Wednesday, October 07, 2015


We see a Chinese man on a boat throw a package overboard which is picked up by a man in a motorboat and passed along until it reaches its destination, the home of gem collector Brandon Edwards (Morgan Wallace).  It's a legendary jewel from China called the Eye of the Daughter of the Moon which was lost in the Japanese looting of Nanking but is now in Edwards' possession. But the day before, Edwards got a letter threatening death to the gem's owner so he calls in detective James Lee Wong to investigate. That night, at a party at Edwards' home, an elaborate game called Indications is played, with partygoers acting out charades in short skits. During the charade for a book called "Murder Comes at Midnight," the character Edwards is playing is shot by a gun filled with blanks, but after he falls to the ground, it's discovered that he's actually been shot dead, from a different gun, from a different direction. Among the suspects: Peter (Craig Reynolds), the lover of Edwards' wife Valerie, who has said that he'd kill Edwards if he ever mistreated his wife; Strogonoff, a Russian singer who has been "adopted"by the family and lives with them; a possibly suspicious maid and butler. Wong, his criminologist friend Janney, and police captain Street (Grant Withers) have their work cut out for them.

This is the second in the Mr. Wong series. In the movies, mostly played by Boris Karloff, Wong is mild-mannered but obviously intelligent and a man of good taste. If it weren’t for the occasional Chinese robe and the atmosphere of Wong's home, Karloff's portrayal is subtle enough that you might not even notice the character's ethnicity. If only for the charades twist, this is the most memorable of the Mr. Wong movies; the Monogram low-budget problems are present in sets and scripting, but the acting is a notch above usual; in addition to the always reliable Karloff, Withers, Reynolds and Wallace are good. The set-up involving a deadly parlor game is pretty much the same that was used in the earlier MURDER AT MIDNIGHT; both were written by Scott Darling. In the above picture, Reynolds is seated at the desk, Karloff is behind him, and Withers is standing to the left. [DVD]

Monday, October 05, 2015



We first see psychiatrist Clive Riordan (Robert Newton) in a low-key, distracted mood at his London men's club. When he returns home early, his wife Storm (Sally Grey) is gone, and when she returns, she's in the company of another man, the young American Bill Kronin (Phil Brown). They claim to have been at a concert, but Clive cleverly catches them in a lie, pulls a gun on Bill, and marches him out of the house. As far as Storm knows, that was the end of the story, but five days later, Bill is reported missing. Clive claims he doesn't know what happened, but we discover that Clive took Bill to an abandoned cellar near his office and chained him up so he has access to a cot and a bathroom but can't escape. Clive holds him for weeks; a bit of cat-and-mouse rapport develops, but Bill has no idea what Clive's plan is: each day, he smuggles in a small amount of acid and pours it in a tub—when the tub is full, he'll put Bill in it. Naturally, there are complications, the first being the Riordan's dog who follows Clive out to the hidden room one day, the second being a Scotland Yard inspector (Naunton Wayne) who starts snooping around.

Robert Newton (pictured) is the glue that holds this together and makes it worth watching. His character is given little no background aside from the fact that he's a psychiatrist which in itself would have been interesting to delve into; his relationship with his wife is also not fleshed out. Grey is weak as the wife, perhaps because she is given little to work with—she seems singularly uninterested in Bill's whereabouts even though she was having an affair with him. Brown is better but his character is also flat. Newton, who was known to ham it up (see BLACKBEARD THE PIRATE), is quiet but tightly wound, and keeps the movie fairly tense. I like Naunton Wayne and he gives a nicely sly but understated performance as the cop. The dog and a cat both play important roles in the film's climax. [Criterion streaming]

