Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Missing Corpse (PRC, 1945)

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

I chose to run an episode of an odd public-access show from Ohio called Weirdness, which was essentially a D.I.Y. version of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 with two local hosts, a man and a woman (though I got the impression they weren’t a couple), doing a live introduction from the site of a now-closed amusement park (the show included TV commercials the park had run in the 1950’s when it was a going concern), showing a bad movie (though they didn’t talk over the soundtrack the way the MST3K cast members did, or run subtitles lampooning the movie the way the hosts of the San Diego-based Schlock Theatre did on Channel 6 from 1980-1982) and interspersing it with sketches of their own (one of which was a tip for job-searchers that seems all too relevant now: when you have a long employment gap on your résumé, plug it by saying you were a “consultant”!) and fragments of old film, including a trailer for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and some of those visit-the-snack-bar hard-sell commercials they used to show at drive-ins, with almost pornographic close-ups of hamburgers and hot dogs being cooked. (Charles noted how badly scratched these clips were from how often they’d been run “in the day.”)

The film they showed on this episode was a 1945 PRC production called The Missing Corpse, which judging from the title I thought would either be a gangster movie or a horror film. Surprise — it was a comedy, or at least what Dwight MacDonald once called a movie that “in form and intent” could be called a comedy, since it was obviously intended to evoke audience laughter but dismally failed in that regard. An indication of what a cheap movie this was is the fact that veteran character actor J. Edward Bromberg actually got top billing as Henry Kruger, publisher of the Tribune, with a clueless wife, Alice (Isabel Randolph), who seems to want to sleep all day (composer Karl Hajos — one of the many people whose other credits had proved they had far more talent than they got to display here — quotes the song “Beautiful Dreamer” as she debates whether or not she wants to get up) and two scapegrace children, son James (Eric Sinclair) and daughter Phyllis (Lorell Sheldon). Both James and Phyllis have the typical movie rich-kid’s bad habit of staying out all night, drinking and partying in the company of unworthy companions, and the Tribune’s rival paper, the Argus, has acquired and published a photo of Phyllis doing so in the company of Argus reporter Jeffrey Dodd (John Shay).

This led Henry Kruger to travel to the Argus office in high dudgeon (actually he used a car) and complain to the reporter, Andy McDonald (Paul Guilfoyle), and actually threaten him — only McDonald is actually killed by his partner in crime, “Slippery Joe” Clary (Ben Welden), and Clary gets rid of the body by stuffing it in the trunk of Kruger’s car. Meanwhile, Kruger has decided to take a vacation, and so he and his companion Mack Hogan (Frank Jenks) — the official synopsis describes Hogan as Kruger’s chauffeur but for most of the trip Kruger himself is driving — without any idea that they’re carrying a dead body in their trunk. Once they get to Kruger’s lakefront cabin, where they intend to spend a few days fishing, the cabin is beset by all sorts of people, including a nosy motorcycle cop (Archie Twitchell) as well as Clary and various Kruger family members, and for various reasons writers Harry O. Hoyt (story) and Raymond Schrock (script) were utterly unable to make interesting, the dead body gets moved about the house so fast and so extensively McDonald seems to get around more in death than he did in life (much like the similarly mobile corpse in Monogram’s Spy Train, which compared to this one is a deathless masterpiece!). A decade later Alfred Hitchcock would take the same basic premise and make The Trouble with Harry, which while not one of his better movies is a lot more charming and likable than this one, and though The Missing Corpse benefits at least from Eric Sinclair and John Shay — two considerably better-looking actors than PRC usually got in their juvenile roles — it’s simply dull: singularly unfunny (Charles remembered the Hal Roach film Merrily We Live, which revolved around a rich family and a wife with a penchant for taking in ex-cons and giving them jobs as servants, another film with a similar “feel” to this but far, far more entertaining!), ill-acted (there’s a reason Bromberg, an effective character actor, didn’t get tapped for more leads, and the actor playing the cop is downright offensive), dully photographed and abysmally written.

Harry O. Hoyt was the director of the 1925 film The Lost World and had just worked on PRC’s marvelous thriller Lady in the Death House when he made this; Karl Hajos had written the score for Universal’s 1935 chiller The Werewolf of London (one of the least regarded horror productions from the Laemmle era but still, to my mind, considerably better than the more famous Wolf Man from 1941 with Lon Chaney, Jr.); producer Martin Mooney had been associated with productions ranging from the 1936 Warners gangster film Bullets or Ballots (with Edward G. Robinson as an undercover cop and Humphrey Bogart as the gang boss he’s trying to bring down) to what were probably PRC’s two finest films, Bluebeard and Detour; and director Albert Herman was a hack but a lovable one whose trademark — though it isn’t seen here — was his unique approach to having his characters break down a door: instead of opening on its hinges the door would fall flat, top first, which under normal circumstances is physically impossible. The Missing Corpse is one of those films whose execution is “off” from the beginning — we realize early on that whatever genuinely interesting premises or dramatic issues (or potentially funny gags) the filmmakers may stumble on, they’re not going to do them justice, and you just let it unspool and wash over you — aided in this case by the sketches the Weirdness crew staged, which were equally amateurish but at least were intended to be amusing from their sheer amateurishness.