The Phantom (1931)

The Phantom (1931)‘l was deeply engrossed in this treatise on the transplanting of the human brain.’

A killer awaiting execution breaks jail and seemingly targets the local District Attorney. The lawman’s daughter writes a society page for the local newspaper, and soon her reporter boyfriend and the editor get involved…

Painfully thin and laboured early talkie that regurgitates almost every ‘old dark house’ cliché you can imagine and throws in a half-baked horror subplot to justify its title. It’s this apparently infamous villain who kicks the story into gear, escaping the chair by jumping from the prison wall onto a passing train and getting picked up from there by a circling bi-plane! Soon afterwards D.A. Willford Lucas gets a sinister telegram, asking for a late night meeting at his house and signed by the killer. When fast-talking Guinn Williams turns up at the appointed time, Lucas assumes that he’s the Phantom, as do the police. From there, it’s a complex and very ingenious…only, hang on for a dang minute!  No, it’s not! Let’s get this straight. Lucas and the police both think Williams is the Phantom? Don’t they know what the Phantom looks like?! Wasn’t he on death row five minutes ago at the start of the film? I know they didn’t have the internet back then, but they did have newspapers – after all, several of the main characters apparently work for one!

Yes, Williams isn’t the Phantom at all; he’s actually a reporter looking for a story while he secretly romances the D.A.’s pretty daughter (Arlene Ray). She’s also the target of the amorous intentions of the tabloid’s smarmy editor Niles Welch (ooh, suspicious!) Other possible suspects (because no one knows what the Phantom looks like, remember!) include the sinister butler (yawn) and the head of a nearby lunatic asylum (that only seems to have one patient). Unfortunately, the ‘comedy’ servants are also in attendance; housemaid Violet Knights (actually the director’s real-life sister) and chauffeur Bobby Dunn. What we don’t get is any kind of musical soundtrack, the action (if you can call it that!) being accompanied by the endless thumping of the cast’s feet on the hollow floor of the set.

The Phantom (1931)

Their first date was a roaring success.

Such limitations could be forgiven if the mystery was remotely engaging or if it made any sense! Motivations of key characters remain vague throughout and logic takes a back seat early on. There’s also the usual array of secret passages, clutching hands, revolving bookcases, a stupid flat-foot (Tom O’Brien) and a killer who walks around with a cloak held over the lower part of his face cackling manically. Why does he do that? Search me. I have no idea.

The credit (or blame!) for all this rests firmly on the shoulders of writer Alan James, who also directed under his regular pseudonym of Alvin J. Neitz. His career mostly comprised dozens of Westerns but he was also involved with a couple of notable serials: ‘Dick Tracy’ (1937) with Ralph Byrd and ‘S.O.S. Coastguard’ (1937) with horror icon Bela Lugosi. Arlene Ray grew up busting broncos on a ranch outside San Antonio and starred in several silent serials, often doing her own stunts. Unfortunately, her career couldn’t survive the transition to talkies. Further down the cast list (and billed as ‘The Thing’!) is Sheldon Lewis, an actor who took both title roles in cheap quickie ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1920), a film made entirely to cash in one the far more lavish production of the same year that starred screen legend John Barrymore.

But the big success story here was Williams. Beginning as a rodeo rider and pro-baseball player, his started out in silent comedies with Will Rogers, who dubbed him ‘Big Boy’. ln the 1940’s he adopted that moniker as part of his official ‘stage’ name, and embarked on a series of Westerns, mostly playing grizzled old sidekicks to major stars like Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Robert Mitchum.

A highly stilted and tiresome mystery that will try the patience of all but the most hard core enthusiast of the genre.


The House of Secrets (1936)

House of Secrets (1936)‘Hey, Jumpy! We found the other half of that crippled gam.’

An American adventurer in London inherits a title from a distant English relation. He visits his new home but is driven off by its mysterious occupants, who seem to have the protection of the British Government and the Chief Commissioner of Scotland Yard…

Fairly feeble ‘Old Dark House’ type mystery, which features Leslie Fenton as our Yank on this side of the pond, who becomes increasingly frustrated in his efforts to penetrate the mysteries of ‘The Hawk’s Nest’ despite being the legal owner of the crumbling pile. The fact that ‘the gang’ in possession of his ancestral home includes blonde Muriel Evans, who he’d saved from the inappropriate attentions of a fellow passenger on the boat over from Calais, only increases his determination to get to the bottom of things. Luckily, his best friend (Sidney Blackmer) is an American detective in pursuit of a murder suspect and offers to help.