Saturday, October 03, 2015


The Duke de Mornay has died, apparently murdered by the notorious Prihec who kills in order to get his hands on rare books. Chief inspector Marotte shows up at the auction of the Duke's books—being run by M. Fos, a well known book dealer—hoping that the killer will also show up. Instead, Marotte runs into Julie Verlaine (Claire Dodd) as she's chatting with the Duke's nephew Paul (Clark Williams) who tells her he is trying to find a buyer for a Gutenberg Bible that belonged to his uncle. Julie is known as a thief who works with her live-in boyfriend Lucien (Jack La Rue); in fact, she has just been released from a short stint in jail, and Marotte lets her know that he's keeping an eye on her. Julie wants to leave behind her life of crime, even if that means leaving Lucien, though out of habit she steals a rare Moliere book at the auction. Paul, thinking Julie is a rare book expert, asks her to visit the chateau to verify the value of the Gutenberg, which is kept under lock and alarm along with a fake copy. At the chateau, there are troubled waters: Paul's aunt, Mme. Rombiere, argues that she owns half of the Bible and she wants a say in how it's disposed of; M. Bardou, the executor of the will, wants to donate it to a museum. Also at the chateau: Didi (Alice White), a frisky former lover of Paul's who wants some of the money he may come into; the butler Martin and his wife, the cook, both of whom have only been employed there for a few weeks; and Professor Racque, a book seller who claims to have been promised books from the Duke's collection. For various reasons, all stay the night in the chateau, and at midnight, the tower bell mysteriously rings out. Legend has it that whenever the bell rings, death will follow, and sure enough, later in the night, there's a scream, a gunshot, and the ringing of the bible's alarm bell, all simultaneously. The Bible is gone and Bardou is dead, though Marotte believes that the theft and the killing were done by two different people. How many more will die before Marotte gets to the bottom of the mystery?

Though originally sold to television in the 50s as part of Universal's famous Shock Theater package of horror films, this is not horror, nor does it really belong to the "old dark house" genre. It's just a traditional crime/mystery B-film, though an entertaining and well-paced one. The movie has a very light tone with a fair amount of comic relief which I thought worked well, though not all reviewers agree. George E. Stone does his usual comic sidekick role to good effect (in one scene, he tries to oil the hinges of a squeaking door with salad dressing), and Alice White brings a nice jolt of energy to the proceedings in all of her scenes. Dodd is fine; Williams may be a little low on passion as the romantic lead, but he's handsome and otherwise serviceable. Osgood Perkins, father of actor Anthony, is good as the suspicious butler, as is Ferdinand Gottschalk as the inspector. No earthshaker, and definitely not a pick for horror night, but a nice way for a fan of B-mysteries to pass an hour. [Above right are White and Stone; pictured at left are Dodd and Williams][YouTube]

Friday, October 02, 2015


Businessman Simon Dayton feels threatened and has detective James Lee Wong brought in protect him. Dayton and his business partners Meisel and Wilk are shipping out a new chemical weapon and Dayton feels paranoid, mostly because inventor Carl Roemer claims that the men stole his formula and Dayton fears he may make trouble. Meisel and Wilk insist on having Dayton sign legal papers stating that if any one of them dies, the others will inherit the dead man's shares in the company. That very day, Roemer shows up brandishing a gun, demanding money. Roemer is subdued and led out of Dayton's office and the police are called. Moments later, Dayton is found dead in his office, killed by poison gas released from a small glass sphere. Wong has a glassblower reproduce the sphere and runs experiments on what might have caused the sphere to shatter, releasing the deadly gas. Roemer is held as a likely suspect, but when Wilk gets a threatening letter and is found dead from the same gas, Roemer seems to be in the clear and suspicion falls on Meisel. But what about the rather suspicious Russian baron and countess who enter the picture? And when Meisel dies a similar death, the police seem stumped. But Mr. Wong is not…

The two most famous Asian sleuths in Hollywood in the 1930s were Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto. B-studio Monogram introduced a third, Mr. Wong, based on a magazine fiction series by Hugh Wiley. As played by Boris Karloff, he is the least stereotyped of the bunch—he speaks in full English sentences, his make-up is fairly subtle and, though inclined to wear long Chinese robes while at home, there is otherwise little else to differentiate him from any movie detective of the era. This film, the first of six, is generally undistinguished in terms of acting, sets or style, though Karloff is fine—though he vanishes for long stretches of time so that the plot can get more convoluted than it needs to. To be fair, it's fairly easy to follow and I did enjoy the twists in both the identity of the killer and the method he uses to kill. Grant Withers is Sam Street, the cop who partners with Wong in all the films, and the worst I can say about him is that he's colorless. I've seen many of these in the past but have been revisiting the boxed set recently, so I'll review a few more soon. [DVD]

