‘Menace,’ Paramount’s Halloween treat of 1934

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Someone seeks to silence Gertrude Michael in the Paramount chiller “Menace” (1934).

This is the latest in an occasional series of blogs about Paramount horror and semi-horror films of the 1930s. Previously: This Pre-Code Thriller Was Inspired by a Very Un-Trump-Like New York Landlord Family, “Murder by the Clock” … and the Karloff Who Wasn’t, “The Witching Hour” Strikes One Last Time.

In the wake of the mid-1934 enforcement of the Production Code smoothing the raw edges off Hollywood product, some feared it would lead to slim pickings in the horror-film field that fall. And so we had the Miller Theater in Jefferson City, Missouri, showcasing the Paramount programmer Menace as its Halloween night attraction.

The Miller’s was a midnight show advertised as a “A Grand and Glorious Hallowe’en Party” with “spooky short subjects” and a “most unique costume” contest (with top prizes of $5, $3 and $2!). But the featured “super-thriller” was a mere old-dark-house murder mystery – with nary a ghost or goblin within its 57 minutes. “It is said that those with weak hearts should not be present,” crowed the J-City newspaper in advance. No one needn’t have worried in that town, nor in the others (and there were others) who made Menace a holiday treat.

Even if it is a borderline horror at best, Menace is not without its delights. The influential historian-film collector William K. Everson made this film worth seeking out to many Golden Age fantasy-pic completists when he discussed it in his 1994 book More Classics of the Horror Film. The “monster” of the story is indeed all too human, but the revenge angle is vividly laid out, the atmosphere appropriately gloomy, and there are some twists that make the tale worth following to the final suspenseful moments.

The biggest name in Menace is wasted in one of its smaller parts, albeit one key to the plot. You could tell it wasn’t Ray Milland’s time in the spotlight yet: He is billed fifth, still as Raymond Milland, and disappears before the end of the first reel. But 1934 was the last of Milland’s lean years. Bolstered by his brief but impactful work in Menace – and, more particularly, in a sizable part in the Bing Crosby-Carole Lombard musical We’re Not Dressing, Milland was about to graduate to romantic leads … and, within a decade or so, to Oscar glory.

From the same father-son producer-screenwriter team (Bayard and Anthony Veiller) that brought us the underrated supernatural tale The Witching Hour (1934), Menace was based on a novel by Philip MacDonald, writer of The Lost Patrol and The List of Adrian Messenger. It is clearly an ensemble piece. But the two actors billed at the top – Gertrude Michael and Paul Cavanaugh – earned that distinction with their pairing as competing jewel thieves in the successful Paramount crime drama The Notorious Sophie Lang (1934). Few remember either of them anymore, and the Sophie Lang pictures (there were three in all) are practically out of circulation.

Here’s the story: In British East Africa, a resident military man, Colonel Leonard Crecy (Cavanaugh), and two friends, Helen Chalmers (Michael) and Norman Bellamy (Berton Churchill), telephone a young mining engineer, Freddie Bastion (Milland), and ask him to visit for a game of bridge. Against his better judgment, Freddie agrees, but as he is en route by plane back to his post after the game. he watches helplessly as a vicious storm breaks the dam he is supposed to be overseeing, destroying the home of his two sisters. Freddie’s plane then goes down, but Crecy, Helen and Bellamy are cleared of wrongdoing in the tragedy. This decision is not well received by Freddie’s estranged brother, whose face we do not see as, newly escaped from a mental institution, he practices his accomplished knife-throwing skills in hopes of enacting his own verdict.

Soon, Helen is joined at her California mansion by Crecy, Bellamy, her sister Gloria (Arletta Duncan) and Gloria’s boyfriend (Robert Allen). An aged neighbor (Henrietta Crosman) and her actor acquaintance (John Lodge) join the group, as does Cracy’s driver (Forrester Harvey). A newly hired butler (Halliwell Hobbes) is also on hand for the strange reunion. It soon becomes apparent that Timothy Bastion is also on hand … or is he one of the above folks (male or female) traveling incognito?