This is a fairly typical, low-budget independent production of its era, with the requisite bouts of unconvincing fisticuffs, a sinister butler, a hidden treasure and some (very) vague touches of science fiction. Proceedings are relentlessly talky in between the brief ‘action’ scenes, and the inclusion of a trio of Chicago gangsters is hopelessly contrived. In fact, it’s just a stew of underdeveloped story elements, none of which are strong enough to carry a film on their own, even one just over an hour long. Crucially, the film builds up no head of steam on its way to its underwhelming climax and neither the romantic or comedic aspects are nearly strong enough to prop it up.

This was a production of Chesterfield Films, and directed by Roland D Reed, a man who went onto form his own company and give us TV’s ‘Rocky Jones, Space Ranger’ two decades later. Unfortunately, his camera is almost completely static here; even in dialogue scenes, and this does not assist a script that is seriously dull and performances that are professional, but unremarkable. The cast included two actors who went onto become veterans of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series; Holmes Herbert (as the Home Secretary) and Olaf Hytten (in a typical unbilled bit).

House of Secrets (1936)

‘Sssh! If we keep quiet, the director might actually move the camera…’

Fenton was born in England, but emigrated to the U.S. as a young child. His career began in silent pictures and, by the time talkies arrived, he’d worked his way up to supporting roles opposite James Cagney in ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931) and Spencer Tracy in ‘Boys Town’ (1937). Returning to the old country to assist the war effort, he became a British Commando and was seriously wounded on a mission on the French coast in 1942. After the war, he returned to Hollywood, moving behind the camera to direct over 20 pictures, most notably ‘Saigon’ (1948) with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, and ‘The Streets of Laredo’ (1949) which starred a young William Holden.

Evans pitched her trade in the b-movie arena, mostly Westerns, and this included an appearance starring with John Wayne in ‘King of the Pecos’ (1936), three years before John Ford made him a star in ‘Stagecoach’ (1939). Blackmer became a familiar face in supporting roles on both the big and small screens over half a century, but is most recognisable now as the coven leader in Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968).

A dreary, unremarkable programmer that’s probably best forgotten.

The Phantom of Paris (1931)

The Phantom of Paris (1931)‘And those shapes…they look like giants asleep.’

A stage illusionist escapes from prison on the eve of his execution for a murder he didn’t commit. He vows vengeance on the guilty party but, after a surprising turn of events, finds himself impersonating the murderer and living his life.

French author Gaston Leroux is now only really remembered for his twisted classic ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ but he wrote many other novels, and these included a series featuring gentleman thief ‘Cheri-Bibi.’ The exploits of Bibi and his criminal gang were more romantic escapades than anything else, although Leroux delivered them as straight adventure tales and endowed Bibi with a strong moral compass. This film adaptation reduces our hero to a far less morally ambiguous figure, of course, casting him as a low-born magician who takes Paris by storm and catches the eye of rich, young socialite Leila Hyams. Her father doesn’t approve, of course, and a (not very) tangled web of murder and mystery ensues.

Despite being made in the early days of the ‘talkies’ this MGM production is surprisingly free of the usual, stilted qualities that tend to haunt films made at that time. The story flows well, the performances are surprisingly restrained, if still a little mannered, and there’s a more mobile camera than usual. The script is nothing special, though, and there’s a lack of the action, thrills and romance that an audience of the time would probably have expected. In fact, there’s pretty much only one reason this film is likely to be watched and discussed in a modern era, and that’s the presence of its leading man.

John Gilbert was a bona fide global megastar in the 1920s. After Rudolph Valentino’s death, he became the silver screen’s great lover, being paired with Greta Garbo in ‘Flesh and the Devil’ (1926) and ‘Love’ (1927). Unfortunately, he was to become the poster boy for the ‘star who failed to make the transition into talkies’. Apparently, audiences laughed at his effeminate voice in his first sound film ‘His Glorious Night’ (1929) and his career simply never recovered. His vocal talents were ‘unsuitable for talkies’ and he made just two more films after the end of his MGM contract in 1933, one of which saw him co-starring with Garbo for one last time, on her insistence. He died three years later of a heart attack, most likely brought on by his chronic alcoholism.

