The Phantom of Crestwood (1932)

‘Take it easy, bright eyes; you’re taxing your brain.’

A gold-digger decides to turn over a new leaf when a young suitor commits suicide after finding out she was only after his money. However, a new life takes cash, so she makes blackmail demands of four prominent citizens at a weekend house party. Unfortunately, one of the guests has murder in mind…

Dreary, implausible ‘old dark house’ mystery that can claim to be the world’s first multi-media entertainment project. The story was launched as a radio serial on NBC’s ‘Hollywood of the Air’ slot in Autumn 1932, and the show finished with the mystery unresolved. The audience was then invited to submit their own solutions, with prizes on offer for any used before the official answers arrived via this RKO feature film.

This unique approach to storytelling is explained at the film’s start, direct-to-camera, by NBC’s Graham McNamee. He also introduces our main characters. Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) is quite the girl about town, bestowing her favours on one rich man after another. Ultimately, however, she decides to quit the life after young Allen Herrick (Tim Douglas) throws himself off a cliff when she reveals her true nature.

But quitting takes money, so she blackmails bank manager Priam Ames (H B Warner) to set up a weekend party at an isolated ranch with some of his wealthy friends, who just happen to be some of her old boyfriends. These include senator-in-waiting Herbert Walcott (Robert McWade) and lumber merchant Will Jones (Gavin Gordon), who is about to marry into high society. To complicate matters, Warner’s young nephew, Frank (Matty Kemp), has fallen in love with Morley’s sister, the nieve and innocent, Esther (Anita Louise).

Early on, there are some warning signs that her scheme may not go quite to plan. For a start, Warner has invited the sinister Mr Vayne (Ivan F Simpson) along to the party, and the mysterious Mr Farnes Barnes (Ricardo Cortez) is also hanging around outside. So when Morley is suddenly menaced by a strange figure that resembles her dead lover, it’s no surprise it turns out to be the prelude to her murder. With the road washed out and a house filled with suspects, it’s Cortez who investigates the killing. He’s not a cop, by any means, but a pretty rough crew of comrades comes with him, so he has no difficulty assuming the necessary authority.

As is evident from the title, there are hints of the supernatural running all through director J Walter Ruben’s picture, but the events and resolution of the mystery have their feet firmly on the ground. The spooky elements are rather crowbarred into the narrative, much in the same way as Cortez’s character. Is he supposed to be a private detective? The way he refers to himself makes him sound more like a minor criminal, and his reasons for being on-site and tackling the mystery are thin at best. If the story or characters were engaging, these contrivances could be forgiven, but the plot is mundane and the characters one-note. The cast members do their best, but most of them have very little to work with, although Morley makes the most of what she’s given.

One of the most notable aspects of the production is the presence of Max Steiner as head of the music department, which, in effect, means he chose the music for the film from the studio library. He’d been at RKO since 1929 but had found his time there largely unproductive. He was even in discussions about leaving to take alternative work in both Moscow and Peking. But, after intervention by producer David O Selznick, he stuck around and, after this assignment, landed the gig writing the music for ‘King Kong’ (1933), the film that made his name. In subsequent years, he became one of Hollywood’s most celebrated composers, winning three Oscars and scoring ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939), ‘Now, Voyager’ (1942), ‘Casablanca’ (1942), ‘Mildred Pierce’ (1945), ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946), and ‘White Heat’ (1949), among many others.

There is no evidence that legendary producer Selznick was directly involved with this film, aside from his ‘executive producer’ credit, although the multi-media concept smacks of his type of showmanship. The film was released in mid-October 1932, by which time Selxznick’s contract with the studio was about to expire, and he was considering an offer from his father-in-law to return to MGM to head up his own film unit. He was also a brand new father, with his first prestigious film project, ‘A Bill of Divorcement’ (1932), new in theatres on the last day of September. So it’s unlikely that he had all that much input into such a minor thriller. Still, it’s possible that the radio-movie tie-in and attendant publicity campaign was his idea.

