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.



Star of Midnight (1935)

Star of Midnight (1935)

StarofmidnightposterWriters: Screenplay by Howard J. Green & Anthony Veiller, and Edward Kaufman, from a novel by Arthur Somers Roche. Howard Green has a long list of credits that include After Midnight with Boston Blackie and Meet Nero Wolfe. Anthony Veiller was nominated for an Academy Award for 1946’s The Killers and 1937’s Stage Door, and won the Edgar for The Killers.  He also wrote the screenplay for The List of Adrian Messenger and Seven Keys to Baldpate (the 1935 version). Edward Kaufman has only a short list of credits but they include The Gay Divorcee.

Arthur Somers Roche’s work was previously unknown to me and there doesn’t seem to be much of it, but he did write “mystery thrillers” in the 1910s and 1920s, including Find The Woman (1921) which is found here, if you’re interested.

Other Data:  90 minutes long. Released April 19, 1935, according to IMDB.  Directed by Stephen Roberts, who died in 1936 but has a large filmography of mostly short subjects  mostly silents. His final film was The Ex-Mrs. Bradford.

Cast: William Powell plays Clay “Dal” Dalzell, and Ginger Rogers plays wealthy socialite Donna Martin. It’s interesting to note that this film seems like a fairly clear variation on 1934’s huge hit, The Thin Man, but at the time of production, Myrna Loy was apparently under suspension/on strike to get more vacation time and better scripts, so Powell made films in 1935 with Rogers, Luise Rainer and Rosalind Russell, among others. The small cast doesn’t contain many actors whose names have remained well-known, but Paul Kelly and Ralph Morgan are principal among them. Gene Lockhart plays Dal’s butler — something of a departure for the times in that he appears to be clearly heterosexual — and Vivien Oakland stands out as the much-married Jerry Classon, who apparently dallied with Dal at some past point and is now mixed up with the murder. More about her role below.

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 identity of the murderer.  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. 

star midnight2Once you’re aware that M-G-M was attempting to cash in on the success of The Thin Man, it’s much clearer what this film is attempting to do; the problem is, Ginger Rogers doesn’t appear to have much chemistry with Powell, and the movie just loses its sparkle when compared with the electricity between Powell and Loy. Rogers also suffers through a series of truly regrettable gowns in this production — this was apparently the height of the “Pilgrim” fad in women’s evening gowns and Rogers is swathed in a voluminous red outfit with a huge collar and shoulders. Another ridiculous outfit is a full length satin skirt with matching jacket, and the jacket is trimmed with huge mink lapels and mink sleeve puffs that look like swimming sleeves for buoyancy. It might have been the height of fashion in 1935 but in 2013 it just looks uncomfortable, hot, and confining.

The story is interesting, but the central premise is so strange and unbelievable that for me it sucked the life out of the plot. It’s focused on “Mary Smith” — whom we never see for more than about three frames of film — who is the star of a musical revue called Midnight.  Get it? She’s the star of Midnight, and that’s where the title comes from. No mysterious diamond stolen from the forehead of a Hindu god, just an unclever play on words. Mary Smith is anxious to avoid her past and apparently is never seen on-stage without, are you ready for this, her mask. This is strange, but not so strange as the idea that no one in the movie seems to think it’s strange, if you follow me. The star of a major musical review is named “Mary Smith”, no one knows where she comes from, and she always wears a mask. Pfft, could happen to anyone, it seems, and the producers are quite happy to keep her secret rather than capitalizing on the potential publicity.  Nobody knows what the “mask” looks like because we never see it, but if it’s anything like the one the murderer wears at the end of the film, this is the world’s only musical star who can fill the theatre with song without opening her mouth beyond a slit.

She’s onstage performing when a former fiancé recognizes her, heaven knows how, and stands up and shouts “Susan!” Mary Smith finishes Act I and promptly vanishes. Oh, and this all takes place out of the view of the audience; apparently they didn’t want to complicate the plot with any exciting drama or anything like that. It’s a bizarre omission because we see the principals sitting in the audience and the theatre set is shown — the only bit we aren’t allowed to see is the crucial one, and it’s because Dal leaves to take a phone call. No, we hear all this from the lips of a gossip reporter who visits Dal’s apartment to tell the story and is promptly shot before he can complete it. There’s apparently gangsters in the mix, who know more than they are telling, and an old girlfriend of Dal’s who is married to a lawyer who is looking for Susan/Mary Smith as a witness that will enable him to save his client from the electric chair for a murder he didn’t commit.


