Paper Orchid (1949)

UK / 85 minutes / bw / Ganesh, Columbia Dir: Roy Baker (i.e., Roy Ward Baker) Pr: John R. Sloan Scr: Val Guest, Arthur La Bern Story: Paper Orchid (1948) by Arthur La Bern Cine: Basil Emmott Cast: Hugh Williams, Hy Hazell, Garry Marsh, Sidney James, Ivor Barnard, Andrew Cruickshank, Walter Hudd, Ella Retford, Hughie Green, Vida Hope, Frederick Leister, Vernon Greeves, Patricia Owens, Rolf Lefebvre, Ray Ellington Quartet.


Paper Orchid - 0a other opener

Stella Mason (Hazell), whose journalistic credentials are that she’s the daughter of the editor of a provincial newspaper, the Littlehampton Trumpet, bluffs her way into a job at the Daily National on the pretext that she once saw the National’s proprietor, Lord Croup, in Littlehampton with a floozie. Her tale should have gotten her booted out of the National’s offices but, at her interview with widowered Chief Editor Frank “Mac” McSweeney (Williams), it’s evident that she’s caught his eye:

Mac: Tell me, have you had any experience?
Stella: Oh, yes, I’ve had lots of experience.
Mac: Yes, I’m sure you have, but I mean . . . I mean newspaper experience.

Mac takes her on, on probation, for a month, even though he has severe doubts about employing a female journalist: so far as he’s concerned, journalism is a man’s job. The idea that the newspaper industry is infested with this sexist idiocy is reinforced throughout the movie, with even the proprietor’s widow, Lady Croup (Retford), later pronouncing that journalism is “very much a man’s job.” (A similar device kickstarted the much earlier movie Back Page [1934], about which I’ve written on this site.)

Paper Orchid - 3 Stella

Stella (Hy Hazell).

Stella starts what’s basically a gossip column, “Orchids for You,” for the National—“I worked my fingers down to the nail varnish”—and gains herself the nickname Paper Orchid, or just Orchid. The opinion her colleagues have of this column is perhaps best expressed by the paper’s Chief Crime Reporter, Frederick Cuthbert “Freddy” Evans (James): “We use a slightly different phrase in this office.”

Paper Orchid - 1 Freddy confronts Mac over the hiring of Stella

Freddy (Sidney James) confronts Mac (Hugh Williams) over the hiring of Stella.

As will be obvious, the screenplay for the first half of the movie is full of (relatively innocent) innuendo, plus some quite strong suggestions—later falsified—that Stella and Mac initiate an affair. The falsification comes when Freddy tries to tell her that Mac has strong feelings for her:

Stella [of Mac]: “I don’t think I’m his type.”
Freddy: “You don’t think it was your writing talent got you that first job, do you?”

Luckily for Stella, “Orchids for You” proves to be phenomenally popular among the newspaper’s target demographic.

Lord Croup dies and, as the senior staff of the National swill champagne in celebration, they’re met with the dire news that his widow, complete with a couple of ill tempered yappy little Pekinese, has decided to take over her late husband’s role. She proceeds to fire executive “Johnny” Johnson (Marsh) because he dislikes her dogs and, soon after, Mac himself when she discovers that he and the others are planning a coup. The reason she learns this is that the Night Subeditor, Eustace Crabbe (Barnard), rats to her about the machinations. As reward, Crabbe gets Mac’s job.

Paper Orchid - 2 Lady Croup, preparin' for a firin'

Lady Croup (Ella Retford), preparin’ to do some firin’.

Johnny has by now landed a place at a rival newspaper, the World Record. He organizes a meeting between Mac and that paper’s staid Editor, Walter “Wib” Wibberley (Leister); the result is that Mac becomes the Record’s Associate Editor. It seems inevitable that other National journalists—Stella included—will be hired across to the rival.

On a visit to Stella’s mews house, Mac discovers that she has been allowing “obscure genius” sculptor Peter Pasterman (Lefebvre) to rent her loft, despite his habitual failure to come through with the rent. Pasterman has been being promoted by energetic yet obviously ineffectual press agent Jonquil “Jonqui” Jones (Hope). Eventually Stella discovers Pasterman with his throat cut in her attic. Her response to being told (much later) by Divisional Detective-Inspector Clem Pill (Cruickshank) that the sculptor has been dead for not just a few hours but at least fifteen is telling: “That means he was dead when I left here [for work] this morning.”

Paper Orchid - 4 Pill aggressively interviews Stella

Detective-Inspector Clem Pill (Andrew Cruickshank) aggressively interviews Stella.

Mac delays the report to the police of the murder, because he reckons the importance of the scoop will far outweigh whatever repercussions might come from the cops over the suppression of evidence. But eventually the moment can’t be put off any longer, and onto the scene comes Pill.

Weak circumstantial evidence against Stella begins to pile up, and Inspector Pill takes note. He finally arrests her when he discovers the murder weapon—a sculptor’s blade—hidden in the suitcase she packed. By this time it’s as clear as day to those of us in the audience that Stella is as pure as the driven snow . . . at least insofar as this crime is concerned. For much of the latter part of the movie it seems plain who the murderer must be. This is a clever red herring; in due course we discover the culprit was someone else entirely.

