THE SPIDER is a film that deserves to be better known. Released after DRACULA (Universal, February 12,1931) but before FRANKENSTEIN (Universal, November 21,1931), this film, while in the end a murder mystery, has several strong supernatural elements.
The film was co-directed by Kenneth MacKenna and William Cameron Menzies. MacKenna was an actor who also directed several mostly forgettable films between 1931-1934. MacKenna, born Leo Mielziner, Jr, is today mostly remembered for sponsoring and helping his brother Jo Mielziner (Tony and Academy Award winning set designer). He also was an early “angel” (theatrical financial backer) who introduced his friend Richard Rodgers to the James A. Michener’s book “Tales of The South Pacific” (MacMillian, NY,1947), feeling it might make a good musical. He was right. It became the 1949 musical SOUTH PACIFIC (Majestic Theatre, April 7,1949).
The real visual director of THE SPIDER would be Menzies. Menzies entered films in 1919, after his service in WWI. Training in effects and film design, within a few short years he was the art director and production designer of classics like THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD (United Artists, March 18,1924). Pictured above his sketch and the fully realized design in the film. He is perhaps best known for his design of GONE WITH THE WIND (MGM, December 15,1939). Not only did he design the look of the film, he even designed some of the famous shots like the massive pullback shot at the train station.
He also later directed the 3D horror film THE MAZE (Allied Artists, July 26,1953) and the classic science fiction film INVADERS OF MARS (20th Century Fox, April 22,1953). He was a visual stylist who made the most of his budgets, big or small.
(Menzies ,as photographed by Karl Strauss)
The screenplay was written by Barry Conners. Conners was a former stage actor who was blacklisted when he tried to unionize actors against corrupt producers. He turned to playwriting and had a few Broadway successes, including HELL’S BELLS (Wallack’s Theatre, Jan 26, 1925 – May 1925)which was the Broadway debut of both Humphrey Bogart and Shirley Booth.
He used his success to become a screenwriter for MGM and then Fox Films (later to merge and become 20TH Century Fox). Among his screenplays were an adaptation of his play THE PATSY (MGM,April 22,1928 ). At Fox, he exhibited a strong ability with mysteries, writing the screen adaptation of several of the early Charlie Chan films (including two “lost “Chan films (…Carries On, (Fox, April 12,1931), …. Chance (Fox, Jan 24,1932), as well as THE BLACK CAMEL (June 21,1931).
Later, he would be one of a team of writers who adapted the radio series into CHANDU THE MAGICIAN (Fox, August 4,1932), another mystical adventure directed by Menzies and best known for starring Bela Lugosi as the villain Roxor. Starring as Chandu was Edmund Lowe. Lowe had already gotten his magical bona fides, starring in THE SPIDER as the film’s star, magician Chatrand. Lowe had begun in vaudeville before getting into silent films. When sound began, his good looks and voice established him as a reliable leading man in the thirties and forties, right up to THE STRANGE MR. GREGORY (Monogram, Jan 12,1946), wherein he starred as—a magician!!!!
THE SPIDER was adapted from a stage play by Lowell Brentano and Fulton Oursler that played Broadway at Chanin’s 46th St Theatre (3/22/1927- 5/28/1927) before moving to the Music Box Theatre (5/30/1927-12/17/1927) for a successful run of 319 performances. THE SPIDER: A Play of The Varieties, to give it its full title, was a three act Mystery Melodrama. The setting was the fictional Tivoli Vaudeville Theatre, where the action takes place. The play starred Broadway actor (John Halliday )
John Halliday as Chatrand, and featured a lot of vaudeville performers Mack & La Rue, billed as The Skating Marvels of The Century, and Lytell & Fant, listed, intriguingly as The Chocolate Cake -Eaters.
Oddly, the play had several lawsuits brought against it for plagiarism, one of which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1933 before it was dismissed.
Writer Brentano worked on Broadway writing thrillers as well as musicals, including the intriguing thriller ZEPPELIN (National Theatre, Jan14,1929-March ,1929), set aboard the cabins of the air vessel. He also worked in Hollywood on films like THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER (RKO December 9,1932).
