Sunday, November 19, 2023

Spirit Week: Do you know who killed you?

1925, directed by Tod Browning and written by Tod Browning and Waldemar Young

1929, directed by Tod Browning and written by Elliot J. Clawson

1937, directed by George B. Seitz and written by Marion Parsonnet

Spoilers: moderate

So... I was wrong.  Now, I did say, when discussing 1933's Supernatural, that I had no desire to claim that it must have been the first major motion picture about Spiritualism, when motion pictures had existed for more than three decades.  For much the same reason (plus I now know for a fact that it is not) I shall not now claim that Tod Browning's 1925 film about a lying spirit medium, The Mystic, must have been the first.  (I might not have been aware of it, but in my defense, here in the November of 2023, The Mystic has only been accessible for about four weeks.)  Of course, as I just explained, all this only would've made me right, and I'd even be wearing a smug little smile right now at how wise I was to have hedged.  Sadly, however, I didn't hedge enough, because I did claim for Supernatural the title of the first major Sound Era film to take on the not-so-new religion.  So thanks a heap, Tod Browning: the famed horror filmmaker made another movie about a Spiritualist flim-flam artist in 1929, called The Thirteenth Chair, and, indeed, he made it very much in sound.  I stand humiliated, needless to say.  But, at least when we discussed You'll Find Out, released all the way out in 1940, I had the sense to speculate that, surely, at least one film between 1933 and 1940 must've had a seance in it, and at least one did, smack in the middle of those seven years, a 1937 remake of Browning's The Thirteenth Chair, directed by George B. Seitz.

This is one objectively-good reason why we're going to do these in a pile: the two Thirteenth Chairs are 95% the same movie, made differently, and it'll simply be more efficient, and I think more interesting, to treat them as a unit.  Another decent reason is the Browning connection between the 1929 Thirteenth Chair and The Mystic.  The real reason is that I don't like The Mystic very much (though I do not dislike it, either), and moreover, I simply don't find it interesting.  Even banking on my acknowledged lack of brevity, I can't imagine how I'd fill up a proper review of it.  Probably by regurgitating the history of Tod Browning, upon whom we've never treated in these parts.

The one thing to know about Browning as it pertains to The Mystic, and of course it pertains to a wide swathe of his movies, is that his background was in the circus, as both carnival barker and, being possessed of some contortionist skill, carnival attraction.  Browning liked to incorporate this world of sideshow entertainment into his moviesthe director is most famous for Dracula, but he's second-most famous for Freaks, and there are a lot more movies like Freaks than movies like Dracula in his filmographyand The Mystic, bearing Browning's writing credit alongside his frequent collaborator in his years at MGM, Waldemar Young, does precisely that.  And so, in Hungary, there exists a traveling carnival troupe of Roma performers, which includes the psychic Zara (Aileen Pringle), as well as the man who raised her (I believe her father, but perhaps this is not made clear) Zazarack (Mitchell Lewis) and his assistants, the knife-throwing Anton (Robert Ober) and Carlo (Stanton Heck).  A mysterious foreigner has been following them for some time, watching all their shows, and tonight he makes himself known.  They're wary, but the stranger calmly explains that he's an American named Nash (Conway Tearle), who's merely been sizing them up for an opportunity.  They've impressed him, and he offers them a chance at a real scam: with Zara's style and skills, he can set her up as an exotic spirit medium for the wealthiest rubes in New York, and they can all get very rich.  When he shows them ten grand up frontin 1925 moneythey scarcely have any choice but to take him seriously and agree.  And so they go to America, establish their reputations, and find their mark, heiress Doris Merrick (Gladys Hulette), with Zara conjuring up her dad as part of a scheme to get her current guardian (David Torrence) out and put Nash in.  But in the meantime, a complication's come up, for Zara has fallen in love with Nash, and wealthy, innocent, unmarried Doris is an existential threat to that love's survival, as is Nash's dawning conscience.

The Mystic has its good points, notably that while these sideshow people's scam is sleazy as all get-out, it winds up in some remarkably sweet places for a horror-inflected crime thriller, and that is of course one of Browning's hallmarks, the sometimes-unexpected ways he can make his sympathies known without always falling into schematic message movie boilerplate.  (Freaks is probably the closest I've seen him get to that, and while The Mystic could be accused of it even more, it's in such a melodramatic register that it doesn't feel that way.)  In any event, its best stuff isn't about its characters at all: it's simply the process-oriented manner in which Browning presents Zara's seances and how the clique goes about their dastardly business, very much a Breaking the Magician's Code kind of deal (potentially cribbing from Harry Houdini's own debunking work), elucidating how they communicate information from inside a locked, darkened room and manage to make ingress and egress into said locked, darkened room to do their tricks.  Cinematically, these are some awfully good tricks, too, with care put into the materialization "effects" for the "ghosts" Zara beckons back to our physical plane, these "effects" being almost entirely in-camera illusionthe strategic deployment of light and shadow and reflective material, and hence not unlike a real (or "real") Spiritualist sittinguntil Browning hits you, hard, with what I'm certain is in fact a jump cut, punching up the real deal with a startling flourish of movie artifice.

