It’s taken five years to put together, but my book Hollywood Musicals You Missed: 70 Noteworthy Films of the 1930s is now available. Like my previous effort, Unsung Hollywood Musicals of the Golden Era, it’s a look at some less-heralded films, this time grouped by themes that reflected trends in the Depression-era American movie musical.
There is a chapter on early musicals worth re-evaluation, including extensive entries on the rarely viewed Are You There? (1930), Beatrice Lillie’s disastrous talkie starring debut, and It’s Great to Be Alive (1933), Fox’s quirky mix of musical, romantic comedy, science fiction, and gender role reversal. Other sections of the book deal with early “hillbilly” musicals, singing cowboy Westerns (among Gene Autry’s sci-fi-tinged The Phantom Empire and the all-“little people” sagebrusher The Terror of Tiny Town), songwriter tributes, opera-singer vehicles, and swing’s intro to film. We also look at some of the less-inspired 1930s efforts by some of Hollywood’s biggest musical stars.
Here’s a happy 131st birthday to Jack Mulhall, a jaunty, popular Hollywood player of the silent era who, by accidents of technology and timing, became a virtual non-entity in the talkies.
For every James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson or Spencer Tracy whose stage-honed dialogue skills made them into almost-instant Hollywood stars after the transition to sound, there were many others who were forced to adapt to the change. Reginald Denny, for example, had to drop the American characters he played in silents in favor of those that suited his British accent; his billing declined slightly, but he continued a lucrative career. John Gilbert had a perfectly suitable voice that did not match his he-man image, but he was derailed by personal concerns, as was Clara Bow.
And then there were actors like Mulhall, whose precipitous drop in the motion-picture hierarchy led him from starring roles in big-studio talkies in 1930 to bit parts at the majors (and occasional Poverty Row leads) within a year or two, and then, as the ‘30s neared their end, pretty much just bits.
Mulhall’s career mirrored that of a fellow player at Warner Bros.-First National, Monte Blue. Both men had built their screen careers since the mid-‘teens (Mulhall at the old Biograph studio, where he claimed to be the first actor with a weekly salary in three figures) and were aging into their early 40s as sound came in. They were precisely the highly experienced, high-salaried talents whom studios sought to clear from their contract rosters as folks like Cagney and Tracy came West to settle in.
“Jack Mulhall still wears that wholesome Irish smile – the kind that never grows old or never wears off,” a writer from Missouri said – sadly, in retrospect — of the New York state native in a report on a 1928 First National silent comedy, The Butter and Egg Man (which co-starred another eventual casualty of sound, Greta Nissen).
Mulhall continued to land quality assignments at the dawn of the talkies, including an unusual dual role in Dark Streets (1929), in which he portrayed twins: a cop and a crook. That film is lost, but Mulhall can be seen opposite Alice White in the musical Show Girl in Hollywood (1930), Loretta Young in the crime saga Road to Paradise (1930), and Mae Clarke in RKO’s The Fall Guy (1930). That Mulhall was significantly older than any of those female co-stars was not complained about by the filmgoing public, as Mulhall photographed somewhat younger than his middle age.
Still, Mulhall’s First National contract was not reviewed in June 1930. In a fan-magazine blurb about his farewell to FN, Colleen Moore, Dorothy Mackaill, Milton Sills, and Corinne Griffith were also mentioned as newly freed. Griffith had retired, the writing on the wall, and poor Sills, career-vulnerable at age 48, would drop dead of a heart attack that August.
Mulhall inked a new deal with RKO, which lasted for The Fall Guy and no more. More ominously, he went on to “little major” Columbia, where he made now-long-forgotten features such as For the Love o’ Lil (1930) and Lover Come Back (1931), top-billed in the latter with the declining Betty Bronson and rising Constance Cummings). At the end of 1931, you could see Mulhall headlining with his erstwhile FN co-star, Patsy Ruth Miller, in Night Beat, but this crime story was an indie, from producer Ralph M. Like’s on-the-cheap Action Pictures.
From there on out, Mulhall would be alternating between have and have-not companies, with prominent roles for the latter – as late as 1936, he headlined as criminologist Craig Kennedy in the marathon (15 chapter!) science-fiction serial The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand for Weiss Productions. Four years before, Mulhall had also delved into the realm of the fantastic film as the prospective son-in-law of a death ray-creating mad scientist in Murder at Dawn (Big 4 Films, 1932).
As time passed, when most folks saw Mulhall, he was playing various uncredited reporters, photographers, clerks, and henchmen for precious little time and rarely for screen credit at Paramount (his most frequent employer in the ‘30s) and other majors.
Mulhall suffered some damage to his personal reputation in 1933, when he was ordered to pay a $50 fine imposed in court after he was found guilty of assault and battery. The charge stemmed from an incident in which the actor and a friend, both reportedly having imbibed a bit, broke into an apartment looking for a fight and had a tussle with the husband and wife therein.
