Murder in the Blue Room (1944)

US / 60 minutes / bw / Universal Dir: Leslie Goodwins Assoc Pr: Frank Gross Scr: I.A.L. Diamond, Stanley Davis Story: Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers (1932 screenplay) by Erich Philippi Cine: George Robinson Cast: Anne Gwynne, Donald Cook, John Litel, Grace McDonald, Betty Kean, June Preisser, Regis Toomey, Nella Walker, Andrew Tombes, Ian Wolfe, Emmett Vogan, Bill MacWilliams (i.e., Bill Williams), Frank Marlowe.

The third Hollywood remake of a German movie, Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers (1932), its two predecessors being Secret of the Blue Room (1933) and The Missing Guest (1938); I haven’t seen the latter.

This time the story—including its mystery elements—has been reworked quite extensively to make the movie something akin to a musical comedy.

The Three Jazzybelles: left to right, June Preisser as Jerry, Betty Kean as Betty, and Grace McDonald as Peggy.

The remake was initially meant as a Ritz Brothers vehicle, but fortunately that fell through. In their place we have The Three Jazzybelles (geddit?), a seemingly nonce team-up of Grace McDonald, Betty Kean and June Preisser. This trio offer enough fun and talent that I had a quick look around to see if there were perhaps more Three Jazzybelles movies. Continue reading

Ninth Guest, The (1934)

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The ninth guest is . . . death!
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US / 67 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: R. William Neill Scr: Garnett Weston Story: The Invisible Host (1930) by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, and The Ninth Guest (1930 play) by Owen Davis Cine: Benjamin Kline Cast: Donald Cook, Genevieve Tobin, Hardie Albright, Edward Ellis, Edwin Maxwell, Vincent Barnett, Helen Flint, Samuel Hinds, Nella Walker, Sidney Bracey.

The Ninth Guest - 0 opener

Using a public phone, an anonymous caller sends a telegram to each of eight individuals inviting them to a “small party” in their honor to be held next Saturday at 10pm at the Manville Penthouse. Who are the eight?

  • Dr. Murray Reid (Hinds), the ethically flexible dean of Raeburn University, who has just, on the instruction of corrupt politician
  • Tim Cronin (Ellis), dismissed a junior member of staff,
  • Henry Abbott (Albright), for being too damn’ radical. Cronin, aided by his beautiful lover, the sharp-witted shyster
  • Sylvia Inglesby (Flint), has just engineered the electoral downfall of rival
  • Jason Osgood (Maxwell) of the Good Government League by exposing his candidate, Burke (uncredited), as a thirty-years-ago felon.

The Ninth Guest - 2 fit into text if poss

  • Mrs. Margaret Chisholm (Walker) is a hypocritical society dame whose yea or nay can determine acceptance or rejection by the parasitic set, while
  • Jean Trent (Tobin) is a lovely and successful but somewhat shallow actress whose childhood sweetheart, author and journalist
  • James “Jim” Daley (Cook), saw through her some while ago but still loves her dearly.

And each of them, as we’ll discover, is guilty of . . . something!

The Ninth Guest - 1 Iffy academic Reid

Iffy academic Dr. Murray Reid (Samuel Hinds).

The eight invited guests—the ninth guest, as we’re soon enough told, is Death!—sure enough turn up at the penthouse at the appointed hour, finding it luxurious and well supplied for the promised party with one obvious exception: there’s no sign of Continue reading

Spanish Cape Mystery, The (1935)

US / 74 minutes / bw / Liberty, Republic Dir: Lewis D. Collins Pr: M.H. Hoffman Scr: Albert DeMond Story: The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) by Ellery Queen Cine: Gilbert Warrenton Cast: Helen Twelvetrees, Donald Cook, Berton Churchill, Frank Sheridan, Harry Stubbs, Guy Usher, Huntly Gordon, Jack La Rue, Betty Blythe, Olaf Hytten, Ruth Gillette, Frank Leigh, Barbara Bedford, George Baxter, Katherine Morrow, Arnold Gray, Donald Kerr, Lee Prather, George Cleveland, Arthur Aylesworth, Richard Cramer.

