While the Patient Slept (1935)

US / 66 minutes / bw / Warner, Clue Club, First National, Vitaphone Dir: Ray Enright Scr: Robert N. Lee, Eugene Solow, Brown Holmes Story: While the Patient Slept (1930) by Mignon G. Eberhart Cine: Arthur Edeson Cast: Aline MacMahon, Guy Kibbee, Lyle Talbot, Patricia Ellis, Allen Jenkins, Robert Barrat, Hobart Cavanaugh, Dorothy Tree, Henry O’Neill, Russell Hicks, Helen Flint, Brandon Hurst, Eddie Shubert, Walter Walker, Virginia Howell.

Patriarch Richard Federie (Walker) is elderly and ailing, and the family are gathering at the old ancestral pile—all except reprobate son Charles (Barrat), who’s serving time for manslaughter. On getting a telegram from Charles to say that he too is coming home, Richard has a stroke; family physician Dr. Jay (Hicks) gives an optimistic prognosis, and nurse Sarah Keate (MacMahon) is called to Federie Manor to tend the comatose patient.

That evening, in turn, family lawyer Elihu Dimuck (O’Neill), Richard’s beloved granddaughter March (Ellis), Charles’s twin brother Adolphe (Barrat again), Richard’s niece Mittie (Tree) and unparticularized family member Eustace (Cavanaugh) each requests Sarah that they be the first to be informed should the old man wake.

During the night, as Sarah slumbers on a couch in the room where Richard lies, Adolphe creeps in, takes from the mantelpiece an ornamental green elephant in which, as we later discover, a vital clue is concealed, and then, as he seeks to depart, is gunned down by an unknown figure.

While the Patient Slept (1935) - Sarah (MacMahon) prepares to fire a decoy shot

Sarah (MacMahon) prepares to fire a decoy shot.

The cops arrive in the shape of Sarah’s old acquaintance and romantic aspirant Det.-Lt. Lance O’Leary (Kibbee), his irritatingly loud-mouthed dimwit sidekick Sgt. Jim Jackson (Jenkins, playing exactly the same role he did in many other movies) and Detective Muldoon (Shubert). They and the plot bumble along, O’Leary seeming so clueless that at one point Sarah tells him, “Well, the fact that you suspect me is all the defense I need.” Just as O’Leary’s about to arrest the butler, Grondal (Hurst), who’s discovered to have a police record and an old feud with Adolphe, Grondal is found strangled . . .

Eberhardt’s novel, her second, won the reportedly prestigious Scotland Yard Award, but you sure wouldn’t guess it from this farrago. It’s hard to believe the script wasn’t originally written as a stage play, then lazily filmed without alteration. About the only things the movie has going for it are MacMahon’s performance and the wisecracking chemistry she shares with Kibbee.

By movie’s end, although the mystery is supposedly solved, we’re left with various unanswered questions. For example, did Ross Lonergan (Talbot) arrive at the house because summoned by sweetheart March, as we’re first told, or to try to recover a hefty debt owed to him and his father by Adolphe, as is next spelled out? And, although it seems reasonable that March be Richard’s grandchild, she appears to have no parents: it’s made quite clear that she’s not the offspring of any of the other Federies. Oops.


On Amazon.com: While the Patient Slept