Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
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Selection from Cites & Insights 10, Number 2: February 2010

Offtopic Perspective

Mystery Collection Part 1

This one’s a little different. Most movies I review are from 12-disc, 50-movie collections. The Mystery Collection includes 250 movies on 60 DVDs, essentially combining five of the 50-movie sets that have no overlap. Assuming I keep watching old movies (not currently while treadmilling) and doing these review roundups, I’ll be doing ten C&I segments on the Mystery Collection (one for each six discs)—and, with luck, should be done in about five years (since I alternate discs between two collections for variety).

Disc 1

This disc includes six hour-long movies, all part of the Bulldog Drummond series. There’s one mild problem with these, seen at this late date: Without the background of the original Bulldog Drummond (the books or the 1929 film with Ronald Colman), one feels as though one’s been dropped into the middle of an existing story. While there were more than two dozen movies with Captain (or Colonel or Major) Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond as a character and more than a dozen actors portraying Drummond, John Howard—who plays Drummond in five of these six flicks—had the longest run, with seven in all.

Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge, 1937, b&w. Louis King (dir.), John Barrymore, John Howard, Louise Campbell, Reginald Denny, E.E. Clive, Frank Puglia. 0:57.

Bulldog Drummond is out to marry his fiancée, Phyllis Claverling, taking a train from London to Dover and then (on a ferry) across the English Channel in order to do so. His pal Algy Longworth and his former boss, Colonel Neilson (Barrymore), should be there for the wedding.

But things get in the way. Drummond, taking a shortcut back to his estate, sees a valise parachuting down from the sky…and it’s accompanied by (and chained to) a severed arm. The valise contains a new high explosive…and the mystery is on. Lots of train scenes (some of them train-on-a-boat scenes for extra interest), mistaken identities, humor, action…well, by the end of it Phyllis is no longer so intent on Drummond settling down, and a good time has been had by all.

Well-played and charming. As a sub-hour B-movie, it’s good, but can’t quite get more than $1.00.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes, 1937, b&w. James P. Hogan (dir.), Ray Milland, Guy Standing, Heather Angel, Reginald Denny, Porter Hall, Fay Holden, E.E. Clive. 1:07.

Mysteriouser and mysteriouser. The sleeve description for this episode has a different Drummond, Ray Milland, once again rescuing his kidnapped fiancée Phyllis Claverling—but as I understand the movie, Drummond has never met Claverling at the start of the movie (but they’re engaged by its end). Misdirection from Col. Neilson, houses with secret passages, spunky heroine—lots of good stuff. I was going to say it seems implausible that Drummond and Claverling would fall so rapidly in love (essentially getting engaged the same day they meet), but, well, I’ve been there (and still am 31.5 years later) so it’s clearly possible.

Nicely done, but the print’s a mess and the sound’s worse, reducing this to $0.75.

Bulldog Drummond in Africa, 1938, b&w. Louis King (dir.), John Howard, Heather Angel, H.B. Warner, J. Carrol Naish, Reginald Denny, E.E. Clive, Anthony Quinn. 0:58.

Back to the apparently normal pattern: Bulldog Drummond ready to wed Phyllis Claverling until Something Terrible Interferes. This one’s played for laughs at first, with Drummond and his Man both pantsless and without funds to make sure they don’t go anywhere (and dancing around in improvised kilts), Phyllis, Col. Neilson and Algy all on their way to put wedding in motion—when Neilson is kidnapped and, you got it, flown off to Africa.

We get more indication of just how wealthy Drummond is—he goes chasing them off to Africa in his own private multipassenger plane (we already knew he had an estate). We also get corrupt Morrocan police, “pet” lions and plenty of action. Interesting: Phyllis this time is the same actress as in Escapes (with a different Drummond) but not the same as in Revenge); Nielsen’s a different actor from time to time; but Reginald Denny and E.E. Clive (Algy and Drummond’s man ‘Tenny’ Tennison) are constants. The young (23 year old) Anthony Quinn is impressive as a henchman, although the part’s not huge—and, of course, J. Carrol Naish does a fine job as a suave villain. Fun, but the print’s not very good. Still, worth $1.00.

Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police, 1939, b&w. James P. Hogan (dir.), John Howard, Heather Angel, H.B. Warner, Reginald Denny, E.E. Clive, Elizabeth Pattern, Leo G. Carroll, Forrester Harvey. 0:56.

This one really should be at the end of Side 2, as it’s later than the others and includes clips from some of them. This time, dear Phyllis is accompanied by a cranky aunt who thinks she should dump Drummond anyway—and, while all is set for the wedding, suddenly there’s a classic absent-minded professor who believes there’s hidden treasure in Drummond’s estate. Add in a new butler (not replacing Tenny—in this case, the butler is not in charge), played by Leo Carroll, who isn’t what he seems to be, a maze of hidden passages in the largely-unused tower set to be the wedding scene, and we have another Drummond romp.

Oh, and this time it’s clearly Algy’s enthusiastic incompetence that prevents the wedding from actually happening. He’s fun, but he’s a thorough idjit. Lots of physical comedy, just enough Peril, more killings than usual by a great villain. The “secret police”? Well, local police do play a role in this one, but there’s nothing secret about them. I guess they needed a title. Good print. I’ll give it $1.00.

Bulldog Drummond Comes Back, 1937, b&w. Louis King (dir.), John Barrymore, John Howard, Louise Campbell, Reginald Denny, E.E. Clive, J. Carrol Naish, Helen Freeman. 1:04 [0:57].

The plot, apart from Drummond’s friends gathering once again for that impending marriage: An old villain, Mikhail Valdin (J. Carrol Naish again, nowhere near so suave but in league with a woman seeking revenge for Drummond sending her husband to the gallows), has kidnapped Phyllis and sends Drummond on a complex chase to solve clues, frequently provided as one-off phonograph records.

Hmm. That’s really about it. Oh, Neilsen (back to John Barrymore) takes delight in impersonating a grizzled old fisherman and even more grizzled old something else; Algy almost manages to put an end to all this by trying to light a cigarette in a room filling with gas; Algy’s married (which he didn’t seem to be in a later flick) and it’s time to christen his son; and “Tenny” Tennison is as ever a wealth of good sense. One item that seems to validate Bulldog Drummond Escapes: Tennison expresses doubts as to the advisability of the marriage, and Drummond asks whether it’s because he proposed to the woman only an hour after meeting her. Poor print (and seven minutes’ missing footage) reduces this one to $0.75.

Bulldog Drummond’s Peril, 1938, b&w. James P. Hogan (dir.), John Barrymore, John Howard, Louise Campbell, Reginald Denny, E.E. Clive. 1:06.

A little different, although not much. This one’s partly set (supposedly) in Switzerland, at Phyllis’ family villa, and the couple are inspecting all the “loot” that’s coming in (wedding gifts). The latest piece of loot is a big, beautiful diamond—one created artificially by Algy’s father-in-law. One of the wedding guests is head of the British arm of the diamond cartel…and the plot’s afoot.

Much of this plot depends on an assumption that American scientists—or at least one American scientist—are amoral villains only in it for the money. Thus we have the noble Brit, perfectly willing to destroy the diamond industry with his huge, nearly-free-to-make diamonds (that somehow emerge as fully-cut multifaceted gems with one casual strike of a mallet to the crude original) and who won’t take money to suppress the invention—versus the evil American who wants control of the formula so he can sell it to the cartel for a substantial fortune. There is an interesting bullwhip-vs.-sword fight (naturally, the amoral American scientist is an expert with a bullwhip), and Tennison riding an early motorcycle is fun.

Otherwise, it’s just another “almost but not quite married” B-film in the mildly entertaining series. Not a great print, and I can’t give it more than $0.75.

Disc 2

Four more B movies, each roughly an hour long—three Dick Tracy, one The Shadow. Most of the way through the first, I realized that I’d seen it before: Five years ago, on a freebie old-movie set that preceded the megapacks. But, of course, since the two aren’t from the same company, the print quality might be different, and it’s only an hour, so… (The second Tracy was also on the earlier set.)

