Killer on a train!
US / 65 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: Ben Stoloff Scr: Isadore Bernstein, Stephen Roe Story: Harry Adler Cine: Teddy Tetzlaff Cast: Ben Lyon, Barbara Weeks, Kenneth Thomson, Ethel Kenyon, William V. Mong, Dolores Rey (i.e., Dolores Ray), Nat Pendleton, Tom Dugan, Dwight Frye, William Halligan, Helene Millard, Lorin Baker, Oscar Smith, Tom McGuire, DeWitt Jennings, Buddy Roosevelt, Polly Walters.
Through the 1930s and 1940s, the bottom half of the cinema bill was thronged with—was almost defined by, if you ignored the oaters—comedy-crime movies like this one. Some of them were pretty good and are fondly remembered. Others, like the godawful BOSTON BLACKIE series starring the godawful Chester Morris—through all of which your correspondent has glumly sat—were, well, you heard it here first: godawful.
By Whose Hand?, which has the probably illusory feel of being a pilot for an unmade series starring ace journalist Jimmy Hawley, alas falls into the latter category. In fact, it’s one of the most exasperating examples of the genre I’ve come across.
This is the fault not of the cast—who’re mainly dependable second-tier professionals, plus the rather astonishing Ethel Kenyon (this was the last and probably the most prestigious of her mere seven movies)—or of the direction, and certainly not of the cinematography, but of the screenplay. For movies of this kind to work, there has to be a judicious, carefully considered blending of the comedy and crime aspects. A series like The THIN MAN could be considered as an exemplar: there’s wit and style in the flippancy of the detectives, and from this springs much of the humor; although the crimes are not negligible, they’re treated with a lightness that allows us to enjoy the movies guiltlessly as entertainments.
Alice Murray (Barbara Weeks) is almost immediately attracted to . . .
. . . Jimmy Hawley (Ben Lyon), star reporter.
Now look at By Whose Hand? It’s a mystery about murders committed aboard a train, yet, aside from a brief prologue, approximately the first half of the running time is devoted to events before the train has left the station, almost all of which are played for laffs. This wouldn’t be so bad if the dialogue were witty or the clowning inventive. No such luck. At one point during my watching I made a note to myself: “Chester Morris, where are you now?” This was in response to poor old Tom Dugan doing his best in the role of a smiling drunk who attaches himself to our journalist hero in the train station and genially refuses to be shaken off.
Tom Dugan as the persistent drunk.
So the movie starts with a great, indigestible wodge of unfunny comedy bizness. In its second half there’s a fair amount of the same but there’s also quite a lot of stuff that, in any real-life circumstance, would be regarded as remarkably grim. Here, though, there’s no such impact. At the movie’s end journalist hero Jimmy Hawley laughingly explains to his new bride that their adventure really has been tremendous fun because, with five murders having been committed, this’ll be a tremendous front-page headline scoop for him. What larks!
J.W. Martin (William V. Mong) knows more about both Delmar and Chambers than he’s letting on.
Lemme see. Five murders. Two of the people killed have been entirely innocent railway workers. Another victim has been guilty of, at worst, letting himself be tempted into flirtation. (Since the flirtee is Ethel Kenyon and she was aiming to entice him, I’m especially tolerant of this character’s failing.) Another is a professional criminal but, it seems, not a violent or homicidal one. And then there’s a seeker after vengeance who has previously been at worst a minor criminal and may in fact have been a wronged man with good cause for his vengeful urges.
Chick Lewis (Dwight Frye) prepares to rob the sleeping detective.
Forgive me if I’m being unduly picky here, but if I’d lived through the midst of a killing spree like that I’d be not so much laughing about it as seeking a counselor. (Preferably Ethel Kenyon, but that’s by the by.)
Anyway, to the plot:
Killer Delmar (Pendleton) has escaped from jail and is on the run. The cops reckon he may attempt to board this evening’s train from LA to San Francisco. Ace reporter Jimmy Hawley (Lyon) is at the station, keeping his eye out not so much for Delmar as for the pretty cigarette girl (Walters). Various parties arrive to board the train:
- Chambers (Thomson), a jeweler who hurries his farewells to his wife (uncredited) after he claps eyes on fellow passenger . . .
