US / 74 minutes / bw / Liberty, Republic Dir: Lewis D. Collins Pr: M.H. Hoffman Scr: Albert DeMond Story: The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) by Ellery Queen Cine: Gilbert Warrenton Cast: Helen Twelvetrees, Donald Cook, Berton Churchill, Frank Sheridan, Harry Stubbs, Guy Usher, Huntly Gordon, Jack La Rue, Betty Blythe, Olaf Hytten, Ruth Gillette, Frank Leigh, Barbara Bedford, George Baxter, Katherine Morrow, Arnold Gray, Donald Kerr, Lee Prather, George Cleveland, Arthur Aylesworth, Richard Cramer.
This first screen outing for the doyen of US detectives, Ellery Queen, is better than what I’ve seen of the Ralph Bellamy-starring series that followed a few years later—and one of which, Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941), I describe here—but this doesn’t constitute the highest of praise. It’s a fairly standard B detective mystery of its day, although with the advantage that the screenwriters saw fit not to give us a detective oozing with quirk; the Ellery portrayed here is if anything less quirky than the Ellery depicted in the original novel, who was more along Philo Vance lines. It’s almost as if Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, the two cousins who together wrote under the Queen byline, took a tip from this movie, because, as the print Ellery evolved, he became more like this one.
Ellery (Cook) and his much older good friend Judge Macklin (Churchill) decide to take a vacation together in California—on Spanish Cape, to be precise, where Macklin has rented the Weaver cottage, near to the estate of the wealthy Godfrey family. Before the two men depart NYC, Ellery’s dad, Inspector Queen (Usher)—here bizarrely called Jim rather than Richard!—persuades Ellery quickly to solve a case involving thief Gardner (La Rue), who has stolen a valuable necklace from jeweler Du Pre (Hytten).
Ellery Queen (Donald Cook) and Judge Macklin (Berton Churchill).
Arrived at the Weaver cottage, Ellery and the judge discover bound and gagged therein Stella Godfrey (Twelvetrees). Last night her uncle, David Kummer (Gordon), took her to a gazebo in the grounds to give her a paternal-style lecture on the conduct of her love life. As they went back to the house they were abducted by a mysterious gunman (Cramer), who took them to the Weaver cottage, where he tied Stella to a chair. The last she saw of her uncle he was being carried down the beach toward the sea by the monosyllabic kidnapper.
Ellery and the judge take Stella home, where they discover a household full of tensions. Stella’s curmudgeonly father Walter (Sheridan) objects vociferously to the fact that he’s been descended upon by the potential heirs—of whom he’s one—to an elderly aunt’s fortune. Apparently the aunt left the dough to her longtime companion, and various of her relatives are hoping to break her will. Walter reckons they’re bloodsuckers and gold-diggers (and who would gainsay him?). He has the same opinion of Stella’s fiancé Leslie Court (Gray), even though the two were childhood sweethearts. Others among the greedy crew are George Munn (Aylesworth) and his attractive but downtrodden wife (Bedford), the widowed Mrs. Laura Constable (Gillette), and a suave crook called John Marco (Baxter).
Soon Marco is discovered dead—hit over the head, strangled with a length of wire, and dressed in swimming trunks and an opera cape. A day goes by and Munn is likewise found strangled and dressed in swimming trunks. Despite an obvious attraction to Stella (“Why, her eyes are like Lake Como when it challenges the splendor of the Italian skies.”)—an attraction that’s seemingly reciprocated—Ellery doesn’t want to get involved in the case, and the judge is equally keen that he shouldn’t. Matters are left in the hands of idiot local cop Sheriff Moley (Stubbs), one of those loudly blustering boobies that Hollywood used to think were so hilarious. Moley keeps trying to arrest people on flimsy or zero evidence; Ellery keeps pointing out the folly; oh, hold my sides in case they split.
Sheriff Moley (Harry Stubbs), the epitome of the stupid-cop figure so popular in Hollywood at the time, berates Mrs. Godfrey (Betty Blythe) as Laura Constable (Ruth Gillette) looks on.
Court, Stella’s fiancé, is discovered dead and swimming-trunked. Could there be a pattern here? The oddest part is that no one seems to give much of a damn about the murdered people, or even about the missing Uncle David. Stella at least explains briefly that she’s having difficulty taking the murders seriously, as if they weren’t really happening—besides, she and Leslie split up the morning before his death—but it seems odd that Mrs. Munn shows no real reaction to her husband’s demise, no matter how ghastly he was to her. The only person to seem overly disturbed by the carnage is the very pretty housemaid, Pitts (Morrow), who starts having weepy fits after Court’s death; it seems one of the reasons his engagement to Stella fell apart was that he’d fallen in love with her.
By the time Laura Constable gets shoved off a cliff—well, at least it’s a change of m.o.—it’s pretty obvious what the motive for the killings is and indeed who the murderer must be. It takes Ellery a little longer to get there, but get there he of course does. And it seems he also, in most un-Elleryish fashion, gets the girl.
A gay and laughing Helen Twelvetrees as Stella.
Twelvetrees is always a pleasure to watch—at least for elderly lechers such as yr. humble svt.—but no one else in the (very large) cast does any perceptible shining and a couple of the actors, Stubbs and Sheridan, ham things up fearfully. The screenplay’s a somewhat dumbed-down adaptation of a very good detective novel. All in all, then, this is not what you might call a good movie; but it is of interest in that for once there’s a screen portrayal of Ellery Queen that’s not too much a travesty of the character we know from the novels.