Dick Tracy Detective (aka Dick Tracy), 1945, b&w. William Berke (dir.), Morgan Conway, Anne Jeffreys, Mike Mazurki, Jane Greeer, Lyle Latell, Joseph Crehan, Mickey Kuhn. 1:01.

This movie has some of the virtues of comic books (snappy dialogue) but more depth to its characters than you might expect—and it’s not played as a live-action comic strip. It’s no wonder Tess Trueheart (Jeffreys), Tracy’s fiancée, is so slender: They never manage to go out to dinner and she’s mostly waiting up for him. For good reason: There have been three slashing murders, each apparently linked to a payment demand from “Splitface,” and the mayor’s terrified because he’s received such a demand. Other than the murder method and the payment demand, they don’t seem to have anything in common. Dick Tracy is, of course, on the job.

Turns out they do have something in common—and unless Tracy intercedes, there will soon be 15 deaths in all. There’s an astrologer/astronomer who sees a little more in his crystal ball than is strictly healthy and an undertaker named “Deathridge.” It all comes to a head in a satisfying manner for a flick of this particular genre. Not great art, but well done of its kind. Only some blips in the generally-good print lower this to $0.75.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, 1947, b&w. John Rawlins (dir.), Boris Karloff, Ralph Byrd, Anne Gwynne, Edward Ashley. 1:05.

Gruesome being Boris Karloff—really not in any way gruesome enough for the name, but it’s just as well that they didn’t make him up badly. The story this time is that he’s out of prison, wants a new score and tracks down a scientist who’s developed a freeze-bomb: A grenade that releases a gas that paralyzes people for a short time. What a great way to rob a bank!

Ah, but Tess is in the bank, happens to be using an enclosed phone booth and so, unlike everybody in a very large bank, doesn’t get frozen. (Apparently they had airtight phone booths back in the day…) She calls Dick and the chase is on…

More plot, less character. Trademark comic book names: Dr. Lee Thal, Dr. I.M. Learned, Dr. A. Tomic. A different Tracy (Byrd), who I found perhaps more lantern-jawed but less appealing. The frozen-people effects are amusing, but I found this one considerably less appealing than the first. The print’s fine, so it all balances out to the same: $0.75.

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, 1946, b&w. Gordon Douglas (dir.), Morgan Conway, Anne Jeffreys, Lyle Latell, Rita Corday, Ian Keith, Esther Howard. 1:02.

Cueball is one of several aliases for a bald crook just out of prison, who’s obtained some stolen rare gems and strangled a person (aboard a docked cruise ship) in the process, using a knotted leather strip that turns out to be a hatband made in Cueball’s prison.

The plot involves a jeweler and his employees (the jeweler apparently honest, employees not so much), an antique dealer (decidedly less than upstanding) along with Vitamin Flintheart and the usual cast. Several murders, some saloon action, a high-speed car chase or two, and Tracy’s sidekick getting knocked out again. We get some of those classic Tracy names—Jules Sparkle (jeweler), Percival Priceless (crooked antique dealer), Filthy Flora (proprietor of the Dripping Dagger saloon). The end of Cueball is dramatic, if a bit unsatisfying.

For some reason, I found this the most enjoyable of the Tracy trio—the tone, acting and plot all seemed to gel nicely. Ian Keith is a hoot as the eccentric Vitamin Flintheart and Dick Wessel does a solid job as Harry ‘Cueball’ Lake. The print’s good, although the sound has some background noise. It’s still a one-hour B flick, but I’ll give it $1.00.

The Shadow Strikes, 1937, b&w. Lynn Shores (dir.), Rod La Rocque, Agnes Anderson, James Blakely, Walter McGrail. 1:01.

Man-about-town Lamont Cranston swoops down on criminals, shrouded in a black cape, while still trying to solve the mystery of his father’s murder. Because of such swooping, he winds up impersonating a lawyer and witnessing the death of a wealthy man about to change his will—and, of course, must work to find the murderer.

All nicely done—but the movie Shadow has no apparent ability to cloud men’s minds or anything of the sort. He’s just quiet and sneaky. He doesn’t even wear a disguise. The movie uses none of the classic Shadow lines—and at times Cranston’s last name seems to begin with a “G.” It’s a decent B flick, but nothing special. $0.75.

