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When reform-minded city councilman Newgate is gunned down while
investigating dope peddling charges lodged against a seedy metropolitan
show, a key suspect's debutante daughter joins forces with a slick
reporter to find the real killer.
This 1933 Poverty Row whodunit was most likely inspired by Tod Browning's FREAKS (1932), and cleverly co-opts the whodunit format to provide a mediation on urban cynicism in Depression-era America. Instead of the expected lineup of affluent ne'r-do-wells peculiar to mystery thrillers, the unusual suspects here comprise a sobering cross section of disappointed and bankrupt men, from Steve Clemente's Mexican revolutionary turned knife-thrower to Henry B. Walthall's "Professor Mysto," a sad-eyed bibliophile reduced to performing sleight-of-hand in the disreputable Sphere Museum. Several of the characters refer to grudges borne and threats perceived (whether real or imagined), and with the dead "blue-nose city councilman" etched as more of an opportunist than a philanthropist, THE MURDER IN THE MUSEUM inclines intriguingly toward social criticism - but also offers entertaining flashes of pre-Production Code pulchritude and plenty of ripe, dime novel dialogue.
Sadly, both Walthall (formerly a star of silent films) and lead John Harron (WHITE ZOMBIE) would die before the end of the decade - lending additional poignancy to this tale of financial and spiritual ruination. Three Stooges fans will get a kick out of seeing Symona Boniface cast here as "Katura the Seeress."
I've always loved this curio, a z-grade murder mystery
producer Willis Kent (Cocaine Fiends; Reb Russell westerns) set
a seedy sideshow arcade with a cavalcade of odd and interesting
carny performers worked into the plot.
As a murder mystery, it supplies a number of good red herrings,
and the cheap sets and downbeat atmosphere and hard-boiled
dialogue give the film a raw, exciting feel...
The cast is full of reliable veterans, many from the silent
(former silent actors filled the z-grade independent films of
early 30s), so that even the smallest role is colorfully
And star Henry B. Walthall, of Birth of A Nation fame and
major star in the mid-to-late teens and early twenties
in Ibsen's Ghosts and also The Scarlet Letter), gives a
moving performance as a one-time college professor who has been reduced by tragedy to performing magic tricks in a sideshow. He gets a number of featured scenes and, as always, has an understated grace and elegance as an actor (see also the serial The Whispering Shadow and the feature The Flaming Signal for other films of his from this period). This was, I believe, his last film, and his name isn't even spelled correctly in the credits (his name is above the title!). By the way, trainspotters should note that there are three versions of this in circulation--a mail order outlet from Oregon recently released a crisp looking copy,but it is missing a scene at the beginning and has different canned music over the opening credits from an old copy I have from a worn 16mm--and the AFI catalog lists another version with later-filmed exotic dancing footage spliced into the dancing girl scenes. Today's "bad boys" of the post-Pulp Fiction cinema world could take a lesson in understatement and atmosphere from this film. Hats off to director Melville Shyer for another solid piece of work!
Regarding the variant versions of this film, it should be noted that
one IMDb comment-maker thinks the version with exotic dancing features
a section filmed later and spliced in. I do know that the version from
Alpha Video as of this year (2006) does NOT contain the entire sequence
-- but the sequence CAN be found in another Willis Kent movie available
from Alpha Video, namely "Confessions of a Vice Baron" (1943), which is
a Willis Kent Productions pastiche of scenes taken mostly from films
that starred Willy Castello, but also includes a number of non-Castello
movie clips as well. I have checked out the question of the missing
footage from the Alpha Video DVD version of "Murder in the Museum" and
located it. I would like to describe it, for the benefit of my fellow
In the Alpha Video version of "Murder in the Museum", the cootch dancers are shown doing a come-on for their dance, then doing a "gyp" version of the dance for 10 cents (to appease snoopy vice-busters), and then a 25 cent "real" version of the dance is promised to male viewers who file into a room. We see only the first portion of the 25 cent dance by Caremelita, a traditional belly dancer in a bangled costume. No music is playing as she dances, and her body is partially obscured by various onlookers until the end of the scene. The movie then picks up with the gunshot that signals the promised "Murder in the Museum."
The deleted footage from this sequence can be found in Alpha Video's DVD of the Willis Kent / Willy Castello pastiche movie "Confessions of a Vice Baron." To get to it, jump to Chapter Index 5 and fast forward through the school girl scene and the Willy Castello close-up; it is the next scene. A jump-cut is made from the barker's intro of the dancers, deleting the 10 cent "gyp" dance, and going directly to the 25 cent dance scene opening. We see the same footage of Carmelita dancing in front of the obscuring onlookers, but this time we get to hear the Turkish music. Then the scene opens up and we see Carmelita full view, on the same stage, but with no bystanders to block our sight of her as she continues to dance to the same music. When she finishes, there appears to be a soundtrack splice (the music jumps) and the off-camera barker says "And over here is Fateema!" and we see another young woman doing some traditional belly-dance moves. She is not shown on the same set as the sideshow midway (she is against a dark floral drapery curtain) and she is not wearing traditional Middle Eastern bangles -- rather, she has on silk or rayon "stripper" type clothes, unlike those seen on any of the earlier-shown dancers. The same music continues over her dance, followed by another musical splice-jump, and then the scene closes out with some more footage that was obviously part of the original "Murder in the Museum": One young woman asks the other to leave as they are "the only girls" in the audience, and her friend declines, with a slight hint of lesbian interest in the dancers; they both then leave, along with the boyfriend of one of the girls. "Confessions of a Vice Baron" then switches to clips from another movie.
