Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ginger Rogers Double-Feature Fright Fest!

Everyone one knows Ginger Rogers for doing what Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels, but did you know that, early in her career, she starred in a couple of horror films, one of which holds up rather well, despite nearly 80 years having passed since it was released?

(Well, if you're a regular reader, you probably did, because you read her Saturday Scream Queen profile back in July... but here are the details on the movies themselves.)

The Thirteenth Guest (aka "Lady Beware") (1932)
Starring: Lyle Talbot, Ginger Rogers, and J. Farrell MacDonald
Director: Albert Ray
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Marie (Rogers), the young heiress to the Morgan fortune, is found mysteriously electrocuted in the family manor that has remained sealed since her father died during a dinner party 13 years prior, Police Captain Ryan (MacDonald) calls upon the assistance of playboy criminologist Phil Winston (Talbot) to help solve the baffling murder. Before Winston can even begin to investigate, the mystery takes an even stranger turn: The dead girl turns up alive and in police custody for car theft... and soon there's a second dead body at the old Morgan place.

"The Thirteenth Guest" is a pretty good little mystery movie for most of its running time. The three lead actors all give decent performances that are in line with what is to be expected from one of these "who-dunnit in the dark, old house" mysteries, and the murderer had a fairly clever set-up with which to commit the murder. There are also just enough plausible suspects and clever plot-twists make it real mystery film.

Unfortunately, for every clever twist there's a plot logic-hole that a truck could be driven through. Equally unfortunate is the presence of a truly lame comic relief character. And I won't even dignify the idiotic mask and cape they have the murderer prance around in with comment. (Hang on... did I just comment on the idiotic mask and cape? Curses!)

The good parts outweigh the bad parts--but only barely--in "The Thirteenth Guest." It's not a film I recommend you rush out to find a copy of, but if you're looking around for a little something to round out a "home film-festival" selection of mystery movies, this might be what you're looking for. Just don't make it the main attraction.

A Shriek in the Night (1933)
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Lyle Talbot, Purnell Pratt, Harvel Clark, Lillian Harmer, Louise Beaver, and Arthur Hoyt
Director: Albert Ray
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A series of murders take place in an upscale apartment building, and reporters Pat Morgan (Rogers) and Ted Kord (Talbot)--working for rival newspapers but involved in a romantic relationship--are hot on the trail of the killer, or killers. Morgan happened to be working on an investigative piece about one of the victims, so she is in a perfect place to help both her career and the police... so long as she doesn't end up a murder victim herself.

"A Shriek in the Night" is, for the most part, a fairly typical early 1930s low-budget mystery, with dimwitted maids, cranky police detectives (although in this one the detective is not incompetent, just cranky), and wise-cracking reporters running circles around everyone and ultimately providing the clues needed to solve the mystery. The acting is above average here, and the characterizations of the two reporters and the police detective are also a bit more intelligent and three-dimensional than is often the case in these movies. (The comic relief maids are still as annoying as ever; if this is what American-born house-servants were like, it's no wonder we took to importing illegal aliens to turn down our beds and clean our homes!)

What really sets the film apart from others like it is its villain, and a surprisingly chilling sequence where he prepares to burn Pat Morgan alive. This character feels in many ways like an ancestor to the mad killers who came into vogue during the 1970s, and which continue to slash, strangle, and mutilate their way across the movie screen to this very day.

Another thing I found interesting in this film is how different Ginger Rogers' character was from the one she played a year earlier in "The Thirteenth Guest".

Many actors and actresses that appeared in these B-movies gave pretty much the same performance in movie after movie--for instance, there's very little difference between the smart-ass character Lyle Talbot plays here and the one he played in "The Thirteenth Guest." I haven't seen enough of Rogers' performances to really know why there is this difference--was she lucky enough to have a chance to show different facets of her acting ability, or did she make each part she played different somehow?--but it was an unexpected surprise.

Those of you out there with more than just a passing interest in suspense and horror movies may want to check this film out for its very modern, proto-"maniac killer" character/sequence. Those of you who just enjoy this style of movies--mysteries that get solved by wise-cracking reporters who take nothing seriously--should also check it out. It's a fun way to spend an hour.

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