Edward Wales’ (John Davidson) friend Spenser Lee has been murdered. Wales is determined to find out who did it. So far the police have not done as thorough a job as Wales believes they should have. He sneaks into Lee’s home to try to look for clues and is caught by Lee’s servant. The police are called. Wales tells them that he can find the woman who killed his friend. Since Lee was a dog there is no end to the suspects.
Sometime later Wales decides that in order to trap the killer he needs to do a séance and let Lee, from the other side, say who killed him. He shows up at a dinner party at the home of Sir Roscoe and Lady Crosby (Holmes Herbert and Mary Forbes). He has in tow a medium by the name of Madame Rosalie La Grange (Margaret Wycherly).
Altogether there are thirteen people sitting around in a circle. Most of them with good reason to want Mr. Lee gone. The additional participants are the Crosby’s son Richard (Conrad Nagel), his fiancée Nellie O’Neil (Leila Hyams), Mary Eastwood (Helene Millard), Dr. Philip Mason (Charles Quartermaine), Howard and Grace Standish (Bertram Johns and Gretchen Holland), Brandon and Helen Trent (Cyril Chadwick and Moon Carroll) and Professor Feringeea (Frank Leigh). During the séance the lights are turned off and Madam La Grange does her stuff. In the middle of asking Lee to name his killer Wales is stabbed and killed.
The police are called and Inspector Delzante (Bela Lugosi) shows up. Delzante hones in on Richard’s fiancé but when Madame La Grange turns out to be Nellie’s mother things take a turn. Madame La Grange pulls out all the stops and summons the spirits to prove her daughter’s innocence.
“The 13th Chair” was released in 1929 and was directed by Tod Browning. This was his first talkie. It was also Bela Lugosi’s first talkie as well and the first of three films he would do with Browning. His other Browning films were “Dracula” 1931 and “Mark of the Vampire” 1935.
It is the second of three adaptations of the 1916 play “The 13th Chair” by Bayard Veiller. An earlier version of the film, starring Creighton Hale, was made in 1919. The third adaptation was done in 1937 by MGM and entitled “The Thirteenth Chair”. For some reason a lot of movies done in the twenties were redone in the thirties.
The film got a lot of criticism for being drab, dull, static, stagey, bland, pick your adjective. Even “Dracula” was given similar attributes. Seems strange that, for a director with a big cult following, there would be so much conflict. I myself was pleased with the film. The mystery was enjoyable. I didn’t have a problem with the pacing. The acting was over dramatic but I chalked that up to the transition between silents and talkies. I liked it.
Plus, it has some historical significance as a lot of early talkies do. Where would we be if we couldn’t hear Bela Lugosi say “Good Evening”