Supernatural (1933)

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Calling forth the spirit of a little known horror picture for the Randolph Scott blogathon.

Supernatural might be kind of an odd film to pick for a Randolph Scott blogathon and it is an unusual movie overall, but for me it’s a very likable one that I like to recommend and revisit often. Scott co-starring with Carole Lombard should be a huge draw in anything, and I would think even more so in a movie that’s so atypical for both of them. The picture falls short of being a great horror movie, and certainly isn’t something in either Lombard or Scott’s career that would win them awards, but it is fascinating and enjoyable due to some effective thrills. Even if you think it’s crazy, you’re bound to get a kick from watching improbable plot threads weave together and seeing all these fine players do good work in a fast and elegant Pre-Code horror picture.

Supernatural is brought to you by the brothers Halperin, director Victor and producer Edward, as well as writer Garnet Weston, the team responsible for 1932’s creepy hit White Zombie. The success of Zombie got them access to bigger budgets and stars but Supernatural was not a bigger critical or box office success, unfortunately. But it’s not for lack of trying. Supernatural tells the juicy story of a female serial killer, a man hating black widow (Vivienne Osborne) who crushes metal cups with her bare hands, so men’s necks are no problem at all. Her unbelievable strength and uncanny threats and powers of influence give willies to lawmen and scientists alike. After Osborne’s execution, her spirit jumps to the body of an heiress played by Lombard, in which Osborne can carry out her vow of revenge on the bogus spiritualist (Alan Dinehart) who gave her up to police (he did it so he could break off their romance, the louse).

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Lombard is in an especially vulnerable state, a bereaved and desperate woman who yearns to contact her dead twin brother. During this low time, Dinehart is trying to cash in on her grief and offers to put her in contact with her brother through a seance. Meanwhile, by complete coincidence, Lombard’s close doctor friend (H.B. Warner) just happens to be conducting electrified postmortem experiments on the murderess to determine the nature of her powers and to prevent her spirit from jumping into other bodies (yes I say prevent–oops). One night while he’s zapping Osborne, Lombard and Scott pop unannounced into his lab, and the unlucky Lombard is inhabited by the black widow.

Randolph Scott, playing Lombard’s fiance, is well suited to the role of the suspicious realist who doesn’t believe any of this supernatural malarkey but dutifully tries to protect her from the charlatan psychic. Scott doesn’t get too much to do but does it well, proving himself capable in yet another of the wide range of roles Paramount was giving him during this period. Scott’s fans will find this a bit diluted but still typical Randolph, as he’s charming and solid at all times, desperate and disbelieving when Lombard gets possessed, and a man of action when the murderess needs to be driven out of Lombard’s body. I love Scott as a cowboy but few actors looked as good spiffy and dressed up, so if I can’t interest you in anything else of this plot or genre, you must at least give the movie a whirl to see Scott and Lombard together in such grand style.

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Lombard was not happy to be in this movie (the Halperins originally intended her role for Madge Bellamy) and she threatened the filmmakers with epic destruction, which they thought had arrived when an earthquake hit during filming. Still, Lombard does a fine job in this dual role, going from sad, sweet, meek heiress to chilling murderess. She does an impersonation of Osborne’s voice and mannerisms, and was helped in the transformation by arched eyebrows and makeup by Wally Westmore, stop-motion photography and the echoed effect of cutting in closeups of glowing, evil glaring eyes for both women. Supernatural gives you the rare chance to see Lombard as an evil seductress, as she lures Dinehart to his demise, along with her touching scenes where she comforts the grieving dog who brings her late brother’s slippers, or listens wistfully to family recordings. For a genre movie that she hated, it’s actually a rich part that gives her a range of things to do and she does them well.

