US / 70 minutes / bw / Invincible, Chesterfield, First Division Dir: Phil Rosen Pr: Maury M. Cohen Scr: Arthur T. Horman Cine: M.A. Andersen Cast: Reginald Denny, Evelyn Brent, Jack La Rue, Inez Courtney, John Marlowe (i.e., Hugh Marlowe), Claude King, Bryant Washburn, Robert Homans, Crauford Kent, Robert Frazer, Miki Morita, Emily La Rue.
Rehearsals are underway for the new play by Gregory Stone (Denny), a mystery called The Pointing Finger with fabled Beverley Drake (Brent) in the leading role. Beverley is married to the much older Ellis Holden (King), half of Holden–Carter Productions, which is producing the play—the other half being Norman Carter (Washburn), with whom Beverley’s having an affair. This is no great triumph for Carter to chalk up, because Beverley’s having an affair also with young actor Edward Forrest (Marlowe), another cast member, and the list very likely doesn’t stop there.
Beverley (Evelyn Brent) makes googoo eyes at Edward (Hugh Marlowe).
Local gangster Smiley Clark (Jack La Rue) is keen that Holden hire his latest babe, Lisa De Lane (Emily La Rue, about whom I’ve been able to find out nothing), in a starring role. The two producers try to fob him off but, when he’s persistent, agree to meet him at their office later. They also tell Greg they want some line changes made to his script, and tell him to work at their office on them with their secretary, Linda Sands (Courtney).
It’s quite clear that Linda is nuts about Greg; what’s completely incomprehensible is why, since Denny plays his role as a stuffy old stick (at the time he was ~45 to Courtney’s ~28) while Linda is a feisty and very witty fireball. She has many of the best lines in the movie, and she (i.e., Courtney) delivers them with great aplomb. After witnessing Beverley wheedle Holden into firing veteran actor Bob Bennett (Kent) from the cast of The Pointing Finger, for example, she says, “The oftener I see that woman the better I like rattlesnakes.” When she tries to phone a lawyer friend who might help Greg get out of his direly exploitative contract with Holden–Carter Productions, she reports, “Aw, disconnected. He must be in jail again.” The running joke of the movie is that, however hard the vivaciously attractive Linda tries to throw herself at him, Greg rejects her as a pest.
Amiable gangster Smiley (Jack La Rue).
Hours late to meet Greg, the two producers return, one after the other, both of them far too busy to look at the changes he’s made. Holden gets a phonecall and, soon after, leaves again. Linda tries to get an outside line and discovers that Carter has left his phone off the hook. She also discovers Carter dead on the floor of his office with a great big bullet hole in him. Later the cops will infer that the wound’s so bad the bullets used must have been a dumdum; trouble is, there’s no trace of the slug. (Fans of classic detection fiction will here nod wisely and talk of ice bullets. They’ll be wrong.)
Linda (Inez Courtney) finds Carter’s body.
The obvious conclusion is that Holden killed Carter, but then Detective-Lieutenant O’Neill (Homans) and his men find Holden dead in his suite at the Rochester Arms. The next hypothesis is that Holden killed Carter—perhaps out of jealousy—and then, in remorse, killed himself. But that doesn’t work either, because the method used to kill him—a sort of auto-asphyxia technique, one that just a few hours ago Smiley Clark demonstrated to the cast and crew of The Pointing Finger—is impossible as a suicide method.
Detective-Lieutenant O’Neill (Robert Homans) swings into action.
The spunky Linda realizes that here’s a great opportunity for the man she loves to gain fame and recognition, and pushes to O’Neill, the press and whoever else will listen to her the idea that Greg’s going to solve the mystery before the cops can. The problem is that Greg’s absolutely uninterested in the challenge: as he quite rightly observes—and O’Neill agrees—he’s merely a writer of mysteries: his qualifications as a detective are absolutely zero.
Smiley, too, wants Greg to work on the case. As a hoodlum involved in the affair, he reckons he’s the obvious suspect for O’Neill, who’s been aching to put him away; he’d like an independent detective on the case as protection. He makes it plain how much he’d like this, and Greg grumpily acquiesces.
Even so, what he wants to do tonight is have a bath and a good night’s sleep, in hopes that O’Neill will have the case all wrapped up by the time he wakes up.
But It Is Not To Be.
After his servant Hashi (Morita) has gone out for a date, Greg’s ready to hop into the bath when there’s a knock at his apartment door. But then, in succession, there arrive Beverley (who’s seen a gossip-column report, planted by Linda, that he’s on the verge of solving the case), Bob (ditto), Linda and stage manager Lloyd Schaefer (Frazer), who, as Beverley has just told Greg, was the target of the late Holden’s jealous fury because of rumors he was having an affair with her. (In echoes of Bette Davis’s snark about Joan Crawford, however, it appears that Lloyd was, shall we say, Lassie.)
Linda (Inez Courtney) phones the press to make sure they know Greg is going to solve the case.
