Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Grey Market Cinema: Murder in the Blue Room (1944)

A seaside country manor owned by Linda Baldridge (Nella Walker) and her new husband Frank (John Litel) is once again open for the purpose of throwing a lavish shindig in the form of a housewarming party.  Frank is “new” because Linda’s first husband Sam Kirkland died a mysterious death in an area of the manse known as “The Blue Room”; though ruled a suicide, some speculate it was…murder!  (This is why the house was boarded up for so many years, by the way.)  Linda’s daughter Nan (Anne Gwynne) acts as hostess for the affair; she’s invited among the attendees both her childhood friend (and one of her admirers) Larry Dearden (Bill Williams) and mystery novelist Steve Randall (Donald Cook), plus hired her girlfriends—a singing-and-dancing trio (Grace McDonald, Betty Kean, June Preisser) known as “The Three Jazzybelles”—to entertain the guests.

Both Larry and Steve have expressed an interest in “the Blue Room”; Larry volunteers to spend the night there (Steve will have to settle for second place by bedding down the following night) …but he’s vanished come morning, and is thought to have perhaps died tumbling out a window.  There’s no end to the list of suspects in this baffling case: the Jazzybelles, the Baldridges, Nan, Steve, Dr. Harry Carroll (Andrew Tombes)—even the loyal family retainer, Edwards the butler (Ian Wolfe)!  One thing’s for certain: the doggedly determined Inspector McDonald (Regis Toomey) has the investigation under control, and no one is leaving that house until he gets some answers!

Since its original screen appearance in 1932 as Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers, Erich Philippi’s short story “Secret of the Blue Room” was filmed three times by Universal Pictures: the 1933 version (with Lionel Atwill, Gloria Stuart, Paul Lukas and Edward Arnold), which uses the story’s original title; 1938’s The Missing Guest (with Paul Kelly and Constance Moore); and the final remake, Murder in the Blue Room (1944).  The authors of the indispensable reference book Universal Horrors—Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas—make no bones about their preference for the 1933 version (well, it is the original—movie buffs are like that) and they’re a tad dismissive of Guest and Murder saying “both times the quaint charm of the original was replaced by lowbrow comedy hijinks.”  (In their defense, the authors do observe that while Murder features a “mystery [that] isn’t mysterious and the comedy isn’t funny” the comedy apparently isn’t as “obnoxious” as that in Guest.)

Well, I have a dissenting opinion, due to the fact that I adore “lowbrow comedy hijinks.”  (I haven’t spent fifty years enjoying the antics of Three Stooges for nothing, you know.)   Murder in the Blue Room was originally going to feature Al, Jimmy, and Harry—the Ritz Brothers—as the comedy relief.  I know that among my classic movie brethren and sistren the Ritzes are an anathema where celluloid mirth is concerned…but since comedy is subjective, I can’t help it: they make me laugh.  But by this point in their Universal careers, the Brothers Ritz had grown weary of the studio’s programmers and the quickie schedules that accompanied them…so they left after their final film as a full team, Never a Dull Moment (1943).  (Don’t think I can’t hear you writing down snarky replies in the comments section out there.)

As such, the decision was made to make Murder in the Blue Room’s comedy relief a trio of females, designated as “The Three Jazzybelles” (after “The Mad Hatters” was tossed onto the scrap heap).  Betty Kean later reminisced in an interview that the shooting script hadn’t been tweaked to accommodate the changes, and that she read the lines ascribed to Harry Ritz.  This explains why Betty (the only member of the movie’s trio whose fictional name is their own—Mc Donald answers to “Peggy” and June “Jerry”) gets the lion’s share of the laughs in this sprightly musical comedy:

BETTY: I know about this house—it’s haunted…I read about it in the Sunday Magazine section…
JERRY: You did what?
BETTY (slight pause): Well, somebody read it to me…but I know it’s haunted

Co-written by I.A.L. Diamond, later Billy Wilder’s collaborator (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment), Murder in the Blue Room may not reach the heights of Noel Coward…but at sixty-one minutes, what do you expect?  I really liked how Betty (sister of Jane Kean, later of the 1960s Honeymooners) adopts a Joan Davis-like persona, with McDonald and Preisser providing solid support (this would have been a perfect vehicle for The Andrews Sisters, now that I think of it).  The Jazzybelles also do a couple of enjoyable song numbers, “A Doo-Dee-Doo-Doo” and “The Boogie Woogie Boogie Man,” which concludes with character great Ian Wolfe channeling his inner hep cat (“Zoot!”). 

Even Anne Gwynne, who was coming close to ending her stay at Universal, gets to warble a tune in “One Starry Night”; if she sounds a little like Martha Tilton…that’s because it is Tilton (dubbing Anne’s vocals).  Curiously, even though Gwynne is top-billed she’s not in the movie much, ceding most of Murder’s running time to the Jazzybelles.  There’s top-notch support in this film from old pros like Wolfe, Andrew Tombes, Emmett Vogan, and Andrew Leal fave Milton Parsons (a red herring as a creepy caretaker/driver).  The AFI website identifies John Litel’s character as an attorney (a running joke here at TDOY) but I don’t think this is completely accurate—it’s mentioned in the movie that he operates a large theatre chain, which is why he’s able to influence the Jazzybelles’ getting another gig.

This breezy vehicle will educate the curious that while Regis Toomey may be indestructible he could use a little polish in the detecting department.  Outings like Murder are my favorite kinds of musicals; they’re over and done with in the span of an hour, and there’s plenty of corny comedy in-between to keep you entertained even when the songs don’t.  I’ll confess that I became a fan of Murder in the Blue Room as a young sapling because they showed it often on WOWK-TV’s Chiller Theater; it’s an odd choice, to be sure…and while I can’t disagree with the Universal Horror guys that there’s nothing horror-based or mysterious about this programmer I still enjoy the hell out of it all the same (I also like Ghost Catchers, which they have nothing good to say about in their book whatsoever).  I grabbed this one (a decent print, considering its rarity) from my pal Martin Grams, Jr.’s FindersKeepers site…but some kind soul has also seen fit to slap an inferior copy up on YouTube if you’re game.


Caftan Woman said...

I'm sold!

Rich said...

How different would you say Diamond's writing is from Wilder? Or can you tell?

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Rich scooted back in his chair:

How different would you say Diamond's writing is from Wilder?

I might get into trouble for saying this -- but based on what I've observed of Wilder movies pre-Diamond and when they worked as a team...a lot of the flavor comes from Billy. This isn't to say I.A.L. was important as a contributor, mind you; it's just that Wilder had a powerful voice when it came to writing, and it's a difficult one to shout down to delineate who contributed what. Much of I.A.L.'s stuff in Blue Room isn't all that discernible from Universal's other horror comedies at that time (I'm thinking particularly of Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo-penned films like The Invisible Woman and Hold That Ghost).