When I first watched The Witching Hour it felt a bit old-fashioned. It's set in the 1890s, but it also felt as though it was of the 1890s. I don’t say that much about the old movies I especially enjoy because a large part of what attracts me to the films of the 1930s is how modern they so often feel. That is not the case here. The Witching Hour was a 1934 talkie, pre-Code even, that despite an impressive performance by John Halliday felt as though it would have played better as a silent film. I was not surprised to discover that it had been just that for two earlier productions, in 1916 and 1921, making this Henry Hathaway version from Paramount the third film adaptation of what had been even earlier a hit play on Broadway in 1907 that, by the way, had roots dating back to 1890.
Despite a title that could only be earmarked for horror films in this day and age, that is not what The Witching Hour is. While a story that hinges upon hypnotism and thought transference would have surely played spookier decades ago the title does not even directly refer to these elements, but to the single appearance from the beyond of the long dead love of an elderly Judge, who is delicately urged to action by the image from his past. This apparition doesn’t even appear at what we think of as “the witching hour,” midnight in my book, but instead at 2 a.m. in order to live up to the words of Bret Harte’s A Newport Romance, recited by the Judge just prior to her arrival:
And ever since then, when the clock strikes two,
She walks unbidden from room to room,
And the air is filled that she passes through
With a subtle, sad perfume.
The delicate odor of mignonette,
The ghost of a dead and gone bouquet,
Is all that tells of her story; yet
Could she think of a sweeter way?
You may wonder, what with hypnotism, thought transference and even a ghost, how is The Witching Hour not a horror movie? That’s the cleverest part of the story which actually originated years before playwright Augustus Thomas brought it to Broadway, when he hatched a one-act play in 1890 consisting mostly of the trial, a scene repurposed as Act II on Broadway in 1907 and serving as the climax for our 1934 film.
While Sir Guy Standing is top billed in The Witching Hour for his portrayal of Judge Martin Prentice, his character does not actually play a major role until later in the film at that trial. It is John Halliday’s Brookfield, the proprietor of a gambling house who possesses all of the mystical powers and who stars throughout. Brookfield was not even a character in Thomas’ original 1890 playlet, but grew out of the public’s growing interest in telepathy and the author’s own past employment as a publicity man for “thought-reader” Washington Irving Bishop in the late 1880’s.
This real-life acquaintance of Thomas’ is mentioned by name in The Witching Hour and the reference makes it all the way from Broadway of ‘07 to the script adapted by Salisbury Field and producer Anthony Veiller for this 1934 movie. When Brookfield first meets the Judge he tells him about an experience we’ve just witnessed in which he decided on a hunch to clear the guests from his gambling house in what turned out to be moments ahead of a police raid. The Judge, not at all surprised by Brookfield’s admission, tells a story: “I knew a man named Bishop, who drew a team of horses through the streets of New York when he was blindfolded … he took his orders directly from the mind of the man who sat next to him.”
Perhaps this is an actual event from Augustus Thomas’ time spent working for Washington Irving Bishop?
In addition to its misleading title The Witching Hour is short on star power, especially for a Paramount release from this period. Sir Guy Standing and John Halliday are the leads with Judith Allen, best remembered for her off-screen marriages, playing Halliday’s daughter, Nancy, and Tom Brown looking boyish as ever as her fiance, Clay Thorne. Former silent actress Olive Tell plays Clay’s mother, who arrives concerned that the boy is spending time in Brookfield’s gambling house though is quickly relieved when she discovers that his time there is spent courting the virtuous Nancy. Brookfield and Mrs. Thorne are longtime acquaintances and it is through Mrs. Thorne that Brookfield is introduced to the Judge, who comes to look at Brookfield’s recently acquired painting by Corot.
Smaller parts are played by William Frawley, who appears as the skeptical jury foreman near the end of the movie; Richard Carle, who is on the scene early for laughs as the poker playing friend who Brookfield first confesses his secret too; Gertrude Michael, in an early role, has but a single scene in which her ghostly appearance rouses the Judge to action; John Larkin comes off a little better than usual as the put-upon servant who takes great pleasure in being given permission to physically remove Ralf Harolde’s character. Harolde will figure more prominently in a few moments.
In his only scene the wonderful character actor Ferdinand Gottschalk plays a psychologist who takes the stand to provide background evidence about hypnotism to a skeptical jury. Gottschalk is priceless as he snidely summarizes his credentials after the District Attorney (Purnell Pratt) tries undercutting his authority:
“For the purposes of the record I’m a graduate of the University of Munich, Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Heidelberg, graduate in advanced psychology from Oxford University, former associate in psychology at Harvard University, consulting psychologist at the Roberts Memorial Hospital, professor of psychology at Thorncliffe University and author of fourteen books on psychology.”
Standing's character quietly thanks him and Gottschalk quickly adds, “I’m also considered very good at billiards,” earning a chuckle from myself and the jury. Even Frawley smiles.But what of this trial. What’s happened?
Brookfield’s crony Lew Ellinger (Carle) has left a cat’s eye ring with the house as gambling collateral. After a slow romantic scene between the Brown and Allen characters, Brown’s Clay comes in to have a smoke with Brookfield but is terrified by the ring the moment he notices it on Brookfield’s finger. Brown really overdoes it (“Take it away! Please take that away!”) and Brookfield’s response (“It’s a form of cowardice”) comes off as a bit heavy-handed. As this is a key scene in the movie, perhaps its poor play is why I thought The Witching Hour would come across better in silent form.
