Archive for December 2012

The Death Kiss (1932)

December 19, 2012

A gangster, leaving a swanky restaurant, encounters a strange woman who, much to his surprise, gives him an enthusiastic kiss.  Little does he know, he has just been marked for death.  Once the hot dame is out of the way, the big shot gangster collapses under a hail of bullets.

 

Then the director shouts, “Cut!”

 

They decide to do a retake.  But the actor playing the gangster doesn’t move.  Seems there were real bullets in those guns instead of blanks.

 

That’s the opening scene to The Death Kiss  and it’s pretty good.  Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here on out in this comedy-mystery.

 

The cast does a lot of grinning, smiling, giggling, and chuckling, for no particular reason;  I suppose they were trying to remind the audience that this is, in fact, a comedy —  a hard thing to remember because nothing in this movie is funny.

 

 

But . . . this flick has Bela Lugosi!  And he’s not a vampire, just a murder suspect.  Lugosi doesn’t say anything funny, either, but at least we get to see his trademark mysterious expression of, um, mysteriousness.

 

Mea culpa.  I dozed off during this movie because it was silly and dull.  I did wake up in time to see the real murderer exposed;  he had a familiar face, so I’d seen him before, but I couldn’t remember which character he was or his possible motive, and, what’s more, I didn’t care.

 

Rating:  Lugosi pushes the score to a 2/5, but just barely.

 

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Nancy Drew, Reporter (1939)

December 18, 2012

Both as a kid and a teenager, I was a compulsive reader; I read whatever I could get my grubby hands on:  Batman comics, the Oz series, the Divine Comedy, tomes on Egyptian history, matchbook covers, the backs of cereal boxes, Mad Magazine, and so on.  Somewhere in the mix, I stumbled on the inevitable Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.  To be honest, I don’t recall much about them; I vaguely remember Nancy looking for a ruby hidden aboard an old ship, but maybe that was a Hardy boys tale.

 

So, I settled down to watch this Nancy Drew  flick, feeling a bit nostalgic, ready to revisit    my misspent bookworm youth.  But — what the hell!  Who was this ditsy blonde chick?  I should say, this amoral ditsy blonde chick. I may not remember too much about the plots, but I do remember Ms. Drew as being a decent person.  What had Warner Brothers done with Nancy Drew?  Or was my memory to blame?

 

It was time to do a little research.

 

The Background

 

It’s hard to believe that Nancy Drew is over 80 years old. The first N. D. novel, The Secret of the Old Clock, was written in 1929, and printed the following year.  She was created by Edward Stratemeyer who owned the Stratemeyer syndicate (they produced a number of children’s books), but the stories were authored by a several different ghostwriters using the name Carolyn Keene.  Mildred Wirt Benson wrote most of the original series;  she deserves the credit for making Nancy a strong and feisty character.

 

Nancy Drew lives in the midwestern town of Riverton Heights, which, despite being such a wholesome, all-American city, seems to be riddled with criminal activity. Nancy’s dad is attorney Carson Drew, her mother died when she was very young.  She was raised by her doting father and housekeeper Hannah Gruen, who is more of a surrogate mother than a servant. Carson Drew must be quite affluent, or perhaps Nancy inherited money from her deceased mother, because the 18-year-old sleuth not only does not attend school, but doesn’t have a job, either.  Plus, there’s no indication she gets paid for her detective work.  Maybe the money just grows on trees.

 

Nancy is accompanied in her adventures by a number of friends.  Chief among them are plump girlie-girl Bess and tomboyish George (presumably short for Georgette or Georgina or some such name).  There’s also Nancy’s boyfriend Ned, a student and football- player at nearby Emerson College.  None of these people have jobs, either, so they’re readily available whenever Nancy needs help on a case.

 

Ned and Nancy have a singularly chaste relationship; any possibilities of a romantic encounter are interrupted by some crisis or other. Take for instance, this incident from The Ghost of Blackwood Hall —  the couple are canoeing on a lake:

 

Moonlight streamed over the treetops and shimmered across the surface of the  

water.  Presently Ned guided the canoe into a cove and let it glide silently toward 

shore.

