These two Old Dark House melodramas were based on novels by Medora Field, a novelist of whom I knew nothing until recently, when Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp posted an essay about her. She was a friend of Margaret Mitchell (who encouraged her to write) and produced just the two novels. Before the end of this year (2014) the two are to be reissued as a double volume by Coachwhip, with an introduction by Evans. For more, see his piece at The Passing Tramp.
UPDATE: Evans has just announced that the two novels are now indeed back in print — as individual volumes, it appears, rather than a double volume. Go check out the covers and other details Right Now.
Who Killed Aunt Maggie? (1940)
US / 70(?) minutes / bw / Republic Dir: Arthur Lubin Scr: Stuart Palmer, Frank Gill Jr, Hal Fimberg Story: Who Killed Aunt Maggie? (1939) by Medora Field Cine: Reggie Lanning Cast: John Hubbard, Wendy Barrie, Edgar Kennedy, Elizabeth Patterson, Onslow Stevens, Joyce Compton, Walter Abel, Mona Barrie, Willie Best, Daisy Lee Mothershed, Milton Parsons.
Kirk Pierce (Hubbard) runs a company that produces radio shows for advertisers to endorse. The latest demo he’s listening to is The House with the Secret Room by Sally Ambler (Wendy Barrie), and he hates it:
Seven years I’ve been in the advertising business. Seven years I’ve built radio programs to sell people what they don’t want. But, if this omelette ever goes on the air, people will stop breathing it.
The air, that is. Not the omelette.
Unfortunately, he’s supposed to marry Sally within the hour. While they’re arguing fiercely, she gets a telegram telling her that her Uncle Charles is dying and she should go home as soon as possible to the family pile in Georgia, Wistaria Hall. She does just that, leaving Kirk with the idea that she’s jilting him; moments later there’s a phonecall from Wistaria Hall, from Dr. George Benedict (Abel), Sally’s brother-in-law, trying to reach her to tell her on no account to come home, as her life might be in danger there. So of course Kirk goes haring after her . . .
Aunt Maggie (Elizabeth Patterson) addresses her brood.
By the time Sally gets to the family mansion Uncle Charles is dead. She learns his will leaves everything to her Aunt Maggie (Patterson); when Aunt Maggie dies, the inheritance comes to Sally herself. The gathered relatives are surprisingly friendly about this, although bubbly airhead Cynthia Lou Ambler (Compton) giggles a protest or two while Eve Benedict (Mona Barrie), George’s wife, pouts with delicious eloquence. Also present is Bob Dunbar (Stevens), an old flame of Sally’s who clearly thinks he’s still in with a chance of romance despite her betrothal to Kirk.
George Benedict (Walter Abel) and Kirk Pierce (John Hubbard) try a little bonding.
Then . . .
- Uncle Charles’s corpse disappears. There’s talk that it might have been taken (why?) to the mansion’s secret room—about which nothing is known except that it’s rumored to house a priceless collection of antique jade statuary.
- Kirk arrives. The phone line is cut. Kirk enterprisingly splices it back together again.
- A mysterious guest arrives, claiming to be John Lloyd (Parsons), a salesman sent by a tombstone company—summoned, apparently, even before Uncle Charles died.
- An old diary is found that belonged to Aunt Maggie’s grandmother; it’s virtually indecipherable but is purported to contain the location of the secret room. While she’s reading it, Aunt Maggie is strangled.
- The cops arrive, led by “humorously” incompetent Sheriff Gregory (Kennedy).
- Eve Benedict rediscovers grandmother’s diary and uses it to discover how to get into the secret room . . . but then she‘s strangled, her corpse substituted for that of Aunt Maggie, which has now vanished . . .
A mysterious guest, the tombstone salesman John Lloyd (Milton Parsons). Is he all that he seems??
And so it goes, on and on. Apparently the movie ran 70 minutes when it was released but all that seems to survive is the ~53-minute version edited by Hollywood Television Service to fit an hour-long slot. Yet even 53 minutes starts to seem like quite a long time—not because the movie is bad, precisely (despite sets so visibly cheap that walls can sway when doors are firmly shut, it has a cast stuffed with some of B-cinema’s finest), but because the proceedings become, well, wearying. Matters aren’t helped by the clowning of Kennedy as the gormless sheriff and the supposedly hilarious racist depiction of Andrew (Best), the family butler, as the spineless, cowardly, dimwitted black servant. (Best actually performs the role very well, with excellent comedic timing, but it’s hard to laugh at his gags when we’re so angry about the stereotyping.)
