My notes on the B detective series.
‘Well, Angel, how does it feel to be a murder suspect?’
Four years after 20th Century-Fox wound up its series of programmer mysteries with Lloyd Nolan as Brett Halliday’s PI Michael Shayne, PRC picked up the rights. While Hammett and Chandler got Warners and Paramount, Halliday got PRC, which must have stung a bit. The poverty row studio, known for stuff like The Devil Bat and Strangler of the Swamp, weren’t entirely unambitious, though they were a bread and butter outfit even lower down on the Hollywood totem pole than Monogram. The studio turned out five rapidly-made pictures with future sit-com star Hugh Beaumont as the private eye – always a pro presence, Beaumont was well-enough cast (and closer to the books’ character than Nolan).
Fred Myton’s script for Murder is My Business is a slimmed-down version of Halliday’s The Uncomplaining Corpses. As the first of a series, it puts in a bit of establishing work by introducing Shayne’s secretary Phyllis (Cheryl Walker) and establishing the hero’s rivalry with PI-hating cop Rafferty (Ralph Dunn). For PRC, this was a slightly bigger deal than usual – though it still has plodding direction from the busy Sigmund Neufeld – so a few of the flaws that usually blight their output (terrible comedy relief, padding, cheap sets) aren’t as apparent. Shayne gets mixed up with a complicated family – Eleanor Ramsey (Helene Heigh), his actual client, controls the purse-strings, which chafes her husband Arnold (Pierre Watkin) and stepkids Dorothy (Julia McMillan) and Ernest (David Reed) … she’s being blackmailed by gigolo Meldrum (George Meeker), who is moreover making a smarmy play for Dorothy, but her real troubles start when Arnold propositions not-crooked Shayne with a dodgy deal about staging a bogus robbery for insurance purposes, which the dick absent-mindedly mentions in front of Joe Darnell (Parker Garvie), an ex-con who really needs the cash but winds up shot dead by Arnold after supposedly killing Eleanor. So the title is surprisingly accurate – the hero is indirectly responsible for both the murders he sets out to investigate (the gigolo gets killed too, but that’s not on Shayne).
It all gets sorted out, with Shayne manipulating Rafferty to show up just as he’s about to exonerate shifty thug Buell Renslow (Lyle Talbot) and pin the killings on the pretty obvious suspect. The Chandler influence is strong here, with Shayne ragging the butler (Broderick O’Farrell) and negotiating his way around a mixed-up bunch of venal rich folk who hate each other. With Carol Andrews as a nightclub singer and Virginia Christine (The Mummy’s Curse) as Joe’s by-implication pregnant sweetheart who threatens (reasonably) to shoot Shayne for getting her guy iced.
Larceny in Her Heart (1946)
Besides introducing Hugh Beaumont as an acceptably medium-boiled Mike Shayne, Murder is My Beat did its job by surrounding him with a set of continuing supporting characters – secretary/love interest/assistant investigator Phyllis Hamilton (Cheryl Walker); cop Pete Rafferty (Ralph Dunn), always eager to think the worst of Shayne and nab him for crimes; senior cop Gentry (Charles Wilson), who is pro-Shayne to a degree that makes it weirdly unwise for his subordinate to go all out to bust him; and reporter Tim Rourke (Payl Bryar), who gets dragged into shenanigans with the gang in the hope of landing a scoop. They’re all back in the second installment, reprising their schtick – with a new gag about Phyllis being keen to get Mike to take a vacation with her but always having it put off when cases (and cheques and blondes) fall in his lap. A running joke has Shayne lose fistfights he charges into, even getting knocked out by a minor thug at the fade-out, prompting Phyllis to say he’ll wake up in Niagara (they married in the books, but not the movies).
