My notes on the smart spooky early talkie mystery.
This smart, fun old dark house mystery opens with a now-incomprehensible bit in which real-life radio announcer Graham MacNamee explains a long-dead bit of promotional ballyhoo – in the run-up to the theatrical release, Radio Pictures (not yet RKO) ran a serial on the wireless which lacked a final episode revealing the identity of the phantom killer (though, as it happens, the phantom and the killer turn out to be different people) so listeners had to fork out for a cinema ticket to discover whodunit. A contest had listeners submitting their own solutions, which were presumably binned instantly as the screenwriters finished as they had always intended. MacNamee mentions that the serial’s audience knew the identity of the two principle victims in the case, knocked off well past the half-way point (indeed, one dies very near the end), suggesting that the radio version was not a prequel but a dramatisation of the whole thing up to but excluding the finale.
At any rate, all this David O. Selznick gimmickry is over with before the opening credits. Jenny Wren (the slinky Karen Morley) plans to retire from life as a high-society mistress/gold-digger/adventuress/whore/euphemism but not before she has extorted a fortune from four of her stuffy, wealthy, hypocritical admirers. She prevails on bank president Priam Andes (H.B. Warner) to throw a weekend party at Crestwood, his clifftop mansion, and invites the to-be-fleeced suckers along with their potentially-embarrassed dependents. Also on the guest list are Jenny’s innocent sister Esther (Anita Louise), who is in love with an Andes nephew (Matty Kemp), Priam’s family-obsessed ‘should have been born a man’ sister (Pauline Frederick), and a gaunt banker (Ivan Simpson) who claims to be smitten with Jenny but is actually out to avenge the suicide of his son who jumped off a mountain when she admitted she was just after his dough. Lurking around is Gary Curtis (Ricardo Cortez), an ambiguous hero who might be a gangster or a Sam Spade-like compromised dick but has called in some comedy gangland pals to help retrieve compromising letters from the busy Jenny. When the blackmailer is killed with one of the giant darts used in a parlour game and the mountain road collapses in a storm just as the police are called, Curtis and his mob take over and uniquely try to solve the case because they know that otherwise they’ll get blamed. Interviews yield overlapping flashbacks, quite complex for 1932, and a further attempt is made on Esther’s life.
The latter stages feature the traditional thunderstorm and prowling around the Crestwood secret passages, but what gives distinction is the character business, with Cortez excellent as a wry, cynical sleuth (a variant on his Maltese Falcon role) and Morley – despite a hilarious flashback to her swain’s suicide – an interesting gold-digger in black dresses. Even her victims are nicely-differentiated: a politico (Robert McWade) blusters against gangsters as ‘the cancer eating this country’ but Jenny has evidence he ‘has been selling America short’ through post-crash stock manipulations, and his exposure earns bad temper from a fussy wife (Aileen Pringle); another captain of industry (Sam Hardy) toughs it out and owns up to a fiancee (Dorothy Mears) who understands and sticks by him; and a Shakespeare-quoting third conquest (Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher) jovially takes his medicine and goes along with it (which makes him a likely murderer, though he turns out to be innocent). The bit-part gangsters all have funny bits of business, making dim suggestions based on ‘them murder mysteries’ and even ingenue Louise, looking good in her sister’s dresses (plot point – she was the intended victim all along), isn’t the total drip such blondes usually have to be. Directed and co-written (with Bartlett Cormack) by J. Walter Ruben, this is cracking good stuff.
Here’s a cool cross-promo trailer.
The mystery solution is discussed after this SPOILER WARNING and some more images ….
The phantom, which spooked Jenny and shows up again, is the banker wearing his son’s death mask, but the killer is the mad aunt, who thinks murder is less scandalous than having the sister of a slut marry into the old California family – oddly, the hero respects this vicious old snob and lets her take a suicide step off the cliff rather than face the indignity of arrest (which would seem to put him in the pickle he was trying to avoid all along, but this is one of those early talkies which believes in a quick wrap-up and no questions asked).
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