Where it falters, unfortunately, is that it doesn't quite have enough plot for even its skimpy 70 minute runtime, pursuing a very straightforward fable about the difficulties which untrustworthy scum face when they attempt to go straight, and pursuing this for about ten minutes more than its material can really support.  It's one of those silent films, then, where describing it at all gets you well into the third act, while even the convolutions that this third act brings don't really do that much more than afford it the luxury of "a plot" in the first place, insofar as the first forty minutes have only ever been laying out a premise rather than anything you'd feel completely comfortable describing as a story.  And I'm not sure any of that, either its set-up or its story, is especially well-acted: Pringle is getting by mostly on two kinds of stares, ethereal and angry, and it's not until the literal 70th minute of the film that Browning favors her with a close-up that does anything else.  It does, however, end quite well (that close-up is terrific), and its denouement firmly stamps a shape of a story onto what we've seen, and so we wind up with a film that demonstrates something like a penchant for trending better as it goes alongeven if it would still be saying too much to say this movement is all one-way, for it does get boring before it gets better.  There is also the matter of the Criterion version, and the neo-silent score that version comes with: it has, I think, a pretty negative impact, despite being reasonably well-done for what it is, because what it is practically renders this 2023 version of The Mystic into a legitimately transformative work, taking a 1925 film and turning it into a sound effects-laden sync-score picture from at least three years down the road.  You will, at least, probably never watch another silent film with this many audible footfalls, and I found it sufficiently distractingand sufficiently inimical to the moodthat I eventually said to my TV, sarcastically, "why don't you just dub their voices while you're at it, man?"  And then, during a seance, they did in fact dub their voices.

Four years later, Browning returned to Spiritualism, presumably deciding it was a worthy subject for his very first talking picture, The Thirteenth Chair, and while it was remade later on, it was itself a remake, so (if we were feeling foolhardy) perhaps we could pin down LĂ©once Perret's 1919 version as the first appearance of Spiritualism in a feature film.  Like Perret, Browning's (and screenwriter Elliot J. Clawson's) source was Bayard Veiller's 1916 play of the same name; and while they are faithful to the substance of Veiller's drawing-room murder mystery, they certainly weren't precious about it.  For starters, they remove the action from New York City to Calcutta, and it's one of the biggest "somebody felt like it but I don't know why" moves imaginable, necessitating the transmogrification of the entire cast of characters from citizens of the United States to subjects of George V, while the new setting is only exploited to the minimal degree that now one of the titular thirteen is an Indian professor who doesn't think the Thuggees did it, and by 1929, or 1916, I don't think it would have crossed my mind that they did.  (In fairness, it's something of an in-universe joke.)  Somehow I find it more aggravating that the inspector in charge of the murder case that's presented to usand forgive me if this is only in Seitz's remake, not in Browning'sis from the Metropolitan Police.  (The relevant authority is of course the Bengal branch of the Indian Imperial Police, though this led to me learning that fingerprinting was invented by two Indians affiliated with the Bengali police, Hem Chandra Bose and Azizul Haque.  Now that non-relevant fact is in your brain too.)  Browning and Clawson also change the ending, perhaps to evade the spoiler problem inherent in doing a murder mystery that already had a film adaptation only a decade old.  This isn't as big a problem of fidelity as it sounds, which is, however, one of The Thirteenth Chair's biggest problems as a story in any configuration; but we'll get to that when we get to it.

We begin with our victim already dead, with an added prologue at the murder scene that intensifies the agreeable impression already present in the play that we've stepped into a second act rather than a first.  So: in Calcutta there lived a man, Spencer Lee, in whose home we find another man, Wales (John Davidson), sneaking around.  Our itinerant inspector (Bela Lugosi), arrived in Calcutta just now to solve this crime, finds Wales too, but quickly determines that, while irritating he may be, Wales is his ally, out to solve the murder of a man he called a friend but whom we'll learn was despised by literally everybody else in his social circle.  Wales has a plan to trap the person he believes stuck the knife in Lee's back, and sets his trap at the mansion of Sir Roscoe Crosby (Holmes Herbert), gathering all the possible suspects (and, to put the killer's mind at ease, a fair few people who couldn't have had anything to do with it, between them numbering, of course, thirteen).  Wales has staged a seance, to be presided over by spirit medium Madame Rosalie La Grange (Margaret Wycherly), and, as Prince Hamlet before him, Wales believes he can push the killer into giving themselves away.  He's right enough that he pushes them into rash action, for in the darkness of the seance, at the instant La Grange was about to say Wales's favored suspect's name, the killer strikes again, ending Wales with what appears to have been the very same knife that ended Lee, though this is difficult to ascertain because by the time the lights come on that knife has vanished.  We now learn who Wales believed to be the culprit, Helen O'Neill, called "Nelly" (Leila Hyams), secretary to Lady Crosby (Mary Forbes) and just this morning engaged to the Crosbies' son, Richard (Conrad Nagel), and accordingly perhaps very eager to dispose of a man with whom she may, or may not, have had an affair.  Making matters worse for Nelly is her mother, who is, unbeknowst to anyone else, but figured out by our inspector, present at these proceedings, in the form of "Madame La Grange," and who had made some pathetic efforts to draw suspicion away from her Helen (for there is, in fact, another Helen here) that only made her seem all the more guilty.

