The Charlatan (1929) A Silent Film Review

Holmes Herbert stars as Count Merlin, a faux-mystic with a painful past. His wife left him for another man and took their daughter with her. Now, decades later, he has caught up with her. When the unfaithful wife turns up dead, Merlin is the prime suspect. He must use his gifts of disguise and deception to clear his name.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Poof! It’s murder!

By 1929, most of Hollywood had lost interest in silent films. Talkies were the order of the day. This is a shame since many of the late-twenties releases were cinematic treats that got lost in the shuffle of sound conversion. (Note that, like many late silents, The Charlatan was also released as a part-talkie but the sound sequences do not survive.)

The Charlatan is a good example of what I mean. With no big stars, big set pieces or on-set gossip to speak of, it has been forgotten even by film buffs. I purchased the DVD on a whim and was pleasantly surprised. What I expected was a so-so Old Dark House film. What I got was a well-acted murder mystery clearly inspired by Agatha Christie.

Holmes Herbert (usually remembered for being on the receiving end of Pola Negri’s whip in A Woman of the World) stars as Merlin, trendy mystic to society ladies. His trickery and showmanship are all aimed at one purpose: to track down the woman who left him years ago. Before he was a mystic, Merlin was Peter Dwight. He knew his wife, Florence (Margaret Livingston), was cheating but when she took their daughter along with her, it was too much. He has spent over a decade tracking her down and now he has found her at last.

Count Merlin finally catches up with his cheating wife.
Count Merlin finally catches up with his cheating wife.

Merlin just wants one thing: his daughter back. Ann (Dorothy Gould) is now a teenager and believes her step-father is her real dad. Merlin plans to use blackmail to force Florence to cooperate. He knows that she is having an affair with her doctor. Dr. Paynter (Philo McCullough) thinks he is fooling everyone but his wife (Anita Garvin, who famously played Stan Laurel’s shotgun-wielding wife in the hilarious classic Blotto) has her suspicions. Florence’s new husband, Richard Talbot (Rockcliffe Fellowes) seems completely clueless about the affair.

At Ann’s urging, Mr. Talbot invites Count Merlin to give a private performance in his home. The atmosphere is positively drowning in foreboding. That evening, Florence is chosen as the lovely assistant for a disappearing lady trick. She reappears sure enough. Just not alive. A poisoned needle is to blame and Merlin finds himself to be the prime suspect. Means, opportunity, motive… Of course, we mystery fans know that the sure suspect is rarely the culprit but the police have a different attitude. Merlin must clear his name before he is sent to the chair.

Richard Talbot (Rockcliffe Fellowes): Could he really be that clueless about his wife's affairs?
Richard Talbot (Rockcliffe Fellowes): Could he really be that clueless about his wife’s affairs?
Dr. Paynter (Philo McCullough): He would certainly know about poisons and didn’t he seem just a little reluctant to elope?
Dr. Paynter (Philo McCullough): He would certainly know about poisons and didn’t he seem just a little reluctant to elope?
Mrs. Paynter (Anita Garvin): She knows her husband is more than just a doctor to Florence. How much did she want to hold onto her man?
Mrs. Paynter (Anita Garvin): She knows her husband is more than just a doctor to Florence. How much did she want to hold onto her man?
Ann Talbot (Dorothy Gould): She has been listening in doorways and peering through keyholes. How much does she know about her mother’s past deeds?
Ann Talbot (Dorothy Gould): She has been listening in doorways and peering through keyholes. How much does she know about her mother’s past deeds?
Jerry Starke (Fred MacKaye): He’s in love with Ann. Did he kill to save her reputation?
Jerry Starke (Fred MacKaye): He’s in love with Ann. Did he kill to save her reputation?
Peter Dwight/Count Merlin (Holmes Herbert): He hated his ex-wife and she died in his disappearing lady box. Did he want revenge a little too much?
Peter Dwight/Count Merlin (Holmes Herbert): He hated his ex-wife and she died in his disappearing lady box. Did he want revenge a little too much?

With suspects in every corner and the clock ticking, Merlin has work to do! Fortunately, he has his assistants inside the house and his own gift of disguise to work with.

So, whodunit? You’ll just have to watch and see!

Based on a 1922 stage play of the same title, The Charlatan is a solid little mystery, certainly better than the more famous film, The Bat. While it makes no pretensions to great psychological insight or hidden motivations, it is a terrific mystery in the old fashioned style.

Will Merlin catch the murderer before he is arrested himself?
Will Merlin catch the murderer before he is arrested himself?

The audience is presented with the murder, the suspects and the circumstances. Then the guessing game begins. In our era of grisly crime scene investigations and serial killer of the week mystery shows, this is a breath of fresh air.

Everyone cast in the film knows their job and does it well, including director George Melford. Melford is most famous today for directing (rather clunkily, I might add) Valentino’s signature film The Sheik but his direction had matured considerable by the time he directedThe Charlatan. Unimpressive in The Sheik, Melford displays much more adept handling of both the stars and the camera.

The guest of honor at this murder mystery.
The guest of honor at this murder mystery.

The Charlatan is a forgotten treat. It is thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable. I highly recommend it for all silent film fans. Even casual viewers of silents will enjoy its accessible plot and delicious mystery.

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Where can I see it?

Grapevine Video has released The Charlatan on DVD.