By Philip Schweier
My parents once lamented my tendency to spend an entire evening watching bad TV, conveniently forgetting that in their day, they spent many an entire evening watching equally bad films at their local theater – and PAYING for the privilege. Such questionable fare was referred to as “B” movies, and often was sandwiched between a cartoon, a newsreel, maybe a comedy short, and the feature presentation.
These low-budget cheapies usually starred journeyman actors searching for their eventual jump to greener pastures, and were usually churned out by such studios as Monogram Pictures. Thanks to Netflix, here is a sampling:
Mystery of the 13th Guest (1943): Thirteen years after grandfather’s death, Marie Morgan (Helen Parrish) is granted the privilege of opening his last will and testament. Her instructions are to return to the very room in which he presented her with it, in the house that has been shuttered ever since. Inside the gloomy old mansion, strange goings-ons lead to one peculiar death after another.
Police Lt. Burke (Tim Ryan) is assisted by his narcoleptic partner Speed Dugan (Frank Faylen; sharp-eyed viewers may recognize him as Ernie the cab driver from It’s a Wonderful Life), but it’s Johnny Smith (Dick Purcell) who does the real crime solving. Whether he’s a private eye or a reporter is left somewhat in doubt, but he manages to tie the case up neatly and win the girl in the end.
The Mystery Man (1935): Never have I seen so much padding in a film. Robert Armstrong plays Larry Doyle, an ace reporter out of
. Despite his heroic deeds in seeing a local gang brought to justice, he is bounced from his paper, at which time he buys a ticket for as far as his money will get him – Chicago . There, he meets up with a down-on-her-luck waif Anne Ogilvie (Maxine Doyle), whom he takes under his wing. They pose as man-and-wife in a scheme to win back the good graces of his former employer, but when super-criminal The Eel becomes St. Louis ’ hottest meal ticket, Doyle takes the opportunity to win himself a spot on the local fish wrapper. St. Louis
Doyle ends up implicated in the murder of two of
’ finest, but all this comes in the last 20 minutes or so of the film. But if you’ve managed to stay awake this long, you’re likely to suffer through the anemic ending with nary a whimper. It makes for a pleasant option to a root canal. St. Louis
In Criminal Investigator (1942), Robert Lowery plays Bob Martin, a young reporter hot on the trail of murder. When a woman accused of embezzlement is released from prison, she ends up very dead, and Martin, who is investigating the story, befriends her younger sister. Those responsible are after the girl for her sister’s keys, which hold the answer to the mystery as to who actually killed the dead sister’s benefactor. It blends weak comedy, weak music and weak acting with a better than most mystery plot. As a B movie, it’s better than most, diminished mainly by block of wood Lowery, who would go on to portray Batman in 1949. Leading lady Edith Fellows conveys a convincing innocent charm, thanks her height of only 4’10.”
Lowery returns in Fashion Model (1946), playing Jimmy O’Brien, a stockboy (at his age?) accused of murder. Jimmy and his girlfriend Peggy (Marjorie Weaver) work to clear his name by tracking down the film’s MacGuffin, a brooch which seems to spell disaster for anyone who possesses it. The humor at times is extraordinarily weak, usually when trying to convey what dunces the police are, but it has certain Lucy & Ethel quality, which may have been funny in 1946, but today comes off as old hat.