Charles Ray was a very bland actor who somehow attained nearly front-rank stardom in silent films, playing gormless country lads who somehow made good. Towards the end of the silent era (when he was getting too old to continue playing this character), he financed a starring vehicle for himself which flopped badly, wiping out the fortune he'd accumulated. His roles in early talkies got rapidly smaller, to the point where he was merely a dress extra. Garson Kanin, who met Ray at that late point in his career, claimed that Ray accepted his downfall with good grace. Other witnesses, who knew Ray earlier in his meteoric arc, claimed that he was a major egomaniac. Perhaps both stories are true: possibly Ray had a big head while his films were reaping high grosses, then he acquired some modesty when he was no longer a star. One more Hollywood tragedy, not as tragic as some others.
'The Village Sleuth' is all too typical a Ray vehicle. Here he plays fumbling farmboy William Wells, who aspires to become a great detective. He's most of the way through Volume Four in his set of detective manuals. If you're feeling a strong sense of deja vu, it's because there have been far too many comedies and would-be comedies about a bumbling would-be sleuth. By far, the best of these was Buster Keaton's 'Sherlock Junior', but that film had the benefit of Keaton's dazzling acrobatics (which he had the sense to confine to a dream sequence) and the comparative novelty that Keaton's sleuth (returning to reality) solved only an extremely trivial crime. Most of these snooper-sleuth comedies (including 'The Village Sleuth') have an incompetent boob implausibly capturing a major criminal.
SPOILERS COMING. William's father (very well-played by Lew Morrison) insists that William put aside his magnifying glass and get a real job, so William reluctantly becomes the handyman in a lakeside sanitarium. Here, he discovers no end of 'clues' -- footprints, fingerprints, keyholes for peering through, sliding panels in the walls, even a bloodstain in the sand by the lake -- but none of these lead to any genuine crime. The 'bloodstain' turns out to be strawberry jam from a picnic ... an error which is pardonable only because this movie is in monochrome, so we can't see that the 'blood' is the wrong colour.
One of the patients at the sanitarium is a chorus girl with an annoying hairstyle and the even more annoying name Pinky Wagner, played by an actress with the yet more annoying name Winifred Westover. This being the sort of comedy in which all the plot twists are bang obvious, it's bang obvious that William Wells will eventually stumble upon a genuine criminal and will capture him (for a reward of $5,000!) while also wooing and winning Winifred Westover. It never seems to occur to our Willie that perhaps the chorus girl likes him only because he's suddenly got $5,000. This movie was directed by somebody I never heard of, and I don't much wonder. This being a Thomas Ince production, there are that producer's usual elaborate intertitles, which manage to be more distracting than effective. I'll rate 'The Village Sleuth' just barely 4 out of 10.
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