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One can count on one hand, nay, one finger, the number of Hollywood movies that deal with the importation of silk from Asia. This may be the only one and it goes way back to the beginning of talkies. Using this subject as the basis for a fairly good mystery that involves murder aboard a fast-moving train is rare indeed. The cast consists mainly of well known character actors under contract to Warner Brothers. Guy Kibbee plays Railway Detective McDuff who wants to slow the train down. Since the silk traders must get their shipment to New York within a certain time frame, the railway detective must be dealt with by the entrepreneurs. Competitors are also at work trying to sabotage the entire operation to make sure the train does not reach New York on schedule. They will stop at nothing including murder to stop the train so they can corner the market on silk. Kibbee did well when his role was limited to a few lines. When given a large role as in this movie, his loud banter becomes irritating at times rather than amusing. It is good to see the antics of Allen Jenkins toned down. He is actually a fairly decent actor when given the right role as in this film. He too tended to overact outrageously when given the opportunity. The rest of the cast including the two leads are adequate for their parts. The result is an entertaining little whodunit. And you may be surprised at the end unless you pay really close attention to detail.
The Silk Express is a fast moving crime story loaded with Warners' supporting actor regulars: Guy Kibbee, Robert Barrat, Harold Huber, Allen Jenkins and Arthur Hohl. For train fans, there are scenes of an actual train filmed for the movie, along with stock footage of a train going through a snow storm on the way to New York. If the basis of the screen story seems odd, about importing a load of silk to break the "corner" a speculator has on silk supplies, at least the story is different. Warner Bros. in 1933 had an unequaled team of professionals who could turn out polished movies on the cheap. There are probably as many scenes in this 62 minute movie as a 90 minute movie now. And, just like in another Warners crime movie, Fog Over Frisco, when someone receives a telegram, you see an authentic looking telegram on the screen. The only things out of place in The Silk Express are the leads, Neil Hamilton and Sheila Terry, apparently brought in on a trial basis to see if they were Warners material. They did not stick around at Warners. Soon they would have company, as Jack Warner's cost cutting at the studio caused a migration of acting talent to other studios (among them Loretta Young and William Powell). The Silk Express is an example of the quality that Warner Bros. routinely put on the screen from 1931 to 1934, movies set in the Depression-era present that have not dated as badly as the studio product from MGM and other studios.
There was a time when lousy movies were entertaining. And "The Silk Express," released in 1933 when films were just learning to talk, is a prime example. First, you gotta' believe that a criminal syndicate has cornered the entire American silk market and unless a trainload of silk from the Orient reaches New York within three days, the nation's fashion industry will collapse. A mysterious criminal mastermind has been planted aboard the silk express to stop it in its tracks. But who is he? The paralyzed scholar being rushed to New York for emergency surgery? His beautiful daughter? The doctor who doesn't seem to know as much as he should about medicine? The erudite hobo? The smooth-talking lawyer? It couldn't possibly be the bellowing railroad detective played by Guy Kibbee, could it? This ain't Agatha Christie. But the dialogue's crisp, the pace never lags and the solution to the mystery actually comes as a surprise.
The Silk Express (1933)
** (out of 4)
A rather bizarre murder/mystery about a businessman who makes the price of silk go sky high on the market so Donald Kilgore (Neil Hamilton) calls him into his office and threatens that if he doesn't bring the price down everyone's going to start importing from Japan. The business owners decide to import the product so it boards a train in Seatle and makes the journey to New York but along a way a murder occurs and it's clear someone doesn't want the train to arrive. Whenever one of these murder/mysteries show up on Turner Classic Movies I try to watch them and quite often it appears that most of them are working off the same formula so I'll at least give THE SILK EXPRESS some credit because I can't think of another movie where the battle is over imported silk. Outside of that there's very little in this film that works because it really drags along with a poor pace even at just 61-miutes. I think the biggest problem is the actual story and that includes the silk. While this might be an original topic I can't say it's an entertaining one. The entire time it's hard to get caught up in the story simply because you really don't care about what's at the heart of it. Even worse is that there's simply not enough reason to care about who the killer is and the number of red herrings is more than the actual running time. Hamilton is energetic in the lead but he's not given much to do. Arthur Byron plays the part as if he's angry at the world. Sheila Terry is the quick love interest. Guy Kibbee plays a redneck detective who is exited at finally getting to solve a murder. Several other Warner contract players show up but the most interesting casting is that of Allen Jenkins. I won't spoil what he plays but it's quite a twist and especially the look he has going for himself.
Fast paced little mystery yarn features handsome NEIL HAMILTON in the
lead as a man anxious to get his shipment of silk safely removed at the
train's destination--but hampered in his efforts by a murder aboard The
Hamilton is determined and spunky as the lead, a far departure from his fate in a film from 1944 (SINCE YOU WENT AWAY) where he was only shown in a photo within a picture frame as Claudette Colbert's husband.
The supporting cast has a number of familiar Warner Bros. faces: Allen Jenkins, Guy Kibbe, Robert Barratt, Vernon Steele--but the round-up of suspects by detective Guy Kibbe is just one of the many clichés in the script which is riddled with just such moments. It comes across as Agatha Christie, without the wit, not that this is from a Christie play or novel.
Guy Kibbe as the detective is overly emphatic in his gruffness, as are just about all of the performances. It's strictly for movie buffs who aren't fussy about how over-baked acting was back in 1933 melodramas.
This is not a "racy melodrama" (as described in Hirschhorn's WARNER BROTHERS STORY). There's nothing remotely racy unless one counts the train racing across the country. Rather, it's a primitive whodunit where arbitrary clues are thrown out to make everybody look guilty. Although it's crammed with Warner character players and moves briskly, it's still boring and weak.
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