So, have you ever been watching The Wizard of Oz and find yourself looking at the Tin Woodsman and thinking, “Mm–that Jack Haley. I’d like to see him naked holding an armload of adorable black kittens.” No? Me neither. But if there’s somebody out there that’s had that thought, then I’ve found a movie for you.
One Body Too Many is a 1940s comedy that plays with the standard formula and tropes of those Old Dark House movies I’ve been hunting down during the last few years. Haley plays Albert Tuttle, a nerdy but ambitious insurance salesman who has an appointment to sign up a new client, Cyrus Rutherford, an eccentric millionaire so obsessed with astrology that he’s built an observatory on top of his mansion. What Albert doesn’t know is that his prospective client has no need to buy life insurance; he’s just dropped dead.
We cut to the familiar old scene of the family gathered at the mansion to hear the reading of the will–only, it isn’t a will. Cyrus Rutherford’s lawyer instead reads a preamble to his will, which leaves amounts from $50,000 to $1.50 for cab fare to the various people in the room–Rutherford’s sister and her husband, a collection of nieces and nephews, the astrologer who helped Rutherford design his observatory, the housekeeper and butler. (This last is played by Bela Lugosi, who doesn’t really get much to do in this movie besides play out a running joke by offering everyone cups of coffee which the viewer has reason to believe he’s poisoned to get rid of “all the rats.”) The preamble to Rutherford’s will also features some snarky comments about these people so that we get some quick sketches of their characters and can sort out the nice ones from the nasties… for the most part, anyway.
According to the terms of the preamble, Rutherford’s coffin is to be placed in a glass vault on top of the observatory so that he can always gaze up at the stars. This vault will take a few days to be built. No one can leave the house before then without forfeiting their inheritance. Once the body is in its final resting place, the will will be read. If, for some reason, the body isn’t placed in the vault according to Rutherford’s wishes, then the terms of the will will be reversed–that is, the people who were to receive the largest amounts of money will get pocket change and the original recipients of the small amounts will be rich. At this point, no one has read the will and don’t know what they are going to inherit, but from the snarky remarks in the preamble we can all guess who Rutherford did and didn’t like.
After the preamble reading, the lawyer phones for a detective to guard the body until the vault is ready. A detective does arrive at the house, but is coshed on the head and dragged out of sight before he can knock on the front door. When Albert Tuttle shows up for his appointment shortly afterwards, he’s naturally mistaken for the detective. Some cross-purpose conversations ensue, and the confusion of identity is only cleared up when Tuttle is shown in to the parlor to find his prospective client reposing in a coffin.
Our hero’s first inclination is to get away from the house immediately, but the nicer of Rutherford’s nieces pleads with him to stay in place of the detective. She’s received an anonymous threatening note telling her to leave. Since Uncle Cyrus liked her, she seems a good candidate for inheriting a fortune as long as she stays and his body ends up in its glass vault. The danger to the young lady is punctuated by a large stone falling from the roof of the house and Tuttle pushes her out of the way just in time. While he’s lying on the ground dazed, he has one of those moments you see in old movies and cartoons: two little versions of himself appear on his shoulders and offer contradicting advice. One little Tuttle primly urges for caution and safety; the other one is keen for adventure and romance. He goes with the second opinion and agrees to stay. He’s already smitten.
From here, the rest of the story plays fast with the cliches of the genre. A storm starts. The lights go out! Our hero gets clubbed with a poker and, when he comes to, the body he was supposed to be watching is missing from its coffin. The body turns up in a secret chamber off the parlor and then disappears again. The suspects all act suspiciously and it soon becomes clear that at least two separate parties are involved in the postmortem adventures of Uncle Cyrus. Other bodies start turning up, beginning with the lawyer. Some of the comedy is a bit dated–like the two little good/naughty figures offering advice–but the movie provided a fairly entertaining hour and a half and the resolution of the mystery wasn’t obvious until near the end. And the missing detective turned up alive. I was worried for him.
I was a bit surprised at how much we actually saw of Rutherford’s corpse, making this movie rather grisly for one from this era. Compare it with Arsenic and Old Lace, which was made around the same time and also features dead bodies being moved around, but never shows them.
Oh, and that naked-with-kittens thing? It’s the culmination of an extended comic sequence where Alfred, changing out of his wet clothes after nearly drowning in the lake, stumbles into a secret passage leading from the late Mr. Rutherford’s bathroom finds himself trapped. Wearing only a towel around his waist, he goes exploring to find another way out. After inadvertently getting into a number of other people’s rooms and getting out again, he catches the towel in a door and is forced to leave it behind. He hides in a large laundry basket, which happens to be where the mother cat has placed her kittens. There, all perfectly reasonable, right? Could happen to anyone. At least, that’s what Tuttle says when he’s discovered.