- . . . Eileen Aylesworth (Kenyon), the identity under which astonishingly hot con-trickster Maisy Wilson (she speaks French too!) is currently disguising herself. Although Chambers, poor sap, doesn’t realize it, Eileen/Maisy is there with the express purpose of getting close to him so she can steal the hugely valuable bracelet he’s taking to Frisco.
Femme fatale Eileen (Ethel Kenyon) lures Chambers with ease.
- J.W. Martin (Mong), an elderly man with a bitter face. As we’ll later find out, he hates Chambers because the latter had him thrown out of Jewelers’ Association on the grounds that he’d handled stolen diamonds. This character is widely named “Graham” on other sites, but he’s referred to several times during the movie under the name given here and I can find absolutely zero evidence to support the “‘Graham’ hypothesis.” So there.
- Alice Murray (Weeks), a rather milquetoast young woman who, in kissing farewell a group of her male friends, accidentally does likewise to Jimmy. It’s for this reason that our hero phones his City Editor (Jennings) to say that, after all, he’s going to catch the train in hopes of getting a scoop on the escaped killer.
- Mrs. Leonard (Millard), or so she’s calling herself, a widow accompanying the coffin of her husband home to SF. In fact she’s Mrs. Delmar and, although her husband’s in the coffin, he ain’t no stiff.
The widowed Mrs. Leonard aka Mrs. Delmar (Helene Millard).
- Chick Lewis (Frye), a handcuffed criminal who’s being escorted to San Quentin by a Detective (Halligan). Apparently Chick shopped Killer Delmar to the authorities and so, as Jimmy observes, being put behind stone walls in San Quentin could be the best thing that ever happened to him.
Chick (Dwight Frye) seeks his freedom.
- A pair of seemingly very innocent newlyweds (Rey and Baker), who can’t work out whether they’re delighted or terrified by what’s going to happen when finally they close the doors of their sleeper compartment behind them. (One of the movie’s few laugh-out-loud moments happens when the Detective dimwittedly asks them what they were doing at the time of the first murder.)
- Jimmy and The Drunk.
The newlyweds (Lorin Baker and Dolores Rey).
In the movie’s prologue we see Chambers stabbed to death in his sleeper bunk by an unknown hand; then we flash back four hours to the interminable fun, fun, fun in the station at Los Angeles. After we’ve snored through that we find ourselves once more on the train, where jeweler Chambers, in the dining car, deploys his invincible seductive powers on Eileen/Daisy:
Chambers: “You know, women are like diamonds. You can always tell the real from the artificial . . . if you examine them closely.”
Chambers (Kenneth Thomson) meets his doom.
It’s not so long later that—eye surprisingly unblacked and nose surprisingly unpunched—Chambers is found stabbed in his bunk . . . although one of Eileen/Maisy’s monogrammed cigarettes is found half-smoked between his fingers. (Curiously, the Detective doesn’t notice this when inspecting the body. It’s only later, when Jimmy goes to check, that the cig is found.)
The contents of that coffin aren’t as dead as you think!
Meanwhile, Killer Delmar is, with his wife’s help, escaping from his coffin with the intent of killing Chick and then, for reasons unexplained, running along the top of the racing train to shoot dead the driver and fireman. Still, this gives an excuse for our hero, Jimmy Hawley, likewise to run along the top of the train and have fisticuffs with Delmar. Don’t tell me these screenplay plotters are mugs.
Nat Pendleton as Killer Delmar.
Another characteristic of Hollywood B-movies of this era is that they tended to put black actors in demeaning minor roles. Here it’s Oscar Smith who, as the pullman porter, is portrayed as both cowardly and stupid. However, the movie does to a great extent redeem itself with the casting of Buddy Roosevelt as J.W. Martin’s chauffeur, a man who’s clearly far more sophisticated than his employer.
The pullman porter (Oscar Smith) has a stereotyped role.
This movie isn’t to be confused with the lost silent movie By Whose Hand? (1927), also from Columbia, dir Walter Lang, with Ricardo Cortez and Eugenia Gilbert, which seems to have had a completely different plot. Oddly enough, Tom Dugan featured in both outings.