For last week’s Saturday night pizza and bad movie night, we chose a murder mystery with Fred Astaire’s future dance partner. I added jalapenos to my side of the pizza.
Thirteen years before the action of the movie, the Morgan family held a dinner party for thirteen guests. Only twelve showed. The family patriarch announced that he was leaving the bulk of his estate to the thirteenth guest, whose identity nobody knows. He died almost immediately, and his widow shut up the house and moved away with her two children, Marie (Ginger Rogers) and Harold (James Eagles).
The movie opens with daughter Marie Morgan, now twenty-one, arriving by cab at the old house. Someone else she doesn’t see has arrived as well. All the furniture is covered in sheets. Rats are eating the remnants of the thirteen-year-old dinner (EEEEWWW). She was just given a piece of paper by the family lawyer with three numbers on it: 13—13—13. She has no idea what they mean. She finds the supposedly long-unoccupied building has phone service and electricity.
She hears footsteps. Thinking they belong to the family lawyer, she calls his name and walks into another room. The viewer hears a scream and a sound that appears to be a gunshot. Outside, the cabbie runs off to get the police.
When the police find her, she’s perched in a grotesque pose at the dining table. The cause of death is not gunshot but electrocution.
There are screwball elements to this. Police Captain Ryan (J. Farrell MacDonald) is just this side of incompetent, calling on Private Investigator Phil Winston (Lyle Talbot) quicker than Commissioner Gordon can raise a bat signal. Captain Ryan has a detective on the force, a nephew of an important person. Detective Gump (Paul Hurst) was not hired for his brains, however, and Ryan can’t wait for Uncle Important Person to die. Winston is fond of saying he’s not interested, especially if he’s curled up on the couch with a young lady. He’s also quick to call Marie “child” and to inspect her neck for surgical scars.
The Ginger Rogers, who plays Marie Morgan, is the same Ginger Rogers, who danced with Fred Astaire. She was quite young in this movie, about the same age as the character she played. I did not recognize her.
Outside of her character and maybe her brother, Harold “Bud,” it’s hard to feel much sympathy for any character in the movie. Bud seems genuinely sorry to hear of Marie’s bizarre death. He’s also puzzled by it. The whole Morgan family is vicious and cynical. They might be entertaining—from afar. Winston is able to gather the entire clan together, except for one uncle, who has been living in Yokohama for some years.
Could he have come back when no one was paying attention…?
There are also some elements to the movie that stretch credulity. The bad guy who throws the outsized switch and electrocutes people does so while wearing a hood and mask in a hidden room. He needs to conceal his identity while alone in a hidden room? Only from the audience. He has a peephole/sliding panel from which he can watch the comings and goings in the house. A piece of wooden trim that flips up at an angle hides his peephole from the people in the house when not in use.
(My temptation, were I writing this, would be to have Marie walk by while she’s contemplating her 13–13–13 note, see the trim out of whack, mutter something like, “Damn rats!” and come back with a hammer and several long nails.)
Aside from that, no one, not even the great detective Phil Winston, thinks to call an electrician after people start dying? One who might be able to figure out the wiring in the house?
Having said that, I enjoyed this movie. There are a few twists I did not see coming and several red herrings. The obnoxious Morgans (outside of Marie, of course) do get a comeuppance of sorts. It was a lot of fun, despite its flaws.
Title: The Thirteenth Guest
Directed by Albert Ray
Armitage Trail …(book)
Frances Hyland …(screenplay)
Arthur Hoerl …(screenplay) (uncredited)
Cast (in credits order)
Ginger Rogers … Lela / Marie Morgan
Lyle Talbot … Phil Winston
J. Farrell MacDonald … Police Capt. Ryan
Paul Hurst … Detective Grump
Erville Alderson … Uncle John Adams
Released: August 9, 1932