Disc 3

The Shadow: International Crime (aka International Crime), 1938, b&w. Charles Lamont (dir.), Rod La Rocque, Astrid Allweyn, Thomas EE. Jackson, Oscar O’Shea, Wilhelm von Brincken, William Pawley, Tenen Holtz, Lew Hearn. 1:02.

Another Shadow movie, but although the actor’s the same, Lamont Cranston’s very different: A criminologist who has a column, The Shadow, in the newspaper and a nightly radio show. He’s witty, he picks on the police commissioner, he solves crimes—and he plays an odd mix of trying to keep the two identities separate and the fact that pretty much everybody knows that The Shadow is Lamont Cranston.

Ability to cloud men’s minds continues to be nonexistent. Quiet and sneaky? Not this time around. The plot has to do with a murder disguised as robbery (blowing up a safe), a just-released safecracker who’s appalled that such a sloppy job is being blamed on him, an extremely upset police commissioner, a cravenly newspaper editor…and an “international crime” that’s a little hard to follow. But the dialogue is snappy, Cranston’s assistant—a young woman who’s the publisher’s niece and really wants to do a great job, but can’t dial a telephone to save her life—is a charmer, and it moves right along. Defects: Any time there’s orchestral music it’s very badly distorted, and there are a few missing syllables here and there. Still, and noting that it’s another short B flick, I’ll give it $1.00.

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, 1939, b&w. Norman Foster (dir.), Peter Lorre, Ricardo Cortez, Virginia Field, John Carradine, George Sanders. 1:11.

Can you buy Peter Lorre as a gap-tooth Japanese detective—specifically, one who works with international police agencies just prior to World War II, in this case to assure that Britain and France don’t go to war with one another?

If you can engage your willful suspension of disbelief that far, the story involves a small band of fairly incompetent foreign agents (and what actors!) planning to mine the Suez Canal and destroy the French fleet, arriving for a joint British-French exercise. Moto has a way of getting associates and assistants killed, but manages to survive. Definitely entertaining, frequently a little over the top. $1.25.

The Mysterious Mr. Wong, 1934, b&w. William Nigh (dir.), Bela Lugosi, Wallace Ford, Arline Judge, E. Alyn Warren, Lotus Long, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Edward Peil Sr., Luke Chan. 1:03.

Mr. Wong, an evil mastermind with three badly-dressed murderous minions and a frightened niece, is having people in Chinatown killed to take from them the Twelve Coins of Confucius, which would give him control of a Chinese province—and which, somehow, have all come to be in an American Chinatown. (So far, he has 11—and the twelfth resides with, what else, a Chinese laundryman.) The cops and press cry “Tong war” and don’t do much of anything (including keeping a wise-ass journalist from entirely corrupting a murder scene) except come up with lots of stereotypical comments. The wise-ass journalist, also full of stereotypical comments, somehow manages to save the day. Oh, and get the girl.

The good news? The wise-ass journalist is amusing, the plot moves right along, the print’s decent and, other than a continuous background noise level, the sound’s OK.

The bad news? The thought that putting a “Chinese” mustache on Bela Lugosi makes him a Chinese master criminal; the general attitudes portrayed in the movie, the sheer level of stereotyping. On balance, reluctantly, $0.75.

Mr. Wong—Detective, 1938, b&w. William Nigh (dir.), Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, Maxine Jennings, Evelyn Brent, George Lloyd, Lucien Prival, John St. Polis, William Gould. 1:10.

Same studio (Monogram). Same director. Same “Wong.” Once again, a non-Asian in the title role.

That’s about all this picture and the one above have in common. This one’s definitely set in San Francisco, not in some anonymous metropolis. This one doesn’t have stereotyped Irish cops or whole bunches of stereotyped Chinese-Americans—indeed, the title character and his servant are essentially the only Asians in the movie. Oh, and Mr. Wong in this case is clearly highly educated, speaks with a refined accent…and is a brilliant detective with whom the police willingly partner.

