vt Amateur Detective
US / 54 minutes / bw / Monogram Dir: Howard Bretherton Assoc Pr: Grant Withers Scr: Mary McCarthy Story: “Death Hops the Bells” (seemingly unpublished) by Charles Molyneux Brown Cine: Harry Neumann Cast: Frankie Darro, Dick Purcell, Lillian Elliott, Dennis Moore, James Flavin, Sheila Darcy, Mantan Moreland, Ralph Peters, Donald Kerr, Howard Mitchell.
The first of the eight movies Darro and Moreland made for Poverty Row studio Monogram together; although the name and specifics of Darro’s character might change, these movies essentially form a series of comedy thrillers/mysteries with minimal but not zero noir interest.
Jefferson (Mantan Moreland) fakes a “jumper” in order to bring the cops to the scene.
It was at Darro’s suggestion that Monogram took Moreland on, and the effectiveness of the Darro/Moreland double act was immediately evident. Although in his earlier scenes Moreland is largely constricted to depicting the kind of weak-minded, cowardly black that the Hollywood of the day regarded as hilarious, the later stages of this movie represent the first black/white double act in US cinema history, even though, to keep Southern cinema managers happy, Moreland appears halfway down the cast list and throughout proceedings was made to address Darro “deferentially”: how woesomely petty and just downright tedious small-minded bigotry can be. The irony is that today, of course, it’s probably Moreland’s presence rather than Darro’s that still draws audiences to these movies. The two men swiftly became fast friends in real life; Darro himself clearly didn’t subscribe to the condescension Hollywood then offered toward people of color.
The others in the series were:
• Chasing Trouble (1940)
• On the Spot (1940)
• Laughing at Danger (1940)
• Up in the Air (1940)
• The Gang’s All Here (1941)
• Let’s Go Collegiate (1941)
All the city’s emergency services are called out when a woman seems to be threatening to throw herself from the roof of the Hotel Royale. When Detective Steve Lanahan (Purcell) arrives on the scene, he discovers the potential “jumper” is in fact a fashion dummy being wheeled along the roof’s edge by hotel janitor “Jeff” Jefferson (Moreland). Jeff explains this has been a ruse devised by bellhop Buzzy O’Brien (Darro) to bring the cops here to nab the thieves who carried out the Lincoln Trust bonds robbery, currently resident in the hotel.
Lanahan duly catches the crooks, but extracts from Buzzy a promise to stop his amateur sleuthing: if it weren’t for the fact that Buzzy’s dad—long ago deceased because of “a couple of bullets in his back”—mentored Lanahan when the latter was still a rookie cop, Lanahan would . . . but he doesn’t. Keen to see Buzzy fired is house dick Fluger (Flavin), who earlier ignored Buzzy’s suspicions about the hoodlums.
Buzzy’s promise lasts just until he takes a shine to new hotel resident Kitty Monahan (Darcy); he immediately recognizes the sibling resemblance between her and another recently installed guest, registered as Elliott but, as later proves, in fact her brother Jim (Moore). Jim has been accused of complicity in the loss of either $300,000 or $100,000 (the designated sum varies during the movie) in bonds from the Ashport Bank, whose VP, Thaddeus Porter, has just booked into the hotel. When Porter is found murdered things look bad for both Monahans.
Buzzy smuggles Kitty out of the hotel to the home of his dear old, broguely Irish mom (Elliott), who’s at first skeptical but, on hearing the girl has the name Kitty Monahan, is—in probably the movie’s funniest moment—immediately tripping over herself to help this obviously innocent damsel in distress.
By the time Buzzy and Jeff infiltrate Fluger’s room to find Jim drowning in the bathtub, another corpse on the floor and an attaché full of bonds in a golfclub case, it’s clear we’re not in P.D. James territory, but the mystery’s neatly enough woven and the clues fairly planted. Scripter McCarthy went on to much grander things, earning international renown for novels like The Group (1963), but there’s nothing wrong, within the parameters forced on her by Monogram, with her work here—and she manages to include some good snappy exchanges, especially between our heroes; for example:
Buzzy: “I’ve got to get into the room.”
Jefferson: “You keep this up, we’ll both be in a room—with bars on!”
Elliott, as Mrs. O’Brien, looks—presumably through deliberate makeup efforts—like a silent-movie character actress magically transplanted into this much later talkie. It’s an interesting effect, although it’s hard to know why it was sought.
This movie has nothing to do with Irish Luck (1925) dir Victor Heerman, in which Thomas Meighan plays NYC cop Tom Donahue, who goes to Ireland to see his longlost family, discovers he’s the double of dastardly Lord Fitzhugh (Meighan again) and wins the love of fair Lady Gwendolyn (Lois Wilson).
On Amazon.com: Irish Luck