PVR Overload!

watching-tvIt’s been a little bit more than a year since I got my first PVR, and in my usual way I’ve managed to fill more than half of it up with stuff that I’m absolutely sure I’m going to review “real soon now”. Unfortunately the backlog is such that I think I’m going to merely do one big recommendation, just in case you find some of these items passing by in your television feed and a brief recommendation will tip the balance, or perhaps get you to add a title to your Netflix list (I don’t have Netflix; I have boxes of DVDs LOL).

I should mention that these films have all been on Turner Classic Movies since March 2013. If you don’t get TCM and you like old mysteries, this might be a good investment for you; TCM is not reluctant about re-running movies once every year or so. I liked all these films enough to hold onto them in the hopes of reviewing them someday; I will suggest that any of them will fill an idle hour, although your mileage may vary. I’m one of those people who enjoys bad movies but I understand that that taste is not universally shared.

Ricardo-Cortez-and-June-TravisCHere’s what about 40% of my DVR’s storage capacity looks like:

  • Three Perry Mason movies with Warren William: TCOT Howling Dog (1934), TCOT Lucky Legs (1935), TCOT Velvet Claws (1936).  And with Ricardo Cortez, TCOT Black Cat (1936).
  • Murder on the Blackboard (1934), and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935); Hildegarde Withers mysteries with Edna May Oliver. Murder on a Bridle Path (1936) with Helen Broderick as Miss Withers. The Plot Thickens (1936) and Forty Naughty Girls (1937), featuring ZaSu Pitts as Miss Withers
  • The Thirteenth Chair (1937); Dame May Whitty plays a spiritualist who solves a murder.
  • Detective Kitty O’Day (1944) and Adventures of Kitty O’Day (1944), where Jean Parker plays the titular telephone operator at a hotel who solves mysteries with her boyfriend, Peter Cookson.
  • The Death Kiss (1933): Bela Lugosi is top-billed but only supports this story about an actor who’s killed while on set shooting a movie called “The Death Kiss”. I love backstage movies where the real camera pulls back to reveal a fake camera and crew shooting the movie within the movie!
  • Having Wonderful Crime (1945): Pat O’Brien as J.J. Malone and George Murphy/Carole Landis as Jake and Helene Justus in a story based on a Craig Rice novel. And Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone (1950), where James Whitmore plays J. J. Malone and, the script having been changed from Hildegarde Withers, Marjorie Main plays the earthy Mrs. O’Malley. (Her novelty song is worth the price of admission alone.)
  • After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944). Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy).
  • chained-for-life-3Chained For Life (1952): Real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton have a vaudeville act, but when one murders the other’s husband, they both end up on trial. Yes, seriously. They sing and dance, not very well. The kind of movie that it sounds like much more fun to watch than it actually is, unfortunately.
  • The Dragon Murder Case (1934), with Warren William as Philo Vance; The Casino Murder Case (1935), with Paul Lukas as Vance; The Garden Murder Case (1936), with Edmund Lowe as Vance; Calling Philo Vance (1940), with James Stephenson as Vance. And The Kennel Murder Case (1933), with William Powell as the best Vance of all.
  • The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (1936), with Kay Linaker as the multi-named Sarah Keate (in this case, Sally Keating — from the Sarah Keate novels by Mignon Eberhart). Ricardo Cortez as the love interest.
  • Sherlock Holmes (1922), starring John Barrymore in the famous silent.
  • Miss Pinkerton (1932), with Joan Blondell as a sleuthing nurse from the novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
  • Guilty Hands (1931), wherein Lionel Barrymore kills his daughter’s sleazy boyfriend.
  • The Scarlet Clue (1945), with Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan investigating a murder at a radio station.
  • before d 1Before Dawn (1933), a good old-fashioned Old Dark House film with Stuart Erwin and Dorothy Wilson as a beautiful young psychic.
  • We’re on the Jury (1937), with Helen Broderick and Victor Moore as jurors on a murder case who comically take the law into their own hands.
  • The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), with William Powell and Jean Arthur as a sleuthing couple.
  • Welcome Danger (1929), a comedy with Harold Lloyd investigating murders in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
  • They Only Kill Their Masters (1972), with James Garner as a small-town lawman solving a murder with the help of veterinarian Katharine Ross.
  • Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), starring Gene Raymond in another remake of the Earl Derr Biggers thriller.
  • Lady Scarface (1941), with Judith Anderson chewing the scenery as a cruel mob boss.
  • Fast and Loose (1939), with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in one of the “bookseller” trilogy, each of which featured a different pair playing Joel and Garda Sloane.
  • The Verdict (1946), with Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre solving a mystery in Victorian London.
  • Secrets of the French Police (1932); Gregory Ratoff is a mad hypnotist who runs a scam with Gwili Andre as the bogus “Tsar’s daughter”.
  • moonlightmurder1Moonlight Murder (1936), with Chester Morris taking time off from being Boston Blackie to investigate a murder case during a performance of Il Trovatore at the Hollywood Bowl.
  • Nancy Drew, Detective (1938), with Bonita Granville as the plucky teenage investigator.

