Shadows on the Stairs (1941)

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So many seedy secrets behind a boarding house’s doors!
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vt Murder on the Second Floor
US / 62 minutes / bw / Warner–First National Dir: D. Ross Lederman Pr: Bryan Foy Scr: Anthony Coldeway Story: Murder on the Second Floor (1929 play) by Frank Vosper Cine: Allen G. Siegler Cast: Frieda Inescort, Paul Cavanagh, Heather Angel, Bruce Lester, Miles Mander, Lumsden Hare, Turhan Bey, Charles Irwin, Phyllis Barry, Mary Field, Paul Renay.

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London, 1937, and on the surface Mrs. Armitage’s boarding house appears tranquil enough. But, as we soon find out, not all is as it seems . . .

The movie opens at the docks. One of Mrs. Armitage’s lodgers, Joe Reynolds (Cavanagh), observes as another, Ram Singh (Bey), helps smuggle a small trunk onto the dock and away. Back at the boarding house next morning, it’s clear that the two are in uneasy, mutually suspicious cahoots.

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Ram Singh (Turhan Bey) awaits the arrival of the smuggled box.

Not all is well among the building’s other occupants. Startled while clearing away the breakfast things, the maid, Lucy Timpson (Barry), drops a tray of dirty dishes and is promptly and viciously fired by the landlady, ex-actress Stella Armitage (Inescort). Joe has been carrying on a long-term affair with Stella—in fact, it was he who bought the boarding house for her to run ten years ago when her acting days were over. Stella’s chess-fiend husband Tom (Mander), likewise an ex-actor—he boasts he once played the aunt in Charley’s Aunt—is oblivious to the pair’s shenanigans even after a decade. On the other hand, Stella is equally oblivious to the fact that her lover Joe has been canoodling on the side with Lucy.

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Lucy (Phyllis Barry) is startled by various goings-on.

Also living in the house are Miss Phoebe Marcia St. John Snell (Field)—“I usually leave out the Marcia”—a spinster who sublimates her unmentionable yearnings by reading an endless string of fevered romance novels; and a young, would-be playwright, Hugh Bromilow (Lester). Hugh is carrying on with Stella’s daughter Sylvia (Angel), but at least for the moment in what we might call Continue reading

Blues in the Night (1941)

US / 88 minutes / bw / Warner–First National Dir: Anatole Litvak Scr: Robert Rossen, Elia Kazan (uncredited) Story: Hot Nocturne (unproduced play) by Edwin Gilbert Cine: Ernie Haller Cast: Priscilla Lane, Betty Field, Richard Whorf, Lloyd Nolan, Jack Carson, Wally Ford, Elia Kazan, Peter Whitney, Billy Halop, Howard Da Silva, Joyce Compton, Herbert Heywood, George Lloyd, Charles Wilson, Matt McHugh, William Gillespie, Jimmie Lunceford and His Band, Will Osborne and His Band, Mabel Todd, Ernest Whitman, Napoleon Simpson, Dudley Dickerson.

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Ernest Whitman and Napoleon Simpson.

Brilliant jazz pianist Jigger Pine (Whorf) and drummer Peppi (Halop) are rocking the joint at the St. Louis Cafe, egged on by their clarinetist fan and would-be band member Nickie Haroyan (Kazan). Jigger gets into a fight with an obstreperous drunk (McHugh) and the trio end up in a cell for a few hours while Nickie’s mom arranges bail. There they meet Jigger’s old bassist pal Pete Bossett (Whitney) and Jigger spells out his vision to the other three:

“You think I never thought about starting a band before? I thought about it lots of times. I’m always thinking about it. But it’s got to be our kind of music. Our kind of band. The songs we’ve heard when we’ve been knocking around this country. Blues, real blues, the kind that come out of people, real people, their hopes and their dreams, what they’ve got and what they want, the whole USA in one chorus. . . . And that band ain’t just kinda blowin’ and poundin’ and scrapin’. That’s five guys, no more, who feel, play, live, even think the same way. That ain’t a band, it’s a unit. It’s one guy multiplied five times. It’s a unit that even breathes on the same beat. It’s gonna kick on its own in a style that’s theirs and nobody else’s. It’s like a hand in a glove, five fingers, each to fit quick and slick.”

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Nickie (Elia Kazan) calls Mom to bail out him and his pals (Whorf and Halop).

And there are quirks in the reification of this dream, at least as portrayed in this movie. The four in that jail cell form Jigger’s “unit” all right—adding trumpeter Leo Powell (Carson) and his wife, singer Ginger “Character” Powell (Lane), along the way—but Continue reading