I’d deduce that George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woolcott were being archly playful in their original play, The Dark Tower, which screenwriters Tom Reed and Niven Busch turn into a weirdly lopsided piece combining mystery, theatre gossip, semi-occult, an it’s-all-a-plot plot disguise (which gets stuck on the extremely distinctive Edward G. Robinson), acid humour — a laugh comes from a cockney maid (Emily Fitzroy) on the point of feeding poison to the late villain’s pet mice — and a talented cast who only get to shine in fits and starts.
Jessica Wells (Mary Astor), a stage star who’s only just got over a nervous collapse, makes a comeback in an out-of-town tryout of a play (The Dark Tower) directed by and co-starring her oddly aggressive brother Damon (Robinson), and produced by new love interest Ben Weston (Ricardo Cortez). The backstory is that her husband had a strange hypnotic spell over her (it’s referred to as a kind of possession) – so, of course, he turns out not to be dead. Stanley Vance (Louis Calhern) crashes the post-premiere party and freezes everyone else in their tracks as he smarms about the place, issuing orders, reasserting the fluence … in pre-Code touch, there’s a strong suggestion he’s going to take her upstairs and rape her (which might not go against the Hays Code, since they are married) but he’s also an early film noir coded-as-gay baddie (overly fussy about his collection of ties). This is drama enough for one film, but as Ben drops out of the production Vance has to get more finance to launch the play on Broadway and cash in – and Robinson shows up as goateed Frenchman Jules Chautard, who lures him into a meeting at a hotel so he can be stabbed. As in Dracula, the heroine is freed from the hypnotic spell when the villain has a stake (a letter opener) stuck through his heart).
Of course, despite all the bad things we learn about Vance (he killed his first wife), a film can’t let the murderer go unnabbed, so the last act brings on Sgt Curtis (David Landau, excellent), a proto-Columbo who notices a false moustache used as a bookmark in the Gideon Bible and wonders whether Chautard was an actor (he also saw Damon do the old French guy schtick in Summer stock). Much of the film is dominated by Calhern, with Robinson only really getting in gear when Landau is on his case – the neat resolution has the culprit apprehended, but optimistic that his performance on the witness stand (‘I’ll tear their hearts out’) will win him a happy ending.
Mae Clarke is remembered for Frankenstein and The Public Enemy, two films in which she’s a wet blanket – but everything else I’ve seen her in shows her off as a terrific, lively, funny, sexy performer and she makes a lot of the nothingy role of Damon’s actress girlfriend. Astor is effective as the fragile heroine, and there’s a real chill to her succumbing again to zombiehood – she later claims not to remember what she’s done while in a daze and suspects herself of the murder, but this thread is rather undercooked. With Arthur Byron as disapproving family physician. Directed by Archie Mayo, First National’s go-to guy for theatrical hypnodramas (he also made Svengali).