This Paramount melodrama – billed as based on ‘the play that made Broadway gasp’ in its imaginative opening credits – was a big deal in its day, but has been overlooked by history, perhaps because it’s not on a level with various film versions of Gaslight and Rebecca which cover similar themes in a subtler, more satisfying manner. It was the sole film credit of stage star Mary Morris – not to be confused with the British actress remembered as one a Number Two on The Prisoner – who recreates a career highlight baddie role, perhaps sticking too close to the business (clawed hands, an icy snarl, hunched shoulders) that worked in the theatre.
Elizabeth McFadden’s play, adapted by Jack Cunningham and Gladys Lehman, is set in an old dark house on 5th Avenue, New York, in 1910, where Rip van Brett (Kent Taylor) of the wealthy van Bretts is marrying former nurse Anne Darrow* (Evelyn Venable) of the pretty-girl-from-nowheres, much to the disapproval of Rip’s half-sister Victoria (Morris), who has ruled the house with an iron hand and vicious snobbery all these years … and has turned her spinster sister Caroline (Anne Revere) into a neurotic ninny, once locking her in a secret soundproof vault only the sisters know about (plot point) as a punishment for some minor infraction. Victoria is one of the blackest villains in melodrama, systematically ruining her siblings’ mental health and any chance they might have for happiness – she doesn’t attend her brother’s wedding though it’s held in her house, orders a servant to lock the organ half-way through ‘Here Comes the Bride’ and takes possession of all the wedding gifts because they’re from her family’s friends not the bride’s … plus abstracts a half-million-dollar pearl necklace that’s due to go to Rip’s wife and locks it in that hidden vault.
Combining the worst features of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, the husband in Gaslight and the smothering mother-in-law of The Silver Cord (a stage-to-film hit in 1933), Victoria is splendidly loathsome on every level – which makes for effective suspense and semi-horror in a climax where Victoria locks her nemesis in the vault Cask of Amontillado-style and then tries to pretend Anne has just abandoned her husband. It’s also limiting – a few shades of gray might have made for more effective drama. Victoria is just horrible, rather than warped – the only hint that there might be more to her than spite is that (like Dr Jekyll in Paramount’s recent picture) she wrings Bach out of that organ at every opportunity. Director Charles Vidor puts close-ups of Morris’ hatchet face in the credits and gives her plenty of leering at the camera moments that show off make-up which gives her a corpse-like look.
Venable is lovely and lively in form-fitting Edwardian outfits and Revere matches Morris in hysteria. Caroline, of course, is the key to the unfolding of the plot, though Morris gets the ironic, nasty last scene (perhaps gasp-worthy) that later censors might have nixed. Taylor, later favoured leading man of Al Adamson, is aptly Arrow Collar ad handsome and yet weak, which puts a slight crack in the heroine’s character in that anyone who’d pick this spineless milksop over the decent doctor who loves her (Colin Tapley) does seem like the gold-digger Victoria says Anne is. With familiar character faces Sir Guy Standing, Halliwell Hobbes and Frank Dawson. Directed by Charles Vidor.
*in King Kong (1933), Fay Wray plays Ann Darrow – did RKO cop her character name from the play?