But the truth may not be that simple. Gilbert’s voice in this picture is fine. Absolutely nothing unusual about it at all. So what happened? Well, by the late 1920s many stars had been able to negotiate fabulous contracts with the studios, because of their pulling power at the box office. Lillian Gish was a prime example of this. Other leading actors were wilful and ‘difficult’ such as the luminous Louise Brooks. Then sound changed the game. lt gave studio moguls a heaven-sent opportunity to kick their rebellious stars back into line. It’s amazing how many of them were found to have ‘voices unsuitable for talkies’ (Brooks for example), or, like Gish, ‘weren’t accepted by the public in speaking roles.’

The Phantom of Paris (1931)

Mr. Creosote was looking for a new girlfriend…

What happened to Gilbert may be even more sinister. His relationship with head of MGM, Louis B Mayer, was one of mutual hatred. Allegedly, Gilbert even physically assaulted Mayer on one occasion over a remark the latter made about Garbo. There’s also a rumour that Mayer had Gilbert’s voice speeded up for comic effect in ‘His Glorious Night’ (1929). The film still exists, apparently, but it’s not available for general viewing so it’s impossible to judge.

It’s certainly true that the public’s only source for movie news at the time were trade papers, movie magazines and gossip columns, all of which were entirely dependent on stories fed to them by the major studios. Additionally, the studios also had complete control of distribution and owned all the movie theatres. A star who went up against the system really had no chance.

Which is a shame. Although Gilbert’s performance here does little to suggest he could have recaptured his glory days in the new medium, he is still far more ‘modern’ in his style than many of his contemporaries, who still favoured extravagant gestures and painfully slow delivery of dialogue. He plays the villain in disguise pretty well too, adding a credibility to events that would have been seriously lacking if he’d not been up to the task. ln fact, he put me in mind a little of William Powell, who transitioned seamlessly between the two filmic worlds, and gained a head start on his rivals that he later turned into 3 Oscar Nominations.

Hyams is also worth noticing here. She gives a very naturalistic performance as Gilbert’s underwritten love interest. She was also a refugee from the silent days, best remembered for original ‘The Cat and the Canary’ (1927), but you’d never know it from her appearance here. A glittering career might have followed if not for her decision to appear in two controversial films in 1932. Both ‘The Island of Lost Souls’ (1932) and Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ (1932) were banned for many years in the UK, and it’s still illegal to show the latter in certain American states.  The first ran into problems because of its visceral take on source material ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ by H G Wells, the second because Browning chose to populate his cast with real circus performers, some with extreme disabilities. Hyams retired from the business in 1936 to concentrate on her marriage. lt was obviously a good choice as she remained united with Phil Berg until her death in 1977.

A picture more remarkable for the history that surrounds it than the film itself, this is still a mildly entertaining diversion for fans of classic Hollywood.

The Shadow (1933)

The Shadow (1933)‘I’m really terribly fond of you and all that sort of rot.’

A number of prominent men have fallen victim to a mysterious blackmailer known only as ‘The Shadow’, their lives ending in murder or suicide. After a police inspector is killed, the Head of Scotland Yard finds himself and his family menaced by the hooded killer at his country estate.

A modern audience would be forgiven for assuming the worst about an ‘Old Dark House’ mystery of the 1930s, especially one originating in the United Kingdom. Sinister butlers, clutching hands, thunder and lightning, painful comic relief and terribly stilted acting are all to be expected in such a familiar enterprise. And, yes, a lot of those tropes are present and correct, complete with some hilarious English accents, mostly awfully posh and some dreadfully common.

However, before we get to all that, the first twenty minutes or so give us a surprisingly interesting setup. First we see one of the blackmailing victims desperately pleading with the mysterious villain for his life and reputation. Then we get a look at the sterling efforts of Scotland Yard Chief Commissioner Felix Aylmer and his men to thwart this evil crime wave. The lead investigator on the case is John Turnbull, and he has a promising line on the masked man’s activities. Unfortunately, he prefers to work alone (as detectives only do in the movies!) and to keep all the details to himself, so it’s pretty certain he’s not going to be around when the final credits roll.

All in all, it’s not a bad opening, given the vintage of the film. The action flows, performances are not too laboured and events move at a decent pace. But then the action switches to Aylmer’s weekend home in the country and all the clichés mentioned above slot wearily into place. Of course, he has a beautiful daughter (Elizabeth Allan) and, of course, she’s in love with an ‘unsuitable’ but dashing young pilot (James Raglan), and, of course, there’s an idiotic young writer called Reggie who fancies himself a detective (Henry Kendall) and, of course, there’s a couple of crooks masquerading as stranded motorists (Cyril Raymond & Jeanne Stuart). Worse still is that there’s little plot development after all these pieces are in play and the film descends into a climax that even the kindest viewer would describe as inadequate.