Convoluted, unconvincing mystery, remarkable only for its unique presentation over two separate entertainment formats.

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)‘Bombs exploding, men falling dead, drugged cigars, what kind of place is this I’d like to know? A gentleman’s house or a chamber of ‘orrors?’

Private detective Sexton Blake receives a coded message from Hong Kong. The courier is killed before he can speak, but the crime fighter identifies the culprits as the secret criminal organisation known as the Black Quorum. He determines to smash the organisation, but finds his efforts complicated by the presence of a glamorous French agent…

The adventures of Sexton Blake featured in a wide variety of British and international publications from 1893 to 1978, comprising more than 4,000 stories by some 200 different authors. The first was by Harry Blyth (writing as Hal Meredeth) who cast Blake as a generic 19th Century sleuth, but it was not long before other scribes turned him into a cut-price Sherlock Holmes, even giving him lodgings at Baker Street! His first big-screen appearance was in a 12-minute short film in 1909, and there were more than a dozen further appearances in the silent days, all of which appear to be lost.

British producer George King acquired the film rights in the 1930s with the plan of making a series of pictures around the character. He’d gained notoriety, and a measure of wealth, through the efficient delivery of low-budget films and was mainly known for the melodramas starring theatrical actor Tod Slaughter, most notably ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ (1935). However, this particular project was cut from a distinctly different cloth, having only a little in common with the theatrical ‘barnstormers’ that had been the stock in trade of the director and star.

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

‘I say! This ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is jolly racy stuff!’

Englishman in Hong Kong, Granite Grant (David Farrar), has a problem. His activities have come to the attention of the Black Quorum, the ‘greatest crime organisation of the century’. It’s a puzzle how they managed to identify a top agent like Farrar when his undercover methods include sitting in a hotel lobby behind a raised newspaper and talking out of the corner of his mouth. But identify him they do, and an assassination attempt leaves him forced to entrust a vital communique to associate Duvall (Billy Watts). This coded message is directed (for some reason never adequately explained) to a private detective in London, Sexton Blake (George Curzon).

Meanwhile, back in old Blighty, Curzon is taking a break from his crime-fighting activities to attend a sale of postage stamps at a local auction house. Somewhat bizarrely, this gathering of seemingly harmless philatelists proves to be a cauldron of intrigue and villainy and the place where the hierarchy of the Black Quorum meet. Calling the shots is the fabulously wealthy Michael Larron (Slaughter) who only has eyes for pretty Mademoiselle Julie (Greta Gynt); the plus one of his lieutenant and all-around ‘bad hat’ Max Fleming (Charles Oliver). Coincidentally, Gynt and Curzon have crossed paths in the past, and he immediately suspects she is on an assignment of some kind. How a private detective happens to know all these secret agents is something that A R Rawlinson’s screenplay completely fails to explain.

‘There’s a lot of people here. Shall we talk a bit louder?’

Curzon and Gynt proceed to discuss Watts’ imminent arrival in London with his important message, Curzon even providing the details of when the spy is expected at his rooms. Carrying out this conversation openly in the middle of a crowded auction room exhibits some of the finest traits of discretion and spy-craft I’ve ever witnessed, but somehow they are overheard. As a result, Watts is assassinated by blow dart within moments of his arrival, leaving behind the coded message from Farrar. The murder allows us to get acquainted with the local plod: Inspector Bramley (Norman Pierce), whose investigations make Dennis Hoey’s Inspector Lestrade from the Rathbone-Bruce ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series look like a positive Einstein. Still, Curzon’s not much better; setting fire to the coded message to light his pipe!