Thursday, October 01, 2015


The Boston Blackie movies are light, unpretentious crime stories in which Chester Morris plays the title character, a reformed safecracker who now helps the cops out, usually because he falls under suspicion and has to clear himself. This entry is one of the best in the series. Blackie's rich buddy Arthur Manleder has just bought a rare and used bookstore and on the eve of an important auction, the book expert Kittridge takes ill and cannot be present.  Blackie, knowing this could tarnish the store's reputation, disguises himself beneath white hair and a beard as Kittridge and conducts the auction himself.  Unfortunately, a very rare signed edition of Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" turns out to be a forgery.  The cops suspect Blackie, so he remains in disguise and, with help from his sidekick the Runt and from Kittridge's lovely assistant Gloria, tries to track down the real crook.  He discovers that a man named Hadley is the forger, but Hadley is bumped off before Blackie can turn him in.  Now Blackie, wanted for murder, doubles down to solve the case, not realizing that Gloria is actually in cahoots with the real crook, Jack Higgins. This hour-long thriller is light on its feet, contains many funny moments—mostly involving Morris, George E. Stone as the Runt, and Richard Lane as his nemesis, Inspector Farraday—and has a good cast.  In addition to Morris and Stone, who always work well together, Lynn Merrick is very good as the two-faced gal pal, and it was nice to see one of my favorite B-movie leads, Steve Cochran, as the slimy but handsome bad guy. A nice treat for Boston Blackie fans. Pictured above are Stone, Morris and Cochran. [TCM]

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


In the same way that GRAND HOTEL followed the intersecting storylines of a number of people staying in a Berlin hotel, this film follows the same formula with a number of people on a luxury liner sailing from Germany to New York City. In an opening vignette, we see the contrast between a young lad excited to get 20 marks for his voyage from his father, and a rich businessman casually tossing a 20 mark tip to a steward. This highlights one of the movie's thematic concerns, the class differences of the passengers, from lower class folks down in steerage to the wealthy up in first class. Among the characters we get to know: Zita Johann is a young nurse with a tragedy in her past that keeps her aloof and a bit mysterious; George Brent is a doctor who boards at the last minute in order to talk his estranged wife out of leaving him; Vivienne Osborne is Brent's wife who may be a bit tightly wound, and the man she's running off with is Frank Morgan, a wealthy shipping magnate; C. Aubrey Smith is a former clothing manufacturer who just got out of jail for embezzlement; Alice White is a flirty little gold-digger who wants to latch onto a man who can get her up to first class, though she’s not above a little flirtation with the cute elevator operator (Henry Wadsworth), both pictured at right.

As is GRAND HOTEL and DINNER AT EIGHT, the plots develop slowly as characters interact with each other. Brent, who arrives at the ship practically in hysterics wanting his wife back, talks the ship's doctor, an old friend of his, into letting let him take over for this trip. As Brent works with Johann and she sees his calm, inspiring bedside manner with a young mother and an elderly woman, she begins to thaw and romantic feelings spring up. Still, Brent confronts Osborne and she brandishes a gun to get him out of her cabin. Later, however, she finds out that her new lover is flirting with an opera singer and she pretty much snaps. Down in steerage, Smith becomes popular when he agrees to help the desperate lower-class travelers invest their money in stocks that White overheard Morgan talking up. By the end, there is a birth, a murder, a suicide, and some financial reversals. Some plotlines end predictably (Brent and Johann), some not (White and Smith). This was an enjoyable melodrama, though the tone remains relatively light throughout despite the murder and suicide. The acting is fine, with Johann, Osborne and White as standouts, and it’s fun to see C. Aubrey Smith out of his comfort zone—rich grandfathers—doing something a little different. This is the second time this summer I've seen Alice White and I think she's an underrated comic actress, with a little bit of a Harlow vibe, though sweeter and more pixieish. I ran across this rarity on YouTube and it's worth digging around to find. [YouTube]

