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Vacation in July: Seven Keys to Baldpate (1947)

V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N in the summer sun! It's July, the time when many people go somewhere on vacation, whether it be to a warmer climate, a remote cabin in the forest, or another country altogether. This month we are escaping the summer heat by watching movies about vacations from the air-conditioned comfort of our couches.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Set in a resort hotel which is closed during the winter months, much like the Overlook in The Shining, Seven Keys to Baldpate follows a writer (Phillip Terry) looking for isolation in order to complete his latest novel who finds everything but. He believes he has the only key to Baldpate, but meets a caretaker (Eduardo Ciannelli) upon his arrival, plus the caretakers “niece” (Margaret Lindsay), a professor (Arthur Shields), a hermit (Jimmy Conlin), a few other men, and a beautiful blonde (Jacqueline White) warning him of impending danger for good measure.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: By the time this film was released in 1947, audiences doubtlessly knew what to expect. Not only had there been multiple film versions before, but the stage play was a perennial favorite, being trotted out countless times by local community groups and summer stock. At this stage, it’s hard to imagine any film viewer being excited by the prospect of seeing this movie.

SG: The book sets the lighthearted tone of this story. It could easily have been played seriously for the crime element, but instead the hijinks at Baldpate feel fun and ridiculous instead of scary. Author Earl Derr Biggers of Warren, Ohio was a prolific writer who also penned the Charlie Chan series. Seven Keys to Baldpate was his first novel, and George M. Cohan first adapted it to the stage in 1913 with great success.

RB: Success is right. As I had mentioned, there were HUNDREDS of performances and versions of this play, with varying degrees of quality. I’m particularly fond of a Lux Radio Theater version from 1938 with Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone. It plays fast and loose with the details, as Jack and Mary, much like their characters from the popular Benny program find themselves interjected into the plot. It’s a lot of fun, and, I daresay, a more pleasant romp than this picture.

MAGEE: You’re as sane as any man I’ve ever met. HERMIT: I am not!

SG: Warner Archive has a release with all three sound versions of this story included so you can compare them. We tend to think of remakes of successful films to be a modern phenomenon, but Seven Keys to Baldpate proves that not to be true. Jack Haley as the writer and Boris Karloff as the gangster were announced to be starring in this version originally. The Film Bulletin writer said, “Classic or no, unless any yarn can be given a fresh twist either by way of special writing or special performances, few stories really merit being told twice.”

RB: From the perspective of a film buff, this is a recommended disc, because it’s a rare opportunity to compare so many different versions with one another. While the source material may have gotten a little threadbare by this stage in the game, it’s still worth seeing, and comparing to the other two sound versions.

SG: Harrison’s Reports wrote, “It has a liberal quantity of comedy situations, but since they lack originality it is doubtful if any one of them will create more than a ripple of laughter.”

The reviewer for Hollywood Nite-Life said this one, “should finally convince producers that Keys is too old and tired for active duty and should be tenderly laid to rest… A decade ago the Earl Derr Biggers novel was sensational reading… [but] the situations, technique and type have been copied and repeated by dozens of similar books and pictures during the past years.” Fittingly, this was the last filmed version of the novel.

RB: You know me…I’m always going to dig in and see what the salt of the earth folks at the small town theaters thought of a movie, and they generally agreed with the city dwelling reviewers of the trades. Even in the small towns, this was a film destined for the bottom of the bill (see our trade ad, where it plays second fiddle to a Republic Red Ryder film). “Well done with a weak cast” proclaimed EM Freiburger of the Paramount Theater in Dewey, OK. “Business was average. No complaints and no comments”.

SG: This is a breezy but predictable film with each actor playing their parts competently but unremarkably. If you like Biggers or old dark house stories, you'll probably enjoy it. Two stars.

RB: There was a 1962 filmed version in color for TV (an episode of Du Pont Show of the Week) with Fred Gwynne, Joe E Ross and Parker Findlay that seems like it could be an interesting watch. There’s nothing wrong with this movie, but there’s also nothing really to recommend it. Lew Landers can usually direct a pretty spooky B, but there’s not really anything noteworthy there, either. Two stars.

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Michael Schlesinger
Michael Schlesinger

There was a more recent version: HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS in 1983. Done as a horror movie, it's most noteworthy for its once-in-a-lifetime teaming of Price, Cushing, Lee and Carradine. And unlike the '35 and '47 versions, it retains the play's double-twist ending.

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