The Crime of Helen Stanley (1934)

US / 60 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: D. Ross Lederman Scr: Harold Shumate Story: Charles R. Condon Cine: Al Seigler (i.e., Allen G. Siegler) Cast: Ralph Bellamy, Shirley Grey, Gail Patrick, Kane Richmond, Bradley Page, Vincent Sherman, Clifford Jones (i.e., Phillip Trent), Arthur Rankin, Lucien Prival, Ward Bond, Helen Eby-Rock, Stephen Chase, Edward Keane.

While most audiences’ default attitude toward the offerings of Poverty Row studios like Monogram and PRC is one of mockery, however often we might find ourselves pleasantly surprised by the actuality, it’s worth recalling that some of the contemporaneous B-feature output from the major studios wasn’t so very much better.

Ralph Bellamy as Trent; might this be his last case?

An instance in point is The Crime of Helen Stanley, where it’s visible on-screen that the production had a far bigger budget to play with than might a Monogram or PRC equivalent yet the churned-out nature of the resulting movie is practically palpable. There’s no sense at any point that anyone involved in this production had any love for or pride in what they were doing, with the possible exception of Phillip Trent as studio gofer Larry King—and, ironically, Trent chose to appear here under a pseudonym, Clifford Jones.

Gail Patrick as Helen

Plenty of people have good reason to loathe Hollywood star Helen Stanley (Patrick), so when she’s gunned down on set it comes as no great surprise.

Complicating matters is that the movie she was acting in called for her to be shot at precisely that moment, and that the actor who fired what was supposed to be a blank at her, Wallach (Chase), was the husband she abandoned years ago in her pursuit of stardom. Even Wallach thinks he killed her, having substituted a live round for the blank, and he hurls himself off a high building with a cackle of triumphant revenge.

Kane Richmond as Lee and Shirley Grey as Betty

But the LAPD’s Inspector R. Trent (Bellamy) soon shows the bullet that killed Helen couldn’t have come from Wallach’s gun. So who fired the fatal shot?

Could the answer lie in Helen’s private diary? Everyone knows it exists; no one knows where it is. The cops have searched her house fruitlessly . . . which is remarkable, because it later proves that if you open a particular dresser drawer a painting swings back from the wall to reveal the safe in which the diary’s stored. Did the LAPD’s professional searchers not open any drawers as they combed the place? Even in a Monogram cheapie special you’d have expected this particular plot howler to have been sorted out (maybe).

Stephen Chase as Wallach

Lucien Prival as Gibson

Phillip Trent as Larry

It’s far from the only plot howler. The cameras were rolling when the fatal shot was fired. It’s not until several days into Trent’s investigation that a character says to him: “Why don’t we look at the film we shot that morning?” Clearly the idea hasn’t occurred to the brilliant detective before.

Compounding the silliness, when they watch the relevant footage at half-speed for clarity, there’s no sign of discontinuity between frames as Helen glides around the set.

Helen Eby-Rock as Jessie and Ward Bond as Jack

So who are the suspects? Here goes:

  • Script girl Betty Lane (Grey). We soon learn in a big moment of revelation that she’s actually Helen’s sister. Worse still, she’s engaged to
  • Cameraman Lee Davis (Richmond, noteworthy as Lamont Cranston in the Monogram series of The Shadow movies), who was once Helen’s toyboy and, to add to his sins, is forthright in admitting he only canoodled with her in hopes of advancing his Hollywood career. Helen was trying to get him fired.
  • Dictatorial and much-reviled director Gibson (Prival), a refugee from Austria whose illegal status Helen was keeping secret.
  • Helen’s business manager George Noel (Page), whom she lately discovered has been embezzling from her.
  • Her recently appointed bodyguard Karl Williams (Sherman); she recently discovered a nasty secret about him, too.
  • Jack Baker (Bond), another cameraman on the movie Helen was shooting. I never quite worked out why Jack was a suspect, although there’s an offhand reference to the effect that Helen was trying to get him fired as well. But why? Maybe she thought he was guilty by association since he’s in the same profession as the detested Lee (op cit.)? Anyway, we see Jack clearly sharing a conspiratorial moment with
  • Helen’s maid Jessie Allen (Eby-Rock). We never learn what they were being secretive about; perhaps this was part of a plot strand that ended up on the cutting-room floor.

All told, that’s a startling number of suspects for an hour-long movie. Also part of the proceedings are studio manager Richardson (Keane) and, as mentioned, set manager Larry King (Jones/Trent).

Bradley Page as Noel

 

Vincent Sherman as Karl

Inspector Trent has an odd idea of police procedure, committing at least one act of breaking and entering (when he could simply have asked for a key) and elsewhere trampling what might be key evidence underfoot. Bellamy plays the character as per the hero of an old Saturday matinee serial, turning his face every now and then to the camera with a challenging expression as if in anticipation of dramatic chords.

Helen’s diary does indeed prove to contain the vital secret that helps Trent solve the case. Most of us will have solved it within the movie’s opening minutes, not because we’re a match for hifalutin sleuths like Trent but because we’ve read too much detective fiction and are alert to its misdirectional cliches: in those terms the perp sticks out like a sore thumb.

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4 thoughts on “The Crime of Helen Stanley (1934)

  1. Whoa! That is a long list of suspects for such a short film. It doesn’t sound like the most carefully-made film ever, but it does have Gail Patrick – even if briefly – so I feel compelled to suss it out for that reason alone.

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