Trick for Trick (1933): Magic and malice at midnight seance on the Palisades

One of the many enjoyable things I’ve been doing since I retired from the New York Post last October is attending matinees at the Museum of Modern Art. The current series is devoted to Depression-era films, and it includes well-known titles as well as obscurities I’ve ever heard of, like William Dieterle’s “Adorable” (1933), a delightful Lubitsch-like musical starring Janet Gaynor based on a German film co-written by Billy Wilder.

With credits like that, I wasn’t surprised it was good — but I didn’t know what to expect from “Trick for Trick,” an even less well-known 1933 Fox release from the MoMA vaults directed by Hamilton MacFadden, whose best known films are the bizarre musical “Stand Up and Cheer!” (1934) that shot Shirley Temple to stardom, and “The Black Camel” (1931), the only one of his three Charlie Chan mysteries that is known to exist. (Both are on DVD).

Ralph Morgan and Sally Blane.

One of many early Fox talkies that seem to have never made it to TV, much less video, “Trick for Trick” is a comedy-thriller derived from a short-lived Broadway play with wonderfully stylish, expressionist-style sets and delightful special effects by William Cameron Menzies of “Gone With the Wind” fame. The setting is a spooky mansion full of trap doors and sliding panels where a turban-wearing medium named Azrah (Ralph Morgan, relishing a rare opportunity to ham it up as much as his younger brother Frank as the lead) invites his former protege LaTour (Victor Jory, the size of whose role bears no relationship to his second billing) and a bunch of other murder suspects to a midnight seance. This bitchy duo each try to convince a dim-witted police detective (Boothe Howard) that the other is responsible for the death of Azrah’s female assistant six months earlier. In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, the detective discovers that virtually all the invitees is packing heat.

Besides being stylishly photographed (by L.W. O’Connell) and designed, “Trick for Trick” is an awful lot of fun. Loretta Young’s sister Sally Blane (who would play a similar role in “Charlie Chan at Treasure Island”) is the female lead. The juvenile male lead, billed as Clifford Jones (as he was in the W.C. Fields vehicle “Tillie and Gus” that same year) was a familiar face to me. I interviewed him under his real name, Philip Trent, 35 years ago at the Actor’s Home in Englewood. Trent, who had two unbilled roles in “Gone With he Wind,” never mentioned “Trick for Trick,” possibly because he spends virtually the entire 67-minute running around hysterically in a raccoon coat.

Clifford Jones (Philip Trent), Sally Blane, Edward Van Sloan.

Also on hand are a bunch of great character actors, including Tom Dugan (who would go on to play the actor who impersonates Hitler in “To Be Or Not to Be”), Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing in “Dracula”), the ubiquitous Willard Robertson (“Heat Lightning”) in an offbeat bit of casting and an unmilled Angelo Rositto, who played dwarfs with everyone from John Barrymore (the silent “The Beloved Rogue”) to Mel Gibson (“Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome”) during his six decade career. The standout is Luis Alberni, whose hilariously over-the-top turn as a very mad scientist was singled out in young Andre Sennwald’s enthusiastic review in the New York Times (it opened at the Roxy in support of a vaudeville bill).

Ralph Morgan and Dorothy Appleby

“Trick for Trick” may not hold up as a murder mystery, but it’s solid pre-code entertainment that deserves a showing on TCM and a video release.

Did Warren Beatty troll the Oscars?

So you’re an actor-filmmaker with 14 Oscar nominations, winning Best Director and an honorary Oscar for producing. You spend decades developing your passion project on Howard Hughes and it not only flops but fails to get a single nomination from the academy.

Oh, you’re 79-year-old Warren Beatty, who has been trolling people by teasing and misleading them since before most of you were born. So what happens when you’re invited to present the Best Picture award with the co-star of your most famous film, from 50 years ago — two days before your latest movie arrives on DVD?

We sure saw last night.

Watching videos of the biggest gaffe in Oscar history this morning, it seems to me that Warren Beatty not only realized he was handed the wrong envelope, but that he was delighted at being handed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And decided to have a little fun with the people who snubbed him, as well as promoting his ironically named “Rules Don’t Apply” on a global scale.

As my former colleague Kyle Smith notes in his analysis in today’s New York Post, Beatty’s main acting mode has always been playing puzzlement. He certainly did that so masterfully last night that some viewers wondered on Twitter if he was senile. Hardly.

A few years ago, Beatty called me on my cellphone — he said, to explain why he couldn’t give me an interview promised by a publicist to promote the anniversary of “Red.” In a very entertaining 25 minutes he didn’t actually do that and said he MIGHT be able to meet with me after an upcoming screening in New York (Two interviews soon turned up in the New York Times and no, that invite never actually materialized).

Was Dunaway, who actually made the wrongful announcement that “La La Land” won Best Picture, in on the joke? I dunno. Maybe she thought about that scene in “Network” where her TV producer exults in the fact that the firing of Howard Beale pushed half a dozen huge stories off the front page of the Daily News? It’s equally possible that she was just too vain to wear her reading glasses and could only make out the name of the movie on the card, which was actually for the Best Actress winner.

Why did the show’s producers let this play out for several minutes before someone was sent out with the correct card? The conspiracy theorist in me likes to believe that they suddenly realized they had the viral moment they obviously so badly wanted to deliver, but bungled in that terribly contrived stunt where “civilians” were brought in as surprise guests.

This way, they got the priceless image of a white producer of “La La Land” literally handing off the Best Picture statuette to the black actor-director of “Moonlight.” Talk about the perfect optic for the year after #OscarsSoWhite.

And notice that the wily Warren Beatty, who has been on stage during this whole farce, is smiling like the Cheshire Cat in the background. And no doubt thinking about turning down interviews from every media outlet in the world a day before “Rules Don’t Apply” — his excellent comedy and ultimate statement about his love-hate relationship with Hollywood — hits DVD.