US / 68 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir: Alexander Hall Pr: Bayard Veiller Scr: Adela Rogers St. Johns Story: “Kidnapt” (1933 Hearst’s International–Cosmopolitan) by Rupert Hughes Cine: Alfred Gilks Cast: Dorothea Wieck, Alice Brady, Baby Le Roy, William Frawley, George Barbier, Alan Hale, Jack La Rue, Dorothy Burgess, Florence Roberts, Marcelle Corday, Irving Bacon, “Spanky” McFarland, Carmencita Johnson, Cullen Johnson
A movie supposedly based loosely on the real-life 1932 case of the Lindbergh kidnapping, although I can find no firm evidence to support this claim. Aside from the obvious—rich baby is kidnapped—the only real resemblance in the movie to the real case occurs in an odd little sidebar that could almost have been tacked on afterward in order to cash in on the similarity of theme: As the cops search the house and grounds for any trace of missing baby Michael they find a rig leading up to the child’s bedroom window, as was the case in the Lindbergh abduction. Otherwise, though, I think this is just an instance of a movie’s publicists being rather yuckily opportunistic.
In the movie, Madeline Fane (Wieck) is a famous movie star, tragically widowed a year ago, who’s bringing up her 18-month-old son Michael (Le Roy) with the help of her PA, Agnes (Roberts), and a nurse (Corday). Everyone loves Madeline, who appears to be a genuinely sweet person.
One night Michael is abducted from his crib.
At first Madeline refuses to call the cops. Her studio boss, “Mac” MacCready (Barbier), rustles up the money for a ransom, but a ransom note doesn’t come. Finally Madeline sees sense, and Captain Murphy (Frawley) takes over the hunt.
When the ransom note arrives, a first attempt at a dropoff fails because the kidnappers wrongly assume a pair of motorcyclists who just happen to be traveling on the road behind Madeline’s car must be cops.
The action switches largely to a shanty town in the desert where the kidnappers—Sam (Hale), Bert (La Rue) and Dotty (Burgess)—have taken up temporary accommodation. Their neighbors are nosy parker Molly Prentiss (Brady), her husband Joel (Bacon) and a gaggle of kids, notably Johnny (McFarland), who has the “cute” habit of running around with a bare bottom, aw shucks.
Molly, who recently met Madeline and is a big fan of the movie star, tries to befriend the new neighbors but is rebuffed. Her suspicions aroused, she begins to suspect that Dotty’s “daughter” might in fact be the missing child . . .
What should be a bracing suspense drama proves to be surprisingly tedious. The alarm is sounded early on when we spend what feels like forever having our intestinal fortitude tested as we watch Madeline gush torrentially over the chubby cuteness of her infant son. We’re going to have similar torments later as we witness the interactions between Molly and her small son Johnny; the fact that the child actor who plays Johnny was called “Spanky” McFarland should serve as warning enough.
The German actress Dorothea Wieck, here playing movie star Madeline, appeared in about fifty movies, but of these only a handful were made in the US, this being the second; the rest were the product of her native Germany (later West Germany). The most famous of her Hollywood outings came after WWII, with Elia Kazan’s Man on a Tightrope (1953) and Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958). It’s almost fair to say that in Miss Fane’s Baby is Stolen (1934) it’s her performance that’s the single live wire that keeps the rest of the movie from fizzling out entirely, but in fact Alan Hale’s Sam and Dorothy Burgess’s Dotty show some signs of life too. Besides, too much of Wieck’s screen time here is devoted to the aforementioned maternal gush, which really can become testing after a while.
Baby Le Roy (or Baby LeRoy), as the one being gushed over, was not so much a child actor as an infant actor. Born Ronald Le Roy Overacker in 1932, he appeared in ten movies between 1933 and 1935, at which point his screen career was over. There was an attempted comeback in The Biscuit Eater (1940), when he’d reached the grand old age of eight, but he fell ill with a cold during filming and was replaced by another child actor, Billy Lee, also under contract to Paramount. So in effect Naby was a has-been by the age of four: not a fate you’d wish on anybody.
As I say, I found Miss Fane’s Baby is Stolen pretty dull. When the movie was released, the New York Times’s Mordaunt Hall viewed it far more favorably:
Even those who are averse to the producing of pictures concerned with kidnapping will probably decide that in the film Miss Fane’s Baby is Stolen, the current feature at the Paramount, the subject is dealt with in an intelligent, restrained and provocative fashion. In this stirring narrative . . . Dorothea Wieck . . . gives a beautifully sensitive and commanding portrayal. Alexander Hall, the director, and others responsible for the picture have leavened the drama with frequent happy glimpses of Baby LeRoy, who is now on the sunny side of 2, and a 4-year-old named Georgie McFarland. Alice Brady, as the mother of several children, also spreads cheer in an easy, natural manner . . . The developments leading to the eventual recovery of the child and the apprehension of the criminals are extraordinarily effective.
And there’s more of the same. Well, each to their own.