Seven Keys to Baldpate (1929) ***
It’s rare enough for me to encounter an antique comedy that strikes me as funny in any way. To find one that is sustainedly funny, that never resorts to slapstick except in one scene where it really is essential to the plot… Well, that’s just about unheard of. But this first talkie version of Seven Keys to Baldpate meets precisely that description. Originally a novel by Charlie Chan creator Earl Derr Biggers and adapted for the stage by George M. Cohan circa 1916, Seven Keys to Baldpate was one of the more popular and successful of the early spooky house mysteries. It was filmed three times during the silent era (in 1916, 1917, and 1925), and would be remade thrice more before audiences finally got sick of it— there was even a version made for British television in 1946. And perhaps because the source material was one of the earliest examples of the form, the 1929 version at least is a strikingly independent-minded picture, straying far from the usual genre formula even as it gives a nod to many of the standard commonplaces. Most notably, there are no wills to be read here, the central crime is not murder for profit (although a murder is indeed committed before all is said and done), and the comic hero is not a cowardly, inept boob. In fact, William Halliwell Magee is easily the sharpest and most competent character in the story.
Magee (Richard Dix, from The Ghost Ship and Transatlantic Tunnel) is a successful writer of crime melodramas, apparently reputed as much for the speed with which he can crank the things out as he is for the quality of the finished product. One afternoon, he and his friend, Hal Bentley (Lost Jungle’s Crauford Kent, reprising the role he played in the 1925 Seven Keys to Baldpate), are hanging out together at their favorite New York club when the subject of Magee’s extraordinary writing speed comes up in conversation. Bentley bets the author $5000 (the stock market wouldn’t be crashing for another couple of months, you know) that he can’t come up with a novel in 24 hours, even in the most secluded spot on Earth. Magee would like to take him up on the wager, but he doesn’t see how they’re going to find a locale that offers such total insulation from the distractions of ordinary life. Bentley did not make his proposition idly, however. Among his real estate holdings is an upstate summer resort called Baldpate Inn, which is currently closed for the winter. During the off-season, nobody ever goes up to Baldpate except the caretaker and his wife; indeed, no one could get in without going through them, for there is but one key to the inn in existence. If Magee gets on the 4:55 train that evening, he could be at Baldpate by midnight. The writer thinks it over for a bit, and agrees to the wager. And while he tries to postpone the contest for a week after being introduced to some acquaintances of Bentley’s— Irene Rhodes (Nella Walker, from Daughter of the Dragon and The Ninth Guest) and, more to the point, her lovely young journalist friend, Mary Norton (Miriam Seegar)— Hal isn’t having it. William will just have to delay his skirt-chasing until after the challenge is completed.
Magee is met at the inn by Elijah Quimby, the caretaker (Harvey Clark), and his wife (Edith Yorke). The strange errand on which their employer has called them to Baldpate this night makes the old couple very suspicious of Magee, whom they figure for either a madman who is holding something over Bentley, or perhaps some sort of fugitive from the law. The Quimbies also freak out when the lights and telephone unexpectedly start working (Bentley having called both utilities to arrange their reactivation). Nevertheless, Quimby hands over the key to the building, mentioning as he does so some strange goings on that have transpired up at Baldpate in the not-so-distant past. Rumor has it that there is a fortune in bribe money hidden away somewhere within the old inn’s walls, the forgotten fruits of a thwarted caper involving certain corrupt local politicians. The inn is also reputed to be haunted, but Elijah contends that the so-called ghost is merely a hermit who has lived on the mountain ever since his wife ran away with a traveling salesman. Magee observes that a huge, deserted inn, a forbidding, stormy night, a phony ghost, and a tale of foiled political chicanery together should give him plenty of material for the crash-written novel he’s supposed to spend the next 24 hours composing.
