“The play that made Broadway Gasp” is how Paramount explained Double Door in the opening title of its new film of 1934. The screen version of the popular stage melodrama premiered on May 4 – less than two months before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code cracked down on censorship and took the edge off mainstream Hollywood product.
But this Old Dark House thriller was no reveler in modernistic sex and violence – it enticed with a ruthlessly old-fashioned quality that made us shudder. And many folks who watched Double Door on screen in 1934, or had viewed it live, knew of its odd back story – one said to be inspired by members of a lost-in-the-past New York City landlord clan known as “The Wild Wendels.” Their distaste for the attention of publicity and the accoutrements of affluence would have made them the anti-Trumps of today.
A must-watch for fans of Golden Age horror (or, in this case, semi-horror), Double Door was foremost a triumph for its star, Mary Morris, a longtime Broadway actress whose only movie this was. Too bad, but Morris packs a lot of punch into her 75-minute screen career in the role she originated on Broadway in the fall of 1933.
Morris plays a cold-blooded spinster named Victoria Van Brett, who in 1910 has holed up in her decaying Fifth Avenue brownstone with her meek, pliable sister, Caroline (Anne Revere), as Manhattan, and the rest of the world, changes around them. “I’d live in a tomb if I had all the millions they have!” comments one of their lower-class neighbors, who envy and pity the sisters in their “old museum” of a home, where the urns containing the ashes of their long-dead parents are displayed in plain sight.
The imperious Victoria has no plans to alter this arrangement, even with the marriage of her lively, much-younger half-brother, Rip (Kent Taylor). Victoria orders her attorney (Sir Guy Standing) to cut Rip out of her will upon his union with Anne (Evelyn Venable), a kindly nurse. Reminded that Anne is to inherit the valuable family pearls, Vicki claims them for her own as the start of a crusade to ruin the life of her new sister-in-law, whom she derides as an “empty-headed upper servant.”
The title refers to the entrance to a mysterious “sleeping room” deep inside the mansion that is known only to Victoria, and you can be sure that it will fit into this piece of American Gothic at an appropriate time.
Morris (1895-1970) was only 38 when she played the film role for director Charles Vidor, yet she is entirely convincing as an oldster. Even a series of extreme closeups of Victoria’s baleful face in the opening fail to reveal her youth (and amount of makeup).
“Remember her name … you’ll never forget her face!” studio ads boasted to build the fear factor, and critics responded in kind: “Hers is a piercing, brilliant characterization – beautiful in its austere cruelty and fascinating in its complete domination over you,” said a scribe who had seen Morris on stage as well. On the West Coast, a Hollywood Reporter review praised Double Door as “superbly directed, stunningly photographed and more than competently acted.”
Revere, who, like Morris, was repeating her Broadway role (and whose first movie this was), is also highly effective as one of the two women dominated by this dominator. Revere (1903-1990) returned to pictures after a few years to build a career highlighted by a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for National Velvet (1944).
The source work was written by Elizabeth A. McFadden, a librarian from Cincinnati who had been writing plays in New York since the Armistice. She shared (although not so in degree) Victoria’s aversion to personal attention. In 1933, just as Double Door was premiering on Broadway, she left it to her producer to issue a statement in which she responded to the print rumors about the connection of the Wendel family to her work.
“Several of the papers have recently said that ‘it is reported that … Double Door is based on the story of the Wendell [sic] family. … I wish to deny categorically and as emphatically as possible that my play has the slightest resemblance to the history of the … family,” the statement read. “… Double Door is the story of two middle-aged rich women living on Fifth Avenue. There, any possible resemblance to the Wendells [sic] ceases.”
Rightly or wrongly, this was great publicity for Double Door, the rights for which were bought for a hefty $55,000 by Paramount even before 1933 was out. This was one of the biggest Broadway-to-Hollywood acquisitions for the 1933-34 season.
We can compare the play and movie with the real-life story of the Wendel family, which was the subject of a lengthy New York Times feature story in 2016. There were more than just two spinster sisters in the Wendel clan at the peak of its infamy; there were six, plus a brother, who were all unmarried and living, sans electricity, in a four-story mansion at Fifth Avenue and 39th Street in Manhattan during the early years of the 20th century. Inside, the siblings dressed in long-out-of-date Victorian garb and bathed in zinc tubs. Outside, tour buses pulled up for views of “the House of Mystery.”
“It was very hard to do business with them,” Douglas Durst, a member of a still-powerful New York real estate family that did business with the Wendels, told the Times, “because they didn’t have a telephone.”
But the Wendels did have more than 150 properties in Manhattan, with many falling apart because of the family policy to not waste money on repairs, and to never sell willingly. “Once the Wendels got what they wanted, they never let go until death loosed their fingers,” the New York Daily News declared.
During its 100 years of miserliness, the litigious family was frequently in hot water with New York for its refusal to sell parcels of land deemed important to advance the growing metropolis, and the city often had to turn to resort to legal or legislative means to get its way.
The remaining Wendels began to die off, one of them, according to a contemporary newspaper account, having “spent her last days alone, talking to herself and ‘playing house’ with imaginary companions.” The last of the siblings perished in 1931, prompting a wild scramble for the family fortune.
Many supposed relatives came out of the woodwork, but most of the estate – estimated to be worth as much as $150 million in 1930s dollars — went to charity. This proved that strong-willed landlords could make news long before Donald Trump was a gleam in anyone’s eye.
McFadden died in 1961, having apparently not shed any further light on her inspiration for Double Door. Given all the litigiousness in the Wendel affair, it would not have been in her best interest to admit ties between fiction and fact.
The Double Door film – which was not a box office success, despite the good reviews — is difficult to see these days, although it has been shown in periodic repertory and convention screenings. Even with its outdated air, the play has been revived periodically, and an internet search reveals a staging as recently as 2011. And why not, for has avarice ever gone out of style?
“Who Will Get the Wendel Millions?” New York Daily News, August 7, 1932.
“Fame Raps at Cincinnatian’s Door,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 8, 1933.
“Paramount Double Door Fantastic But Thrilling,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 18, 1934.
“The Screen: Double Door,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 5, 1934.
“Pix Cautious on Legits,” Variety, October 30, 1934.
“Before the Trumps, There Were the Wendels,” The New York Times, April 8, 2016.