Rocky Mountain Mystery (aka The Fighting Westerner) (1935)

Rocky Mountain Mystery (also released as The Fighting Westerner)

rocky-mountain-mystery-movie-poster-1935-1020198180Author: An adaptation by Ethel Doherty of an unpublished novel (Golden Dreams) by Zane Grey. Screenplay by Edward E. Paramore Jr. Ms. Doherty’s writing career went back to 1925 and this was, in fact, her last screen credit. Mr. Paramore wrote a long list of films including perhaps his most famous, The Bitter Tea of General Yen. And Zane Gray, of course, was a best-selling and extremely prolific writer of Westerns who became an overnight success in 1912, with “Riders of the Purple Sage”. He has 116 writing credits in IMDB alone, his own TV series (Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre from 1956-1961) and a long, long list of published books — which makes me wonder, just what on earth is he doing with an unpublished novel? However, this story appears to have been updated to 1935, regardless of when it was first written, and this seems to have been the work of Mr. Paramore. No source suggests that Zane Grey had anything to do with this film personally.

The unpublished novel Golden Dreams was filmed under that title in 1922 of the silent era; IMDB says nothing about it beyond the cast, but merely by the characters’ names I can tell that it has little or nothing to do with this plot about a radium mine. At least, it seems to be vaguely about Spanish aristocrats in early California.

Other Data:  63 minutes long. March 1, 1935, according to IMDB.  Directed by Charles Barton, who won an Academy Award for best assistant director in 1933 — no, I didn’t know there was such a thing either — and started his directing career in 1934 with a different Randolph Scott/Zane Grey feature, Wagon Wheels. His career included The Shaggy Dog, for Walt Disney, and 106 episodes of the execrable Family Affair on CBS, 1967 to 1971.

rocky-mountain-mystery-ann-sheridan-randolph-scott-1935All extant prints that I’ve seen bear the title The Fighting Westerner. There is no reason cited for this title change that I can find; frequently it has something to do with the sale of the film to a television packaging company in the 1950s, such as Favorite Films, here cited above the title with a credit to Paramount, whose original production this was. I suppose they mean that the hero is a fighting Westerner but really he’s more of a detective than a fist fighter.

Cast: Chic Sale as Deputy Sheriff Tex Murdock. Mrs. Leslie Carter as sinister housekeeper Mrs. Borg. George Marion, Sr. as the invalid father; Ann Sheridan as his daughter Rita, Florence Roberts as his long-lost wife, Kathleen Burke as her daughter Flora, Willie Fung as the mysterious Ling Yat, and finally, at the end of the credits, Randolph Scott as broad-shouldered, clean-limbed hero Larry Sutton.

It seems odd to me but, omitting a few supporting players near the end, this is the order in which the credits were run. If so, Chic Sale had a much larger following than I’d thought. His Wikipedia entry here makes fascinating reading; at one point around this time referring in conversation to his name meant that you were making a euphemism for an outhouse, and there’s actually a reference to him in the Marx Brothers’ film Animal Crackers. He specialized in “backwater hicks”; in this film he’s mainly the comedy relief.

Mrs. Leslie Carter also had a more interesting career than I’d ever heard of, a précis of which is found here. Frankly, she sounds like a character from the musical Chicago — she used her married name to spite her husband — and they made a movie about her in 1940, The Lady with Red Hair. This is one of her few film appearances and OMG, does she ever look like a drag queen, with a huge jaw, unplucked furry eyebrows, and a deep serious voice. Ann Sheridan of course went on to become the “Oomph Girl” and made The Glass Key the same year; and about a dozen other films, all in 1935. They worked ’em HARD in those days. Even the barely-seen Willie Fung has an interesting biography and resume. All things considered, this would have been a high-powered cast without Randolph Scott, but with him, it’s quite a bit above the usual level of the Westerns of the period.

And of course Randolph Scott is a well-known Western hero who was just getting his career off the ground in 1935 — this film is cited as a turning point for his promotion from B films to the A level. Between 1932 and 1935, he made ten Zane Grey westerns in a loose series for Paramount and this seems to be the last.