“Are you a Russian?” one of the victims recounted Mulhall asking, inexplicably. It turned out the two men had the apartment house correct for the solving of their real or imagined grievance, but not the right apartment.
Times grew especially harsh in 1935. Mulhall and his wife of 13 years separated, and he filed for bankruptcy the same week. That same year, he supported young Lon Chaney, Jr. (newly rechristened from his original Creighton Chaney) in a gangster quickie, The Shadow of Silk Lennox. Mulhall had acted with Chaney’s famous father and could have served as a cautionary tale to the junior Chaney, who himself went on to work in increasingly thankless roles until his own death.
There were plenty of other silent stars hanging around the picture business, but few of them had been near the top as recently as Mulhall. In 1936, he was given an unusual forum for a bit player: a bylined, first-person story in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine that was headlined “They Don’t Retire in Hollywood.”
Acknowledging peaks and valleys in his career, Mulhall wrote: “I’m back in harness again, in my fourth comeback, after piling up and losing several sizable fortunes. Ten years ago I had $1 million, two $6,000 automobiles, a $65,000 home in Beverly Hills, and a contract for 52 weeks at $3,250 a week.
“In one year I saw my last antique piece go: you never can save one stick – when the toboggan gets underway.”
Not long after the story appeared, Mulhall attracted the attention of popular movie columnist Jimmie Fidler, who noted that he still heard audiences break into applause for the old-time star whenever he appeared on screen. “From all evidence, he will again scale the heights,” Fidler opined hopefully.
It didn’t happen, although Mulhall never stopped trying. Television came in, so he got seen – however briefly — on Dragnet, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Playhouse 90. Mulhall turned up in the Best Picture Oscar winner Around the World in Eighty Days and the shot-for-peanuts monster flick The She-Creature, both in the same year (1956) that he also found work as a greeter for a Sunset Strip restaurant.
The Internet Movie Database lists Mulhall’s screen finale as a 1959 sci-fi thriller, The Atomic Submarine.
At age 91, Jack Mulhall died of heart failure on June 1, 1979, at the Motion Picture Country Home, where he had resided since 1977. Among his survivors was the wife who had separated from him 44 years before.
“It hasn’t been a rosy path out here for me, for anyone else, either, who has hit the chutes,” his Times obituary quoted Mulhall as saying during what must have been many introspective periods. But he said he always had “the old feeling, always an unmistakable one, that I am definitely on the road back.”
“At the Strand Next Week,” Chillicothe (Missouri) Constitution-Leader, December 29, 1928.
“The Orchid Bids Farewell to the Screen,” Talking Screen, June 1930.
“Pair Get in the Right House But the Wrong Boudoir,” Associated Press report, cited from the Baltimore Sun, August 7, 1933.
“Jack Mulhall Fined,” International News Service report, cited from Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald, September 3, 1933.
“Jack Mulhall Files Bankruptcy Petition,” International News Service report, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), April 17, 1935.
“They Don’t Retire in Hollywood,” Los Angeles Times, November 8, 1936.
“Jack Mulhall, 91, Movie, Stage, TV Actor, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 1979.
How much do I love Turner Classic Movies? A lot, as I have written here. But as delighted as I was to finally have non-commercial-interrupted Golden Age movies piped through my TV set via TCM, the real revelation in small-screen film-watching was my first exposure to TCM’s predecessor in the classics-on-cable field … TNT.
Turner Network Television, as it was called more frequently than now, debuted 30 years ago this week, on October 3, 1988. I have a special affinity for TNT, as its infancy aligned to certain significant events in my personal life.
Even with all the cheesy advertisements breaking up its programs, who among us couldn’t love TNT? With its need for programming came the first real emptying of the Ted Turner-controlled film vault, with hundreds of long-unseen pre-1960 MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO gems suddenly available in our living rooms. I never thought I’d get to pose questions like “Can you believe TNT is showing Show of Shows at 4 a.m. Monday?” Of course, I had to ask these questions to myself, as there were no movie message boards or blogs in the late 1980s, nor did anyone within earshot in Flint, Michigan, know what Show of Shows was.
Here’s where the personal stuff comes in: I had to get married to get TNT.
In 1989, I was living in an apartment complex with an in-house cable menu of about 15 channels, so … no go. My then-fiancée lived in an apartment complex with no TNT but with access to AMC (née American Movie Classics), which was frequently showing rarities from Paramount and Universal.
My wife-to-be was no movie watcher (she still isn’t), but I knew she was right for me when she agreed to allow me to time-tape Night World and Love Comes Along at 5 in the morning on her home VCR. (I also knew she was Ms. Right after I dared to show her Freaks and she didn’t run from the room screaming at the climax.)
You think this isn’t significant? Try finding Night World and Love Comes Along on TV at all anymore.
Anyway, we got married and it was all worth it. We moved to an apartment complex that offered both TNT and AMC. Happy ending. Great times. The marriage was pretty good, too, as I recall.
