Thursday, October 1, 2009

The King Murder (Chesterfield, 1932)

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

I ran Charles a movie: The King Murder, a Chesterfield production from 1932 that turned out, like Ann Carver’s Profession, to have a basis in a notorious real-life case: the murder of New York showgirl Dorothy “Dot” King in March 1923. King’s case received nationwide publicity and is credited with introducing the term “sugar daddy” to the American language, because after appearing in just one Broadway show — Broadway Brevities of 1920, which ran for 105 performances at the Winter Garden Theatre — she spent the remaining years of her life living as a model (ostensibly) and as the kept girlfriend of more than one rich man.

“Dot found more success amid the candlelight of her boudoir than among the limelight of Broadway,” writes author Mark Gribben ( “Described in the press of the day as ‘a lady with more charm than virtue,’ Dot became a popular feature of the New York social scene — particularly the nightclubs and speakeasies. There she met a number of wealthy and powerful men, including the son of President Warren Harding’s Attorney General, and [J. Kearnsley Mitchell], the millionaire son-in-law of one of the wealthiest men in America, Edward T. Stotesbury of Philadelphia. She also made the acquaintance of a well-to-do Puerto Rican steel magnate named Albert Guimares, who would eventually loot his company and resort to stock fraud to keep pace with his richer fellow contestants for Dot’s affections.” According to Gribben, Mitchell “showered her with jewels, furs and other clothes” and set Dot up in a luxury apartment, though he was careful never to be seen alone with or, or to go out with her, for fear of blackmail. Instead he would visit her in the company of his attorney, John H. Jackson; Jackson would first scope out the lobby, and if the coast was clear he and Mitchell would enter the building together, they’d go up to Dot’s apartment, the three would have drinks and then Jackson would leave the lovebirds alone for a few hours. Though Dot had other lovers, Mitchell and Guimares were the only ones who were allowed to visit her at home.

It all ended on March 14, 1923, when Dot’s maid found her body; it turned out she’d been killed with a bottle of chloroform, and the police first suspected suicide but later couldn’t find anything to administer the drug and her body was not in the right position for suicide. Dot’s $15,000 jewel collection was missing, and so were all the letters Mitchell had written her. Mitchell and Guimares were the prime suspects, but Mitchell had an alibi (Gribben doesn’t say what it was but he doesn’t seem to question it either), and so did Guimares — only six years later, one of the people Guimares was supposed to have been with that night, a mystery woman named Aurelia Fischer Dreyfus, said on her deathbed (she’d fallen off a balcony and Guimares’ partner, Edmund McBrian — the other person who’d testified to Guimares’ alibi — was suspected of killing her) that she had perjured herself in giving Guimares his alibi.

According to, The King Murder was not the only movie to be inspired by the real-life King murder — the first Philo Vance movie, The Canary Murder Case, drew on the King case and so did The Naked City (!) — but this appears to have been the closest to the facts even though screenwriter Charles Reed Jones took the usual liberties and may have drawn on another famous New York murder — that of showgirl Louise Lawson a year later — for some of his plot. In the movie King’s first name is changed to “Miriam” and she’s played by Dorothy Revier — who’d played similarly morally ambiguous roles like this in the 1929 movie Tanned Legs and the 1931 Charlie Chan film The Black Camel — and she’s shown as involved with married rich man Van Kempen (Robert Frazer).

The film actually opens in the office of homicide chief Henry Barton (Conway Tearle, top-billed), who’s never got over losing the love of his life, Elizabeth Hawthorne (Natalie Moorhead, who was more usually cast as the vamp herself), to Van Kempen. When Elizabeth comes to Barton’s office to complain that her husband has been unfaithful — and with a woman of low morals, at that — Barton is sympathetic. Like her real-life prototype, Miriam King is both a blackmailer — she’s demanding that Van divorce Elizabeth and marry her and threatening to reveal the letters he wrote her if he does not — and a blackmail victim. It’s never quite clear just what her would-be blackmailer has on her, but it’s powerful enough that he demands $5,000 and she tries to shake down Van for it. That night she’s spied on by small-time crooks José Moreno (Don Alvarado) and his girlfriend, Pearl Hope (Marceline Day, the female lead in the 1928 Buster Keaton film The Cameraman), who live in the same building, and when she’s apparently passed out on her bed Pearl sends José into her room to steal something. We’re not sure what it is — at first we think it’s King’s jewel collection, but once José actually enters her room he steals a packet of letters instead.

When King’s murder is reported, Barton insists on investigating the case himself, and after a few reels that just confuse matters he gets the break he needs at a tragic cost: the police officer he left in King’s apartment to make sure the crime scene stayed secure also dies of the same mysterious symptoms King herself did. It turns out both victims died of a poison that’s uncommon but relatively easy to synthesize, but one that works only by injection — and the killer administered it by painting it on the needle of King’s phonograph, so she injected herself with the toxin by sticking herself with the needle just before playing a record. It also turns out that the killer is Van Kampen, who adopted this weird method of murder so it would only be a matter of time before she got exposed to the poison and died, but he wouldn’t have to be there when his murder plot actually worked — and in the end he deliberately pricks himself with the poisoned phonograph needle and dies, though not before confessing all to Barton as the two ride together in an ambulance taking him to a hospital … too late to save him for trial and the chair.

The King Murder is a frustrating film because it’s so under-produced it doesn’t have the edge its story should have; the sound recording sounds more like 1929 than 1932 — especially the long pauses between the different actors’ lines and the rather stilted, clunky delivery — and visually it isn’t all that interesting either. This was a Chesterfield production, and Chesterfield not only had a distribution deal with Universal but had arranged to film at Universal City as well (a fact actually advertised in the opening credits!) — and the access to a major-studio infrastructure gave a lot of Chesterfield productions a surprising degree of major-studio polish. Sometimes (as with the marvelous, underrated 1935 horror film Condemned to Live, which compares favorably to the work of Universal itself in the genre at the time) a creative director made a quite good movie at Chesterfield; here, though, director Richard Thorpe (who got a contract at MGM after Chesterfield went under and stayed there for decades but remained pretty much a hack) proves unable or unwilling to give this film much of an atmosphere.

The story cries out for a dark, chiaroscuro, proto-noir treatment and gets bland, full lighting. Screenwriter Reed turns out not to be much help, either; he’s good at creating potentially morally ambiguous characters (especially José and Pearl) but he’s not good at realizing their potential. Some movies are triumphs of style over substance; The King Murder is actually a triumph of substance over style, managing to entertain more from the sheer audacity of the story than any particular skill or credibility in the way it’s told. The acting isn’t much, either; Conway Tearle seems to glue himself to the lens, Robert Frazer is so colorless it’s even more believable than usual when the girl who’s been vamping him laughs at the sheer lunacy of the idea she could ever actually have been in love with him; Dorothy Revier, stuck with a weaker director than Tanned Legs’ Marshall Neilan or The Black Camel’s Hamilton MacFadden, fails to grasp the potential for the superficially charming, actually vicious woman she’s playing (what it needed was the combination of outward sang-froid and inner sadism Doris Dowling gave to a similar role in The Blue Dahlia 14 years later); and Marceline Day takes the acting honors more from the thinness of the competition than any other reason — though she does show versatility in being able to play this scared small-time crook as well as she did the winsome ingénue in The Cameraman. There’s also surprisingly little music in this movie: just Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman overture over the opening and (an infinitesimal excerpt) closing credits, and Ángel Villoldo’s 1903 tango “El Choclo” (it means “the ear of corn,” though the song was later revived in the 1950’s as “Kiss of Fire”) as source music in a nightclub scene in which Miriam and Van confront each other.