Director Ralph “Fido” Murphy spent a career making quickies such as this, and he keeps the pace brisk, if not breakneck. Although we don’t see him at first, Timothy is quickly and effectively established as a fearsomely deranged sort, and not just for the thuds of the knives he tosses at the walls of his flat. We see the texts of Timothy’s threatening letters to those he holds responsible for the demise of his family, as he predicts the order of their intended demise. Cuts to a newspaper headline and an eyewitness account of his evils add to the guessing game, and as Timothy travels to Helen’s home, train wheels move in time to a hypnotic madman’s chant of “I’m on my way! I’m on my way!”

At this point, we are only a quarter of the way through the film, which is thereafter devoted to a guessing game as to the villain. I am tempted to guarantee that if you see Menace, you will not accurately predict the identity of the culprit until it is revealed. Same for that of an authority figure for good who is surreptitiously involved. It helps that the cast is properly varied in age and nationality. (Crosman and Harvey provide the kind of comic relief that thrillers were thought to require in 1934.)

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Is 72-year-old, gun-toting Henrietta Crosman the villain in “Menace”? I’m not telling.

Released on October 26, 1934, Menace drew praise from the Los Angeles Times as “smooth, incisive, with suspense developed to an acute degree” and “intelligence in every detail. It is … excellent program entertainment.” The premiere showbiz newspaper Variety could be tough on smaller features such as this, but its reviewer, while saying the film “has … added nothing new to the who-killed-cock-robin formula,” admitted it “shows a sure hand and throughout when it comes to pacing and weaving in the tricks that make for suspense and surprise.”

One almost wishes that Menace had been left for production by a Poverty Row company than as a routine entry from a major studio. Public-domain ’34 indies such as The Ghost Walks and House of Mystery have been available for decades through bargain-bin VHS and DVD releases and currently by streaming. But similar – but better – chillers such as Menace and its studio kin Double Door, Murder by the Clock and The Witching Hour have been rarely revived (although not unnoticed by collectors) while under corporate legal control.

The Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi starrer The Black Cat deservedly reigns as the best of a sparse 1934 Hollywood horror crop. But it didn’t produce the only genuine scares of its movie year.

 

SOURCES

“Headquarters for Spooks at Miller Tuesday,” Sunday News and Tribune (Jefferson City, Missouri), October 28, 1934.

“Film Reviews: Menace,” Variety, November 27, 1934.

Menace Pleases,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1934.

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“Who Is Next?” asked newspaper ads for “Menace.”

‘The Witching Hour’ strikes one last time

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John Halliday (right) offers advice to a young couple (Tom Brown and Judith Allen) in the 1934 film version of the melodrama “The Witching Hour.”

This is the latest in an occasional series of blogs about Paramount horror and semi-horror films of the 1930s. Previously: This Pre-Code Thriller Was Inspired by a Very Un-Trump-Like New York Landlord Family, “Murder by the Clock” … and the Karloff Who Wasn’t.

In 1934, in a time dominated by Great Depression worries at home and world-impacting unrest in Europe, The Witching Hour must have seemed like a relic from a simpler era.

This new, pre-Code movie melodrama was old at its core, set circa 1870 and derived from a 1907 play by Augustus Thomas that had brought occult thrills to many a tank-town stage for a generation. This tale of hypnotism, telepathy, murder and lost love also was done twice for the silent flickers, in 1916 and 1924.

The great silent-film comedian Raymond Griffith was said to have permanently impaired his voice by screaming at the top of his lungs through stage performances in The Witching Hour as a youth. It was jolting stuff in those days, not long past the turn of the century — but maybe not in ’34, when Paramount trotted out the property again after negotiations for talking-picture rights with the American Play Company.

The film’s producer was Bayard Veiller, the esteemed playwright best known for writing The Trial of Mary Dugan and the eerie The Thirteenth Chair. The director was Henry Hathaway, who was just beginning his long and prolific career. That their Witching Hour stands up so well 80-plus years later, despite its old-fashioned subject matter and non-big name cast, is a tribute to the efficiency and resources of Hollywood studio-system filmmaking.

The Witching Hour concerns the inadvertent supernatural powers possessed by Jack Brookfield (John Halliday), who runs a gambling parlor out of his Kentucky mansion. One of his regular customers is a young Northerner architect, Clay Thorne (Tom Brown), who is engaged to Brookfield’s daughter, Nancy (Judith Allen).

Brookfield is aware of his strange, secret gift through his ability to know what cards his customers hold, and the premonitions he gets when he thinks the local authorities are planning to raid his place, but he shows ethical restraint by not engaging in gambling himself.