I’ll save you the trouble; the lawyer is looking for Susan/Mary to kill her, and is ready to take out anyone in his path. To be honest, it’s not absolutely clear why, or at least I found the explanation so impenetrable that I just let it sit there indigestibly.  Susan/Mary was apparently quite prepared to disappear forever — if you accept the fact that she wanted to be a musical star under the name of “Mary Smith” and preserving her incognito with the mask, which strains credulity — and it’s only the lawyer’s messing about that leads to the exposure of his crimes. It seems as though Alice/Mary’s desire to disappear is connected with the murder for which the lawyer’s client is about to die, but apparently the lawyer committed the murder himself. All he has to do is refrain from looking for the witness, but noooooooo …


Ginger on the left, Vivian Oakland on the right — unlikely romantic rivals.

Meanwhile, the much-married Jerry Classon seems to have her eyes on Dal as her next ex-husband, and comes to visit him late at night in his apartment, seemingly on a whim. Ginger Rogers steps in and pretends to be his new wife, and Jerry decides to leave, but not before she tries to get information from Dal. The thing I cannot understand is — why on earth is Jerry Classon considered to be a femme fatale here? The producers could have cast anyone, but they present us with a stocky, middle-aged matron with severely shingled hair and a severe case of rubbery triceps and ask us to believe that at least four men have fallen for her, including Dal at one point. Is it because she’s independently wealthy? (She’s always dripping with chinchilla and diamond bracelets.) Nothing against Vivien Oakland, who does the best she can with this character and actually portrays her with as much verisimilitude as possible, but she’d have to lose 50 pounds to look like Ginger, and we’re expected to believe that they are potential rivals.  It makes one wonder what kind of heifer Mary Smith was, since we never see her.

star-of-midnightSpeaking of Dal’s apartment, which is the scene of more than half the film, it seems, I think the producers were trying to indicate that Dal is the wealthiest man in Chicago. He has what must have been groundbreaking and avant-garde at the time, a glass-enclosed shower stall in his bathroom AND a full barber’s chair where he is shaved by the butler. His bathroom, in fact, is about the size of my apartment. His living space does have one disadvantage, though; apparently anyone can easily get onto his balcony by some unspecified means, because at least three times somebody is out there to inimical purpose, twice with a gun, and there’s a police officer who simply sits out there listening to the microphone the cops planted clumsily. I’d have looked into a one-way gate on the fire escape, frankly.

starofmidnightAfter a bunch more hugger-mugger, frequently involving Dal and Donna spending time in cocktail lounges making amusing comments about who has to pay for the drinks, Dal finally decides to set a trap to catch the killer. They announce that Mary Smith has showed up and make arrangements so that innocent people will go to Dal’s apartment and guilty ones will head for Mary’s cheap flat to cover their tracks. Of course, Dal doesn’t bother to bring a gun, or anything useful like that; merely a recording of Alice/Mary singing, to lure the suspects, and a portable record player. A strange woman arrives looking for Mary and turns out to be — the male lawyer, wearing a mask of a woman’s face and in top-to-toe drag. I’m not sure why. (Is the lawyer trying to leave a false trail to his wife?) Maybe, though, Jerry Classon had to be a chunky matron so that her husband could fit into her clothes. So there is a dramatic climax, the murderer is arrested and Dal and Donna finally agree to tie the knot.

I have to add that Mary Smith never appears, even after the real murderer is caught; she is said to be “at the Inspector’s house” as a kind of throwaway line, about a minute before the movie ends, and Dal adds that he traced her through her bank account (conveniently forgetting that she insisted upon being paid in cash to avoid precisely such an entanglement). I don’t know if the writers simply felt they didn’t need to tie off that loose end, or whether they figured nobody would remember, or care, or what. What it means is that the title character, who is possibly one of the most interesting people in the film, never appears and is only heard. It’s not enough to suggest that the writers couldn’t find a way to wedge her in — this has to be deliberate, and it’s frustrating and quite annoying. She’s never seen in her mask, and the murderer is never said to wear one before he shows up in one. If the producers were trying to focus on the witty byplay and cocktail-drinking scenes between Dal and Donna, well, there’s not enough of them and they’re not sufficiently amusing to carry the story over its bumpy patches. The mystery doesn’t make sense, the chemistry of the leads is insufficient to make us believe in their romance, the sub-plots don’t add up, and the script pulls its major punches for no reason. I admit there is a certain amount of charm here; Ginger Rogers tries hard to live up to Myrna Loy’s characterization, William Powell is his usual suave and urbane self, and there are a few funny lines. But there are so many things wrong with this movie that it’s not surprising that it hasn’t survived as an example of a great movie mystery.

Notes For the Collector:

Amazon sells this film individually for about $15 and TCM screened it earlier this year; as I always remark, TCM is not shy about repeating its offerings and you can expect to see it about once a year from now on.