As a horror picture, Supernatural is not too frightening. The tricks and illusions Dinehart sets up for the seance are interesting, but far from scary; he keeps peeking from his “trance” to see if his victims are falling for it. It gets creepier when this crook is too dumb to realize that Osborne has come back from the dead to get him. But there are other good disturbing bits, so it works for me as a decent thriller. Beryl Mercer does a great turn as Dinehart’s nosy alcoholic landlady who accidentally breaks her booze bottle while pounding on the roaches, peeps in over Dinehart’s transom, opens his mail, and channels a bit of Elsa Lanchester in a juicy death scene when Dinehart poisons her. Vivienne Osborne is really good as the black widow, laughing maniacally and staring daggers; in very few scenes she convincingly scares the pants off everyone. H. B. Warner acts like Dr. Frankenstein when he’s working on Osborne’s corpse, which has on full makeup and manages to sit up and give Lombard and Scott a chilling stare when they barge in on the experiments. Brrrr.

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I enjoy the scares, mild as they are, but what I love about this movie is the juxtaposition of setting the horror elements in these highly polished Deco surroundings where you expect Astaire and Rogers to waltz by at any moment. The doctor’s apartment is a vast, roomy lair fit for an Architectural Digest spread, and we get to “walk through” it as the camera follows Scott and Lombard from foyer to glowing lab room. Between that, Lombard’s mansion and the luxury yacht, it’s fun to watch the weirdness unfold in such glamour. It takes most of the movie to get to the possession part and then we race through to the climax in which there are some spooky effects used to depict a brutal death and the final fate of Lombard/Osborne. The film is full of interesting camera angles, tracking shots, and creative touches. It begins with high drama courtesy of a hysterical vocal chorus and sensational newspaper headlines and ends with the spirit of Lombard’s brother blowing magazine pages open to the ‘Honeymoon in Bermuda’ advertisement and nodding his ghostly head in approval. Really, how can you pass all this up? For me Supernatural works because I love horror movies of that era and it checks enough boxes to qualify as one, is a decent thriller even if you find it a wimpy horror, it looks fabulous and has a special kind of star power, even if they weren’t yet the stars we best remember them as, or the type of movie they were best known for making.

This post is part of the Randolph Scott blogathon hosted by 50 Westerns From The 50s, please go to learn all about the man and his movies 

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some images from carole & co. ,  thanks to Toby (host of event) for providing the first image

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36 thoughts on “Supernatural (1933)”

  1. This sounds like an interesting little film; I like the idea of a character who’s skeptical of situations such as these, and lets everyone know it. I recently saw ‘Night of the Demon’, and Dana Andrews’ character did just that, and it was great fun to see him mocking everything related to the ‘demon’ in such a mature, smart-alecky way. Neat review, Kristina!

    1. I like Night of the Demon too! The “spiritualist” in this is such a phony so Scott runs around the room trying to figure out all his tricks. Fun stuff in an imperfect horror, but I like them so I’ll take them any which way, especially with these stars! Thanks for reading, Todd!

  2. Never seen this film but I do like these early horror/thrillers, and the Scott/Lombard combo sounds quite appealing.
    Thanks for flagging it up, and it’s a very worthy addition to the blogathon.

    1. Me too, I find this era of horror pretty much irresistible, even the ones that fall short. Even so there are plenty of memorable things in it, and like I say, I’d think that having these two actors in this type of movie is a draw in itself, just the curiosity factor! Thanks.

            1. haha! the sign of a good hobby! that Murders in the Zoo has a really disturbing bit that was so good it got shamelessly stolen by the X Files.

    1. It’s lovably weird, and that’s the right word —miscasting, but you’re right it really is interesting to see them here, and I like that they gave it their all, makes a huge difference. Thanks for reading and stopping to comment!

  3. I really enjoyed this film when I did my week of Lombard titles last year. A nice little gem in the careers of the two leads that one wouldn’t expect from the White Zombie crew.

    1. It is a fun gem, you’re right. I so clearly remember buying the vhs 🙂 and being so incredibly curious about Scott and Lombard in a horror! Practically ran home to watch it. I also LOVE Murders in the Zoo with Scott so I’m glad Paramount put him through those pictures.