TNT showed reruns of rarely viewed TV shows such as Medical Center and Mr. Novak and produced its own new programming, but its bread-and-better fare was old movies – many, many of which I saw for the first time on that channel. These would have to be taped on VHS, for collectability purposes and because then, as now on TCM, some of the older rarities were aired at times inconvenient for sleep.
One of these was the early musical The Singing Fool, which I wrote about last week. I was so excited to see it show up on TNT that I couldn’t trust my VCR to go on and off as programmed. So, at 3:30 a.m. on Friday, August 10, 1990, I shuffled out of bed, turned on TNT and my VCR by hand and taped the movie … while editing out the commercials.
(This is how good it was for early talkie buffs in 1990: The Singing Fool was airing at the same time as The Pay-Off (a 1930 Lowell Sherman crime drama from RKO) on AMC and Night Nurse (WB 1931, Barbara Stanwyck) on The Movie Channel.)
Seeing The Singing Fool – even with all of its awkward silence-to-sound-and-back-again transitions and schmaltzy father-son scenes between Al Jolson and little Davey Lee – was nearly the highlight of my week. Would’ve been, too … had my first child not been born two days before.
“Is Gladys Brockwell going to be one of the new stars?” The Los Angeles Times posed this question to its readers on August 5, 1928. And with good reason: Brockwell’s performance was the highlight of Warner Bros.’ new crime drama, Lights of New York.
Well, that and the sound. Lights of New York was Hollywood’s first all-talking feature-length picture, and audiences forgave the flimsy plotting and the technologically imposed, claustrophobic recording and camera work to hear dialogue that they heretofore could only read from an intertitle.
Initially intended as a short subject, Lights of New York was elongated to a feature-length 57 minutes, With a final negative cost of $23,000, it grossed an astounding $1.2 million and, groused WB scenarist (and future Fox studio boss) Darryl Zanuck, “turned the whole g–damn tide” toward the permanence of talkies.
Gladys Brockwell – born 124 years ago today — had become one of the first actors to benefit from the sound revolution. But less than a year after the release of Lights of New York – and less than 11 months after the Times speculated on her promising future — she was dead. The Twenties hadn’t even finished Roaring.
Brockwell was 33 – no youngster – when she played the moll, loyal “for more years than she cared to admit,” of a bootlegging nightclub owner (Wheeler Oakman) in Lights of New York. This was a film that was derided – in 1928! — for its primitive technique, including several unintentionally humorous moments having to do with character groupings (to suit the stationary, hidden microphone) and slow-paced, hackneyed dialogue (co-written by future WB “woo-woo” comic Hugh Herbert). “Take him for … a ride!” the chief villain unconvincingly orders his minions to dispatch a fall guy.
Anyone who thinks Singin’ in the Rain exaggerates the hazards of the transition to sound needs to see how much stranger truth was than fiction.
The hapless fall guy and his girlfriend are played by Cullen Landis and Helene Costello, whose respective film careers came to screeching halts once patrons had voices to match to their faces. Fellow Lights players Oakman, Eugene Pallette, Tom Dugan, Robert Elliott and Mary Carr adjusted to sound and kept on working, and so, at first, did Brockwell. Audiences heard her final-reel speech (after the moll has done away with her lover) – “I’m not afraid. I’ve lived … and I’ve loved … and I’ve lost!” – and they were ready for more.
She was ready, too. Brockwell was not a new star, just one newly returned to the firmament. Introduced to pictures while not yet in her 20s, the Brooklyn native rose in stature by playing the “siren heroine” type.
“In the early days of pictures, Miss Brockwell ranked among the favorites,” stated one newspaper feature. “ … Largely on account of her sincerity, she was one of the most popular actresses of the film colony. If she liked a person, it didn’t matter about his or her worldly standing or possessions. Once, Gladys lost a very big contract with a powerful picture company because she criticised [sic] to the face a movie magnate who had been overworking his extra people.”
The failure of an early marriage was a setback in her personal life, but Brockwell expanded her professional repertoire by playing costume parts in Oliver Twist (1922) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). One of her most prestigious roles was as Nana, the abusive older sister of the prostitute heroine played by Janet Gaynor, in Fox’s popular drama 7th Heaven (1927). All three of the above films, as well as Lights of New York, are available in full on DVD. (One of Brockwell’s fellow cast members in 7th Heaven, Albert Gran, died under unlikely circumstances, as did the subject here.)
Once 7th Heaven and Lights of New York were done, Brockwell signed to perform in no fewer than eight upcoming films, at least five with all or partial dialogue, the L.A. Times reported. The newspaper thus thought it a good idea to ask this conqueror of the Devil Microphone about her triumph.
“Do you know you can have stage fright before the microphone? It’s true,” Brockwell replied. “I have felt my knees shaking more when I faced the microphone than ever in days of the stage. … There isn’t any music [played] on the sets to set the tempo as in the silent films, but there is the music within us and the music of the players’ voices and emotions.”
