In The Balcony

The Mystery of Marie Roget (1942) Dir. Phil Rosen
ITB Shock Theatre #100

Over on our Community Boards section, we've been watching and discussing every U.S. monster movie ever made as part of our In The Balcony salute to the classic TV Shock Theatre offerings, when old horror films were first available to frighten the bejeezers out of you right there in your own living room, oft-times with a funny and/or scary host like Ghoulardi, Roland, or the like to make the evening even more memorable. For our 100th such review, we thought we'd move the article to our main website home page for all to enjoy. So ENJOY already.

The real mystery has always been why The Mystery of Marie Roget is oft-overlooked in the listing of classic Universal horror films; it’s based on a title by Edgar Allan Poe, just like the studio’s previous hits Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), and The Black Cat again (1941). It features stars from such popular Universal chillers/adventure films as The Wolf Man, Cobra Woman, and Murder in the Blue Room. Director Phil Rosen is well-known for such Monogram favorites as Spooks Run Wild, Phantom of Chinatown, and Return of the Ape Man.

The Mystery of Marie Roget
also features the crypt set from the original Dracula and has mutilated corpses and a be-caped phantom lurking on the rooftops, which should be enough horror for anyone. Its most telling pedigree, however, is that it was included as part of the original 52-film Shock Theatre spook show films sold to television in 1957, right along with Dracula and Frankenstein. If it is monsterless, well, so are such accepted Universal horrors as Strange Case of Dr. Rx and Mad Doctor of Market Street, among many others. So, let’s officially® deem this one of the Universal Monster Movies (yes, In The Balcony has that sort of clout) and discuss how good it is.

Not very.

Well, let me qualify that: it doesn’t stink. But it’s no Bride of Frankenstein, either. Poe’s original long short story, written in 1842, is unusual for several reasons: it’s a sequel to his ratiocination story Murders in the Rue Morgue; it’s based on an actual, true, unsolved murder mystery that shocked and puzzled New York years earlier; and it’s not very good. Detective Dupin reflects on the case at great length, shoots down several theories, and offers his own solution. That’s it. No action, no narrative, no monkey stuffing corpses up the chimney. Universal took the bare outline of the story (something it didn’t do with its other Poe films) and fashioned a new tale, like the original set in France, although the usual generic European village set is used (and in fact, looks just as it did in Ghost of Frankenstein, made about the same time, and serving as this movie’s co-feature, which must have amused audiences).

Poe’s facts in the case: an attractive young woman vanishes for ten days and is presumed dead; she shows up alive and well, but later vanishes again, this time for good. When the decomposed body of a young woman is dragged from the Seine, it’s presumed to be her: ah, but is it? There’s your entire story, which is probably why this seems to be the one and only film adaptation of this work from the otherwise much-adapted Poe canon. Patrick Knowles is Dupin, which is part of the problem. A rather dull, colorless character, Knowles suffers in comparison with Basil Rathbone, who would soon begin a 12-film run for Universal as Sherlock Holmes, continuing the role he’d played at Fox in two films. How nondescript was Knowles? He was the second male lead in the first two Wolf Man movies, and played a different guy in each film, and nobody even cared (or, most likely, even noticed).

Anyway, the actual star of the picture is pudgy little Lloyd Corrigan as the Prefect of Police; sixth billed, and ostensibly Dupin’s Watson, he actually has more scenes and more lines, and his brash, blustering demeanor buries Knowles’ ennui, to the film’s detriment. He has good scenes with Maria Ouspenskaya, Marie’s grandmother, who detests him as much as we the audience do but who has the ability to tell him that. He’s really not somebody that can carry a horror film, though.

Maria Montez, about to become The Queen of Technicolor for Universal in such lush adventures as Arabian Nights and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, is Marie, and unlike her sister in the film (American accent), grandmother (Russian) and her dubbed singing voice (French) she speaks in her usual Dominican timbre. We get the entire Tower of Babel in one family abode!

Nell O’Day as the sister, Edward Norris as her fiancé, and Frank Reicher as a suspicious Roget family friend round out our cast.

The Mystery of Marie Roget (which was re-titled by Realart as The Phantom of Paris for its 1950s re-release) is now available from the Universal Vault series, and the print and transfer are top notch. It’s a must-see for Universal monster fans (now that the Balcony has officially dark-nighted it accordingly), and Poe fanatics and B-movie completists will enjoy it well enough, but it’s a minor entry in the 1940s horror/mystery cycle.


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