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THIRTEENTH CHAIR, THE(director: Tod Browning; screenwriter: from a play by Bayard Veiller/Elliott J. Clawson; cinematographer: Merritt B. Gerstad; editor: Harry Reynolds; cast: Conrad Nagel (Richard Crosby), Leila Hyams (Helen O’Neill), Margaret Wycherly (Mme. Rosalie La Grange), Helene Millard (Mary Eastwood), Holmes Herbert (Sir Roscoe Crosby), Mary Forbes (Lady Crosby), Bela Lugosi (Inspector Delzante), John Davidson(Edward Wales), Moon Carroll (Helen Trent), Cyril Chadwick (Brandon Trent), Charles Quartermaine (Dr. Philip Mason), Gretchen Holland (Grace Standish), Bertram Johns (Howard Standish), Frank Leigh (Professor Feringeea); Runtime: 71; MGM; 1929)
“A chatty theater piece more than an action movie.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Bela Lugosi makes like he’s Charlie Chan in this B-movie mystery taking place in colonial India. A scoundrel by the name of Spencer Lee has been murdered by an unseen woman and a seance to get the culprit is arranged by Edward Wales in the house of the wealthy Sir Roscoe Crosby.

The film is taken from the successful Broadway play and comes across as a chatty theater piece more than an action movie. It’s also dated and does not have a chilling suspense story. What it does do well, is create some spooky scenes in the dark mansion. In this early talkie the director, Tod Browning (Dracula/Freaks), gives The Thirteenth Chair (second film version, the other was in 1919) a chance for renewed life; but, it’s hampered by hammy performances and that it is difficult to guess the killer’ identity because the killer’s secret is never revealed until it’s too late to guess.

As the seance starts, the medium brought by Wales, Mme. Rosalie La Grange, is introduced to all the guests. But one of the guests is her surprised daughter Helen O’Neil. She has told no one about her mother, and was just about to have her engagement to Sir Roscoe’s son Richard announced. She met him while working as a secretary to his mother Alice. But Wales asks that the announcement be delayed until after the seance.

The medium wants to leave upon seeing her daughter, but her daughter insists that she stays.

When the lights go out during the seance and Wales is asking the spirit of Lee who killed him, there’s a shriek and when the lights get turned on Wales has been stabbed in the back. Inspector Delzante takes over the investigation, and names as suspects all thirteen guests who were seated in a circle holding hands during the seance. The inspector soon makes Helen O’Neil his number one suspect. He tricks her into admitting that she visited Lee’s house on the day he was killed. Her mother believes her daughter is shielding someone and when ruthlessly pressed by the inspector, it turns out that Helen was acting on behalf of Richard’s sister Helen Trent — who wrote love letters before she married and wanted them retrieved from Lee. But when questioned, she denies this.

The film draws to its conclusion as another seance is arranged by the fake medium. It includes the dead body of Wales sitting exactly where he was when killed. The only thing you can be sure of is that the goody-goody Helen O’Neil is telling the truth and the real killer had a good motive to kill the beastly Lee, but has no cause to kill Wales.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”