About this film:

Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I wanted to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing the ending of the film, and the twist that underlies some events.  If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies.  If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own. 

imagesI originally decided to investigate this film for a peculiar reason. I mentioned idly elsewhere in this blog that “I can suggest there are a couple of Western series characters whose films were primarily mysteries with Western trappings and characters, albeit at the general level of mystery of Scooby-Doo and those meddling kids.” Of course, when I sat down and tried to think of some, well — I had had the vague idea that what I think of as the “Radio Ranch” genre of movie cowboy series frequently dipped into the standard mystery plot structure as a basis for their activities. For instance, Riders of the Whistling Skull from 1937, featuring The Three Mesquiteers, qualifies as a “weird western” and has both a murder mystery element and a mummy. But I do remember one plot structure that recurred over and over. The kindly old owner of Ranch A was found dead and it shore did look like the owner of Ranch B made good on his threats. Luckily the lovely orphaned daughter of the victim managed to attract the attention of a gallant Western hero, who solved the crime, shot or arrested the perpetrator and kissed the girl. (My recollections here are based on a misspent youth in front of the television in the 60s.)  I may still find some of these; however, I got sidetracked when I found Rocky Mountain Mystery.

To me, this is a fairly standard Western, but I gather from my reading that there are significantly different elements. To begin with, this all takes place against the background of a radium mine — radium being worth an enormous amount per gram in 1935 — and there is barely a horse to be seen, but quite a few automobiles and telephones. We begin as Randolph Scott (playing “Larry Sutton”) arrives at the Ballard radium mine to take over as chief engineer (not ranch foreman, as is more usual) because his brother-in-law has disappeared after the death of the ranch caretaker, Mr. Borg. Randolph Scott teams up with deputy sheriff Tex, the comedy relief, to investigate Borg’s death — gruesomely, crushed in a gigantic piece of mining equipment used to crush rock. Elderly paterfamilias Jim Ballard is bedridden, and his niece Flora and nephew Fritz have arrived to secure their inheritance from his radium mine and accompanying ranch. (His other niece Rita (Ann Sheridan) has also arrived, but she’s only there to provide a love interest for Randolph Scott.) Borg’s widow Mrs. Borg and her scrawny son John, and “mysterious Chinaman” Ling Yat, keep the household running.


After Randolph Scott arrives, things heat up. Soon Fritz is found crushed in the same piece of equipment, and a dark cloaked figure runs around and stirs things up; but everyone seems to have an alibi.  Next John Borg is shot, Randolph Scott is attacked by the cloaked figure, and Flora is murdered by having her throat cut. All these events take a toll on the invalid, it seems. Randolph contacts his ex-wife, who hasn’t been out at the ranch in 30 years, and tells her to come quickly to say good-bye.  When she does, she reveals that the invalid isn’t her ex-husband at all, but Mr. Borg — who crushed the ranch’s owner into unrecognizability and took his place. In an exciting finish, the Borg family and Ling Yat run for the hills, and a number of chase scenes result in the Borgs and Ling Yat being sentenced to 20 years in prison, Tex becoming the sheriff, and Randolph Scott marrying Ann Sheridan and buying a ranch in Hawaii.

Indeed, this is a strict-form puzzle mystery, as I have elsewhere defined it. The film is careful to show us people at the precise moment in time when things happen — for instance, when Flora screams her final scream, we see Randolph Scott amid three or four other suspects, all of whom look up. Everyone is carefully alibied except the invalid, who clearly must be guilty. If you get that far, it’s easy to figure out that the central clue is that someone spirited away the dead body that had been identified as Mr. Borg, and thus the murderer has changed places with his victim.

This did hold my attention. Every once in a while it veers into the cliche-ridden B-movie Western, notably with the “by cracky” antics of  Chic Sale — and yet we see him taking the hoof prints of horses to identify the one ridden by the murderer, which is hardly silly at all. Similarly the black-cloaked villain seems to be a hangover from the fast and dirty days of the B movie, but this movie, with a cheerfully uncaring attitude towards any possible disbelief, offers us all kinds of cliches with an air of not knowing that they are indeed cliches. So we have the swarthy suspicious Chinese servant and the brooding housekeeper and her weird, weakling son. We’ve seen everything here before, more or less, and if the director is not ashamed to include it, I’m not ashamed to enjoy it.

