A writer hides out to work in an isolated mansion that’s soon overrun by weirdness.
Here is yet another reminder that movie watching is a hobby that continually educates and enlightens, and that as much as you think you know, you still have infinitely more to learn. Recently I watched House of the Long Shadows, in which a fun all-star “old-timers” group of horror movie icons (Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, John Carradine and Vincent Price) foil Desi Arnaz Jr.’s attempt to hole up at an abandoned mansion and write his latest novel in solitude. It’s a variation on the oft-adapted novel Seven Keys to Baldpate, and though I’ve heard of all the other movies that novel spawned, I’ve never had the opportunity to see one until the other day.
A brief history of this evergreen tale: the novel by Earl Derr Biggers, who also brought us Charlie Chan, was published in 1913, adapted to the stage the same year by George M. Cohan (yes that one, the great talent played by Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy), and made into 5 US releases including the first where Cohan played the lead. There was one Australian silent, two versions under different titles (the aforementioned Long Shadows and also Haunted Honeymoon, with Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner), and goodness only knows how many more copycat plots claiming to have no resemblance to the original. The one I just watched was the 1935 Seven Keys, starring Gene Raymond, Eric Blore, Margaret Callahan, Henry Travers, Walter Brennan and many more.
When I was a kid just getting to know old movies this was exactly what I’d call a good time. There’s an old dark house, a huge cast of interesting and different types of characters, dramatic and creepy music whenever those characters go tiptoeing through the halls, a secret passage and a mystery that’s tough to follow but still has enough twists and turns to keep you interested. It’s a little scary, a little silly, a bit stiff and just enough fun. In this version it’s Gene Raymond playing the writer who makes a bet that he can finish his crime novel in 24 hours. He gets the only key, that’s what he thinks, to a fabulously creaky mansion so he can get to work, and then to his surprise, many more people, all with the only key, start creeping in, all with suspect identities, and all engaging in unexplained activities which inevitably lead to doings both criminal and deadly.
I’m a big Gene Raymond fan but even so, I could not get used to his technique here, of cocking his head and glancing sideways to signify confusion, or tilting his head and leaning in to show he’s listening (maybe because it reminded me exactly of what Arnaz was trying to do, very badly, in Long Shadows). I get that Raymond was the “wink-wink,” wisecracking contrast, our stand-in and cool observer to all this hoopla going on around him, saying “get a load of these weirdos,” and that’s fine, it doesn’t detract from the fun of the whole picture, and for me he sure has enough natural charm to anchor this cast, flirt with the ladies and be watchable on his own. There’s a clever scene where, in the grip of superstition, he contorts himself to avoid crossing paths with the resident black cat and is just about to pat himself on the back when the other resident black cat trots out right in front of him.
I won’t go too far into the plot because figuring it out is part of the fun, but it involves a vault, an enormous amount of loot from an insurance company robbery, concealed identities, Henry Travers as a cranky woman-hating hermit who’s writing his epic misogynist manifesto, and the Chief of Police who looks like he’ll drop dead from befuddlement. There’s Moroni Olsen and Grant Mitchell and Emma Dunn, there’s the amusement of people jumping out of windows, gangsters who can’t shoot straight, molls who rise from the dead, and of course Eric Blore, need I say more? One actor whose line readings can make a grocery list laugh out loud funny every time.
While reading up, I read that Biggers worked into this novel the pseudo-scientific ideas of the fractured or segmented mind, which was popular at the time and helps explain the title and plot structure. “Bald pate” get it? You’re going inside a head, and seeing the dramatization of a theory in psychology that posited the mind was made up of distinct personalities, so you would have one wanting to “escape,” while the others struggle over approaches to a valued prize and so forth. In the play they revealed at the end that you had just watched the actual novel that was written during the retreat (which adds an extra layer of meaning to Blore’s character, who doesn’t even know what his own name is until Raymond tells him). It doesn’t get that deep in this movie, so we get entertainingly bizarre without it turning into a Mobius loop flying over our heads.
Seven Keys to Baldpate, as a concept, would certainly have to be called an essential part of movie history, though not having seen all the versions I couldn’t say which is the best execution of it. The plot had a lot of influence on movies you might not expect (The Shining starts with the same plot device for example). It started the Old Dark House genre which I love and has brought movie fans the best in movie comfort food, whether in the form of mystery, horror or comedy. It goes to show that those of you who might write off a creaky early movie should be open to taking a look, to see where your later favourites got their ideas.