'The Past of Mary Holmes' was inspired by a notorious murder case that was never solved. In 1922, a man and woman were found shot dead in a field in New Jersey. The man was quickly identified as the Reverend Edward Hall, an Episcopal minister married to an heiress. The woman was Eleanor Mills, who sang in Reverend Hall's choir ... and who had been the wife of Hall's sexton. Alongside the corpses (apparently placed there by the killer) was solid evidence that Hall and Mrs Mills had been conducting a long sexual affair.
The case provoked nationwide headlines, and became more bizarre with the arrival of Jane Gibson, whom reporters swiftly dubbed 'the Pig Woman' because she raised hogs. Mrs Gibson claimed to have witnessed the murder, but she gave several conflicting testimonies ... at one point she was bodily carried into the courtroom in a hospital bed when she claimed to be too ill to testify. It became clear that the Pig Woman was lying to get attention, and the Hall-Mills case remains unsolved. Up until the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1933, the Halls-Mills murder case was considered (all together, now) the Crime of the Century.
The murder case inspired best-selling author Rex Beach to write a story called 'The Goose Woman'. Despite a few changes, this story resembles the Hall-Mills case so clearly that audiences in 1933 could be counted upon to recognise the original source when this film version of Beach's story was released.
Mary Holmes was once a famous opera singer, under the stage name Marie de Nardi. Just over 20 years ago, she gave birth to her son Geoffrey. The delivery injured her severely, damaging Mary Holmes's voice. (Erm, don't the child and the music come out at different ends?) Because the childbirth destroyed her career, Mary has resented her son ever since. Now an adult, Geoffrey is estranged from his mother. She spends her days in a remote farmhouse, raising geese and brooding over past triumphs while she plays a phonograph record of her own voice from her glory days. Despite this, Geoffrey loves his mother and wants her blessing for his engagement to Joan Hoyt.
SPOILERS COMING. When a murder occurs near her farmhouse, Mary Holmes sees a chance to get back into the limelight. She claims to have witnessed the crime, and gives a concocted story. But the circumstances of her story point to a very obvious suspect: her own son Geoffrey. He is swiftly arrested and brought to trial.
From this intriguing set-up, things get ridiculous. We're supposed to believe there's a big conflict here. Will Mary stick to her story to protect her reputation (thereby sending her despised son to the electric chair), or will she humiliate herself by confessing the truth to save her son's life? It's very obvious which choice she'll make. Part of the problem here is that the D.A. has no reason to believe Mary's reversal. The fact that she decides to clear her own son is no proof of his innocence; many a mother would lie to save her son from the hot squat.
I was hoping there would be a twist ending here: the innocent son, arrested on false testimony, turns out to be the murderer after all. No such luck. 'Skeets' Gallagher is painful to watch as a wisecracking reporter. Ivan Simpson, J Carrol Naish and Roscoe Ates give good supporting performances. I'll rate this movie 5 out of 10.
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