It is very clear from comparing the two DVDs that the entire Carmelita dance, with accompanying music, plus the gag with the girls in the audience, came from the original, uncut version of "Murder in the Museum," but i have my doubts that the Fateema dance sequence was originally part of this movie. Given the ease with which digital film can be edited, i hope that Steve Caplan at Alpha Video can be persuaded to restore the lost footage (with or without the possibly extraneous Fateema dance), making Alpha's version of "Murder in the Museum" even better than it already is.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film blends a couple of exploitation themes - drugs and "freaks".
A museum that is really a side show featuring a "freak" show - "The
World's Largest Collection of Natural and Unnatural Wonders". There is
even a scene at the start where the officials are looking into a canvas
pen, reminiscent of the "chicken woman" in "Freaks" (1932). The side
show is also a front for drug peddlers that the politicians and police
are eager to bring down.
Phyllis Barrington, the leading lady, didn't have a long career, only 12 movies and most of those seemed to be Willis Kent Productions. Henry B. Walthall had such an outstanding career, starting with a role as a woodsman in "Rescued From an Eagle' Nest" (1908) - D.W. Griffith also starred as the father. He brings a touch of class to his role of Professor Mysto.
Henry B. Walthall plays a debonair conjurer, Professor Mysto, who sees his job in jeopardy if the police get too close to the carnival's drug racket. Jerry Ross (John Harron) is a reporter who finds himself very interested in Lois (Phyllis Barrington), the police commissioner's niece. They are gathered there to raid the carnival but are waylaid by the "spanish dancers" exhibit - they are disgusted by the low standard of the dance and leave the tent in anger. As soon as the law is gone the girls are told to put on a "real" show!!! One of the commissioners, Newgate, is shot and Professor Mysto is the first one to offer assistance. They find a gun and a "toe print" - so they bring in the armless artist for questioning. The bullet is found not to come from that gun so the police are back to square one.
Jerry and Lois decide to go back to the carnival to see if they can catch the killer returning to the scene of the crime. The only person they encounter is a Mexican, who later turns up dead!!! Mysto sends Jerry a note informing him of a drug shipment arriving at an abandoned mansion. After a lot of gunfire Mysto comes and gets Jerry and Lois away before the police come. Professor Mysto has secrets in his past - he is the real killer!!! Twenty years ago he was a happily married Professor of Philosophy but Newgate came to town and Mysto's wife had an affair. When Newgate left, his wife killed herself as she felt she couldn't live without Newgate.
This is a really good movie that has a bit of everything to keep you interested.
Another of Henry B. Walthall's 1934 movies (he played in twelve that year), this interesting curio, Murder in the Museum, is one of a handful directed by Melville Shyer, who made some 150 films as an assistant director. Mr Shyer handles this assignment with more than routine competence, even using track shots effectively on occasion. True, he is slightly let down by obviously sparse set dressing, and lackluster silent hero, John Harron, soon demonstrates why he quickly went down the ladder to playing uncredited bits. But super-svelte Phyllis Barrington (in her last of twelve movies) makes an engaging heroine and the support cast is filled out by tip-top people like John Elliott, Symona Boniface, Joe Girard and Donald Kerr, plus two wonderful shimmy dancers and other rakish sideshow denizens. Once the action moves away from the carny setting, alas, the plot becomes less interesting. All told, however, by producer Willis Kent's rock-bottom standards, Murder in the Museum stands as a classy production.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Murder in the Museum" might have been more aptly named "The Murder
at the Carny Side-Show"; that at least would have given it a more
curious appeal. I'm always intrigued by the way the customer is
portrayed in these era films - all the men are dressed in suit and tie,
and I didn't see even one without a hat on. The few women patronizing
the Sphere Museum are also attired in Sunday go to meeting finery, all
for a chance to ogle your typical 'man eating chicken' type exhibit.
When all is said and done, this picture is pretty much a mess of a murder mystery. When it was all over, I had to question the whole business of the 'six minute early' phone call placed by Commissioner Brandon (Joseph W. Girard), as if that was somehow going to implicate him by tipping off the department that something was about to go down. Since the murder victim Newgate (Sam Flint) was a political rival, this obvious red herring allowed Brandon to vent his frustration with a press that had the power to 'make or break' a man. But what of that plot element? It was brought up by newspaperman Ross (John Harron), seconded by the facts of the case, and then simply dropped. Huh?