Fulton Oursler was a magician who wrote for several pulp magazines. He joined Harry Houdini in discrediting fake mediums in the 1920s, going so far as to write an expose Spirit Mediums Exposed (New Metropolitan Fiction) under the pseudonym Samri Frikell.
The film of THE SPIDER obviously cut the play down to its barest storyline, as a three-act play would have run at least 90 minutes. With many of the within the show vaudeville routines cut, time was filled by adding the comedy of Elmer Goodfellow Brendel, better known as El Brendel. Born to an Irish mother & German father who entered vaudeville as a German dialect comic but when anti-German sentiments grew during WWI, he became a simple Swede, often named Ollie, Oley, or Ole.
He began working in films, appearing in the classic silent WINGS (Famous Players/Paramount, August 12,1927). After a brief return to vaudeville, he signed a contract with Fox Studios, taking advantage of the innovation of sound movies. His biggest starring role was in the musical/science fiction film JUST IMAGINE (Fox, November 23,1930). He was billed as the most popular comedian at the time but he soon was reduced to supporting roles and starring in B-comedies. To be honest, to modern audiences, a little El Brendel goes a long way. However, it was probably thought getting El Brendel for THE SPIDER was a good idea at the time.
The film takes place in the Tivoli Vaudeville House, where the Great Chatrand (Edmund Lowe) is packing them in. Chartrand’s show is being broadcast, and he announces that assistant whom he calls Alexander (Howard Phillips, making his film debut. He only made 11 more films up to 1938, none of which was as good as THE SPIDER. ) is an amnesiac whom he found two years earlier. However, he seems to have lost his memory but developed psychic mind reading powers which they use in the act.
Beverly Lane (Lois Moran, who is said to have been the inspiration for the character “Rosemary “in F.Scott Fitzgerald’s TENDER IS THE NIGHT (Charles Scribner’s Sons, April 1934 ) has been looking for her brother Paul who disappeared about the same time ,but her uncle John Carrington (Earle Foxe ,who began in silent films back in 1912.He had starred in an odd silent fantasy feature LAST MAN ON EARTH (Fox, November 2,1924) as well as the lost early talkie THE GHOST TALKS (Fox, February 24,1929 ) says it is only a publicity stunt and that it cannot possibly be Paul. However, she insists that they go to see the next performance and Carrington begrudgingly agrees.
During all this, we have comedy where Ole (El Brendel) and his young charge (Kendall McComas, who started in the silent Mickey McGuire comedy shorts and in 1932 appeared in some of the Our Gang comedy shorts) are considering what type of tickets to purchase. The ticket taker, by the way, is a cameo by co director MacKenna. When they finally do, and go to their seats, it ends with El Brendel putting a hole through the top of his bowler.
Chatrand peers through the curtains and recognizes Beverly from a photo that Alexander has. The act begins, and Alexander is blindfolded as Chatrand walks though the audience and holds up various objects. When Chatrand holds up Beverly’s locket, which is like the one Alexander has, Carrington begins to try and take it away from Chatrand. The lights go out, and a someone shoots Carrington. The staging of this scene is quite well done, with rapid cutting between all the parties, and Alexander acting as if possessed, finally ending with the shooting, and Alexander collapsing.
The police arrive and find a gun by the unconscious Alexander. Beverly recognizes Alexander as her lost brother. Now revived and out of his trance, Alexander/Paul blurts out: ‘He tried to kill me! I had to do it.” That’s all the police need to hear, and arrest Alexander. Chatrand escapes via a magic trick, and the police seal off the theatre. No one can leave. Can Chatrand, with his magic skills, find out who the killer is?
It is a short, fast paced little thriller with supernatural elements that deserves to be better known.
(announced but unmade version)
John Carpenter (no not the director, but this one is known as “The Movie Man” due to his extensive movie collection) is offering a special deal to SCARLET THE FILM MAGAZINE readers .The sound and picture quality is good, especially when you consider how truly are this film is . John will make a DVD-R of this rare film from his own 16mm print. Cost $15.00 within the continental U.S.A. Contact John directly at email@example.com . Let him know that SCARLET sent ya!
-Kevin G Shinnick