We’re all set up for one of those sequences that suggest to me that It Couldn’t Have Happened (But It Did) should be on lists of great screwball comedies. Last to arrive at Greg’s apartment that night are O’Neill and his men, who set about pulling the place apart in search of items that O’Neill declines to identify to the hapless playwright. The cops don’t find them and depart in disgust, as do all the rest of Greg’s unwanted guests with the exception of Linda, who has chosen this moment to take a bath. (Yeah, right.) Alone with Greg, she confesses that the items in question were all of the police reports, which she stole from O’Neill’s office and hid in Greg’s cocktail shaker; she’s been sitting on the shaker for the last forty minutes in the bath.
And her clothes are wet. (She claims the police matron dumped them in the bath, but Linda did that herself. Although this is a Post-Code movie, it has lots of enjoyable Pre-Code-style moments.) While waiting for them to dry over Greg’s cooker, the two start going through the stolen police reports, and at last Greg starts to show a glimmer of interest in trying to solve the double murder. Then Linda’s clothes catch fire, and are obviously unwearable; she’ll have to stay the night. Still Greg doesn’t catch on . . .
Lloyd Schaefer (Robert Frazer, right) begs help from Greg (Reginald Denny).
The other great setpiece occurs much later in the movie. Greg has gone to the library to research the problem of how Carter might have been killed by a disappearing slug. Linda has said very publicly at the theater that Greg is in the library and that he’ll announce the killer at 3:30 prompt. She’s alerted O’Neill to the ruse, and he’s covered the place in cops: what better invitation could there be to the murderer than this? Alas, they haven’t recognized that the murderer might be a bit bright. Although there’s an attempt on Greg’s life all right, he dodges the bullet and at the same time pushes Linda out of the way—
Linda: “Oh, lieutenant! Mr. Stone saved my life!”
Greg: “Yes, I didn’t have time to think.”
Afterwards, the cops swoop and discover that all the major suspects are there in the library, all of them having been phoned by a mystery voice who told them that O’Neill wanted them there at three. These are the days before forensics could have (easily) determined who’d just fired a gun, so O’Neill has to let them all go.
The final setpiece is fun, too. Greg scripts and stages, for a select audience of the suspects plus O’Neill, a reconstruction of the crime, in which it becomes evident who the murderer must be.
Linda (Inez Courtney) and Greg (Reginald Denny), allies at last.
This obviously isn’t a noir movie, and to call it noirish is to stretch a point; as indicated above, it has at least as much in common with the screwball genre as it does with the crime one (although it does seem to be informed by the school of Hollywood movies that would soon after evolve to contribute to the noir ethos). I’m not usually a fan of screwball comedies, but I was won over by this, not just because of its surprisingly sharp screenplay but also in large part because of the performances of Courtney and Jack La Rue.
Yes, Jack La Rue. I’d only ever before seen him in supposedly dramatic roles—as in NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH (1948), Dangerous Passage (1944), The Girl in 419 (1933) and The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935)—and had been much underwhelmed. But here, in a comic role, he’s absolutely splendid, delivering his lines with perfect comedic timing. The exchange here, when he comes across Linda and Greg very nearly kissing (Linda has persuaded Greg they ought to act out a few of the play’s lines just to check that, you know, he’s got the timing right) is okay but not blindingly funny in itself, yet La Rue’s delivery makes it hilarious:
Greg: “We were just trying out a new bit of business.”
Smiley: “There’s nothing new about that business.”
When he confesses to O’Neill that this supposedly tough hood’s alibi for the Holden killing is that he was at a Shirley Temple movie—a joke that could have fallen flat in less capable hands—La Rue carries it off with panache. He even realizes that it’s the first line of the joke that’ll bring the house down, delivering the second in such a way that it doesn’t matter if the audience laughter drowns it.
But the movie is really Courtney’s. She appears fourth on the cast list presumably just because those above her were better known; in particular, Evelyn Brent, while always a joy to watch and a great draw in any movie, here has only a support role, and not a major one at that. Not only was the petite redhead Courtney quite extraordinarily attractive, she was a major comedic talent. That her career didn’t go on to achieve the prominence it should have seems to have had nothing to do with the substance abuse that destroyed the prospects—and lives—of so many other highly able performers during the 1930s and 1940s, more to do with the fact that at some point she married an Italian aristocrat and retired from the movies. This is, I think, the first outing of hers I’ve seen. I’ll be actively looking out for others from now on. If you enjoy Irene Dunne, chances are you’ll also enjoy Inez Courtney.
There’s so much that’s good about this movie that it seems churlish to dwell upon Denny’s performance—so I won’t—and the cinematography. We all understand that the cheapie thrillers of the 1930s couldn’t afford to do more than the minimum of camera setups, but this movie establishes some kind of record in the number of shots where actors are blocking each other. To be fair, this could be bad direction rather than bad cinematography. Yet the rest of the camerawork is mediocre at best. Even so, this is a movie to seek out.
On Amazon.com: It Couldn’t Have Happened But It Did [DVD]