Brockwell found time to parody her own recovered image as a star in a Vitaphone short subject, Hollywood Bound (1928). She appears as the glamorous seducer of a rube (James Bradbury Jr.) who is shown winning a contest granting him an acting contract at a Hollywood studio. (It can be seen as part of this DVD collection.)
After Lights of New York, Brockwell was seen in quick succession in two late-1928 releases, and there would be five more in theaters during 1929. The last of them, Universal’s courtroom drama The Drake Case, debuted in September … but Brockwell had been gone two months by then.
The end was a shock to all. On June 27, 1929, Brockwell was a passenger in a new roadster driven by Thomas Stanley Brennan, a Los Angeles advertising representative, when it went over a 75-foot embankment off the Ventura Highway near Calabasas, California. Brockwell’s body was crushed, and one particularly vivid newspaper wire-service account said she had suffered fractures of the skull, pelvis and jaws, with “a jagged ten-inch gash in her right side, caused by broken glass.”
The car “turned over three times after striking the bottom” below the embankment, the L.A. Times noted helpfully in the first of a series of articles during what turned out to be a death watch. As the auto had neared a sharp curve while at a high rate of speed, the story said, Brennan “failed to take the newness of the car into account … and the machine leaped over the edge.”
Both victims were unconscious at the site, but Brennan soon awoke to tell investigators that a cinder had blown into his eye just as his car was approaching the curve. Brockwell reportedly emerged from her stupor long enough to claim she had been at the wheel, but officials noted her “semiconscious state at the time of the questioning.”
At one point, physicians told the press that Brockwell might recover, but after four blood transfusions, she died on July 2, 1929. The immediately stated cause was peritonitis, caused by an intestinal puncture.
Brockwell’s passing seemed to be just as well, accounts implied, for her face had been paralyzed by the severing of a nerve, and her career before the camera would have been halted. A coroner’s jury ruled that Brennan had indeed been at the wheel of the car and that the accident was indeed caused by the temporary blindness caused by the cinder.
There was a postscript to Brockwell’s fatal accident. On February 11, 1949, a car skidded across a bridge in Los Angeles, smashed through a concrete barrier, and dropped 35 feet to an alleyway below. The driver was severely injured, but his passenger died at the scene. The passenger’s name was Thomas Stanley Brennan, and he’d been an ad man in L.A. back in the summer of 1929.
“New Film Royalty May Arise,” Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1928.
Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).
“Gladys Brockwell, Star of Films, Dying After Machine Plunges Over 75-Foot Bank,” United Press report, cited from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Evening News, June 28, 1929.
“Actress Crushed by Auto,” Los Angeles Times, June 28, 1929.
“Film Actress Near Death,” Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1929.
“Actress Has Fair Chance to Recover,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1929.
“Plunge Injuries Fatal to Gladys Brockwell,” Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1929.
“Gladys Brockwell Dies of Injuries,” Associated Press report, cited from Owensboro (Kentucky) Messenger, July 3, 1929.
“Last Rites of Actress Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1929.
“Gladys Brockwell Is Mourned,” Los Angeles Times, July 5, 1929.
“Rider Killed as Car Drops From Bridge,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1949.
To most film fans, Walter Pidgeon will be best remembered for his stolid acting in classics such as How Green Was My Valley, Forbidden Planet and, to cite just one of his many pairings with Greer Garson at MGM, Mrs. Miniver. But as we mark his 121st birthday on September 23, I’ll admit that I think of him first as a baritone in early musicals, both comedies and operettas.
A native of New Brunswick, Pidgeon (1897-1984) came to the United States after World War I service with his native Canada. He went into banking initially but gained a footing on stage and in silent pictures. When talkies came in, Pidgeon – who had studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music – found himself in demand for singing parts.
Pidgeon sang in such Warner Bros.-First National songfests as Bride of the Regiment (1930, opposite Vivienne Segal); Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930, with Claudia Dell); Viennese Nights (1930, Segal again), and Kiss Me Again (1931, Bernice Claire). He also appeared in, but did not sing in, Warners’ The Hot Heiress (1931) and Show Girl in Hollywood (1930). By 1931, Warner Bros. had no use for Pidgeon’s baritone, as musicals were out of vogue.
Pidgeon also sang in Universal’s first talkie, Melody of Love (1928), which may or may not be a musical. (Someone will have to find it, and see it, before we know for sure.)
Pidgeon endured a downturn in his film career and returned to New York for a spell in the 1930s, but as we know, he rebounded very nicely.
I’m planning to write more about Bernice Claire and Kiss Me Again soon, so consider this a teaser of sorts …
“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” was what Al Jolson exalted when he opened his mouth to sing in his landmark 1927 (part-)talkie, The Jazz Singer. He might have said the same for the following year’s The Singing Fool, in which audibly crazed audiences heard even more talk and song by the singular entertainer billed as far above the title as Warner Bros. could accommodate.
