Sunday, December 28, 2008

Doctor, doctor…give me the news…

TCM finished up their Crime Doctor movie festival yesterday with two entries from 1947: The Millerson Case and Crime Doctor’s Gamble. One of them features a promising start which unfortunately doesn’t pan out, and the other is my candidate for worst entry of the series. Plus—the two Crime Doctor opuses (opi?) that TCM didn’t get around to showing.

The Millerson Case (1947) – As the film begins, our hero, Dr. Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter), is leaving for a “long deserved vacation” (his words, not mine) and traveling to the bucolic community of Brook Falls (some wag at the IMDb says it’s located “in the Blue Ridge Mountains district of West Virginia” but it looks a little Pine Ridge-ish to me) where he hopes to get in a little hunting and fishing. Unfortunately, he arrives in the tiny town only to discover that an outbreak of “summer complaint” has befallen some of the townsfolk—at least that’s the diagnosis of town doctor Sam Millerson (Griff Barnett), a medico set in his country ways and who doesn’t believe in that “big city doctorin’.” As colorful as ol’ Doc Millerson can be, he’s dead wrong on the diagnosis; it’s actually a spate of typhoid fever gripping the town—and Ordway is asked to suspend his vacation to assist the doctors (among them Addison Richards) in stamping out the epidemic. In examining the patients who have succumbed to the typhoid, however, Ordway finds that the town barber (Trevor Bardette) may have had typhoid-like symptoms…but that his death was actually due to poison!

Case starts out with a real wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am premise that creates enough suspense for two Crime Doctor outings: the only problem is that once it’s been established that the barber was poisoned, the typhoid fever plot comes to a quick stop (you see cops pulling down quarantine signs and relieved townsfolk planning their “Summer Festival”) and Case’s story returns to the traditional whodunit format of the Crime Doctor films. Nearly every actor in Hollywood who specialized in hillbilly roles appears in this entry: Clem Bevans, Paul Guilfoyle, James Bell, Ernie Adams, Walter Baldwin, Russell Simpson and Sarah Padden, to name but a few. While I was disappointed with the direction Case took it’s still a better-than-average entry in the series; Barbara “Doris Ziffel” Pepper plays a slutty housewife who’s still sexy as all-get-out despite her zaftig proportions (she even engages in a sprightly catfight with Frances Morris…for those of you heartened by that sort of thing), and Three Stooges nemesis Dick Wessel has a fairly substantial part as Brook Falls’ blacksmith. The funniest part in the film occurs after the murderer has been captured; the guilty party tries to make Ordway and the authorities think he’s a sandwich shy of a picnic so our hero tells his colleagues that the sure way to prove his sanity is to hand him a newspaper on fire—an insane person will allow it to continue to burn despite the pain, a sane person will put it out. When Mr. Looney Bin Candidate refuses to drop the newspaper, Ordway reveals that he’s fallen for his little trap—an insane person cannot reason, and would have dropped the paper at the first sensation of pain! (At the half, it’s Ordway 7…Dumbass Criminal zip.)

Crime Doctor’s Gamble (1947) – Hands down, the most sluggish (and probably the worst) entry in Columbia’s ten-film series. We are taken via stock footage to the city of lights—gay Paree, where Ordway is finishing up a speech to a board of psychiatric colleagues…and then it’s off to the local constabulary, where C.D. is reunited with his old friend Inspector Jacques Morrell (Marcel Journet), who promises to show him a big night on the town. Ordway tells his friend that under no circumstances will he be dragged into any mysteries (something that obviously worked so well for him in Millerson) but you know that’s not going to happen because there’s an hour and two minutes left in the movie to kill. Indeed, Morrell asks for his friend’s assistance in cracking a murder case—apparently young Henri Jardin (Roger Dann) is accused of taking his father’s life after informing Papa that he’s married Mignon Duval (Micheline Cheirel), daughter of Jardin’s nemesis, knife-thrower Maurice Duval (Eduardo Ciannelli)...and the old fart ends up dead not long after the son's departure. What starts off as a crime of passion soon blossoms into an art forgery racket, something Ordway takes advantage of to get his murderer eventually.

The Gallic accents fly thick and fast in Gamble—so much so that I couldn’t help thinking about that joke in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Of course we are French! Why do you think we have these outrageous accents?”). But what hurts Gamble is the fact that the first half of the story is basically talk-talk-talk; none of the characters are particularly interesting (although Cheirel’s a nice bit of pastry…if you know what I mean...and I think you do) and the shift in storyline doesn’t help much either. (I will admit that the villain’s identity through me for a loop…but when you’re bored, anything is bound to do that.)

