The Wall Street Mystery (1931)

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).

SS Crabtree 2Cast: 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.

Charlie Chan in Rio (1941)

I have to admit, I love almost all the Charlie Chan movies.  Certainly they vary in complexity and difficulty, and the occasional one (mostly from among the later ones with Roland Winters) doesn’t make very much sense. But I enjoy the character and the situations in which he finds himself.

Charlie Chan in Rio, a 1941 entry in the long series is, I’ve always thought, a particularly good one. Chan (Sidney Toler) is accompanied by number two son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung) to Rio as he visits Harold Huber, whose clones are apparently police officials everywhere from Monte Carlo to Rio.  Singer Lola Dean  does a musical turn on a nightclub stage, gets engaged to a wealthy young man, then visits a sinister hypnotist, then invites all her frenemies back to her home to celebrate and to provide plenty of suspects when she turns up dead.  It all goes back to Lola’s boyfriend’s murder in Honolulu, which is how Charlie Chan comes in — and, indeed, this is a remake of 1931’s The Black Camel, which takes place on Honolulu and goes back to a murder case in Boston.

They find Lola laid out on the floor with an array of clues helpfully provided, neatly arrayed to one side.  The plot itself is quite intelligent and tricky, and you won’t be solving this one unless you keep a sharp eye on the characters’ comings and goings from the moment they arrive at Lola’s mansion.  And if you think the butler did it — sorry, no, he’s victim #2.  Mary Beth Hughes is particularly good as a drunken socialite, and Iris Wong is charming in a small role as a Chinese maid with whom Jimmy Chan falls in instant lust.  Kay Linaker (in blue, bending over Lola’s body), as Lola’s assistant, is so omnipresent that she should have had higher billing, and is quite convincing when she delivers her lines with an air of amused hyper-confidence.  Victor Jory is so wonderfully sinister as the mysterious hypnotist that he makes the rest of the suspects look bland every time he’s on screen.

I have to admit that the ending of this is a bit weak, and the film stops every once in a while for either a musical number or a bit of  “comic” racist/sexist byplay between Jimmy and the maid.  But part of the charm of these old films is their attempt to leaven the action with levity, however mishandled (the later Chan films are responsible for bringing Mantan Moreland to prominence, which set race relations back ten years, and one early one, Charlie Chan in Egypt, features Stepin Fetchit, about whose performance the less said the better).  Here, there are no comic Negroes and Harold Huber keeps the eye-rolls to a minimum.  And one or two of the situations are actually funny.

It’s reasonable to assume that this high-concept film got greenlit easily (It’s a remake, we’ve already got the script, and this will cash in on the samba craze!)  Frankly, the samba part of it won’t be of much interest to a modern audience, whereas contemporaneous Americans were being encouraged to support South American culture.  And the central premise of hypnosis assisted by drugs is just unworkably silly.  But as both a piece of filmic history and an interesting mystery, it’s a diverting way to while away an hour.  And as the big running gag at the end — Jimmy Chan gets drafted!!  Which must have been hilarious in 1941, I guess, but the reactions to which are just incomprehensible to the modern viewer.  But everyone laughs, and the movie ends, and then they play a hot-cha-cha samba over the closing credits!!  Just the thing to burn the theme song into your brain and let you forget the plot immediately.

I’d recommend this one over a number of contemporaneous Chans, but there are better ones.  I’ve come across my archives of the old Chan films and I’ll be reviewing them sporadically here.