Coffee & Ginger: The Thirteenth Guest

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Welcome to the next edition of Coffee & Ginger. Today's focus is going to be The Thirteenth Guest (1932), a low budget horror film from Monogram Pictures based upon the 1929 novel of the same name by Armitage Trail. If you are an avid reader of early 1900s novels, you might recognize that pen name as the fellow who wrote Scarface in 1930. The Thirteenth Guest is a film directed by Albert Ray, who also made A Shriek in the Night (1933), another horror film that has Ginger Rogers billed first.

If you keep up with me on Twitter, you will know that I made somewhat of an attempt to watch 26 spooky films during the month of October, with six of them being rewatches. However, due to some unexpected (but wonderful) commitments to my real life job, that kind of went out the window. So even though spooky season ended, I still want to complete what I set out to do, and that was a little write up of The Thirteenth Guest. A little bit of a review, a little bit of commentary type of thing. I am currently nice and snuggled up in a blanket with a hot cup of Mickey's Swell Coffee (are we surprised at this point) that is my new favorite French Vanilla blend. I still haven't found where you can purchase these online, but I did find them at the Disney Home store in Downtown Disney, so you don't even have to go into one of the parks to get one. Onto our story!

It isn't long into the first couple minutes of the film that we are introduced to our protagonist (Ginger Rogers) as she steps out of a man's car and heads toward what looks to be an abandoned mansion. Through a brief telephone conversation between Ginger's character and the phone operator, we learn that the mansion has been vacant for 13 years. I do enjoy the staging of this sequence and the camera movements as Ginger, who we soon learn is named Marie, explores the empty home. She sits down at a table with 13 chairs covered in white sheets and reveals an envelope with an inscription on the front.

The note on the inside only says "13__13__13__." Once Marie recalls which family members were seated in which chairs all those years ago, we hear footsteps creaking in the house, coming closer. Marie repeatedly calls out the name of who she suspects this is, but receives no response. She follows the source of the steps, we hear her scream, a gunshot, and cut back to the driver. He has heard the noise but chooses not to investigate. Instead, he can't seem to drive off fast enough, leaving us clueless as to who might have fired the gun. He phones the police, and the film takes off from there.

The police reveal to us that the thirteenth guest ("Oh boy, I usually only get this excited when they say the title of a movie in the movie." Family Guy reference, as you were) never arrived at that dinner party thirteen years ago.

Caution, spoilers from here on out. This film isn't exactly riveting, but I did find one of the early scenes kinda cool. When Phil Winston (Lyle Talbot) arrives to investigate the scene of the crime, he finds a stiff looking, deceased Marie propped up on the thirteenth chair at the dinner table. It is a disturbing visual, with Ginger's eyes wide and still and her hands gripping the table.

There is an exchange before this between Phil and one of the officers that contains a couple pretty funny one liners, including stating the obvious with "You dumb flatfoot, who told you where to start counting?" This alone sorta tells us not to take the plot too seriously.

Final cause of death is determined to be ... electrocution? It is quickly revealed to us through Marie's brother that their father left the bulk of his estate to the thirteenth guest, who, as we know, never arrived. Apparently the family lawyer instructed her to go to the mansion, which ultimately led to her death. He, however, is soon found deceased at the table as well.

But the confusion doesn't stop there. Marie later shows up at the front door of the mansion, perfectly fine and well. This is great for people like me, who only really watched The Thirteenth Guest for Ginger, and now instead of thinking she was killed off in the first few minutes, she gets more screen time after all. But this is no twin situation. Winston explains that he saw several tiny scars on the deceased girl's face. He says a double was put there in place of Marie, who fled the scene before the murder.

This is where the story starts to become much like that confused math lady gif.

The murderer is going in order of who was sitting at the table thirteen years ago, one of them was a double, Marie suspects the uncle, the lawyer is dead, and pretty soon the rest of the Morgan family is detained for questioning. Bear with me. It appears that everyone is after that 13-13-13 note mentioned earlier. Also, does anyone wanna explain to me why there is always a creepy doll in a Ginger movie? (Think Stage Door).

When Marie re-enters the home, the killer spies on her through his tiny window in the wall, ready to pull the lever that will send a lethal shot of electricity through the wiring in the phone. Just in time, Winston calls her from another phone in the house (not the rigged one) and warns her to leave the house immediately. Marie obeys, but not before our cloaked killer sneaks up from behind her and grabs her. I am wondering who provides the scream in this scene, as many actors were dubbed by a scream artist so that the lead would not damage their throat, or if they simply weren't good at it. Although some actors, most famously Fay Wray, provided their own screaming. I doubt Ginger did her own screaming for this film, but I could be wrong.

A distressing scene follows, showing Marie struggling in the cloaked man's arms as he forces the code out of her. Here, we get a glimpse of the dramatic side of Ginger's skills as an actress. This scene reminds me very much of the attack scene in Storm Warning (1951).  Even in the early 1930s, Ginger was showcasing little bits of her talent for serious acting.

The killer is soon revealed, but of course not to spoil the film too much I will let you find out if you decide to watch it. But I will say that the final scene of the film is rather sweet.

Ginger's early pre-codes before 42nd Street are certainly not Oscar-worthy, but they are decent pieces of entertainment. Some rank higher than others in my book, but it is always fascinating to view a star's early works before they made it big in films. The Thirteenth Guest has its share of plot holes and confusion, but is a fun little film for those that enjoy mysteries and if you, as I mentioned earlier, don't take the plot too seriously.

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