Are any of these cherished films for you — or are any of them over-rated? Your comments are welcome.



Penguin Pool Murder (1932)


Penguin Pool Murder

Author: Based on characters (Miss Hildegarde Withers, Inspector Oscar Piper) created by Stuart Palmer in his novel of the same year, who also has story credit here.  Story by Lowell Brentano and screenplay by Willis Goldbeck.  Brentano also collaborated with Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee the next year on the story for “The Crime Nobody Saw”, based on a play by the three called “Danger, Men Working”.  Dannay and Lee are better known as Ellery Queen, of course, and this screenplay sheds a little bit of light on their Hollywood period — but that’s another story.  Just interesting to note that Brentano got to work on two different detective brands of the 1930s. In a similar interrelationship, Goldbeck went on to write perhaps a dozen Dr. Kildare films and directed a couple of them.

Stuart Palmer  became a well-known writer of perhaps the second rank with his Withers novels.  Six of his stories were filmed between 1932 and 1936 but he would not sell a screenplay until 1936, at which point he became very productive and popular in both fields.  Penguins became his personal trademark, a kind of icon or signature block.

Other Data:  December 9, 1932, according to IMDB.  Directed by George Archainbaud, a long-lived workhorse who directed silents from 1917, B-movies for decades and then made the move to TV episodes until 1959.  Note that while the film’s poster calls it The Penguin Pool Murder, and that is the title of the book as well, the title card leaves out the “The“.

Cast: Edna May Oliver as Miss Hildegarde Martha Withers, the quintessential maiden schoolmarm. James Gleason as Police Inspector Oscar Piper.  Supporting cast includes Robert Armstrong, Mae Clark, Donald Cook, Edgar Kennedy, and the familiar face of Gustav von Seyffertitz.

the-penguin-pool-murder-movie-poster-1932-1020143334About this film:

This is the first in a series of Hildegarde Withers mysteries; both the first novel and the first film are from 1932.  Edna May Oliver took the role and made it her own, although she only appeared in the first three films in the series.  She was followed by Helen Broderick, Zasu Pitts, and Eve Arden.  The secondary character is long-suffering Inspector Oscar Piper of the Homicide Squad who must become accustomed to Miss Withers attempting to do his job.

The character concept underlying the films is that Miss Withers and Inspector Piper have a love/hate relationship.  Miss Withers really solves all the murders but Oscar takes the credit, begrudgingly permitting her to run things as she wishes. Hildegarde is censorious, old-fashioned, prim, proper and really very bitchy, when it comes right down to it.  If you pay attention, you’ll note that she tells nearly every single person with whom she comes in contact how they should be living their life/behaving/dressed. Since it is 1932, she is crabby with blacks and Jews (when they are her students), girls who wear too much makeup, people in uniforms who aren’t doing what she wants them to, slutty-looking women in spangled evening gowns, men in business suits, waitresses, and — well, just about everyone.  Amazingly enough, this is actually funny, partly because it is constant and partly because it is gentle.  Oscar Piper is gruff and aggressive with everyone, as befits a hardboiled cop, but there is considerable subtext indicating that he and Hildegarde are an item. Actually at the end of this particular film they head off to be married, but this is conveniently forgotten by the beginning of the second film.