Brookfield is visited by town political boss Frank Hardmuth (Ralf Harolde), and the two argue. Brookfield responds by punching Hardmuth and predicting he has not long to live. Clay, who has been unintentionally hypnotized by Brookfield through a cat’s-eye ring the older man wears, overhears the incident, then goes to Hardmuth’s office and shoots him dead.

Brookfield now must prove Clay’s innocence without implicating himself. Can a man be “killed by a thought”?

The compact screenplay by Anthony Veiller, the son of the film’s producer, wraps up matters within 69 minutes, making The Witching Hour ideal for the bottom of double-feature bills. Its titular familiarity had to carry it for potential patrons, for the “name” value of its cast was low.

Billed first in the on-screen credits was Sir Guy Standing, the English actor who appears in a fairly small role as an aged barrister friend of Brookfield’s who warns the latter to “guard his thoughts” against using them for ill. The retired judge is prompted to return to the courtroom for Clay’s trial when beset by the spirit of a sweetheart (Gertrude Michael) lost years before. Despite the presence of the young couple, the “otherworldly” Standing and Michael characters best exemplify the romantic qualities of The Witching Hour.

Halliday is the film’s acting standout in one of his typically suave roles, here as always with a vaguely English accent that hid his origins in Brooklyn. He is supported by such seasoned players as Olive Tell, William Frawley, Purnell Pratt, Ferdinand Gottschalk and, as a gambling-house devotee who wishes Brookfield would bend his ethics a little, Richard Carle.

Tom Brown, borrowed from RKO for this picture, had attracted attention as the title character in Universal’s Tom Brown of Culver (1932). He was soon to build his reputation as Anne Shirley’s would-be sweetie in RKO’s Anne of Green Gables (1934).

The ingenue, Judith Allen, had only a short period in significant films, but she did perform alongside Bing Crosby (Too Much Harmony and She Loves Me Not) and W.C. Fields (The Old Fashioned Way).

The Witching Hour, seeing no need to stray outside the play’s original time setting, remains unabashedly retro with underscored instrumentals of “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.” By 1934, even with the pseudo-spook and gambling angles, this was deemed all-ages entertainment, with the Legion of Decency classifying it “suitable for family patronage.” A sentimental wrap-up helped.

The Witching Hour was not a big money maker, but it was pleasing to much of the audience. Even in 1934, apparently, The Witching Hour play hadn’t been seen everywhere, as evidenced by this trade-publication report from an Ohio picture-house owner: “The most unique murder play that I have ever seen. The people will go for this play.”

In New York, where The Witching Hour had played for nearly a year on Broadway, and where audiences fancied themselves more sophisticated, the reaction was not so promising. Twenty years before, opined the New York Daily News, this material “was startlingly new and created something of a sensation. Today all the talk of hypnotism in the picture … seems puerile. It earned snickers here and there from the audience at the Paramount Theatre.”

On the plus side, Variety opined that the film “still packs a punch for those who do not insist of extreme plausibility, and the master touch of one of our few great native dramatists,” meaning Thomas, “still stands out.”

The Witching Hour is skillfully directed and acted, and if it seems quaintly nostalgic, that’s a good thing for a Golden Age fantasy devotee.

 

SOURCES

Remake Witching Hour,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 9, 1934.

Witching Hour a Thriller; Half a Sinner Pleasing,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 11, 1934.

Journal of a Crime Study in Psychology,” New York Daily News, April 28, 1934.

“Film Reviews,” Variety, May 1, 1934.

“What the Picture Did for Me,” Motion Picture Herald, July 21, 1934.

‘Murder by the Clock’ … and the Karloff who wasn’t

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“Something Happens Every Minute in Paramount’s Great Mystery Thriller,” ads for “Murder by the Clock” promised.

Nobody really knew it in 1931 – when it wasn’t so common to put the words” “horror” and “film” back to back – but the Great American Monster Picture was being born. Its now-fabled formal genesis came in the daring, year-bookending debuts of Universal’s twin titans of terror: Dracula, on Valentine’s Day, and Frankenstein, in November. The kind of movies formerly described, and often dismissed, as “spook films” or “murder melodramas” or “supernatural mystery plays” (even if not truly fantastic) were forever granted their own more visceral description.

