Friday, May 15, 2009

Mystery Liner (Monogram, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a 1934 movie called Mystery Liner that had looked interesting on the TCM schedule (“An Army major tries to catch enemy agents on an ocean liner”) but turned out to be pretty much a misfire and a sad waste of a provocative story premise. The story originated from British writer Edgar Wallace and was originally published as “The Ghost of John Holling” in the March 8, 1924 Saturday Evening Post. The film was made towards the end of the first incarnation of Monogram Pictures, which had been a minor independent called Rayart (after its founder and owner, W. Ray Johnston) in the silent era and had reorganized as Monogram in the early sound era. It made some quite estimable films, including the 1933 proto-noirs Sensation Hunters and The Phantom Broadcast and the first sound version of Jane Eyre in 1934 (with Colin Clive as Rochester and Virginia Bruce as Jane — and Bruce far out-acted Joan Fontaine in the 1943 remake for 20th-Century Fox), but in 1935 Johnston agreed to merge his company with Mascot Pictures owner Herbert Yates to form Republic.

Within two years Johnston was tired of working with Yates, and he pulled out of Republic and reorganized Monogram — only instead of at least occasionally going for quality on a low budget, the new Monogram made mostly tacky, dreary movies and spent so little on them that frequently one fears for the actors’ safety, expecting the sets to fall on them at any moment. Mystery Liner was a product of Monogram 1.0 but has quite a lot of the tackier aspects of Monogram 2.0, starting with the director, William Nigh, who had made some semi-major films in the silent era and had worked with at least two of the A-listers of the day — Mary Pickford and Lon Chaney — but because he plunged into the stock market during the boom and lost it all in the crash, he was forced to take whatever assignments he could grab for most of the rest of his life.

The plot is intriguing: Professor Grimson (Ralph Lewis) has invented an elaborate computer that can be used to drive a ship by remote control (an interesting parallel to the drone aircraft being used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Pakistan today). To make it work, it needs a vacuum tube called S-505 that plugs into the unit on board the ship and establishes a wireless connection with the computer back in the ship’s home port. The ship chosen to test S-505 on is the ocean liner Guthrie, whose captain, John Holling (Noah Beery, Wallace Beery’s brother and a major silent-era star in his own right, most famous for Paramount’s 1926 epic Old Ironsides), has just gone through a nervous breakdown. One minute he’s perfectly lucid, the next he’s going crazy and denouncing Professor Grimson and his assistants for trying to take his ship away from him — and when Grimson is found incapacitated and almost killed on the morning the ship is scheduled to sail (he’s been strangled with a rope tied with a knot only a sailor would know), Holling is the prime suspect. (Peculiarly, Noah Beery is top-billed even though his character appears in only two scenes.)

Downey, the chief mate, assumes command of the ship — though presumably S-505 and the home-port computer it’s attached to (which looks like Monogram’s plot department made it out of an immense amount of radio gear and powered it with some of Kenneth Strickfaden’s cool lab equipment from the Frankenstein films), with Watson (John Maurice Sullivan), the late Professor Grimson’s assistant, assuming control of the computer on shore. Watson hires Major Pope (Edwin Maxwell, who seems to be channeling Edward Arnold) to serve as a private detective on board ship and investigate the murder, and there are also two other characters: a dotty old society woman, Mrs. Plimpton (Zeffie Tilbury) and an equally dotty German, Count Von Kessling (Gustav von Seyffertitz, who in 1922 had played Moriarty to John Barrymore’s Sherlock Holmes), who seem at first to be just a comic-relief couple — and Tilbury, though she’s a bit overbearing at first, eventually pretty much steals the movie. Also worthy is Astrid Allyn playing a woman whose connection to the enterprise is pretty sketchy for most of the movie but who at least for once gets to play an ingénue instead of the villainess she usually had to portray — and does so quite well, with a cool efficiency but still evoking the sympathy and likeability her character is supposed to engender in us.

That’s about all the good news, though; any genuine excitement, suspense or thrills in Wallace’s loopy story (scripted by someone named Wellyn Totman) is vitiated by the slow, stately pace of Nigh’s direction. Nigh ruined a lot of potentially good films in Monogram’s second iteration, too, and while this one isn’t quite as bad as those (at least the sets look reassuringly solid and Archie Stout’s cinematography, though straightforward, is luminous, well-polished and decently lit), it’s just dull, dull, dull. Nigh has the actors speaking so slowly, and pausing so carefully between hearing their cue and speaking their own line, that much of Mystery Liner seems like a film from 1929 instead of 1934. Also there’s virtually no background music — though given the lousy stock scores available to Monogram, that may not be altogether a bad thing — and whatever entertainment potential this story may have had is grimly sucked out of it by the stately pacing and the almost total lack of action, while the final resolution (Major Pope, supposedly the detective, is really the murderer; and Count Von Kessling, supposedly a dotty comic-relief character, is really the detective — a denouement that seems ripped off from Mary Roberts Reinhart’s The Bat) seems tacked on and by the time we get there this boring little 62-minute movie has worn us down so much we hardly care.