    1. Well you should reward yourself for being so good… with a movie like this 🙂 Lombard and Scott are a nice reward for any occasion.

    1. I think this movie works either way: whether you think it works, or even if you find it ridiculous, I still believe you can find it entertaining and worth the time. Thanks!

  4. Best review of “Supernatural” I’ve ever read. With your permission, I would like to use it as Saturday’s entry at Carole & Co., linking to the Randolph Scott blogathon.

      1. Will be using it as Sunday’s entry; I had to leave early Saturday for a memorabilia show near LAX and used something else as my entry for the day. Had a great time, meeting the likes of Angie Dickinson (I gave her a Carole & Co. card, noting Lombard was “a fellow Howard Hawks heroine”) and Dame Joan Collins (she received the honor from the Queen last month for her charitable work for children). Again, it was a superlative review, with some perspectives on the film I had never considered.

        1. Wonderful, I thank you again for the kind words and for doing that, very much appreciated!! Thanks also for sharing that fun time you had yesterday, lucky you for meeting those ladies. Best!

  5. I really enjoyed this! I haven’t seen the movie but you evoke it so well and in a very engaging way, making its ambiance almost palpable in your words. It sounds like a lot of fun and makes me want to make a point to seek it out.

    1. If the people, genre or era appeal to you in any way, whether you end up finding it silly or scary, then I don’t think you can go wrong. It’s worth a look just as a completist 🙂 Thanks so much for dropping and and for the nice words!

  6. This sounds like an interesting and very strange movie – great write-up, Kristina! I love Carole Lombard in virtually anything, and this sounds like an unusual role for her. And with Randolph Scott as her co-star? What’s not to like? I must also tell you how much I enjoyed the stills and screen grabs you chose for this post…they’re gorgeous, especially the first one at the top. (It doesn’t hurt that the lovely Ms. Lombard features in all of them 😉

    1. Thanks so much! Lombard was the attraction for me the first time I saw it, seemed so out of her wheelhouse, but as I say she does a neat job with it, and how can you pass her up as an evil possessed woman trying to strangle somebody! The weirdness and rarity of that should be attraction enough, and as a Lombard fan you’ll find she looks quite pretty here too. Credit for providing the first pic goes to the host of the event, Toby!

  7. Hi Kristina! I liked this post so much, you make me want to try watching it again — you probably remember I turned it on one day and chickened out a few minutes in LOL. I’m such a scaredy-cat! They look so gorgeous in the stills above and you really make it sound like a lot of fun. I also really appreciated having something from Scott’s pre-Code credits included in the blogathon!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    1. I may say it’s not that scary but I’m used to those movies, my tolerance is way above yours I’m sure, so give it a whirl again someday when you feel brave and I think you might find it more fun and spooky than terrifying. And even if you are frightened, focus on big strong Randy 🙂 Thanks for the kind words!!

  8. Hi Kristina. A fine piece here on an early piece that has surely eluded a lot of folks. My records tell me I have seen it but it must have been ages ago! I like all the background information you interweave and……yup….you’re right….not only could Scott look so right in western duds but he also wore a tux more naturally than almost anyone.

    1. A tall drink of water he was 🙂 in any setting or getup. Like I say it’s one of those odd films I like to tell people about, because I feel you can get fun out of it whether it works for you as a horror or just for the eye candy or weirdness. Glad you enjoyed and thanks so much for the visit and the compliments.

  9. This sounds like a great flick – yet another one that you’ve introduced to me. The plots sounds like an usual choice for an art deco set, like you said, but I’d like to see how it works.

    I agree with the previous commented re: movie stills. They’re gorgeous!

    1. Definitely a bit of a curiosity but see it sometime, if only for the eye candy. 🙂 If you end up liking all the other bits in the stew then all the better.

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