The Shadow (1933)

I say! Anyone for tennis?

Director George A. Cooper began his career in the British film industry in the early 1920s and did the bulk of his work in the silent days, mostly with short subjects. He graduated to features with the coming of sound, but did little after the mid-1930s. His only other film of real note was ‘Sexton Blake and the Bearded Doctor’ (1935), although it seems that this entry in the career of that cut-price Sherlock Holmes is probably lost.

Kendall had a decent career in the UK in the early days of sound, his most notable turn being for Alfred Hitchcock in the famous director’s rather odd ‘Rich and Strange’ (1932). Aylmer enjoyed another 40 years as a beloved character actor, appearing in everything from Laurence Olivier’s ‘Hamlet’ (1948) to Hammer Horror ‘The Mummy’ (1959), to big budget Hollywood epics such as ‘Quo Vadis’ (1952) and ‘Exodus’ (1960). He rounded out his long career in the 1960s and early 1970s with a string of guest slots on UK TV shows such as ‘The Champions’, ‘Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and ‘Jason King.’

But by far the most successful of those involved in this production was heroine Allan. Little more than a year later she was in Hollywood taking a prominent supporting role in George Cukor’s ‘David Copperfield’ (1935) and starring opposite Ronald Colman in another Dickens’ classic ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (1935). Unfortunately, the latter did prove to be the highlight of her career, but there was still a long string of pictures to come; including appearances with horror icons Bela Lugosi (MGM’s ‘Mark of the Vampire’ (1935)) and Boris Karloff (‘Grip of the Strangler’ (1958)).

A thriller that starts promisingly but soon succumbs to the conventions of its genre and finishes with a distinctly damp squib.

The Drums of Jeopardy (1931)

The Drums of Jeopardy (1931)‘There’s no use trying to hurry me, I won’t go out without my teeth and my corset.’

A young ballerina commits suicide and her scientist father vows revenge on the Royal Family of the man responsible. After the Russian Revolution, the aristocrats flee to American soil, but, after escaping from Siberia, their nemesis has become a leading Bolshevik and commands many agents in the West…

Warner Oland’s at it again! Only a couple of years after his outing as ‘The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu’ (1929), here he is as another criminal mastermind persecuting a family he believes are to blame for the death of his child. Here he’s Dr Boris Karlov (seriously!) whose mission statement includes messing about in his dungeon laboratory (with his name on the door!) and sending pieces of a jewelled necklace, the ‘drums’ of the title, to members of the Petrov clan, prior to knocking them off one by one.

The Drums of Jeopardy (1931)

Mention that ‘Frankenstein’ bloke again and I swear…’

In terms of plot, it’s almost identical to Oland’s hit turn in that first ‘Fu Manchu’ film, especially after some early action gives way to the familiar ‘Old Dark House’ scenario, where danger stalks the darkened halls and a midnight storm howls around outside. There’s little of Oland as the ‘mad scientist’ either, despite publicity materials which were presumably designed to cash in on Universal’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) in the same way as the name of Oland’s character.

Almost everything is entirely predictable, from the fates of individual characters to the underwhelming climax, although this does feature some opportune umbrella work from comedy relief Clara Blandick, who gained screen immortality in her sixties as Auntie Em in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939). Unfortunately, with the exception of Oland, the  rest of the cast are colourless and the entire project comes across as flat and a little stilted.

Director George B Seitz enjoyed a successful time in Hollywood, making his name with silent serial ‘The Perils of Pauline’ (1914), which was a massive hit, and going on to deliver most of the popular ‘Andy Hardy’ series featuring a young Mickey Rooney. Leading man Lloyd Hughes did not fair so well in the ‘talkie’ era, but is still remembered as reporter Ed Malone in Willis O’Brien’s groundbreaking stop-motion monster fest ‘The Lost World’ (1925). Of course, the Swedish-born Oland became the screen’s definitive ‘Charlie Chan’, playing the role in more than a dozen films before his untimely death in 1938.

A minor programmer with little to recommend it beyond some curiosity value.

Der Hund Von Der Baskerville/The Hound of the Baskervilles (1937)

Der Hund von Baskerville (1937)‘Wenn Sie Wert Auf Ihr Leben Legen So Bleiben Sie Dem Moor Fern.’

The family of Baskerville seems cursed by the legend of a spectral hound, which leads the males of the line to early and gruesome deaths. When the latest heir arrives to take up his county seat, his friend calls in Sherlock Holmes to try and solve the mystery.