It’s interesting to see how the film changes with the introduction of cars, automobiles and radium; as if there has been some sort of time warp that leaves half the script in the 1890s and the other half in 1935. I imagine they must have had rudimentary identification in 1935 and that it would have been a lot easier to take over someone’s identity in 1895. Similarly, villainous Chinese servants were all the rage in 1900 or so, but rather old hat in 1935, what with the introduction of Charlie Chan and all.

And it’s rather fun to watch this weird crossover between mystery and Western. The director is apparently convinced that there are no problems inherent in fulfilling the requirements of each genre, and he seems to be right. (If you’re interested in seeing how cross-genre Westerns can occasionally fail spectacularly, check out The Terror of Tiny Town some day.) The merging of mystery and Western is quite good here; enough detective work to satisfy the crime fan, and enough Western action for Western devotees. I have to say that the final solution is precipitated by the arrival of the long-lost ex-wife, and it’s not clear that Randolph Scott has invited her to attend with any detective motivation in mind; so the solution is kind of accidental, I think. Not as strict-form a mystery as the purists among us would like, but fun nevertheless.

Notes For the Collector:

This film is apparently in the public domain and can be found here.

The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938) (#005 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #005

$(KGrHqZ,!oQF!K6tt)S5BQK)+QwFlQ~~60_35The Gracie Allen Murder Case, by S. S. Van Dine (1938)


S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) was, in the late 1920s, one of the best-selling authors in the United States.  In 1939, he died “of a heart condition exacerbated by excessive drinking”. He published 12 mysteries between 1926 and 1939 that featured Philo Vance, a foppish aesthete and amateur detective, and was also a well-known writer on such topics as Nietzsche and aesthetic philosophy. Many of his books were made into films and he also wrote a dozen mystery “short subjects” for the screen. His best-known biography, Alias S. S. Van Dine, says that he got started writing mysteries when he was confined to bed recovering from a cocaine addiction.  His life and work are interesting and complex, and summarizing it in a single paragraph cannot do it justice: I recommend the biography, and the Wikipedia entry for both Van Dine and Philo Vance.

Publication Data:

This is the second-last of 12 novels, from 1938, and was the last novel published in the author’s lifetime. The Winter Murder Case, released posthumously, was conceived as the basis of a movie featuring Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie.  It seems unarguable that this book was conceived and produced with a similar motive in mind, as a vehicle for popular radio star Gracie Allen, who was known for publicity stunts.  The film version was released in 1939, a year before Allen ran for president of the U.S. and received 42,000 votes.

The first edition is from Scribner’s in 1938; first UK is from Cassell, also in 1938.  First paper is the edition you see above, released as The Smell of Murder by Bantam, 1950, #756. To my knowledge this is the only time that a Van Dine novel was issued under any other title. (Philo Vance books follow a pattern of titles: The (six-letter word) Murder Case, and I gather that originally this title was meant to be merely Gracie.)  Other editions exist, including a paperback from Otto Penzler’s line, and the entire text of the novel is online from Project Gutenberg.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Philo Vance and his associate S. S. Van Dine, chronicler of his exploits, are assisting District Attorney Markham with a case focused on gangster Benny the Buzzard. Vance and Van Dine are out in the country when they encounter a young woman (Gracie Allen) employed by a perfume company, the In-O-Scent Corporation, as assistant to George Burns, here represented as a perfumier. Ms. Allen is what would today be known as a ditz; her conversation is replete with non-sequiturs and she is surrounded by a general air of goofiness. Vance apparently finds her charming. The action soon focuses on a nightclub called the Domdaniel where not only do a group of gangsters hang out — I almost called them a coterie, which gives you an idea of how Van Dine’s language rubs off on the reader — but Gracie’s brother is employed as a dishwasher. (It is not likely that the brother’s character in the book is meant to have anything to do with Allen’s real-life brother, but it is worth noting that in 1932/33, the Burns/Allen radio appearances contained a year-long search for Allen’s supposedly missing brother as a publicity stunt.  Contemporary audiences would be likely to have this more at the top of their minds some five or six years later.)

