‘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.

Frank Richardson, the Joy Boy of Song

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Frank Richardson (standing second from left) appeared in the hit 1929 movie musical “Sunnyside Up” with (clockwise from top right) El Brendel, Marjorie White, Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell and Sharon Lynn.

Happy 120th birthday to Frank Richardson, who was billed as the “Joy Boy of Song.” He brought his high energy and even higher tenor to a few early Fox musicals before the fickle demand for Hollywood songsters necessitated his return to vaudeville … and obscurity.

What we remember from Richardson – most notably in the box office hit Sunnyside Up — was accomplished on the West Coast, but this vocalist and comedian left his heart in Philadelphia. He was born in that city in 1898, died there in 1962, and wrapped up his documented showbiz career as master of ceremonies of a live Christmas show starring the Three Stooges in nearby Haddonfield, New Jersey, in December 1961.

Richardson was well known to Philadelphians long before his film debut, in William Fox Movietone Follies of 1929. He made his theatrical debut at the precocious age of 8, in response to a “Tryout Night” offer from a local theater, but his high “boy soprano” never fully broke. He performed in minstrel troupes in the Philadelphia area and with the Emmett Welch Minstrels on the “Million Dollar Pier” in Atlantic City, then went solo on stage and ditched the blackface. He recorded for the Victor label in 1923-24.

His act was lauded by Variety in 1927 thusly: “Frank Richardson … blasted into pop songs and semi-ballads that kept him bending and encoring until he had gargled every ditty in his rep. The youngster has come out from under cork and has a delivery like twin ambidextrous pitchers. He can yoddle [sic] a tenor ballad with the best, works like a beaver, has a hop on his fast one and enough personality for a railroad passenger agent.”

With such force in his act, why not the movies? His “audition” of sorts came in 1928 with two Vitaphone shorts filmed in Los Angeles. In the single-reelers, he sang such familiar tunes as “Bye Bye Pretty Baby,” “My Blue Heaven” and “Red Lips (Kiss My Blues Away).”

Richardson was signed by the Fox studio in March 1929 and placed in Movietone Follies, appearing as himself in color revue scenes and introducing the song “Walking With Susie.”

He gained even more followers in a full-fledged part, as a “ham” songwriter who was part of a secondary comedy couple with blonde cutie Marjorie White, in Sunnyside Up (1929). Richardson, White and funnyman El Brendel played in support of Fox’s popular romantic duo of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, but they attracted much attention on their own. Richardson and White get to sing the B.G. De Sylva-Lew Brown-Ray Henderson title song and “You’ve Got Me Pickin’ Petals Off of Daisies,” and Richardson adds a suggestive verse of “Turn on the Heat” to the film’s blistering-hot dance chorus number.

White, Richardson and Brendel are also part of the massive cast of the Fox studio revue Happy Days (1930), in which Richardson sings “Mona” and then dresses as a clown(!) to accompany Dixie Lee and tap dancer Tom Patricola in the elaborate “Crazy Feet” number.

White and Brendel were signed to co-star in the next De Sylva-Brown-Henderson musical comedy, Just Imagine (1930), but Richardson was placed in a less-prominent song show, Let’s Go Places (1930), in which he played the flippant manager of a movie-crashing singer (newcomer Joseph Wagstaff). Richardson also was heard briefly in unbilled, singing, non-dialogue parts at Fox in Masquerade (1929), High Society Blues (1930) and John Ford’s action drama Men Without Women (1930, in which he sings “Frankie and Johnnie”).

When Richardson wasn’t working before the camera, he was indulging his passion for golf and dutifully making personal appearances on behalf of his films and those of others. He was especially popular in Philadelphia, the trades noted.

Fox knew better than to keep Richardson and White apart, and they were reunited for the “New” Movietone Follies of 1930. They lead the blackface number “Here Comes Emily Brown,” which boasts a Southern horse racing motif – and a chorus that, according to studio publicity, numbered in the triple figures.

Brendel is also on hand, and, as a valet who poses as a lumber magnate, he steals the film from Richardson, White and romantic leads Buster Collier and Miriam Seegar. Unfortunately for all involved, the 1930 Follies hit theaters at midyear, just as musicals were going out of vogue with the public. Fox chose to falsely advertise it as a non-musical — to the satisfaction of no one.

And with that, Frank Richardson’s film career was over. By the fall of 1930, he was back in vaude, on the RKO circuit. He would spend most of the rest of his life as a nightclub performer, mainly in the Philadelphia area, and as an official of the American Guild of Variety Artists, for which he served as president of the Philly chapter.

