Francis X. Bushman, Jr. discovers that he has a rich uncle—a dead rich uncle—and heads to the family mansion in the Florida Everglades to claim his inheritance. Naturally, there are various suspicious looking characters hanging about, along with things that go bump in the night…
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Motive, motive, who’s got the motive?
Old Dark House movies had been around for as long as motion pictures had existed but there was a real boom in the mid-1920s when popular stage properties like The Monster and The Bat finally made it to the big screen. (Both under the direction of Roland West.) And, as is typical of any era, low budget versions of these more expensive pictures cropped up to take advantage of the hype.
Midnight Faces has everything you would expect from an Old Dark House mystery: secret passages, an inherited fortune, lots of secrets, sinister house guests and staff, the works. It is also interesting because it stars Ralph Bushman, who changed his name to Francis X. Bushman, Jr.
Bushman, if you will recall, left his first wife and five children for his co-star, Beverly Bayne, and his career suffered mightily as a result. He had a comeback chance with Ben-Hur but some rather unprofessional on-set behavior earned him another time out. And, obviously, having an adult son in the movies didn’t exactly make him look like a spring chicken. (In all fairness, Bushman had been a young father and was only twenty years older than his son.) But, really, this was his dishwashing liquid and he deserved to soak in it.
(By the way, Bushman’s fall from grace is sometimes framed as “When the public found out their idol was married with children, they felt their fantasy was betrayed and their collective crushes were shattered.” No. It was the leaving of that family that caused the public relations pickle.)
The junior Bushman plays Lynn Claymore, a young fellow who has traveled down to Florida in order to collect the inheritance left to him by his rich uncle Peter Marlin. He never even knew he had an uncle named Peter Marlin but with this much money and a mansion in the bargain, he’s willing to accept that maybe his parents just forgot to mention the dear old man to him.
Claymore is accompanied by his attorney, Richard Mason (future B-western star Jack Perrin) and his valet, Trohelius (Martin Turner). The mansion is staffed by paraplegic longtime servant Samuel Lund (Charles Belcher), Otis the butler (Al Hallette) and the housekeeper, Mrs. Hart (Nora Cecil).
Meanwhile, a mysterious young woman named Mary (Kathryn McGuire) and a Chinese man named Suie Chang (Edward Peil Sr.) also show up at the house for reasons known only to them. And who is that strange, shadowy figure who knocks on the walls in the dead of night…
This is a fairly short feature, just five reels, and not exactly the most complicated plot in the world but… Fortunately for Midnight Faces, I watched it after I saw One Exciting Night. That latter film was so clunky, so dull, so lacking in any genuine thrills or mystery that Midnight Faces could not help but benefit from the comparison.
The picture hits the ground running, immediately tossing the hero into the Old Dark House scenario. There’s a reasonably large cast of sinister characters, lots of sneaking around under the cover of darkness and a lurking figure ready to snatch unsuspecting victims. None of it is particularly original but it’s all true to the film’s stated genre. In short, it does what it says it will do on the tin.
The acting is okay. Junior is not as hammy as his father but he also lacks the strong screen presence that was the secret to the Bushman fame. In my opinion, Jack Perrin deserves the MVP for this film because he does some very nice work in Certain Scenes That Cannot Be Described Lest They Spoil the Surprise Ending. And because some fool thought that having a terrified black character was an essential component of the Old Dark House genre, Trohelius spends the picture running to and fro in a blind panic.
I feel like this aspect of the film is something of a monkey’s paw: I was annoyed by the blackface and racism in One Exciting Night and there isn’t blackface in this picture but there is yellowface and such thigh slapping scenes as Trohelius crawling through the room because he doesn’t want to be killed by whatever is lurking through the house. Sigh.
So, obviously, this is not a perfect film and I am afraid that I can’t really remark on the cinematography because all the available prints are smeary and difficult to see. Still, things do seem to be somewhat dark and moody with intimidating shadows and whatnot. I mean, the film was obviously shot on a shoestring with a budget of six cents and a stick of gum so any attempt to create a mood should be praised. (The studio was called, I kid you not, Goodwill. If you’re not an American, Goodwill is a chain of thrift stores.)
I watch and read a lot of mysteries and assuming that the storyteller plays fair, I generally can guess the culprit pretty early in the game. While I don’t always hold it against a mystery if I guess whodunnit, I do give extra points if it manages to misdirect me in any way. (I make an exception if I can guess the plot twists too early. I once read a mystery in which I guessed whodunnit ON THE FIRST PAGE. Please, do not insult my intelligence.)
Spoilers from here on: I suppose Midnight Faces gets half a point: I immediately guessed that the ringleader was Lund because of his use of a wheelchair. You see, murder mystery pictures make up kind of a cinematic Court of Miracles: the blind see, the deaf hear and the one guy who could not possibly get up to perform the killing is the likeliest suspect of all.
However, the entire staff and the attorney being in on the scheme was relatively unexpected, as was Mason’s gesture of offering to testify against his partners in crime, so that’s where I award my half-point.
Midnight Faces is absolutely not a masterpiece but the filmmakers display basic knowledge of the genre and the cast is game. It’s entertaining enough, especially if you are already a fan of the Old Dark House mystery picture. I was entertained, I can’t complain.
Where can I see it?
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I hadn’t heard from you for a while, Fritzi, and was getting worried. I hope you are keeping well.
I had a bit of a medical emergency. My hemoglobin plummeted and I needed immediate treatment.
I couldn’t get the Comments box to open on my cellphone, but it works on my tablet. Just wanted to add my good wishes for your health – we really miss you when you’re offline!
Great review, and good to hear you are okay!
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