Monday, September 28, 2015


An older gentleman (Fritz Leiber) is chatting with a young woman (Eve Miller) on a train, and she comes to believe he may have psychic powers. The rest of the movie is the story he tells her. A woman very much like her gets off a train to meet her lover (Charles Russell, pictured), but during an altercation he accidentally stabs her to death and, while dumping her wrapped-up body in a cargo car on the train, is glimpsed by a young boy (Dale Belding). Russell gets a ride with a friendly newspaper editor to a nearby small town where he finds lodging at a boarding house. The occupants include a harmless drunk, a flirtatious totsy (Mary Beth Hughes), a single mother (Lee Patrick), and, of course, the little boy who saw him at the train station. At first, the boy doesn't realize that Russell was involved in a murder, but soon news reaches the town about the corpse being discovered and Belding, who has to share his bedroom with Russell, starts getting suspicious. Can Russell escape town with Hughes before the boy becomes a threat? Or will the boy become his second victim?

The title, which has nothing to do with the plot, is from a series of mystery books and a radio show from the 40s. Universal produced a series of Inner Sanctum B-movies with Lon Chaney Jr. but this is not related to those, except that it's a mystery with overtones of film noir and the supernatural. As such, it's interesting though there is a tone problem with too much comic relief throughout. The editor and the drunk are both present mostly for comedy purposes, and even Lee Patrick gets her share of humorous lines. Charles Russell, however, is deadly serious and gives a good, tense performance, though at times it seems at odds with every other performance except that of the boy, who does a nice job being both scared and adventurous. If Russell's character was fleshed out more (as it is, we know virtually nothing about him), he'd be a solid noir lead. The supernatural element comes into play in the frame story with Leiber (the father of the fantasy author with the same name) and provides a nice sting at the end of the story. A memorably clichéd exchange: Hughes, to Russell, "You're even too bad for me"; Russell, in reply, "You're very pretty—when those lips aren't moving." [Streaming]

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Bill (George Brent) was once a high school football hero, but now he's an office manager at an advertising firm. He wants to work on ad campaigns, but his boss belittles his every attempt to step outside the boundaries of his job. His wife Nan (Ann Dvorak) encourages him to stand up for himself, but things remain status quo until two things happen: his brother-in-law gets a better job, and his boss hires Pat (Bette Davis), an old school chum of Bill's, as an ad writer, and then humiliates Bill in front of Pat. Nan has saved a little money which she gives to Bill so he can quit and start his own ad agency. He struggles for a while but finally breaks into the big time when he snags Paul (John Halliday), a cosmetics magnate, as a client, even giving him advice about how to boost sales—by slapping a "double strength" label on his skin cream and doubling the price. Soon Bill has a very successful business, and has even hired Pat as a copy writer, which is, of course, the beginning of his downfall when he and Pat start an affair. To muddy the waters even more, Paul, sensing the situation, comes on to Nan. Soon, Bill and Nan head to divorce court until a near-tragedy in the family makes the two reconsider.

Technically, this movie was released a couple of months after the Production Code went into effect, but it gets away with presenting fairly explicitly an extramarital affair without really having to "punish" either of the participants. Davis was near a crossroads in her career—this was the first movie that came out after OF HUMAN BONDAGE made her a sensation—and though Ann Dvorak has the title role, and arguably the more important role, Davis is billed ahead of her and with good reason. Even at half-speed in a supporting part, Davis throws sparks and is the main reason to watch this, though Brent makes for a very appealing lead. Unfortunately, Dvorak comes off rather blandly, though our sympathy still remains with her character. Ruth Donnelly is fun as Dvorak's sister-in-law, and Hobart Cavanaugh and Robert Barrat are fine in supporting roles. This is mild, light-toned if not exactly comic, melodrama and is generally entertaining, but not a major Bette Davis film. [DVD]