Boris Karloff turns out to be good for the role, with a normal mustache instead of a Fu Manchu parody and with no artificial Chinese mannerisms (he does dress in a silk robe at home, but why not?). He doesn’t chew the scenery; if anything, he underacts a bit. He’s well-mannered, soft-spoken and dignified. But he sees things—like any good detective—and uses scientific exploration to uncover the truth.

The plot’s fairly interesting. One of three owners of a chemical plant calls Wong because he thinks he’s being threatened—and, the next morning, when Wong arrives to discuss it with the owner (who has, by the way, just signed a mutual contract by which any dying partner automatically leaves his portion to the others), the owner’s dead—in a locked room, after an enormous red herring of a fight involving the creator of a “formula” (apparently for poison gas). Over the course of the movie, Wong recreates a murder weapon based on very little physical evidence but the cooperation of a nearby university lab; there are more deaths; a highly ingenious trigger mechanism comes into play; and…well, it’s quite a plot and, remarkably, all makes good internal sense.

Negatives: There’s background noise in part, but not all, of the soundtrack—and, well, Karloff is about as Chinese as I am. Positives: Well played, well plotted, well filmed. This was the first of six Mr. Wong movies; unfortunately (in this case), I don’t believe the set includes any others. On balance, $1.25.

Disc 4

The Sign of Four, 1932, b&w. Graham Cutts (dir.), Arthur Wontner, Isla Bevan, Ian Hunter, Graham Soutten, Miles Malleson, Herbert Lomas, Roy Emerton. 1:15 [1:13].

I came to this one positively predisposed. I enjoyed a couple of early Sherlock Holmes flicks in another set, I like the published stories. Unfortunately, the movie let me down—partly because of print sound problems (heavy noise overlay through much of the picture) that made it difficult to enjoy. I’m not sure that was all of it; it felt like very little “legitimate Holmes” and lots of cliché Holmes, with some odd action thrown in. (Two people rolling around on the floor with thumping noises may be how a fight actually happens, but it’s lousy cinema.)

Actually, the movie’s roughly half over before Holmes enters at all. Two top men at a prison make a deal with a one-legged lifer to find a treasure, let him and another escape and split the treasure four ways—and, naturally, one of the two kills the other and completely ignores the deal. Many years later, the prisoners escape and the action starts—part of it involving the peculiar choice to make the less-evil prisoner (who was a couple of months away from release anyway) a Tattooed Man, thus making him instantly identifiable. There’s a little remorse added, by the old man who got all the treasure, has used enough of it to establish a comfortable lifestyle for his family, and now wants to give part of it to the daughter of the partner he betrayed—who, when she gets part of it and senses she’s in danger, goes to Holmes.

That’s enough of the plot…except that, in this case, it appears that Dr. Watson and the daughter become engaged at the end of the flick. We get a little of the brilliant (or absurd) Holmes “deductions” and a lot of the tired sayings. We get over-the-top disguises. We get Scotland Yard treating Holmes as irrelevant but simultaneously giving him all the help he requests. I dunno, maybe I’m being too harsh, but I can’t give this more than $0.75.

The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, 1935, b&w. Leslie S. Hiscott (dir.), Arthur Wontner, Lyn Harding, Ian Fleming, Leslie Perrins, Jane Carr, Charles Mortimer, Michael Shepley, Ben Weldon. 1:24 [1:19].

Same Holmes, different Watson (same first name!), and to my mind a considerably better movie—partly because, while there’s still sound distortion, it’s now a low warbling that doesn’t entirely disrupt the movie. We don’t get Holmes in disguise; we do get the death (apparently) of Moriarty.

Holmes is retiring and moving to the country…at which point Inspector Lestrade calls him in to help with the murder of a local, who was apparently a member of the Scowlers, an infamous American society of coal miners somehow affiliated with the Freemasons (or Freemen?). We get a long, long backstory, quite well done—and then we return to a present with coded messages, secret passages, mistaken identities (or, rather, deliberate identity fraud), a murder that isn’t and more. All in all, a ripping adventure—but with the sound quality, the best I can do is $1.25.