The story here is — well, at this point I have to say that although this is a clever and funny movie, the mystery itself is not especially interesting. Indeed, I’ve had a peculiar thing happen with this film, in that the plot seems to just melt in my mind before I can make sense of it. To me, this indicates the kind of production where the mystery is not as important as other aspects, like characterization and background.  When it comes right down to it, there is not much to this mystery that you are going to care about or remember in any detail.

A beautiful and extraordinarily well dressed young woman has a mysterious lover who needs money.  All she has is her stockbroker husband, and all he really has is his life insurance policy, which only pays off if he dies.  The stockbroker promptly quarrels with everyone in his life, in the way of such things, and is found face down in the penguin pool at the aquarium, which coincidentally contains a mob of people and Miss Withers and her young charges. One of the mob is a pickpocket; another is the aquarium’s director, with whom the stockbroker has history.

Miss Withers remains involved partly because her thin nose cannot be kept out of a mystery, partly because of her burgeoning relationship with Inspector Piper, and partly because it is soon discovered that her lost hatpin (my younger readers can look that item up in Wikipedia) ended up in the victim’s ear.  The pickpocket seems to have acquired some crucial information and also ends up murdered.  The plot rolls along and we end up with a dramatic courtroom scene in which Hildegarde listens carefully and figures out whodunnit from something that is said in the courtroom itself.  Then as noted, Oscar invites her to be married and the story ends. You might be surprised by the identity of the murder, but to me that person was the only one of sufficient intelligence and determination to even be considered as a potential killer.  And, as I said, the plot itself is not all that important. It’s more like a series of set pieces that sketchily indicate a killer rather than lead directly to him. A crucial element in this is that Hildegarde and Oscar do not work out logically who the killer is and then find evidence to prove it; instead, they lay a plot so that the murderer self-incriminates by knowing a detail that only the killer would know, but the murder self-incriminates by accident, almost.  Had that not happened, the case might remain unsolved. This is not a puzzle mystery a la Ellery Queen, this is more like the early efforts of Erle Stanley Gardner, where Perry Mason bulls around and muddles up the clues until someone makes a mistake and reveals his guilt in the courtroom scene.

There’s a wonderfully inventive moment at 0:50 where, in a familiar way of conveying backstory, the camera pauses on a still shot of a newspaper lying on the pavement displaying a significant headline .  However, half the screen beside the newspaper is taken up by a black cat lapping up spilled milk.  An elegant gloss on both a visual and a spoken cliche.  In many ways there are some delightful little moments here and there in this film. Little moments of dialogue — “I’m a schoolteacher, and I might have done wonders with you if I’d caught you early enough!” — little pieces of costuming, such as what to me was an astonishing haute couture evening gown worn in the earliest scenes of the movie, and little scenes that shine with Hildegarde’s gently relentless mockery. “I would like to ask you a few questions.  That is, if you can talk through all that make-up!”

I suspect that the original audience for this material asked nothing more than to be pleasantly lulled for a bit more than an hour with the antics of the leads and the machinations of the suspects, without paying much attention as to whether the mystery made sense or not. In this case, I’m the same. Give me some gentle humour, a charming series character or two, a wonderful supporting cast and some nice things to look at, and I’m prepared to not work too hard to figure out whodunit. Although I usually offer my readers the service of paying close attention as to whether the mystery is capable of one and only one solution, in this case I haven’t bothered — it’s not the point.  In the phrase “a Hildegarde Withers mystery”, the accent is definitely on the Hildegarde.

Notes For the Collector:

Copies of the film seem readily available.  If you’re a spendthrift, you can get one from Amazon for $24.99 as of the date of writing; it’s also readily available in various compendia of old mysteries for as little as $3.99 for a pack of four films.  As I noted above, Turner Classic Movies showed it recently and re-runs it perhaps once a year.  I am not aware of any uniform edition of the handful of Hildegarde Withers movies (but I became aware recently that Rue Morgue is reissuing the books in trade paperback, which means I might finally get to read The Puzzle of the Blue Bandillera, so hurray for Rue Morgue).

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

thin_manTitle: The Thin Man Goes Home

Author: Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett.  Original story by Robert Riskin and Harry Kurnitz (an interesting detective novelist in his own right); screenplay by Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor.

Other Data:  1945 — January, according to IMDB.  Directed by Richard Thorpe.

