Laughs and chills -- chuckles and thrills all in the same breath -- a mystery melodrama that will keep you guessing -- a love story that will hold your sympathy -- a plot that reaches an unexpected climax -- unusual entertainment.
'13 Washington Square' is a real address in a very prestigious residential neighbourhood of New York City, so I'm surprised to see it as the title of a fictional film. (Henry James's novel 'Washington Square' didn't cite a specific address in its title.) The choice of the number 13 in this fictional address is even more surprising, as that triskaidecimal number is usually reserved for horror films and spooky subjects (such as Lon Chaney Jnr's abortive TV series '13 Demon Street'). '13 Washington Square' makes sporadic attempts to evoke a spooky-old-house atmosphere, but this isn't really a suspense film (and certainly not a horror film), so the '13' in the title - and the occasional attempts at emulating 'The Cat and the Canary' - are really very misleading, with no value even as red herrings.
Character actor Jean Hersholt was famously one of the most kind-hearted and public-spirited figures in Hollywood, for whom the Humanitarian Award is named. Ironically, this warm-hearted man was usually cast in heartless villain roles, until late in his career when he gained fame (on radio and in low-budget movies) as the wise and helpful Doctor Christian. A similar career arc befell Basil Rathbone, who spent most of his career playing villains until he gained fame (on radio and in some mostly low-budget movies) as the wise and helpful Sherlock Holmes.
In '13 Washington Square', as a slight change of pace, Hersholt plays a villain who is at least outwardly a virtuous man. 'Deacon' Pyecroft wears the clerical dog-collar and mild demeanour of a meek clergyman, but the truth about Pyecroft is that he's a confidence trickster and jewel-thief. (The gimmick of crook-as-priest was done better in several better movies ... in fact, Hersholt had just played a nearly identical role a few months earlier, in 'Alias the Deacon', which is a far better movie than this.) Pyecroft has set his biretta (wrong religion!) for the jewels of Mrs De Peyster, a wealthy socialite who lives at 13 Washington Square, but who conveniently has just boarded an ocean liner bound for Europe. (Leaving her jewels home, apparently.)
Not only is Pyecroft a con artist and a yeggman, but he's also a cat burglar. This is a case of over-yegging the pudding, because the plot line calls for Pyecroft to break into houses by climbing in through upstairs windows. We see some unconvincing footage of an agile stuntman doubling for the very unathletic Jean Hersholt when Pyecroft lets himself into the De Peyster digs. Don't mind me, scriptwriter, but wouldn't Pyecroft's cat-burglar antics contradict his 'deacon' disguise? Anyone who sees a 'priest' climbing in through the upstairs window is going to be suspicious...
Mrs De Peyster (no first name in the intertitles) is about to set sail for Europe when she receives a radio cablegram informing her that her respectable son Jack is about to marry prole shopgirl Mary Morgan. Shock! Horror! She disembarks at once and heads homewards, determined to break up the engagement. Meanwhile, in Washington Square, Jack and Mary need a clergyman to perform the service... when Pyecroft conveniently shows up in his deacon disguise. Various objects (including the De Peyster jewellery and the marriage licence) go missing, only to turn up in the wrong place.
This movie's multiple subplots never gel. The film is basically a farce, with some 'suspense' sequences that aren't suspenseful enough. ZaSu Pitts, a performer whom I find extremely wearying in large doses, does her usual flutterbudget routine here as the De Peysters' housekeeper, and she's lumbered with some very implausible dialogue in the title cards. She speaks several 'funny' lines that aren't funny at all, but which are genuinely painful to read on screen. Lots of doors slamming, shadows creeping down obliquely-lit hallways, hands reaching through doorways. Not so much Scooby-Doo as Scooby-Don't.
The photography, editing and art direction are quite impressive, but they seem to be trying to convince us that this is a horror movie. '13 Washington Square' straddles several genres without really belonging to any of them: it comes nearer to being a comedy than anything else, but several sequences are laughable for the wrong reasons. I'll rate this mess 2 points out of 10.
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