The activities of the gangsters, escaped convicts, etc., are focused on the Domdaniel nightclub and the first dead body is identified as that of Allen’s brother. There is a character involved with the gangsters, a Mr. Owen, who stands out because of his anguished and rather Nietzschean philosophy (the author’s first success was with a volume called What Nietzsche Taught, and the action grinds to a halt whenever Owen and Vance begin to chat) and the rather muddled plot concerns a secret entrance to the nightclub’s office, an escaped convict, and various manoeuvrings concerning a poisoned cigarette that smells of “jonquille”.

After some tedious gangster-focused material (the author apparently knew nothing about real gangsters) that is periodically interrupted by Gracie Allen saying cute and silly things, Vance solves the crime and arranges that an associated reward should go to Allen; Burns proposes to Allen in the final pages.  Vance also encourages the murderer to commit suicide, a Nietzschean echo of an earlier book, The Bishop Murder Case.

As noted, there is a filmed version of this novel which was released in 1939. Gracie Allen receives first billing over Warren William’s efforts as Philo Vance (referred to by Gracie as “Fido”) and many poor-quality prints exist of this film if you’re interested in seeing it. The film ignores most of the more complex material of the book and instead is a starring vehicle for Gracie, including an opportunity for her to sing a novelty song (“Snug as a Bug in a Rug”) where she runs the first lines of many popular songs together, apparently mistaking the link between tune and lyrics.

tumblr_llemg8HRrr1qceuzao1_500Why is this so awful?

I haven’t got a copy of Alias S. S. Van Dine handy but my recollection is that like many authors who strike it big, the author established spending habits early in his career that required labour to sustain. In 1932/33, for instance, he churned out a dozen short mystery stories that served as the basis for a series of short films (about 20 minutes) starring Donald Meek as Dr. Crabtree, Criminologist. As we progress along his career towards his death in ’39, though, his earning options grew fewer. He was no longer turning out four Philo Vance novels in three years as he did between 1933 and 1935; he released his last “true” Vance novel in 1936, The Kidnap Murder Case, and there were two years before the release of this piece of work.  In fact he was casting about for money, I think. He did have income coming in from filmed versions of his work; again, about one a year. But he had a very expensive penthouse in Manhattan and a dilettante’s lifestyle to support, one not unlike that of Philo Vance.

Part of the reason why his income was decreasing was because his work was, not to put too fine a point on it, getting worse and worse. There is an often-quoted line by Julian Symons in his history of detective fiction, Bloody Murder, which runs “The decline in the last six Vance books is so steep that the critic who called the ninth of them one more stitch in his literary shroud was not overstating the case.” And this book is his eleventh.

To the modern eye, frequently, there is little to choose between Philo Vance at his best and worst. Such tricks as having an alibi established by a specially-made phonograph record were inventive in 1927 but vieux jeu today. Certainly, connoisseurs of the locked room mystery appreciate the door-closing mechanism in The Kennel Murder Case as well as the Benson, and there is inventiveness and intelligence behind quite a bit of all of the first six novels. It has been said that The Bishop Murder Case is an early and essential precursor of the modern serial killer novel, but written at a time when the concept of a serial killer did not yet exist.

What is really hard to take, though, is the pompous nitwit who is at the centre of it all, Philo Vance. This is the detective about whom Ogden Nash wrote “Philo Vance/needs a kick in the pance.”  Wikipedia has a full article on him that goes into great detail, but I can find no better commentator than Dashiell Hammett reviewing the first Vance novel:

“This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory; he managed always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong.”