But if there was a bona fide horror film in the genre-transitioning months between the Lugosi and Karloff splashes, it was Paramount’s Murder by the Clock. It boasted two kinds of menaces — the alluring, soul-sucking exotic of Dracula and the lumbering, unthinking killer of Frankenstein – even if, within Clock, they weren’t the same character (or gender). This film had its own potential breakout Hollywood villain – praised, as were Bela and Boris, as a thespic chameleon, but who had no desire to be typecast. This explains why many Monster Kids might hear the name “Irving Pichel” and ask, “Who?”

Scarcely seen now (although perhaps not impervious to Google search), Murder by the Clock premiered in July 1931. It is a tale of a man murdered twice (!) within the space of a few hours in a spooky mansion that houses a half-witted, cackling, violence-fixated brute (Pichel) and his stern mother (Blanche Friderici), whose morbid fear of being buried alive has motivated her to install a creepy, foghorn-like alarm in the family mausoleum. (A Los Angeles Times reviewer described the gizmo as having “the most distressing sound of all time.”)

As an entertainment property, Murder by the Clock was hardly unknown, for Paramount had bought and adapted the eponymous 1929 mystery novel by popular whodunit scribe Rufus King. King was best known for his series of stories involving Lieutenant Valcour, a crime-solver in the Philo Vance vein. The studio’s mixing of plot elements with Dangerously Yours, a novel by Charles Beahan, resulted in Valcour (played cynically by William “Stage” Boyd) investigating strange doings pertaining to the Endicott family. Valcour is seduced by Laura Endicott (Lilyan Tashman), the greedy, unfaithful wife of an alcoholic cousin (Walter McGrail) to the mentally deficient Philip Endicott.

Philip is to inherit the Endicott fortune, but Laura learns that Philip’s mother – faced with the choice of leaving her millions to “a drunkard or a beast,” plans to change her will in her husband’s favor. Mayhem ensues, involving secret passages, a death mask, and a revival from the dead. Paramount changed the identity of the main evildoer in the cinematic Murder by the Clock from that of the novel, reputedly to surprise the millions who had already read the book … but we won’t reveal names in either case.

Despite some awful comic relief in the stereotypically Irish guises of a beat cop (Regis Toomey) and a maid (Sally O’Neil), Murder by the Clock remains potent, especially if viewed in the right frame of mind. Paramount touted it as “the spookiest picture to hit the screen in months.” A New York Daily News critic deemed it “designed to horrify, and … is successful in its design … The sense of horror which accompanies the illusion of a killer at large are well sustained throughout.” (Hey, there’s that “horror” word!)

Directed by Edward Sloman, a maker of silents whose career was winding down, Murder by the Clock garnered at-best-respectable reviews. Criticized by some for its slowish pace, It certainly lacked the overall impact of Frankenstein, Dracula or Paramount’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the Fredric March starrer that premiered in New York on 1931’s final evening). Critics took note of Tashman, who was known for her light-comedy flair but was now thought by some to hamming it up as Lucrezia Borgia.

In Murder by the Clock, she walks a line of seriousness – well, semi-seriousness – as a lady so ruthless she’ll flirt with anyone to get her way. “Anyone” includes Pichel’s Philip, to whom she comes on while he’s behind bars in police custody. She needs him to escape and do her bidding; he gets so excited that he’s liable to burst through the bars. “I can BREAK things!” he promises.

“Wait, let me kiss you!” he begs as she prepares to leave. “Just on the hands,” she replies in her throaty voice, then looks away in disgust.

Tashman later casts her wiles on Boyd: “You build a wall around yourself, and I’m so anxious to break down that wall and meet you … face to face! … Why can’t we two be friends … real close friends?” We’ll find out how close by the final reel. (Sadly, Tashman died of cancer in 1934, and Boyd died of an alcohol-induced liver ailment a year later, just as his so-bad-it’s-bad finale, the serial The Lost City, was opening.)

One reviewer of the day described Tashman’s role as “reminiscent of the weird, uncanny Dracula,” hinting that the same folks who enjoyed that full-blooded horror might like Murder by the Clock as well.

Still, the real impact of Murder by the Clock is made not by its beauty but its beast. Dalton Trumbo, the future blacklisted screenwriter then penning reviews for the journal The Hollywood Spectator, praised the “terrifying degree of perfection” to which Irving Pichel played his part while lauding the film as “a splendid piece of impossible mystery.”

