For some stories, it’s easy to see why they get remade over and over again. A Star Is Born is the universal tale of one dream’s rise and another’s fall. Ben-Hur is about a man finding his faith (but mostly about a chariot race). And Shakespeare’s plays have spoken to us all for centuries. However, one story that was filmed three times during the first four decades of the 20th Century – Bayard Veiller’s 1916 crime drama The 13th Chair – quickly fell into obscurity. The weird story of a group of bourgeois people staging a seance to find a murderer was a big hit on the stage and was made into films in 1919, 1929 and 1937.
The 1919 silent version was made by Pathe Pictures, but the other two were important productions at MGM. In December 2018, Warner Archive released the two MGM versions as a double feature on one DVD, since both versions are shockingly short. Watching these two films back-to-back reveal just how quickly sound and movie technology was being developed, but it also makes you wonder why this story needed to be filmed again.
One possible reason is it was cheap. Although the films are set in Calcutta, they are both essentially stage performances, with the majority set in one big room. The 1937 version makes a couple of tweaks to follow the production code, and aside from one big change in the end, there was not much changed.
The 1929 version was directed by Tod Browning and was his first collaboration with Bela Lugosi, two years before Universal’s Dracula. However, Lugosi is not the star here – it’s Conrad Nagel. He plays the friend of the dead man who convinces everyone to attend a seance to find the murder. Lugosi plays the inspector who believes criminal science will solve the crime.
Interestingly, when MGM made it again in 1937, this time with Andy Hardy director George B. Seitz at the helm, the inspector was seen as the role for a big star. Lewis Stone (hardly a ‘big star,’ but a well-known name) played the inspector, while character actor Henry Daniell played the friend.
They do have one great thing in common: a fantastic performance by the actresses playing the phony medium hired to run the seance. In ’29, the “Madame” is played by Margaret Wyncherly, who was married to Veiller and played the part on the stage. Dame May Whitty took the part in the ’37 version. Both performances are amazing, particularly in their scenes with the inspectors.
For those hoping the ’29 version might be a lost Browning classic, it will be a little disappointing. Aside from some unique camera movements, early talkie technology keeps Browning from creating the same expressive feel of his late silent work. He does his best to create some unique images with lights and shadows, particularly once Lugosi finally gets into the picture. Lugosi also delivers the most interesting performance aside from Wyncherly. He makes it feel like the Detective Dracula movie we never got. Overall though, the staginess makes Browning’s 13th Chair feel like a long 72-minute movie.
The ’37 version is technically better and a much more whimsical take. Stone is an entirely different actor from Lugosi, and instead plays the inspector’s skepticism to the hilt. Watching him spar with Whitty is a real joy. And Seitz had a much better supporting cast to work with, including Madge Evans, Elissa Landi and Daniell.
I’m still stumped as to why this particular crime drama was one MGM wanted to make twice. However, the second version is still an entertaining and quickie character gem. It runs just 66 minutes, and gets through more story than you see in some blockbusters.
Since the two films run a combined 138 minutes, Warner Archive still had some room to include the ’37 trailer. It is a little misleading, playing up the Calcutta setting even though we never leave the mansion once we enter it.
I love these double features Warner Archive releases, allowing us to compare how the same story can be told in different ways. While The 13th Chair isn’t really a story that has resonated today because of the countless crime dramas, the prize at the bottom of this disc is seeing just how far MGM came in the eight years between the two films. We also get a good look at Lugosi in a non-horror role, which is worth the price of admission alone.
Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this disc to review. You can buy it at WBShop.com.