US / 67 minutes / bw / Universal Dir: Arthur Lubin Scr: George Waggner, Lester Cole Story: Synthetic Gentleman (1934) by Channing Pollock Cine: Milton Krasner Cast: Louis Hayward, Eric Linden, J.C. Nugent, Barbara Read, Irving Bacon, Robert Greig, Pierre Watkin, Sheila Bromley, Paul Everton, Nana Bryant, Joe Crehan, Selmer Jackson, Jan Duggan, Polly Bailey, Aileen Carlyle, Guy Usher, Fay Helm, Eric Wilton, Matty Fain.
Near-grifters Barry Gilbert (Hayward) and his elderly chum Doc Norton (Nugent), having been cleaned out at the races, hitch a ride to Belmont, New York State, where Barry’s convinced he can get a job, even if it’s only flipping burgers—after all, he’s had jobs before, as a journalist, an actor, a . . . The pair get a lift in the back of a truck, but when the driver turns off they have to climb out—in the middle of both the night and a rainstorm. The dialogue says they’re in Westchester; a bit of documentary evidence onscreen suggests Pleasantville. They creep up to a deserted house, break in, and prepare for a night of comfort before hitting the road again.
But just then the servants arrive. The house belongs to the publisher of the New York Globe, John Clark Reitter Sr (Everton)—the name’s pronounced “Ritter” because, er, because—who for reasons of ill health has embarked on a weeks-long cruise aboard the SS Manhattan with his wife (Bryant). She has, or so she thought, patched up the relationship between the elderly curmudgeon and his son John/Jack, who some years ago left home to go play the sax with jazz bands. (Barry, looking around at the luxurious home, judges: “Disowning’s too good for him!”) Mrs. Reitter has arranged that Jack should live in the house during his parents’ cruise. The servants have no idea that Barry isn’t Jack: they’ve never met the real Jack.
Next morning local resident Judge Hammond (Jackson) and his coquettish daughter Patricia “Pat” (Read)—a coquette with a sort of Barbara Stanwyck look—arrive to pay their respects. Hammond has been pilloried in Reitter’s newspaper for being in the pocket of NYC’s crime kingpin/political supremo Mike Kelly (Usher), but nevertheless wants to reach out to his tormentor’s son. Barry and Pat are instantly attracted.
During a soirée at the Hammonds’ home, the judge has a phonecall with Mike Kelly; it’s evident that the Globe’s accusations aren’t too wide of the mark. Kelly is at the time in a seedy niterie called the Coconut Club threatening the club’s owner, Luis Romano (Fain). Romano hopes to divert Kelly’s attention by siccing a couple of chorus girls on him. Kelly accuses one of them, a blonde, of trying to pick his pocket, and calls the cops.
Next day Kelly is found murdered, his head bashed in with a whiskey bottle (an undignified fate unless it was a single malt). It seems obvious to us that Judge Hammond is the culprit; it seems obvious to the cops that the killer is one Jay Rogers (Linden), which just happens to be the nom de guerre that the real John Clark Reitter Jr. has adopted. His wife Peggy (Bromley) arrives at the family homestead and essentially blackmails Barry into maneuvering the Reitter newspaper and millions into saving her husband from a lifetime in prison—or worse. In fact, Barry soon proves he’s a far nicer guy than she thinks by putting everything behind her effort to show Jack innocent . . .
J.C. Reitter Jr (Eric Linden) faces a stretch.
A decade later, this would likely have been made as a noir. In 1938, however, it had to be done as a twisty-teasy comic mystery. Most of the comedy centers on the character of Doc Norton. In the first half of the movie Doc makes so many dimwitted mistakes in front of the servants that it’s beyond belief that the butler, Willets (Greig)—so spelled in the credits but rendered as “Willetts” in a cable we briefly see—doesn’t see through the charade. Later the comedy works far better as Doc inveigles himself into the affections of bubbly widow Mrs. Randolph (Duggan). In the end (no spoiler here) he marries her. Typical of the mild raciness that makes Midnight Intruder feel like a Pre-Code movie even though it isn’t is this exchange:
Doc to newspapermen: “First, we’re going on a trip to the South Seas.”
Mrs. Randolph: “Yes. I just can’t wait to get him alone on an island.”
Another example occurs earlier, when “Peggy Rogers” arrives at the Reitter house at 2.30am demanding to see the fake John:
Doc: “Are you sure she was a lady, Willets?”
Willets: “Can one ever be?” [exits with a sniff]
Doc: “Probably only saw her from the back.”
There’s a tremendous twist at the end: Judge Hammond isn’t after all the murderer, the culprit being the person we should have thought of in the first place had we not been so cleverly misdirected.
Pollock, who wrote the novel upon which this movie is based—IMDB erroneously attributes it to a seemingly nonexistent short story (perhaps Pollock did a treatment based on his novel?)—was in his day a renowned playwright and fiction writer; he seems to be largely forgotten today. One of his books, The Footlights Fore and Aft (1911), is available from Project Gutenberg, and I’ll certainly be reading it at some point.
There are some pithy political comments in the screenplay. Not long after Barry and Doc have broken into the Reitter mansion, Barry observes: “Houses without people. People without houses. Funny world.” It’s a remark he repeats later. When the Reitter chauffeur Evans (Bacon) absconds for a day on discovering his wife might die through complications after childbirth, the elder John Clark apparently told him to go sling his hook; the interloper, like any normal human being, offers Evans and his family the free use of the apartment over the mansion’s garage. Barry may be a petty crook, but he has a whole lot more moral integrity than the plutocrat father of the man he’s impersonating.
The movie has a howling plot hole. Willets naturally wonders where John’s and Doc’s luggage has gotten to. They tell him it’s at the station and they’ll fetch it as soon as Evans gets home. Thereafter, all concerned forget about it!