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.



Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood/Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood, by Ron Backer

Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood & Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood

Ron Backer, whom the jacket describes as “an attorney who has previously written for law reviews and other legal publications.  An avid fan of both mysteries and movies, he lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania”.

Publication Data:  The 1940s volume is copyright 2010 and the 1930s volume, 2012.  I imagine the delay is because the 1930s volume is somewhat larger and covers more material.

About these books:

I’m at the stage of life where, rather than waste money and effort by buying me a book I read two years ago and already own two copies of, my family and close friends ask me what I want for Christmas and birthdays. I was glad to advise them that I was aware of these two volumes and would they kindly show up under the tree?

I’m glad I asked for them.  This is an area about which I can claim to be well-informed, and to me these volumes were an interesting gloss on my own collection and even extended my knowledge a bit. I think for the less experienced collector they would represent an excellent way of systematically approaching the viewing/acquiring of this sub-genre. And, as the TV pitchman says, “Makes a great Christmas gift!”

bk9901The 1930s volume covers 22 series, including some major series like the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, Charlie Chan, Philo Vance, Nick and Nora Charles, Perry Mason, Mr. Moto, and some decidedly minor efforts like Bill Crane and Barney Callahan. The 1940s volume discusses 19 series, most of which are by now at the B level: series like The Saint, The Falcon, Boston Blackie and Michael Shayne. There is a significant body of work presented in the two volumes. I have to say that Mr. Backer has done an enormous service by not only collecting information about these films but giving us his opinions. To be sure, I disagreed with some of what he had to say. But Backer approaches these films in the same way I do, and so I found these volumes provoked me into deeper thought. Not content to merely passively absorb, he follows the plot and thinks about it afterwards, trying to notice if the plot is taut or holey, if characterization is consistent and believable, even whether the mystery is fair or unfair. Then the reader who has himself seen these films has the luxury of agreeing or disagreeing.

One excellent focus that Backer has brought to the books is that he has gone to some trouble to trace source materials. His observation is that series of the 1930s were usually based on books, whereas series of the 1940s were frequently based on other source material; comic books, radio programmes, even original screenplays. I agree with this and it’s a fascinating little eddy in the broader stream of branded product that was coming into being, the beginnings of characters like Ellery Queen and Simon Templar who existed across multiple media platforms. And of course Sherlock Holmes, the original portable media brand, and we see here one of its most famous extensions discussed extensively here with the dozen Basil Rathbone films using the character.

Backer also has some skill at working out the relationships among films in a series; when he says that such-and-such is the best or worst in its series, he gives reasons and I tended to agree with them. My problems are concerned with the very limited amount of thought he gives to how these series compare as series — there is little or no attempt to compare the merits of one to another, which would have been an interesting exercise.  I think the thing that was the largest stumbling block for me was at the very outset, as I immediately hit the assertion that the Golden Age mystery finds its modern equivalent in the cozy. (I regret that I cannot identify precisely where in the volumes I found this; I was too horrified to make a note.) Sorry, sir; I’m prepared to dispute your opinions about the relative merit or a film, but that assertion is simply indefensible. It’s like suggesting that the tigers of old are the same as the housecats of today; Golden Age mysteries and the modern cozy are two different species entirely. I had to conclude that the author had misunderstood one genre or the other, and that left me a little bit less willing to accept his views on filmic subgenres.

There are also a couple of omissions that I noted — although he excludes non-Hollywood mysteries in a series, I do think Wilfred Hyde-White’s appearance in the lost Philo Vance film The Scarab Murder Case is worth a mention. And there is not the depth of rich detail that I have come to appreciate about the ways in which actors morph and segue within and without such series; there’s possibly a book in itself, tracing the paths of actors like Nat Pendleton, Patricia Morison, or Howard Huber as they appear in many mysteries in different roles. Here he merely observes that so-and-so appeared in two different series, without appreciating how genre-based typecasting meant that Nat Pendleton could appear as different policeman-sidekicks in different series without having to do any characterization work to differentiate himself, because the audience “knew” Pendleton’s image as an earnest, hardworking doofus.

One aspect I really appreciated was the exhaustive research that’s gone into the details of some very obscure films. I have to confess that although I have seen almost all of the films mentioned in these volumes, and lack access to the same handful that Backer was unable to screen, I was delighted to find a reference to a little-known series that I had never heard of, and pointers to the existence of a couple of films in small series of which I was not aware. (I have now completed my Thatcher Colt collection and thank Mr. Backer for informing me of the existence of The Night Club Lady; to me, immediately the best of the series and a darn good mystery to boot.)

