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Once upon a time, television was a place of wondrous discovery. The
most strange and surprising things were liable to turn up at any time,
despite the fact that most people only had 8 to 12 channels to choose
from. Alas, with the advent of syndication and cable, those days have
virtually disappeared. Now, we are blessed with 500 channels of bland,
cookie cutter pap. Which brings me to the case at hand.
I saw "Conspiracy" at 3:05 CDT this morning. It ran on WLS Ch.7 in Chicago. Ch.7 - bless 'em! - is one of the last stations in existence to maintain a film library stocked with treasures that, in some cases, may not have been seen in the last 50 years. "Conspiracy" was one of those rare treats that TV used to be all about. It's a true oddity even for it's time ( 1930 ). Starring the redoubtable Ned Sparks, an actor once well enough known that Warner based a cartoon character - ( a suspender wearing rooster ) - upon him, it's about a woman in peril ( Bessie Love ), an intrepid reporter ( Hugh Trevor ) and a bizarre crime novelist named Winthrop Clavering who, for some reason, goes by the nickname of Little Nemo. Oh, and it's based upon a play, which helps explain some of the, at times, stilted dialogue.
As for details of the story; well, there really isn't much need to go into them. Oh, OK; a girl murders a mobster who is out to get her brother and spends the rest of the film dealing with the characters mentioned above, as well as trying to protect the brother from mob vengeance. Mostly the movie deals with the oddball Nemo, a cantankerous coot who is convinced he can outsmart the cops and solve the mystery. Still with me? The fascination of obscurities such as "Conspiracy" is that they give us a glimpse into a world that is so alien to most of us that it is positively breathtaking. These are characters that even a 60 year old codger such as myself find totally unfamiliar. For example, the heroin is clad in a fox stole that would give PETA the screaming heebie jeebies. I mean, this thing is so complete - head, tail and feet - that you almost expect it to start talking. Other period touches include a Black maid with a smart mouth, and assorted exotic villains who speak in indeterminate foreign accents and wear odd jewelry.
Now, if all this sounds as intriguing to you as it was to me, then I urge you to seek out "Conspiracy" at all costs. Unfortunately, it won't be easy. Perhaps a better idea would be to give your "local" cable company bloody heck for not having more programming such as this readily available. In either case, good luck!
... and the results are weird and wondrous. If you've always wanted to
see Ned Sparks dressed like Darkman jumping up and down on furniture
like an ape and constantly addressing himself in the third person such
as "Little Nemo" does this and "Little Nemo" does that, this is your
The movie opens on a scene in a hotel room with a dead body on the floor, and Bessie Love as Margaret Holt standing over the body with a bloody letter opener in her hand. She's a victim of circumstance right? Wrong, she did it, but there is much more to the story than her looking embarrassingly guilty of cold blooded murder.
Margaret escapes down the fire escape before she can be discovered and goes to a neighborhood house - what passed for social services before there really was such a thing and seeks a job under an alias claiming she's a traveler who has lost her purse and thus all of her money. Unfortunately for her the police know who she is, know what she looks like, and know she was in the room. She'd be caught in no time if not for two people. First, a reporter that figures out who she is and how she figures in the crime but loves the girl at first sight and decides to help her. Second is irritable author "Little Nemo" alias Winthrop Clavering (Ned Sparks). The reporter gets Margaret a job as Clavering's stenographer since Clavering is such a hermit when he's working nobody will ever look for her in his home. The complicating factor here - Clavering is a crime author who is proud of his record of solving every crime he puts his mind to, and his new crusade is to solve and write about the murder Margaret just committed before the police figure it out. This leaves Margaret with the distasteful job of transcribing the details of her own crime. I'll let you watch and see how this all unravels.
Like the other reviewer, you just can't help but be struck by two things - both concerning Bessie Love. First there is that fur, which is actually the entire animal, wrapped around her neck. It looks like she just clubbed the poor beast ten minutes ago and hung it there. Secondly is the over emoting Bessie Love is doing during the entire film. If I hadn't already seen Love in earlier talkies over at MGM and had seen her talent in talking film, I'd have my doubts about her, but given past performances I'll have to chalk this one up to probable bad direction. At the film's midpoint it gets so tedious you want someone to tell the girl to switch to decaf if there was such a thing in 1930.
The real drawing point of the film though, is the irascible Ned Sparks as Little Nemo. This has got to be his weirdest role ever and he just makes the film. He is made up so strangely with that disheveled hair and those dark glasses that if it wasn't for his trademark voice it would be hard to recognize him. He steals the film and I highly recommend that you watch his larceny.
In New York City, the camera catches blonde stenographer Bessie Love
(as Margaret Holt) standing over a dead body, wielding a sharp letter
opener. Hearing folks outside the deceased's hotel room, Ms. Love takes
the fire escape to elude arrest. Young newspaper reporter Hugh Trevor
(as Jack Howell) is on the scene and falls in Love. He learns the
victim was a big-time narcotics pusher who had abducted Love's brother.
Her brother is a district attorney. Investigating the crime is
cantankerous mystery novelist Ned Sparks (as Winthrop "Little Nemo"
Clavering). To make it easy, Love goes to work for Mr. Sparks, who
lives in a mansion with slavish Gertrude Howard (as Martha)...
This is a re-make of a Broadway play and "silent" movie starring John Emerson. It should have been left there. Top-billed Love, who worked with Mr. Emerson and director Christy Cabanne in the 'teens, had a career resurgence in "talking" pictures. Appearing uncomfortable herein, Love most notably wears a fox fur that is complete, from head to tail. Too bad her character is not a ventriloquist. It's probably a good thing Love plays second-fiddle to Sparks, who is the actual leading player in the story. While it's good to see Sparks in a rare starring role, his character is annoying throughout. Those looking for racial stereotypes in old films should find Ms. Howard's "Martha" of interest.
*** Conspiracy (8/3/30) Christy Cabanne ~ Ned Sparks, Bessie Love, Hugh Trevor, Gertrude Howard
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Conspiracy (1930) is a really weird movie. It's not a good movie, mind. It's not even a movie I would recommend to anyone except rabid fans of Bessie Love and Ned Sparks and even they would probably not be impressed. Bessie Love plays a murderess. Although she could plead self-defense (and the gangster she kills deserved a bullet anyway), she is a wake-up to New York's corrupt police force and knows only too well that she wouldn't even last a night in their "custody". So she flees and somehow manages to find sanctuary with a really weird oddball who fancies himself as a mystery writer and solver of all capital crimes, both real and imaginary. The oddball is played in an outlandish disguise that he never removes by Ned Sparks who totally forgets and when I say "totally", I mean "TOTALLY" that he's making a movie on a sound stage, not treading the boards at the Belasco. In a hammy, disguised voice, he shouts every word of his lines to penetrate the furthest rows of the Gallery. And what was the director doing while Ned was sparking away? Nothing! Poor old Christy Cabanne didn't have a clue how to direct a sound film this was his first, although sound effects and a music score were added to his Annapolis (1928) and that lack of expertise is painfully obvious. RKO had such little faith in the movie, they couldn't even nail down a release date for me, although it would have to be either August 3 or August 10. Nor was there any record that the movie had even played in New York (where the story is actually set), but I was able to tell them the movie opened in Los Angeles on September 3, 1930. RKO did have a synopsis in their files, but most of the first half of the plot does not appear on the screen at all. Either it was cut before the movie was released or it was never filmed at all. Available on an excellent Warner Archive DVD.
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