The Hidden Hand (1942)

6p8rlsnThe Hidden Hand (1942) came to my attention recently as a result of my having a DVR; now I can record things that are shown in the wee hours of the morning, for instance, without worrying whether I’ll actually care to watch them at a more suitable time. This is a pleasure I haven’t always had, and I appreciate it.

There was some Golden Age of Detection (GAD) interest (and a few of my own hobbyhorses being ridden) that sparked my curiosity sufficiently to give it a go. Aside from an interesting set of writing credits and a low-cost but well-chosen cast, this is an interesting example of a favourite sub-genre of mind, Old Dark House (ODH).

hiddenhand00ODH as a sub-genre started very early, in about the 1910s as the basis for novels and silent movies. It has a basic story that takes place at, yes, an old house that is poorly lit. Inside the house, there is at least one insane killer, pretty much, who is hiding somewhere in the house and creeps around via secret passages, making things happen from behind sliding panels, and keeping an eye on things from behind an oil painting where the painted eyes can be replaced by those of a real person. The electricity is out, the telephone wires have been cut, and there’s a report of an escaped lunatic on the radio. Add in beautiful young girls, large amounts of money and/or jewelry, and lots of frustrated heirs and … well, you pretty much know what happens.

6Ra7ngnQrYlP8nFwxNP2maGkcaXThe credits told me that the screenplay was based on a 1934 play called “Invitation to a Murder” by Rufus King, an excellent mystery writer of the GAD period. The interesting thing to the film buff about this is that I looked into the play and found that it was a Broadway vehicle for the pairing of Gale Sondergaard, as the crazy matriarch, and Humphrey Bogart, as her crazy brother. I expect that Bogart’s salary in 1942 would have been more than what is apparently the whole budget for this film, so it’s understandable that they didn’t ask him to repeat his role. Frankly, at this point I think Gale Sondergaard’s salary would have been more than the budget of this cheapie. But gosh, I wish they had had recorded the play in some way. What a fascinating piece of film that would have been!


Willie Best


Milton Parsons (L), Cecil Cunningham (R)

IMDB told me that a few interesting minor Hollywood faces were part of the cast. These days I’m a big Willie Best fan; the man was a dependable character actor who made a LOT of movies and I’m always interested in his role in a film (asking
yourself why a film needs a “comedy Negro” is frequently an interesting question). Here, he gets fourth billing as the houseboy Eustis ahead of a lot of white people, which was not always the case. Wade Boteler (Sheriff Selby, uncredited) played all kinds of policemen in a long career — his is a face you will vaguely recognize if you follow stock actors. Monte Blue as the undertaker, uncredited — Mr. Blue was a romantic lead in the silent days and kept working until 1960. You can see Milton Parsons, the “crazy brother”, in lots of old mysteries of the period; I first saw his distinctive face as Dr. A. Tomic in the B classic Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome. And Cecil Cunningham, who plays the crazy matriarch Lucinda Channing, had a long career playing matriarchs and divas.

And the plot that is portrayed by this ensemble of second- and third-tier, but hard-working, character actors? I think it would be kind to say “Not much.” I’ve seen this film twice through today, and I am still at a loss as to why exactly some things happen — and the second time through, I was trying to find out. This is not a film where you want to be tracing down motivations and timetables; this is designed to be what I believe audiences of the period might have understood as a “thrill ride”. And although the boundaries and definitions of Old Dark House are quite elastic, there are many, many elements in this film that will speak specifically of ODH to the average viewer.

tumblr_met56io91z1qz72v7o1_500A wealthy elderly woman, who is later revealed to be pretty much a homicidal maniac, goes to some trouble to spring her brother, who is immediately revealed to be pretty much a homicidal maniac, from his lunatic asylum. It’s not absolutely clear why, but certainly Lucinda wants to further her brother’s homicidal career because she takes pleasure in its violent results. Simultaneously, she has also called together her relatives, most of whom are anxious to get money from her fairly immediately, and the requisite “nice young couple”. The family arrives nearly simultaneously with the escaped brother who, in a nice touch, arrives at the house in the rumble seat of the car full of officials come to warn Lucinda. It appears that Lucinda has been passing as entirely sane but is about to decompensate rapidly. However, everyone, including her Asian houseboy and her “coloured” houseboy (Willie Best), treats her as being sane at the outset.

It seems as though Miss Lucinda has brought her greedy relatives to her house for a couple of general reasons; she wants to taunt them by threatening to leave her money to her innocent young secretary, the daughter of an old beau, and she wants her crazy brother to kill them. I think. It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on here, frankly, but here is where the elements of ODH begin to come in and things start to make less and less sense. Miss Lucinda, as I noted, is apparently sane. However, she has created a network of secret passages throughout her house, including a couple of lookouts where a secretive viewer’s eyes replace those of a family portrait or peep through a decorative artwork while spying on a room. Rather hard to explain those to a renovator, but … what the heck. Even more difficult to explain is a death trap whereby a greedy treasure-seeker spins a wall-mounted wheel according to a clue sheet, thinking to expose a secret cavity and a quarter of Miss Lucinda’s fortune. Instead, a trap door opens and the treasure-seeker plummets dozens of feet through a huge cavern into a swiftly-flowing underground river. Which runs directly under the living room and somehow miraculously bypasses the cellars. That must have been exceptionally difficult to arrange with the architect, I think.

