Tuesday, June 27, 2017

“What started out to be a real honest-to-goodness mystery just boils itself down to being as simple as A-B-C…”


In the very early month of May (okay…more like May 19th), The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ had scheduled showings of several entries in Columbia’s The Whistler franchise (based on the popular radio mystery program) and chose to close out the day with all three films based on I Love a Mystery (also a popular radio mystery program).  I have all three ILAM movies in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives (I purchased them here, though the third movie seems to have vanished from their inventory) but I thought their TCM showing might yield better copies (they did) because whenever they’re shown on getTV you have to edit out the commercials (and does it look like I’m not lazy?).  Getting these movies was not an easy task; from time to time, DISH experiences problems displaying Tee Cee Em’s lineup in their onscreen guide and if you’re not careful what you painstakingly programmed to DVR never comes to fruition, resulting in my frustration and naughty swear words.  (They did this to me the other night with The First Auto [1927].  Swine satellite system…)

According to Martin Grams, Jr.’s invaluable I Love a Mystery Companion, the show’s creator, Carlton E. Morse, received two fees when Columbia purchased the rights to his show for a movie series.  (Martin says that they were going to make three movies in total; an item in Variety at the time observes that two I Love a Mystery films were to be produced each year for five years.  I wish Variety had been right.)  The first fee was for the rights to ILAM; the second went towards a series of five-page synopses submitted by Morse that would be used as the basis for the subsequent films in the franchise.  Only one of the movies—the first, I Love a Mystery (1945)—was adapted from a serial broadcast on the program, “The Decapitation of Jefferson Monk” (presented in 25 episodes from August 30-October 1, 1943…and later revived for the 1949-52 Mutual version from March 10-April 11, 1952).  The other two movies, The Devil’s Mask (1946) and The Unknown (1946), were originals though they did borrow an element or two from past Morse productions (notably Unknown and “The Thing That Wouldn’t Die”).

George Macready, Nina Foch
I Love a Mystery is considered by many who enjoy the movie franchise to be the best of the bunch.  Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and Doc Long (Barton Yarborough) make the acquaintance of wealthy Jefferson Monk (George Macready) at their nightclub hangout called the Silver Samovar…and not long after, take Monk on as a client.  Jefferson has a story that defies belief: he’s going to die in three days, an event that has been prophesized by the leader of a sacred Tibetan society known as the Barokan.  The High Priest, identified only as “Mr. G” (Lester Matthews), made Monk an offer of $10,000 for his head…because he’s a dead ringer for the group’s founder, who now lies in a mummified state.  (The noggin of the founder is deteriorating despite the preservation magic of the embalmers.)

Monk agreed to the deal to placate the High Priest (one of those “this-guy-is-crazy-so-I’ll-just-smile-and-nod” scenarios) but he’s only given a year to eat, drink, and be merry before he reaches his expiration date.  Sure, it sounds nutty…but Jefferson has every reason to believe the prophecy will come to pass—after all, it was also predicted that his wife Ellen (Nina Foch) would succumb to paralysis and become an invalid…and doggone if she’s not having to tool around in a wheelchair.

I Love a Mystery is a splendid little B-movie suspenser, and even though there are those who have a beef with the brief film franchise because it never managed to completely capture the fantastical elements of the blood-and-thunder radio program I think it’s most satisfying.  I don’t even mind that it wraps with one of those “Scooby Doo” endings because even when you think “it was all a simple misunderstanding” they provide a nice twist at the end.  Macready is first-rate as the bewildered victim who’s just marking time before he becomes a headless dude and Nina Foch (the two of them would square off later in My Name is Julia Ross, a favorite B-pic here in the House of Yesteryear and released later that same year) delightfully dangerous as the invalid who’s not nearly as helpless as she seems.  Jim Bannon does a fine job in the role played on radio by Michael Raffetto, and Barton Yarborough reprises his radio gig as Doc (he doesn’t quite match the way I’ve always pictured Long but I’m such a huge fan of Bart’s it don’t make no never mind). 

The second vehicle in the ILAM franchise was released in May of 1946 (based on a submitted synopsis by creator Morse, “The Head”); in The Devil’s Mask, Jack and Doc are hired by Louise Mitchell (Mona Barrie), the wife of a renowned museum director who vanished during an expedition in South America.  Louise is being birddogged by Rex Kennedy (Michael Duane), a lowlife who’s been dating Louise’s stepdaughter Janet (Anita Louise) ...and the reason why Janet is having Rex shadow her stepma is because she’s convinced that Louise has something to do with her dad’s disappearing act—the evidence would appear to lie in some incriminating love letters from the father’s associate, Arthur Logan (Frank Wilcox).  Adding to the mystery are a suspicious “psychiatrist” (Ludwig Donath), a taxidermist (Paul E. Burns), and a shrunken head collection that harbors a secret all its own.

