|Invitation to a Murder became the lurid thriller|
The Hidden Hand nearly ten years after it closed
For my first exploration into crime on the stage I chose Invitation to a Murder (1934), a little known melodrama by Rufus King, the mystery writer recently celebrated in grand style over at Curt Evan's blog The Passing Tramp (all the posts can be read in succession by clicking here) and on this blog by yours truly here. King had a minor success in theater with Murder at the Vanities, a musical murder mystery for which he wrote the book in collaboration with producer/director Earl Carroll, which ran for 207 performances and was later turned into a movie. A musical murder mystery was very unusual for the 1930s theater. One of the tunes in the show is called "Who Committed the Murder?" that gives the impression of a genuine detective story told through music but other songs, like "Virgins in Cellophane" and "Fans" both performed by the large number of women in the cast, make me think that the show was really about leggy dancers than solving the mystery of a dead chorus girl. In any case the success of Murder at the Vanities allowed King the chance to dabble in more theater and his next play, Invitation to a Murder, opened only two months after ...Vanities closed.
The play is a combination of melodrama, suspense thriller and mystery. Wisely King chose to veer away from the traditional whodunit in favor of a thriller with a plot which lets the audience in on various events other characters are unaware of. These kinds of crime dramas play much better on stage as they engage the audience, give the work immediacy, and have more at stake than the average whodunit which usually has its only real punch in the revelation of the killer just before the final curtain. There's a lot going on in Invitation to a Murder in its three acts, each one ending with a cliffhanging scene. Its clever multilayered structure can easily be seen as a forerunner to classic crime dramas like Wait Until Dark, Dial M for Murder and Deathtrap.
|Gale Sondergaard (the original Lorinda) won an|
Oscar for Anthony Adverse two years later
Inspired by the final scene in Romeo and Juliet she asks Dr. Linton to use a special drug he has acquired that will simulate her death. After explaining the bizarre family ritual having to do with a Channing ancestor's superstition of being buried alive she will be placed in an unsealed coffin for 24 hours in the family crypt. She is then to be released from her temporary resting site and the coffin sealed and buried empty. The family will think she is dead allowing her to spy on the survivors to see who among them is the greedy would-be thief. Linton has a secret in his past that Lorinda knows of and she uses this to pressure him into being her co-conspirator. The plan, however, backfires.
|Walter Abel (Dr. Linton) in|
The Lady Consents (1936)
|Bogart's publicity still for The Great O'Malley (1936)|
Lorinda is a killer part for any diva actress. As sleek and wicked as any femme fatale in a film noir piece. She's given the best dialogue, an opportunity to wear stunning gowns as described in the script, and two magnificent stage bits that would make for chilling scenes in live theater. I would have given anything to have been alive in 1934 to see Gale Sondergaard do the part. She must have been fabulously wicked in the role. Dr. Linton was played by versatile character actor Walter Abel who was the first talking D'Artagnan in the 1935 version of The Three Musketeers. Also in the cast was young Humphrey Bogart, already making a name for himself in supporting roles in the movies, playing the trenchant sophisticate Horatio Channing, a part that hints at the sinister tough guy movie roles that will be his trademark in the 1940s and 1950s.
|Milton Parsons is Lorinda's murderous accomplice|
in the 1942 film adaptation The Hidden Hand