Along the way we’ve been introduced to Lady Croup’s nephew Harold (Green, in a role that could hardly be further removed from his persona as the presenter of the long-running UK talent show Opportunity Knocks; on radio 1949–56, on TV 1956–78); she has decided to appoint him as the National’s Spiritual Editor, a job title that doubtless seemed a lot sillier to viewers in 1949 than it does in our own, religion- and New Age-saturated era. Harold’s first story is titled “I Found Valhalla in Wapping.” More interesting is Mary (Owens), Mac’s twenty-ish daughter; elsewhere on this site we encounter Owens in a somewhat steamier part in Crow Hollow (1952). Mary thinks her dad should employ her fiancé John Deane (Greeves) at the National; by the time John gets there, Mac has been fired and Crabbe installed in his place . . . yet vindictively Crabbe employs John where Mac never would have. An irony arises when John becomes the first National journalist to get hold of the Pasterman murder story . . .

Paper Orchid - 5 Stella in the bar with kindly John Deane

Stella (Hy Hazell) in the bar with kindly John Deane (Vernon Greeves).

The movie’s filled with examples of cynicism—La Bern’s, we have to assume—about the mores of the newspaper industry. After Stella has discovered Pasterman’s body and recruited Mac as moral support, they debate for a while the possibility of trying to feed the story out through Freddy:

Stella: “But if we make him promise on his honor [to keep me out of it]?”
Mac: “In circumstances like this, newspapermen like Freddy have no honor. . . . And neither have I.”

A little later, while Mac and Wib at the Record are discussing how best to make sure other papers don’t jump onto the Record’s bandwagon in reporting the murder, we get this exchange:

Wib: “But this Stella Mason—she’s a stupid girl.”
Mac: “That’s why I want to give her a byline.”

Mac’s point is that, a few weeks ago, Stella published in her “Orchids to You” column a story about a bishop and a chorus girl that proved to be completely false. By the time it did so, however, every other newspaper on Fleet Street had echoed the story. Now, Mac reasons, there’d be not an editor in town who’d reprint a Stella Mason-bylined story.

The script is full of humor, and this can easily lead people to categorize Paper Orchid as a comedy mystery, but in reality it’s quite a lot darker than that. Although there’s no overt gore, it’s obvious that the murder has been pretty messy and a later death even more so. The ending—the solution to the murder—might seem to be a bit arbitrary, but in hindsight it’s perfectly satisfying. Where the movie might better be judged to fall down is in its apparent lack of knowing where to anchor itself: it purports to be Stella’s story (she’s the Paper Orchid, after all), but by the end she’s become almost peripheral, with characters like Mac and Freddy and Lady Croup—and even the National’s News Editor, “Briggy” Briggs (Hudd)—having usurped the center stage. As the movie closes, while we have a solution to the murder mystery, we know nothing of how the various journalists’ stories will turn out or which paper will win the circulation battle: we’re just left hanging.

Paper Orchid - 6 Freddy snogs Stella, Sid unusually as romantic kead

Freddy (Sidney James) and Stella (Hy Hazell) get together for the requisite clinch. There’s a sort of cognitive dissonance involved in seeing Sid as a romantic lead!

Paper Orchid, despite all the reveals here that it was made in too much of a hurry and for too tight a budget, is worth watching if for no other reason than various of its cast members. Hazell has been discussed on this site in connection with her roles in The Franchise Affair (1951) and more importantly The Night Won’t Talk (1952); further examples of this very talented actress’s noirish activity should surely make their way here soon. James—in this movie still sporting his Saffer accent and of course a regular in UK crime/noirish movies of the era, his great triumphs as a coarse comic actor in such venues as the radio series Hancock’s Half Hour and the movie Carry On series still ahead of him—displays a sort of midway offering between those roles and the quasi-hardboiled ones he’d been trying to nail down since his arrival in the UK.

Paper Orchid - 7 Sid embraces a dramatic rather than comic role

Hardboiled Sid.

A highlight is a sequence set in a nightclub, as Freddy prepares to pen the story of a lifetime: the band is none other than the Ray Ellington Quartet. Supposedly Roger Moore had an uncredited bit part here; I looked for him but couldn’t spot him. I did, however, spot the splendid Sam Kydd in a small role, again uncredited, as the barman in the golf club where Wib treats Mac and Johnny to cocoa.

It seems all of the extant copies of this movie are lousy ones, my own included: it’s about time someone did a restoration.

8 thoughts on “Paper Orchid (1949)

  1. Every time I see Sid James, I have to smile. His face cracks me up, even when he is doing “serious.” I looked at the cast and thought Hughie Green? No…… it would be too much to expect it to be Hughie Green of Opportunity Knocks wouldn’t it? Apparently not.

    • it would be too much to expect it to be Hughie Green of Opportunity Knocks wouldn’t it?
      It’s the very same one. 🙂
      I don’t have quite so extreme a reaction to Sid’s face as you do, but the first couple of times I saw him doing straight it was indeed a bit of a jolt.

  2. Pingback: Illegal (1932) | Noirish

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