February 7, 2011

Red Herrings and Blue Rooms

Secret of the Blue Room (1933)

By about the age of 12, I'd seen all the classic '30s and '40s Universal monster films -- Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Phantom of the Opera, and all the variations -- Sons, Daughters, Houses of…, etc. -- some of them multiple times. This was in no small part due to two great, late night shows in the central Iowa broadcast area during the 60's (and of course the indulgence of my ever-suffering parents in allowing their two young sons to stay up for the weekend fright fests). The one on Friday nights out of a Des Moines station (the show's name escapes me) tended to feature low-budget sci-fi of the '50s and early '60s. But the really special night was Saturday, when WOI-TV in Ames broadcast their local horror-host offering, Gravesend Manor. The show featured a whole repertory company of zany, gothic characters in costumes and makeup that only a local broadcaster could get away with.

Manor residents/regulars included Malcolm, the stodgy butler whose shaved head was years ahead of its time; his mute, simian-like assistant Claude; the Count, a poor man's vampire with a wildly-over-the top wig and makeup; and Esmerelda, who looked like Popeye in drag after getting mauled by a pack of wolves. Every Saturday night my brother and I would plop ourselves down in front of the old black-and-white in the basement and watch the antics of the Manor crew between acts of the classic monster flicks.

In addition to the campy skits, Gravesend Manor featured the Screen Gems "Shock" television offerings, with a generous helping of the classic Universal monsters. We'd know it was a special night when the vintage Universal plane sputtered around the lit-up globe right before the title credits. One of the first non-monster Universal flicks of the '30s to really grab my attention was Secret of the Blue Room. I remember as a 10 year old being spooked by the tolling clocks, menacing shadows, and hands poking out from secret passageways in this 1933 thriller. 45 years later, I was able to obtain a DVD copy of Secret from the ever reliable Sinister Cinema to see just how well this old, dark tale had held up.

It's a rare film that can survive a second screening so many years later with the magic intact. Secret is no exception-- the uninspired plot meanders around a bunch of stale tricks and back-lot set pieces, making its 66 minutes seem much longer. Even for someone respectful and appreciative of genre film history, B movies of the '30s can be frustrating to watch. Geniuses like James Whale overcame the primitive technologies and techniques with a singular vision that resulted in rare art like Bride of Frankenstein. More often, second tier, poverty-row studio directors dutifully cranked out movie after movie with stage bound shots, glacial editing, acting that would make the most amateurish community ham blush, and endlessly recycled sets. The point of course was to get the product out fast and cheaply.

Secret certainly exemplifies the fast-and-cheap school of filmmaking, and yet, for all its failings, I was still happy to get reacquainted with this old friend. Secret starts out with a shot of an improbably large, gloomy castle, with the requisite dark clouds massed over it and wind howling through its towers. Inside, heiress Irene Von Helldorf (Gloria Stuart) is celebrating her 21st birthday with her father Robert (Lionel Atwill), and three suitors. The idea of inviting three competitors for your hand and no one else to your coming-of-age party establishes a kind of decadent, surrealist atmosphere right upfront. The weird tableau seems like a gothic take on Goldilocks and the Three Bears. One suitor -- Tommy Brandt (William Janney) is too callow and young; one, Capt. Walter Brink (Paul Lukas) is too old and jaded; and one, newspaperman Frank Faber (Onslow Stevens) seems just right.

Brash Tommy takes advantage of a lull in the party to corner Irene and profess his love and propose marriage. To his dismay, a wisely skeptical Irene rebuffs him. As the wind howls outside and an antique clock chimes midnight, the subject of the castle and its strange history comes up. Tommy encourages patriarch Robert to expound on the deadly history of the castle's Blue Room. At first insisting that it's nothing, Robert relents and somberly relates the story of how in quick succession, three people who stayed in the room died under mysterious circumstances:  first Von Helldorf's sister apparently jumped from a window and her body was found in the moat below; another visitor was shot to death; and a third was found in the morning lying dead on the floor, his face twisted with terror. In all three cases, the room was locked from the inside. Strangely, the tragedies all happened on or around 1 a.m. After the tragedies, the room was sealed up.

