While The Patient Slept (1935)

While The Patient Slept

9c_d_182079_0_WhileThePatientSleptAuthor: Based on a novel of the same name published by Mignon G. Eberhart in 1930. The novel won $5000 and the Scotland Yard prize.  Screenplay by Robert N. Lee and Eugene Solow; additional dialogue by Brown Holmes. Eberhart’s novel was acknowledged.

Lee wrote some interesting mystery films, including the screenplay for the well-received Kennel Murder Case, and was nominated for an Oscar in 1931 for adapting the screenplay of Little Caesar.  Solow wrote the screenplay for The League of Frightened Men, a Nero Wolfe screenplay, and Of Mice and Men. And Brown Holmes did the screenplay for two Perry Mason films, TCOT Lucky Legs and TCOT Curious Bride, among many, many others, including The Maltese Falcon.

Other Data:  March 9, 1935, according to IMDB.  Directed by Ray Enright, who started his career working for Matt Sennett and directed 76 titles that no one has ever heard of, including a lot of Westerns.

Cast: Aline MacMahon as Nurse Sarah Keate, an inquisitive nurse who is at the right place at the right time. Guy Kibbee as Detective Lance O’Leary.  Supporting cast includes a bunch of familiar hard-working faces; perhaps the most recognizable is Lyle Talbot.

About this film:

This is the first in a series of  mystery films that is very hard to define, but I’ll do my best. They are six films that are connected because there is a character in each of them who is a nurse named something like Sarah Keate (Sally Keating, Sara Keating, etc.). For the most part, they are somehow based on original murder mysteries by a writer named Mignon G. Eberhart.

While The Patient Slept, 1935, Sarah Keate is played by Aline MacMahon. Lance O’Leary is played by Guy Kibbee.
The Murder of Dr. Harrigan, 1935, Sally Keating is played by Kay Linaker.
Murder of an Aristocrat, 1935, Sally Keating is played by Marguerite Churchill.
The Great Hospital Mystery, 1937, Sarah Keats is played by Jane Darwell.
The Patient in Room 18, 1938, Sara Keate is played by Ann Sheridan. Lance O’Leary is played by Patric Knowles.
Mystery House, 1938, Sarah Keate is played by Ann Sheridan. Lance O’Leary is played by Dick Purcell.

As you can see, this is not a series that has a strong backstory. Aline MacMahon and Jane Darwell were talented, but unbeautiful, hence character actors; the others were young pretty leading ladies.  Sometimes there’s a policeman-boyfriend named Lance O’Leary, who is either middle-aged and comedic or young and handsome. The basic situation is that someone is sick, or has been shot, or is in a wheelchair, and needs a private nurse.  Nurse Keate arrives on the spot, someone is murdered, and a policeman investigates.  Because the nurse is an “impartial” onlooker, she can cooperate with the police to help solve the crime.

vlcsnap-2012-12-24-23h59m38s39Aline MacMahon was instantly familiar to me as having played Ginger Rogers’s best friend in Gold Diggers of 1933. in which she also digs a little gold in the person of — Guy Kibbee. This may be an attempt to pair the two of them as a “kooky detective team” or merely to cash in on any popularity engendered by their previous pairing.  Physically in this film she is tall, large-boned (no, I am not making a euphemism for fat. She appears to be a tall woman with wide hips and long arms and legs) and has a stocky figure. Since Guy Kibbee is a chunky middle-aged unhandsome man, it is permissible by the filmic conventions of 1935 for them to be romantically involved in a comedic way, and they so do here. MacMahon won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1944 for Dragon Seed, wherein Katharine Hepburn chewed the scenery in yellowface. (Jane Darwell won the same award in 1940 for playing Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, and now I bet a picture of her face has instantly come to your mind.) I don’t know offhand of any other film in which MacMahon was billed first and this may actually be her only starring vehicle; if you know differently, I’d like to know. I have no taste for going through every one of her long list of IMDB entries to see precisely where she’s billed.

Guy Kibbee  has some detective chops in his own right. He played Jim Hanvey, Detective in 1937 but any projected series went nowhere. (C. Aubrey Smith played this detective created by Octavus Roy Cohen in 1933’s Curtain at Eight, which may have added some brand confusion.) One source described him accurately as the quintessential small-town big shot, and I think that’s deadly accurate. He’s a chunky man full of bombast, ideal to play a policeman who is “in charge”.

The story is actually quite interesting. An elderly man, Mr. Federie, wealthy and with a household full of mostly disagreeable relatives and a few employees, is quite ill and on his deathbed; he has a stroke and requires the services of Nurse Keate. He has called them all together to discuss something, but has been felled before he can speak. Unexpectedly, one of the disagreeable Federies is murdered and the others in the house immediately begin ways to incriminate each other, depending on their history and their motives. Meanwhile, a small green statute of an elephant appears and disappears and is meant as a MacGuffin. After much hubbub and throwing of suspicion, the elephant is revealed to conceal a document which brings home the murder to the criminal, Guy Kibbee apparently asks Nurse Keate to marry him, the invalid wakens and says, “Did something happen?”, and the world is set to rights.