Decoding the message due to a brilliantly contrived (and completely ridiculous) coincidence, Curzon is off to the Quorum’s secret headquarters in Caversham Square, along with tiresome sidekick Tiinker (Tony Sympson). He functions as comedy relief and feeds stupidly obvious to questions to Curzon so he can answer them in a suitably dramatic manner. At Quorum Central, Curzon falls into the most elaborate, and strangely specific, trap in cinema history; a hidden hatch in the floor of a room full of waxworks posed as if they were gamblers in a casino. I have no clue as to what function this room is supposed to serve. From there, it’s the usual heroic struggle against the machinations of the Quorum’s head man ‘The Snake’ (just who could he be?) and a race against time to save Gynt from a roomful of lazy slithering reptiles.

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

The initiation at the Rotary Club was more hardcore than he had expected…’

Regarded as part of the cinematic journey of Slaughter and producer-director King, this film is certainly the odd one out, and the reason was probably economic. The duo’s first collaboration, ‘Maria Marten, or The Murder in the Red Barn’ (1934) had been made at a time when investment wasn’t hard to find. The British government had introduced a ‘quota’ system to stimulate the homegrown industry and films such as Alexander Korda’s ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ (1933) had enjoyed great success on other shores. Unfortunately, that kind of popularity proved to be the exception rather than the rule and, by 1937, the money was starting to dry up.

It was in these conditions that the partnership chose to abandon their usual (and very British) melodramas in favour of something with more of an American flavour. The finished article shares some DNA with the Hollywood serials of the time, even if the feature format doesn’t allow for a lot of cliff-hangers. Still, there is an attempt to present the villain as a masked criminal with a secret identity, decking him out in robes with a silver reptile emblazoned on the front. His co-conspirators also have their faces hidden under black hoods, TV screens keep track of the street outside the secret HQ, and there’s a ‘death chamber’ of deadly snakes. Yes, it is all a bit half-hearted, but I guess it’s the thought that counts.

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

‘Suspicious? Me?’

Slaughter’s performance is also interesting. Gone is the gibbering madman and the histrionics of his previous villainous portrayals. Instead, he favours a sly, creepy efficiency that is far more business-like than usual, even if flashes of his old excesses do peek out from time to time. This was probably Slaughter tailoring his performance to fit the material; after all, he returned to his cackling ways in his subsequent films. However, during the break after his last collaboration with King, ‘The Ticket of Leave Man’ (1937), Slaughter had acted for two other directors. Although ‘Darby and Joan’ (1937) is a lost film, John Baxter’s ‘Song of the Road’ (1937) has survived. Unfortunately, Slaughter’s typically over the top performance as a lecherous gypsy stands out like a sore thumb in what is otherwise a low-key celebration of the simplicity of rural life. That experience may have played on his mind.

Despite the general restraint and an absence of serious action, there are still some wonderful (and often very British) anachronisms to enjoy. The Quorum all wear hoods at their meetings, which you might reasonably assume is to keep their identities hidden from each other, until they just remove them about half a minute into the scene! Their disguises serve absolutely no purpose, other than to justify the film’s title, and provide some suitably dramatic ‘unmasking’ moments.

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

‘We’ll have tea and biscuits, and then perhaps you would care to see the Death Chamber?’

Curzon warns Gynt that she needs to be very careful taking on an international crime syndicate; explaining that he’s ‘a very busy man’ and ‘may not always have the chance to come to your rescue.’ How very 1930s you might say, but, in one of the story’s few surprising developments, it’s actually Gynt who saves Curzon, and ribs him about it afterwards! Although he does return the favour later on, of course. Sympson’s sidekick is written as an eager, overenthusiastic youngster who tries hard but often gets things wrong due to his painful inexperience. Shame the actor was more than 30 years old at the time of filming!

King’s plans to turn ‘Sexton Blake’ into a series never materialised, and he and Slaughter returned to their melodramatic roots. The character featured in further movies and appeared on British TV in the 1960s and 1970s. The most notable projects were probably the films ‘Meet Sexton Blake!’ (1945) and ‘The Echo Murders’ (1945) if only because the title role was taken by Farrar, who appears here in the first act as wounded spy Granite Grant.