Tommy, apparently trying to impress Irene, proposes to his two rivals that each of them spend a night in the dreaded Blue Room. Not wanting to lose face in front of Irene, Walter and Frank agree. Tommy is the first, and in the morning, the guests find the room empty and a window open-- poor Tommy seems to have met the same fate as Von Helldorf's sister years before! Journalist Frank insists that he must keep his end of the bargain, and is the next to stay the night in the room. He assures everyone that he'll be alright, cheerfully playing a piano as the clock nears 1 a.m. As the clock strikes, a shot rings out, and horrified house guests rush up to the room to find Frank dead.

At this point, the castle's residents decide it's a matter for the police, and intimidating police commissioner Forster (Edward Arnold) arrives to investigate. Forster is a refreshing contrast to the bumbling, clownish policemen so characteristic of '30s and '40s thrillers (Sherlock Holmes' foil Lestrade as a prime example). As Forster conducts his interviews, he traps the grim butler and Robert in some inconsistent stories, and uncovers feuding and blackmail among the rest of the castle's nervous, superstitious staff.

The writers amateurishly weave some obvious red herrings into the proceedings that instead of contributing to the mystery, simply slow it down: someone sees a car outside the castle the night Tommy disappears; a mysterious stranger keeps showing up at the servants' quarters; the head butler flashes signals to someone out on the grounds; a dark figure frightens the heiress in the middle of the night.  It all adds up to a big zero-- none of it has anything to do with the mysterious room and a tragic past that seems to be repeating itself.

In spite of the police investigation, mature, debonair Walter decides to stick to his promise to stay in the Blue Room. As the clock strikes 1, Walter appears to be waiting patiently in a big stuffed chair. A panel opens behind him, and a hand carefully points a gun at his head. A shot rings out, and a dummy dressed in Walter's uniform falls over. Walter takes after the would-be assassin, chasing him down endless, musty stairs, with the now alerted police bringing up the rear. With all the side plots and red herrings wrapped up before the climax, it's not hard to figure out who the culprit is before he's caught and unmasked.

The real strength of Secret is the stellar cast. At this point in his career, urbane Lionel Atwill (Von Helldorf) had chalked up memorable roles in Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Many interesting roles in movies great and small were still ahead, including Captain Blood (with Errol Flynn, 1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942), and Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). Gloria Stuart (Irene) had already done a far superior madcap gothic thriller the year previously, James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932). Gloria is best known for her tear-jerking scene as "old Rose" in Titanic (1997). She was still appearing in movies as recently as 2004; she passed away in 2010. Gruff Edward Arnold (Commissioner Forster) appeared in over 150 films and numerous early TV shows before his death in 1956. Paul Lukas (Capt. Walter Brink) went on to lend his quiet sophistication, foreign accent, and pencil-thin mustache to top-drawer films, ultimately winning an academy award for his role as Kurt Muller in Watch on the Rhine (1943). Director Kurt Neumann would end up in the 1950s directing low budget sci-fi films; some good -- Rocketship X-M (1950), Kronos (1957) -- and one near-great -- The Fly (1958).

Secret tries too hard on a low budget to capture the magic of earlier, better dark house thrillers like The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Old Dark House, but it's worth a look if only to enjoy the efforts of some very talented, award-winning actors in the early stages of their careers. Others have found it very worth while for more than just the acting. Tom Weaver and Michael and John Brunas give Secret rare praise in their excellent compilation, Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946 (2nd edition; McFarland, 2007):
Probably one of the best of Universal's non-horror films, Secret of the Blue Room is an engaging example of the early "spooky house" mystery at or near its best. It's a low-budget film with few pretensions, but it has the advantages of a sturdy cast, a beguiling premise and plenty of atmosphere. Most of the early Universal mysteries that masquerade as horror films are fairly dismal, but Secret remains a charming bit of spookery.
Sadly, only a few brief minutes of Gravesend Manor footage has been preserved: