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Moonlight Murder (1936)
Opera mystery features intrigue, songs, murder
It's opera night at the Hollywood Bowl and tenor Gino D'Acosta (Leo Carillo) has everyone mad at him: his understudy, the conductor, two women he's been leading on, an aspiring composer upset because Gino won't read his opera .It seems only a matter of time before somebody knocks Gino off. A fortune teller has already told him: "If you sing tomorrow night, you will die."
The story's not real unique but it's performed with panache by a solid and colorful cast. Chester Morris is a fast talking police detective who strikes up a romance with cute scientist Madge Evans. Grant Mitchell is earnest as the tenor's doctor friend. Frank McHugh has some good moments as the singer's secretary who keeps belting out bits of opera, much to the annoyance of maestro H.B. Warner.
The setup of various characters' motives is rather involved and there is a fair amount of music, as well, so the story itself moves somewhat deliberately. The complicated plot eventually arrives at a surprising (and unlikely) resolution.
It's certainly not the best B mystery ever made, but MGM's production values, the somewhat unusual setting, and a fun cast make it very watchable.
The Thirteenth Chair (1937)
Murder mystery with séances has its moments
Madame La Grange, psychic medium, admits that "Most of the time it's a fake" when she gives a reading. Tonight, however, she insists that she will play no tricks: she's at the English governor's residence in Calcutta, summoned to assist in investigating the murder of a most unpopular man.
Dame May Witty plays the medium with appropriate gravity and mystery. Madge Evans wears a worried look as the beautiful secretary who is in love with the governor's son. She also, we soon learn, is the mysterious medium's daughter.
Henry Daniell is moody and edgy as a friend of the murder victim. He wants answers from the police, who are represented by Lewis Stone, a Scotland Yard man who's been shipped in specially to look into the case.
A couple of spooky séance scenes succeed in sending some shivers down the spine. Particularly effective is a bit when the lights are off and the screen is totally black for a long moment: we hear voices, then Daniell asking "Who killed you?"and then just perfect silence and darkness for what seems an exceptionally long stretch. (When they do finally turn on the lights, there's another dead body.)
It's a solid if not brilliant plot; it builds nicely to an exciting climax and a surprising solution.
Witty has the most colorful role and is clearly the featured performer here; she is quite good. Lewis Stone's role, I have to say, I found annoying he is one sententious police detective but not exactly the smartest. (Judge Hardy would never have come so close to totally blowing a case.)
This one won't cause any nightmares but it is atmospheric, fast-moving, and plenty entertaining.
The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936)
Clever mystery has plenty of laughs but does not skimp on plot
Perry Mason and Della Street burst into the courtroom, a noisy crowd at their heels. Boldly interrupting proceedings, Mason announces that he wants the judge to marry him and Della immediately. They're going on a honeymoon then he's giving up his criminal law career: "I have promised Della to become a sober filer of briefs." Alas, when they get back to his apartment, there's a woman hiding in the bedroom with a gun, and the honeymoon is off.
A good balance between humor and suspense keeps this picture zipping along. Warren William dominates proceedings from start to finish in a flamboyant performance that is alternately silly and clever.
Of course there's a murder, and the strong plot has the murder victim's wifewho may be guilty herselfaccusing Mason of the crime, forcing him to hide out in a hotel and rely on assistant Spudsy Drake to do research and legwork. Eddie Acuff is more comical than serious as Spudsy; he and Claire Dodd (as Della) are both very good.
A rather wild climactic gathering-of-the-suspects has Mason passing around kleenexesover the course of the picture, just about everybody has caught his cold!
Adventures of Kitty O'Day (1945)
Silly comedy-mystery moves fast but really goes nowhere
Jean Parker and Peter Cookson return for a second and final Kitty O'Day filmand it's basically a ripoff of the first one.
This time around, Kitty has a job as switchboard operator in a large hotel. Snoopy as ever, she listens in on conversations, suspects guests of being criminalsand keeps an eye on boyfriend Johnny Jones, who works across the lobby at the hotel travel bureau.
Parker does her best as the scatterbrained but persistent and occasionally lucky would-be girl detective; Cookson is again the somewhat saner half of the couple who reluctantly joins her investigations. When Kitty reports hearing a gunshot while phone eavesdropping, Johnny urges her to call the policean idea she quickly nixes. "We'll investigate first," Kitty says, "then call the police."
Tim Ryan is exasperated police detective Clancy, eventually summoned to the hotel only to find (repeatedly) that the supposed corpse has disappeared. Much of the middle section of the picture is devoted to Kitty and Johnny running around after the missing corpse and Inspector Clancy running around after them.
Inspector Clancy is "assisted" by the usual dumb police sergeant, played this time around by Ralph Sanford. (Clancy: "Why is it every time we get here the corpse runs away?" Mac: "Maybe he don't like cops, Chief .")
There are some funny moments and a few good bits of dialog. The cast is certainly pleasant if unexceptional. However, it all seems kind of forced possibly because the plot is so similar to this film's immediate predecessor, the previous year's Kitty O'Day, Detective.
Overall, it's a harmless enough picture that seems to mean well
.but it lacks surprises.
Before Dawn (1933)
Hidden loot and a real clairvoyant in an old dark house
Detective Stuart Erwin is unimpressed by the sign reading "Mlle. Mystera Psychic Readings/Vocational Guidance." And when the psychic is unable to contact his deceased Aunt Minnie, he has her hauled in as a fake, along with her manager father.
Still, the young woman insists she's for real: "It's not a racket with me," she says. "I have a gift. I'm really clairvoyant. Sometimes I wish I weren't." Dorothy Wilson is really quite good as that rare B movie character, the psychic who is neither a phony nor a nut.
Erwin and Wilson are appealing and even believable as they gradually earn each other's respect. The plot takes them both to a spooky old house that may contain hidden robber's loot, and whose elderly resident recently saw a ghost and dropped dead of frightor was she murdered?
Warner Oland is excellent as a mysterious doctor who knows something about the treasure and whose sinister demeanor may or may not indicate his involvement in these dark doings.
An exciting climax includes a secret passage attached to a dark staircase leading down, down
. This one is lots of fun.
Cross-Country Romance (1940)
Familiar plot works fine thanks to efficient production, pleasant cast
Gene Raymond, bright and adventurous young doctor, is leaving for San Francisco pulling a camper-trailer behind his car. He stops on the way out of town to present a thank you gift to rich Hedda Hopper, who can't see him at the moment because it's her daughter's wedding day. About that same time
Would-be bride Wendy Barrie changes her mind, rips off her wedding dress, sneaks out of the house and hides out in Raymond's camper.
When Raymond discovers the stowaway, the story proper kicks into gear and they hit the road, with Barrie determined to tag along and Raymond just as determined to get rid of her. It's pretty obvious from this point where it's all headed, but it's a fun ride and the pair encounter some lively characters along the way:
Billy Gilbert has a funny bit as a diner owner who desperately wants customers to try his blue plate special. Berton Churchill and Joe Dugan are hilarious as a couple of threadbare crooks who have dastardly plans but limited brains. "We must proceed with finesse," Churchill pronounces with great seriousness, "Always remember that. Finesse. The secret of my success." He certainly doesn't look especially successful, but he does manage to make a small score off of poor Gilbert with the old "Give me two tens for a five" trick.
Raymond and Barrie are fine leads and the whole thing moves at a pretty good clip. Overall it's fun if silly.
The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935)
Fast paced comedy-mystery is entertaining but a bit giddy
Something is fishy about the "lucky legs" contest at the big department storein fact, the winner was cheated out of her prize money by the sponsoring hosiery company. The store owner enlists Perry Mason's help.
Our first glimpse of Mason is a good indication of this picture's level of seriousness: he's asleep on his office floor, and when awakened turns out to be rather hung over, in a goofy moodbut quite sharp enough to efficiently gather some details about the new case.
Or course it soon becomes a murder case involving multiple suspects and featuring assistance from Mason's secretary Della Street (Genevieve Tobin) and his associate Spudsy (Allen Jenkins).
Warren William talks fast and appears to be having fun in what must be one of his sillier performances. Tobin is very funny as Della, delivering one coy look and sly smirk after another. Jenkins is right at home in this kind of a picturehis comical sour looks and unheeded protests are perfect foils to Tobin's and William's breeziness.
The solid cast also includes Lyle Talbot as a handsome young doctor who gets mad at his girlfriend for immodestly entering (and winning) the legs contest, and Patricia Ellis as said girlfriend who tells him off, at least temporarily.