At one point, Miss Lucinda arranges to be put into a state of suspended animation, feigning death so she can observe the behaviour of her heirs. She entrusts the injection of the cure to one of said heirs, who predictably declines to inject her; but she’s been too wise for that old gag. A maid dies by drinking a glass of water and a character later knowingly mentions the smell of bitter almonds. The maid’s body disappears — pretty much all the bodies disappear and pop up again in a different context to incriminate someone else. People betray their spouses or partners, expecting to inherit. There’s a spinning wall in one of the rooms behind which bodies appear and disappear. And poor Willie Best keeps seeing dead bodies and mysteriously-vanishing sandwiches that no one else can see, rendering him predictably googly-eyed with terror.

In the end, after a brisk 63 minutes of ODH hijinks, most of the bad people are dead, the young lovers will inherit, and Willie Best accidentally triggers the death trap and hangs over the underground river clutching the wall-mounted wheel for dear life as the credits play.

There is truly not much sense to be had here. I think the dedicated viewer of old B-movies will understand my sensation that the plot was capable of going just about anywhere it needed to, in order to provide thrills and surprises at five-minute intervals. In abstract terms, there is so much plot going on here to support the characters that there isn’t really time for anything to make sense in 63 minutes. The crazy matriarch and her crazy brother who are plotting against a handful of sinister relatives who have murder on their own minds — that’s a lot of murderous intent that has to be gotten across. Nobody has time for the library scene at the end where someone explains who exactly it was that poisoned Lucinda’s pet raven or why exactly Lucinda created a weird death trap in her living room, so they just ignore it.

When I started drafting this piece, I’d originally planned on ending up by commenting that ODH was a genre whose time had come and gone. William Castle actually re-re-made J. D. Priestly’s original The Old Dark House in 1963 — but as a comedy. Someone had redone The Cat and the Canary in 1978, and that was pretty much the end of ODH as a genre. Or was it? I was idly surfing and found that someone had recommended a Tom Hanks movie called The ‘Burbs from 1989 as being a new take on ODH.

SpooksFor me, ODH has always been based in the medium in which I first encountered it, Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny. And you know when a trope like ODH becomes a figure of mockery that it either dies completely or else is rebooted for a new generation in a much more sophisticated media environment, like what happened to Sherlock Holmes. But ODH is a set of interlocking cliches, based around a primitive technique of building suspense for a few seconds and then making a loud noise to give the audience a momentary frisson.  Was ODH gone, vanished as a literary trope like stories about plucky orphans who become millionaires, or “white man finds a lost African kingdom” stories?

So while I tried to track down a copy of The ‘Burbs, I wondered. Really, it seemed to me that ODH had died because it had been eclipsed by the ability of the audience to be scared by much, much more dreadful sights than a hand poking out from a secret panel behind a picture and stealing sandwiches. For instance, a parasitic alien that bursts out of its host’s abdomen, etc. I think ODH was related to phenomena like the “spook show”, and scary entertainment that predated modern special-effects techniques; all kinds of different horror tropes packed into one vehicle and conveniently labeled “Old Dark House” so you know what you’re getting — a little thrill, a little scream, and then a pleasant sense of relief from fear. (As I understand it, in pre-television days, teenage boys used to like to take girls to scary movies so that they could get hugged.) Things are a lot scarier now, and media consumers are more difficult to frighten.

I screened The ‘Burbs and — well, someone was off track. Certainly there is a creepy old house, but the plot is based around a suburban neighbourhood’s inhabitants to find out what’s going on inside it, and not about being inside it with weird things and masked figures scooting around. But it made me wonder why someone had drawn that connection. I thought about a lot of movies with which everyone would be familiar, that had an “old dark house” element as a fairly major component, and some will be surprising to you. Psycho (1960), Scary Movie 2 (2001), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975); sure, you can see how that would fit naturally. But I confess that considering part of Fight Club (1999) and Misery (1990) as ODH tributes added a different dimension to two movies with which I thought I was already familiar. The elements of ODH like sliding panels and portraits with cut-out eyes have mostly vanished — although the revolving wall trick makes an occasional recurrence, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) — but all those elements have been absorbed into a vast sea of films and television about big rickety poorly-lit mansions. If your protagonist is in such an environment and there actually IS a sliding panel, the audience may not find it very original but they certainly won’t think it’s out of place.

I’m not expecting anyone to remake Cat and the CanaryThe Bat or The Old Dark House any time soon. But I’ve found it pleasant to trace the rise and fall of their underlying tropes and you may actually learn something about why it is that a big old poorly-lit house is used as a kind of shorthand for a package of cliches that produce “Boo!” moments. This might be a fun place to start.

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.



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.