Sunday, October 21, 2012

STAGE BLOOD: Invitation to a Murder - Rufus King

Invitation to a Murder became the lurid thriller
The Hidden Hand nearly ten years after it closed

There have been a few recent posts on crime fiction blogs about crime in the theater and now I'm jumping on that bandwagon. As you might infer from the post title I'm also planning on making this "Stage Blood" talk a regular feature here at Pretty Sinister Books. Whether I actually attend a performance or only read the play I hope to add to the growing diversity on this blog which originally was begun to honor books and gradually included movies, TV and now theater.

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
Lorinda Channing is the imperious leading lady of the piece. She has converted the family fortune back into gold and hidden it on the estate. Someone in the family, she thinks, has been searching for it. By the end of the first scene we see how ruthless she can be when she accuses her gardener of blackmail and theft and sends him to a watery grave via a hidden trapdoor in the living room floor. No one will stop her from her plans to reveal who among her relatives is after her money. She joins forces with the easily tempted Dr. Linton and together they hatch an incredible plot.

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)
Linton at the last minute decides to seal the coffin and send Lorinda to a horrid death by suffocation when she regains consciousness in the crypt. He wants the money for himself. Several plot complications involving other spies and hidden witnesses implicate Linton though he does his best to escape detection. Chief among these spies is Walter, Lorinda's weak cousin always in need of money, and he attempts to blackmail Linton. To the surprise of the audience Lorinda appears again on stage and she goes about preparing yet another trap to get even with the double crossing doctor. She confronts Linton who is astonished by her escape from the coffin. Martin, the butler, then appears and reveals himself to be Lorinda's secret guard who witnessed Linton screwing down the coffin and the one who revived her and set her free. This scene is key to establishing Lorinda's plans to get even with her betrayer. When Walter enters the scene Lorinda shoots him knowing that Linton had previously handled the gun and then disappears leaving him to explain to the others what they will never believe -- that a dead woman murdered Walter.

Bogart's publicity still for The Great O'Malley (1936)
It's all a little too much, I know. But it works remarkably well. King has worked out everything so tightly. Once you accept the Channing superstitious fear of being buried alive and the odd ritual of leaving a dead Channing in an unsealed coffin to allay any fears of the dreaded premature burial then the rest of the play works. The scenes with Linton fervently denying his guilt and desperately trying to get anyone to believe him that Lorinda is still alive are tense and exciting. There is even a great bit when Estelle Channing, the ingenue, turns amateur sleuth to reveal Lorinda's fatal mistake proving she was alive at the time of Walter's murder. Typical of King he gives one of the best scenes in the play to his two strongest female characters. His detective novels are populated with women who are much more interesting and complex than the men.

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
Invitation to a Murder was adapted for the movies in 1942 several years after it had closed its run of only 53 performances on Broadway. The story was considerably rewritten and retitled The Hidden Hand. In its movie incarnation the story resembles more The Greene Murder Case with the Channing family being knocked off one by one by a homicidal maniac. The bit about the faked death and burial remained though this time it was a new character -- escaped lunatic John Channing -- whose death was faked and not Lorinda's. Strangely this theme was also lifted from the play and inserted in the film adaptation of King's novel Murder by the Clock which introduced Lt. Valcour to the 1930s mystery reading audience. Craig Stevens, famous as TV's Peter Gunn, played Peter Thorne who acts as the amateur sleuth rather than Estelle. Thorne does appear in the stage version but only as a very minor character. The rest of the cast is made up of minor actors who are unfamiliar to me. The Hidden Hand was shown in 2011 on TCM. The convoluted plot synopsis can be read here for those curious to know the differences between stage and screen versions.


  1. Yet to read a single word by Rufus King, for which i feel I should apologise because this all sounds like great fun - and yes, it would have been terrific to see la Sondergaard on stage in it. I have seen the pre-code movie of MURDER AT THE VANIETIES, which was certainly pretty racy. Thanks for the wonderful details John - this play probably isn't as easy to get as a Jonathan Craig Gold Medal book I bet ...

    1. Sheer luck that I found it. When looking for King books in our library this turned up in the CPL catalog. Amazingly, the play is STILL available through the Samuel French play service for performance. If I were still directing theater I'd definitely snap it up for a local production even if the set requires some complex stage mechanics.

      I have MURDER AT THE VANITIES in my Netflix queue and it should be turning up at my home later this month. I'd love to see THE HIDDEN HAND and MURDER BY THE CLOCK. ...HAND is available through and I may join just so I can see it.

  2. I ordered a copy of this through Samuel French about six weeks ago and have still not received it! Doesn't look good.

    Good review though!

  3. Interesting piece on the play, however the recounting of the plot of THE HIDDEN HAND somewhat goes off the rails. It is Lucinda who has her own death faked, not her brother John. She has John pretending to be her butler, having sent her real one off for a holiday. As in the play, it is John, acting as the butler, who gives Lucinda her injection.