Saturday, July 7, 2018

Danger on the Air (Universal, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Over the past week Charles and I have watched a couple of interesting movies we downloaded from public-domain sources. One was Danger on the Air, a 1937 “B” production from Universal co-financed with Doubleday, the book publishing company which had a mystery series called the “Crime Club” (as opposed to a rival publisher’s “Clue Club,” which had a deal with Warner Bros.). Universal made eight “Crime Club” films in 1937 and 1938, the first under an independent production deal with Irving Starr — which meant that Starr, not Universal, had the copyrights on them and they slipped into the public domain after the original term of their copyrights, which was then 28 years with an option to renew for another 28, expired. For the second four Universal took over the production themselves, though with Starr still in charge as an in-house producer, and therefore they retained ownership of the copyrights (and still do). As a blog about the Doubleday Crime Club series ( explained, “Each film was based on a popular mystery novel that had been published in hardcover under Doubleday’s Crime Club imprint. You could buy Crime Club books at bookstores or get them in the mail as a subscriber. Beginning in 1928, Crime Club released four books per month. One book each month was designated the ‘Crime Club Selection,’ and that book was automatically sent to subscribers, just like the Book-of-the Month club.” Danger in the Air was based on a satirical mystery about the world of radio called Death Comes to Mr. Kluck signed by “Xantippe,” which according to the Wikipedia page (not the page!) on the film turns out to have been a pseudonym for radio writer Edith Meiser. 

Given how savagely the film depicts the world of radio in general and the prima donna antics of commercial sponsors in particular, one can readily see why Meiser had to sign her book with a pseudonym (derived from the real Xantippe — sometimes spelled Xanthippe — who was the wife of Socrates, though she probably had a lot of lonely afternoons and evenings while he was hanging out with the hot young boys in the gymnasium!); had word got round in the radio world of how she was writing about them, she’d have never worked again! Meiser’s book was adapted for the film by Betty Laidlaw and Robert Lively, and directed by Otis Garrett (a better-than-average journeyman who helmed a lot of the Crime Club movies), though the cast was singularly low-voltage. The stars were Universal contractee Nan Grey and recent Warners washout Donald Woods (at his home studio he’d played mostly petty villains, though occasionally he got to do better things — he was the good brother to James Cagney’s bad brother in The Public Enemy and he also got to play Perry Mason in the last of the six 1930’s “B”’s Warners made based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s character — films which Gardner hated because they made Mason too much of a gentleman instead of the roughneck he’d conceived and Raymond Burr vividly realized on the 1950’s TV series) playing engaged but not-yet-married couple Christina “Steenie” MacCorkle and Benjamin Franklin Butts. (Just how did Universal get away with his last name? Where were the Production Code people when we really needed them?) They work in sponsor relations at a large radio station, and their main responsibility is the proper care and feeding of the enormous ego of Caesar Kluck (Berton Churchill), whose soft-drink company sponsors the station’s most popular program. Kluck is an egomaniac who insists on distributing balloons with his picture on them to all and sundry, and while it’s a common enough trope of mystery fiction to have the impending murder victim be so hateful and vicious to so many people there are plenty of other characters in the dramatis personae who have reasons for wanting him dead, few stories have pushed it as far as this one — Kluck is so ridiculously hateful that by the time he’s found alone in a locked studio room (yes, this is a “locked-room mystery”) dead of asphyxiation, we’re actually relieved to be rid of him. 

Most of the movie consists of various doings, misdoings and other events at the radio station, including a character almost as annoying as Kluck — Harry Lake (Peter Lind Hayes), an office boy at the station who’s trying to get on the air and thinks his ticket to doing so will be his repertoire of celebrity impressions. He does a reasonably convincing Bing Crosby, but most of his screen time is just a bother and it’s hard to recall that Peter Lind Hayes actually showed quite a bit more personality and talent in some of his other films, both before this one (notably his Warner Bros. musical shorts in the 1930’s, frequently paired with his real-life mother Grace Hayes) and after (notably The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, in which he plays a good but naïve plumber in love with a war widow played by his real-life wife, Mary Healy). One of the nastier things Kluck is doing is spreading rumors about disease epidemics allegedly infecting the workers of his competitors, and in at least one case this was so successful that a rival soft-drink CEO committed suicide after Kluck’s rumors drove his company out of business. Ms. MacCorkle and Mr. Butts eventually realize that Kluck was killed by poison gas concealed in one of the Kluck balloons, and when another victim is found — the station’s elderly janitor, played under a lot of age makeup by the young Lee J. Cobb — Our Hero and Heroine finally figure it out: the killer is Dave Chapman (William Lundigan), and his motive was that he was the son of the CEO who killed himself due to Kluck’s machinations. Since he had an unusually good speaking voice, he got a job at the radio station, bided his time, and eventually got his chance to bring death to Mr. Kluck. Danger on the Air is a pretty good movie, with some inventive camera shots by the young Stanley Cortez (it was apparently both this film and the 1941 horror-comedy The Black Cat that inspired Orson Welles to hire him to shoot The Magnificent Ambersons), and while the denouement isn’t particularly exciting it at least makes sense — but I still think they should have done something about the leading male character’s regrettable last name!