The Thirteenth Chair (1929) is Tod Browning‘s first sound film and a real curio. Like a lot of early sound films, it is bogged down with wax museum staging. Chair is yet another drawing room murder mystery, taken from an antiquated stage play, but being a Tod Browning production, the film cannot resist its own latent, deviant infrastructure in the acutely bizarre casting of Bela Lugosi as the well-dressed Inspector Delzante.
In the original play, the character of the inspector had a different name and was played for laughs. The Thirteenth Chair was an all around testing-the-waters kind of film; a test handling that new invention called sound, which neither Browning nor the production team were comfortably with (all too clearly). The main test here, however, was for the upcoming role of Dracula, and for that reason Browning grabbed Lugosi, who had made the vampire role a mega hit on the stage circuit.
Lugosi’s make-up, with sharply accented eyebrows, is patterned after the make-up he wore as Dracula in the play version of Bram Stoker’s tale. His mannerisms are pure vamp, not at all what the role of the inspector originally called for. His first appearance is shot from the back. He is in a police station, dressed from head to shoes in white, but when he turns towards the camera, he delivers the lines as only a Transylvanian Count would. Thankfully, Lugosi is wildly disproportionate to the role and serves as an almost surreal red herring for the film. This may have been a test project for Browning, but he had to make it interesting for himself, and he did so first with the eccentric casting of the “Living, Hypnotic Corpse” as the inspector.
Lugosi beautifully mangles the English language, as per his norm, but his handling of the foreign tongue is much faster clipped than it would be in the 1931 Dracula, which gives lie to the ridiculously uninformed rumor that he learned his lines phonetically. Lugosi had lived in the States and performed the part in English for years before the film version, so the actor’s delivery in Dracula was a directorial choice, as Lugosi indicated in interviews.
Lugosi has some wonderful, if eccentric, bits. In one scene, Madame Rosalie La Grange (Margaret Wycherly) asks Delzante to speak plainly. The Inspector angrily responds, “Madame, I am ssspeaking purrrfactly klaaare!” In another bizarrely fascinating scene, the Inspector is eliciting names of suspects from a murder committed during a seance. One woman tells him, “Helen.” A few seconds later, a second woman tells him “Helen.” Lugosi is taken aback and then delivers a priceless spiel, “Halan. I see. Halan. Halan. Ssssooo, there are twooo Halans. Twooo Halans.” He walks over to the Madame, “Sssooo there were twooo Halans. An extraaa Halan. The name you were afraid to speak was Halan. Itsssh tooo Klaaare.”
Browning’s work with Lugosi in the three films they collaborated on traces an interesting arc. Here, Lugosi’s casting amounts to a deception. Lugosi as Delzante intentionally throws the film off into bizarrely wayward areas. In their next film, Dracula (1931), Lugosi often amounts to a parlor trick. Lugosi as Dracula ascends the stairwell. Renfield follows and sees, to his astonishment, that the Count has magically “walked” through a cobweb without disturbing the web itself. Dracula, like a leering magician, grins diabolically, issuing a disconcerting “come forth.” The collaboration climaxed in Mark of the Vampire (1935). In that, Lugosi is half of the quintessential, crepuscular goth couple (and an incestuous one at that). However, it is merely an elaborate hoax. One suspects Mark was Dracula as Browning intended.
The Thirteenth Chair is replete with eccentric, delightfully of its time dialogue: “So that’s the bee in your bonnet!” says the bland protagonist to his love. As the doomed Wales, John Davidson is more interesting than the hero. Davidson competes with Lugosi in undead delivery. Unfortunately, Davidson gets offed too early in the film, but not before some entertaining eye rolling. Margaret Wycherly as the honestly fake spiritualist reprises the role she played on Broadway. Wycherly could be the catalyst for a Browning self-portrait. She is the grand deceiver who eventually lets the audience in on the deception. Browning would repeat this theme in his apt curtain call, Miracles For Sale (1939).
Serious awkwardness mars this film, a product of the transition from silent film to the new, imposing medium of sound. Because of that awkwardness The Thirteenth Chair is not Browning in his best form, but he still manages to make it a curiously personal, queer con. Two murders, one committed with all the lights out, a phony medium, a series of séances, a mysterious manor, stolen love letters, and potential blackmail all add up to standard Browning fare, with an extra oddity or two: two Helens, that is.