Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hollywood Stadium Mystery (Republic, 1938)

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

I pulled out a public-domain DVD from Alpha Video of a movie called Hollywood Stadium Mystery, a 1938 “B” from Republic that starred Neil Hamilton and Evelyn Venable (names that were considered pretty much over-the-hill even then — though Hamilton here plays Los Angeles district attorney Bill Devons, and it feels like a job he could have had before being appointed police commissioner of Gotham City, which he played in the 1960’s Batman TV series) in a mystery in which a boxer, Ace Cummings (Pat Flaherty), dies while sitting in his corner just before the start of a championship bout against Champ Madison (William Haade) which Ace was favored to win. Venable plays mystery writer Polly Ward, and in the opening scene a man wearing a rubber face mask comes into the study of a detective and announces he’s going to kill him — only the detective, put on guard by recognizing his would-be killer’s voice, draws first and shoots the intruder instead. Then the curtain falls and it’s revealed that this scene is part of a play Ward has written and presented at a dinner theatre, where she’s sitting at a table with Devons (even though they’ve never met before) — and he, not knowing that the attractive woman he’s cruising is the author, starts ripping the play to shreds and saying that the whole idea of a man recognizing another by voice alone is ridiculous. To prove his point, he disguises his voice and holds her up outside the theatre as she leaves — and she gets the security person to arrest him, cuffing him with an old pair of handcuffs to which he’s lost the key.

Hollywood Stadium Mystery — presented here in a 54-minute version Republic cut down from the 65-minute original for TV showings in the 1950’s (and with the theme music from the 1937 Dick Tracy serial heard over the opening credits — which give the title of the film and the names of its cast and crew as headlines in a series of mock newspapers) — is a quite charming movie, the kind of combination murder mystery and screwball comedy that became popular in the wake of the success of the Thin Man movies. When the murder occurs at the boxing match at Hollywood Stadium, Polly is there but Devons isn’t — he’s later summoned there by the homicide cops and he has to bring the watchman along because they’re still handcuffed together — and the film turns into a game of one-upmanship between Devons and Polly punctuated by the attempts to solve the mystery and sort out the suspects — including Ace’s two rival girlfriends, Edna (Lynne Roberts) and “Regent Pictures” movie star Althea Ames (Barbara Pepper, the vamp from King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread), whom he dumped for Edna; gambler Slats O’Keefe (James Spottswood), the champion’s manager; actor Ralph Mortimer (Reed Hadley), whose eyes were blackened in a fight; the champ himself and Nick Nichols (Jimmy Wallington), the ringside radio announcer.

Paula proves that the murder was committed by using a squirt gun to blast cyanide powder into Ace’s face just before the fight was supposed to begin. She also realizes that the killer whistled a song — which she can’t place until, in an intriguing example of Republic’s cross-promotion, she sees a poster for the Gene Autry movie Comin’ ’Round the Mountain and realizes that’s the song. Eventually she catches on that Nick, the radio announcer — who previously has seemed merely obnoxious — is the actual killer (by this time Slats is dead, too), though he kidnaps her and is about to eliminate her too when an opportune visit from Devons and the cops saves her. (Nick’s motive is that he won 60 percent of the champion’s contract from Slats in a card game, and the share would have been worthless if Ace had fought and beaten the champ.)

It’s the sort of movie that doesn’t aim high but hits what it’s aiming for — a charming, unpretentious entertainment that alternates between the battle-of-the-sexes courtship between Devons and Polly and the murder mystery, without short-changing either plot angle — and Hamilton and Venable, neither among the most charismatic names in 1930’s Hollywood, bring their characters to life convincingly. The film was written by Stuart Palmer (a mystery writer of some reputation), Darrell McGowan and Stuart McGowan, from a story by Stuart McGowan, and directed at a reasonable clip by David Howard with assistance from John Ford’s nephew, Phil Ford. Though it would be nice if the complete theatrical version turns up someday, the extant Hollywood Stadium Mystery is easy to follow and doesn’t contain any obvious lacunae from the TV-motivated deletions — and what we have of it is a quite charming mystery-comedy, typical of the period but done with a literacy and flair more common at a major studio than a “B” factory like Republic.