The Wall Street Mystery
Author: The authorship is credited prominently to S.S. Van Dine, writer of the Philo Vance novels. “Adaptation and dialogue” by Burnet Hershey, for whom IMDB gives 65 writing credits, almost all of which are short subjects. Hershey wrote a bunch of other entries in the 12 short subjects instigated by Van Dine.
S.S. Van Dine is worth reading about but Wikipedia has done such a thorough job there is no need for me to repeat it here.
Other Data: November, 1931, according to IMDB. Directed by Arthur Hurley, who also appeared to specialize in short subjects, for Vitaphone (Warner Brothers).
Cast: Donald Meek (see left) as Doctor Crabtree, hero of 11 of the 12 short films that Van Dine wrote between 1931 and 1932. John Mailton as Inspector Carr (who appears in all 12), Frances Dale, Hobart Cavanaugh, and a black man I am unable to identify who deserved better than the comedy-relief role of the elevator operator.
About this film:
I believe this to be the second of 12 shorts written by S. S. Van Dine, featuring Donald Meek as Doctor Crabtree in all but one. It is 17 minutes in length and there’s not a lot of time to get anything across to the audience except the bare bones of what’s going on. Two stockbrokers are found shot to death in their Wall Street office; a beautiful secretary is found locked in a closet in the office, and a disgruntled investor had had an appointment with one of the stockbrokers the night of the crime. “There’s nothing mysterious about a killing in Wall Street,” chuckles Dr. Crabtree, criminologist. “I know — I made one myself.”
The story is not especially mystifying and the solution really depends entirely on forensic evidence — the angle of the bullet wound in one of the victims. In fact, none of the hugger-mugger with the other suspects is even necessary since a competent CSI would have solved the crime in no time flat. But everything is competently handled by the director, writer and cast and my interest was sustained for the entire 17 minutes; difficult not to be!
Donald Meek will be very familiar to fans of old mysteries; most of the rest of the cast is unknown to me. The script, unfortunately, descends to the use of a comedic African-American elevator operator with amusing speech patterns and a general air of cowardice. He is really the most interesting character in the film, at least to me, because I was trying to figure out what the point was of his being in the film in the first place. He offers no evidence and seems meant as comedy relief — of course, this sort of comedy relief is extremely painful to the modern viewer by dint of its racism. It’s just incomprehensible to me because I am not old enough to have been immersed in a cultural milieu which cheerfully accepts its own horrific racism, and even uses its victims as figures of fun. Most such characters I’ve seen were played by Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland; this actor is not credited and IMDB does not identify him.
The film uses an interesting and noteworthy technique, considering that it’s 1931. As Dr. Crabtree is explaining both who- and how-dunnit, the actors are seen as phantom figures — the background is solid but the actors are transparent. They act out the crime before our eyes while Meek, in voice-over, describes the action.
Notes For the Collector:
This film is extremely scarce and I have never seen it before; I recorded a copy quite by accident the other day when I was recording a copy of The Mystery of Mr. X on TCM and this short subject filled the space until the next film started. Of the dozen Van Dine shorts, this is only the second one I have managed to see; TCM also showed “Murder in the Pullman” within the last couple of years. Unfortunately TCM does not to my knowledge announce in advance what its short subject offerings are going to be, except as a forum post a week or so in advance. No copies are available on Amazon — nor are any of its 11 brothers. If anyone from TCM is listening, please PLEASE package these 12 shorts for purchase; I badly want to see what S.S. Van Dine had to say in them, based on the two I’ve managed to view. I have not even managed to find still photographs from the film to illustrate this piece and could only provide a photo of Donald Meek from something similar.