An amiable enough mystery set in the theatrical world and indeed for the most part in a theater.
US / 61 minutes / bw / Larry Darmour Productions, Majestic, Capitol Dir: E. Mason Hopper Pr: Phil Goldstone Scr: Edward T. Lowe Story: The Back Stage Mystery (1930) by Octavus Roy Cohen Cine: Ira Morgan Cast: C. Aubrey Smith, Dorothy Mackaill, Paul Cavanagh, Sam Hardy, Marion Shilling, Russell Hopton, Natalie Moorhead, Hale Hamilton, Ruthelma Stevens, Arthur Hoyt, Jack Mulhall, Dot Farley, Syd Saylor, Herman Bing, Matthew Betz, Cornelius Keefe.
The romantic play Isle of Romance is the talk of the town and its star, handsome Wylie Thornton (Cavanagh), is every woman’s dreamboat. Unfortunately, he seems to be trying to turn that into a physical reality. At current count he’s having affairs with fellow-thespians Anice Cresmer (Shilling) and Doris Manning (Stevens) simultaneously, while Anice’s big sister Lola (Mackaill) seems to have been a conquest not so long ago—and, having been chewed up and spat out herself, is naturally concerned about Wylie’s plans for her kid sis.
Theater-goers admire the handsome portrait of Wylie Thornton (Paul Cavanagh).
For her part, Anice is secure in the knowledge that Wylie plans to divorce his long-estranged wife and marry her. What Anice doesn’t know is that Wylie has promised to take Doris, who’s a rich heiress as well as a lovely young actress, to New York to star alongside him in the Broadway version of Isle of Romance, and, perhaps, wedding bells.
Wylie (Paul Cavanagh) and Anice (Marion Shilling) plight their eternal allegiance. Yeah, right.
Not only do the two mistresses not know about each other, they don’t know that the “long-estranged” wife, Alma (Moorhead), isn’t so very estranged, but living in a hotel across town and not averse to popping across to Wylie’s pad for a night in the hay. There’s a very neatly observed scene in which, the morning after, Wylie’s having phonecalls with the other two women while Alma, nearby, is falling around laughing as Wylie complains, for example, that he had some difficulty sleeping last night. I’m sure we’ve all been in this situation—not the triple-timing but the attempt to hold a straight-faced phone conversation while a lover is sniggering smuttily in the background. The actors, especially Moorhead, capture the situation perfectly.
That scene is part of one of the movie’s two good sequences, as the interaction between Alma and Wylie degenerates into a sort of one-sided flyting, Alma’s being the one side: “You cackling boudoir rooster! . . . The very night you married me you had dates with two of your ex-sweeties!” There’s much more along these lines. Even so, Alma is in on the plot to seduce Doris to New York and divest her of some of the legendary Manning millions.
Major Manning (Hale Hamilton) explains some hard facts to daughter Doris (Ruthelma Stevens).
Sam (Bing), the producer of Isle of Romance, plans a birthday/farewell party for Wylie that will also give him the opportunity to introduce the replacement lead, Morgan (Keefe), to such luminaries as important critic Alice Hagen (Farley) of the Times. Just before the party, however, Anice discovers that Wylie plans to rat out on her with Doris, and commits suicide, and Lola discovers the suicide note and corpse of her kid sister.
Wylie’s birthday cake. Looks yummy, hm?
The second of the movie’s two (moderately) effective sequences is the farewell party, enlivened as it is by the bubbly figure of Sam. When a shot rings out and Wylie falls dead, you’d think there’d be one pretty evident suspect foremost in the cops’ collective mind. Nope. Detective Martin “Marty” Gallagher (Hardy) and his counterpart from the DA’s office, sleepy oldster James Woolford “Jim” Hanvey (Smith), egged on by smartass journalist Terry Mooney (Hopton), follow just about every other possibility except the obvious one, including the notion that Wylie might have been shot dead accidentally by Geraldine, a chimpanzee cast-member who’s intelligent enough frequently to escape from her cage in the props room and who has shown a fascination for guns.
Jim Hanvey (C. Aubrey Smith) in typically sleepy mode.
Hanvey, who despite his outward somnolence and slow-wittedness has a reputation as a shrewd detective, does eventually solve the case, but his solution differs from the one that’s released for public consumption—and that Gallagher believes to be the truth.
“Arrest ’em All” Gallagher (Sam Hardy).
This was the first of two otherwise unrelated movies to feature Octavus Roy Cohen’s series hero Jim Hanvey. The other was Jim Hanvey, Detective (1937) dir Phil Rosen and with Guy Kibbee as Hanvey; I may get around to discussing it here at some stage. If you’re interested, at least some of Cohen’s mysteries are in the public domain and can be found easily enough as e-books in various of the usual places.
This is by no means a movie of distinction, but it’s fairly entertaining and does have its moments. Moorhead, probably best remembered for her supporting role as Julia Wolf in the following year’s The Thin Man (1934), lights up the screen whenever she’s there—which is essentially just for the sequence described above—and Cavanagh is suitably smarmy as the cad. Mackaill turns in a good, empathic performance too. And Geraldine’s lots of fun!
Dorothy Mackaill as Lola.
The main problem is that the supposed central character (even though he doesn’t turn up until halfway through), Smith’s Jim Hanvey, is dull as ditchwater. This may very well not be either Smith’s or director Hopper’s fault, but simply something imposed by the popular written character (although Hollywood has never been demure about changing characters drastically from their original models). Likewise, Hardy’s Gallagher, the idiot cop who brays incessantly while arresting preposterous “suspects,” is even more irritating than most of the other similar figures who fulfill this clichéd role in so many Hollywood B-movies. Luckily Hopton, as the reporter, is in most of Hardy’s scenes, and his acidly wisecracking persona makes them easier to bear.
A movie to be watched when you’re in a forgiving mood.
On Amazon.com: Curtain At Eight DVD