I saw “The Spider” for the first time in 2006 at the Capitolfest film festival in Rome, NY and was immediately entranced. First off, even before any image flicked on the screen, it was an El Brendel picture I hadn’t seen before, so my excitement was high, but once I saw just the opening tiles and the first few minutes, I was blown away by what a 35mm print of an amazingly preserved film could ACTUALLY look like and it was a revelation. I really shouldn’t have been surprised as this movie was co-directed by one of Hollywood’s greatest set designers/art directors, William Cameron Menzies and featured the cinematography of the phenomenal James Wong Howe. The sets, the lighting, and the mood are all perfectly set in this 60-odd minute programmer.
The AFI film catalog gives us the story:
At the end of his magic show at the Tivoli theater, Chatrand the Great (Edmund Lowe) announces over a radio broadcast that he is trying to establish the identity of a victim of amnesia, his assistant who goes by the name of Alexander (Howard Phillips). Found unconscious with a head wound two years earlier in the streets of Washington, Alexander, now a mind reader in the act, cannot remember anything about his previous life.
Beverly Lane (Lois Moran), whose brother Paul disappeared two years earlier, listens intently to her radio, but her uncle, financier John Carrington (Earle Foxe), calls the announcement a cheap publicity stunt. When Beverly insists on going to the theater, Carrington accompanies her. Before his performance, Chatrand, upon seeing Beverly through the stage curtains, recognizes her from a picture in the locket Alexander carries. He has always wanted to meet the woman in the picture.
During the act, Chatrand blindfolds Alexander and has him describe objects belonging to members of the audience and answer their questions. When Chatrand asks Alexander to describe Beverly's locket, which is identical to Alexander's, Carrington protests and struggles with Chatrand.
Estelle (Manya Roberti), Chatrand's assistant, pulls a light switch. In the dark, a hand wearing a spider ring fires a gun, and Carrington falls. The police soon arrive and keep the audience from leaving, as a man from the audience, Dr. Blackstone (George E. Stone), attends to Carrington. After Inspector Riley (Purnell Pratt) finds a gun beside Alexander, who is unconscious, Chatrand removes Alexander's mask. Beverly then embraces him and identifies him as her lost brother.
Chatrand brings Alexander out of his trance, and upon seeing Beverly, Alexander exclaims, "He tried to kill me; I had to do it!" Treating this as a confession, Riley has Alexander and Beverly taken to the theater manager's office, while he keeps Chatrand under observation. Chatrand, however, escapes into a casket and then through a trap door.
Alexander tells Beverly that two years earlier Carrington attempted to steal all their money, and that when Carrington tried to kill him, he fell, precipitating his amnesia. Chatrand then finds out that Carrington had been receiving telephone calls from someone who lost a great deal of money to him. When Riley learns that Carrington has died, he arrests Alexander for first-degree murder.
Chatrand, however, convinces Riley to let him conduct a séance before the audience is allowed to leave to try to make the murderer betray himself. During the séance, as Chatrand's image appears before the audience, and Carrington, speaking through Chatrand, threatens to name his murderer, a shot breaks the mirror which is conveying the image. Chatrand next has Alexander, in the guise of a mind reader, attempt to "find" the mind of the murderer. After he reveals a number of dark secrets in the minds of some members of the audience, Alexander says that the murderer wears a spider ring, and he names the row in which the murderer is sitting.
As he is about to reveal the murderer's seat number, a shot rings out. Dr. Blackstone, who hysterically says that Carrington deserved death for ruining a savings bank and turning his family and thousands of others into paupers, is apprehended. Chatrand, who suffered a wound to his arm, is attended to by Beverly, who has grown fond of him.
The production was co-directed with Kenneth MacKenna, who was usually known as an actor (in fact, he appears unbilled as the ticket salesman at the beginning) but directed a half dozen films in the 30’s. The Menzies/MacKenna combo had already helmed another film at Fox that year, “Always Goodbye”, which starred Elissa Landi and Lewis Stone. MacKenna may also be remembered as one of the five husbands of actress Kay Francis.
The film also has a great supporting cast with El sharing the laughs with child actor Kendall McComas, who had his start in the Mickey Rooney starred “Mickey McGuire” series 2-reelers and later he would appear in a few of Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” shorts. Jesse De Vorska, another Roach veteran who was cast was as the theater manager, had appeared in a few Max Davidson comedies in the late 20’s, and those two would later go on to appear in El’s 1931 feature “Women of All Nations”. To round out the other notables, Ruth Donnelly played the snide and uptight Mrs. Wimbledon, Purnell Pratt and Ward Bond played what else…………cops, and perennial jackass, Warren Hymer, is featured as the patrolman that does and says EVERYTHING wrong.
The film is based on the stage play “The Spider” written by Fulton Oursler and Howell Brentano. At the time that the show was produced for Broadway in 1927, at least four separate lawsuits were brought against Mr. Oursler and Mr. Bretano saying their writing was plagiarized from earlier works concerning “a crime in a theater with the police conducting an investigation”. As of 1930, two of the lawsuits had been dismissed by a Federal Judge and the others had never come to trial, but that did not stop one case filed by Philip Hurn and Percy Morgan Jr. Their story, “The Evil Hour”, which they also felt was plagiarized, was tried all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and finally on April 17, 1933 the justices upheld the lower court decision “dismissing the complaint in so far as it alleged unfair practices and unfair competition, but ruled that it was wrong in dismissing the action for want of jurisdiction”.
The August 22, 1931 issue of Harrison’s Reports in their review of “The Spider” states that, “The plot has been based on the play “Midnight Cruise” by Albert E. Lewis, who is now scenario editor of Fox” so we can see where reports of this being the working title of the film originates from and as we can see from this ad, once the name was decided on , there was originally a totally different cast list and helm in the director’s chair:
The reviews were fairly positive, but certainly not enthusiastic for the film. The New York Times stated “(The Spider)… is an ingenious mystery picture than the average in its ability to keep the customers awake on a warm afternoon.” and Harrison’s Reports added that, “It has been directed well, but the money spent on it is altogether out of proportion to the merit of the plot itself.” The Los Angeles Times singled out the cinematographer for special merit, “The Spider” is a fairly well-knit film, aided by some splendid photography by the hard working James Howe, the Chinese cameraman, who has turned out so many fine pictures, photographically speaking.” But in the "Passing In Review" section of the September 26, 1931 issue of Motion Picture Herald was MUCH more direct, “it’s NOT a bad picture…as mystery pictures go…this one rates a good mark… but it’s not a “great” attraction.”
Thankfully, this is one film in the early 30’s Brendel cannon that is fairly easy to obtain. Although not a legitimate Fox release, Sinister Cinema has a copy mastered from a very nice 16mm print for us all to enjoy.