THIRTEENTH CHAIR, THE
(director: George B. Seitz; screenwriters: from the Broadway play by Bayard Veiller/ Marion Parsonnet; cinematographer: Charles Clarke; editor: W. Donn Hayes; music: David Snell; cast: Madame La Grange (Dame May Whitty), Inspector Marney (Lewis Stone), Madge Evans (Nell O’Neill), Ralph Forbes (Lionel Trent), Elissa Landi (Helen Trent), Matthew Boulton (Commissioner Grimshaw), Heather Thatcher (Mary Eastwood), Henry Daniell (John Wales), Charles Trowbridge (Dr. Mason), Holmes Herbert (Sir Roscoe Crosby), Janet Beecher (Lady Crosby), Thomas Beck (Dick Crosby), Lal Chand Mehtra (Professor Feringeea), Robert Coote (Stanby), Elsa Buchanan (Miss Stanby); Runtime: 66; MPAA Rating: NR; MGM; 1937)
“An excellent example of a Charlie Chan whodunit.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This is the third and best version of the 1916 Broadway play by Bayard Veiller. It was filmed as a silent by Acme Pictures with director Tod Browning in 1919 and then was stiffly made as an early talkie for MGM and directed again by Tod Browning in 1929. The George B. Seitz (“A Yank on the Burma Road”/”The Courtship of Andy Hardy”) version, though dated, is an excellent example of a Charlie Chan whodunit. While the Marion Parsonnet screenplay efficiently and gleefully covers the action.
Because the Calcutta top cop, Police Commissioner Grimshaw (Matthew Boulton), can’t make any headway into solving the murder case of the despicable upper-crust ladies man and blackmailer with government connections, Leonard Lee, knifed in the back with the murder weapon missing, the higher-ups put in charge of the case the brilliant and no-nonsense Inspector Marney (Lewis Stone) from Scotland Yard. Grimshaw suggests that the Inspector follow the advice of Lee’s best friend, John Wales (Henry Daniell), who clamors for the cops to get the killer. He urges the cops bring in a popular Irish medium, Madame La Grange (Dame May Whitty), who will hold a seance with the 13 suspects, with the idea being that maybe her bag of tricks will lead to capturing the killer.The provincial governor, Sir Roscoe Crosby (Holmes Herbert), in colonial India, agrees to hold the seance in his mansion and makes sure all those the policeman wants, some suspects, some innocents, will be there.
The seance invitees include Sir Roscoe’s lovelorn son Dick (Thomas Beck), who has just asked the nice working-class girl Nell O’Neill (Madge Evans), his mother’s (Janet Beecher) secretary, to marry him and she says after the seance she will accept. Soon after the guests arrive, Mme. La Grange detects a spirit called “Laughing Eyes” who will guide her into the other world. She also recognizes that her daughter Nell is there and is one of the suspects. They meet on the quiet and she tells her daughter not to tell anyone their secret.
During the seance, in the dark, with the group all holding hands while seated in a circle, the medium refuses Wale’s request to ask Lee’s spirit if Nell killed him. Nell is a suspect because she was the last one seen at the bungalow before Lee was murdered. When the lights come on, Wales has been knifed to death, but again no weapon is found, instead what’s found is Nell’s blood-stained handkerchief.
It’s up to the wily, sometime charlatan medium to use her real medium skills to save her daughter. She teams up with the hard-nosed realist Inspector and gets her “Laughing Eyes” magical shtick to surprisingly actually work. There are a number of suspects in the room, ladies who had affairs with the victim and a man who hated the victim enough to kill him, as we hear all that in the course of the investigation.
It’s the spry Dame May Whitty who makes things sparkle, as she tries to make up for being estranged from her daughter by doing her a solid.
REVIEWED ON 3/30/2020 GRADE: B+