This is a fine little yarn, with a lot to recommend it: it manages to be unexpected quickly, by dispensing entirely with any soap operatic conflict arising on account of common little Nelly and aristocratic Richard's nuptials, with literally the only thing his family finds displeasing about her being her insistence that they don't want her to marry their son, and their acceptance isn't even shaken when she's accused, fairly persuasively, of murder; and while the ensemble kind of blurs together, the principals are a very solid lot, with Wycherly in particular giving a genuinely strong performance that starts out as an old, cocky, barely-invested conwoman and culminates with the tearful prayers of a desperate parent.  La Grange is a splendid creation, and you can see why Browning might have been attracted to her, somewhat of the converse of Zara's medium in The Mystic: La Grange introduces herself as a conwoman, spending a full reel running down all the parlor tricks she would usually use to hustle the rubes, but as this is a special seance, they won't be needed, so she'll be dispensing with the showmanship and she'll be getting down to the "real" substance of her trade.  She's incredibly charming, and that's incredibly useful, once the weight of this drama bears down on her.

So more to round things out than because anyone else is truly important, we have Lugosi camping it up, glaring smugly out from under cocked eyebrows in ways that make his inspector a great deal of fun; and while Nagel doesn't have all that much to do here, his movie star charisma at least affords this mostly-forgotten cast a nice anchor.  This does cut both ways, unfortunately: there's one "principal" I haven't even mentioned, because to do so would be to give the story away, but Browning's rendition of this story kind of does that on its own, by so thoroughly foregrounding only one other member of an ensemble that is in all other respects as gauzy as fog.  So you'll probably guess it long before it twists out, but as is often the case in murder mysteries, it's the getting there, and Browning added a very major and wonderfully creative wrinkle to Veiller's play, involving a corpse (the fresher of the pair), that pulls a thriller that's very hypothetically about "ghosts" (at no point is it even remotely in question whether La Grange is a phony) into territory that I think you'd agree is unambiguously "horror."

But the real surprise of The Thirteenth Chair is that it's a 1929 talkie you can actually forget came out in 1929, widely considered a strong contender for the worst non-2020 year in cinema history; and, as noted, Browning had no previous experience with sound.  Miraculously, it doesn't show: the scenario is, of course, designed from the ground up to be people mostly standing around in well-furnished rooms and talking next to objects microphones can be hidden in, and hence it's already amenable to Early Sound blockiness, but that's not even half of it.  It's a surprise, or maybe this helps it make sense, because Browning had not been, so far as I can tell, particularly technically-interesting as a silent filmmaker; perhaps, therefore, he had fewer preconceptions to abandon.  (For instance, his colleague at MGM Clarence Brown was a vastly superior maker of silent films; Clarence Brown's second talkie, the same year's Navy Blues, is a piece of shit.)  Whatever the explanation, Browning does a sterling job, and if you probably wouldn't believe it came out any later than 1930, just a year is a huge difference when it comes to Early Sound, and Browning is even using somewhat-stiff but reasonably well-mounted camera movement, even a smattering of crane shots (somehow!), to emphasize plot and character beats, all along just generally making his movie better than a talkie in 1929 would need to be.  The sound recording could be from 1932; the biggest tell as to its vintage is some distractingly weird editing snags, where shots are clearly starting three or four seconds before they're supposed to and for inexplicable reasons we sit with people not talking while, e.g., Madame La Grange takes two shots and ten seconds to cross a room.  (It's akin to the same problems in next year's Anna Christie and presumably has the same root cause, though I don't know what that cause is.)  This is thankfully rare.  Browning even gets up to some level of what we might call "formal play," his two major seance scenes thrown into the pitchest possible blackness so that all they are, other than some very small and unilluminating lights that seem to be there mainly just to let you know the projector's still on, is sound.