Backer restricts his efforts to series containing three or more films, and I can’t say that’s wrong; every author of a reference book has to draw the line somewhere. By and large this policy excludes little of value, but the few mandated omissions of significant films truly seem to me to harm the scholarship. It might have been wise to include such short-run series as Nero Wolfe, whose two films are significant in the early history of mystery films, as are the two Jim Hanvey films. (I add some months after this post was initially mounted that I would like to have seen Mr. Backer take on the 12 mystery short films written by S.S. Van Dine, whose series characters would have benefited from his interest.) I do wish the author had turned his attention to Batman, which franchise seems to me to qualify. It took me a while to come up with the name of a franchise that did well in other media platforms but only generated one movie: Mr. and Mrs. North. I suggest that even this singleton movie might be worthwhile in a book devoted to series. But without thinking hard, 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.  Perhaps the crossover mystery movie series of the 1930s and 1940s will be Backer’s next topic. I’d like to see him tackle the light-comedy-married-couple-as-detectives sub-genre in more detail, but perhaps only because I’m interested as of late. He does good scholarship and I’d like to see more of it.

All things considered, if you are interested in mystery film series of this era, these two volumes will form the cornerstone of your understanding. I think they’re currently the definitive work.

Notes For the Collector:

These trade paperbacks were ordered as Christmas gifts for me, as noted above, and cost about $55 each to get from the U.S. to Canada. Abebooks gives a range of 25 roughly equivalent prices for “new” and “as new” copies. Yes, that seems expensive, but over a lifetime of having books come and go through my hands, I have to say that the only books I will now not part with are reference books; they’re always, always worth whatever I paid for them and more.  I can’t imagine that these volumes are scarce at the present moment, but like most such offerings they may disappear and not attain reprint. (There is certainly no prospect of an updated edition since there is almost no chance of new material coming to light.) The publisher is McFarland, a large and well-known company, and I am slightly less sanguine about the continued availability of these volumes because of it. Had the publisher been the author himself, as is more common these days, these might be printed upon demand and available as first editions indefinitely. So if this sort of material is important to your scholarship, I urge you to get these books before you have to pay double their cover price in the aftermarket.

After The Thin Man (1936)


After The Thin Man

Author: Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett, who also has story credit here.  Screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who wrote the first one.
Other Data:  December 25, 1936, according to IMDB.  Directed by W.S. Van Dyke.

Cast: William Powell and Myrna Loy as The Thin Man and wife, Nick and Nora Charles.  Elissa Landi as Nora’s cousin Selma Landis, and a young Jimmy Stewart as her Romeo.  The incomparable Jessie Ralph as Aunt Katherine, who could freeze an army with her gimlet eye, and, as always, a host of recognizable minor players like George Zucco and Sam Levene.  And one Dorothy McNulty as nightclub singer Polly Byrnes, about whom more below.

About this film:

Happy new year!!  Which is, as it happens, important.  I am writing this on New Year’s Day and TCM cleverly showed this last night as one of a cluster of films that contain a New Year’s Eve party.  In this interesting mystery, the fact that it is New Year’s Eve is more important than in the other films of the evening — it’s a clue, or part of one.  And it would be necessary to the plot to be aware that January 1 is an American national holiday.

Of course, having just discussed The Thin Man Goes Home the other day, I was sensitized to Thin Man films and PVRd this one for later, but ended up watching it live.  I’ve seen this film a handful of times and came to this viewing with the intention of checking my perception that there was something fishy about the details of the mystery’s solution that made it a bit of a sell, so I had a notepad beside me.

As I mentioned in my immediately previous review of the other film, this is one of the “family” mysteries.  The first leisurely minutes of this film are devoted to character development and making the viewer chuckle; we only start to meet the family about half-an-hour into the action. I will try to discuss this without giving away the answer, but I was watching for a specific line that happens at the 0:30 mark. For those familiar with the plot, or for those who are prepared to spoil their enjoyment if they haven’t seen the film yet, I will say that if you listen very carefully to a line that contains the phrase “given a few days to think about it”, you will come to the same conclusion as I; although the solution sounds plausible, there is a different way in which events could logically have been arranged so as to vitiate the chain of logic through which Nick runs at the end of the film, and this line is the key to it.  The sequence of events doesn’t have to be as abbreviated as Nick suggests, and the key point about New Year’s Day isn’t so perfectly conclusive as he asserts.

In an interesting segue, literally a minute later at 0:31, a nightclub singer swings into a lively tune called “Blow That Horn” at the beginnings of the New Year’s Eve party sequence.  This is a classic mystery technique; if you’re looking to make people forget that they’ve just heard something, cut to a scene with lots of action and noise and give them things to distract them.

