Friday, May 08, 2009


Ambrose Applejohn (John Halliday) lives in his family's 100-year-old seaside mansion with his young ward Poppy, his aging Aunt Agatha, and his butler Lush; he has decided to put the big house up for sale because he's bored and, hoping for adventure, wants to see the world, which upsets his aunt ("An Applejohn wanting to see things," she cries in disbelief). One stormy night, a mysterious woman named Valeska comes rushing in and, in an outrageously artificial Russian accent, claims she needs help hiding from a burly pursuer who is after her jewels. Soon, a vaudeville mystic named Zoroaster and his female companion arrive, claiming their car has died. By the time the pursuing Russian brute arrives, it's clear that no one is quite what they seem. Sure enough, the strangers are two rival groups of burglars who are after a rumored treasure hidden somewhere in the house, and Ambrose winds up getting a solid dose of adventure without leaving his estate.

This early sound film suffers from some static direction and stilted performances early on, but eventually becomes a rather fun romp, given that it all rather stagily takes place on a handful of sets. Based on a play, it reminded me of another early talkie play adaptation, Seven Keys to Baldpate, also about a somewhat befuddled man, a big dark house, and a bunch of odd intruders, though the two films have very different endings (in Baldpate, the whole thing is a put-on; here, there is real skullduggery afoot). Supporting actor Halliday has a rare lead role here and he's fine, coming off at times like a B-movie John Barrymore. Mary Brian as the ward is unexceptional, but Kay Strozzi (pictured with Halliday) as the fake Russian temptress is quite good (she only made one other movie before leaving films). There is no musical score; instead, we constantly hear the sounds of thunder, wind, and rain in the background. The final chase is bizarrely rendered in slightly faster-than-normal motion, and there is a very amusing dream sequence in which Halliday imagines himself as a pirate. [TCM]

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