Friday, April 22, 2011

Blind Adventure (RKO, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Blind Adventure, a 1933 RKO “B” starring Robert Armstrong and Helen Mack in a film produced by Merian C. Cooper (then production head at RKO), directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack (his long-time producing partner and co-director of King Kong) and written by Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose. So it involved all the key personnel of the sequel, Son of Kong, and was filmed in the summer of 1933, between King Kong and Son of Kong — though there aren’t any horrific or fantastic elements in it. It’s a fish-out-of-water tale of an American oil baron, Richard Bruce (Robert Armstrong), who decides to take a vacation in London and arrives just in time to experience a “real pea-souper,” one of the great fogs that, if you believed American movies of the period, was what English weather was like all the time. (Charles, who’s actually been to London, said that while the place is still prone to fog, the “pea-soupers” as depicted here are things of the past; with fewer coal-burning factories and power plants, and pollution controls, the air there just doesn’t get that dark anymore.)

Richard chats up Elsie (Beryl Mercer), the maid in his room — who’s astonished at his informality — just to have someone to talk to. He goes to the dining room of his hotel and finds that everyone else there is in full evening dress and resents it every time he does anything that makes the slightest bit of noise — he even gets raised eyebrows when he orders his meal, and ends up whispering or pointing at the menu to order, and having his meal changed to room service. (The same gag was done earlier in the 1929 Bulldog Drummond and later in the 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Top Hat.) Richard goes out for a walk and gets so lost in the fog that instead of re-entering his hotel, he walks into a house whose door happens to be unlocked — and he sees a body with a bullet hole in its head sitting in a chair in the living room. He goes out to report it to the nearest police officer, but when he returns to the house with the cop, there is no dead body and instead there are a number of live ones, including Major Thorne (Henry Stephenson), his wife and his niece Rose (Helen Mack).

Richard is convinced he’s in the wrong house — until he sees the dreadful tapestry on the wall he saw just before he found the body — and later the supposed “corpse,” Jim Steele (Ralph Bellamy), turns up alive and tells Richard and Rose that the couple who are supposedly her uncle and aunt are actually impostors (she’s grown up in Canada so she’s never actually met these people before), and that he’s a Secret Service agent who needs them to deliver a cigarette case to his headquarters. Only it turns out, in the one reversal Ruth Rose indulges herself in (as opposed to the multiple ones that modern filmmakers like Tony Gilroy throw at us), that Major Thorne really is Rose’s uncle; that Steele is a crook; and that Steele is working with another criminal named Regan (John Miljan) to blackmail Major Thorne into giving him the secret for a new gun through letters the Major wrote which sounded like he was already turning traitor even though he was innocent. With the Thornes’ butler in on the plot, Richard and Rose have to escape by climbing across the roofs of several houses, and on their way they meet a sympathetic burglar (Roland Young) who helps them break into a house where the rather dotty Lady Rockingham (Laura Hope Crews) is throwing a major party. (At one point they jokingly refer to themselves as Watson and their burglar friend as Holmes — and he tells them his name really is Holmes.)

They hang out at the party and Richard gets into a conversation with one of the guests about his hobby, which Richard pretends to share even though he has no idea what it is (a close relative of the mock campaign speech made by the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps, one of the few incidents from John Buchan’s novel Alfred Hitchcock retained in his 1935 film), all so that Holmes can put on the man’s clothes and escape from the party along with Richard and Rose. The film moves smartly along to the expected final confrontation at Regan’s home, where the fear of discovery forces the crooks to move to their alternate hideout, only Our Heroes hold them off long enough for the police to be alerted and arrest them. Blind Adventure is one of those little gems of the studio years, not a great movie but one made with a real élan and flair that makes it genuinely entertaining and several cuts above the routine; indeed, it’s reminiscent of the light thrillers Alfred Hitchcock would start making the following year with the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, and while less is made of the fish-out-of-water aspects of the tale than one might expect (all hints of culture clash seem to go by the wayside once the MacGuffin is introduced), it’s a fun movie that manages at once to be a good thriller and enjoyable as camp.