Loretta Young and Brian Aherne crack a murder case and some not very good jokes!
vt Number Thirteen Gay Street; vt The Frightened Stiff
US / 88 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: Richard Wallace Pr: Samuel Bischoff Scr: Richard Flournoy, Jack Henley Story: The Frightened Stiff (1942) by Kelley Roos Cine: Joseph Walker Cast: Loretta Young, Brian Aherne, Jeff Donnell, William Wright, Sidney Toler, Gale Sondergaard, Donald MacBride, Lee Patrick, Don Costello, Richard Gaines, Blanche Yurka, James Burke, Harry Harvey, Cy Kendall, George Lloyd, George Chandler.
There’s a very famous movie called A Night to Remember. Directed by Roy Ward Baker in 1958, with a screenplay by Eric Ambler, it stars Kenneth More with Geoffrey Bayldon, Honor Blackman, Anthony Bushell, John Cairney, Sean Connery, Kenneth Griffith, Andrew Keir, Frank Lawton, David McCallum, Alec McCowen, Laurence Naismith, Russell Napier, Harold Siddons, Jack Watling and a horde of others, and is regarded as the best extant movie tracing the final hours of the “unsinkable” Titanic, which sank in April 1912 after hitting an iceberg.
This is not that movie.
Nor is it the inauguration of a comedy-crime series to rival the THIN MAN, although there are sufficient resemblances in the setup to make one speculate that this was the intention; here, though, slapstick substitutes for suavity and wit. If you could imagine a screwball version of a Thin Man entry grafted onto an Old Dark House movie, you’d be getting somewhere close.
Mystery novelist Jeff Troy (Aherne)—he writes as Jeffery Yort—and his wife Nancy (Young) move into a rented apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village, at 13 Gay Street. Jeff chats with the cabby (Harvey):
Jeff: “You know, the place looks familiar to me.”
Cabby: “It’s familiar to me, all right. I got the biggest tip I ever got in my life out of that joint. Twenty-five bucks for hauling away a couple of stiffs.”
After this unreassuring start, and a rather unfriendly welcome from the landlord, Eddie Turner (Costello), the pair discover a turtle roaming the premises and Jeff discovers his own initials among many others carved on the animal’s shell. That brings the memories rushing back to him: this is the site of what used to be Joe’s Speakeasy, of which the turtle, Old Hickory, was the mascot.
Eddie Turner (Don Costello) greets the new arrivals.
While waiting for their furniture van to arrive, the couple go down the road to the local eaterie, whose owner, Polly Franklin (Patrick), proves to be another occupant of 13 Gay Street. Nancy goes to make a phonecall and, while doing so, hears the plug ugly in the neighboring booth, Louis Kaufman (Kendall), making arrangements to meet someone in Jeff and Nancy’s new apartment. The couple don’t panic, of course, but eat their meal before going home.
Once the furniture has arrived—the foreman, Pat Murphy (Burke), clearly has a not necessarily paternal yen for Nancy’s feminine charms—the couple bed down . . . only to find, next morning, that the murdered corpse of Kaufman lies in their weed-infested back yard.
What can amateur sleuths Jeff (Brian Aherne) and Nancy Troy (Loretta Young) do to sort things out?
The cops arrive in the form of Inspector Hankins (Toler) and his—stop me if you’ve heard this one—dimwitted sidekick Sergeant Bolling (MacBride) . . . two proper charlies, so to speak. Treated with disdain by the “professionals,” Jeff naturally decides it’s his duty as a mystery novelist to solve the case for them.
Bolling (Donald MacBride) and Hankins (Sidney Toler), the faces of gritty professionalism.
It’s pretty obvious removal man Pat (James Burke) has stars in his eyes for Nancy.
It’s eventually clear that all the other residents in the building—Turner, Polly, Lingle (Gaines) and Scott Carstairs (Wright), whose wife Anne (a totally squandered Donnell), née Stafford, is an old friend of Nancy’s but seems strangely distressed to find her here—are being blackmailed by a mysterious figure called Andrew Bruhl, at whose address Jeff and Nancy find not Bruhl but the elegant Mrs. Devoe (Sondergaard), claiming to be merely Bruhl’s landlady but clearly something a whole lot more.
Turner (Don Costello), Lingle (Richard Gaines) and Scott (William Wright) and Anne Carstairs (Jeff Donnell) — a guilty gang.
Even restaurateuse Polly (Lee Patrick) appears to have a lot to hide.
Anne (Jeff Donnell) doesn’t look so pleased to see her old pal Nancy.
There are complications (such as Nancy managing to lock herself in the coal cellar), running gags (such as this amazingly hilarious door that jams whenever Jeff tries to open it but works just fine for everyone else), the predictable complete lack of purposive investigation by the dumbcluck cops, and a flighty housekeeper, Mrs. Salter (Yurka), who’s clearly up to her uncertainly focused eyes in the conspiracy except for the fact that she isn’t. We eventually, if still awake, find out who Andrew Bruhl is, and that indeed he’s the killer of Kaufman.
Perhaps too much of the camerawork assumes we’ll feel the same about Young’s (undoubted) feminine charms as Pat Murphy does about Nancy’s—there’s a sequence of the bedclothes being slowly pulled from Young’s recumbent form that packs quite a punch for a family comedy, despite her being respectably clad in night attire. We have to assume that this plausibly deniable salaciousness, so to speak, was born of an awareness that the screenplay was no great shakes—in fact, it’s a screenplay that makes me quite eager to get hold of the source novel to find out how much better the same ingredients could well have played out in print than they have on screen.
Clearly Mrs. Devoe (Gale Sondergaard) knows far more than she’s willing to tell.
On the subject of the source novel, Kelley Roos was the joint nom de plume of Audrey Kelley Roos (1912–1982) and her husband William Roos (1911–1987). According to Fantastic Fiction, the couple’s Jeff and Haila Troy series of lighthearted mysteries comprised:
- Made Up To Kill (1940; vt Made Up for Murder)
- If the Shroud Fits (1941; vt Dangerous Blondes, under which title it was filmed in 1943 by Leigh Jason, with Allyn Joslyn, Evelyn Keyes and Edmund Lowe)
- The Frightened Stiff (1942)
- Sailor, Take Warning! (1944)
- There Was a Crooked Man (1945, adapted for the TV series Studio One in Hollywood in 1950)
- Ghost of a Chance (1947, filmed in 1960 as SCENT OF MYSTERY by Jack Cardiff, with Denholm Elliott, Peter Lorre and Elizabeth Taylor, a movie of note as the world’s first and last Smell-O-Vision production)
- Murder in Any Language (1948)
- Triple Threat (1949; vt Beauty Marks the Spot) and
- One False Move (1966).