 

“What a night!” he said.  “I wish –”

 

But we never find out what Ned wishes, because the mood is broken by the sight of a girl walking zombie-like into the lake, and, of course, Ned and Nancy must go to the rescue.

 

Oh, yeah. I forgot to mention — in my research, I thought I should read a Nancy Drew book.  Once again, I turned to the county library system, which had quite a few N.D. novels in stock, and they didn’t have to be dug out of central storage, either.  That doesn’t mean they were readily available — most were already checked out, a good indication that the young sleuth remains very popular.  I wanted something from the era of the movie, or as close as possible, and settled for a three-story collection.  This volume consisted of The Hidden Staircase (the second novel, published in 1930), The Ghost of Blackwood  Hall (1948), and The Thirteenth Pearl (1979, and the last novel of the original series).

 

The Nancy Drew novels went through some heavy revisions during the 1960’s, partly to remove offensive racial language, and partly to “modernize” them.  This meant removing a lot of descriptive material and shortening the books to 20 rather than 25 chapters, the excuse being that modern readers had a short attention span.  Or maybe it was just cheaper to print shorter books.  In any case, I was hoping that I could read an original version of an older N.D. novel, but I was out of luck.  All three stories were 20 chapters long, marking them as the revised material.

 

That’s a fairly minor issue, though, as I still got a good feel for the character of the young sleuth.  And I was relieved to find that the Nancy Drew of print bears little resemblance to the Nancy Drew of this movie.

 

The Movie

 

Nancy Drew, Reporter is the second of a series of four movies produced by Warner Brothers in the late thirties.  They differ from the books in a number of ways.  First of all, they’re comedies; the novels, while containing some humor, are serious tales.

 

Secondly,and most importantly, the character of Nancy– The Nancy of the books is honest, courageous, level-headed, and decent.  The Warner Brothers Nancy may be courageous, but is  also dishonest, manipulative, unscrupulous, and a bit of a ditz.

 

You see, Nancy and her fellow high school students (yes, Nancy is a student; that, at least, is a bit more realistic than the novels) are offered a chance to write an article for the local newspaper.  Wanting to write a “real” story, Nancy steals an assignment off the desk of an absent reporter and she’s blithely on her way.  The assignment is to cover the trial of a woman accused of murder.

 

By now, you’ve probably guessed the outlines of the main plot.  Miss Drew decides the woman is innocent, and sets about proving it.  She needs some help to do so, of course, and so resorts to deceit and manipulation to get other people’s assistance.

 

Now, personally, I’m finding this a bit distasteful, especially since  WB seems to be winking at us, and saying, “But she’s so cute!”  Evidently it’s perfectly okay to lie, manipulate, and steal as long as you’re a cute, perky blonde.  Ah, you’re saying, but surely this is all for the greater good?  After all, the book Nancy will resort to subterfuge if necessary, she’s not completely straight arrow.

 

Well, the thing is, Nancy’s motives are not exactly altruistic.  Sure, there’s a woman falsely accused of murder.  Nancy intends to find the real murderer.  But, you see, the newspaper is offering an award for the best article, and Nancy wants that award. She wants it bad. The fight for justice is a side issue.

 

Now, for the third difference from the original stories:  secondary characters.  Carson Drew and Hannah Gruen are present, but pals George and Bess are nowhere to be seen.  Boyfriend Ned has been dropped in favor of next door neighbor Ted.  He’s not a boyfriend (yet), although Nancy clearly has a romantic interest in him.  Poor Ted bears the brunt of Nancy’s emotional manipulations.  All he wants to do is play tennis, but he gets coerced into a murder investigation. (And when Nancy decides to get married, that poor guy had better start running.)

In addition, there’s a couple of new characters, Mary, Ted’s bratty kid sister, and her pal, Killer Parkins.  He’s not quite as bad as the name implies, but he’s still young.  Just give him a few years, and Killer Parkins will be a name on a wanted poster.  Once again, Warner Brothers presents these budding hoodlums with a wink and a “How cute!”

