Thursday, April 20, 2017

SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE (1929, 1935, 1947)

PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1, 3) *drama,* (2) *comedy*

I reviewed the 1929 version of the cinematic war-horse SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE back in 2012. However, due in part to some discussion on the CLASSIC HORROR FILM BOARD regarding the thriller's three sound incarnations, I began to reconsider my 2012 reckoning of the film as "uncanny" in terms of both the "phantasmal figurations" and "weird societies" tropes. I appended a 2017 note at the end of the 2012 post to this effect. I don't plan to re-review the other film covered in the earlier post, because I think that 1983's HOUSE OF LONG SHADOWS succeeds in transmitting the uncanny vibe, for reasons I'll cover later.

I have not read the original Earl Derr Biggers book, or seen either the play or the three silent films based on the book. That said, I'm going to guess that the 1929 flick, the first sound version, is probably reasonably close to the model of book and/or play. The "Barker version" (that is, directed by Reginald Barker) is fairly stagy despite depicting its basic situation with a light tone, and I said of it:

Richard Dix plays a writer challenged to finish a novel at an isolated inn, the Baldpate, but his isolation ends when an assortment of characters gain entry to the inn and distract him from his purpose with their assorted melodramas... Barker maintains a light tone, as well, which made it even harder for me to invest much emotion in the film, given that I knew the Big Reveal: that all the intruders are actors hired to harass the writer for fairly dubious reasons.  Though there aren't any overly spooky moments in this version, and the actors supply a naturalistic explanation for the "weird-society" aspects of the story, I still categorize this as an uncanny film based on the Gothic concept of tricking a victim with the appearance of weirdness.
I should have stated the nature of the "weirdness:" that the writer (whose name, McGee, remains constant in the sound films) suffers. Despite McGee's having being told that he's been given the only key to the door of the Baldpate Inn, six other strangers, in the course of one night, also utilize keys to enter the inn. Some of them seem to be innocents-- including a misogynistic hermit who likes to don a sheet and pretend to be a not-very-convincing ghost-- while others seem to be criminals involved in a complicated pay-off scheme. As played by Dix, McGee is a fairly witty fellow who doesn't seem all that flummoxed by the appearance of armed men at the deserted inn, and he frequently makes arch remarks about how all these melodramatic occurrences resemble events in his novels.

In my assorted commentaries on the "phantasmal figuration" trope, I've ferreted out at least three "variations" of the trope. One of them does not relate here: that of works like HAMLET, where something supernatural seems to happen though no one can explain its provenance. But the Barker film has both of the other two variations. One variation is akin to what we see in 1943's LEOPARD MAN, where a character projects the illusion that a panther has committed a killing in order to cover a crime, and this is comparable to the way in which actors-- hired by the man who bet McGee that he couldn't finish a novel in one day-- pretend to be dangerous gangsters. The other relevant variation is supplied by the hermit who plays ghost with a sheet over his head: this is the sort of half-baked ghost-imposture one sees in HAUNTED RANCH (also 1943), where no one but a child or a cretin could possibly be convinced by the illusion.

Eight years later, the 1935 BALDPATE, directed by William Hamilton and Edward Killy, totally drops the first "naturalistic phantasm" trope, for the gangsters that invade the security of McGee (Gene Raymond) are entirely for real. Only the female lead is still keeping up an imposture, and this time she's a newspaper-woman looking for a story, which was perhaps borrowed from a minor character in the 1929 film, or some even earlier source. The hermit who dresses up as an unconvincing ghost is still in the film, and he's arguably one of the film's highlights, as he's played by Henry Travers, a supporting actor who attained immortality as "Clarence the Angel" in 1946's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, so a "naturalistic phantasm" is still in this film.

There's some irony in the fact that a lobby-card for the Barker version calls that film a "farce melodrama," for it's nothing of  the kind: it's a thriller-drama with a somewhat light touch. Hamilton and Killy, however, go full-tilt comedy, as if they were trying to distance their work as much as possible for earlier versions of the creaky old story. The script dispenses with the long set-up seen in Barker's film, wherein McGee makes the bet to stay at the supposedly lonely inn. Instead, Hamilton and Killy start with McGee arriving at a train-station in the locality of Baldpate, where he meets his leading lady (rather than meeting her at the inn). Every attempt is made to "amp up" the proceedings, with lots of close-up  shots (a good early shot shows a face looking through a foggy window, the better to draw the viewer in) and a black cat who hangs around the inn to provide "jump scares." Gene Raymond's version of McGee is much more in the mold of Bob Hope; he's not just making the occasional witticism, but slamming out bon mot after bon mot. Moreover, a lot of other characters begin uttering whimsical lines-- a cop has a line that goes something like, 'Ya can't have a murder without a corpus"-- and for the first half-hour the score plays jaunty, comical music. The real gangsters are defeated and McGee hooks up with the reporter-lady with none of the complications that attended the Barker version.

Since neither Hamilton nor Killy enjoyed any major successes as principal directors, it's surprising to me that the 1947 version is not nearly as good as the one from 1935. The last of the SEVEN KEYS films (at least, the last to sport that name) was directed by the venerable Lew Landers, later celebrated for some outstanding if formulaic works, particularly the 1935 RAVEN.

Like the scripters on the Hamilton-Killy version, the writer for the Landers version plays a little mix-and-match with elements from the earlier iterations. Once again, the gangsters who invade the inn are the real thing, though this time the film plays up the menacing aspects of one particular malefactors, played by the always sinister Eduardo Cianelli of MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN fame. Again, only the leading lady is putting across an imposture, but instead of being a reporter, she's an actress who has been explicitly hired to throw McGee off his game so he'll lose the bet. This might be seen as a skewed salute to the main gimmick of the original property. That said, even though the "naturalistic phantasm" is back in this adumbrated form, the Landers film only makes indirect reference to the hermit's attempts to pose as a ghost. Maybe by 1947, no one could buy the idea of the bedsheet angle. The last BALDPATE is probably the weakest, though, for Philip Terry's McGee is the least interesting. True, his rather nebbishy take on the role is more realistic than anything from Dix or Raymond-- but it's neither engaging nor funny. Though Landers incorporates stuff from the 1935 version, notably the train-station opening, he doesn't keep up the comic ambience and so the film transitions back to the drama-category.

In conclusion, 1983's HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS is the only version I've seen that uses the acting-troupe to portray an uncanny phantasm, since the SHADOWS actors are portraying members of a significantly weird family.

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