Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Thirteenth Guest (1932)

Ginger between the police captain and the private eye.

Ginger Rogers made two films for Monogram when she was 21. Monogram was a "Poverty Row" studio, far removed from Warner Brothers, let alone Louis B. Mayer's blue chip MGM. Later they would make horse operas starring John Wayne, and other cowboy actors. But in 1932, they did A Shriek in the Night and The Thirteenth Guest, both starring Ginger Rogers.

A Shriek in the Night

It is said some people are useful as bad examples. A Shriek in the Night is useful to illustrate why  bad pictures are bad. That makes us more appreciative of good pictures. As entertainment, A Shriek in the Night is unwatchable. The writing is obvious, the dialogue leaden, the timing does not hit even by accident, and the acting is painfully bad.

Actor A speaks. (Tap foot in head.) Actor B speaks. (Tap foot in head.) Actor A replies. It is about as far from the snappy dialogue of a Cary Grant screwball comedy as you can get. Even Ginger cannot escape the grasp of its miserable direction and talentless co-actors.

It is hard to imagine how someone could make this movie and not see everything that was wrong with it. There is literally nothing right with it. MGM's head producer Irving Thalberg would have probably fed the director to MGM mascot Leo the lion. You might be able to do a sort of Mystery Science Theater 3000 with it.

The Thirteenth Guest (Spoilers)

The Thirteenth Guest, on the other hand, is not completely awful. Spoilers follow, but plot points should not come as a surprise to most viewers. It begins with Ginger - looking quite fetching in her smart hat and badger (?) fur stole - entering a house that has been abandoned since a banquet at which twelve guests were present. Or maybe thirteen. Ginger finds it odd that there would be a working phone installed. She is immediately electrocuted when she uses it,

The police - a blow-hard captain and a dimwit detective (comic relief, but mainly just annoying) - enlist the help of a smooth private eye who - annoyingly - finds everything amusing (Lyle Talbot). They find Ginger's corpse sitting upright, hands on the table, eyes fixed in front of her. (Talbot had a long career as a B movie actor, with Plan 9 From Outer Space probably his most famous movie.)

Ginger leads the credits, so it doesn't take much to figure that she's coming back. ("Zombie Ginger!") And so she does, with little time wasted. She is not really a zombie, though. A woman had used plastic surgery to look like her, which, fortunately, got her killed instead of the real Ginger.

As an example of bad directing, there is a scene where Ginger and two other people have a discussion. Ginger is positioned front and center, back to the camera as she says her lines. The studio is paying for her face, not the back of her head! There is no score; another unnecessary expense.

Well, they didn't call it Poverty Row for nothing. Talent was at a premium in Hollywood, and Warner Brothers, Columbia, Paramount, or MGM were always on the lookout for good writers, actors and directors. Film footage cost money, too, and re-takes were probably frowned upon.

After keeping the guests of the long-ago banquet overnight in jail, the captain turns them loose, and puts a tail on each of them the next morning. The dimwitted detective follows a cheerfully hateful woman.

Even this early in her career, Ginger sparks the production, and is already mastering her trademark half-lidded, sidelong glance. The plot is ridiculously convoluted and sketchy. Apparently, the entire family - then present at the banquet - hated one another. Daddy had arranged for circumstances that would demonstrate to his daughter that her kith and kin were untrustworthy, if not murderous.

However, someone else has their own plan. It turns out the creepiest looking guy was the one who was lurking behind the walls, electrocuting everyone with the telephone. This required him to throw an enormous switch, like you might find used for motion picture lighting. Ginger is dragged into the dark lair by the hooded and robed killer. She is rescued at the last moment by the private eye and the police. This scene is not bad, with the use of shadows for dramatic effect. In fact, much of the film is shot darkly, in a sort of pre-noir way.

The Bear does not understand the mystery at all, surely yet another failure of what is, after all, a murder mystery. Near the end, the dimwitted police detective sees everyone staring at his shoes, which he has on the wrong feet. He looks chastened, then says, "well, you told me to tail her." Yuk it up. July 1, 1934 ushered in the era of the Hays Code - enforced.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for watching those so we didn't have to.

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  2. Contrary to popular opinion, not everyone is a winner. Going even further back, is a 19 year old Ginger in a very annoying role in Young Man of Manhattan with Claudette Colbert. She affected a horrible, high pitched nasal accept - "cigarette me, big boy."

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  3. It's me again with my wet towel...

    The reviews of the pre-Hays Code movies just underscores why I have such disdain for Hollywood. It emerged right out of vaudeville and burlesque, and had it not been for attempts like the Hays Code and Legend of Decency, it would have devolved even sooner than it did. As you've pointed out, even under the Hays Code, directors were always pushing limits.

    I don't think the movie business--being what it is--could ever help itself from trying to appeal to lower passions to sell tickets. And the nature of reel/video is such that it so much more powerful than books or even live theatre, especially once you add underlying musical scores.

    It's a wonder there were ever any decent films made at all.

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    Replies
    1. Remember, the Hays Code was a voluntary effort by the studios, albeit only to forestall the inevitable. And I've been concentrating on the bumptious Warner Brothers studio, which was seen as catering to the lower tastes of the city, while MGM had a reputation as providing wholesome, high production value entertainment for the corn fed masses in what we would now call "flyover country." L.B. Meyer, for all his flaws, did seem to take this seriously at MGM. He had pictures of his nieces and nephews in his office, and would often say he would not release movies they couldn't see. The Code helped, but when it got teeth on July 1 1934, the system really did help. Ultimately, it was all about selling tickets. I think it was theater moghul Schenk (top brass at MGM, unless I have forgotten, but still applies) who said "We sell tickets, not movies." Yet MGM found a way to make good, decent movies and become bigger than all other studios combined in terms of earnings.

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  4. Notwithstanding that I don't know what projects you may have underway, my take on splitting the blog is that you'd end up doubling your workload to feed the voracious readers in the woodland. One of the refreshing things about Corbinian's Bear is that one never knows what the next post will be about.

    The only solid reason I can see for splitting the blog is if for marketing reasons you and/or your publisher think that the Church commentary could alienate some potential book buyers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do need a separate blog under my assumed human identity for marketing purposes, but not because of discomfort with any material. This ephemeris will always remain part of "the canon." My only thought was I did not wish to annoy my readership here. But all indications seem to be that is not a problem for most folks. Maybe I'm not the only one who feels the need for movies made for ordinary people to help them through dark times.

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  5. Lately, the ephemeris is full of dark tidings. That's the nature of the situation. The movie posts give the reader space to breathe, a little time to recover. They should continue here.

    Monogram is where the Charlie Chan movies went to fade slowly away...better than nothing, I guess, but often not much better.

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    Replies
    1. It became UA and was nearly bankrupted defending The Story of O from obscenity charges. Monogram actually won an Oscar nomination and made at least a couple of good movies. But mostly lo budget westerns, thrillers and the like. Ernie Kovac's The Clutching Hand sketch reminds me of Monogram.

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