 

Now, if you’re getting the idea I didn’t care much for this movie, well, you’re right.  I didn’t.  But I need to be fair.  This isn’t a bad movie at all; the plot and script are good, it’s well-acted, and it actually is  quite funny  at times.  So, in spite of my distaste for this version of Nancy Drew, I give this movie a thumbs up, even though I’d rather not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Kennel Murder Case (1934)

December 17, 2012

First, some background —

 

Philo Vance

Needs a kick in the pants.

 

 — Ogden Nash

 

Quite frankly, I’m in total agreement with Mr. Nash.  But let’s back up a bit.  Who’s this Vance character, anyway?

 

Philo Vance is an immensely wealthy New Yorker, who lives in a swanky apartment in Manhatten, has a valet named Currie, and a lawyer who works exclusively for him.  This last is S.S. Van Dine, who both narrates and is the official author of the stories; in reality,  the novels were penned by critic Willard Huntington Wright.

 

Wright created the character after recuperating from a heart ailment (or, as some sources have it, a collapse brought on by cocaine addiction).  Encouraged to avoid any mental strain, Wright began a reading program of detective fiction, and got the idea he could do a better job than other crime fiction writers. And, for a while at least, a lot of people agreed with him.  Philo Vance was a big hit with the public; not only were the novels best sellers, but they were quickly adapted for the big screen.

 

Why the Vance novels were so popular is a mystery in itself, given the unpleasant nature of the lead character.  Certainly, many fictional detectives have irritating characteristics, but Philo is downright obnoxious. A poseur and dilettante (even though Van Dine claims he isn’t), an arrogant snob, and a pedantic jerk — is there anything even remotely likable about this guy?

 

Well, okay, maybe I’m jumping to conclusions. To be sure,  I had heard the names “Philo Vance” and “S. S. Van Dine”, but had never read the books.  So I turned to the county library system for help.  They did, indeed, have several Philo Vance novels in stock, albeit in central storage. The Kennel Murder Case was not available, but I did obtain the very first novel of the series, The Benson Murder Case, published in 1926.

 

It’s rather plodding, although the mystery itself — once we finally get into it — is well-crafted. We are, of course, introduced to all the main characters, Vance himself, Van Dine (who actually remains silent throughout the whole novel — he is a narrater who does not participate in the action), District Attorney John Markham (supposedly a close friend of Vance’s, in spite of the contemptuous way the snobbish detective treats him), and the none-too-bright police Sergeant Heath.  It’s not a horrible book, really , but I wouldn’t care to read another in the series.  Philo Vance gets a thumbs-down from me.

 

Cover of "The Kennel Murder Case"

Cover of The Kennel Murder Case

 

 

Is it reasonable to form an opinion based on reading one novel?  Probably not.  But at least I have Ogden Nash to back me up.  In all fairness, though, I should mention that the Philo Vance books had a great influence on crime novelists of the twenties and thirties, including Ellery Queen, who adopted the device of narrator-as-author.

 

Now, the movie —

 

After reading the first Vance novel, I wasn’t really keen on seeing The Kennel Murder Case.  But I was pleasantly surprised.

 

The movie eliminates Vance’s unpleasant aspects — out with the arrogant snob, and in with the charming and debonair man-about-town!  William Powell is perfect in the role,  suave, elegant, and likable, he only superficially resembles Wright’s creation,( but that’s okay with me!).  Mary Astor, a fave of mine, does her usual wonderful job, but, alas, gets too little screen time.

 

This is a very well-crafted mystery centering on the apparent suicide of a very unpleasant man.  There’s no shortage of suspects, and, yes, as the title implies, dogs do play a role in the plot.  There’s a good deal of humor, although the comic scenes involving Sergeant Heath are a little heavy-handed.

 

If you enjoy classic who-dun-its, you will probably like this movie. If you’re a masochist, you might enjoy the original novels.