Well, thanks to Warner Archive, you can watch three adaptations of Seven Keys to Baldpate in one set, making movie lovers as lucky as drawing 21. The MOD DVD purveyor’s new two-disc set contains a trio of RKO’s versions of the 1913 Earl Derr Biggers novel: from 1929, 1935 and 1947. Doing so was a wise move on Warner Archive’s part, as the pictures are not that different from one another, right down to a supporting character’s hatred of the opposite sex: “Women: Phooey!”
In all, a mystery writer named Magee, eager to complete his latest work under duress of a financial wager, travels to the quaint and currently abandoned Baldpate Inn to do so. (“All the swells go there!” our hero is told in the opening of the ’35 version.) Instead of giving him the solitude he so seeks, the precious few other characters grant him more fodder, blurring the line between his fact and fiction.
Near the close of the 1947 flick, Phillip Terry’s Magee sums it up best: “It’ll be the background for my next novel — a novel of mystery and murder, an old house with ghosts and secret passages and … and dead bodies in closets.” Indeed, these elements are intact, plus the expected creaking doors, stormy nights, fatal gunshots and screams of terror from Mary, Magee’s romantic interest (in the case of Terry, that’s the radiant Jacqueline White).
I appreciated all three Baldpate films — each fine, each delightful, each little more than an untaxing hour — but found them to increase in quality, good-natured humor and an all-around general polish with each passing decade. The story by Biggers (creator of Charlie Chan) is so sturdy, Hollywood could have kept remaking the murder mystery to grand effect. (Instead, we’re apt to find it staged by local theater companies.) In my book, such old-school thrillers of high concept never truly go out of style. —Rod Lott