1 October 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Creaky talkie: squeaky, squawky
"The Terror", one of the very first all-talking pictures, was released without a film soundtrack. The dialogue and sound effects were recorded on a separate Vitaphone disc (a large 33.3rpm phonograph record). The cinema projectionist was supposed to start playing the record and the first reel of the (silent) film at the same time, hoping that the sound and the image stayed in synch through the successive reels.
I saw this movie in difficult circumstances. In the 1980s, I tracked down a copy of the Vitaphone disc (the sound without the images) in a film archive, and I was able to play back the disc with no expectation of ever seeing the> movie itself. About twenty years later, I located an incomplete nitrate print of the film (the images without the sound) in the possession of a private collector, who permitted me to screen it on a hand-cranked Movieola. So, I heard this film about 20 years before I saw it. Fortunately, I took notes when I audited the sound disc (and I'm familiar with the source material), so I've got a halfway-decent idea of how the sounds and the images would go together. Also, I've seen the 1938 remake, filmed in England... which is, frankly, a much better movie than this version.
"The Terror" was originally a stage play by the prolific English author Edgar Wallace. It's a spooky-old-house thriller, of the sort that was so popular in the 1920s. ("The Bat", "The Cat and the Canary", "The Gorilla", "The Last Warning", etc.) This Hollywood version retains the British references of the original play, but (confusingly) features a primarily American cast, most of whom make no attempt to impersonate English characters.
The Terror is a mysterious criminal who has committed many murders and thefts, always escaping: his true identity is unknown. Rumour has it that the Terror has been skulking in the vicinity of an old house, currently tenanted by Doctor Redmayne. As so often happens in this sort of play, Redmayne has summoned a motley collection of guests. Among them are Mrs Elvery (a self-described psychic) and Ferdy Fayne, an accident-prone simpleton. Also present are Joe and Soapy, a couple of convicts temporarily released from prison to help trap the Terror ... and Superintendent Hallick of Scotland Yard, who's here to keep an eye on Joe and Soapy. Obviously, SOMEONE present is the Terror in disguise ... ah, but who?
The actors who play the two criminals (Matthew Betz and Otto Hoffman) are excellent, although Hoffman has a suspiciously stage-trained voice for a guy who's playing a career criminal. Handsome John Miljan is good in a small role. SPOILERS COMING. Edward Everett Horton, as Ferdy Fayne, is excellent in a role that departs significantly from Horton's usual nervous-nelly routine. Fayne is rather dim-witted, until late in the film when Horton reveals that he's actually a detective working undercover to catch the Terror. At this point, a total change comes over Edward Everett Horton, and he suddenly becomes resolute and intelligent. I wish that Horton's long film career had given him more opportunities to play forthright roles like this.
The worst performance is given by the film's leading lady, May McAvoy, a silent-film ingenue whose voice was too weak for talkies. McAvoy swallows her words, mumbles, stammers, and lisps. She's very pretty, but her voice is terrible. As the damsel in distress, McAvoy has to scream several times in this film: the camera always cuts away from her at these moments, and the full-throated screams which result are clearly supplied by some other actress serving as a voice-double: the screams are much louder and clearer than any of the dialogue that McAvoy speaks in this film. There are some very unconvincing sound effects at inopportune moments.
To make this film "officially" a talkie, the credits are spoken by Conrad Nagel, appearing on screen in an opera cape and domino mask. Roy Del Ruth is an underrated director, but his work here is below his usual standard, probably due to the technical requirements: the camera barely moves, and there are long sequences without a cut.
"The Terror" is a stagebound story that should have remained on the stage. This film is interesting as a creaky curiosity, but its entertainment value is negligible. I'll rate it 2 points out of 10.