Back in the mid-1990s, while researching, along with Greg Mank, the biography of Dwight Frye, it was believed that "By Whose Hand?" was a "lost" early talkie. Therefore, we were not able to screen it for the book. A few years later (approx. 1998), it was learned that the film, along with a number of other early Columbia titles, had been preserved but was unlikely to ever be released on DVD or shown on TV. That was until this morning, when TCM ran a beautiful print of "By Whose Hand?" The film is a breezy murder mystery (working title was "Murder Express") with Ben Lyon doing a fine job as the lead Jimmy Hawley, a crime reporter, who boards a train more to pursue the beautiful Barbara Weeks than to follow a lead that the escaped Killer Delmar (Nat Pendleton) might be on the train. There are many suspicious characters aboard the train, including Ethel Kenyon as a jewel thief, Kenneth Thomson as a womanizing jeweler, Helene Millard as a "grieving" widow, and the always enjoyable William V. Mong as a vengeful, bitter old man. Detective William Halligan has in his care (in cuffs) one Chick Lewis (Dwight Frye), who had squealed on his old buddy Delmar and is now being transported to prison near San Francisco. There are others on the train who somewhat spoil the mood - a goofy newlywed couple (Lorin Raker and Dolores Rey) and the usually good comic actor Tom Dugan, who somewhat overplays a drunk here and who becomes attached to Lyon. Oscar Smith plays a nervous porter with some good comedy moments.
There are some plot twists and murders on the train which will not be revealed in case TCM airs this again. Suffice it to say Lyon and Weeks play off one another quite well. Their performances do not seem that dated for a 75 year old film. Dwight Frye is more subdued than usual and has a nice sympathetic moment with an actress playing his elderly mother prior to his boarding the train in an early sequence. Mong was beginning to become typecast as miserly old men, but here shows the skills of a veteran actor, even in a role without much dimension. Millard and Kenyon were good in their respective roles, but neither had much success in Hollywood. Barbara Weeks, however, is a fine actress who has never received her proper due from film historians. She gave up her film career (except for a few later appearances) while still in her twenties and was rumored to have died in 1954 (when she actually lived almost 50 years more - until 2003). Her grace, beauty, charm, and sense of humor all come across on screen and make one wonder why her career never really took off.
"By Whose Hand?" is a film I have waited to see for many years and feared I'd never get the chance. Now that I have finally viewed it, I am pleased to say it met and even succeeded my expectations!
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