The Singing Fool premiered 90 years ago tonight at the Winter Garden theater in New York City, where a scribe from the movie trade publication Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World reported thusly:
“It is doubtful if, in all the history of … films, there has ever been so exciting and spectacular an opening as came to the Winter Garden. … Of course, the Warner Brothers were the center of attention, for Jolson has been their great discovery, in many ways the cornerstone of the great edifice they are now building. …
“The picture was a smashing success. Though the script is not quite worthy of the star, he showed himself to be so extraordinary that no one can doubt but that it will take the country by storm, as did The Jazz Singer.”
Folks unfamiliar with The Singing Fool might think the musical drama is an all-talkie, but actually only about two-thirds of its 102 minutes includes dialogue or musical numbers to augment a fully synchronized underscore. And it premiered two months after Warners debuted the first all-talking feature, the otherwise-routine crime drama Lights of New York. The novelty of the Lloyd Bacon-directed Singing Fool tends to overshadow its story of the “fool” of a singer-songwriter played by Jolie, who rockets from waiting tables to nightclub and recording fame while gaining and losing an unloving wife (Josephine Dunn) and a greater love, his “Sonny Boy” (played by 3 1/2-year-old Davey Lee).
The almost unbearably sad “Sonny Boy” was written in that hyper-mood as a joke by the songwriting team of De Sylva, Brown and Henderson, but the public made it the first song from a movie to sell more than 1 million copies of sheet music and phonograph records. It and the more upbeat “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World” and “There’s a Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder” were what patrons were humming as they left theaters after watching The Singing Fool. The cringey father-son scenes don’t play so well today, and Jolson’s overbearing quality would catch up to him as an actor (his ensuing WB releases were flops, and his contract with the studio was allowed to run out in 1930), but that wasn’t the case nine decades ago this evening.
The Singing Fool sometimes gets lost in the recitations of early-sound-history shorthand: Edison … the French … the De Forest shorts … WB and Vitaphone … Fox-Case … Don Juan … The Jazz Singer… Lights of New York … The Broadway Melody … and now we’re into 1929. But The Singing Fool was a signal accomplishment as the first talking-film megahit. It cost less than $400,000 to make, but it grossed $3.8 million in this country and nearly $6 million worldwide, setting box office records unrivaled until Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came along nearly a decade later.
Not that many theaters around the country were wired for sound when Singing Fool made its run, but It could command top dollar. Ticket buyers for opening night at the Winter Garden got in for $11, and the film went for $3 for its regular run there … this in a day when the average price of a movie ticket was 25 cents.
Pare Lorentz, then a young, intellectual film critic whose landmark documentaries about the New Deal were a few years ahead, had to offer at least grudging praise of Jolson in The Singing Fool: “Obvious and tedious as the climax is, when the blackface comedian stands before the camera and sings ‘Sonny Boy,’ you know that the man is greater, somehow, than the situation, the story, or the movie.”
Turner Classic Movies isn’t airing The Singing Fool for its birthday (that channel hasn’t shown it since 2014), but the TCM website has what is alleged to be a trailer of the British reissue here. And there is a DVD available for purchase from Warner Archive (info here).
“1st $3 Top Film Is Jolson’s at Garden,” Variety, September 26, 1928.
“Jolson’s Singing Fool Makes Spectacular Garden Opening,” Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World, September 29, 1928.
Judge, October 20, 1928.
EMB, The First Hollywood Musicals: A Critical Filmography of 171 Features, 1927-32 (McFarland & Co., 1996).
Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-30 (Simon and Schuster, 1997).
In the wake of the mid-1934 enforcement of the Production Code smoothing the raw edges off Hollywood product, some feared it would lead to slim pickings in the horror-film field that fall. And so we had the Miller Theater in Jefferson City, Missouri, showcasing the Paramount programmer Menace as its Halloween night attraction.
The Miller’s was a midnight show advertised as a “A Grand and Glorious Hallowe’en Party” with “spooky short subjects” and a “most unique costume” contest (with top prizes of $5, $3 and $2!). But the featured “super-thriller” was a mere old-dark-house murder mystery – with nary a ghost or goblin within its 57 minutes. “It is said that those with weak hearts should not be present,” crowed the J-City newspaper in advance. No one needn’t have worried in that town, nor in the others (and there were others) who made Menace a holiday treat.
Even if it is a borderline horror at best, Menace is not without its delights. The influential historian-film collector William K. Everson made this film worth seeking out to many Golden Age fantasy-pic completists when he discussed it in his 1994 book More Classics of the Horror Film. The “monster” of the story is indeed all too human, but the revenge angle is vividly laid out, the atmosphere appropriately gloomy, and there are some twists that make the tale worth following to the final suspenseful moments.