Well, if Browning's The Thirteenth Chair is so extraordinary because it's almost a real movie, Seitz's The Thirteenth Chair just is a real movie, though, obviously, this is a whole lot less impressive in 1937.  It's neat, however, to see the distinct ways that two filmmakers approach the material distinctively, despite there being a much smaller technological gap than you'd assume thanks to Browning's instant facility with sound, and despite Seitz clearly being tasked with doing practically the same thing that Browning already had.  (Seitz isn't lost to history, but he's not someone who comes up in many conversations: he was one of MGM's more anonymous company men, his name remembered principally for the Andy Hardy serieswhich he directed virtually all of, undoubtedly putting him in Louis B. Mayer's good graces though it means his legacy is that of "the guy who did that borderline-B-picture Mickey Rooney television-before-television show that practically nobody today cares about," even if I personally enjoy them.)

I'll just tell you upfront, I like Seitz's version better, though it's a near-run thing, and it's not uniformly better.  May Whitty, headlining the production as Madame La Grange, is good but lacks the liveliness that Wycherly brought, especially for her key early scenes where she returns a good-natured belligerence to the ruder members of Calcutta's upper-crust.  No one, however, is a decisive trade down; in most cases they're a trade up, acting-wise, especially Henry Daniell's Wales (and in one case, it's a trade nowhere, with Herbert reprising his role).  For one member of the cast, it's a superb trade sideways: I would hardly reject Lugosi, but whether or not it practically amounts to me doing a quirky bit, I honestly was at least as excited to see what Lewis Stone would make of the inspector, and I wasn't disappointed; it's more of an actual performance, at least, rather than brow-based pyrotechnics, with Stone doing his usual fine job of quietly balancing competing elements of his persona, the gruffness and the kindliness, along with that inimitable twinkle in his eye that tells you when his character is having a good time being both, even if he'd never admit it.

Anyway, the differences between how Browning and Seitz build their respective films as objects are useful, in their way, in breaking down direction into nuts and bolts: possibly because of the advantage of eight years of sound recording technology, Seitz is just doing camera movement like a normal person, rather than being showy about it; Browning is a tiny bit better at composition; Seitz, via the sometimes quite-great cinematographer Charles G. Clarke, is a hell of a lot better at lighting his compositions, with some lovely proto-noir sequences; Browning might be better at blocking; but Seitz is better at staging, or maybe this really is just a distinction in personality and I prefer Seitz's instincts, for Browning stages the climactic seance with its most important fact hidden to the ensemble, but known to us so we can sit clammily with it, while Seitz stages it as a shocker moment for them and for us.  (Both use a cockatoo as a primitive jump scare, and my delight at realizing that Kenneth Branagh did his genre homework makes me love A Haunting In Venice even more.)

The biggest difference, though, is probably just Marion Parsonnet's re-adaptation of the play; it holds onto all the best innovations of Clawson's adaptation, but hers actually bothers being "an ensemble piece," with fourteen or so actual characters, or at least character sketches, rather than five characters and several other people who exist to fill the foreordained number of chairs; and it's far better at providing more narratively-viable suspects than "one."  (Robert Coote and Elsa Buchanan aren't suspects, but they do provide some likeable comic relief as the doofiest members of the group, a sibling pair of parodies of twitty Britishness.)  Seitz's version thus feels like a richer story despite being six minutes shorter (66 minutes versus 72, so in neither case a big commitment), and having a slightly weaker protagonist.  Nevertheless, Parsonnet's script doesn't address the biggest lacuna of the play any more than Clawson's did, and while I shouldn't make assumptions of the 1919 film, I will, and apparently not one of the five writers across four different versions of this story ever stopped to wonder what specific relationship Nelly has to her mother's religion, whether she is fully aware that La Grange is a pure huckster, or if in Nelly's innocence she's wound up with a real belief in it.  This actually punches a very nasty hole in the plot: if Nelly knows her mother's profession is a sham, there would be no cause for her to kill Wales even if she did kill Lee; only if Nelly believes her mother really is channeling spirits would she conceivably take the risk.  There's a heftier version of Thirteenth Chair that engages with this, though I suppose it wouldn't be as easy to manufacture a happy ending, unless it got all Letty Lynton on us; as it stands, the 1937 version restores the play's ending, which points to its problem as a murder mystery rather than the serious treatise on religion it never wanted to be, which is that changing the solution doesn't do anything to the story.  In both cases we have something that feels like one of the alternate endings to Clue, or at least not much bettersatisfactory, then, but not necessarily satisfying.  Happily, the central dynamic of both films, with a heroic medium for a change, is investing enough that "satisfactory" is more than merely sufficient.

Score, The Mystic: 6/10
Score, The Thirteenth Chair (1929): 7/10
Score, The Thirteenth Chair (1937): 7/10

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