The first film was a simplified version of an actual Brett Halliday novel, but this is an original story by Raymond L. Schrock. It boasts an okay premise – lifted, admittedly, from The Woman in White – but keeps not making sense from scene to scene, with tiresome stuff about a body which keeps shifting around and isn’t who it’s supposed to be anyway, and a lot of characters not really disguising the ultimate solution (which echoes that of Murder is My Beat), the originally suspicious type really is behind the rottenness. Stern Burton Stallings (Gordon Richards) wants Shayne to find his missing stepdaughter, but the girl (Marie Hannon) independently shows up in his office just after he’s taken the case – in a nice bit, it seems Shayne is going to string it out so he can pocket the cheque for not doing any actual work – but the girl is woozy from a mickey finn, then gets strangled, then disappears from his couch, then comes back, then gets dumped on Stallings’ lawn, etc. As soon as it’s mentioned that the girl considered suing her stepfather for malfeasance in administering her estate, it’s clear that he’s a rat – and the action shifts to focus on a drunk clinic run by Doc Patterson (Douglas Fowley) where the real stepdaughter is being held prisoner, with the crisis brought about because the lush impostor has got mixed up with a club-running hood (Charles Quigley) and tried to squeeze the other conspirators out.
Julia McMillan, a pretty blonde, returns from the earlier film in a different stooge role. Much plot stuff happens, but too little of onscreen – even when Shayne recaps the plot via deductions we only get to see boring scenes of people opening doors and walking about rather than, say, the bad guy strangling the fall girl. Directed by the always leadweight Sam Newfield. The best thing about it is Beaumont’s bowtie-wearing, smart-slick, slightly dodgy ‘tec – who is at least not just a cookie cutter PI character.
Blonde for a Day (1946)
Halfway through their Mike Shayne series, PRC switched some supporting cast members – Kathryn Adams, who was star Hugh Beaumont’s wife, moves in as the hero’s secretary gal pal Phyllis Hamilton, and is rewarded with one splendid moment when she gets to sock the villainess on the jaw, while Cy Kendall is a more pig-faced, pig-headed Chief Rafferty, still out to nail Mike for something … though the ‘tec has moved to San Francisco and is out of town at the time of most of the crimes under investigation (which, in other series mystery circumstances, would make him a prime suspect).
Reporter Tim Rourke (Paul Bryar, returning) clashes with editor Walter Bronson (Frank Ferguson) over running stories about gambling racketeer Hank Brenner (Mauritz Hugo) and is (weirdly) getting heavy interest from Bronson’s slinky blonde wife (Sonia Sorel). Indeed, the chubby, balding journo also has a big fan in newspaper office manager Minerva Dickens (Claire Rochelle), though his sudden elevation to babe magnet sleuth is short-lived since he spends most of the film in a coma after being shot, which gives Shayne a personal reason to get on the case.
Besides general corruption, there’s a mystery blonde waylaying big winners at Brenner’s casinos and shooting them dead in Lovers’ Lane then waltzing off with the takings – a sure sign (spoiler!) that the only prominent brunette who isn’t Phyllis is going to turn out to be the dyed killer, though the title fingers the culprit well before detection comes into it. The joke about Shayne getting beaten up is still running, as he takes a battering from a couple of thugs – and takes mean delight in the one time he gets to sucker punch an undersized casino guard (‘Popeye is now Shut-Eye’) so someone else takes a fall for a change, which sets him up to be humiliated when his secretary gets to slug the killerette. He crows about not ending a case in traction before a nurse opens a door and knocks him out in Tim’s hospital room.
Yet again, a story full of incident is told by having a lot of people stand around yakking – which tends to take the fun out of it all, though Beaumont is still amiable. Scripted by Fred Myton (The Mad Monster); directed by Sam Newfield.
Three on a Ticket (1947)
Though it ran to five films inside two years, PRC’s Mike Shayne series didn’t manage to keep a consistent cast. After sitting out Blonde for a Day, Cheryl Walker and Ralph Dunn return as Shayne’s secretary/love interest Phyllis and cop rival Rafferty, though Walker would be gone again from the final film. Paul Bryar’s four film run as newsman Tim Rourke came to an end here since he was replaced for the wind-up. Like Murder is My Business, this is an actual adaptation (by series regular Fred Myton) of a Brett Halliday novel (The Corpse Came Calling) – which accounts for a slight improvement in the plotting and perhaps for a little more action (including an onscreen shoot-out at Union Station).
It has a modest innovation, a few years before Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, of a flashback narrated by an untrustworthy dame, would-be client Helen Brimstead (Louise Currie), which presents a subjective rather than an objective version of a scene. Unusually for a PRC picture directed by Sam Newfield, this depends on acting with Currie playing hard-bitten and hard-boiled in the narrative present but soft and sympathetic in her version of the past (maybe the actress took it on her own initiative or the piece was filmed so rapidly she didn’t realise she was playing a rotten egg when she shot the flashback). In a hook that riffs on a well-remembered bit from The Maltese Falcon, a crooked New York private eye staggers into Shayne’s LA office and drops dead of a bullet wound, leaving Shayne to find a mcguffin (a torn half of a baggage claim check) in his fist. Shayne casually appropriates a wad of cash from the dead man’s wallet and tells his secretary to put it in an envelope marked as evidence, but this is never mentioned again – suggesting that our hero is interestingly larcenous.
Various folk are after that ticket, which Shayne hides under a couch leg, including Helen’s ex-con mobster husband (Douglas Fowley, who does menacing-but-genial brilliantly), a supposed G-man (Gavin Gordon) who (in the words of Charlie Chan) is pretty obviously an NG-man, the usual thugs (Charles Quigley, Noel Cravat) and the cops. Though the storyline is stronger, it still involves people doing dumb stuff – Phyllis jealously blunders after Helen and winds up held hostage to extort Shayne into giving up the ticket. The checked bag supposedly contains US weapons plans being sold to an unfriendly power, but is actually full of stolen securities. The novel’s skeleton of a plot is discernible, as the pieces fit together rather better than in the randomly assembled pages that passed for scripts at PRC.
Too Many Winners (1947)
The last of the five PRC Mike Shaynes, with producer John Sutherland and pro Scott Darling (The Ghost of Frankenstein) joining Fred Myton on script and the slightly more imaginative William Beaudine replacing Sam Newfield as director – not that Beaudine gets much more out of the tiny budget, and this reverts to the not-much-action format of most of the series after the temporary boost of Three on a Ticket. Trudy Marshall is the third Phyllis Hamilton of the series, and rehashes the business about being annoying at missing out a holiday with Mike when he gets distracted by a case that was a feature of Larceny in Her Heart. Charles Mitchell comes in for one film only as Mike’s journo pal/booster Tim Rourke, while Ralph Dunn yet again works on hanging a variety of charges on the blithe PI while waiting for the hero to solve the case for him and give him credit. The series has had a running gag about Shayne’s chain-munching of peanuts and leaving shells everywhere he goes, which is cannily used here as cop Rafferty finally makes an on-the-money deduction, spotting that Shayne has been on a crime scene because he’s left shells behind.
Also reasonably clever is an opening where a succession of characters presume Shayne is on a case he’s never heard of (like Marlowe not investigating the disappearance of Rusty Regan in The Big Sleep?), piquing his interest by trying to get him to drop it or offering to sell information about it. The body in question, would-be informant (and surprisingly unambigiously tramp hooker) Mayme Martin (Claire Carleton), is dropped before someone finally gets round to hiring Shayne to look into a racket whereby the Santa Rosita racetrack is going out of business because of forged winning tickets. There are a goodly number of suspects, and everyone’s guilty of something – with a couple of different murderers, and a rare sympathy for some wrong-doers mixed up in the complex scheme.
Ben Welden and Byron Foulger, typecast as thug hood and squirming creep respectively, seem to play their usual roles as ex-con forgers, but Welden is big-hearted and genuinely trying to go straight and Foulger a decent family man – his son is seen reading a now-vintage Superman comic and idolises detectives – blackmailed back into crime. Like all the PRC films, it’s no classic – but Beaumont’s Shayne dances deftly around professional ethics and has a money-grubbing streak, not to mention a tendency to glance away from his regular gal at any passing blonde, which makes him an unusual, and unusually layered, B picture hero.
I especially enjoy these comprehensive overviews.