Farrar went from strength to strength after that, and he’s best remembered these days for his work with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on the classic ‘Black Narcissus’ (1946) and as the lead in their low-key bomb disposal drama ‘The Small Back Room’ (1949). Norwegian actress Gynt also had a long and successful career, her most notable appearance to fans of cult cinema being opposite horror icon Bela Lugosi in ‘Dark Eyes of London’ (1939).

An old-fashioned and mildly enjoyable criminal enterprise, but without Slaughter at full throttle, it feels more than a little muted.

Tod Slaughter would return in ‘The Face At The Window’ (1939).

 

Midnight At Madame Tussaud’s (1936)

Midnight At Madame Tussaud's (1936)‘A known horror is nothing to a seer of the unknown.’

A retired explorer is invited to Madame Tussaud’s to view the waxwork of himself that is about to go on exhibition to the public. After a tour around the Chamber of Horrors, he accepts a bet to stay there alone overnight…

Getting permission to film in the legendary wax museum is the greatest achievement of the filmmakers behind this low-budget British thriller from the independent Highbury Studios. Unfortunately, the locale is little more than window dressing for a weary tale of financial mismanagement, gold digging and murder. 

Ageing explorer Sir Clive Cheyne (James Carew) is flattered to be the subject of the latest creation of the legendary Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum. A private premiere of the figure proves a welcome diversion from his family and financial worries, as well as a good opportunity to socialise with friends, including business partner Harry Newton (Charles Oliver). As a bonus, creepy caretaker and model maker Bernard Miles gives the party an exclusive look around the iconic attraction, including an up and close and personal view of the notorious Chamber of Horrors. A bit of back and forth with his friends later and Carew has agreed to spend the night there, something that seems perfectly fine with Miles, a man who seems to enjoy his job a little too much. 

Midnight At Madame Tussaud's (1936)

‘I say! I think there’s a decent story in here somewhere…’

Unfortunately, when he gets back home Carew is faced with the usual family trouble in the person of wilful niece Lucille Lisle. She’s been running around town with handsome Nick Frome (Kim Peacock). Carew doesn’t like this one little bit as he suspects the man to be a right bounder, especially when Lisle reveals the couple are now engaged and wants him to push half her inheritance in her new fiancé’s direction.

Meanwhile, this romantic entanglement has not escaped the attention of smart talking reporter Gerry Melville (Patrick Barr) who has a nose for a good story and a wisecrack for every occasion. It’s not long before he smells something fishy about the whole setup. Something that will lead to…murder!

Sadly, beyond a fascinating glimpse of Madame Tussaud’s in the mid 1930s (there’s a waxwork of Hitler!) this film has very little to offer. Our journey begins and ends at the museum, but spends about an hour or so pootling about in between to very little consequence. There’s some spark in the exchanges between Lisle and Barr but they don’t share enough screen time to provide the necessary levels of comedy or romance. Instead, we spend far too much time on the tedious machinations of our colourless villains, whose tiresome plot is underdeveloped and extremely boring. Lisle is a lively presence, but the rest of the cast are pretty much as colourless as their roles, with the notable exception of William Hartnell’s comic turn as Barr’s sidekick.

Midnight At Madame Tussaud's (1936)

‘Oh, so you’re my replacements – a dandy and a clown.’

Carew was a veteran stage and film actor and the last husband of legendary British theatre actress Ellen Terry. Hartnell went onto many character roles in British films, usually playing gruff authority figures, including the title role in ‘Carry On Sergeant’ (1958), the first film in the long running comedy series. He finally found stardom on the small screen at the age of 55 when he accepted the role of TV’s first Doctor Who, playing the iconic character for 3 years and over 140 episodes.

A  dreary mystery, notable only for the historical value of its famous location.

A Scream In The Night (1935)

A Scream In The Night (1935)‘Tell me, have you ever been shot in the head?’