Spanish Cape Mystery - 0 opener

This first screen outing for the doyen of US detectives, Ellery Queen, is better than what I’ve seen of the Ralph Bellamy-starring series that followed a few years later—and one of which, Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941), I describe here—but this doesn’t constitute the highest of praise. It’s a fairly standard B detective mystery of its day, although with the advantage that the screenwriters saw fit not to give us a detective oozing with quirk; the Ellery portrayed here is if anything less quirky than the Ellery depicted in the original novel, who was more along Philo Vance lines. It’s almost as if Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, the two cousins who together wrote under the Queen byline, took a tip from this movie, because, as the print Ellery evolved, he became more like this one.

Ellery (Cook) and his much older good friend Judge Macklin (Churchill) decide to take a vacation together in California—on Spanish Cape, to be precise, where Macklin has Continue reading

Circus Queen Murder, The (1933)

The Circus Queen Murder - 0 [moody opening shot]

US / 65 minutes / bw / Columbia Dir: Roy William Neill Scr: Jo Swerling Story: About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932; vt The Murder of a Circus Queen) by Anthony Abbot (credited as Anthony Abbott) Cine: Joseph August Cast: Adolphe Menjou, Donald Cook, Greta Nissen, Ruthelma Stevens, Dwight Frye, Harry Holman, George Rosener.

The Circus Queen Murder - 00 [more mood]

This low-key crime movie—it’s usually billed as a mystery, but there’s no real mystery involved—was the second in the brief Thatcher Colt series, the first being The Night Club Lady (1932) dir Irving Cummings, likewise with Menjou and Stevens. Much is made of Colt’s ability to lipread, an ability in which he’s coaching his loyal secretary (and lover?) Miss Kelly.

NYPD Commissioner Thatcher Colt (Menjou), after six hard years warring against the bootleggers, decides to take a vacation upstate in Gilead, a location he chooses by Continue reading

Trial of Vivienne Ware, The (1932)

US / 56 minutes / bw / Fox Dir & Pr: William K. Howard Scr: Philip Klein, Barry Conners Story: The Trial of Vivienne Ware (1931) by Kenneth M. Ellis Cine: Ernest Palmer Cast: Joan Bennett, Donald Cook, Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, Zasu Pitts, Lilian Bond, Allan Dinehart (i.e., Alan Dinehart), Herbert Mundin, Howard Phillips, William Pawley, Noel Madison, Jameson Thomas, Ruth Selwyn, Christian Rub, Maude Eburne, J. Maurice Sullivan (i.e., John M. Sullivan).

Wealthy NYC socialite Vivienne Ware (Bennett) falls for sleazy architect/builder Damon Fenwick (Thomas) and agrees to marry him, much to the chagrin of the lawyer who loves her, John Sutherland (Cook). After it becomes evident that Fenwick is two-timing her with Silver Bowl Café danceuse Dolores Divine (Bond), Vivienne breaks off the engagement. Later that night Fenwick is found murdered; when the cops arrive at Vivienne’s apartment next morning to question her, they find her packing for a trip, disbelieve her explanation that this is the first she’s known of the murder, and arrest her.

Of course, John takes on her defense, even though he himself believes he saw Vivienne taking a cab to Fenwick’s house just before the murder.  In court, the aggressive, permanently irate prosecutor (Dinehart) piles up the incriminating evidence against Vivienne; in fact, she seems even guiltier to us than she does to the court, because we saw her destroying an incriminating diary page (“And if Damon deceives me again I shall not be responsible for the consequences”) just before the cops arrived to tell her of Fenwick’s death. The tide starts to turn when, as Dolores is testifying, a man hurls a knife at her from the rear of the court; eventually arrested, he proves to be Joe Garson (Phillips), cousin of the owner of the Silver Bowl, Angelo Paroni (Madison) . . .

The Trial of Vivienne Ware is a very well told and executed movie, with a clever narrative whereby several integral parts of the story are omitted from the chronological telling of the movie’s first half, only to be filled in later as flashbacks from the court proceedings. This narrational sophistication is matched by Ralph Dietrich’s editing, which makes extensive use of the so-called swish cut: the transition from one scene to another is effected by means of what seems like a pan shot so rapid that the images blur; when they unblur, we’re into the new scene. This creates a sort of subliminal illusion that everything’s been done in a single take, which adds considerably to the paciness of proceedings.