Cynthia Lou (Joyce Compton) estimates the size of her stocking.
By the end, the killer has turned out to be who you thought it was probably going to be, we still have no explanation for his penchant of hiding corpses away in the secret room, and Kirk and Sally are, with absolute predictability, reconciled—because, obviously, the events they’ve just lived through closely match those of her radio play, The House with the Secret Room! But then the arguments start again . . .
The English actress Wendy Barrie was born Marguerite Wendy Jenkins, but took the stage name Wendy Barrie in honor of her godfather, J.M. Barrie, author of the play Peter Pan and, in that play, inventor of the name Wendy. Mona Barrie, born Mona Barlee Smith, was also English, although reared in Australia. The two Ms. Barries were unrelated.
Sally (Wendy Barrie) thinks Aunt Maggie (Elizabeth Patterson) has merely nodded off, but . . .
Eve (Mona Barrie) goes snooping.
Is this comic melodrama a good movie? No. Is it an entertaining movie? By and large, yes, at least moderately so, mainly because of its excellent female cast; the male cast, Abel and Best aside, runs the gamut from run-of-the-mill to not so good as that. According to Curtis Evans, Republic made gross changes to the novel in adapting it to the screen, none of them (I read between the lines) for the better. Even so, it’s an interesting curio for a Halloween night.
The Girl who Dared (1944)
US / 56(?) minutes / bw / Republic Dir: Howard Bretherton Scr: John K. Butler Story: Blood on Her Shoe (1942) by Medora Field Cine: Bud Thackery Cast: Lorna Gray, Peter Cookson, Grant Withers, Veda Ann Borg, John Hamilton, Willie Best, Vivien Oakland, Roy Barcroft, Kirk Alyn, Kenne Duncan.
This movie and its predecessor share quite a few situations in common (and not just that Willie Best plays essentially the same part in both, except here he’s called Woodrow rather than Andrew). My first guess was that the moviemakers had borrowed some material from the second novel to put into the first movie, but the dates of the novels and the movies don’t bear that out. According to Curtis Evans, who has been very helpful with information, the first movie bears little resemblance beyond the setup and the secret room to the novel upon which it was ostensibly based, while the second movie follows the novel Blood on Her Shoe more closely. However, those features The Girl who Dared shares with the earlier movie (see below) seem mainly to have been imported directly from it by the moviemakers. The biggest difference between the two movies is that, while the first is unabashedly a comedy thriller, the second largely plays things straight, albeit with Willie Best’s character offering moments of “comic” (if you’re a racist) relief. Again, Best plays the part excellently; it’s just that one wishes the audiences for which this movie was made weren’t so numbskulled that black actors were reduced to performing this sort of crap.
The Girl who Dared opens with an invitation printed on a skull-and-crossbones card:
On their way to join the jolly ghost-hunt, Beau’s cousins Ann Carroll (Gray) and her brother Josh (Alyn) stop at a gas station to have the engine checked. Josh is fairly rude to the mechanic, who promptly announces that it’ll take days to fix the engine; however, out of the goodness of his heart he’ll run them out to Heron Point in his own car.
Once they’re there, the mechanic—in fact, as we in due course learn, insurance investigator Rufus Blair (Cookson)—secretly doctors his car and, under the pretext that it has broken down, is only too eager to accept the offer of a night’s lodging from Beau Richmond (Hamilton) and his wife Chattie (Oakland). The other members of the house party are Homer Norton (Withers), David Scott (Barcroft) and his estranged wife Sylvia (Borg), and Sylvia’s near-identical twin sister Cynthia Harrison (also Borg). Since Josh has evidently had a recently terminated amour with Sylvia and since David, equally evidently, still wants her back, there’s clearly more than just the potential for some tension in the household.
There’s even more tension when Beau announces that, even though they’re glad to have the guests here, he and Chattie were not in fact the ones to send out the invitations. (It’s never explained exactly who did send those invitations out. Certainly it’s impossible to think of any reason why the eventually revealed murderer might do so.) To ratchet the unease up yet further, news comes over the radio that the cops are searching far and wide for Dr. Paul Dexter (Duncan), a rogue scientist who has fled with a fortune’s worth of radium in three little cylinders.
Things really start to heat up when, after the usual Old Dark House stuff of people seeing faces at the windows, Sylvia sneaks down to the cellar for some unspecified but seemingly nefarious purpose, and is—it seems—attacked in the darkness by a mysterious figure. After she’s rescued from the cellar by Rufus and David, she claims she was simply startled by a rat, a claim belied by the fact that there’s a smear of blood on her shoe.
