William Beaudine, the world’s most prolific director, brought The Mystery of the 13th Guest to the screen in 1943; it is stunning in its total disrespect for police and police procedures. It stars Helen Parrish as young heiress Marie Morgan who is apparently electrocuted early in the film. The murder scene is staged, with the victim seated in one of 13 chairs surrounding a dining table in a house that has been deserted for 13 years. Furniture draped in sheets adds to the ghostly atmosphere, and—strangely—though the house has been vacant for over a decade, the electricity is connected and there’s a working telephone.
The two detectives investigating the case appear to have a half brain between them, and it belongs to Police Lt. Burke (Tim Ryan). The other detective, Speed Dugan (Frank Faylen, aka Dobie Gillis’ father), sleeps his way through much of the film. When Dugan isn’t sleeping, he’s offering idiotic suggestions, prompting the lieutenant to threaten him repeatedly (and to constantly warn him to stay awake). The guy with a brain is private detective Johnny Smith (Dick Purcell). He is hired by Marie’s uncle (Paul McVey) to protect her, for he fears that someone may try to harm her on this evening when her grandfather’s will is to be finally revealed (after thirteen years).
The powers-that-be at the police department must know what morons the cops are because they allow the private detective to investigate the crime scene, participate in interviews, and run down leads independently. The district attorney (Addison Richards) has a better relationship with the PI than with the cops, and allows him free rein.
To keep the film at an hour’s length, it is loaded with shortcuts, improbabilities, impossibilities, and pure silliness—all of which keep it moving along. In the end, there are more bodies, the killer (whom you determined in his first scene) is caught, the mystery is solved, and the PI has a new love. Just like real life.
The Mystery of the 13th Guest can best be described as an unpretentious little film. It’s not a classic (in the classic sense), but it entertains and amuses. Viewers will find lots of laughs in this comedy/mystery, just not where the writers planned them.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection, which includes The Mystery of the 13th Guest, is manufactured on demand (MOD) and DVDs are available through on-line retailers.