23 September 2004 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
No mystery, and no logic, but lots of fun
My thanks to Robert Gitt, of the U.C.L.A. Film & Television Archives, who permitted me to see this film shortly after it was restored. 'The Second Floor Mystery' has an interesting pedigree. While this movie was in production, its two stars -- Loretta Young and Grant Withers -- eloped. Very soon afterward, Young (a strict Catholic), petitioned the church to have the marriage annulled. By that time another Young/Withers film was about to be released by Warners-First National. To cash in on the scandal, the new film's title was hastily changed to 'Too Young to Marry'.
The early Warners talkies were released without a soundtrack, using audio provided by a series of 16-inch phonograph discs (one per 12-minute reel of film). The projectionist in each cinema had to start a new record simultaneously with projecting each reel. As an experiment, 'The Second Floor Mystery' was released in a variation of this format: in 8-minute reels, with the soundtrack on 12-inch discs. This proved to be a bad idea, as the projectionists had to work harder with more discs and more reels of film. The audio of 'Second Floor' was lost for many years, and has only recently been united with a new 35mm print of this film, copied from a 16mm print that was made for television ... but never televised, as it had no soundtrack! The 16mm print was made with the wrong aperture plate, so the left-hand edge of the image was lost, and had to be recreated via computer software. This explains why, in the opening titles of the restored print, the capital T in the word 'THE' (at the left-hand edge of the screen) doesn't match the T in the word 'MYSTERY' (nearer the centre of the screen).
I expected this movie to be a mystery, because of its title and because it's based on material by Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan. 'The Second Floor Mystery' turns out to be a weird anecdote, more like 'Seven Footprints to Satan' or GK Chesterton's stories about the Club of Queer Trades. 'Second Floor' isn't remotely plausible, yet it has a fast-moving screwball charm that's enjoyable.
When I saw that this American film is set in London, I expected the title to refer to the wrong storey: in Britain, the second floor is TWO floors up (not one) from ground level. Amazingly, they got this right. But some other details are troubling: at one point, Withers speeds a car (with right-hand drive) through London, only to careen over a sand dune somewhere in the Home Provinces. (I defy anyone to find evidence of any sand dune anywhere in the Home Provinces within ten years of 1930.) Earlier in the film, Withers sees an advert in the London Times involving the 'phone number Central 2001. (That's an American 'phone exchange.) He walks into an American-style 'phone booth and asks the operator for Central 2200: a double error. Some of the insert shots of newspaper advertisements have been re-typeset (in the wrong font) for this restored print, due to that cock-up with the aperture plate.
Marion (Loretta Young) is visiting London with her aunt, where she begins a correspondence (via personal ads in the London Times) with Geoffrey (Grant Withers). This is the first movie I've ever seen with epistolary flashbacks. Geoffrey keeps writing letters to Marion, telling her tall stories about his involvement in a murder case, and then we see these incidents in flashback as Marion reads them. The last one features flashbacks within the flashback.
Don't try to figure out the story. Geoffrey and his upstairs neighbour live in flats, but the huge interior sets (with their high ceilings) look more like they were filmed inside mansions. Scotland Yard apparently keep a private dungeon at someplace called Leeds Hall, which is a castle bigger than the entire Tower of London complex. The movie's soundtrack features some incredibly unconvincing thunder. One exterior sequence during a rainstorm is heavily undercranked, so the rain falls much too quickly. Claude King's role in this film is even more contrived and confusing than the role he played in 'London After Midnight'.
This movie was directed by Roy Del Ruth, a severely underrated director whose career is long overdue for reappraisal. I was impressed with a couple of tracking camera shots, very rare for early sound films because of the unwieldy soundproof 'blimp' that had to surround the camera and its operators. 'The Second Floor Mystery' makes no sense at all, and has an (implausible) ending that worked better in 'Seven Footprints to Satan', but it's hugely enjoyable and is an interesting example of film-making from the early talkies era when the technical aspects were still being worked out. This film is hardly a classic, but I'm pleased to welcome it back from the lost, and I'll rate this movie 7 out of 10.