Sunday, 6 December 2015

Secret of the Blue Room (1933)

Secret of the Blue Room is a low-budget Universal feature from 1933, and basically it’s a mystery tale with some hints of horror. It’s another variation on the Old Dark House theme that was insanely popular at the time.

It begins with a small party thrown by Robert von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill) to celebrate the twenty-first birthday of his daughter Irene (Gloria Stuart). Also present are Captain Walter Brink (Paul Lukacs), reporter Frank Faber (Onslow Stevens) and young Thomas Brandt (William Janney). These three are all rivals for Irene’s affections. The conversation eventually turns to ghosts and Robert is reluctantly persuaded to tell the story of the haunted Blue Room in Castle Helldorf. Twenty years earlier Robert’s sister met her death in this room in mysterious circumstances. Two more unexplained deaths followed shortly afterwards. In all three cases the victim died at precisely one o’clock in the morning. Not surprisingly the room is no longer used and is kept locked. 

Thomas suggests a challenge. He, Frank and Walter will each spend a night in the Blue Room as a test of courage. His motive in proposing this idea is obviously to impress Irene. He further proposes that he should be the first to sleep in the Blue Room.

You will not be surprised to hear that this challenge has unfortunate consequences, indeed  fatal consequences for some.

Fearing a scandal, Robert von Helldorf is anxious to avoid involving the police but eventually he has no choice. Commissioner Forster (Edward Arnold) arrives to conduct the investigation in person.

The servants provide some potentially useful information but as they appear to be not entirely truthful their evidence may be less helpful than Commissioner Forster might have hoped. It does however seem likely that the maid’s story of a mysterious stranger may well be true. There is also the curious matter of Robert von Helldorf’s car which was seen leaving the castle around the time of one of the deaths although both von Helldorf and his chauffeur are adamant that the car never left the garage.

It becomes obvious that a solution can only be found if someone else will volunteer to spend the night in the Blue Room and this plan certainly brings results.

William Hurlbut’s script provides a plot that is serviceable enough with several red herrings and an exciting climax in the bowels of the castle. Kurt Neumann was a solid journeyman director and is able to extract the right amount of suspense from the story.

The setting is rather puzzling. Castle Helldorf looks like the sort of castle that suggests a central European locale and the fact that it belongs to a family with a name like von Helldorf strengthens that suspicion. The trouble is that the supporting players are much too obviously American and having a newspaper reporter a a major character suggests an American setting. In fact one gets the impression that no-one involved in the making of the film was quite sure whether Castle Helldorf should be a genuine central European castle or whether it should be a sham castle somewhere in the US.

Lionel Atwill gives what is by his standards a restrained but nonetheless effective performance without any trace of hamminess. Paul Lukacs does a fine job as Captain Brink although his performance suggests that he at least was quite certain that he was playing a central European military officer. Gloria Stuart, who appeared in a number of classic Universal horror and science fiction movies, is an effective and engaging heroine. Edward Arnold is very good also. All in all it’s a pretty strong cast. 

While the content of the movie places it in the mystery rather than the horror genre it is a Universal movie and it has much of the atmosphere of the classic Universal horror films, especially the scenes towards the end in the passageways beneath the castle.

This was a very low-budget movie even by Universal’s standards but one thing you have to say for Universal - they could make a cheap movie of this type look pretty impressive. 

One huge plus is the almost complete absence of the comic relief that is such an irritating feature of so many Hollywood genre movies of this period.

The made-on-demand DVD from the Universal Vault series is barebones but the transfer is a good one.

Unexplained deaths, a haunted room, a mysterious stranger, links to evil events in the past, secret passageways, dark secrets - all the ingredients are there to make a fine Old Dark House movie and in this case those ingredients are blended together with skill and assurance. The result is a very entertaining movie. Plus it has Lionel Atwill! Highly recommended.

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