US / 62 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir: Charles Barton Pr: Adolph Zukor Scr: Bertram Millhauser Story: Danger, Men Working (1935 play) by Ellery Queen, Lowell Brentano Cine: Harry Fischbeck Cast: Lew Ayres, Ruth Coleman, Eugene Pallette, Benny Baker, Vivienne Osborne, Colin Tapley, Howard C. Hickman, Robert Emmet O’Connor, Jed Prouty, Hattie McDaniel, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Terry Ray (i.e., Ellen Drew).
The dastardly deed is done.
Despite being able to list Ellery Queen (i.e., Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) as co-author, the stage play upon which this slight filler was based was a flop. Watching the movie, it’s not hard to see why. The plot’s very self-referential—it’s about these three guys, you see, trying to write a mystery play. The intention is obviously comic, yet gags are thin on the ground and the only cast member really capable of raising a smile is the redoubtable Hattie McDaniel; it’s wryly amusing that although, because of the conventions of the time, she had to play her part as a simpleton (black roles weren’t allowed to be too uppity in case Southern cinema managers declined to show the relevant movies), it’s quite clear that various cast members—notably Ayres—held her in high esteem. (Pallette was a card-carrying white supremacist. It must have been unpleasant for her having to share a cast list with him.)
Anyway, to recapitulate there are these three guys trying to write a mystery play: Nick Milburn (Ayres), Horace Dryden (Baker) and Babe Lawton (Pallette). They’ve accepted and spent an advance of $500 from impresario John Atherton (Gottschalk), and they’ve so far been unable to come up with a workable idea.
On the opposite side of the hall from Horace’s apartment, where they’ve been working, live Suzanne Duval (Osborne) and her husband Pierre (uncredited). She announces that she’s going away for a few days to White Plains. That night, however, Pierre staggers into Horace’s apartment dead drunk and soon collapses on the couch, spilling $15,000 from his pockets. Searching further, they discover he has a little black book: a diary containing names and addresses and enough information to make it obvious he’s a blackmailer.
Suzanne Duval (Vivienne Osborne) with dog Toto.
Nick has an idea. The three writers should disguise themselves as cops: Inspector Milburn, Officer Lawton and Police Doctor Dryden. They should then phone three of the people from Duval’s book, claim that Duval’s trying to make a last statement that might implicate them, and summon them to the apartment. One of the “suspects” is bound to say something indicative of guilt . . . and so the writers will have material for their mystery play.
Far-fetched? You bet it is.
First up is Dr. Randolph Brooks (Tapley), who quickly looks at the prone man and says he’s merely drunk—that he’s been Duval’s doctor for years and should know. Soon after, Kay Mallory (Coleman) arrives, standing in for her father, jeweler Robert Mallory (Hickman), whom she claims is too ill to come. Finally the lingerie supremo William Underhill (Prouty) turns up, spouting about lawyers and denying that he’s ever had anything to do with Duval.
Nick (Lew Ayres) in the guise of Inspector Milburn.
The three writers have put Duval behind a screen. At a moment when their attention is distracted and each of the three “suspects” is in a separate room, someone sneaks in through the french windows and finishes Duval off with an ice pick. Any of the three could technically have achieved this, as indeed could someone from outside. Still pretending to be with the police, the writers try to solve the case . . .
Kay Mallory (Ruth Coleman).
There are two key points. First is the discovery by Lawton that the corpse is that of not a man but a woman—of Suzanne Duval, in fact: clearly her m.o. was to seduce “respectable” men then play the part of the husband who threatened them with exposure unless they paid up. Second is the realization by Nick that the housemaid Ambrosia (McDaniel) knows a lot more than people tend to think she does, because they regard her as invisible. Although we ourselves have been able to identify the killer some while earlier, it’s Ambrosia who helps the writers solve the case.
One little quirk is that Underhill is played by Jed Prouty. In the Ellery Queen novels, the long-suffering police doctor is called Doc Prouty.
Apologies for the quality of the screengrabs. The only copy of this movie I could find was on YouTube.