The Mysterious House of Secrets

The House of Secrets is a 1936 black and white thriller starring Leslie Fenton and Muriel Evans as a couple who accidentally meet on an ocean liner then become involved in mysterious goings-on at an old English manor house.

The House of Secrets is based on a book written ten years earlier by author Sydney Horler (July 18, 1888 – October 27, 1954). Sydney was a former newspaperman and World War I propaganda officer who became a very popular author in the late 1920s. He specialized in thrillers, many of which featured his main hero, “Tiger” Standish,  in wildly unbelievable adventures. Sydney wrote 157 novels during his career but has been pretty much forgotten since his death because many of his views and prejudices, obviously on display in his stories, do not sit well with more modern readers. Sydney Horler was a staunch supporter of the British monarchy and the Church of England but had nothing but contempt for non-English peoples, especially Americans and French. He was also virulently anti-Semitic and referred to all Jewish people as criminals and racketeers. On top of that, Sydney also hated any “sexuality, especially homosexuality” and claimed that the streets of London “were full of male prostitutes”. Not surprisingly, Sydney spent a lot of time emphasizing just how very “virile” and “masculine” his heroes were, especially “Tiger” Standish.

Sydney Horler’s 1926 novel The House of Secrets was first filmed in 1929 in a movie with the same title starring Joseph Striker as hero Barry Wilding (fortunately not “Tiger” Standish) and Marcia Manning as the mysterious Margery. This film is sadly considered to be a “lost” film and no known copies remain. But the author, his books, and the 1929 film were all popular enough that the movie was remade in 1936.

The 1936 film version of The House of Secrets fortunately escapes the worse of the author’s prejudices but stars two rather forgettable actors. Leslie Fenton (March 12, 1902 – March 25, 1978) plays globe-trotting Barry Wilding who unexpectedly inherits a large old estate in England. Leslie was an English-born American actor and director. He acted in 62 films between 1923 and 1945 and directed 19 films between 1938 and 1951. His family were steerage passengers who immigrated to the USA in 1909. Leslie later saw active service during World War II in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Leslie has an unusual narrow face and is rather scrawny in build but he plays his character of new heir Barry Wilding as a good natured, gung-ho guy who throws himself into the mystery surrounding his new estate and the lovely damsel in distress he meets on board ship to England.

Muriel Evans (July 20, 1910 – October 26, 2000) was an American actress who appeared in many popular Western films during the 1930s. She won a Golden Boot Award for her contributions to Western movies. She was discovered as a teenager who accompanied her mother to her job as a maid at First National Studios. Muriel began playing bit parts in silent comedy shorts. Her pleasant speaking voice let her make a smooth transition to talking films. Muriel had a very short quickie marriage to a packing company heir in 1929 and a much longer lasting marriage to a theatrical agent in 1936. She retired from film in 1946. Muriel Evans plays damsel in distress Julie Kenmore as one of those annoying ladies who are constantly surrounded by mystery and danger but who also steadfastly maintain that they “can’t tell” the hero anything about what is going on. One moment Julie is screaming like an air raid siren and the next moment she is nonchalantly pretending nothing at all is wrong. Poor Barry Wilding is instantly smitten when he rescues her  from a shipboard smoocher even though she repeatedly tells him to go away.

Co-star Sidney Blackmer (July 13, 1895 – October 6, 1973) seems to have the “Tiger” Standish-like role as he plays Barry Wilding’s friend Chicago detective Tom Starr. Tom Starr is a big, manly guy but he really does not have much to do except regularly show up for a quick visit with Barry and to figure out most of the mystery. He, fortunately, avoids the author’s racism. Tom Starr is in England on the trail of a gangster on the lam when he gets involved in the mystery of Barry’s inheritance. Sidney Blackmer is a little less forgettable actor than his co-stars. Some movie fans may remember him as the overly solicitous neighbor of the unfortunate Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Despite the rather bland acting, The House of Secrets manages to be an entertaining film. It is short, just 70 minutes long, and that helps to keep the movie moving quickly from one baffling event to the next. When Barry Wilding attempts to visit his abandoned family estate, Hawk’s Nest, he is stopped by two strange men with a gun who label his claim to the house as “insane” and throw him out. When Barry complains to his lawyer, he is advised to sell out and leave London. But Barry can not sell and run because, to inherit, he signed an old family document swearing to never sell the family estate to outsiders. Barry eventually discovers that his ship-board inamorata is actually living at his family home but she refuses to tell him why or what she and her father are doing there. Still, Julie manages to get the love-smitten Barry to agree to let her and her father stay at Hawk’s Nest for six months. She also demands that Barry stay away during that time. Of course, Barry can not stop himself from repeatedly returning to the old estate to see Julie or spy around trying to figure out what is going on. Every time Barry shows up, he manages to get either beaten up, knocked out, or kidnapped but he takes a licking and keeps on coming back. Eventually all manner of strangers get involved in the mystery of Barry’s family estate from a trio of American gangsters to a British politician and a commissioner from Scotland Yard. But exactly why is everyone so interested in Barry’s inheritance and who or what keeps screeching loud maniacal laughter? And what does the enigmatic message on an ancient piece of torn parchment have to do with it all? Does the cryptic clue lead to buried treasure or to murder?

The House of Secrets is entertaining but also somewhat silly. Barry keeps bumbling around and getting knocked upside the head, Julie is ridiculously reticent, and the Chicago gangsters are stereotypical 1930’s style thugs. But still, I was amused by all the mysterious antics. One thing that I found rather diverting was that some of the people involved in the mystery excused all their maneuverings as just their “patriotic duty”. I can see how an audience in 1936, facing a brewing world brouhaha, could accept that excuse, but my cynical 2015 self, especially after many recent abuses of power, just kind of snickered wearily at the thought of everything that they would need to sweep under the rug.

The House of Secrets has excellent audio and the video is mostly very good. There was some static-y noises and film scratches in one particular place but overall did not really distract from the film. The mystery is somewhat mysterious. I could not quite decide on two different scenarios. But really The House of Secrets is not a film to take too seriously. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy Barry’s head-banging moments, the gangsters’ fake Chicago mob-speak, and enjoy imagine strangling Julie every time she says “I can’t tell you”. The 1936 film The House of Secrets is FREE in the Public Domain and available to download or watch online at the Internet Archive. The novel the film was based on by author Sydney Horler is not available in the Public Domain although it can be purchased at various websites.

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