by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved
Charles had made a request to see the third in the RKO Hildegarde Winters series, Murder on a Honeymoon, filmed in 1934-35 and Edna May Oliver's last appearance as Stuart Palmer's schoolteacher-detective -- and actually the best of Oliver's three films in the series despite the assignment of a much less creative director (Lloyd Corrigan instead of George Archainbaud) who, except for one sequence taking place inside the Catalina Island Casino after hours (featuring a heavy echo on the sound to suggest that the scene takes place in an empty, cavernous space -- six years before Orson Welles supposedly innovated that in the Thatcher Library sequence in Citizen Kane), doesn't try for the marvelously Gothic atmospheric effects that made Archainbaud's two films in the series, The Penguin Pool Murder and Murder on the Blackboard, fun to watch visually even if the atmospherics didn't relate that well to the plot.
What makes this film special is the audacity of the story, derived by screenwriters Seton I. Miller and Robert Benchley (the latter an odd name to see on a screenplay credit, especially for a movie in which he doesn't appear) from a novel by Withers creator Stuart Palmer called The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (a key element in the plot when the direction a pepper tree is facing relative to the sea changes overnight, indicating to Withers and police inspector Oscar Piper [James Gleason] that someone has buried a body under it and replaced it backwards). It begins with a murder that takes place on board an airplane -- a gimmick the Charlie Chan series used at least twice but which may have been pioneered here. The victim is Roswell T. Forrest (George Meeker), a witness whose testimony is considered crucial to a case against a New York Mob boss that is about to go to trial, and he dies aboard a plane ferrying him and a crowd of tourists out to Catalina Island.
The local police are convinced Forrest simply had a heart attack, but Piper, who flies out from New York to investigate the case because his department had jurisdiction over the case in which Forrest was to testify, briefs Withers about the case against the Mob boss and Forrest's importance to it. Withers has already futilely tried to convince the Catalina police and coroner's office that Forrest was murdered -- she takes special offense to the fact that the medical examiner merely gave the body a cursory once-over and, what's more, did it in a bathing suit since he was called to the office directly from the beach -- and she gets Britt, the Catalina police chief, to question the other passengers on the plane and investigate the case as a homicide. The other passengers include film director Joseph Tate (Leo G. Carroll), on Catalina to scout locations for his next movie and incidentally to work on the script; aspiring actress Phyllis La Font (Lola Lane), who naturally is trying to get Tate to notice her so he'll cast her in his next film; retired liquor smuggler Captain Beegle (DeWitt Jennings); and newlyweds Marvin and Kay Deving (Harry Ellerbe and Dorothy Libaire).
During the course of the investigation Withers confronts an officious groundskeeper at the Catalina hotel who complains that all the goldfish in a certain pond have died -- and she realizes that the murderer dispatched Forrest with a carton of poisoned cigarettes and then disposed of them by dumping them in the goldfish pond. Suspicion falls on one of the hotel guests, Arthur T. Mack (Morgan Wallace), if only because Piper reveals that a gangster named MacArthur offered $10,000 for a successful hit on Forrest and Withers reasons that "Mack" may simply be a contraction of "MacArthur." Withers scores the combination of Mack's post office box and removes an envelope containing $10,000, then stations a porter (Willie Best, still stuck with the stupid pseudonym "Sleep 'n Eat") to stand watch over the box and let her know who picks up mail from it -- only the porter, being the usual stereotyped Black idiot, gets the numbers transposed and reports on the wrong box, so his information is useless. Marvin Deving is lured to the empty casino and is killed -- and later Mack is also found dead. Meanwhile, a man named Kelsey arrives at Catalina and, in a plot twist anticipating yet another RKO movie, The Narrow Margin, it turns out that he is really Forrest and it was Kelsey, Forrest's bodyguard, who was killed on the plane and his body stolen and buried under the pepper tree so the cops and the coroner couldn't prove he was poisoned.
Withers deduces that the Devings, posing as an innocent honeymoon couple, were actually the hit people and that Marvin was killed because he and Mack had an argument -- when Marvin didn't get the money for killing the supposed "Forrest" he assumed Mack had double-crossed him and kept the money for himself, so he planned to report this to the police, Mack killed him before he could do so, and Kay killed Mack out of revenge. Murder on a Honeymoon is a much more compelling thriller story than most of them made in the U.S. in the 1930's; the reversals at least make sense and the ending is a marvelous inversion on the usual cliches, and it's marvelously acted by a first-rate cast, including the little-known couple playing the honeymooning hit people, while the script is peppered with neat wisecracks (including Withers' joke on the name "Beegle") that are pretty obviously Benchley's work.