Brookfield leaves Clay when his butler (Larkin) informs him of Frank Hardmuth’s (Ralf Harolde) arrival. Hardmuth is an enemy of Brookfield’s and was actually the one responsible for fetching the police on him in that earlier scene clearing the gambling den. They have an argument that culminates with a pretty swift left hook from Brookfield that sends Hardmuth to the ground. Brookfield then vows, “One of these days someone’s going to come into your office, stick a revolver against your head and quietly and justifiably blow your brains all over the place.”
He has his butler toss Hardmuth out of the house (gleefully), but it’s with these hateful words that Brookfield returns to his study, surprised to find young Clay is still there, hoping to talk about his irrational fear of the cat’s eye. Brookfield gives him a bit too good of a talk and Clay winds up hypnotized in the gaze of the ring under Brookfield’s words. Seemingly cured Brookfield even gives the boy the ring to wear home just to make sure he’s still over his fear by morning.
In the next scene Clay is shown locked up in jail.
When Brookfield, his daughter and Clay’s mother visit the next day Clay insists he does not know what happened. He tells of his innocent intentions, but Hathaway flashes back to images of what actually happened from inside the gleam of the cat’s eye ring as Clay speaks. Clay went to Hardmuth’s office and shot the man dead, just as Brookfield had threatened the night before.
Upon realizing that Clay returned to a hypnotized state by wearing the ring that Brookfield had originally used to put him under, they have a defense but a case that no lawyer will touch. “So Frank Hardmuth was killed by a thought,” says Judge Prentice, the man who eventually takes the case after being coaxed out of retirement by his past love, the boy’s grandmother, when the clock strikes two at the witching hour.
But can he convince a jury? Especially a jury led by a very grumpy Bill Frawley?
Director Henry Hathaway is best remembered for his later film noir and crime films at Twentieth Century Fox including titles such as The House on 92nd Street (1945), The Dark Corner (1946) and The Killers (1947), but at the time of The Witching Hour the former child actor and propman had only recently been promoted from assistant director to director. He had previously made eight Zane Grey Westerns for Paramount, but considered The Witching Hour, “The picture [that] was the big turning point in my career.” The Witching Hour more recalls the dreamlike quality of Peter Ibbetson (1935), the third consecutive Gary Cooper movie he directed for Paramount after The Witching Hour, than it does any of Hathaway’s later crime films.
Incidentally, John Halliday appeared in Peter Ibbetson for Hathaway, and Sir Guy Standing appeared in the other two Cooper titles, Now and Forever (1934) and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935). In fact, it was during work on Bengal Lancer that Standing had an unfortunate encounter with a black widow spider whose bite kept him in ill health until a heart attack claimed his life in 1937.The Witching Hour brought playwright Augustus Thomas to prominence in 1907. Little known today and best remembered as the author of plays long considered old-fashioned, The Witching Hour along with The Copperhead and Arizona being three of his most famous, Thomas, a former page boy in the House of Representatives, was soon stumping for William Jennings Bryan and, more successfully, Woodrow Wilson. When Charles Frohman went down with the Lusitania the impressario’s estate chose Thomas to assume artistic direction of the Frohman company. Later he drew comparisons to Will Hays of Hollywood and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis of baseball when he was named Executive Chairman of the Producing Managers’ Association. The position basically named him censor of the theater, but Thomas hoped to use it mostly to “bring harmony” throughout the various theater ranks and keep the peace on labor issues. He remained an active playwright throughout all of this, his work continuing to be produced on Broadway into the late 1920s.
Despite being closely tied to source material over a quarter century old the 1934 film adaptation of The Witching Hour was well-received critically upon its release. When originally performed in 1907 at the Broadway’s Hackett Theatre it was also a hit. The New York Times explained away any disbelief of the subject matter by heralding Thomas’ creative skills:
”To be able to unite the purely subjective phase of his theme with so absorbing and entertaining objective expression of it demands not only a broad and authoritative grasp of his very peculiar subject matter, but astonishingly clever skill in dramaturgic composition.”
The Times further punctuated its praise in claiming that “The Witching Hour is a really remarkable play.”
Paramount’s film version of The Witching Hour premiered April 26, 1934 and despite being received by Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times as “somewhat stiff in the joints,” the old-time critic conceded that “it has a certain quaint appeal.” Hall raved over John Halliday’s “capital piece of acting” and, just as the Times theater critic did a quarter of a century before, credited the production for making “the startling aspects of the tale seem almost credible.”
I didn’t care for it as much as the critics of 1907 and 1934 did, but I would agree with Hall about Halliday’s performance and add that despite the distraction of the uninteresting Brown-Allen romance The Witching Hour largely succeeds in being suspenseful even if we kind of know where it’s going and dismiss several of the events that get us there as implausible.
Playwright Augustus Thomas died August 12, 1934, just a few months after this film version was released. The 77-year-old writer was lauded in newspaper obituaries as the “dean of American playwrights.”
The Witching Hour is a Paramount release that has never been released to home video. It is somewhat commonly available on the gray market. You can try the FindOldMovies search engine to find dealers currently offering the title for sale.
- Behlmer, Rudy, editor. Henry Hathaway. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2001.
- ”Guy Standing, Actor and War Hero, 63, Dies.” La Crosse Tribune and Leader press 25 Feb 1937: 1. Web. Newspaper Archive 5 Oct 2013.
- Thomas, Augustus. The Witching Hour, a Drama in Four Acts. Revised ed., New York: Samuel French, 1916.