‘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.

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.