The emphasis is on humor more than on mystery or suspense, so the snappy dialog stands out a lot more than the plot. It goes by awfully fast, it's frequently hilarious, and if you can't really remember who did it five minutes after it's overwell, that wasn't really the point, anyway.
Detective Kitty O'Day (1944)
Sublimely silly slapdash mystery-comedy
Jean Parker is fast-talking Kitty O'Day, a spunky secretary who sets out to solve a murder. Peter Cookson tries to keep up as Johnny Jones, the boyfriend who assists in her investigation. Together they track a murderer .but they have a couple of problems: 1) more dead bodies keep turning up, and 2) the cops think they did it.
Tim Ryan, who co-wrote the script, has many of the funniest lines as wise-cracking police detective Clancy. (Finding Kitty and Johnny in a room with yet another dead body: ""The butler! Every time I see you with somebody, they're dead.") Edward Gargan is also fun as the usual dumb assistant cop who goes through the picture saying "Yes, Chief." B movie regulars Douglas Fowley and Veda Ann Borg are also along for the ride.
The plot isn't much, and the situations are all pretty familiar .hiding behind apartment furniture, sneaking out on a window ledge, stumbling over dead bodies in the darkall the usual dangers and dilemmas are here.
However, it's all done in such good humor! It looks like they slapped together a few sets, glanced through the script, and shot it with no rehearsal, just kind of seeing how it would turn outand having a great time. It's sloppy and goofybut somehow it clicks in a way few of these B comedies manage to do.
The enthusiastic cast is apparently the key. Led by Parker, the whole gang roar through the proceedings with great gusto. It won't make you think, but it's lots of fun.
Fast-paced driver drama lacks levity
Jimmy Stewart may be only an automobile tester right now, but he's got plans: "I'm not always gonna be a mug with cylinder oil in my hair," he vows.
While he spends his working days racing, flipping and crashing test cars, he is also working on a new carburetor design that he is sure will make his mark. Unfortunately, he's having trouble perfecting the carburetor will the company bigwigs force him to take on help from the snooty engineering department?
Stewart's ambitions and frustrations make up one part of the plot; the other half of the story is a romantic drama involving publicity agent Wendy Barrie, newly promoted auto executive Una Merkel, and bland auto engineer Weldon Heyburn, whom Stewart considers a rival both professionally and romantically but who is really not a bad guy after all.
The first fifteen minutes of the picture offer a great tour of the automobile factory where these characters all work. It's basically a commercial for the auto industry, and a pretty neat look at the inside of a production plant, circa 1936.
With this cast, you would expect some good laughs or at least plenty of snappy dialog delivery; unfortunately, the tone is fairly grim and the screenplay pretty dry. We do get a bit of comic relief from Ted Healy as Stewart's friend and sidekick; but it sure seems a shame to have both Barrie and Merkeltwo really excellent comic talentsgo practically a whole movie with no wisecracks!
The production is slick and includes some impressive footage from testing grounds and racetracks. And Stewart definitely shows some charisma, even though his character is so stubborn and self-pitying that it's hard to root for him completely.
Overall, it's easy to watch but probably should have been better.
Next Time I Marry (1938)
Familiar but pleasant cross-country trip
Rich girl Lucille Ball pulls up in her huge car alongside a WPA ditch-digging project. She offers handsome laborer James Ellison $1000 to marry her, after which she immediately ditches him and goes off to a ritzy party. Lucy is actually kind of obnoxious .will she learn her lesson before the end of the picture?
Not a lot of surprises in this mild comedy, but Lucy is fun to watch, Ellison is fine as the dogged and resourceful leading man, and Lee Bowman is hilarious as Lucy's goofy-accented South American fiancé.
We learn early on that Lucy's father's will requires her to marry a "plain American"thus her rush to marry and get her money. When Ellison figures out that she's married him only to quickly divorce him, he vows to divorce her first, and from there on it's a race to Reno.
Besides its human cast, the picture stars a dog named Mike in a funny role, and also a little streamlined camper-trailer that Ellison pulls behind his car. The camper is at the center of much of the film's action, including a scene where Lucy sets it on fire in a harebrained attempt to escape.
No classic, I guess, but it's fast-paced and and has some solid laughs. --Oh, and a clever ending featuring a preacher and family piling into the car....