Murder at the Baskervilles (aka Silver Blaze), 1937, b&w. Thomas Bentley (dir.), Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming, Lyn Harding, John Turnbull, Lawrence Grossmith. 1:11 [1:05].

The incident of the dog in the night—one of the classic Holmesian bits (used here, if perhaps not uniquely). Holmes and Watson take vacation at Baskerville Manor and immediately get dragged into an investigation by Inspector Lestrade. A prize horse has been kidnapped, the stable boy/guard poisoned—and when Holmes and Watson go out to the moors to investigate, they find the horse’s trainer, dead.

Lots of detecting, some interesting twists, Professor Moriarty in rare (and scenery-chewing) form, Holmes alternating between treating Lestrade as an idiot and as a respected colleague. Wontner comes off well as Holmes, as do Ian Fleming as Watson and Lyn Harding as Moriarty. (This appears to be the tale in which Lestrade—John Turnbull—first accepts that Moriarty is a villain. On the other hand, it appears that Moriarty and the Baskervilles are both elements that weren’t in the original story.) Quite well done, and most of the time the sound is OK. $1.50.

The Woman in Green, 1945, b&w. Roy William Neill (dir.), Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Hillary Brooke, Henry Daniell. 1:08.

Different Sherlock (the much better known Basil Rathbone, who I find no better or worse than Wontner), different Watson (Nigel Bruce, who comes off as somewhat of a useless fathead), different Moriarty (well, he’s already died once…), and no Lestrade—oh, and clearly done on a considerably larger budget than the shoestring Wontner flicks.

Plot? Young women are being murdered in London, with no common theme of location, class, employment or anything else—except that in every case the right forefinger is cleanly removed. Turns out to have a lot to do with blackmail and even more to do with hypnotism—and did I mention that Professor Moriarty is involved?

Really quite good, and both the print and sound quality were fine. In some ways, I like Wontner’s Holmes better—and in almost every way I like Fleming’s Watson better. That said, this is a good film; I’ll give it $1.50.

Disc 5

A Study in Scarlet, 1933, b&w. Edwin L. Marin (dir.), Reginald Owen, Anna May Wong, June Clyde, Alan Dinehart, John Warburton, Alan Mowbray, Warburton Gamble. 1:12.

This one has plenty of plot (pretty much unrelated to the story), including coded newspaper ads, mysterious rhyming messages with corpses and an odd group that turns into a tontine, with the survivor(s) collecting what’s left. There’s also a foreclosed mansion with secret passages and a plucky heroine.

Unfortunately, Reginald Owens is by far the least interesting and plausible Sherlock Holmes I’ve ever seen—if anything, he’s blander than Lestrade (or Lastrade in this movie’s credits). Additonally, the print has awful sound quality and a mediocre-to-worse picture. All in all, I can’t give this more than $0.50.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, 1943, b&w. Roy William Neill (dir.), Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill, Dennis Hoey, William Post Jr., Kaaren Verne. 1:20 [1:08].

This one’s wildly anachronistic, since it begins with a disguised Holmes off in Europe bringing a scientist back to England with his newfangled bombsight, to protect the sight from falling into the hands of Nazis and so that British bombers will have it.

Anachronistic, yes. A WWII propaganda film of sorts, absolutely (Holmes’ final speech is classic war propaganda). But also a good Holmes flick, with a fair amount of plot, Lestrade, Holmes and Watson in the thick of things, two showdowns between Holmes and Moriarty (with Moriarty apparently plunging to his death this time around), a coded message (the only link to the Doyle source) and more. Nigel Bruce is still a somewhat fatuous Watson, but it works better this time around—and Rathbone is just fine as Holmes. It’s also an excellent print with fine sound quality.

As it happens, I’d seen this movie five years ago, in the set of free DVDs I got from a long-since-departed DVD magazine. The difference: That version was a very poor print, difficult to watch. Sometimes, a good print makes a difference. I’ll give this one $1.25.

Terror by Night, 1946, b&w. Roy William Neill (dir.), Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray, Dennis Hoey, Renee Godfrey, Frederick Worlock. 1:00.