Monday, September 21, 2015


Everard Hope is an cranky old man who lives in a large house in which the rule is, no electric lights after 9:00, only candles—we're never told why; there are references to the wartime blackouts, but this seems to be a family rule from way back. Even his pet parrot constantly squawks out, "Lights, you damned fool, lights!" Everard has collected his relatives in order to have a reading of his will, but the night before, he runs out of his bedroom yelling, "Fire!" and falls down the stairs to his death. It turns out that he's left his money to Dorothea, a chorus girl whom none of the other relatives know. The catch is that she must spend a month living in the house before she can claim the estate. Dorothea is advised by the rather sinister-looking housekeeper Julia that she might be in danger if she accepts the challenge—there is some mystery concerning the death of Everard's brother years ago in a fall from a window in the house, and Julia implies that she might not survive her tenancy. Nevertheless, Dorothea starts spending money she doesn't quite have yet, goes out for drinks with some flirtatious cousins, and moves in. William Gordon, a former detective, has his suspicions about some of the relatives and starts hanging around, trying to keep her safe.

This movie tries to span several genres: old dark house thriller, comedy, musical—we see Dorothea sing and dance at a club—and never really comes together. Horror movie fans in particular are likely to be disappointed at the lack of any real scares. Still, it's kind of fun, with good atmosphere and a scene-stealing performance from Beatrix Lehmann as the housekeeper (pictured), who functions as a kind of Mrs. Danvers character. She and Eliot Makeham (as the cranky old man) are the only ones who really take their roles seriously. The star of the film is Jessie Matthews, a stage and screen star in England, though this wound up being her last major movie before she had a second career on British television. One character says to her, "Gosh! You’re plucky!" but for me, she called to mind a low-energy Ann Miller. There’s also two comic relief brothers (Reginald Purdell and Hugh Dempster) who vie ineptly for Dorothea's hand. A few amusing lines crop up. When we see Dorothea do her act, she is accompanied on stage by Maurice, introduced by the MC as "not her husband and not likely to be." Later the brothers come to visit Dorothea and are told by Julia that she "is in but not at home," to which one of them replies, "Bit of a contortionist, what?" [YouTube]

Friday, September 18, 2015


In this Cold War rehash of the Greta Garbo classic NINOTCHKA, Katharine Hepburn plays a Russian pilot who is forced out of the sky when she violates American air space in Germany. The Americans hope that she's a defector, but she claims she left Russia in a fit of pique because a man was promoted over her. She's not interested in being part of any anti-Communist propaganda (she despises the superficiality of American women who are only interested "only in nail polish and false bosoms"), but the Air Force would like to change her mind, so a major (Bob Hope) is put in charge of taking Hepburn to London and softening her up so she'll be a good little defector. Of course, as he tries to convert her, she tries to convert him to socialism, and slowly, despite the presence of Hope's fiancée, they start to fall in love.

Let me repeat that: Katherine Hepburn and Bob Hope fall in love. That is the main gimmick behind this movie, and it plays out as badly as you would expect. Though both actors are professionals and seem to be trying as hard as they can, they both seem very uncomfortable, with the picture above epitomizing their on-screen chemistry. Hepburn's accent is grating (and varies occasionally) and she looks dreadful; Hope mostly acts like he's in a Road movie with Bing Crosby—when someone insults him by calling him a "dog nose," Hope replies, "Oh, you got a little Crosby blood in ya!" Apparently, Hope brought in some of his own gag writers to "polish" the dialogue, and the screenwriter, the legendary Ben Hecht, had his name taken out of the official credits. Hepburn wasn't too happy, either, and the two had a frosty relationship. It's not quite a disaster; if nothing else, I like to tell friend that I've seen a romantic comedy with Hepburn and Hope, and watch their reactions. If you're expecting a Bob Hope comedy, you’ll probably like it, but if you want a Hepburn comedy like The Philadelphia Story or Bringing Up Baby, avoid it like the plague. [TCM]