Shadows in the Night (1944) – According to the IMDb, this is the only entry in the Crime Doctor series that has yet to make an appearance on TCM (and we all know the percentage of accuracy concerning IMDb). If this is true, it’s a shame because Shadows is one of the better Crime Doctor vehicles: a young woman named Lois Garland (Nina Foch) tells Ordway of some vivid nightmares she’s been experiencing (that of being visited by a ghostly apparition) that she fears will lead her to commit suicide. Ordway is skeptical, of course, but agrees to amble on out to the girl’s estate…and ends up meeting the apparition himself! He follows the spirit while in a hypnotic trance and awakens on a nearby beach—where he is brought to by “mad scientist” Frank Swift (George Zucco). Returning to the house, he discovers a dead body in the hallway on the second floor and awakens Garland to his discovery…but by the time she gets there, the body has vanished. The corpse, however, makes a return appearance on the beach as Ordway is enjoying his morning constitutional—and the victim is identified as Raymond Shields, the senior partner at the firm where Garland works.

There’s a tiny flaw in Shadows that drives me to distraction in other movies: the whole supernatural aspect turns out to be nothing but bunk (yes, the old Scooby-Doo “I would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for that meddling medico” ploy). But for some reason, it doesn’t bother me here as it does in other films; I think I make allowances for it because of Shadows’ spooky atmosphere and first-rate supporting cast. I will tell you off the bat that Zucco’s character is nothing more than a red herring (though I do enjoy watching him so), but there are plenty of suspects here including Edward Norris, Lester Matthews, Jeanne Bates, Arthur Hohl and Minor Watson. Ben Welden, a character tough usually associated with gangster roles (particularly on TV’s The Adventures of Superman) acquits himself nicely as Foch’s chief cook and bottle washer, as does Charles Halton, who's sort of semi-comic relief as the county coroner. So this entry (if the IMDb info is correct) may be a bit hard to track down…but it’s definitely worth it.

The Crime Doctor’s Diary (1949) – By 1949, most of Columbia’s series films were ready to leave the tables and cash in; it was the year that the last Boston Blackie (Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture [1949]) and Lone Wolf (The Lone Wolf and His Lady [1949]) films were released, and the Whistler had wrapped up things a year before (The Return of the Whistler [1948]). Interestingly, the Crime Doctor series went out on a high note (at least to me; Diary’s a much better film than Gamble), with this entertaining entry involving a parolee named Steve Carter (Stephen Dunne) who still insists he was framed for arson and very much wants Ordway to help prove his innocence. Ordway doesn’t want to get involved but has no choice when the sales manager (George Meeker) of a call-in jukebox service is found dead…and the witness, the half-wit brother (Whit Bissell) of the company’s president (Don Beddoe), identifies Carter as the man who entered the building shortly before the sales manager’s death. Carter’s ex-girlfriend (Lois “Moneypenny” Maxwell) tries to shield him from capture by the cops while Ordway starts barging into offices and homes conducting one of his typical investigations.

As frequent TDOY commenter Mike Doran pointed out last week, TCM’s dereliction of leaving Diary off its schedule (understandable though it may be, as they could only show eight) denies viewers the opportunity to check out the singular song stylings of B-movie great Whit Bissell, whose song about tooting a French horn is so grating that…well, let me put it this way: Bissell’s subsequent record album (inspired by his role here)—The Mellow Moods of Bissell—later resulted in quite a few eardrum-puncture incidents in emergency rooms across this great nation. (Okay, I made that last part up.) All seriousness aside, I have to say I was pretty amused by Whit’s uncharacteristic warbling (most of the movies I’ve seen him in he’s either a government bureaucrat or dotty mad scientist)—not to mention Maxwell’s change-of-pace turn. Bush league femme fatale Adele Jergens (from films like Blues Busters [1950] and Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man [1951]) is on hand here as a slinky dame who once dated Carter and King Kong’s own “Carl Denham,” Robert Armstrong, is her boss—a rival jukebox service owner. Other familiar faces include TDOY fave Claire Carleton (as Armstrong’s receptionist) and Cliff Clark (as Ordway’s cop nemesis). I don’t like giving away the endings to films but I’ll tell you right now that the denouement of Diary is a real pip.

The Crime Doctor series, as a whole, never really matched similar Columbia series like The Whistler or Boston Blackie—but as the studio’s bread-and-butter, they certainly did okay for themselves…and seen today, even the worst of them has some content worth watching. Next Saturday, TCM returns to the joy of cliffhangers with Zorro Rides Again, the classic chapter-play released by Republic in 1937. Here’s hoping the great cable channel starts up another festival devoted to series films real soon.

1 comment:

mike doran said...

Your acknowledgement of my little contributions to your worthy blog is the best Christmas present I've had in some time; great thanks. At least I'm having better luck with you than I am with Roger Ebert... Anyway, happy holidays and 'toot-toot-ta-toot' to you and yours. (and I hope you have better luck shaking that melody than I ever have.)