An odd incident in Richardson’s life came to light in 1933, when it was reported that a showgirl named Joan Williams had filed a $100,000 breach-of-promise suit against the performer. She asserted that Richardson had asked her to marry him and that she had accepted the proposal – only to learn that Richardson was already married. (He had married the former Adele Boyer in 1919.)

A few months later, Williams dropped the suit, and she and Richardson married after he had divorced his first wife. Upon Richardson’s death from a heart attack at his Philadelphia home on January 30, 1962 – six weeks after he hosted the Stooges – Richardson was cited as her widower. Two sons survived him.

Like most skilled singers, Richardson won over his audiences through the force of his personality – genial, in his case – and not just the power of his tones. Sunnyside Up, Happy Days, Movietone Follies of 1930 and Men Without Women all survive today, so we’re fortunate to have of him what we do.

 

SOURCES

“Vaudeville Reviews,” Variety, November 9, 1927.

Frank Richardson Has Been on Stage Since 8,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 2, 1930.

“Vaude Notes,” Inside Facts of Stage and Screen,” December 6, 1930.

“Sang After School, Won Film Contract,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 19, 1932.

“Vanities Girl Sues Frank Richardson for $100,000 Balm,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 1933.

“News From the Dailies,” Variety, November 7, 1933.

“Philly AGVA Vote May 26,” Motion Picture Daily, May 5, 1942.

“Frankie Richardson, Singing Star, Is Dead,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 1, 1962.

Ancestry.com

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A Fox ad for “Sunnyside Up” features (from left) Frank Richardson, Marjorie White, Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell and a combative El Brendel.

‘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.”

W.C. Fields and She: Remembering Susan Miller

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Susan Miller (1920-2018) was an actress and singer best known for her appearance in the W.C. Fields classic “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.”

Susan Miller … who knew?

Miller died this week in Phoenix at age 98 (wow!). She was an actress who appeared in one of my favorite scenes with one of my favorite actors in one of my favorite movies. The actor was W.C. Fields, and the movie was Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).

And here is the scene (actually, it starts about a minute into this) …

The ultra-innocent blonde whom the old reprobate (Fields) attempts to engage in a fictional “parlor” game on a remote mountain homestead is Miller. Her insanely protective mother is played by Margaret Dumont, the frequent Marx Brothers collaborator who was now opposite one of the greatest of solo comedians.

A Universal release, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was Fields’ last great movie — and perhaps the craziest of all. Its flights into surrealism and interweaving plot lines keep it lively. The flimsy central premise (scripted by the star) has Fields — playing himself, sort of — caring for his young niece while trying to pitch a movie script to exasperated mogul Franklin Pangborn. A climatic extended chase scene fits right in.

As for Miller, she acted and sang in a couple of handfuls of movies during the 1940s. Sucker was by far the most notable, and she also got to sing a song in that one: “Comin’ Thru the Rye,” which we hear later on after her byplay, as a character named “Ouilotta Hemogloben,” with W.C. (Fields liked colorful names like that, and it’s said he used to scour the phone book to find them.)

According to an Internet Movie Database contributor, Miller spent 60 years or so performing in supper clubs and live theater after her picture career ended in 1948. She was described by her neighbors at a Phoenix retirement complex as being “bright and bubbly” as she neared the century mark.

Miller is not the last surviving cast member of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. The niece (seen at the start of the above YouTube clip) is played by Gloria Jean, the then-popular soprano who is still with us at age 92.

Alice White: A flapper’s life

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Alice White was a Jazz Age movie charmer whose relatively short starring career was followed by many tumultuous years.

Here’s a happy 114th birthday to that blonde jazz baby Alice White, whose spunk and cuteness made her a popular star of light comedy and musical films of the late-silent/early sound era.

The title of a 1929 fan-magazine story praised Alice as “The Girl Who Licked Hollywood” – meaning that this 5-foot, 98-pound spitfire had shot to the top of her profession quickly, and through the force of her vivacious, no-nonsense personality. That personality wasn’t always an asset, however.

New Jersey-born and Hollywood-bred, White was a script girl for Charlie Chaplin and a secretary for a spell. But the camera liked her better in front of it.

“I was so stubby and fat and pink-looking that everybody there called me ‘Peter Rabbit.’ I had no thought of becoming a movie actress,” White recalled in 1958. “One day, the still cameraman had a new lens he wanted to test, and he said, ‘Peter Rabbit, how about posing for me?’

