Wednesday, June 2, 2010

It Couldn’t Have Happened … But It Did (Invincible, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie Charles had downloaded from because it sounded considerably more promising than it was: the awkwardly titled It Couldn’t Have Happened … But It Did, a 1936 mystery from Invincible Pictures (an allied company of Chesterfield — they had different studio heads but the same personnel otherwise and they released through the same distributors, though Invincible may not have had the same entrée to the studio facilities at Universal that Chesterfield did, since they filmed the scenes taking place in a theatre — which was almost all the movie — at the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles instead of the old Phantom of the Opera set at Universal) in which playwright Gregory Stone (Reginald Denny), who writes murder mysteries that judging from what we see of them are as bad as this movie itself, and his girlfriend Linda Sands (Inez Courtney) solve the murder of his play’s producers, Norman Carter (Bryant Washburn) and Ellis Holden (Claude King).

The most interesting aspect of the film is the character of Beverly Blake (Evelyn Brent, who’d been Josef von Sternberg’s favorite actress until he discovered Marlene Dietrich and who was a sort of proto-Dietrich in her combination of black-hearted villainy and blasé world-weariness), the ingénue of the production, who married Holden to get leading roles in his plays but is also fooling around with two other cast members and has used her diva-ish weight to get her previous leading man, Bob Bennett (Crauford Kent), fired. The film was directed by Phil Rosen from a script by Arthur T. Horman — and though Rosen made two genuinely great films in the early 1930’s (The Phantom Broadcast for the first iteration of Monogram and Dangerous Corner for RKO), for the most part he and Horman achieved a nicely consistent level of mediocrity in their other credits and that’s what they delivered here.

It Couldn’t Have Happened is a textbook example of how a potentially compelling plot premise can be turned into a deadly dull movie: miscasting (Reginald Denny is a great comic-relief sidekick but utterly at sea trying to play a lead — every moment we expect Ronald Colman to turn up and solve the mystery for them), unimaginative direction (much of it takes place in highly theatrical longshots with the camera seemingly miles away from the action) and utterly no sense of pace, let alone suspense. Universal itself had made a similar story in 1929 called The Last Warning, a part-talkie directed by German expat Paul Leni (and, alas, his last film before he died of blood poisoning at 44), and while I’ve never seen that one I’m familiar with the remake, The House of Fear, from 1939 (also directed by a German expat, Joe May), and it’s a crackerjack little “B” that has everything It Couldn’t Have Happened doesn’t: fast pacing, effective suspense and a competent cast.

What’s worthwhile about It Couldn’t Have Happened is the performances of the two women: Evelyn Brent is a marvelously controlled portrait of both theatrical and sexual villainy, and Inez Courtney is a wisecracking heroine in the mold of Myrna Loy as Nora Charles. For the rest of it, though, it’s a worthless movie — and in case you were wondering, the thing that couldn’t have happened … but did was that Holden was killed first but was then seen alive after he killed Carter: the real killer was Bennett, who first killed Holden and then impersonated him to kill Carter. So what?