US / 68 minutes / bw / Tower Dir: Christy Cabanne Pr: Sig Neufeld Scr: Edward T. Lowe Jr. Story: The Red-Haired Alibi (1932) by Wilson Collison Cine: Harry Forbes Cast: Merna Kennedy, Theodore von Eltz, Grant Withers, Purnell Pratt, Huntley Gordon, Fred Kelsey, Arthur Hoyt, Paul Porcassi, John Vosburgh, Shirley Temple, Marion Lessing.
Lynn Monith (Kennedy), a native of Columbus, Ohio, and perfume-counter girl at the Hotel Savoy there, allows herself to be taken out for dinner at a nearby biergarten after work one night by suave hotel guest Trent Travers (von Eltz)—although she makes it clear this is going to be a strictly hands-off appointment. He tells her that, if ever she comes to New York City, he has a job for her.
Travers (Theodore von Eltz) sounds Lynn out.
A few months later the Hotel Savoy closes down and Lynn is out of a job. She comes to NYC and puts herself up at a swanky hotel she can ill afford. However, when she phones Travers’s home, his man Joe (uncredited), tells her the boss is out of town for a while but will phone her on his return. During a wait that depletes her meager savings, she encounters in the hotel lobby wealthy businessman Bob Shelton (Withers)—she has inadvertently sat on his hat—and, because he’s alone in town and she likewise, they go out to a show together . . . once again on a strictly hands-off basis; aside from anything else, he’s still technically married although his marriage is on the rocks.
A flattened hat is the icebreaker for Lynn (Merna Kennedy) and Bob (Grant Withers).
The next day Travers, back in town, contacts her and puts his proposition to her. From time to time, for business purposes, he needs to have an attractive woman on his arm whom he can claim is his steady. For this service he’ll put Lynn up in an apartment, give her a generous clothing allowance and pay her $100 a week. She makes it plain that the arrangement must go no further than that, and he accepts this after making a very weak token pass: “You don’t smoke, you don’t drink. What do you do?” She is determined to retain her status as a “nice girl”:
Travers: “There are thousands of pretty girls in this town looking for jobs, and they end up on the streets . . . or in the morgue.”
Lynn: “Well, the morgue may get me, but not the streets.”
Travers: “You’ve never been really hungry. When you get really hungry, you’ll do almost anything.”
Lynn (Merna Kennedy) listens to Travers’s job offer.
Soon she’s soon playing the public role of Mrs. Travers. Alarmingly, bearing in mind that she’s presented to us as an intelligent woman, it doesn’t dawn on her that Travers, for all his charm and apparent sophistication, might be a ruthless gangster—even when he engineers her into being his alibi as he plants a bomb in the HQ of his arch-rival, Morgan (Vosburgh).
As time goes on, Travers becomes more than a little enamored of Lynn and she, although she hides it well, of him. But she continues to make it clear that there’s to be no foolin’ around:
Lynn: “Our host [at a house party] knows the Travers’s peculiarities about separate rooms?”
Travers: “Yes. And everybody thinks I’m crazy. Well, maybe I am.”
Lynn: “O-o-o-hm-oh, I don’t think so.”
The night that Travers lures Morgan to an antiques store and shoots him down in cold blood is the last straw for Lynn. Left literally holding the gun and with strict instructions to tell anyone who asks that her “husband” is in Cleveland, she decides to walk out. Just before she leaves, the cops arrive, in the form of Inspector Regan (Pratt) and his sidekick Detective Corcoran (Kelsey). On hearing her story, Regan uncharacteristically takes pity on her and, reckoning there’s no more she can help their inquiries, tells her to get out of town before Morgan’s goons come around looking for revenge—White Plains, perhaps?
“You don’t look dumb,” Inspector Regan (Purnell Pratt) tells Lynn (Merna Kennedy).