Cast: William Powell and Myrna Loy as The Thin Man and wife, Nick and Nora Charles.  Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport as Nick’s parents and the wonderful Anita Bolster as their maid, Hilda.  A wonderful supporting cast including Gloria DeHaven (as a gushy young ingenue who is imitating Katherine Hepburn) and Anne Revere (as “Crazy Mary”) and a host of other well-known background faces of the 1940s like Donald Meek.

About this film:

First of all, I have to credit a much more insightful (and productive) blogger than myself, William I. Lengeman III at Traditional Mysteries, whose attention to this film sparked my own.  I recommend you read what he has to say beginning at http://traditionalmysteries.blogspot.ca/2012/12/movie-thin-man-goes-home.html — and, if you are interested in my favourite topics, you’ll enjoy his entire blog.

I  saw this film earlier this month on TCM and enjoyed it all over again; it’s always been a favourite, and I hope you will seek it out because I think you will enjoy it. I think it stands out even in this excellent series because of the nature of the crucial clue; I won’t say anything that will spoil anyone’s enjoyment, but it is based on something that doesn’t happen but should have. The “negative” clue is decidedly uncommon in filmed mysteries, which tend to want to show you things. In detective-fiction terms, this is head and shoulders above most other offerings of the period; a fair-play puzzle mystery but an extremely difficult one to solve upon the first go-round.

It is common to remark that the series “went downhill” after the first. I’ll suggest instead that the series veered sideways and became less hard-boiled so as to suit the audience’s appetite for continuing characters. Certainly nothing stops the charming byplay between Nick and Nora in any of the films, and although the quality of the puzzle varies all six films have a puzzle at their core. The only thing I know for sure that stops after the first film is that Nick gives up calling women “baby” out of the corner of his mouth.

I agree with Mr. Lengeman that the emphasis here is on the “down home”; this bucolic mystery echoes at least two other entries in the series that feature Nora’s family affairs, so he may have put his finger on the unifying factor that causes people to think that the second through sixth films are somehow different/inferior. The Nora of the first film who has a “lulu” of an evening gown and, as a policeman remarks, “has hair on her chest” is not the Nora of this film, a wife in an apron who helps her mother-in-law serve dinner and gets turned over her husband’s knee for a comedy spanking.  Similarly, this is a kinder, gentler Nick — who doesn’t get all that peeved even when his parents are the possible targets of a nearby sniper.  There is a sub-plot about industrial espionage which serves as the springboard for most of the charming character work for Nick and Nora.  There is a priceless sequence where Nora is trailing a suspect and in turn being trailed by someone else; the parade goes through a poolroom filled with “wolves”.  Another moment where she is entrapped with a collapsible lawn chair, and a sequence later in the film when she is forced to jitterbug with an energetic sailor, contribute greatly to the gentle humour of the film.

There is a piece of this film that seems jarring to me, but in an odd way.  The character of “Crazy Mary” is just too good; it’s as if she wandered in from a more realistic film.  Anne Revere appears to be make-up free and the character has a raw energy that is based on a tragic incident in her past that makes us both pity her and be afraid of her.  The rest of the movie doesn’t hit this level of realism and at the other end of the believability spectrum, Anita Bolster does a wonderful job as Hilda, the comedic spinster maid (a la ZaSu Pitts or Edna May Oliver) who is hilarious but quite, quite unrealistic.  Anne Revere, on the other hand, might well have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this brief portrayal, which has depth and intelligence.  She actually did win in 1944 for National Velvet and was nominated in 1943 and 1947 before having her career ruined in the McCarthy era.

My honest opinion is that this is the last superior entry in the series; it’s all downhill from here, and the sixth is probably the worst. But this film is absolutely worth your time and, if you haven’t previously seen it, I urge you to give it a careful viewing and really do try to figure out whodunnit and why you should know that.  It will increase your delight and chagrin at the surprise ending.

Notes For the Collector:

Copies of the film are readily available and I believe, without troubling to confirm it, that the original trailer is available via archive.com as being in the public domain.  As I noted above, Turner Classic Movies showed it recently and re-runs it perhaps once a year. There is a boxed set of all six Thin Man films and I recommend it to your attention; all six are worth your time and the first in the series is a masterpiece.