Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Curtain at Eight (Majestic, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Curtain at Eight, a 1933 production from the better-than-average indie company Majestic, directed (quite creatively, with a lot of moving-camera effects and flashy wipes that take the tedium out of what would otherwise be a dull talking-heads mystery) by E. Mason Hopper from a script by Edward T. Lowe, Jr. based on a story (the American Film Institute Catalog refers to it as a short story, “publication history unknown,” while calls it a novel) by Octavus Roy Cohen. I’d first heard of Cohen as the author of the source story for the 1929 film Why Bring That Up?, starring blackface comedians George Moran and Charlie Mack, and had assumed that he was another Joel Chandler Harris — a white guy who made his living writing stories about Blacks that raided African-American folklore and culture to reinforce white readers’ stereotypes about Blacks — but I’ve seen at least one other film made around this time that was based on a story Cohen wrote about white people. Though he’s killed relatively early on (about 20 minutes into this one-hour movie — lists a 68-minute running time but our print timed out at 60 minutes), the central character and villain of the piece is star actor Wylie Thornton (a surprisingly young-looking Paul Cavanaugh), who is literally irresistible to women.

It’s virtually impossible to keep track of how many women he’s having affairs with — including just about every female member of the cast of his current play (which, judging from the scene of it we see, is an indigestible jungle melodrama set in Hawai’i for which the producers have obtained a chimpanzee, a female called “Geraldine” — and in one of the movie’s nicer gags, even she is shown clutching Wylie’s photo and kissing it, indicating that he’s a lust object for every female in sight regardless of species!), including leading lady Lola Cresmer (Dorothy Mackaill from Safe in Hell and the 1932 Love Affair), her sister Anice (Marion Shilling from Lord Byron of Broadway), Doris Manning (Ruthelma Stevens) and his long-suffering wife Alma (the marvelous Natalie Moorhead, who for once got to play a figure of pathos instead of a villainess and came through magnificently for what’s clearly the best performance in the film). In order to keep her from cramping his style with all the other women in his life, Wylie has told Alma to pass herself off as his “secretary” and answer his phone calls — though, at least as far as we see, we don’t see him telling her to pull the gag of telling someone he’s out when he isn’t. Needless to say, Wylie is murdered and all his rival girlfriends immediately become suspects — as does Doris’s father, Major Manning (Hale Hamilton, who bears a striking resemblance to Paul Whiteman), who hated Wylie because he’d promised to divorce his wife, marry Doris, take her to New York with him and make her a star; and Carey Weldon (Jack Mulhall), the dull upper-class boyfriend Doris had deserted for Wylie. Since this is a 1930’s Hollywood mystery, there’s also a dumb, overbearing cop in charge of the investigation, Martin Gallagher (Sam Hardy), who’s always ready to arrest the most obvious suspect at any given moment; and a cooler head, though this time an investigator from the district attorney’s office rather than a well-meaning Holmesian “consulting detective” or an outright amateur like Philo Vance. His name is Jim Hanvey (though the combination of whatever sound recording equipment Majestic was using and the deterioration of the soundtrack over the years made the name sound like “Handy”) and he’s played by, of all people, C. Aubrey Smith, who usually appeared as the immaculately turned-out representative of British (or, more occasionally, French) imperialism at its best. This must be the most slovenly-dressed of any character Smith ever played, and his overall mien in the role is very Holmesian — albeit a very old Holmes called away from his bee farm in Sussex for one last case.

After the moving finger of suspicion pauses over Major Manning, Carey Weldon, a gangster nicknamed “Lovely” Holmes (Matthew Betz) and Alma Thornton (once it dawns on even Gallagher’s thick skull that a man like Wylie Thornton who’d loved and screwed, literally and figuratively, so many women could well have set himself up to be knocked off in a jealous rage by one of them), Gallagher comes to the conclusion that the ape could have done it — and indeed she could have, since we’ve already seen her figure out how to open her own cage, take a gun and fire it. In the end, the killer turns out to be Lola Cresmer, who hated Wylie Thornton because in an earlier sequence her sister Anice (ya remember Anice?) was found dead in her room, with a suicide note explaining that even though she now knew Wylie was a no-good man who wasn’t worthy of her, she was still so in love with him she didn’t think life was worth living anymore without him. So Lola decided to kill Wylie out of revenge for his having been responsible for her sister’s suicide — and in an ending that, even more than the rest of C. Aubrey Smith’s performance, seems surprisingly Holmesian, Hanvey tells Lola that he knows she killed Wylie but isn’t going to tell the police and will let her go because he feels she was morally justified in doing so (an ending that, even more than the frank portrayal of Wylie’s sexcapades with any number of unbelievably willing women, marks this as a product of the so-called “pre-Code” era), a moving finish for a film that, while nothing special, was at least done with a sense of flair and style. It’s not that different from Green Eyes, also a murder mystery in which the characters are kept together in a relatively confined space (a costume party rather than a theatre), but Curtain at Eight is a much better film, more sensitively directed and considerably better acted (though Sam Hardy is so annoying one wishes the chimp would knock off him), even though neither of these movies quite achieves the status of a nail-biting thriller.