“So I put on an act with gestures … [and] the pictures turned out fine. When Mr. Chaplin saw them, he said, ‘Peter Rabbit, you ought to go into the movies.'”

Upon losing nearly 40 pounds, White moved up fast. She cagily signed a studio contract that demanded no worse than second leads. White’s first big hit was in a synchronized silent, First National’s Show Girl (1928), in which she portrayed Dixie Dugan, the wisecracking Broadway chorister made famous in J.P. McAvoy’s popular novels and comic strip.

She couldn’t play Dixie, at least not by that name, in every picture, but similar roles at FN and Warner Bros. kept on coming – in films with self-descriptive titles such as Naughty Baby (1928), Hot Stuff (1929), Broadway Babies (a 1929 musical/crime drama opposite frequent co-star Charles Delaney), The Girl From Woolworth’s (1929), Playing Around (1930), Show Girl in Hollywood (a delightful 1930 musical Dixie Dugan sequel), The Naughty Flirt (1930) and Sweet Mama (1930). When called upon to sing and dance, White could do so adequately but no better than that, and although she did take on a few serious roles, her lack of range or growth as an actress caught up to her.

Some of White’s talkies are occasionally shown on TCM and are available on DVD for modern appraisal, but while she lived, White’s onscreen achievements were overshadowed by personal setbacks, both self-inflicted and by chance.

In 1931, after an argument with a studio executive over money, she was bumped down to a Poverty Row chiller, Tiffany’s Murder at Midnight (which you can watch here). She spent most of ’31 and ‘32 refocusing her career with a vaudeville tour.

White returned to the movies in 1933 and even landed some parts back at the majors, opposite Joe E. Brown, for example, in Warners’ A Very Honorable Guy (1934). But a headline-grabbing scandal emerged. In the fall of 1933, two men were indicted in Los Angeles for the robbery and attempted disfigurement of an English actor, John Warburton. It was alleged the defendants were acting at the behest of White and her longtime boyfriend, banker-turned-actor-turned-agent-turned-screenwriter Sy Bartlett, in retaliation for a vicious beating of White by Warburton during a party in Beverly Hills.

“He beat me up all over the street and grabbed me by my hair,” White said in newspaper accounts of her testimony to a grand jury about Warburton’s alleged attack. “It’s a wonder I didn’t die.”

White and Bartlett were exonerated in the affair. They soon married but were separated within a year and a half. By 1937, their union was kaput, and White – in search of what turned out to be a temporary $65-per-week alimony award — told a judge that she had $100 left in the bank and was living with a friend because she couldn’t afford to pay rent.

White’s final film appearance saw her on screen with another ‘20s jazz baby, Joan Crawford, in Warners’ Flamingo Road (1949). By this time, Crawford was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and White’s ninth-billed “comeback” role as a roadhouse hostess was little more than a novelty.

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By the time Alice White (left) made “Flamingo Road” (1949), she was firmly in support of Joan Crawford, her jazz-baby contemporary of the ’20s.

Another wild marriage to a screenwriter, one Jack Roberts of Columbia Pictures, fizzled in divorce in 1949 after eight years. According to the Los Angeles Times, White told a divorce court that Roberts “called her vile names, threw things around and was carrying on with other women.” White and Roberts accused each other of spouse-swapping allegations involving a studio musician, William Hinshaw, and his wife, actress Barbara Brown.

White found new work in her old occupation as a secretary. In 1957, she fell off a ladder while trimming her garden, landed on a pair of scissors, and was temporarily blinded for several months as a result.

“My life isn’t so frantic anymore,” she said in a 1958 wire-service interview when asked if she missed her acting career. “I never look back. What’s past is past. I never saved a clipping when I was a star.”

Childless and now a redhead, Alice White died in 1983 after suffering a stroke in her Hollywood Hills home. Her death made headlines nationwide, so at least she had not been forgotten.

The moral of our story: Even if you think you have the movie biz licked, the Hollywood fates can lick right back.

 

SOURCES

“The Girl Who Licked Hollywood,” The New Movie Magazine, December 1929.

“Alice White Charges Actor ‘Beat Me All Over Street,’” Associated Press report in Philadelphia Inquirer, October 14, 1933.

“Slugging of Ex-Sweetie Reveals Alice White’s True Love – Or Does It?” New York Daily News, October 15, 1933.

“Alice White’s Husband Forced to Pay Alimony,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1937.

“Alice White Making a Comeback,” Associated Press report in Newport (R.I.) Daily News, May 23, 1958.