Yes, it’s unfair to judge the mysteries of yesteryear by the standards of today. Yes, literary styles were different then. And yes, mysteries were in their infancy and one cannot expect the same level of sophistication as available to a modern writer who has the inventiveness and trickery of a century upon which to draw. But honestly, Van Dine was not much of a writer. Philo Vance is a ghastly annoyance with whom you must deal if one wants to try one’s hands against his clever plots (or his stupid ones since, for instance, Greene’s murderer is pretty much the only suspect left alive at the end). And judging by the alacrity with which the filmed versions calmed down Vance’s pomposity, I think most people would agree that one reads Van Dine to get past Vance for the intricacy of the solutions.

So we have a trajectory of an author whose best-selling days are behind him and who is scraping around trying to find well-paid work in Hollywood. And we have the beginnings of something that is a much more common and well-developed phenomenon in this day and age — product placement.  And when they collide, this is the result.

445467522The movie industry was just waking up to the possibilities of tie-in materials. At about the same time, Whitman Publishing did a series of novels for young people with names like Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx and Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. Whitman later went on to publish many series familiar to children in the 1950s and 1960s, with cheap pictorial board covers and names like Walt Disney’s Annette and the Mystery at Moonstone Bay; not much in the way of change, merely new faces.

This volume is something quite special, at least I think it is. You’ll note that Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx contains no author’s name upon the jacket; the author was more or less irrelevant to the experience. But a merger of Philo Vance and Gracie Allen is a cross-over perhaps not quite as impressive as, say, Spiderman versus Superman, but an amalgamation of two media platforms nevertheless, and this is unusual for such an early time as 1938. This is not an age where the crossover is common, either by shuffling two icons together into a story or taking a single franchise into a quite different platform. Its examples are unusual and worth noticing.

gracie-allen-murder-case-smUltimately, that’s why this belongs in my Die Before You Read section; it’s a very early example of the crossover novel, and it fails more thoroughly than any other in my recollection. Bonita Granville and the Mystery of Star Island, let’s face it, was a piece of disposable trash aimed at pre-teen girls. It might even be an early example of slash fiction, albeit the authorized version. It doesn’t really matter if the novel had any literary quality because it didn’t need to, and thus its author remained mercifully anonymous. But when you take a well-known intellectual like Willard Huntington Wright and put his writing talents at the service of a radio comedienne, well, you already have a brand mismatch. Vance is known for being smart, Gracie’s known for being dumb. Putting the two together in a single novel is a waste of talent; his fans won’t appreciate her, and vice versa. And all the attempts to try to make it work — don’t work.

And so the book is excruciating. Since everything in the plot has to be engineered to keep Gracie in the scene as much as possible, allowing her to exhibit multiple virtues but giving her absolutely no vices, the plot becomes merely ridiculous. Everything — logic, common sense, characterization, human qualities — is sacrificed to the need to show off Gracie Allen. You’ll notice in the plot outline above, I haven’t really said very much about the plot. That’s mostly because very little of it makes much sense. It’s easy to tell that the writer intended this as the basis of a screenplay (I think of this as a “reverse novelization”) because there aren’t all that many locations used; the Domdaniel nightclub recurs again and again, and other obviously interesting locations like, for instance, George Burns’s perfume factory are ignored because they would be expensive to shoot. For the rest of it, well, there are gangsters, and Van Dine had no ear for how gangsters talk or who they are. They are merely physical descriptions with labels like “chanteuse”, “boss”, “underling”.  And there is a silly murder method based on a poisoned cigarette. And there is Gracie Allen making silly jokes and non-sequiturs, and Vance having a quite unnecessary fondness for her on first sight. Nothing makes sense and nothing rings true.

In short, this is tawdry and meretricious and altogether unfortunate. It really makes one think that, like so many other authors, Van Dine should have quit mysteries before releasing his last few, or perhaps that he should merely have settled for the screenplay income and not released this as a novel also. After his death, his estate felt more free to tamper with the asinine character at the base of all this, and the 1940s brought a considerably more ordinary Vance to prominence in radio for many years.  There was a market for a detective brand named Philo Vance, it just wasn’t the one the character’s creator had much to do with.  But the author was busily ruining his own brand before he died, and it was rehabilitated by others. If modern television is looking for competition for Sherlock Holmes in his various incarnations, this is one brand that could, I believe, be rehabilitated successfully. Just not by doing cross-over stuff with it.