And what about all the other mayhem on the way to discovering Newgate's assailant? Sphere Museum owner Carr (Tom O'Brien) winds up killing the Mexican knife thrower (Steve Clemente), and is then dispatched himself by Katura the Seeress (Symona Boniface). What??!! How come no one was interested in THOSE murders? I mean come on - where was Ross's by-line for that chain of events? He was right there when it happened!! along with his new girlfriend Lois (Phyllis Barrington), the Commissioner's niece.
Even Charlie Chan would have thrown up his hands in frustration with this case. But he wouldn't have had to do much sleuthing. The real murderer simply gives himself up at the finale, citing his wife's suicide after an affair with victim Newgate some twenty years earlier. Up until then, it would have been a safe bet that Professor Mysto would eventually solve the case with his mind mystifying stunts of illusion. Good job Mysto.
OK folks - here's the best line in the picture from the carny shill promoting an exotic dancer - "Why she shakes her shims better than any shimmy shaker that's ever shaken a shimmy before..." You know, I think he was right.
During lunch a friend and I watched most of Murder in the Museum, a
creaky 1934 movie set in a side show thats called a museum. Actually
its closer to what PT Barnum ran for years in New York, except that
this museum also deals drugs.
The plot has a crusading politician killed while making an inspection of the vile den prior to his formal attempts to close the place down.
This is a a slow moving movie that is interesting in its view of the side show or Carny life in the 1930's. We see suckers scammed into paying extra to see a racy dance that isn't racy, until the cops leave and then they are hit for even more money to see a different dance. The dance is so un-risqué that a even a small child would wonder what the fuss is about. However unique the dancing is the movie does sport some interesting pre-code asides and lines that are still ribald by todays standards.
The movie is an interesting way to spend an hour, or less if your watching it with a pressed for time friend who insists you jump to the end to see who did it. While my friend was proved right as to the killer we were lost as to the clues mentioned since we had missed about 20 minutes of screen time. I will be going back to see what exactly those clues are soon.
I liked it. Its no great shakes but as an off beat mystery from before the code its not a bad way to spend an evening in front of the TV. Do you need to buy it? No, but if it should happen to be on TV why not tape many other modern mysteries which are twice its length.
This reminded me of Lon Chaney movie where we are brought into a kind
of freak show atmosphere with unconventional characters. The neat thing
is that they are like all of us, and that's the tragic element. Because
the world they live in has so much of an impact on them, it is hard for
them to reach above and beyond to happiness. This is actually a pretty
decent movie with fair cinematography and decent performances. Another
reviewer mentioned Todd Browning. I'd love to hear more about him and
his life. His movies are really quite engaging. So this could typify
the genre he worked in, even though it wasn't his.
I was pleased that the conclusion wasn't some offhanded, anything to get a finish to this thing kind of work but dealt with the pain and reality of the characters.
Enterprising "Times Herald" reporter John Harron (as Jerry Ross)
investigates "The Murder in the Museum " of a city councilman. This
"Museum" isn't what you may be expecting; although there appear to be a
few paintings on display, it's really a traveling freak show - "The
World's Largest Collection of Natural and Unnatural Wonders". Among the
attractions: an armless man, a bodiless woman, and the mysterious Henry
B. Walthall (as "Professor Mysto" aka Bernard Latham Wayne). Patrons
seem more interested in scantily-clad dancing women; unfortunately,
they are told to keep it "tame it down plenty" when "the law" is
The "Sphere Museum" is also a front for drug-runners (which has attracted police and politicians). Just before the murder, Mr. Harron meets shapely blonde Phyllis Barrington (as Lois Brandon); and, the two fall in love. Mr. Walthall is appropriately mystic; his casting, alongside the brother of frequent co-star Robert Harron, is inspired. Unfortunately, this production is very poor. The cast and crew manage to get through the picture smoothly enough, considering the obvious lack of rehearsals and re-takes.
**** The Murder in the Museum (1934) Melville Shyer ~ John Harron, Henry B. Walthall, Phyllis Barrington
Among the many 'little' B mysteries from the 30s with the hugely
popular pattern 'reporter plays detective', "Murder in the Museum"
stands out in several ways. First, it stars the famous and
distinguished silent actor Henry B. Walthall as a former professor of
philosophy - and now turned a magician in a rather shady carnival show.
Then, there are quite a lot of various people and ongoings involved in
the plot that revolves around this infamous show: the same day that the
show's 'manager' receives a drug delivery from his gangster friends,
the two candidates running for mayor visit the show in order to check
out if there's a reason to close it down, because they both try to show
to their voters that they want to 'clear up' the town. And in the
middle of the show, one of the two is shot - and a young reporter is,
of course, also on the spot, ready, willing and able (much more than
the police) to solve the crime...
There would be a LOT to write about this pretty convulsed plot; but I don't want to spoil it for the friends who haven't watched this movie yet - because they absolutely should do so. There's definitely something more to it than to an average B crime movie: the direction is imaginative and well timed, the plot is REALLY unusual, the actors are doing a fine job (not only Walthall, but also John Harron as the clever young news hound and Phyllis Barrington as the fearless girl who assists him despite his warnings); I highly recommend it!
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