A writer and director as well as an actor, the Pittsburgh-bred, Harvard-trained Pichel (1891-1954) was among the legions of New York performers who traveled West to play in the talkies, and he made a strong impact right out of the gate, as the self-righteous farmer husband of Ruth Chatterton in The Right to Love (1930). Clock, his second film, gave him a chance to stretch his acting muscles in a different direction, but Pichel (whose name was pronounced “PITCH-ell”) signed a long-term contract with Paramount only on the condition he be allowed to direct, too.

Pichel followed Clock by playing another sadist, this one more upscale, opposite Tallulah Bankhead in The Cheat (1931), then played another intelligent role, as the district attorney in a Paramount prestige project, An American Tragedy (1931). “He’s showing Miss 1932 a new type of leading man which, judging from his fan mail, is going over in a big way,” gushed a fan-magazine writer.

One Frances Kay of Seattle, Washington, liked Pichel’s work as well, if a letter-column item in a fan mag of 1932 is to be believed:

“His voice is a magnificent instrument, capable of gripping volume, capable again of delighting tenderness. But not only with his voice does he interpret his parts, but gives all of himself. He fairly fires his roles at you, and living them as he does, gives them life and warmth. Irving Pichel – the talkies’ answer to the fans’ plea for ‘something different.’”

That “something different” might have been a potentially giant alliance. Edgar Wallace, the famous English mystery novelist and playwright, viewed Murder by the Clock during his much-publicized visit to the U.S. in December 1931.

In his Hollywood diary, Wallace wrote: “There were moments in it which were quite creepy, and the actor” – meaning Pichel – “was the very man I wanted for my horror story,” meaning one for which he had recently done a manuscript. (Wallace had just been assigned by RKO to the story that became the basis for King Kong.) Unfortunately, Wallace died suddenly in February 1933, and thus had no say in any casting.

The promotion of Pichel as a thoughtful intellectual continued with reports that his three young sons (by actress Violette Wilson) were forbidden by their father from seeing Murder by the Clock. Yet Pichel didn’t get typecast in horror as would Lugosi and Karloff, nor did he become the character star they would become. Not that he wasn’t good at the scare game, as his henchman role in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) later indicated, but Pichel was canny, and versatile, enough to be able to dictate his own terms.

In a different world, had a certain English actor not come along, maybe there would have been ads celebrating “Pichel the Uncanny” instead of “Karloff the Uncanny.”

That fan from Seattle wasn’t exaggerating (much) about Pichel’s mellifluous voice, which was used effectively by itself in many films: He narrated, as the off-screen grown-up version of Roddy McDowall’s character, throughout How Green Was My Valley (1941), and even was heard as Jesus in The Great Commandment (1939). Pichel also became accomplished as a director, with The Most Dangerous Game (1932), She (1935), They Won’t Believe Me (1947) and Destination Moon (1950) among his most enduring efforts.

In later years, Pichel specialized in religious films and taught theater extensively at UCLA. He died at age 63, a few days after he suffered a heart attack and a few more days after completing his final film, the low-budget Christ story Day of Triumph.

 

SOURCES

“First Books: Murder by the Clock – Rufus King,” Pretty Sinister Books. https://prettysinister.blogspot.com/2012/01/first-books-murder-by-clock-rufus-king.html

“Mayfair and the Paramount Theatres Offer Entertaining Features This Week,” New York Daily News, July 18, 1931.

“New Film Designed to Scare,” Los Angeles Times, August 1, 1931.

“Elaborate Mystery,” The Hollywood Spectator, August 29, 1931.

“Movie Classic’s Letter Page,” Movie Classic, April 1932.

“Rebel!” The New Movie Magazine, June 1932.

Edgar Wallace, “My Hollywood Diary” (London: Hutchinson, 1932).

“Irving Pichel, Director and Actor, Dies at 63,” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1954.

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Irving Pichel gets excited over Lilyan Tashman in a made-for-pre-Code scene from “Murder by the Clock.”

This pre-Code thriller was inspired by a very un-Trump-like New York landlord family

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In her only movie, Mary Morris (left) gives Evelyn Venable fake pearls in the suspense thriller “Double Door.”

“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?

 

SOURCES

“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.

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Mary Morris looked older than age 38 in advertisements for “Double Door,” and she successfully played old in the movie.