Monday, December 30, 2013
THIRD DIMENSIONAL MURDER (AKA MURDER IN 3D) (1941)
RATING: ** out of ****
PLOT: Pete Smith is called away to investigate mysterious going-ons at a haunted mansion. While there, every manner of menace and horror flies at him – literally – in this 3D short. Chief among the terrors: the Frankenstein monster!
REVIEW: Pete Smith’s specialty was specialty shorts – literally. Like Robert Benchley, his shorts were early examples of “mockumentaries” where anything went, the visuals accompanied by copious narration that ranged from mildly amusing to screamingly funny.
In the early 1940s, Smith’s home studio, MGM decided his shorts would be the perfect venue to introduce audiences to three dimensional films, a then still experimental process in its infancy. Smith made three such shorts, but only this one traded on the specialized thrills of horror-comedies.
As this short begins, the music behind the opening titles promises some spooky thrills. Then viewers are given a quick tutorial on the “audioscopiks” 3D process and how to use the glasses.
The scene opens on Smith at home in his study. As he narrates, “I seemed at peace, but my nerves were on edge. I was absorbed in scientific study.” Cut to a close-up of the book Smith is reading – a horror thriller called “The Living Corpse.”
Of course, it’s midnight. We know because Smith’s narration tells us. Midnight and all is still. Until of course, the phone rings just as Smith is in the middle of reading a harrowing chapter!
A female voice on the other end screams for help – there’s trouble at the country house, says Aunt Tillie.
Smith commences to the old spooky mansion to help. Initially, he is met with a typical horror-comedy trope: the front door opens on its own, and swings shut on its own, too.
But then, the short takes an unexpected turn. Smith looks up to the second floor (it’s one of those great old homes that has an atrium spanning the floors) where he sees a light. The light comes from a lantern… being carried by the Frankenstein monster!
Suddenly, Third Dimensional Murder takes on added importance as a milestone marker on the road to Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein! A road paved with several comedians’ encounters with the monster before Bud and Lou met him, including Olsen & Johnson, The Ritz Brothers (in two different films), Danny Kaye (a scene cut out of the original Secret Life Of Walter Mitty) and in newsreel footage, Karloff playing baseball in full monster make-up at a charity game featuring Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges! (Click here and here to read all about the above). Now we can add Pete Smith to the list of pioneers who crossed paths with the famed monster first.
Having said that, that’s pretty much all the distinction there is here, as the monster is not only erroneously referred to as “Frankenstein” (the name of his creator but not the name of the monster) but given precious little to do. He disappears briefly only to return to hurl items at the camera to perpetuate the 3D effect.
Smith is then left to fill the time between with more tropes that exploit 3D. Grabbing claws, hidden panels that open and close, diabolical laughter out of nowhere, a witch who tries to shove a tarantula in Pete’s face, cobwebs, a dungeon full of chains and a skeleton in the closet (complete with chattering teeth).
After this detour, Smith encounters the Frankenstein monster again. He’s wearing a vest as in Son Of Frankenstein, and his basic appearance is patterned after the Universal makeup, but almost an unintentional parody of a pro makeup job in the light and without red and green blurriness (take another look at the publicity shot at the top of the page).
For added scares, the filmmakers add a rather inexplicable and incongruous “masked archer” and sword swinging knight, and in keeping with the unenlightened times, not one but two weapons-wielding savages (one who is identified as “Zombie, the mad man of Magnesia”).
The climax has the Frankenstein monster drop objects off the roof in hopes of hitting Smith below. These objects include flaming logs. Because there’s a log fire on the roof on which rests a cauldron full of molten lead. I don’t get it, either but it sure does look cool to see the monster up on the roof with flames dancing everywhere! Of course, you know the monster wants to pour that lead down on Smith. After all, this isn’t the mostly benevolent creature from Bride Of Frankenstein. To prove it, the monster finishes Smith off by hurling the cauldron itself on top of Pete. That’s right, he kills Pete Smith. Kills him dead. Sort of...
Pete has the last laugh (well, he wants the audience to laugh at the end, but whether they will is up for debate): now a skeleton, Pete wishes everyone a good night as he hurls his skull at the screen!
The short provides an early example of 3D (consider that the Three Stooges’ 3D horror-comedy short Spooks came at the crest of the ‘50s 3D craze in 1953 – a dozen years after the Smith opus). It does the job it’s supposed to do, using the horror motif as a convenient springboard for in-your-face effects. It’s none too scary, and none too funny, but it gets points for its Frankenstein monster pedigree, landing it at a rather shaky two star rating from me (it’s a real close call here, but I’m grading on a curve as opposed to the Frankenstein monster’s flat top).
BEST VISUAL GAGS: No real sight gags here because we never really see Pete react to too many of the horrors. It’s just a lot of shoving things into the camera lens.
BEST VERBAL GAGS: Not many in this short, one of Smith’s weaker efforts in that department. The level of “humorous” dialogue doesn’t rise much above “a close shave… and I do mean shave” after Smith just misses plowing his car into a danger sign. If anything, the short is hampered by Smith narrating action we can see. However, before it’s all done, Smith does rattle off this gem, upon running into the Frankenstein monster yet again:
“Omigosh, it’s him! All right, it’s he – why worry about grammar at a time like this?!”
SPOTTED IN THE CAST: No one, unless a cast list turns up. The only credited player is Smith, and historians have identified stunt man/bit player Edward Payson as the Frankenstein monster. Payson’s other roles were as anonymous (and as uncredited) as this one (sample parts included “Al, the warehouse thug” in a couple chapters of a Green Hornet serial and “Wrestler,” “Athlete” and “Townsman” in various westerns and melodramas).
FURTHER READING: Pierre Fournier wrote about this short a few years’ back on his indispensable Frankensteinia blog. You can read what he wrote by clicking here (and really, you should be reading Pierre’s blog regularly anyhow)...
Now, don’t forget to DUCK!!!