Now despite Bentley’s assurances to Magee that there’s only one key to Baldpate, and that it’s the one he’s instructed Elijah to turn over upon the writer’s arrival, we already know from the title of this film that Hal has low-balled that figure by a good 84%. The second key to Baldpate comes to light when a gangster named Bland (Alan Roscoe) lets himself in and begins fiddling with the safe in the lobby while Magee is toiling away at his typewriter. Then he heads over to the phone (and while we’re on the subject of that telephone, watching 1929 telecommunications technology in action is certainly an eye-opening experience 70-odd years later) and places a call to somebody in town, assuring him that the money is in the agreed-upon place. Magee— who has been watching all this from the top of the stairs— confronts Bland, and eventually manages to lock him up in the writing room via a bit of sly trickery. No sooner has he asked the telephone operator to patch him through to the police, however, than somebody else begins scrabbling at the outside lock. Astonishingly, it’s Mary Norton and Irene Rhodes. They, too, have a key to the inn, and like both Magee and Bland, they had been informed that it was the only one out there. Mary is in the neighborhood on business, having heard tell of shady dealings in which Mayor Jim Cargan had been implicated. Since Irene is supposed to be marrying the mayor next Sunday, both women are eager to get to the bottom of the story, and hope to clear Cargan of any suspicion.
Then more people show up, each of them bearing a supposedly unique key. There’s Peters the hermit (Joseph Allen Sr.), of whom Magee has already heard; as advertised, he’s been using Baldpate as the base of operations for a bogus haunting for no easily intelligible reason. There’s Myra Thornhill (Margaret Livingston), who claims to be the wife of a railroad baron in danger of being framed for bribery and embezzlement by gangsters, but who is really one of the conniving criminals herself. There’s Mayor Cargan (DeWitt Jennings, of Seven Footprints to Satan and The Bat Whispers) and his trusted sidekick, Max (Joe Herbert). Cargan was the one to whom Bland was talking on the telephone, while Max is both Myra’s boyfriend and her partner in a parallel conspiracy. Finally, there’s Thomas Hayden (Lucien Littlefield, from One Frightened Night and The Cat and the Canary), Myra’s train tycoon. Most of these people are interested somehow in the $200,000 Bland deposited earlier in the Baldpate safe. To paraphrase Myra’s economical rundown (given after Magee has neutralized each of the successive intruders in turn), Hayden, working through Bland, intended to bribe Cargan so that his company would be given a lucrative transit concession in town, but the mayor was going to cross him as soon as the money was in his hands. Max would then double-cross Cargan, making off with the illicit funds rather than funneling them into the usual money-laundering channels. And Myra was going to triple-cross the lot of them, stealing the 200 grand from her boyfriend and leaving him in the lurch while she skipped town to a destination of her own. Magee thinks he has the situation under control now, but he is being woefully over-optimistic. While he calls Police Chief Kennedy (Carleton Macy, also reprising a performance from an earlier iteration of Seven Keys to Baldpate— the 1917 version this time) and sends Mary and Irene into town with the incriminating money, Cargan turns the tables on him and regains the advantage. Myra ends up dead, and the remaining crooks hatch a scheme to frame Magee for the murder. Consider this, however: there are still a couple of characters in this film who haven’t had a chance to betray anybody yet, and we’ve thus far seen only six of the promised seven keys.
I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see an old-fashioned comedic mystery in which the audience is not asked to root for an idiot. Even if the acting in Seven Keys to Baldpate were as bad as what one usually sees in first-generation talkies (which it isn’t); even if the storyline hadn’t an original element in its body (which it has); even if the humor didn’t derive from an astute skewering of spooky house mystery conventions rather than the usual screaming and running around (which it most assuredly does)— this movie would still have won me over simply by featuring as smart and resourceful a hero as William Magee. Richard Dix is very impressive in the role, too, combining a dapper nonchalance with an acid wit and underlying both with a hint of the same rigid resolve he would bring to the part of the psychotic sea captain in The Ghost Ship fourteen years later. It’s exactly the sort of actor-character combination I wished for in vain while sitting through Sh! The Octopus and The Gorilla, and I can only hope that somewhere out there, there are a few more forgotten movies that follow Seven Keys to Baldpate’s example.