Saturday, August 5, 1978: The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934) / Murder in the Blue Room (1941)

Synopsis: In pre-World War I France, Paul Verin is a writer for an obscure political journal who, despite his poverty, is satisfied with his life. His wife Adele (Joan Bennett) is the most important thing to him, and he greatly prizes his independence and his pacifist ideals.

He is approached by Henry Dumont (Lionel Atwill), an ambitious politician. Dumont tells Verin that he greatly admires his writing and his anti-war sentiments, and offers him a lucrative job as a speechwriter. Verin turns him down, fearful that such a move would compromise his integrity. But Adele confesses that she is weary of their poverty and wants to have a better life so that they can start a family. Wanting Adele to be happy, Verin takes the job.

At first, things go dizzyingly well for Verin: Dumont rises to prominence on the strength of Verin’s speeches, which excoriate the munitions manufacturers for egging the nation on from one war after another. People on the streets excitedly repeat the pacifist views that Verin is writing and Dumont is publicly proclaiming.

But while Verin is working overtime to craft speeches, Dumont’s convictions prove to be negotiable. Meeting with munitions manufacturers behind closed doors, he agrees to begin backing their causes. At the same time, he starts moving in on Adele, taking her to the opera and fancy dress parties.

The arms dealers cynically push France into the First World War, and the nation is caught up in war fever. Verin’s ideas become deeply unpopular, and while Dumont easily pivots to be a full-throated supporter of the war, Verin himself ends up serving on the front. But when he discovers that Dumont is preventing him from returning home to see Adele, he races back to Paris with nothing in his mind but revenge….

Comments: Released with little fanfare on Christmas Eve 1934, The Man Who Reclaimed His Head played to mostly empty theaters, and then disappeared for nearly four decades. It resurfaced as part of MCA’s 77 Horror Greats TV syndication package. 77 Horror Greats replaced the venerable Shock! and Son of Shock! packages in 1972, when Screen Gems’ 15-year rights to the titles lapsed.

The Man Who Reclaimed His Head‘s bizarre title, the presence of Claude Rains and Lionel Atwill and the fact that it was released by Universal during its fabled Golden Age apparently led many youngsters weaned on Famous Monster of Filmland to conclude that this was a lost horror classic.

It wasn’t, but it’s not the viewers’ fault for thinking so. Even the Rialto, the New York cinema famous for catering to the weirdos who like horror films, tried to trick customers into thinking that The Man Who Reclaimed His Head was another horror shocker from Universal:

In fact, the only horror element in the film is contained in the framing device: in the first scene Verin arrives at the house of a childhood friend who is now a prominent lawyer. He begs his friend for an opportunity to tell his tale. He carries with him a suspicious-looking satchel; and the end of the movie we learn it contains the head of his erstwhile employer. The 1944 Inner Sanctum programmer Strange Confession clearly borrowed this device, as well as much of the plot: in that film, Lon Chaney, Jr. plays a brilliant but impoverished chemist, rather than a brilliant but impoverished writer, but everything proceeds in the same way, including the boss (played here by J. Carroll Naish) taking credit for the guy’s work and seducing his wife, only to end up with his head in a bag.

But in the main this is an anti-war melodrama that featured as its main villain not only the oily Dumont but the faceless munitions companies that incite war in order to line their collective pockets. It’s an idea that also came up in The Great Impersonation the following year, and seems to have been a popular sentiment in the aftermath of the ruinous First World War. This film takes it a step further and strongly implies that the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was engineered by war profiteers in order to spark a European conflict. It’s a rather simplistic point of view, but the 1930s was a time of intense anti-war sentiment, and it isn’t surprising to find it reflected in movies of the time. While antisemitism is often found at the root of these sorts of conspiracies, it doesn’t seem to be signaled here, at least in any way that modern viewers might recognize.

The Man Who Reclaimed His Head never got a home video release that I’m aware of, and it’s incredibly difficult to find. While the plot is rather perfunctory and relies on too many improbable coincidences, it does feature a very good performance from Claude Rains as Verin, and while Lionel Atwill’s turn is a bit plummy it’s a real pleasure to see the two working together. Joan Bennett brings a genuine brightness to the role of Adele, and director Edward Ludwig does a solid if unspectacular job in keeping the proceedings moving along.

Murder in the Blue Room

Synopsis: Linda and Frank Baldrich are throwing a party at their mansion out in the country. 20 years earlier Linda’s first husband, Sam Kirkland, died in the mysterious “Blue Room” of the house. The death was ruled a suicide, and the room has been locked and abandoned ever since.

The house has a reputation for being haunted, but that doesn’t detract from the celebration. The party is in full swing: attendees include Linda’s daughter Nan (Anne Gwynne), who has recently returned from time spent singing on the vaudeville circuit; Larry Dearden (Bill Williams), a family friend who’s long nursed a crush on Nan; Steve Randall (Donald Cook), a mystery writer invited to the party by Nan; and Dr. Harry Carroll, longtime family friend and physician.

For entertainment, Nell has booked the Three Jazzybelles (Grace McDonald, Betty Kean and June Preisser), a wisecracking singing trio, and we learn they are friends of Nan’s from her time as a vaudevillian.

Larry half-jokingly tells Nan that he plans to propose to her tonight and she laughs it off, then introduces him to Steve Randall. Larry is jealous but is intercepted by Dr. Carroll, who pulls him aside and tells him he has important news that will explain why he can never marry Nan.

The Jazzybelles are a hit, and when Frank comments on how talented they are, Nan suggests that he book them in the chain of theaters he owns. Realizing that Nan invited the girls to the party for just this purpose, Frank gives the trio his card and promises them a booking. Delighted, the girls return to the city.

That night, Larry insists on sleeping in the Blue Room. The next morning, someone from the Blue Room buzzes the kitchen, but when Edwards the butler goes to the room, he finds the door locked and no one answering the door.

Frank, Dr. Carroll and Steve force the door and find there’s no one in the room, but that the windows are wide open.

The police are called, and the JazzyBelles are brought back to the house as suspects. There are many strange goings-on in the house: a piano plays by itself, and the three singers see a ghost walking around the grounds. They decide to stay up all night by drinking coffee, but someone puts sleeping pills in the coffee pot and they end up falling asleep. Steve insists on sleeping in the Blue Room himself, but the next morning he is gone, replaced by the body of Larry, who has been shot to death. But by whom?

Comments: This is the third remake of the 1932 German film Geheiminis des Blauen Zimmers, all of which we’ve seen on Horror Incorporated (the others are 1933’s Secret of the Blue Room and 1938’s The Missing Guest). Unlike the other versions of the Blue Room chestnut this is an extremely light confection, clocking in at exactly one hour, and even that brief running time is padded with a few musical numbers.

At the center is a trio of wisecracking vaudevillians, the Three Jazzybelles. Their boogie-woogie stylings are charming enough if you’re in the right frame of mind, but their banter is strictly of the corn-pone variety:

Peggy

Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a little trip to the cellar!

Betty

I don’t have to tell you — my knees are beating it out in Morse code!

Apparently written as a vehicle for the Ritz Brothers, it works pretty well as a showcase for the Jazzybelles, who seem to have been assembled just for this picture; they don’t appear to have done anything before or since. Forced to become amateur sleuths in order to clear their names (implausibly, the cops suspect them in Larry’s disappearance) they creep around the old dark house and crack wise, and when things threaten to get too dark they do a quick musical number and everything’s okay again. A real ghost shows up now and again, perhaps to mitigate the disappointment at the explained-away ending, and as you might expect it’s strictly there for comic relief, asking the girls for a light and directions to the local cemetery.

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