Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn (1936)


Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn opens how I imagine the play on which it is based would open. However, I’ve never seen a play where a Master of Ceremonies introduces the characters beforehand. It is odd, because subsequent to the scene, it’s a regular movie, not just a filmed stage production. (I suppose it’s no different than a movie that has credits at the beginning with a picture of each actor and the name of the character they’re portraying.)

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This doesn’t mean it doesn’t sometimes feel like a stage production. Until the action really picks up, it’s a little talky and slow. I can pinpoint the exact point, somewhere past the middle, when it becomes interesting. Instead of a camera held still, it pivots and makes a turn around the table at which Squire William Corder (Tod Slaughter) sits writing a note for his friend. The man hiding behind the curtain thinks he’s writing a check, but it’s really a piece of paper that says, “Get help danger.”

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Later, as Corder stands in the hole he’s digging in the floor of the red barn, the camera is down with him, below ground level. For a 1936 melodrama, there are a couple of cinematic flourishes like these from director Milton Rosmer. However, the real flourishes come from Slaughter in an example of the over-the-top performances for which he would become famous. It works here as Corder is a pompous gambler who would do anything to pay back his debts (and probably turn a profit.)

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Poor Maria (pronounced Muh-ry-uh) Marten (Sophie Stewart) is a naïve local who falls victim to his charms. After meeting Corder at a shindig in his red barn, she later visits him, asks if he loves her, and asks if he wants to marry her. Oh, yes, he says. Between scenes, it’s obvious that he merely wanted to take her to bed, because when she ends up pregnant and runs to him later, he has no intentions of marrying her and, in fact, would rather just get her out of the picture.

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The clever complication is that while all this drama is occurring between Corder and Marten, her parents believe that she’s instead being victimized by Carlos the gypsy (Eric Portman). That is how a man comes to be standing behind Corder’s curtain, placing him in danger. Carlos knows (or at least suspects) the truth and, while being pursued by the law, wants to expose Corder. The climax arrives as Carlos hides in the red barn, an angry mob breaks in, and a dog starts sniffing at Maria’s grave.

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As soapy as all this is, it’s apparently sanitized from the true story of the 1827 Red Barn Murder upon which it’s based. Although Maria Marten was apparently no angel, it didn’t give someone permission to kill her. Corder gets what’s coming to him, though, in a nice epilogue during which he believes he’s going to live another day because the executioner is ill. I guess he doesn’t remember that the first time we saw him, a gypsy read his palm and saw death, with Corder at the end of a rope.

Written by Randall Faye Directed by Milton Rosmer Starring Tod Slaughter, Sophie Stewart, Eric Portman US Release August 18, 1936 RT 70 min. Home Video AlphaVideo

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