Mystery of the 13th Guest (1943) is a remake of the Ginger Rogers 1932 movie The Thirteenth Guest. William Beaudine directed this version, and it’s a feather light whodunit where the mystery takes a back seat to the antics of the investigators, the fun of watching a dysfunctional family, and the creepiness of a masked killer and a murder victim that comes back from the dead.
On her 21st birthday, Marie Morgan (Helen Parrish) comes back to her grandfather’s home to read the will and letter he left for her when he died 13 years ago. She puzzles at the lights and phone still working in the house since nobody has lived there all this time, and the moment she sits at the dining table, the memory of a previous visit comes rushing back to her. She was 8 and gathered there with the rest of the Morgans to hear Grandpa deliver bad news. He said he was dying, with too little time left to tell this family just how greedy, hateful wicked and selfish they are. He told them he’d leave his fortune to Parrish so here she is at 21 to collect her inheritance. She also recalls how strange it was that there were 12 people present, and the thirteenth chair empty. Next thing you know, Parrish is found by the police, dead in that very same chair.
The police detective (Tim Ryan) isn’t thrilled to see private investigator (Dick Purcell) come snooping around the scene. Purcell’s been hired by Parrish’s uncle (Paul McVey) to look into this so he and Ryan begrudgingly work together to look through the family whereabout and secrets, find their lawyer and figure out the identity of the killer. The mystery takes a bizarre turn when the lawyer is the next person found dead in the chair and Parrish shows up very much alive. They eventually learn the Parrish impostor was created by plastic surgery paid for by one of the Morgans. What they don’t know is that the killer watches from a secret room. He or she has rigged one phone to electrocute users, and then, slow as molasses, lifts the big, deadly current switch, allowing just enough time for people to change their minds about making the call or to get distracted and saved from sparky death. The killer also wears a lifelike rubber mask which gets dramatically ripped off at the end.
With a Monogram/Beaudine movie you know what you’re getting: B-movie fun with clownish or thinly drawn characters, silly one-liners and a mystery you shouldn’t overthink. Speedy sleuthing with generous comedy, which in this case is lifted by very likable actors. Ryan and Purcell have a good buddy rapport even though they mock each other’s failed ideas and theories. Ryan wonders aloud about Parrish’s “safety” when Purcell offers to “protect” her at his place, and that couple has chemistry that leads to a predictable but still very cute ending. Ryan’s partner “Speed” (Frank Faylen) is the opposite of fast, answering his gun instead of the phone and nodding off whenever he sits down, which results in him getting driven to the next state when he should be tailing one of the Morgans. And how about those Morgans, a delightfully nasty and spiteful bunch, well on their way to fulfilling grandpa’s hopeful message from beyond the grave: “may they have killed each other off by the time you read this.” Lots of fun running around a dark house and trying to uncover which member of the dark family most wants that inheritance.