Mask is a decent little B, but it’s my least favorite in the ILAM series due to the obvious identity of the murderer and the presence of the bland Michael Duane—one of those James Craig-types that always makes me scratch my head in bewilderment that he even had a movie career.  (Granted, he doesn’t bump into any furniture but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what Louise’s Janet sees in him; Duane is also in two of the movies in the Whistler franchise, Secret of the Whistler [1946] and The Return of the Whistler [1948], that series’ swan song.)  Also of interest: I’d swear the same dog guards the houses of the protagonists in both Mystery and Mask.

The Unknown (1946)
The I Love a Mystery series went out on a high note with The Unknown (not to be confused with the 1927 Lon Chaney-Tod Browning movie), and while I’ll acknowledge that Mystery is the best in the franchise I have a fondness for Unknown because of two actresses that do very nice work in it.  The first is longtime TDOY fave Karen Morley, who as wealthy Southern debutante Rachel Martin is all set to do the elopement thing with beau Richard Arnold (Robert Wilcox) despite the objections of Colonel Selby (Boyd Davis) and Phoebe Martin (Helen Freeman), Rachel’s parental units.  Ma and Pa Martin are blissfully unaware that Rachel has already become Mrs. Arnold in one of those clandestine ceremonies (which kind of makes you wonder why they’re going through this elopement dance in the first place).  It matters little in the grand scheme of things; angry words are exchanged and Colonel Selby winds up dead after being shot by Richard…who hightails it to the tall cotton when Pheebs threatens to tell the authorities he’s a murderer.

Mark Roberts, Jeff Donnell, Jim Bannon & Barton Yarborough
The Colonel is made a permanent part of the plantation when Phoebe has Rachel and her two brothers, Edward (James Bell) and Ralph (Wilton Graff), brick the old stiff up in the fireplace (and they get an assist from the old family retainer, played by J. Louis Johnson).  Years later, with the death of Phoebe, Rachel’s daughter Nina (Jeff Donnell—my other favorite)—you read that right, daughter—arrives at the plantation for the reading of the will with our heroes at her side.  No sooner is lawyer Reed Cawthorne (Mark Roberts, billed as Robert Scott) about to read the document when the will disappears, creating a genuine mystery for the A-1 Detective Agency boys to crack.  If you’re curious as to how Nina handles the awkward situation involving her mother…well, Rachel went a little funny-in-the-head shortly after her child was taken from her (thanks to Phoebe, that bitch) and is unfortunately living in the past; she’s convinced Richard is coming back for her any day now.

I’m not a cheerleader when it comes to what I call “who-turned-out-the-lights?” movies but I really do enjoy The Unknown because it takes a nice turn or two…and because the murderer is a particularly colorless chap I always forget who the guilty party is until I watch the movie again.  Morley and Donnell both have nice turns in this one, and I like how Donnell’s character must be the “mother” in the mystery because the real mother has gone bye-bye.

With the Columbia series making its final bow at the silver screen curtain, the only other successful attempt to make ILAM a visual staple occurred in 1967 with an NBC TV-movie featuring Ida Lupino, Jack Weston, Terry-Thomas, and in the roles of Jack, Doc, and Reggie—Les Crane, David Hartman, and Hagan Beggs.  (The “Reggie York” character wasn’t featured in the Columbia ILAMs because Morse had already written the character out of the show by that time, devastated by the suicide death of the radio Reggie, Walter Paterson.)  I have not seen the 1967 I Love a Mystery (it’s on YouTube—I should rectify that one of these days)—done in the “camp” style of TV’s Batman, and was actually a pilot for a proposed series—but Martin succinctly passes judgment in Companion with “If Hollywood could ever ‘murder’ a mystery movie, this is it.”  Mystery was purportedly so terrible that it sat on the shelf until 1973 until NBC decided it was safe to run it; following suit, local stations started airing it in late-night slots in an admirable attempt to get viewers to turn off the TV and go to sleep.  (My Facebook chum Hal Erickson wryly observes about Mystery in From Radio to the Big Screen: "If it ever plays in your town, don't fail to miss it.")

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