Arrived in White Plains, Lynn finds that Mrs. A.S. Johnson (uncredited) of the employment agency has no interest in her because she has no references. Just at that moment, however, who should walk in but Bob Shelton, that businessman whose hat she once sat on, who’s seeking a nanny for his four-year-old daughter, Gloria (Temple). He well remembers Lynn—he likely never washed that hat again—and employs her on the spot. Gloria soon adores Lynn and Lynn and Bob soon adore each other, so wedding bells ring.
A joyous reunion between Bob (Grant Withers) and Lynn (Merna Kennedy) . . . and another, very different job offer.
Some time later, Lynn goes with Bob to see him off from Grand Central Station on a business trip. Unfortunately, she’s spotted by Travers on the concourse. He follows her home to White Plains and puts the squeeze on her. The newspapers are trumpeting that he’s on the lam from both the cops and Morgan’s gang. He needs to get out of the country, and fast, and tells her to bring $10,000 to a room at the nearby Peacock Inn that evening or else . . .
Lynn (Merna Kennedy) and Gloria (Shirley Temple) — it was love at first sight.
Red-Haired Alibi quite often creaks under the weight of budgetary constraints, but it’s a surprisingly good little movie. What really sets it apart are some of the performances. Von Eltz delivers an extremely fine turn as Travers, smooth and cultivated almost all of the while yet with the hardness showing at times of stress, as when the cops give chase after Morgan’s killing and most especially when, desperate as the cordon grows tighter, he threatens Lynn to try to force the $10,000 out of her. The actor had come up via Broadway and a successful career as a lead in the silents, so it’s no surprise that he’s so excellent here. His best known noirish role was as the blackmailer Arthur Gwynn Geiger in The BIG SLEEP (1946).
Good as von Eltz is, he’s outshone by Kennedy, who has a screen presence of enormous likability. Even though Lynn lies fluently to protect Travers when she believes him to be one of the good guys, Kennedy’s rendition of her as a woman of fundamentally great integrity is completely plausible. Like von Eltz, Kennedy had graduated to the talkies from the stage (vaudeville, in her case) and the silents; her greatest moment there was as Merna, the bareback rider with whom The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) falls in love in The Circus (1928). She retired from the cinema in 1934 to become Busby Berkeley’s fourth wife; the union didn’t last long, however, and the couple divorced the following year. Tragically, Kennedy died of a heart attack in 1944, aged just 36.
Lynn (Merna Kennedy) pulls a gun on Travers (Theodore von Eltz) at the Peacock Inn.
Although one or two of the editing cuts are a little clumsy, to compensate for this there are also some very neat bits of editing, with one or two of the fades being more imaginative than you’d expect in a cheapie filler. Forbes’s cinematography shows some imagination too. In one especially well staged scene, Bob is building up to asking for Lynn’s hand in marriage. The camera approaches the couple over the back of a couch and then follows the discourse fairly close up. When Bob gets into the formal proposal, however, the camera sedately retreats the way it came, back up over the couch, and, as it does so, the sound (engineered by Corson Jowett) fades as if we’re genuinely withdrawing from the conversation, so that we hear Bob’s proposal as little more than a distant mumble.
There are some irritations too. Hoyt, as Henri, a prying waiter at the Peacock Inn, milks his part for all it’s worth, with the result that soon we’re just wishing he would shut up. Temple displays the moppety cuteness she would deploy so effectively in a few years’ time, but at this stage she’s just a little too young to master the art of, well, acting. For a mercy the traditional part of the main detective’s dumb sidekick, here fulfilled by Kelsey as Corcoran, is not nearly so intrusive or crassly slapstick as these roles usually were; at the same time, it’s still pretty annoying. And the twist ending, although it wraps up the plot neatly, is really a bit of a copout.
With first-rate performances from the two leads, who have a good chemistry together, Red-Haired Alibi remains constantly involving. Within the limitations of a genre where cheapness and speed were a production’s most important criteria, this achieves far more than we had any right to anticipate.
On Amazon.com: Red-Haired Alibi / Stolen Jools
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