An American businessman buys a fabulous ruby when on a trip to the Orient. Soon afterwards he is attacked by a criminal gang intent on stealing the gem. A local police detective adopts a disguise to go undercover and thwart their plans…

Growing up in the shadow of a world-famous father can be quite a challenge, more so if you decide to follow in his footsteps. For Creighton Tull Chaney, life had already been difficult, growing up apart from his parents while they trod the boards of the vaudeville circuit. After his mother died, his father went into films, remarried and the teenage Creighton finally got a stable home. Financial security followed when Lon Chaney became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. However, Creighton’s own acting ambitions were not encouraged; he was packed off to be an appliance salesman instead! It was only after his father’s death that Junior was able to pursue his showbiz dream. And find out that his mother was still very much alive, just divorced and forbidden to see him.

Although the family name undoubtedly opened a few doors for him, in the early 1930s Creighton slogged his way through many unbilled roles and even did stunt work on cowboy pictures. He did snag the lead in serial ‘The Last Frontier’ (1932) and worked with John Wayne, but these were low-budget, independent projects, a far cry from the big studios. Junior stubbornly refused to cash in on his father’s famous name for several years but finally relented when Ascot Pictures offered the lead in this production. On the apparent condition that he was billed as Lon Chaney, Jr.

It does seem that the project was at least partially tailored as a vehicle for the young Chaney. For a start, he portrays a dual role (something his father often did). On the one hand, he’s a handsome police detective romancing blonde heroine Sheila Terry; on the other, he’s a lookalike ruffian; a one-eyed, twisted sewer rat who owns a waterfront bar and moonlights as an enforcer for crooked mastermind Manuel Lopez. Of course, bad Chaney ends up in custody, allowing good Chaney to apply the necessary makeup and disguise (a nice touch) and take the killer’s place.

Unfortunately, that’s about your lot. The budget is low, the drama is almost non-existent and the story is pretty feeble. Director Frank Neymeyer can generate little tension from the flat, predictable script, and the climactic fight scene is speeded-up so it looks like it belongs in a slapstick comedy. On a positive note, Terry does get in on this final action a little, rather than just standing there against the wall with her fist in her mouth, looking horrified. Some of the editing in the build-up is very clumsy though, at one point it appears that the villain is about to pounce on Chaney and Terry as they attempt to escape. Actually, he’s in another room entirely.

Chaney is perfectly acceptable as a romantic leading man, but his performance as the disfigured ex-pirate leaves a little to be desired. It’s quite probable that he was simply trying too hard. Elsewhere Terry is a surprisingly natural presence, but her acting career never progressed beyond starring opposite John Wayne in some of the Duke’s pre-stardom Western programmers. She also had small roles in big hits like ‘I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang’ (1932) and ‘20,000 Years in Sing Sing’ (1932) and a more featured role in Lionel Atwill mystery ‘The Sphinx’ (1933). She quit performing to become a Hollywood press agent, but ended up penniless in New York City, where she took her own life in the first few weeks of January, 1957.

A Scream In The Night (1935)

‘It’s fine. We can melt down those earrings into silver bullets…’

Lopez is stilted here, his career never rising above unbilled bits in major pictures such as ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ (1943) and ‘Action In The North Atlantic’ (1943), although he did play a policeman in Bert I Gordon’s ‘The Cyclops’ (1957), which also featured Chaney. There’s also a very early role for Philip Ahn (misspelled ‘Ann’ in the credits), a Korean-American actor who became a Hollywood staple, providing support wherever his ethnicity (or others) was required; in Charlie Chan films, Mr. Moto pictures and later as David Carradine’s Master on the 1970s ’Kung Fu’ TV show.

If you want to see a bearded, drunken Chaney Jr playing darts with his hunting knife in a bar while being egged-on by a noisy parrot, then perhaps this is the film for you. Otherwise it’s a dull 57 minutes indeed.

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.