The biggest name in Menace is wasted in one of its smaller parts, albeit one key to the plot. You could tell it wasn’t Ray Milland’s time in the spotlight yet: He is billed fifth, still as Raymond Milland, and disappears before the end of the first reel. But 1934 was the last of Milland’s lean years. Bolstered by his brief but impactful work in Menace – and, more particularly, in a sizable part in the Bing Crosby-Carole Lombard musical We’re Not Dressing, Milland was about to graduate to romantic leads … and, within a decade or so, to Oscar glory.
From the same father-son producer-screenwriter team (Bayard and Anthony Veiller) that brought us the underrated supernatural tale The Witching Hour (1934), Menace was based on a novel by Philip MacDonald, writer of The Lost Patrol and The List of Adrian Messenger. It is clearly an ensemble piece. But the two actors billed at the top – Gertrude Michael and Paul Cavanaugh – earned that distinction with their pairing as competing jewel thieves in the successful Paramount crime drama The Notorious Sophie Lang (1934). Few remember either of them anymore, and the Sophie Lang pictures (there were three in all) are practically out of circulation.
Here’s the story: In British East Africa, a resident military man, Colonel Leonard Crecy (Cavanaugh), and two friends, Helen Chalmers (Michael) and Norman Bellamy (Berton Churchill), telephone a young mining engineer, Freddie Bastion (Milland), and ask him to visit for a game of bridge. Against his better judgment, Freddie agrees, but as he is en route by plane back to his post after the game. he watches helplessly as a vicious storm breaks the dam he is supposed to be overseeing, destroying the home of his two sisters. Freddie’s plane then goes down, but Crecy, Helen and Bellamy are cleared of wrongdoing in the tragedy. This decision is not well received by Freddie’s estranged brother, whose face we do not see as, newly escaped from a mental institution, he practices his accomplished knife-throwing skills in hopes of enacting his own verdict.
Soon, Helen is joined at her California mansion by Crecy, Bellamy, her sister Gloria (Arletta Duncan) and Gloria’s boyfriend (Robert Allen). An aged neighbor (Henrietta Crosman) and her actor acquaintance (John Lodge) join the group, as does Cracy’s driver (Forrester Harvey). A newly hired butler (Halliwell Hobbes) is also on hand for the strange reunion. It soon becomes apparent that Timothy Bastion is also on hand … or is he one of the above folks (male or female) traveling incognito?
Director Ralph “Fido” Murphy spent a career making quickies such as this, and he keeps the pace brisk, if not breakneck. Although we don’t see him at first, Timothy is quickly and effectively established as a fearsomely deranged sort, and not just for the thuds of the knives he tosses at the walls of his flat. We see the texts of Timothy’s threatening letters to those he holds responsible for the demise of his family, as he predicts the order of their intended demise. Cuts to a newspaper headline and an eyewitness account of his evils add to the guessing game, and as Timothy travels to Helen’s home, train wheels move in time to a hypnotic madman’s chant of “I’m on my way! I’m on my way!”
At this point, we are only a quarter of the way through the film, which is thereafter devoted to a guessing game as to the villain. I am tempted to guarantee that if you see Menace, you will not accurately predict the identity of the culprit until it is revealed. Same for that of an authority figure for good who is surreptitiously involved. It helps that the cast is properly varied in age and nationality. (Crosman and Harvey provide the kind of comic relief that thrillers were thought to require in 1934.)
Released on October 26, 1934, Menace drew praise from the Los Angeles Times as “smooth, incisive, with suspense developed to an acute degree” and “intelligence in every detail. It is … excellent program entertainment.” The premiere showbiz newspaper Variety could be tough on smaller features such as this, but its reviewer, while saying the film “has … added nothing new to the who-killed-cock-robin formula,” admitted it “shows a sure hand and throughout when it comes to pacing and weaving in the tricks that make for suspense and surprise.”
One almost wishes that Menace had been left for production by a Poverty Row company than as a routine entry from a major studio. Public-domain ’34 indies such as The Ghost Walks and House of Mystery have been available for decades through bargain-bin VHS and DVD releases and currently by streaming. But similar – but better – chillers such as Menace and its studio kin Double Door, Murder by the Clock and The Witching Hour have been rarely revived (although not unnoticed by collectors) while under corporate legal control.
The Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi starrer The Black Cat deservedly reigns as the best of a sparse 1934 Hollywood horror crop. But it didn’t produce the only genuine scares of its movie year.
“Headquarters for Spooks at Miller Tuesday,” Sunday News and Tribune (Jefferson City, Missouri), October 28, 1934.
“Film Reviews: Menace,” Variety, November 27, 1934.
“Menace Pleases,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1934.
Among all of the Hollywood stories of broken dreams, one of the saddest is that of a beautiful young blonde — born 114 years ago today — against whose ambition for stardom the fates cruelly conspired.
She was born, and died, as Constance Woodruff, but if you know of her, it is as Edwina Booth, who won what she thought was the role of a lifetime in the MGM super-production Trader Horn (1931). The physical and emotional suffering that followed made that accomplishment hollow – and Booth’s demise the province of urban legend.
