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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

ONE BODY TOO MANY (1944)

After the (dying) swan song of 1944’s Return of the Ape Man, Bela Lugosi was freed from the shackles of his ‘Monogram Nine’ contract to hopefully gain better results despite the lack of dubious security in his status. His first freelance venture was as support in Paramount’s B-picture division Pine Thomas Productions in One Body Too Many released in November of that year. This was a passable B-movie based on that old creepy warhorse begun with The Cat and the Canary (1927) of murder shenanigans based around the terms of a contested will fought over by potential beneficiaries who are forced to stay together in the deceased’s house.

Although it boasts nary an original bone, the film is amiable enough as Poverty Row western churner Frank McDonald ensures all his cast aim for a uniformly mischievous black comedy tone. Co-writer Maxwell Shane’s credits included 1940’s The Mummy’s Hand while his partner Winston Miller had a higher pedigree, having worked on the screenplay for M-G-M’s Gone with the Wind.

Aside from that classic, 1939 produced many others that gave it a claim to the greatest ever year of Hollywood film, none more so that The Wizard of Oz. This immortal Christmas favourite gave a breakout role to vaudevillian and radio light comedian Jack Haley as the Tin Man when Buddy Ebsen was forced to vacate the role due to an allergic reaction to the dust from the iconic shiny aluminium make-up. The part shot Haley to stardom and he parlayed his new fame on screen into a Paramount contract that included One Body Too Many. Haley is the energy centre of the movie as innocent, wise-cracking insurance salesman Albert Tuttle, a likeable coward who nervously cracks wise – reminiscent of Bob Hope.

Haley arrives at a mansion intending to sell a policy to head of the household Cyrus J. Rutherford.
Unbeknownst to him Rutherford has died, leaving a will that just been read to a gathering of his relatives; he conceals their inheritances, forcing them to lodge here while a glass-topped coffin is built for his body to posthumously view the stars from above ground. One amusing aspect is the list of criticisms the old curmudgeon bestows from the grave to each of them in turn - (e.g. “Margo wears too much make-up”) – highlighting the shadiness and greed among them. The only one who is above such approach is his niece Carol Dunlap, a third release that month for actress Jean Parker alongside Bluebeard and Dead Man’s Eyes. No wonder she escapes censure – it’s hard to hit a constantly moving target.

The potential dodginess of Rutherford’s attorney Morton Gellman is alluded to by Rutherford trusting him as far as he could throw him, but also the dead giveaway of his caddish moustache, an actor’s trademark for Bernard Nedell.

Lugosi is peripherally in on the fun as the house’s not exactly faithful butler Merkil “who for twenty years padded the household bills”. This proves the mildest accusation against him as he’s in league with Matthews the maid (Blanche Yurka - Bianca from Cry of the Werewolf) in scheming to wipe out the entire clan, leaving them as sole inheritors. Although he has little to do his grave tones contrast well with the lily-livered excitement around him. There’s also an amusing running gag where he continually persists in trying to induce everyone to drink his rat-poisoned coffee.

Tuttle and Carol join flirtatious forces while an evil familial threesome plan to bury Rutherford’s corpse underground, thus forcing a conditional reversal of the designated sums awaiting the planned inheritors. The plot falls back on the clich├ęs exhausted from the many variants of this story set-up (sliding wall panels, unidentified sinister looming over our hero in bed etc) yet are played with verve and gentle wit. The playful feel is aided by Alexander Laszlo’s cheeky score, the kind that telegraphs comic spot effects with a duck whistle. He would go on to compose for such lurid titles like 1959’s Attack of the Giant Leeches and Beast from Haunted Cave.

The best line in the film belongs to Lugosi, offering to dispose of Tuttle with the cool indispensability
of Jeeves: “Shall I take him out sir and push him off the ledge?” he offers Gellman. “You can say it was an accident”.


After a rushed climax involving our faint-hearted hero hanging perilously from the observatory courtesy of the treacherous Henry (Singin’ in the Rain’s Douglas Fowley), it only remains for Carol to benefit from the will having also acquired Tuttle as her new boyfriend. Merkil and Matthews, somehow secure in their retainership, celebrate by even more inexplicably drinking their own coffee!

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