarb! Everybody is talking nobody is listening. And then the scene starts. It feels like we’ve been offered a glimpse behind some eldritch curtain. This is how everybody behaves, all the time, in rooms we’re not in.

A Thousand Faces, Thirteen Chairs, Two Gorillas and a Blind Bargain

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2009 by dcairns

Where were we? Ah yes, I was enumerating the films I’ve yet to see illustrated in Denis Gifford’s seminal A Pictorial History Of Horror Movies. As a kid I’d pour over these images and despair of ever seeing most of them. Now so many are within my grasp! It would have been nice to have seen more of them when I was tiny enough to be scared by them, though.

Page 56 — THE HANDS OF ORLAC. I’ve seen the classic Hollywood version, MAD LOVE, and I’ve even seen the dishwater-dull re-remake, but I’ve yet to see the Conrad Veidt original. It’s available, so I have been remiss. Must rectify.


63. A BLIND BARGAIN, with Lon Chaney (Snr) as both mad scientist and ape-man. That pretty well has to be worth seeing. NB: it no doubt is, but it’s a lost film, so I’m going to have to [a] find it, [b] make it, or [c] dream it.

64. Somehow I’ve always managed to miss the Chaney biopic MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES with James Cagney (terrible casting). I guess I’ll see it someday. The fact that I love both Chaney and Cagney explains my reluctance.

66. I’ve never seen THE MONKEY TALKS, which, perversely enough, appears to be a silent film. Never even read about it anywhere else. Gifford does dig up some obscurities.

70. THE MYSTERY OF THE MARIE CELESTE with Bela Lugosi, a very early Hammer film, is available somewhere, I think. Keen to see it, partly as reference for a horror project of my own. (Amazing what you can justify as “research”. It’s kind of like “tax deduction” in that sense.)

75. LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT has saved me the trouble of watching it by becoming a lost film, alas. But I have watched the reconstruction put together from production stills (they really documented the hell out of movies in those days. Too bad they didn’t look after the movies as well as they did the stills).

77. Was never very tempted by the Ritz Brothers, so I’ve passed THE GORILLA by, but with Lionel “Pinky” Atwill, Bela Lugosi and Joseph Calleia (Malta’s only move star?) it should be worth a look.

80. THE TERROR, 1928, is directed by Roy Del Ruth, so I’d expect snappiness, but it’s a very early talkie so it might not be quite as zippy as, say, BLESSED EVENT. Does Edward Everett Horton play the Terror? It would almost be a shame to see the film and find this isn’t so.

Opposite page, RETURN OF THE TERROR (ah-hah, it’s an Edgar Wallace adaptation!) has Mary Astor and Frank McHugh and therefore can’t, surely, be bad. Apparently it’s a 1934 remake, not a sequel at all. Same page, THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE represents Del Ruth at the fag-end of his career. I seem to recall hearing that this movie comes with an advisory notice reassuring nervous patrons that alligator blood transfusions can’t really have the horrific effects depicted in the photoplay(basically, turning into a character out of The Banana Splits).

83. THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR. I’m on top of this one. Tod Browning, Bela Lugosi, I’m on it. THE GORILLA — a different gorilla from the Ritz Bros movie. This one is Walter Pigeon. THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL. Titles don’t come much more generic, but the cast features Calleia again, plus Paul Lukas, Onslow Stevens, Ellen Drew, all people I’d be happy to spend an evening with.

84. THE BLOOD DRINKERS. One of the more graphically gory images in the book. I remember showing the book to a younger friend, but having been instructed to “protect” her from the scarier images, I kept these pages sealed. Of course she demanded to see, and pronounced the image, “not that scary”. This Philippino vampire flick seemed impossibly exotic at the time, but it’s now easily available on DVD.

On the opposing page, THE VAMPIRE (1957) is one I still know nothing about.

92. MURDER BY THE CLOCK gets raves on the IMDb, and it’s from the terribly important year of 1931 so I’d love to see it. “You are either a genius or a killer – I find that you are both!!!”

103. Frustratingly, I can’t even remember if I’ve seen THE INVISIBLE AGENT (no puns please). I’ve seen some INVISIBLE MAN pseudo-sequels, but not all. This one’s written by Curt “idiot brother” Siodmak, so I expect hilarity.

More soon!


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