There is a further reason why this volume in particular rather than, say, the 12th in the series (the Sonja Henie vehicle) I have pinpointed for my Die Before You Read series, a specific defect of literary quality unique to this volume.  It’s because of what Colin Watson calls, in Snobbery With Violence, the Silly Ass quality.

Philo Vance and Peter Wimsey and Reggie Fortune and Albert Campion and even Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham all qualify as the Silly Ass detective (but only Vance is American, which tells you something).  Watson describes it as:

“[A] young man in smart clothes, sickly grin and monocle, whose vocabulary was as limited as his means and expectations were supposed to be substantial. He was generally depicted as having difficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him. When making his own laboured but idiotically affable contribution to dialogue, he would … address his companion as ‘old bean’.”

A well-known type in the early history of detective fiction. But two things occurred to me in considering the Silly Ass character type in relation to this particular novel. The first is that, in order to work, the Silly Ass has to be surrounded by characters who are not actually Silly Asses, in order for the Silly Ass’s mannerisms to be more attention-getting.  For every Peter Wimsey there needs to be a Charles Parker against whose backdrop he can glitter.

And the second is that, in every reasonable sense, Gracie Allen has assumed the mantle of the Silly Ass. Read the above quote again with that in mind.  “[D]ifficulty in understanding the import of what other people said to him”? Exactly. The Silly Ass was pretty much over when Philo Vance worked it to death, and other comic talents mined its base metal for new alloys.  Like Gracie Allen, who transmogrified it into the Ditzy Young Woman.

But, as I noted in point one — the one thing you need if you have a Silly Ass is a Not-Silly-Ass.  In fact, the one thing you do not need is the modernized version of your own protagonist as Ditzy Young Woman.  There is no staid presence against whom they can play, and so they merely try to out-amuse each other until the piece of fiction is over.  This is not very enjoyable to consider in the abstract, since there is no opportunity for the interrelationship to contribute to any plot structure, and in this concrete case it’s simply boring and silly, like two seven-year-olds shrieking “Look at me! Look at me!”.

If you actually want to read a Philo Vance novel after this, I’d recommend The Bishop Murder Case, which as noted above is actually a proto-serial killer novel at a time when the phrase didn’t exist. The ‘Canary’ Murder Case — yes, there is a single quote mark surrounding the word “Canary” and yes, that is how the book’s title is represented if you’re a purist — is also interesting for its very early puzzle-mystery contributions to the construction of an alibi. And if you want to see one of the films, The Kennel Murder Case is considered the best, but I actually also highly recommend The Bishop Murder Case because Basil Rathbone’s only outing as Philo Vance is not to be missed.

Notes For the Collector: has a Very Good copy of the first edition for $500, which seems a bit high to me: other similar copies are listed from $235 to $350, and less crisp copies from around $90 up.  The only copy on Abe of the first paper edition shown at the top of this review is listed at $20.  My own copy is in much better condition than the one shown; I would say it’s VG+ and I might price it for retail sale at $20 to $25.  I always think the variorum title is worth having, especially since Van Dine is so rigorous about naming his books.

Since the text of the novel is freely available for the interested reader, this novel is certainly not scarce. A poor book in a well-known series is often scarce, but this book is also available in print-on-demand format. Unlike most of my Die Before You Read series, various copies of this book might appeal to collectors interested in Burns and Allen, Philo Vance completists, and even collectors of Bantam paperbacks. It’s not easy to find a crisp one of these and although the cover illustration doesn’t appear to be Gracie Allen, this would qualify as a movie tie-in to some collectors.

pic1583568_mdA DVD copy of the film version is available on Amazon for $22 as of this writing; I have never seen it screened on television. I was fascinated to learn that as a tie-in to the tie-in of the filmed version, Milton Bradley released a board game that looks to be a cousin of Clue. I’ve never seen this object in real life and I suspect that if you like this sort of thing, this particular item would be VERY collectible if it was accompanied by the novel and film.

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.