Constance, a demure girl from a Mormon family in Utah, came to Los Angeles in 1925 and landed a couple of minor picture parts. Then she got noticed – as an “extra girl” beating out hundreds of aspirants to co-star as the African jungle’s “White Goddess” in Trader Horn – the much-ballyhooed film version of the best-selling book.
Multitudes clamored to see the “Goddess” who, in the story, is sought by the titular white trader (played by action star Harry Carey) and his young companion (portrayed by Duncan Renaldo). Unfortunately, journeying to Africa for many months of location shooting was part of the “dream” assignment.
Booth endured poor treatment by the studio, which, she would allege, ordered her to sunbathe nude on the deck of the ship on its way to the jungle and failed to provide her with protective clothing during the long stay in the wild, with its thorny brush and insect hordes.
Shooting was delayed even longer – leading to nearly a year total, including most of 1929 – as sound equipment, deemed necessary because of the industry transition to talking films, had to be shipped to the crew. Director W.S. Van Dyke and his charges didn’t return to the U.S. until early 1930, and Van Dyke had shot so much footage that the film would not be readied for its premiere until May 1931.
Booth received the requisite publicity push – the film was a huge popular success — but she could enjoy nothing during her abbreviated period as a star. Within weeks after her return to America, and even before Trader Horn opened, there were rumors – perhaps even encouraged by MGM for publicity’s sake – about her weakened condition via a jungle germ that threatened to claim her life within months. In the fall of 1930, a fan-magazine sob sister printed a dramatic interview with Booth about her harrowing experience:
“The worst was not sleeping … not more than ten minutes at a time all those months,” Booth said. “And since I’ve been home, it’s the same. I wake up, thinking I’m back, thinking I hear the drums, and the hyenas sleeping and the natives chanting. Did you know that when any of the village people are sick, they take them out and abandon them in the forest to die? We saw that happen. …
“But I’m much better. I can sleep an hour at a time now. I’m ready to go back to work whenever they need me. It was terrible – and wonderful, too.”
Then things turned really terrible. Booth endured an alienation-of-affection accusation from the wife of her Trader Horn co-star Duncan Renaldo. And she did get sick … very sick. Booth had come down with malaria and dysentery while in Africa.
Contrary to legend, Booth did not return to obscurity immediately. She actually ground out four Poverty Row films after Trader Horn. The Vanishing Legion (1931) and The Last of the Mohicans (1932) were low-budget serials that reteamed Booth with Harry Carey. The Midnight Patrol (1932) was a routine murder mystery with Mary Nolan (another too-soon Hollywood casualty) down the cast list. Trapped in Tia Juana (1932) matched Booth with Renaldo again, but by then Booth was ready to retire to her sickbed.
And there she stayed … for more than five years, her career done before it had really started. Booth collected a mere $35,000 in a $1 million lawsuit against MGM that was settled out of court in 1936.
Her family took care of Booth, who popped in and out of the news throughout the 1930s as newspapers recorded her ups and downs. In 1936, she was judged well enough to walk on her own for the first time in many months. By 1938, she was forced to leave her beloved Utah to return to Los Angeles for more treatment. Her father told a wire-service reporter that “she suffers slight relapses at intervals in the long fight against the illness.”
Booth recovered enough to marry twice more (she had divorced her first husband in the early 1930s). Constance took back her birth name, and she lived quietly with her third husband. Their lives centered on their work in an LDS temple, and most of Connie’s friends during her twilight years knew nothing of her life as Edwina.
Meanwhile, many folks thought that Edwina Booth had died back in the ’30s. The misinformation continued as late as 1987, when Katharine Hepburn repeated the claim of Booth’s early death in her book “The Making of ‘The African Queen.’”
On May 18, 1991, the truth came permanently to light after Edwina Booth/Constance Woodruff passed on, at age 86 in a convalescent hospital in Long Beach, California. Her husband had perished seven years before, so it was left to the actress’s brother to report her death to the news media.
“Her death has been wrongly reported so many times …,” Booth Woodruff told the Los Angeles Times. “But this time she really did die.”
“Hollywood Sub-Stories: Hidden Away, Edwina Booth Still Is Haunted by the Horrors She Saw,” Motion Picture Classic, September 1930.
“Edwina Booth Continues Health Battle,” United Press report, cited from Salt Lake (Utah) Telegram, October 4, 1938.
“Edwina Booth: White Goddess of Classic Film Trader Horn,” Los Angeles Times, May 22, 1991.
(The most complete account of Edwina Booth’s life can be found in a series of stories from 2006 by D. Robert Carter for the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Look here and at related links.)
In 1934, in a time dominated by Great Depression worries at home and world-impacting unrest in Europe, The Witching Hour must have seemed like a relic from a simpler era.
This new, pre-Code movie melodrama was old at its core, set circa 1870 and derived from a 1907 play by Augustus Thomas that had brought occult thrills to many a tank-town stage for a generation. This tale of hypnotism, telepathy, murder and lost love also was done twice for the silent flickers, in 1916 and 1924.
