Release Date(s)1933 (November 2, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
As Universal’s trademark plane spanning the globe appears on screen and eerie strains of Swan Lake play on the soundtrack, the viewer seems set to enjoy a journey into one of the studio’s classic monster flicks. Released during Universal’s Golden Age of Horror, the film about to unfold has many of the genre’s trappings but is more an atmospheric whodunit.
The Secret of the Blue Room takes place at a dark, remote castle. The owner, Robert von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill, Son of Frankenstein), is hosting the 21st birthday celebration for his daughter Irene (Gloria Stuart, The Invisible Man). The guests are three eligible suitors, all eager to wed Irene. They are Captain Walter Brink (Paul Lukas), newspaper reporter Frank Faber (Onslow Stevens), and Tommy (William Janney), the youngest.
Von Helldorf tells the little party about unexplained incidents ranging from disappearances to murders that occurred in the castle’s blue room twenty years ago, all at precisely 1 a.m. There appeared to have been no forced entry into the upper-floor room; the windows were closed and the door was still locked. The room has been kept locked ever since.
Tommy, seeing an opportunity to demonstrate his courage and enhance his standing with Irene, suggests that the three suitors each take a turn staying in the room for one night. He volunteers to go first. The next morning, he has mysteriously vanished, leaving no clues but an open window overlooking the moat surrounding the castle. Did he fall or was he pushed into the moat? Did he drown accidentally? Did he commit suicide?
The next night, it’s Frank’s turn to spend a night in the blue room. At exactly 1 a.m., a gunshot rouses the household and Frank is found dead. Commissioner Forster (Edward Arnold) is summoned to figure out what happened and Captain Brink volunteers to spend the next night in the blue room to help discover its secret.
Director Kurt Neumann gives the film touches of ominous atmosphere with the establishing shots of the massive castle far removed from the nearest town, and lots of corridors, staircases, and shadowy nooks and crannies. However, he puts the brakes on the pacing by having Stuart entertain the guests with a melancholy song that takes a good three minutes and does nothing to enhance the drama or advance the plot.
This was the first of Lionel Atwill’s twelve appearances in horror and borderline horror Universal pictures. Atwill delivers a polished performance as a beneficent aristocrat, surprisingly willing to have his daughter’s three suitors gather in one place. Shouldn’t this create tension? Yet all three men are unusually polite and courteous with playful banter and easy, casual conversation.
Stuart, only 23 at the time, is quite attractive despite looking older and a bit awkward in ridiculous gowns, particularly one with exaggerated shoulder poufs that look like peculiar, alien plants. She doesn’t exactly fulfill the role of damsel in distress, though she does emit a few good screams.
There are a number of convenient coincidences, unanswered questions, and red herrings, and the solution to the mystery will not be hard to figure out well before it’s revealed. But the film is fun and, at just over an hour, knows how not to overstay its welcome. The finale is exciting and far more cinematic than the rest of the movie.
The Secret of the Blue Room was also among the 52 films in the original Screen Gems Shock television package that ran on late-night TV in the late 1950s.
Featuring 1080p resolution, The Secret of the Blue Room is presented on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber Studio Classics in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. It’s much improved over the copies in TV showings, free from dirt, emulsion clouding, scratches, and other distracting visual imperfections. Blacks are deep and lush. Grey levels are good. Production design tends toward an austere main set with the look of old-world wealth. Gloria Stuart’s gowns, though foolishly designed, brighten up the goings-on. All the male actors are dressed in dark formal wear. Most of the film was shot inexpensively in the studio. Outdoor shots of the castle are stock footage taken from the previous German version of the film. A final sequence gives the film a horror sheen with its labyrinthine, dark, secret passages.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout—which is important considering the amount of exposition provided, and the film has a great deal of it. Much is told rather than shown through flashbacks. Stuart breaks out in song a few minutes into the film, which is both unnecessary and pace-deadening. Echoes resonate during the final scene in the darkened passageways, adding to mood. Gunshots are extremely loud. They’re important for both the story and their shock value. Atwill’s manner of speaking suggests excellent breeding. Tommy’s youthful impetuousness is conveyed by his headstrong line delivery.
Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Filmmaker/historian Michael Schlesinger notes that The Secret of the Blue Room was made in the first cycle of Universal’s horror movies. He asks the question, “But it it a horror movie?” This is the third of five versions of the film, the first a German picture made the year before. The second was a Czech film made just prior. Stock footage from the original was used for the castle. The main set was the one used the year before by James Whale in The Old Dark House. Gloria Stuart sings the song, I Can’t Help But Dream of You. Brief career overviews of the actors are provided. Gloria Stuart also starred in The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man, and played old Rose in 1997’s Titanic. The exposition relates how crimes were committed two decades earlier. The Secret of the Blue Room is known as a “locked room mystery,” a sub-genre of mystery fiction. Examples include Poe’s Mystery of the Rue Morgue, Conan Doyle’s Adventure of the Empty House, and S.S. Van Dine’s The Canary Murder Case. Despite its horror trappings, it’s a whodunit. This was Lionel Atwill’s first Universal horror/mystery film. After a career on the stage, he went to Hollywood and appeared in many horror films, including Warner Bros’ Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum. He also played the one-armed police inspector in Son of Frankenstein. A scandal in 1942 relegated him only to Universal and poverty row studios. Kurt Neumann was originally hired by Carl Laemmle. He directed all kinds of films but is best known for his science fiction films of the 1950s, including Rocketship XM, Kronos, and The Fly. The fight scene in the finale had to be carefully staged to keep one person’s face hidden at all times. The killer’s face is not revealed “until the last possible second.”
Theatrical Trailers – Five trailers are included.
- Supernatural (2:04)
- Death Takes a Holiday (2:23)
- The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1:15)
- The Mad Doctor (2:09)
- The Spiral Staircase (2:01)
The Secret of the Blue Room is a pretty tame pre-Code film, considering the lengths to which other pre-Code films went. It aspires to be more than a mystery and sometimes succeeds, but for the most part simply does not have the thrills and cinematic pizzazz of Universal’s monster pictures.
- Dennis Seuling