Villiers Diamond, The (1938)

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An early, scream-free role for scream queen Evelyn Ankers!
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UK / 50 minutes / bw / Fox–British, Exclusive Dir: Bernerd Mainwaring (i.e., Bernard Mainwaring) Pr: John Findlay Scr: David Evans, Ernest Dudley Story: F. Wyndham Mallock Cine: Stanley Grant Cast: Edward Ashley, Evelyn Ankers, Frank Birch, Liam Gaffney, Leslie Harcourt, Julie Suedo, Sybil Brooke, Bill Shine, Margaret Davidge, Anita Sharp-Bolster.

You don’t expect much from a movie whose opening credits spell the director’s name wrong, and in this instance not much is what you get. It does, however, feature an early leading role for an actress who’d later become one of the more celebrated Scream Queens at Universal, Evelyn Ankers.

Villiers Diamond - 3 The lovely Joan

The lovely Joan (Evelyn Ankers).

Habitual crook Henry Barker (Harcourt), a suspect in the theft of the never-recovered Villiers Diamond, is released from his latest two-year holiday at His Majesty’s expense and makes a beeline for the home in Shropshire of the faux-respectable “gem collector” who paid him to steal the stone, Silas Wade (Birch). To say that Wade isn’t glad to see him would be an understatement; he’s even less delighted when Barker demands the 150 smackers he should have been paid for the job. (Just £150 for stealing the diamond? Either Barker has the worst business sense of any professional burglar or it’s a far smaller stone than we’ve been led to believe.)

Wade claims he doesn’t have the money, so Barker installs himself as Wade’s butler, to the horror of Wade’s housekeeper, Mrs. Benson (Davidge), and the incredulity of Wade’s handyman, Joe (Shine).

Villiers Diamond - 1 Henry Barker (r) and Joe get to know each other

Henry Barker (Leslie Harcourt, right) and Joe (Bill Shine) get to know each other.

Villiers Diamond - 2 Mrs Benson makes clear to Wade her dismay at Barbker's arrival

Mrs. Benson (Margaret Davidge) makes clear to Wade (Frank Birch) her dismay at Barker’s arrival.

Soon after, Wade’s lovely niece and ward Joan Raymond (Ankers) arrives on the scene, having been expelled from her finishing school on the continent. Accompanying her is a hatchet-faced teacher, Mademoiselle Dulac (Sharp-Bolster), who wishes to explain the expulsion to Joan’s ward—the girl had apparently been planning an elopement with a sweetheart—and to demand the past two terms’ fees, which haven’t been paid.

In order to raise some money, Wade and Barker cook up a crazy scheme. Through the newspaper small ads they’ll locate four people who’re down on their luck and invite them to Wade’s home, The Beeches, for a week’s holiday—as a benevolent act of charity, supposedly. They’ll then hide Wade’s gem collection—including the diamond—frame one of the guests as the inside man for the burglary, claim his accomplice escaped with the stones, and reap the rewards from the insurance company.

Villiers Diamond - 4 Barker and Wade lay their plans

Barker (Leslie Harcourt, left) and Wade (Frank Birch) lay their plans.

And so arrive at the house the smooth-talking Captain Dawson (Ashley), the elderly dear Miss Waring (Brooke), the extraordinarily sexy young widow Mrs. Forbes (Suedo) and a young fellow going under the name of “A. Pickett” but actually, thanks to a bit of trickery on Joan’s part, the sweetheart the finishing school got so upset about, Alan O’Connell (Gaffney).

Villiers Diamond - 5 Captain Dawson smarms at Joan while a nervous Alan looks on

Suave Captain Dawson (Edward Ashley) smarms oleaginously, the total swine, at Joan (Evelyn Ankers) while a nervous Alan (Liam Gaffney) looks on.

What Wade and Barker haven’t counted on is that none of their guests may be quite what they seem . . .

Direction and cinematography are strictly journeyman, and the story is so flaky you’d suspect it was written by a schoolboy. The screenplay does its best to salvage the story, but really doesn’t have a chance—despite the occasional good line, as when Barker informs Wade that “This is all I’ve got left in the world: fourpence. And I wouldn’t have had that if the pubs’d been open.”

Villiers Diamond - 6 Mrs Forbes smolders

Mrs. Forbes (Julie Suedo) smolders.

The acting standards are widely disparate. Birch and Ankers are very good within the limits of the roles written for them, Brooke delivers the usual Brooke performance, and Suedo smolders nigh unto incandescence; it’s no surprise when it emerges that a previous employer was the Cat’s Whiskers Club in London’s Soho. But Harcourt hams his role up to an almost pantomime-baddy extent and the rest are scarcely more than ciphers. Sharp-Bolster produces the kind of painfully mangled fake French accent that the French themselves would probably assume was Australian.

Villiers Diamond - 7 The young lovers, Alan and Joan, look forward to happy lives together

The young lovers, Alan (Liam Gaffney) and Joan (Evelyn Ankers), look forward to a happy life together . . . and to be sure he’s never so much as even noticed Mrs. Forbes’s existence, honest.

After acting in various basement-level UK B-movies like this one, Ankers made her name in Hollywood, initially under contract to Universal. For that studio she did such classics as The Wolf Man (1941), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) and Son of Dracula (1943). After leaving Universal she freelanced for movies like Black Beauty (1946) and Queen of Burlesque (1946)—not to be confused with LADY OF BURLESQUE (1943)—The LONE WOLF IN LONDON (1947) and PAROLE, INC. (1948). Ankers did five movies in all with Lon Chaney Jr., whom she apparently disliked, although, as she later observed, “When he wasn’t drinking, he could be one of the sweetest men in the world.” There’s nothing of the Scream Queen in her performance in The Villiers Diamond.

In 1942 she married fellow actor Richard Denning, another to have noirish connections; among his movies were GOLDEN GLOVES (1940), The GLASS KEY (1942), NO MAN OF HER OWN (1950), The GLASS WEB (1953) and The CROOKED WEB (1955), and he played the eponymous PI hero of the Michael Shayne TV series (1960–61) as well as the Mr. in the 1952–4 TV series Mr. and Mrs. North.

Villiers Diamond - 8 Miss Waring ingratiates

Miss Waring (Sybil Brooke) ingratiates.

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5 thoughts on “Villiers Diamond, The (1938)

    • I’ve posted a hidden page for the folk at Wonders in the Dark to lift for their Science Fiction countdown, which started today; my piece on J&H will appear there tomorrow. I didn’t realize that, even though it’s a hidden post, merry ol’ WordPress was twitterpating the news of it to the world!

      If you’re interested in the WitD SF Countdown, the first (somewhat atypical) post — not by me — is here.

  1. Pingback: 99. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde | Wonders in the Dark

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