Later that night the already somewhat unnerved revelers go out on the ghost-hunt, and are startled by a little ghostly prank that Beau plays on them—Sylvia so much so that she faints clean away . . . except that what’s really happened, as the party soon discovers, is that in the gloom of night, making use of the distraction of the “ghost”, someone has fatally stabbed her in the back. The understandably jittery survivors cover up her corpse, return to the house and, on discovering that the phone line is down (in fact, it has been cut), decide to send Woodrow into town to fetch the cops. Under circumstances identical to those in Who Killed Aunt Maggie?, Woodrow now finds that none of the cars will start.
Homer (Grant Withers) and Sylvia (Veda Ann Borg) watch Beau’s spectral stunt.
So, even though knowing that there must be a murderer among them, the party decides to bed down for the night and get a little shuteye. Rufus, allocated a couch in the study, hints to Ann that a little joint bedding down might be fun, shuteye optional; the offer is firmly but amicably rejected.
Ann (Lorna Gray) finds that the phone line has been cut — as if she might have expected anything else in an Old Dark House movie. In the background is Willie Best as butler Woodrow.
Later that night Ann wakes and, dozing, suddenly recognizes the clue that unravels much of the murder mystery. In order to check her suspicions, she slinks out of the house to go investigate Sylvia’s corpse . . . only to faint dead away on discovering that it has
Yes, just as in the earlier movie, you can’t leave a corpse lying around anywhere without someone filching it away to a secret hiding place. (This time, though, there’s an explanation of sorts.) Luckily Rufus followed her; when he carries her back into the house, the luckless Woodrow is dispatched to the cellar, where he discovers another corpse, this time that of a stranger—a stranger whom Rufus briskly identifies as that of the renegade Dr. Paul Dexter!
Next day Rufus fixes his car and heads off into town to fetch the cops; when he doesn’t return after a few hours, the others assume he must have been the killer and has now done a runner.
Ann (Lorna Gray), Chattie (Vivien Oakland) and Woodrow (Willie Best) try to get the hysterical Cynthia to take her breakfast.
But no! That night he returns and, meeting Ann in the Heron Point grounds, tells her that the murders are all tied up with the stolen radium, that Dexter was acting in concert with Sylvia—having cut her in on the deal in hopes of winning her heart—and that there must have been a third conspirator, who has knocked off the other two to retain all the ill gotten proceeds for himself. Together Ann and Rufus discover the hidden outside entrance to a secret passage that leads under and into the house (echoing the earlier movie), discover Sylvia’s corpse hidden there (echoing the earlier movie), and are overheard by the murderer as they exchange information and deduction (almost echoing the earlier movie).
Ann (Lorna Gray) and Rufus (Peter Cookson) search the grounds with Rufus’s extra-special sciency-looking radiation-detecting gadget — a Geiger counter was apparently beyond the moviemakers’ ken.
The final exposure of the killer is brought about by a piece of technological deceit reminiscent of the ploy used by Inspector Gregory in Death at Broadcasting House (1934): in this instance the pretense is that anyone who’s been in prolonged contact with radium will cause an outburst of static as they walk past the radio. The killer, who knows this is hokum, is prepared to take the test but, as he does so, Ann rubs a wire against the wall outlet to create a rush of static. And so the killer bolts for the exit . . . and straight into the arms of the cops.
This is a very much better put-together movie than its predecessor: better scripted, better paced, better directed and better photographed, with better—or at least more robustly constructed!—scenery and props. With the exception of classic femme fatale Veda Ann Borg in not one but two roles (both fairly small, alas), it lacks the sort of stellar B-movie cast that Who Killed Aunt Maggie? enjoyed, but the players by and large make a more than adequate job of things; Borg in particular manages quite subtly to give the two twins different personalities, then later with great skill uses that same disparity to trick us as to what’s going on. The movie’s real problem is that, because it has to have plenty of characters in order to keep us thoroughly misdirected as to the identity of the perpetrator, some of them—especially Josh Carroll and Chattie Richmond—really don’t have very much to do except hang around making up the numbers.
The version I watched was the ~53-minute TV cut prepared by Hollywood Television Service to fit into an hour-long slot; it may be the only surviving version. According to most sources, the original running time was not much longer: 56 minutes. This isn’t at all impossible for one of these Republic quickies, yet the number of minor continuity errors and oddly jarring edits—both typical symptoms of cutting—hint at an original running time more like 60+ minutes than 56.