The Secret of the Chateau (1934)

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It’s sometimes hard for me to believe in this day and age the rarity of some older films. You’d think everything is rentable or downloadable. One film that is neither is 1934’s The Secret of the Chateau, a compact little thriller from Universal.

Its a good if unassuming picture. At a short 66 minutes there isn’t much time for development or exposition and we get right to it. Claire Dodd (in one of the eight films she made in 1934) is Julie Verlaine, a book thief who’d like to change her ways but her boyfriend and partner in crime is threatening to expose her should she stop helping him. Did I mention Claire Dodd made EIGHT films in 1934? That’s a decade of work in today’s Hollywood.

Julie is on the hunt of the rarest of all books, an original printing of the Gutenberg Bible. Of course, everyone else is after it as well. She tracks it to a chateau in France, where it is promptly stolen and the estate’s caretaker murdered. At this point it becomes a bit formulaic, as we have the stuffy but brilliantly eccentric detective with the suspects collected together for his great theory on the crime.

What makes the picture worth your time is the plot, which although a bit stereotypical, is concise and well done. The productions values are obviously pretty minimal and we can tell this one was simply cranked out of old Universal Studios. Surely these sets were used on countless other similar pictures. However, in spite of these factors I found myself quite intrigued by the picture and not bored for a moment.

The end I did find a bit predictable, although the hiding place for the stolen bible was quite unique. Sadly this movie seems to be among the lost little gems of yesteryear. It isn’t available on DVD or any format, including online, so grab it if you ever see it air on TCM. Trust me, you won’t see it often.

My copy is rather well worn, which you would expect for a minor film of this vintage. There are quite a few surface blemishes, splices, and other physical flaws in the film stock. I found it especially interesting that there was no music, except for the initial and finale scenes. I’ve found that lots of early films like The Secret of the Chateau really push the soundtrack to almost herculean levels (sometimes overly so) but this film’s approach is quite minimalist.

The Secret of the Chateau was directed by Richard Thorpe, who, although he directed well over 100 films, is relatively obsure today. Although he did do better work on much better budgets than we see here, he doesn’t have any really well known films to his credit. Perhaps his best known is Jailhouse Rock in 1957. His last directorial effort was in 1967. Notably he also worked on Ben-Hur (1959) and How the West Was Won although meriting directorial credit in neither case.

If you can see this one, I heartily suggest you watch it. Movies like this are one of the reasons sites like this exist: to keep the memory alive.

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