Mysteries on trains: A stock setting that always adds several elements. This time, we begin with the fabulous Star of Rhodesia, a 400+-carat diamond that’s brought doom to its owners. Currently, the owner is a dowager who bought it to London and is going back to Edinburgh; her son hires Holmes to make sure the gem gets there safely.

We know it’s going to be fun even before the train moves. Another familiar face also gets on the added day compartment that the dowager and Holmes are both on—Inspector Lestrade, supposedly off on a fishing vacation (a month before the season). Watson almost misses the train, and jumps on with a long-time acquaintance who…well, that would be telling. Moriarty’s still dead at this point—but there’s his sidekick Moran to deal with.

We get swapped jewels, several guilty parties (guilty of various things, including swiping a hotel coffeepot), death on the train, discussions of curry, and a remarkable (if contrived) set of scenes in the long climax. There are enough red herrings to stock a Communist fishmarket and an irascible mathematics professor who really should be the villain. It’s all high Holmesian drama…although this time Watson is, if anything, even more of a bumbling idiot than in other movies. The sound’s not perfect, but it’s still a great romp and a fun watch. Noting that, as with the others, this is a one-hour flick, I’ll give it $1.25.

Dressed to Kill, 1946, b&w. Roy William Neill (dir.), Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Patricia Morison, Frederick Worlock. 1:16 [1:08].

We begin in a prison where one convict, working on music boxes, is approached by another who suggests that the first can get a shorter sentence if he’ll just talk—which he won’t. Then to an auction house where three identical (and dull) music boxes are auctioned off to three different people—and, later in the day, a man frantically calls at the now-closed auctioneer to buy the music boxes (and pays to see who did buy them).

And we’re off. We have murder, mayhem and music boxes—and Holmes proves to be an expert whistler with an eidetic memory for tunes, along with his violin playing (on display in this flick). The music boxes turn out to be clues toward finding a set of engraving plates for five-pound notes—that is, real engraving plates. There’s a female villain. Watson is even more stupefyingly incompetent than usual even for Nigel Bruce’s version.

Not as satisfying as some of the others; the print’s not as good, there are slight sound problems and somehow this one just didn’t come off as well. Still, not bad. (Note that the 1:08 running time on the actual disc somehow shows up as 108 minutes—that is, full feature length—on the sleeve!) $1.00.

Disc 6

Nancy Drew, Reporter, 1939, b&w. William Clemens (dir.), Bonita Granville, John Litel, Frankie Thomas, Mary Lee, Dickie Jones. 1:08.

It’s fluff, but it’s really good fluff. Nancy Drew (who manages to combine being quite grown up, her own car and all, with being somewhat innocent—a tough act!), daughter of a prominent attorney, enters a newspaper’s contest for the best reportage from a high schooler—and turns it into an investigation into a poisoning and frameup. It’s more comedy than mystery, and Drew is all spunk and wits throughout.

Drew’s relationship to her neighbor Ted is strange, but that’s part of the charm, although Ted’s nasty tween sister and male friend, brats who suddenly turn professional entertainers when required, are a little hard to take. It’s hard not to love the scenes in a Chinese restaurant with a full-scale Chinese big band, all in traditional outfits—and the whole hotel sequence near the end is a long, complicated hoot.

The print’s fairly good and the whole thing’s quite a romp. It’s short (and not that mysterious), so I’ll only give it $1.25.

The Kennel Murder Case, 1933, b&w. Michael Curtiz (dir.), William Powell, Mary Astor, Eugene Pallette, Ralph Morgan, Robert McWade, Robert Barrat, Frank Conroy. 1:13.

Philo Vance raises prize dogs as well as doing some amateur detecting—and after his dog comes in second in breed, he chats with some irritating folks at the kennel club. The most irritating of all turns up dead the next morning, in a room bolted from the inside and with locked windows, an apparent suicide by gunshot. Only Vance, who’s told about it as he’s about to sail off on a cruise, doesn’t think it’s suicide, cancels the cruise and the fun begins.

