Phil Winston/Johnny Smith

Created by Armitage Trail (pseudonym of Maurice Coons; 1902-30)

A private eye is called in to investigate the murder of Marie Morgan, a young woman who has waited thirteen years for the reading of her grandfather's will. The scene of the crime is the old man's creepy old mansion, closed up since his murder -- thirteen years earlier. Suspicion immediately falls on one of Marie's greedy, impatient relatives.

That's the basic plot of The Thirteenth Guest, a 1929 novel by Armitage Trail, and also of its two film adaptations, The Thirteenth Guest (1932, Monogram) and Mystery of the 13th Guest (1943, MGM).

But the private eye -- and the plot itself -- varies from one take to another.

Oh, there are constants. The spooky old house, the early in the proceedings murder of Marie, the thirteen year-old murder, the thirteen eccentric relatives/suspects, etc.

The first film adaptation starred Ginger Rogers, in an early (and possibly first starring) role, as Marie, and was certainly done on the cheap. The private eye's name was PHIL WINSTON, described as a "suave playboy," was played by Lyle Talbot, also in an early appearance.

It's generally agreed that the second film version, released in 1943, is better. Once again it's a B film, so expectations are low, but the director, William Beaudine, manages to embue a little more humour and wit into the proceedings, and to keep things zipping along.

The private eye in this one is called JOHNNY SMITH, and he's an all-together slicker and more dashing package, cocky and confident, also with an eye for the ladies but less serious; not above tweaking the local cops, who are protrayed as mostly bumbling and oblivious types.

Anyone looking for a lost, hard-boiled classic will have to look elsewhere. Even Johnny in the 1943 flick more is cocksure than cool, a throwback to the Great Detective/Gentleman Sleuth model of an earlier era than the then-emerging hard-boiled dick.

Still, both films are fun enough in their own right, if you're into the classic detective/spooky haunted house thing. But be forewarned: you better bring your own crackers, because there'll be plenty of cheese.

The author of the original novel, Armitage Trail, is of course better known for the only other novel he ever wrote. Scarface (1930), loosely based on the life of Al Capone, which became the inspiration for not one but two classic gangster films.

Scarface (1930), directed by Howard Hawks, with a screenplay by Ben Hecht and W.R. "Little Caesar" Burnett (among others), produced by Howard Hughes and starring Paul Muni, is largely credited with kicking off the gangster genre.

And it, of course, became the inspiration for Scarface (1983), directed by Brian DePalma and starring Pacino, a lot of blood, scenery chewing and a chainsaw.

The son of the former road manager for the New Orleans Opera Company, Maurice Coons grew up in Chicago, but left school at sixteen to write and sell stories to magazines. By his early twenties, he had moved to New York and was writing entire issues of various detective story magazines under a wide variety of pen names, before settling on Armitage Trail as the name under which he would write his novels. He sold the film rights for his second one for $25,000 to a young producer named Howard Hughes and headed to Hollywood to help bring the book to the screen After that, according to W. R. Burnett, “Trail never drew another sober breath.”

He became a man about town, known for his "flowing moustache" and "Barrymore-brim Borsaline hats," before dropping dead of a heart attack in the lobby of the downtown Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles at the age of 28, weighing in at around 315 pounds.

NOVELS

  • The Thirteenth Guest (1929; aka "The Morgan Mysteries")

FILMS

  • THE THIRTEENTH GUEST .. Watch it now
    (aka "Lady, Beware")
    (1932, Monogram)
    70 minutes
    Based on the novel The 13th Guest by Armitage Trail
    Screenplay by Frances Hyland and Arthur Hoerl (uncredited)
    Directed by Albert Ray
    Starring Lyle Talbot as PHIL WINSTON
    Also starring Ginger Rogers, Paul Hurst, Erville Alderson, Ethel Wales, James Eagles, Crauford Kent, Eddie Phillips, Frances Rich, Phillips Smalley

  • MYSTERY OF THE 13th GUEST .. Watch it now
    (1943, MGM)
    61 minutes
    Based on the novel The 13th Guest by Armitage Trail
    Screenplay by Tim Ryan, Charles Marion and Arthur Hoerl
    Directed by William Beaudine
    Starring Dick Purcell as JOHNNY SMITH
    Also starring Dick Purcell, Helen Parrish, Tim Ryan, Frank Faylen, Johnny Duncan, Jon Dawson, Paul McVey, Jacqueline Dalya, Addison Richards, Cyril Ring, Lloyd Ingraham, Robert J. Anderson, Shirley Jean Anderson, Lester Dorr, Donald Kerr, Dick Rush, Fred "Snowflake" Toones

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


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