German filmmakers had already tackled ‘The Hound’ twice before, once in a series of films in 1914 and then again in 1929. This effort was not a success at the box office, which is not really a surprise when viewed today. After all, a Sherlock Holmes film is supposed to be about Sherlock Holmes! Adapting Arthur Conan Doyle’s original novel has been an issue for every filmmaker who has tried his hand at it; once the action moves from London to Dartmoor, Holmes disappears for a long stretch of the narrative, leaving the audience in the perhaps less capable hands of Watson. But, in this version, a lengthy prologue means that the Great Detective appears on screen for less than 25 minutes in the entire film, and that’s a handicap that simply can’t be overcome.

The film as a whole is actually pretty faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original novel, although a glamorous housekeeper is added to the staff of Baskerville Hall. The other major change is in the historical sequence, detailing the origin of the family phantom. Here, Sir Hugo is not a despoiler of innocent virgins that he chases across the moor in the dead of night, but a married man. Unfortunately, his wife has been up to no good and he kills both her and her lover during a party at Baskerville Hall, after which he is promptly torn to pieces by her pet dog. It’s not a particularly convincing sequence but then rendering a sufficiently murderous hound has been a problem every film adaptation has had to face.

Der Hund von Baskerville (1937)

‘Where is Holmes? He’s supposed to be in this movie!’

Our Sherlock Holmes here is Bruno Guttner, who provides a little dash in the role, but otherwise fails to make much of an impression. The production is also studio bound, and director Carl Lamac fails to build any of the necessary atmosphere to help a plodding screenplay. It was a step down for Fritz Rasp who plays Barrymore here, as he’d played Stapleton in the 1929 version.

There are a couple of points of particular historical interest, though. Whilst out for a stroll across the moor, Watson is stopped by two members of the local police force. Who demand to see his papers. Not a scene present in any other version to the best of my knowledge, and, given the country of origin and the year it was made, a rather chilling addition. It was one of only two films found by the Allies in Adolf Hitler’s bunker in 1945.

Not the worst adaptation of the tale by any means, but certainly one of the dullest.

The Ninth Guest (1934)

The_Ninth_Guest_(1934)Eight inter-connected people from the political and high social life of a big city are invited by an anonymous host to a secluded penthouse. Each are told it’s a party in their honour and the guests include 2 rival political bosses, a journalist, a singer and a society matron. The doors are then electrified to prevent anyone leaving and a voice over the radio informs them that each hour one of them will die.

Inventive and intriguing little mystery from director Roy William Neill. Although the final revelations aren’t particularly startling, this is still an interesting setup with bags of potential. The story was based on the novel ‘The Invisible Host’ written by husband and wife Bruce Manning and Gwen Bristow. Manning went on to a lengthy screenwriting career in Hollywood, most notably writing hit movies for teenage songstress Deanna Durbin, by the age of 21 the most highly paid female movie star in the world. Curiously enough, some sources also mention a play by the other credited writer, Owen Davis so it’s probable that elements from both were used.

'Must you, Gerald?' 'Yes, Cecily, I know I'm a bounder and wotnot but I really want to get with you, bitch.'

‘Must you, Gerald?’ ‘Yes, Cecily, I know I’m a bounder and wotnot but I really want to get with you, bitch.’

Although the film is a fairly straightforward whodunnit in the manner of Agatha Christie, there are some macabre and unusual touches. Yes, we get death by poison and gunshot but we also get electrocutions and some victims voluntarily choosing suicide. One of the other great advantages that the film has are the art deco settings of the penthouse apartment. No one is credited with the production design, which is a great shame. It’s not as striking as Karloff’s mansion in ‘The Black Cat’ (1934) but it’s in the same style and I particularly liked the illuminated wall clock and the sliding panels.

Our cast has few recognisable names and no one is particularly memorable in their role but everyone does a professional job. Samuel S Hinds (torture victim Judge Thatcher in ‘The Raven’ (1935)) and Genevieve Tobin from ‘The Petrified Forest’ (1936) were the only faces I recognised.

‘The Ninth Guest’ (1934) has a strong premise, whose potential is not quite realised in the end. But it’s a cut above the many similar mystery films that Hollywood was producing at the time and if it does seem a little stage-bound at times, there’s enough talent at work to see it through. Director Neill went on to helm most of the Rathbone-Bruce ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series in the 1940s and a string of other tightly plotted, atmospheric thrillers of the time.