“Actress Alice White Dead at 76 [sic],” United Press International report, February 25, 1983.

“Former Actress Alice White Dies,” Los Angeles Times, February 26, 1983.

“Alice White, 76 [sic], Flapper Movie Star in ’30s,” Associated Press report in Chicago Tribune, February 27, 1983.

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Alice in her heyday, as we’d like to remember her.

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.

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

A few words about Capitolfest 2018

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The Capitol Theatre in Rome, N.Y., is the annual home of Capitolfest.

When the audience at Capitolfest applauded at the sight of Eleanor Boardman, I knew I was in the right place.

My son and I had driven from Michigan to attend our first Capitolfest, the annual classic-film extravaganza in Rome, New York, expressly to sit through the 68 minutes of the 1933 science-fiction musical It’s Great to Be Alive. (I am writing about that Fox picture for a book project I am soon to finish.) But we wouldn’t be getting our money’s worth without attending some of last weekend’s other screenings, which brings me to Boardman and the newly restored 1930 adventure Mamba.

For the uninitiated, it’s common to applaud familiar names at insider events such as this, and even if most of the world has forsaken Boardman – a striking blonde whose acting career ended in 1935 – we buffs haven’t forgotten.  She looks great, if not terribly expressive, in Mamba, which is a thing now because, as Hollywood’s all-Technicolor talking drama, it’s back in circulation after being feared lost.

Jean Hersholt delivers a colorful performance as the nominal star of the piece, produced by the third-tier Tiffany studio (which, probably not coincidentally, went bankrupt not long after). In German West Africa not long before the outbreak of World War I, a powerful plantation owner (Hersholt) is called “Mamba” by the locals and hated by both the occupying Germans and British. To curry favor, the planter secures an arranged marriage to the daughter (Boardman) of an Austrian creditor, and when she moves with him to Africa, she becomes mutually attracted to a German military officer (‘30s Poverty Row reliable Ralph Forbes).

Mamba was restored at UCLA from a unique 35 mm nitrate print that was owned by a collector in Australia. (The back story is told in a charming short documentary, The Theatre of Dreams, which preceded the Mamba showing in Rome.) Mamba is not an ideal restoration – the source material was in terrible shape – and I am not one to criticize painstaking efforts to preserve rare cinema. I was disappointed in Mamba as a movie, although given the constraints of the script and the resources of the producing company – even if Tiffany was spending more than its usual – this might have been expected.

Mamba is a not-insignificant piece of history, however, and if this restoration were available to me on DVD or Blu-ray tomorrow, I’d not hesitate to buy it.

A surprise for the positive at Capitolfest was another 1930 talkie: The Storm, an early William Wyler-directed drama from Universal. Some inventive camera work and exciting exterior action scenes give way, over the course of 80 minutes, to a taut, intimate account of a love triangle in a cabin deep in the Canadian wilds. The participants are portrayed by Lupe Velez, William “Stage” Boyd and Paul Cavanaugh, three actors for whom I have no special affection, but who do good work. Velez masks her strong Mexican accent by adapting it to French-Canadian, and Cavanaugh proves he had more to him than the debonair clubman roles to which he would become typecast.

Wyler wrote in his autobiography that he considered The Storm to be his worst film. Maybe his memory was faulty.

Ronald Colman was the designated star of Capitolfest 16, and this event showed one of my Colman favorites, Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934), a lively mystery drama that also sends up the private-eye genre. I had not seen The Night of Love (1927), a Colman teaming with frequent co-star Vilma Banky, but this story of Gypsy revenge in medieval Spain is first-rate, especially when Colman and heavy Montagu Love play mind games with each other in the first half hour, with innocent maidens as the victims.

I will have much more to say about It’s Great to Be Alive at a date TBA, but I certainly did not regret the effort taken to view the print restored by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Brazilian tenor Raul Roulien, a Maurice Chevalier type without the charisma, is top-billed as a playboy who ends up being the last man alive on Earth (no kidding!), but Edna May Oliver steals the futuristic show. The songs are unmemorable, but the offbeat humor is highly enjoyable. And in what other picture can you hear Edward Van Sloan call Emma Dunn “Sugar”?

Next year’s Capitolfest stars are to be Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, so expect plenty of early RKOs and Paramounts. The Capitol Theatre looks great, and once the marquee is restored to its original 1928 state (as, we were told, is planned), it will look even better. I eagerly await a Roman return.

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William Wyler didn’t like “The Storm,” but we did.