And the movie does pack a lot of action, dialogue and plot into its scant running time. It also finds room for quite a lot of humor, some risqué enough that, just a few years later, the imposition of the Hays Code would have prohibited it. For example, here are two of Dolores’s fellow showgirls chatting in the dressing room:

“What a sucker I was. I thought that sugar daddy of mine meant he was going to take me abroad for a trip to France.”

“Yeah, where’d you get that idea?”

“Because he told me someday he was going to show me the place where he was wounded in the war.”

Pitts and Gallagher perform a supposedly droll double act as radio broadcasters Gladys Fairweather and Graham McNally, whose commentaries on the ongoing trial are rather less witty than some of the rest of the dialogue.

There are some odd little indications that the movie was made in a hurry (for example, after Joe Garson jumps through a plate glass window, falls several feet and rolls over a couple of times, the cops haul him upright and we discover that, miraculously, his hat is still firmly in place), but the narrative devices, including the editing, render it a cut above most other fillers of its day.

There’s no DVD on Amazon.com, but Ellis’s novel is available: The Trial of Vivienne Ware

Baby Face (1933)

US / 76 minutes (cut on initial release to 71 minutes) / bw / Warner Dir: Alfred E. Green Pr: William LeBaron, Raymond Griffith Scr: Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola Story: Mark Canfield (Darryl F. Zanuck) Cine: James Van Trees Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Theresa Harris, Donald Cook, Henry Kolker, Margaret Lindsay.

(The Encyclopedia does in fact have an entry on Baby Face but, as befits the movie’s protonoir status, that entry’s somewhat truncated.)

Nick Powers (Barrat) runs a speakeasy in which he essentially pimps his daughter Lily (Stanwyck). After he attempts to set her up with sleazy local hoodlum Ed Sipple (Hohl), Lily packs to leave, but before she can do so the boiler explodes, killing Nick. Encouraged by friendly old local cobbler Adolf Craag (Ethier) to seek her fortune in the big city, Lily and her father’s servant Chico (Harris) hop a freight train to New York City. There Lily seduces her way into a job in the Filing Dept. of the Gotham Trust Company. Well, if it worked once . . .

Thanks to supervisor Jimmy McCoy Jr. (a very young John Wayne), promotion ensues to the Mortgage Dept., where office manager Brody (Dumbrille) is next to topple. When they’re caught in flagrante by the boss of the Accounts Dept., Ned Stevens (Cook), it’s his turn: “Oh, I’m so ashamed,” says Lily, with the kind of innocence that can blister paint. “It’s the first time anything like that has ever happened to me.” Even though engaged to Ann Carter (Lindsay), daughter of one of the company’s directors, Ned sets Lily up in an apartment. The father himself, J.R. Carter (Kolker), is next on Lily’s list of conquests, and fixes her up in an even grander apartment. But then disaster strikes: mad with jealousy, Stevens shoots Carter dead and then himself.

Lily ducks out of the scandal, but is rusticated to the company’s Paris HQ until things cool down a bit. There she snares the company’s new president, Courtland Trenholm (Brent), and marries him, a union that brings her his fortune. When the company faces bankruptcy, Lily refuses to give him his money back to bail it out . . .

Baby Face was made just on the brink of the introduction of the Production Code, and by the time it was ready for release the Code was coming into effect. The movie’s theme was obviously scandalous in the new, prim context; perhaps every bit as scandalous was the fact that Lily’s one true friend throughout was the black woman Chico: the affection between the two is almost palpable when they’re on screen together (and at these times Harris at least matches Stanwyck and indeed comes close to stealing scenes from her—something few players could ever boast!). It’s clear that Lily regards Chico almost as a sister; this cannot have pleased the bigots of the time.

Whatever, the New York State Board of Censors rejected the movie unless a number of changes were made: the released movie was a full five minutes shorter than the full version. In 2004, however, an uncut copy was discovered, and so Baby Face was able to have its true premiere on January 24 2005, in New York.

Even the cut version has a quite astonishing amount of sexual charge. Stanwyck was not an especially beautiful woman, but here she succeeded in projecting such an aura of female sexuality that there seems nothing improbable at all in her being able to seduce any—and every—man she chooses; despite the monochrome, despite the passage of over seven decades, despite the fact that all undress and explicit impropriety are of course absent, there have been few sexier screen performances. No wonder the New York Censors were startled.

On Amazon.com: Baby Face and TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection – Volume One (Waterloo Bridge (1931) / Baby Face / Red-Headed Woman)