Sunday, January 19, 2014

Green Eyes (Chesterfield, 1934)

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

Our “feature” last night was an download of a moderately interesting 1934 mystery from Chesterfield called Green Eyes, based on a 1931 novel called The Murder of Steven Kester by one Harriette Ashbrook and directed by Richard Thorpe (a journeyman director who served out his apprenticeship at Chesterfield, then landed a berth with MGM and stayed there for decades, long enough to do Jailhouse Rock — which puts everyone in this cast one degree of separation from Elvis!). It begins at a costume party at the home of Steven Kester (Claude Gillingwater), who’s been the guardian of his granddaughter Jean (Shirley Grey) since the deaths of her parents, and who is in the middle of a major financial feud with her grandfather, who’s cut off all her income because he doesn’t approve of the man she’s dating, Cliff Miller (William Bakewell, already working his way down the Hollywood food chain after having been billed ahead of Clark Gable in the 1931 MGM Joan Crawford vehicle Dance, Fools, Dance). Miller and Jean had left the party early on their way to elope, but they were caught by the police and brought back after Steven Kester was found dead in a closet, wearing a green-eyed Chinese mask as part of his costume for the party. It seems that everyone’s car had been sabotaged, though Jean’s car only had its distributor wires pulled — everyone else’s had had its ignition wires cut, too — and in addition to the usual incompetent police led by Inspector Crofton (John Wray, who’d played Lon Chaney, Sr.’s old role in the 1932 Paramount remake of The Miracle Man), among the hangers-on at the party is mystery writer Bill Tracy (Charles Starrett, whom we get to see shirtless in one sequence — he’s not that sexy but he’s certainly easy on the eyes), who of course gets in the way and offers to solve the crime.

It seems that the murder had something to do with an old mine in Mexico which Kester had an interest in until he abruptly sold it a couple of days before he died as part of an elaborate scheme to disinherit his granddaughter (which included a new will drawn up by an attorney who tries to probate it anyway even though Kester never actually signed it), but the real villains are the Pritchards (Aiden Chase and the marvelous Dorothy Revier — I should have known she would be in on it since Revier usually played these sorts of reluctant villainesses). He was Steven Kester’s accountant and had been embezzling for years, altering Kester’s books to cover up his thefts, and she had apparently put him up to it — though just how or why was a mystery Ashbrook and screenwriter Andrew Moses kept to themselves. I’ll give director Thorpe credit for trying to keep this excessively talky film moving — his camera is in almost constant motion (Chesterfield had a distribution deal with Universal that allowed them the run of Universal’s studio, and the opening credits even let audiences know that it was “Filmed at Universal City” so they’d be aware it wouldn’t suffer from the cheap-jack production and inferior equipment of a lot of indies, and this probably meant Thorpe had access to Universal’s elaborate camera cranes as well as their sets) — but the dull script defeats him big-time. Indeed, it was odd to watch this shortly after the latest Father Brown episode from BBC Manchester in 2013 because it showed just how firmly set in stone this particular set of mystery conventions was: a parent or guardian killed after a big set-to with a daughter or granddaughter who wants to marry “down,” an intimation of financial skullduggery and a revelation towards the end that the rich family around whom the action centered wasn’t so rich after all — though Green Eyes ends rather surprisingly with the Pritchards committing suicide instead of either being shot while resisting arrest or taken into custody and legally convicted of their crimes.