The action of the film takes place entirely within the confines of the patriarch’s mansion and there is a strong element of ODH (Old Dark House) grafted into this straightforward plot, with interesting and appealing results. There is also a strong element of gentle humour in the course of this film that is quite appealing.

The ODH elements are familiar to anyone who grew up with the parodies of the genre so beautifully done by a couple of Bugs Bunny cartoons. You’ll know it immediately; a dimly-lit mansion filled with secret panels out of which emit clutching hands, draperied entrances which flutter to show the exit of a mysterious cloaked figure, and the painting on the wall whose eyes literally follow you around the room, because someone is in a secret passage behind the painting watching you. Well, quite a few elements of the classic ODH are here. There are draperied entrances, and the invalid has a dark-paneled two-storey bedroom (I know, right? Like we should all have a minstrel gallery above the four-poster) complete with secret passage off the closet leading to a secret windowless room. Plus, there actually is a clutching hand behind the draperied entrance. All that’s missing is the eyeless portrait but, really, they had to have room for the murder plot.

As far as the humour goes, I give it full marks. This is 1935, and a comedy film frequently consisted of a bunch of odd characters jammed together into a flimsy plot, and good actors making us laugh at their characteristic antics.  The comedy didn’t arise organically from the characters combining with the plot, as we have come to expect these days now that films are much, much more expensive to make. Here, indeed, the writing is a lot better than it has to be.  Mignon Eberhart provides the raw materials — a nurse, a detective, and a house full of relatives who hate each other and want to inherit. But the screenwriters have transformed this material in a way that would not have disgraced films of the period that had a LOT more money spent on them.

Indeed, the screenwriters take the defects of the basic murder plot and turn them into virtues. Ngaio Marsh is well known for a huge sag in the middle of many of her books — after the mise en scene, everything grinds to a halt while the police bring in one suspect at a time and interrogate them, partly to complicate the plot and partly to distinguish them in the eyes of the reader. Well, here, since everyone has been called to the mansion to visit old Mr. Federie, immediately after Nurse Keate starts to work, everyone in the house troops in, one after the other, and asks to be informed first when Mr. Federie is again able to speak. By the time the last one arrives, Nurse Keate cuts her off, tells her she’ll contact her when Mr. Federie comes to, and ejects her unceremoniously. This takes a necessity and makes it into a virtue, and elegantly so. The script is full of such nice little touches.

At one point I actually chuckled aloud, which for the average viewer is probably the equivalent of a belly laugh.  (I’m frequently too focused on the structure of what I’m seeing to react to the emotions of it.) I’ve seen this film a couple of times before, and this clever little joke still caught me by surprise. Kibbee and his assistant are pounding on the bedroom door of a disagreeable and slightly dotty woman trying to persuade her to come forward and testify.  She flatly refuses. Kibbee remarks that he only has trouble getting men to talk; women he cannot persuade to stop.  He then calls through the door, “This is your last chance to tell us what you know!” A moment later — “I’ll be right out!”

As noted above, there is a small sub-theme of Kibbee and MacMahon becoming romantically involved. I don’t think anyone takes it seriously; I don’t think it was meant to be taken seriously. It was merely a sop to the conventions, in the sense that in 1935 if an unmarried man and an unmarried woman were to work closely together on a murder case, they would either be romantically involved leading to marriage, or it would be a social mis-step.

I liked this film quite a bit and recall it, and its fellows, fondly. This is an example of the kind of work turned out by the studios at the B level; this is the work of a group of professionals turning out disposable entertainment in large quantities on a tight schedule, much like what would happen in the early days of television. And yet it is much better than it needed to be.  It has intelligence and charm and humour. It has a great deal of minor-league acting talent and it’s even very competently directed. The mystery plot will not occupy your mind for long, since it primarily depends upon the clue in the green elephant — once you find that, it’s all over. In the meantime, in the classic pattern, everyone looks guilty as hell for about five minutes each, and everything is rolled up in a tidy 67 minutes.

Notes For the Collector:

Copies of the film seem readily available; it’s been released by Warner Classics.  Turner Classic Movies showed it recently and re-runs it perhaps once a year.  Since I’m sure that almost no one recognizes that Sara Keate, Sarah Keate, and Sally Keating are meant to be the same person, it is highly unlikely that a uniform edition will be coming out any time soon, but you never know. In the meantime, I recommend the fun of tracking down the whole set; a couple will occupy you to obtain them.

2 thoughts on “While The Patient Slept (1935)

  1. John says:

    I have only seen a very brief clip of Aline McMahon in this film and she fits Eberhart’s description of Sarah Keate perfectly. I woudl like to see the entire movie someday. Ann Sheridan is all wrong! Some of the Sarah Keate books are quite good. FROM THIS DARK STAIRWAY is rather ingenious. It too was made into a movie in 1938, but for some reason Nurse Keate was eliminated from the story. A check at imdb.com shows nothing remotely similar to any of the names you list above. Eberhart seemed to get the shaft when her books were turned into movies.

  2. […] but I value both these series for the same reasons (I’ve talked about the Sarah Keate films elsewhere). Prominent critic and blogger Curtis Evans suggested that Hilda Adams or Sarah Keate “are […]

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