Monday, May 23, 2011

Murder on a Bridle Path (RKO, 1936)

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

I picked out the fourth film in RKO’s Hildegard Withers mystery series from the 1930’s, Murder on a Bridle Path, based on a novel called The Puzzle of the Red Stallion by Withers’ creator, Stuart Palmer. Charles and I had previously screened the first three films in this series, The Penguin Pool Murder, Murder on the Blackboard and Murder on a Honeymoon, when Turner Classic Movies showed them as part of a tribute to Edna May Oliver. They didn’t include this one because Oliver was replaced by Helen Broderick, who as far as age and overall “type” was concerned was a good choice for the role but somehow lacked the acid wit Oliver had brought to the role. The plot was a typically convoluted and surprisingly unexciting (maybe not so surprisingly considering how dull most 1930’s crime movies were if they didn’t involve gangsters) murder mystery in which the victim, Violet Feverel (Sheila Terry), is shown in the pre-mortem prologue being such a mean little piss-ant she’s creating all sorts of people with motive to kill her (one of the hoariest gimmicks in mystery fiction — last night’s episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent used the same concept).

She goes for a late-night horse ride in Central Park, is thrown by the horse and then confronted and killed as she tries to walk home. This happens after we meet a succession of people who didn’t like her, including her ex-boyfriend, Eddie Fry (Owen Davis, Jr.); her own sister Barbara Foley (Louise Latimer), whom Eddie took up with after dumping Violet; and Latigo Wells (John Carroll), the prissy stable manager Violet took up with after Eddie dumped her. Also on the suspect list are Don Gregg (Leslie Fenton), Violet’s ex-husband, whom she had put in jail for being late on her alimony; and Don’s father Patrick (John Miltern, who in accordance with Hollywood’s usual warped idea of the generations looks old enough to be Don’s grandfather), who’s either bedridden or faking same. Eventually Patrick turns up dead as well, and the killer turns out to be the Gregg family butler, Chris Thomas (Christian Rub, an actor so sinister-looking it’s hard not to guess he’s the killer!), who blamed Violet for the injury that crippled his son Joey and made a club with a horseshoe on it so he cold bludgeon people to death with this weapon and it would look like a horse kicked them. (Yes, that’s right: this is one mystery in which the butler really did do it!)

Charles alluded to a comment I’d once made about “reliable entertainment” — how in the 1930’s the major studios (and the minor ones as well) made tons of movies like this that didn’t try for excellence or artistic creativity, but managed to tell a story acceptably well and get it on and off the screen in a sufficiently short time to avoid boring the audience. James Gleason continued as Withers’ sometime lover, sometime nemesis, police inspector Oscar Piper — he would play the part throughout the six-film series despite co-starring with three different actresses as Withers (Oliver, Broderick and ZaSu Pitts — the last in two subsequent entries, The Plot Thickens and Forty Naughty Girls, the last a film so cheap it supposedly deals with a murder occurring backstage during the performance of a Broadway show, but unlike in bigger-budgeted films on this premise like On With the Show or Murder at the Vanities, we never get to see any of the show!) — and his irascible good-bad humor helps liven up the movie, which frankly needs all the help it can get.

It had five writers — Dorothy Yost, Thomas Lennon (probably no relation to John), Edmund North, James Gow and an uncredited “contributor to dialogue,” Frank Logan — and two directors, Edward Killy (usually known at RKO as a production manager) and William Hamilton, and though the opening sequence is quite artfully done visually (Nick Musuraca was the cinematographer) the rest of the film is pretty dull-looking and only one scene actually takes place outdoors on a bridle path. Willie Best is in it as (what else?) a stableboy, and though he’s doing nothing more (or less) than the typical stupid Black servant schtick, he too livens it up a bit — while Broderick is perfectly O.K. in a role Edna May Oliver played to the nines. Still, there’s nothing really wrong with Murder on a Bridle Path: it was made to provide simple, unpretentious entertainment, and it does that …