Crown v. Stevens (1936)

“Ten million people in London, and it had to be you.”

UK / 66 minutes / bw / Warner Bros. First National Dir: Michael Powell Scr: Brock Williams Story: Third Time Unlucky (1935) by Laurence Meynell Cine: Basil Emmott Cast: Beatrix Thomson, Patric Knowles, Glennis Lorimer, Reginald Purdell, Allan Jeayes, Frederick Piper, Googie Withers, Mabel Poulton, Billy Watts, Davina Craig, Morris Harvey, Bernard Miles.

The title might make us assume this is a courtroom drama, but in fact this quota quickie—an important stop along the road for director Michael Powell’s early career—is a distinctly noirish piece. In one specific respect it appears to be echoed in Raoul Walsh’s THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940), which had George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart and the immortal Ida Lupino as its stars.

Molly (Glennis Lorimer) and Chris (Patric Knowles) make a good team.

There are no comparable stars here, with the exceptions of Patric Knowles—who would soon go on to have a prominent Hollywood career, sometimes playing opposite his friend Errol Flynn—and of course Googie Withers (in a small role), plus Glennis Lorimer, whose short acting career (she died far too early) is eclipsed by the fact that she served as the young woman in the mocked-up version of Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Sarah Siddons used as an opening-credits logo by Gainsborough Studios.

Mamie (Mabel Poulton) dances close to Chris . . .

. . . but Joe Andrews (Billy Watts) is her true partner.

Naive paint-company clerk Chris Jansen (Knowles) believes himself in love with floozy Mamie (Poulton), and borrows an engagement ring on approval from Notting Hill moneylender/pawnbroker Julius (or, elsewhere in the movie, Maurice) Bayleck (Harvey). Little does Chris know that Mamie is a congirl; she and associate Joe Andrews (Watts) abscond with the ring leaving Chris to face a bill for a lordly £19-10s that he cannot pay.

Bayleck (Morris Harvey) seems friendly enough at first. Yes, I too at first thought the part was being played by George Baker.

Luckily someone murders Bayleck. Chris discovers first the murdered man and then, hiding behind a curtain and clutching a warm gun, the woman who appears to have murdered him—a woman whom he’ll soon discover to be Doris Stevens (Thomson), the much younger ex-showgirl wife of his skinflint boss Arthur Stevens (Piper). As she says on their re-encountering each other, “Ten million people in London, and it had to be you.”

Chris (Patric Knowles) discovers the body.

Chris (Patric Knowles, left) asks for but fails to get a pay rise from Stevens (Frederick Piper).

Doris persuades Chris to keep his mouth shut, not using traditional femme fatale means—although we’ll find she is indeed a femme fatale—but by persuading him that she was acting in, essentially, self-defense; besides, he wants to keep his job, even though the boss refuses to give him a rise.

Foreman Alf (Reginald Purdell) is Chris’s voice of reason.

Naming no names in his “hypothetical” question, Chris asks the advice of the company foreman, Alf (Purdell), a cheerful faux-curmudgeon of the 1930s British B-movie variety, what he should do about the situation. Over shared sarnies, Alf delivers himself of great wisdom:

Alf: “Anyone who’d hand over a woman [to the cops] is beneath contempt. I wouldn’t do that to me own wife.”

Beatrix Thomson as femme fatale Doris.

Meanwhile, Doris is becoming increasingly impatient with the strictures of life with the grumpy, unimaginative Arthur, whom she openly admits she only married for his money; since he’s miserly with it, that little plan has fallen a bit on its face.

Things come to a head for Doris when her old boards-treading pal Ella Levine (Withers) calls round out of the blue, and reopens to Doris the world of wild parties, drunkenness and open flirtation with unsuitable men.

Googie Withers as good-time girl Ella.

Soon Doris is scheming to murder her husband so as to inherit his modest fortune, but she reckons without Chris and his new, interior-designer girlfriend Molly Hobbs (Lorimer), not to mention Scotland Yard in the form of Inspector Carter (Jeayes) and Detective Miles (a bizarrely uncredited Miles). Plus a simple trick of fate: when Doris chucks the revolver she used to kill Bayleck off a bridge over the Thames, it lands not in the water but on the deck of a barge, and the police are able to trace the weapon back to the stage act of the conjurer whose stage assistant Doris used to be.

Inspector Carter (Allan Jeayes) is nobody’s fool.

But it’s still all very circumstantial . . .

Crown v. Stevens is a surprising amount of fun, with a good performance from Piper as the stodgy boss and a really rather special turn from Thomson as the femme fatale—the woman he shouldn’t have married. This was Thomson’s sole starring role in a startlingly barren filmography: just four big-screen features, a short and three TV appearances. (I gather her stage career was far more distinguished and prolific.) By the time Thomson made Crown v. Stevens she was not long divorced after a decade of marriage to Claude Rains.


12 thoughts on “Crown v. Stevens (1936)

  1. The fact that it is an early Michael Powell automatically makes it essential regardless of the quality which you seem to vouch for. I have not heard of the film, which considering my veneration for the director is rather inexcusable. Superbly written and argued review, and again a marvelous find.

    • I was likewise surprised I wasn’t familiar with this movie. I’m by no means in your league in terms of Powell scholarship, but I’d thought I’d likely come across most of his output — especially bearing in mind how often they appear on UK TV. Mind you, this is very much an apprentice work of his, I’d say.

    • I’m not sure I’d describe it as slick — for me it has the air about it of a director who’s learning on the job. But it has a very appealing atmosphere, I’d say.

      • Well, it is one of last low budget thrillers before he made the jump with his first petsonal film, EDGE OF THE WORLD, and feels very slick compared with sime of the “quickies” he started with. The film lime this that he made for Asher at Warners are more like decent B programmers to me and less like films on which he learned anything. Certainly very far from the original pound per foot quickies he started with. He was truly ready to move on to bigger things by then.

    • That’s what I like about so many of these quota quickies! The other day I watched one that was just 47 minutes long, but it had everything there that you could want for a satisfying movie.

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