The nightclub appears to be some weird combination of a Chinese restaurant that has a full-on floor show. The blowsy brunette singer is listed in the credits as Dorothy McNulty, and I remarked, as I have upon previous viewings, that she dances well and enthusiastically, and has an earthy vitality and charm about her, although perhaps not the greatest singing voice, such that I would have expected to see more of a film career for her.  The actress takes her role and tears into it with both hands, in much the same vein as Lesley Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria.  (And she utters what I think is the best line in the entire six-film Thin Man series, about which more deservedly later.) She has an interesting speaking voice with a bit of brass to it that is ideal for the low-class “chantootsie” whom she’s playing and, I have to allow in retrospect, had a tinge of familiarity about it.  But I wasn’t really familiar with anything that she’d done before or since.  Ah, though, the wonders of the internet provided information immediately — after two more undistinguished films, in 1938 she began to be credited as “Penny Singleton”.  Oh, my, God.  This is not only the woman who played Blondie Bumstead in a double handful of Blondie movies, this is the voice of Jane Jetson.  I was in fanboi heaven.

Near the end of the movie, as noted above, she utters a truly, truly classic line.  All the dialogue in this movie is good, some of it is fine and occasionally it is superb.  My second-favourite line of the series is Nora to Nick in #1, after returning from a wild goose chase upon which she was sent involuntarily by Nick.  “How did you enjoy Grant’s Tomb, baby?” “It was lovely. (pause) I’m having one made for you.” (baleful glare)  But Penny Singleton gets the prize for this lovely sequence at 1:47 (during the final blow-off; yes, this is a long film for the day).  Nick asked her to spell the word “married”, and she comes up with “M-A-R-R-Y-E-D”.  “You see?” says Nick.  “An illiterate person would have written this note differently.”  “Whaddaya mean, illiterate?  My father and mother were married right here in the city hall!”

Speaking of the blow-off, which starts at about 1:40, there is one additional small problem and one big one.  Again, no details, but a clue that depends upon a physical feature of a corpse should be in a movie that is capable of showing us that corpse’s face long enough that we can confirm for ourselves what we see.  (And this is not a movie that refused to take chances with what it shows us.  Believe it or not, it is not common to be able to see a dog’s penis in films of this era; Asta, in an extended comedic sequence with “Mrs. Asta”, shows us fairly clearly that he is indeed male — and very, very clever and obedient.)  If we did see the corpse’s face in a quarter of a second as it tumbled out of a laundry basket, I seem to have missed it. So that was a bit annoying.

The big problem, though, is that the ending depends upon the murderer having been secretly insane for most of the film.  The actor/actress concerned gets to foam at the mouth for a few moments with a good deal of accuracy, and give us as best s/he can a full-on nutbar performance, but I am rarely convinced by such sudden revelations and this is no exception.  Upon first viewing, of course, this is fine.  But the actor/actress in question puts across his/her history (up to the revelation of a long-standing case of virulent insanity) with a good deal of sincerity and acting talent. In short, I believed that this character’s actions in the plot were motivated, as they seemed to be, by his/her stated motives.  More to the point, s/he did not act outside them — there is a good deal of clever writing involved in putting this across, and there is one major plot point that is beautifully reversed at the end (the final location of the gun) that is a pleasure to see how beautifully it was buried earlier.  But all things considered, this is a real character who is seen to do what you think s/he would do in the circumstances, and it’s a bit of a sell to have that character’s motivations change completely due to a case of “instant insanity”.  At one point, a psychiatrist (George Zucco, in a small role that he makes his own) says contemptuously that the murderer is crazy.  In the final moments of the film, he is hilariously shocked to realize that he’s been correct.  But a psychiatrist who specializes in such matters was completely shocked at this character’s insanity — it really, really does come quite out of the blue, and is rather hokey.

But then, I take it that the audience for this — remember, it came out on Christmas Day, so audiences would be seeing it in the lead-up to, yes, New Year’s Eve parties — was more interested in the broad streak of gentle humour that runs through the film.  (At one point, Powell appears to crack up an extra playing one of his uncles-in-law, and I imagine the contemporary audience would have made more of the radio reference than I did.) This movie invests its time wisely in building rounded characters and then making you laugh by how they react to circumstances way, way beyond their control.  There are showgirls in scanty costumes, at least three musical numbers (I’m counting the “specialty solo” at Nick and Nora’s impromptu welcome-home party) and the antics of Asta, the smartest dog in the movies.  I suspect that the number of people who would have been sitting in the audience trying to figure out the mystery would have been small indeed, and that is probably as it should be.

Although there is some excellent dialogue and plotting in this film, I could only give it a high B-plus; it is not as good as the first film or some of the other sequels, but it is a first-rate second-rate movie.  I cannot help but feel that a little bit of work would have made the mystery air-tight in its small details, but a lot of work would have been required to change the unsatisfying “he was crazy all the time and hiding it beautifully” ending.

But it was nice to have a New Year’s Eve party about which to write on New Year’s Day!!

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.

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.