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.

Penguin Pool Murder (1932)


Penguin Pool Murder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes For the Collector:

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