Nov 30, 2018
On DVD: A The Thirteenth Chair (1929/1937) Double Feature
I love the Warner Archive single title double feature DVDs because comparing two versions of the same story makes watching each film exponentially more fun. The latest release features the 1929 and 1937 productions of the drawing room mystery The Thirteenth Chair, which was adapted from a 1916 stage play.
The story of a group of supposed murder suspects who participate in a séance in order to reveal the true criminal is essentially the same, but approached in a dramatically different fashion in the two films. It’s remarkable the polish the talkies took on from 1929 to 1937. In less than a decade, the concept of how to make a movie evolved into an almost entirely different form.
Director Tod Browning’s version of The Thirteenth Chair (1929) was the second screen adaptation, there was a silent version produced by the remarkably-named Acme Pictures Corporation in 1919. In this recital of gasping, moaning, and projecting to the back row, you never for a moment forget the story’s stage roots. You are also constantly reminded that the characters are British, with constant proclamations of “By Jove!” and “Dear old chap!”
This production is most interesting for the early glimpse it offers of Bela Lugosi, one year before he would find immortality as the star of Browning’s Dracula (1930). Lugosi’s style is the most stagy of the ensemble, but it doesn’t matter, because his screen presence is enthralling. His is the most streamlined and least fussy performance, despite the fact that he always appears to be shouting to the old ladies in the balcony.
While the MGM studios gloss and more sophisticated understanding of sound filmmaking certainly helps to elevate the 1937 version of The Thirteenth Chair, there are added quirks that amplify the amusement. The more potent presence of Dame Mae Whitty as the medium also centers the film in a way Margaret Wycherly never achieves in the earlier production.
Whitty steals the film with her comic flair and self-assurance, but the unusual supporting cast also has a lot to offer. As the closest friend of the murdered man, Henry Daniell injects an intriguing air of camp and a homoerotic edge into his performance. The glamorous and slightly salty ladies of the cast are also a fascinating bunch. Madge Evans, Elissa Landi, and Heather Thatcher never rose to above-the-title stardom, but they always add zing to a film and here they rattle and rave against each other with entertaining unease. The men are less distinctive, though Lewis Stone never disappoints and is pleasantly charismatic as a police inspector.
It’s a fun double feature, and the 1937 version could stand on its own as great entertainment.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the DVD for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.