‘Menace,’ Paramount’s Halloween treat of 1934

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Someone seeks to silence Gertrude Michael in the Paramount chiller “Menace” (1934).

This is the latest in an occasional series of blogs about Paramount horror and semi-horror films of the 1930s. Previously: This Pre-Code Thriller Was Inspired by a Very Un-Trump-Like New York Landlord Family, “Murder by the Clock” … and the Karloff Who Wasn’t, “The Witching Hour” Strikes One Last Time.

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.)

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Is 72-year-old, gun-toting Henrietta Crosman the villain in “Menace”? I’m not telling.

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.

 

SOURCES

“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.

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“Who Is Next?” asked newspaper ads for “Menace.”

Jay Henry: Dressed for business

 

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In his only credited film appearance, Jay Henry (right) emoted with Ray Milland and Carole Lombard in “We’re Not Dressing” (1934).

Paramount assembled an impressive roster of players for the tuneful We’re Not Dressing (1934), which paired the studio’s biggest song star, Bing Crosby, with a perennial screwball-comedy charmer, Carole Lombard. For this uncredited retelling of J.M. Barrie’s play The Admirable Crichton, the rest of the credited cast consisted of Ethel Merman, George Burns and Gracie Allen, pretend-drunk funster Leon Errol, future Academy Award winner Ray Milland and Jay Henry … a Hollywood one-and-done.

Well, how about “mostly impressive”?

One can watch We’re Not Dressing and hardly know that Jay Henry existed as an actor. Crosby plays a singing sailor who is appointed caretaker of the pet bear owned by heiress Lombard, on whose ocean cruise Der Bingle is employed. Lombard is pursued by two gold-digging playboy princes, but a fortuitous shipwreck turns Crosby into a hero and thwarts the fake royals. Merman longs for whichever prince Lombard rejects – but she gets neither. Merman sings “It’s Just a New Spanish Custom” in a duet with Errol, but Crosby gets the hits: Harry Revel and Mack Gordon’s “May I?” and “Love Thy Neighbor.” It’s heavily lightweight stuff, but anything with Crosby onscreen in 1934 was spun into box-office gold.

Henry and Milland portray the con artist “princes” Alexander and Michael, who vie for Lombard’s affections, although Henry hints suggestively to Milland that “we three could be very happy together.” (We’re Not Dressing beat the Production Code crackdown to theaters by mere weeks.) Milland’s work here led to a long-term Paramount contract and ensuing stardom; Henry, nonesuch.

No matter, for Jay Henry could laugh all the way to the bank, and if his single credit seems something of a lark … well, it was, sort of.

Henry was signed to a movie contract in the fall of 1933 with little to none of the stage experience expected from an actor from the East. He was a native New Yorker (real name: Julian Henry Rosenstein) who, the trade publication The Film Daily reported, came to Los Angeles for “a visit with no idea of entering pix.” He was “spotted on a golf course by a Paramount official … given a screen test” and then pacted for We’re Not Dressing.

Appropriately for a young performer (Henry was 21 at the time), Henry was subjected to inter-studio training: He and other “embryo actors” – Ida Lupino, Kent Taylor and Toby Wing among them – rehearsed for a stage performance of the suspense thriller Double Door as 1934 dawned at Paramount. Shooting on We’re Not Dressing commenced in mid-January.

Henry also was, for a while, regularly name-checked in the fan magazines. He was most conspicuously linked to Dorothy Dell, another nascent Paramount player, whom he accompanied on an impromptu raccoon hunt — hounds included — at an L.A. harbor on a spring night in ‘34. Dell (who would die in an auto accident that June) imported the raccoons from her native Dixie for the out-of-place stunt.

One fan-mag account had Dell denying reports that she and Henry were engaged, although he had gifted her with a good-sized engagement ring. Another had Henry stepping out with another Southern-bred Paramount contractee, Gail Patrick.

By March 1934, with the release of We’re Not Dressing slated for late April, Henry was already being announced for a part in Paramount’s next W.C. Fields comedy, then titled Grease Paint. That film became The Old Fashioned Way, but Henry was nowhere to be found in the finished product. In June, Henry was reported to be driving by auto back to New York.

That Henry apparently never appeared in another movie may have had to do with his ineffectual work in We’re Not Dressing, in which his dark/exotic features, lack of suavity, tentative line readings and slightly oversized nose contrast poorly with the look of fellow “heavy” Milland. The presence of much bigger names also accentuates the problem. In other words, Henry is out of his league.

But here’s the thing … Henry didn’t have to act. The son of glue manufacturer Henry Rosenstein, he didn’t need the money. And anyway, his father intended him to run the family business. In 1938, Henry was mentioned in Walter Winchell’s column as “stuck with the glue millions” and said to be in a “blazing romance” with prominent model Joan Taylor (not to be confused with the ’50s film actress Joan Taylor).

Taylor, from the prestigious John Robert Powers agency, had attracted national attention as an advertising pinup. She and Henry were bridesmaid and best man at the wedding of model and ex-Paramount actress Linda Yale to a paper company executive in December 1938, then they eloped immediately after their friends’ nuptials. By this time, Henry was advertising director of the family concern, the New York City-based Thomas W. Dunn Co., a maker of gelatin and glue.

Jay Henry died way too young – but not during his service in World War II, when he was a Navy pilot who rose to the rank of lieutenant commander. Upon the death of his father in 1949, he rose to the Dunn company presidency. On December 23, 1951, Henry succumbed to a heart attack at his home in White Plains, New York. He was only 39, survived by his wife, mother and sister.

 

SOURCES:

Ray Milland, Wide-Eyed in Babylon (New York: William Morrow, 1974).

“Along the Rialto,” The Film Daily, April 23, 1934.

“Par’s Embryo Actors,” Variety, January 9, 1934.

“Having Fun in Hollywood,” The New Movie Magazine, June 1934.

“Here’s Hollywood,” Screenland, May 1934.

“Tomorrow’s Stars,” Screenland, July 1934.

“Two for Jay Henry,” Variety, March 27, 1934.

“Coming and Going,” The Film Daily, June 25, 1934.

“Walter Winchell … on Broadway,” September 1937.

“Modeling Is Hard Work, Joan Taylor Declares,” Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times, August 10, 1938.

“Broadway,” New York Daily News, December 19, 1938.

“Henry Rosenstein” (obituary), New York Times, October 28, 1949.

“Jay Henry” (obituary), New York Times, December 25, 1951.

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