Movie Critique – The Thirteenth Chair
Stars: 4 / 5
Recommendation: Seventy two minutes of fun and entertainment all the while solving two murders, and exposing the true nature of all the thirteen people involved.
The Thirteenth Chair is a 1929 American pre-Code mystery film starring Conrad Nagel, Leila Hyams and Margaret Wycherly in the lead roles. Based on the 1916 play of the same name by Bayard Veiller, the film was directed by Tod Browning.
Edward "Ned" Wales (portrayed by Joh Davidson) stages a séance with a famous medium, "Madame" Rosalie La Grange (portrayed by Margaret Wycherly). The séance includes 13 people and Wales hopes to trap the killer in the process, while Inspector Delzante does his own investigation along.
We get to see Bela Lugosi in the supporting cast portraying the role of Inspector Delzante with his famous Hungarian accent. Incidentally Browning directed him in the 1931 supernatural horror film Dracula two years later. This film however is the first sound film for Lugosi. Despite being famous in the silent movies by then, his name is relegated to supporting cast in this film. He left a lasting performance none the less.
Margaret Wycherly was once married to Bayard Veiller, and also had appeared in the 1916 play. For Helene Millard, portraying as Mary Eastwood, this is the first film role. Both of them gave a phenomenal performance.
While Holmes Herbert, who portrayed as Sir Roscoe Crosby, reprised his role in the 1937 remake.
This film was released both in silent and sound versions, which was a common practice for many movies in mid to late 1920s before the silent movies completely phased out. I watched the sound version of it on TCM when aired a few days ago.
The film is set in Calcutta, India. So it wasn’t a huge surprise to see a few Indian actors in the film, but a pleasant sigh. Lal Chand Mehra, portrayed the role of Chotee, one of the servants, then there was the second servant, Ramdas; and finally the one who displayed the skills of a Thugee.
While Mehra was credited in the opening credits, there was no mention of either of the remaining two actors anywhere, either credited or uncredited. Wonder who had played that role.
A quick glance at his bio showed that Mehra was pioneer in educating the Hollywood and American film makers in improving their knowledge with regards to India. Naturally we see some conversation in Hindi Indian language between the two servants, and at some point with Commissioner Grimshaw (portrayed by Clarence Geldart). There is a slight mockery on Hindus and Indians in general, perhaps due to the influence of British rule still going on at that time in India.
Despite being educated about India in such an early time, yet years later, Hollywood still doesn’t get it right. For example look at Steve Spielberg's 1984 American action-adventure film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He showed India in a totally wrong light. I did mention about it in my review when I posted about that film.
There were too many scenes without any dialogues and the actors were left in a freeze-frame mode before they would talk again. Per iMDB, this was perhaps to do with multiple reels used in filming and these freeze-frames would have been cut when the reels were patched together.
Although excellently preserved, the audio quality of the film has been impacted slightly where the lines were unclear in a few scenes. Otherwise it has been a seventy two minutes of fun and entertainment all the while solving two murders, and exposing the true nature of all the thirteen people involved. A quick and breezy film!
1) Movie Trivia:
a. I was watching this film right after I watched Peeper directed by Peter Hyams. I was curious to see if Leila and Peter were related in someway because of the same last name. However, I could find no such connection except they both being famous in Hollywood, one in the silent era and little into talkies, while the other one well into talkies and color movies. Leila played the part of Helen "Nellie" O'Neill in the film.
b. In 1919, an earlier version of the film with the same name was released which was directed by Leonce Perret and had Creighton Hale in the lead roles. This was a silent film.
c. The film was remade in 1937 by MGM starring Elissa Landi and Dame May Whitty, which was directed by George B. Seitz.
d. Note that Bela Lugosi wears a ring with an oval-shaped gemstone which we also see in his 1931 film Dracula, two years later. This shows that the ring was a personal possession of Lugosi as opposed to a prop.