William Powell as Philo Vance—right there, you can assume an enjoyable movie. You get the detective (Pallette) who’s all too ready to call it a suicide and declare the case over, even when it’s demonstrated that the guy died from a knife wound and suffered a blow to the head before that. You get the irritable coroner (Girardot) who gets called out twice while he’s trying to eat lunch (yes, twice—there’s another victim, the chief suspect in the first murder). You get a DA (McWade) who, for some reason, consistently pronounces the noun “suspect” as though it’s the adjective, accenting the second syllable. You get the niece (Astor, fine as always) who admits she had reason to kill the victim (but didn’t). Lots of odd little mustaches, romantic intrigue, and a victim who had nothing but suspects, since all those who knew him had reason to despise him.

It all works out in the end, of course, in a movie that’s mostly detection, well played and quite nicely done. (Turns out I’d seen it before, five years ago in an entirely unrelated set of public domain movies—but it was well worth watching again.) Decent print, but with just enough missed frames and syllables to be irritating, which is what reduces this to $1.50.

The Death Kiss, 1932, b&w. Edwin L. Marin (dir.), David Manners, Adrienne Ames, Bela Lugosi, John Wray, Vince Barnett, Alexander Carr, Edward Van Sloan. 1:15 [1:10].

Movies within movies are good plot devices, and this movie takes place almost entirely on the set of The Death Kiss and other areas of the studio. Seems an actor who’s being shot at by eight other actors, with the usual blanks, was also being shot by someone not using blanks. The victim’s a Lothario, with lots of possible enemies. A little early amateur sleuthing, recovering a fragment of the bullet, demonstrates that this wasn’t a prop man’s accident: The fatal bullet’s a different caliber than the prop guns.

This time, a screenwriter who’s in love with the heroine of the flick (who’s been arrested as a likely suspect) becomes amateur detective (aided by a nearly-Keystone Kops-style studio cop) in order to find the real culprit. The real cops are, as you might imagine, less than overjoyed about the help. (If you’re wondering, Bela Lugosi is the studio head, in a relatively small but significant part, played entirely straight.)

Good setup—but I found the plot wanting and the movie a lot less interesting than I’d hoped. It doesn’t help that this print has those little gaps that lose a syllable or word, making some of the dialogue hard to understand. It’s also noisy (background noise). All things considered, I come out with $1.00.

Suddenly, 1954, b&w. Lewis Allen (dir.), Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates, Kim Charney, Willis Bouchey, Paul Frees. 1:15.

In the sleepy little California town of Suddenly (it has something to do with the gold rush, although Suddenly seems to be slightly north of LA), the President’s going to arrive on a special 5:00 train, to go off on vacation. The sheriff (Hayden) and nearby cops cooperate with Secret Service agents who arrive on the regular 1:30 train to make sure everything’s secure—and that includes paying a courtesy visit to the house on the hill (with a direct sightline to the train station), where lives a retired Secret Service agent—he was the boss of the head of this detail—and his widow daughter, whom the Sheriff is trying (unsuccessfully) to woo.

That’s just the start of this excellently-acted, tautly-plotted, “half-time” movie (that is: the movie’s about 1:15 long and it covers only a little more than twice as much real time—from 1:30 to about 5:02). The kicker here is Frank Sinatra and two friends, who show up first at the house on the hill, saying they’re FBI agents there to protect the president. (After the father protests that the IRS protects the president, Sinatra says the agencies are cooperating.) But Sinata’s really an assassin, a pure mercenary out to collect the second half of a half-million-dollar fee.

Quite a movie, with Sinatra doing a remarkable job and all the rest acting credibly. It’s a thriller more than a mystery, and it’s excellent. I’d actually seen it several years ago, but thoroughly enjoyed seeing it again. About the only negatives are a couple of glitches and slight print damage; even so, it’s worth $1.75.

Summing Up

No fully satisfactory classics, no complete and absolute losses. At one extreme, one flick was only worth $0.50 and eight, mostly one-hour B flicks, only $0.75. At the other, Suddenly gets a credible $1.75 despite some damage—and three movies earn a solid $1.50 each.

Adding it all up, I get $27.25, or $20.75 if you leave out everything under a buck. For the first 10th (yes, tenth) of a $45-$50 set, not bad.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 10, Number 2, Whole Issue 125, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Editorial Director of the Library Leadership Network.

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