Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Back in the 1940s, if a neighborhood theater manager wanted to put fannies in the seats, he couldn't do better than Lady in the Death House. The title alone is rich with promise. But there's also that fabulous poster with the blood-red silhouette, the woman in the lower corner looking on disbelief and a tagline hyping a whole new genre: soap opera noir.

Then there are the opening credits -- the shadow of an electric chair, the title spelled out in letters resembling electricity. And the great Lionel Atwill in the lead! All of this is what B-movie fans salivate for. You could probably watch it in your head without ever actually having seen it. A couple of unexpected twists, along with a cast game for anything, ultimately made this PRC release worth the time it took to tell its strange, convoluted story. Maybe because it's only 55 minutes long.

A typically-subtle PRC touch.
Convict Mary Logan is finishing up a letter to criminologist Dr. Charles Finch before she walks the last mile. The warden obviously didn't get the memo about shaving prisoners' heads before they're electrocuted. Judging by her bouffant, this prison must have a Rodolfo Valentin outlet on the premises. My wife would gladly kill me for this kind of pampering.
Just as Mary's ready to take the hot squat, we flashforward to Dr. Finch talking to a gaggle of reporters at his apartment. That's a common thing in old movies -- newspaper reporters hanging around their subject's living room, partaking in his liquor and cigarettes, no sense of competition among them. Nobody's taking notes because their hands are filled with booze and smokes. It's a wonder that cities like New York could afford 12 daily newspapers. 

"At least we weren't smoking.
Mayor Bloomberg would kill us!"
Finch gives the lowdown on how Mary wound up in the death house. One evening, Finch was at his favorite restaurant, the Grotto. Or, actually, the only restaurant set PRC could afford.  He had struck up a conversation with Dr. Dwight Bradford when they were distracted by a typical accident you see when dining out: a woman's dress catching on fire thanks to a flambe knocked over by her drunken date. Bradford uses Finch's coat to put out the flames, because, well, who wants to ruin their own coat?

"But honey, I'll bring them back!"
As you might have guessed, this immediately leads to true love. Unfortunately, the only thing standing between the couple and the altar is Bradford's job: he's the executioner at the state prison. Not that he particularly enjoys it; it simply pays the bills while he's working on a formula to revive the dead. (That prison must execute a hell of a lot of people to finance a hobby like this.)  Here's the beauty part: Mary can't abide by his perfectly legitimate government job, yet has no trouble with him trying to bring corpses back to life. Dames!

"You look guilty. That's good enough for me!"
Mary has a secret of her own: she's being shaken down by Willis Millen, a former associate of her late father, a two-bit crook, in exchange for not telling her boss her real identity. Millen is found dead in her apartment; circumstantial evidence points to Mary being the killer. (As a cop on the scene says, "This isn't one of those cases that depends on clues." Just the guy you want in public service.) Finch isn't convinced, and starts his own

A crazy slut, at that.
Finch is suspicious of Mary's younger, sluttish sister Susie. ("Although emotionally unstable," Finch admits in hindsight, "she was not vicious." No, just a slut.) He knows Susie is hiding something, but can't get her to talk even when her sister is sentenced to the chair. And fulfilling the fantasies of every guy who's been dumped by a woman, Bradford is scheduled to pull the death switch on Mary. High-five!

Had the makers of Lady in the Death House continued on this path, news of Mary's innocence would have arrived seconds after she got fried. Bradford would then drag her back to the lab and pull a Dr. Frankenstein on her. Mary's eyes would have blinked open and next thing you know, it'd be honeymoon of the living dead. Although I'm not keen on happy endings for crime films, I'd have found that acceptable.

Prisons had really cool lighting in those days.
But that's not what the boys in re-write went for. Instead, Bradford chickens out and not only refuses to execute his ex-honey, but tries to prevent anyone else from doing it, too. Good thing, too, since Finch finds the real killer. Only the Governor has the power to cancel Mary's execution, but he's at a roadside diner with his driver. This being over a half-century before cell phones became pandemic, it's up to a radio announcer to order the Governor to call the prison before Mary becomes a human Reddy Kilowatt. 

All ends well. Mary moves to Chicago with Bradford, who gets a new job that doesn't involve killing innocent prisoners, freeing up his time to reanimate the dead. For some reason, this still doesn't seem strange to anyone concerned.

It's not just the plot of Lady in the Death House that gets you dizzy. It's constantly going back and forth in time, with opticals between scenes resembling a particularly hyper windshield wiper. Other times, the special effects department varies things a bit by wiping clockwise, then counterclockwise, often within the space of mere seconds. This is the earliest example of cinematic ADD I've ever seen. 

Low-budget movies like this, stuffed with no-name actors, give you a good idea of what "regular" people looked like then. Everybody, other than Lionel Atwill, looks just different enough to step in front of a camera, but not for an important production. They can memorize and recite their dialogue more or less convincingly. All the men wear pencil-thin mustaches, that apparently being the style of the day. And as for Jean Parker -- the woman who plays Mary Logan -- I recognized her from Laurel & Hardy's The Flying Deuces and nothing else. But when you're in a Laurel & Hardy movie, other credits are superfluous.

America's most debonair orgy-meister.

Lady in the Death House is a far cry from Lionel Atwill's glory days in movies like Murders at the Zoo where he sews shut the mouth of a romantic rival in the very first scene. But you'd never know it by watching him. As with other character actors of his time -- Henry Daniell and George Zucco, to name just two -- Atwill immediately elevates any movie he's in with his stage-trained polish, diction and charisma. He's a pro no matter how skimpy the budget or bizarre the script.

Atwill was once a reliable player in A-pictures -- the one-armed policeman in Son of Frankenstein, the not-so mad scientist in Dr. X among the best-remembered -- until a perjury conviction involving one of his legendary porn-fueled orgies made him actor-non-grata among the studio-head hypocrites who were guilty of far worse. 

Atwill spent his last years shuttling between low-rent jobs at Universal and PRC.  Always dependable for a good quote ("All women love the men they fear. All women kiss the hand that rules them"), he's kind of like Claude Rain's mysterious step-uncle. Perfectly civilized, a wonderful raconteur, but someone you wouldn't want to babysit your kids. 

But damn, could he throw a porn-fueled orgy. High-five!


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