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Double Door  /  Supernatural

Supernatural (1933)
March 30, 2013 - 7:30 pm
Scott MacQueen, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Preservation funded by The Packard Humanities Institute

Double Door  (1934)

“..this picture evolves as one of the dramatic smashes of the year.” — Billboard

Directed by Charles Vidor

Protests from the playwright and producers notwithstanding, New Yorkers who flocked in the fall of 1933 to see Elizabeth McFadden's play Double Door knew it was inspired by the Wendel family of Manhattan, a Gilded Age dynasty of fabulously wealthy eccentrics. What could be more gothic than seven sisters sequestered in a gloomy mansion, tainted by madness, forbidden to marry, presided over by an avaricious brother? As the 19th-century mansions along Fifth Avenue fell before the booming commerce of the 20th-century, the Wendels became the stuff of New York legend. By 1914 their mansion stood a solitary sentinel against the hue and cry of the emergent commercial district, staring unblinking at the Lord & Taylor department store across the street at Fifth Avenue and 39th Street. When the last of the line, Ella, died in 1931 at age 78, New York gasped: she had left $100 million, it was reported, and no heirs.

Double Door is a dark riff on this legend, compressed into a three-act melodrama. The scion became a tyrannical spinster, holding in thrall a neurotic sister and a demoralized kid brother. When the brother makes a bid for sanity and freedom and takes a bride, the wheels of madness begin to turn.

Paramount brought Anne Revere and Mary Morris directly from the stage to recreate their roles as the emotionally battered Caroline and the dominatrix Victoria. The film is an absolute triumph for Morris (only 39 years old, she credibly plays two decades older), whose only film this was. Revere would split her time between stage and pictures, receiving three Oscar nominations and one win. The ingénue Evelyn Venable, as the butterfly caught in Victoria's web, retired from films in 1943 and forged a second career as a classics professor at UCLA.

Double Door is the best kind of filmed stage play, with a strong script and a director who respects his actors. Director Charles Vidor imposes film technique judiciously to punctuate a key revelation with a camera move, an unexpected angle or a lighting shift. One of these is a meticulously plotted in-camera effect breathtaking in its subtlety.          

Double Door was a template for the Gaslight school of cat-and-mouse thrillers that would proliferate on the New York and London stage over the next forty years, terrain that director Vidor would embrace again with Ladies in Retirement (1941).

Scott MacQueen

Paramount Productions, Inc. Producer: E. Lloyd Sheldon. Screenwriters: Gladys Lehman and Jack Cunningham. Based on the play by: Elizabeth A. McFadden, suggested by Hermine Klepac. Cinematographer: Harry Fischbeck. Editor: James Smith. With: Evelyn Venable, Mary Morris, Anne Revere, Kent Taylor, Sir Guy Standing.

35mm, b/w, 75 min.

Preserved in conjunction with Universal Pictures from the 35mm nitrate studio composite answer print. Laboratory services by The Stanford Theatre Film Laboratory, Audio Mechanics, DJ Audio, Simon Daniel Sound. Special thanks to Bob O’Neil. 

Preservation funded by The Packard Humanities Institute

Supernatural  (1933)

Directed by
Victor Halperin

On the strength of their independent horror film White Zombie, a freak success in 1932, Victor and Edward Halperin landed at Paramount on a one-picture deal. For the only time in their careers the Halperins worked at a major studio with access to first-rate production facilities, competent supporting players and a major star in Carole Lombard. The result is a disturbing programme picture that reprises the dual performance that had just won Fredric March an Academy Award for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and the exposé of spiritualism that Paramount explored in Darkened Rooms (1929). But while the spiritualist in Supernatural is a fraud, its spirits are genuine and not gangsters in bed sheets, nor the whimsical dear departed à la Thorne Smith.

Supernatural has been overshadowed by the goofy high school pageant that is White Zombie, lacking its predecessor's fairy tale poetics and bursts of Lugosiana. White Zombie may be maddeningly amateurish with a reach far exceeding its grasp, but it resonated with audiences then and continues to radiate a cultural half-life today. Smarter and better made, Supernatural was not a success and has been largely forgotten. For modern critics the operetta revenants of White Zombie reflect the army of forgotten men milling on the breadlines of the Great Depression; the social subtext of Supernatural (which opened a month after Roosevelt's 1933 bank holiday) needs no critical studies interpretation. Its malevolent ghost and trickster are denizens of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, trekking uptown to work their wickedness in plain sight among the Yacht Club and Polo Pony set.

Carole Lombard is said to have despised being assigned the movie, making the vitality of her essay in demonic possession all the more impressive as she channels the brassy hysteria of Vivienne Osborne's doomed-to-die murderess, seen indelibly in the first reel. Arthur Martinelli's constantly roving camera, punctuated with unexpected lightning set-ups, is complemented by the uncredited music by Karl Hajos and Milan Roder. It is among the first original dramatic scores of the 1930s (and includes a brief but surprising quotation from Bruckner's Symphony No.3).

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Supernatural is its depiction of characters who laugh in the face of death, a risus sardonicusthat occurs three times in the course of the story before its apotheosis at the climax.

Scott MacQueen

A Victor and Edward Halperin Production/ Paramount Productions, Inc. Producer: Edward Halperin. Story and Adaptation: Garnett Weston. Screenwriters: Harvey Thew and Brian Marlow. Based on a story by Garnett Weston. Cinematographer: Arthur Martinelli. Editor: James Smith. With: Carole Lombard, Allan Dinehart, Vivienne Osborne, Randolph Scott, H.B. Warner.

35mm, b/w, 65 min.

Preserved in conjunction with Universal Pictures from a 35mm composite nitrate print and 35mm acetate fine grain master. Laboratory services by The Stanford Theatre Film Laboratory, Audio Mechanics, DJ Audio, Simon Daniel Sound. Special thanks to Bob O’Neil.