The great silent-film comedian Raymond Griffith was said to have permanently impaired his voice by screaming at the top of his lungs through stage performances in The Witching Hour as a youth. It was jolting stuff in those days, not long past the turn of the century — but maybe not in ’34, when Paramount trotted out the property again after negotiations for talking-picture rights with the American Play Company.
The film’s producer was Bayard Veiller, the esteemed playwright best known for writing The Trial of Mary Dugan and the eerie The Thirteenth Chair. The director was Henry Hathaway, who was just beginning his long and prolific career. That their Witching Hour stands up so well 80-plus years later, despite its old-fashioned subject matter and non-big name cast, is a tribute to the efficiency and resources of Hollywood studio-system filmmaking.
The Witching Hour concerns the inadvertent supernatural powers possessed by Jack Brookfield (John Halliday), who runs a gambling parlor out of his Kentucky mansion. One of his regular customers is a young Northerner architect, Clay Thorne (Tom Brown), who is engaged to Brookfield’s daughter, Nancy (Judith Allen).
Brookfield is aware of his strange, secret gift through his ability to know what cards his customers hold, and the premonitions he gets when he thinks the local authorities are planning to raid his place, but he shows ethical restraint by not engaging in gambling himself.
Brookfield is visited by town political boss Frank Hardmuth (Ralf Harolde), and the two argue. Brookfield responds by punching Hardmuth and predicting he has not long to live. Clay, who has been unintentionally hypnotized by Brookfield through a cat’s-eye ring the older man wears, overhears the incident, then goes to Hardmuth’s office and shoots him dead.
Brookfield now must prove Clay’s innocence without implicating himself. Can a man be “killed by a thought”?
The compact screenplay by Anthony Veiller, the son of the film’s producer, wraps up matters within 69 minutes, making The Witching Hour ideal for the bottom of double-feature bills. Its titular familiarity had to carry it for potential patrons, for the “name” value of its cast was low.
Billed first in the on-screen credits was Sir Guy Standing, the English actor who appears in a fairly small role as an aged barrister friend of Brookfield’s who warns the latter to “guard his thoughts” against using them for ill. The retired judge is prompted to return to the courtroom for Clay’s trial when beset by the spirit of a sweetheart (Gertrude Michael) lost years before. Despite the presence of the young couple, the “otherworldly” Standing and Michael characters best exemplify the romantic qualities of The Witching Hour.
Halliday is the film’s acting standout in one of his typically suave roles, here as always with a vaguely English accent that hid his origins in Brooklyn. He is supported by such seasoned players as Olive Tell, William Frawley, Purnell Pratt, Ferdinand Gottschalk and, as a gambling-house devotee who wishes Brookfield would bend his ethics a little, Richard Carle.
Tom Brown, borrowed from RKO for this picture, had attracted attention as the title character in Universal’s Tom Brown of Culver (1932). He was soon to build his reputation as Anne Shirley’s would-be sweetie in RKO’s Anne of Green Gables (1934).
The ingenue, Judith Allen, had only a short period in significant films, but she did perform alongside Bing Crosby (Too Much Harmony and She Loves Me Not) and W.C. Fields (The Old Fashioned Way).
The Witching Hour, seeing no need to stray outside the play’s original time setting, remains unabashedly retro with underscored instrumentals of “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.” By 1934, even with the pseudo-spook and gambling angles, this was deemed all-ages entertainment, with the Legion of Decency classifying it “suitable for family patronage.” A sentimental wrap-up helped.
The Witching Hour was not a big money maker, but it was pleasing to much of the audience. Even in 1934, apparently, The Witching Hour play hadn’t been seen everywhere, as evidenced by this trade-publication report from an Ohio picture-house owner: “The most unique murder play that I have ever seen. The people will go for this play.”
In New York, where The Witching Hour had played for nearly a year on Broadway, and where audiences fancied themselves more sophisticated, the reaction was not so promising. Twenty years before, opined the New York Daily News, this material “was startlingly new and created something of a sensation. Today all the talk of hypnotism in the picture … seems puerile. It earned snickers here and there from the audience at the Paramount Theatre.”
On the plus side, Variety opined that the film “still packs a punch for those who do not insist of extreme plausibility, and the master touch of one of our few great native dramatists,” meaning Thomas, “still stands out.”
The Witching Hour is skillfully directed and acted, and if it seems quaintly nostalgic, that’s a good thing for a Golden Age fantasy devotee.
“Remake Witching Hour,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 9, 1934.
“Witching Hour a Thriller; Half a Sinner Pleasing,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 11, 1934.
“Journal of a Crime Study in Psychology,” New York Daily News, April 28, 1934.
“Film Reviews,” Variety, May 1, 1934.
“What the Picture Did for Me,” Motion Picture Herald, July 21, 1934.