Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Grey Market Cinema: The Crime of the Century (1933)

Though the title of this Paramount quickie suggests that the misdeed committed on celluloid is comparable to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, it’s actually an entertaining little mystery thriller whose offbeat cast includes radio’s future “Dr. Christian,” the star of one of TV’s earliest and successful family sitcoms, and the wife of TDOY idol Joel McCrea.  And it’s directed by "the poor man’s W.S. Van Dyke II," none other than William “One Shot” Beaudine.

Dr. Emil Brandt (Jean Hersholt) enters a police precinct and confesses that’s he committed a murder.  Well…not yet, anyway.  He explains to a skeptical Captain Tim Riley (Robert Elliott) and Lieutenant Frank Martin (David Landau) that the “doctor” portion of his name is not medicine per se, but psychology and mesmerism—he has conducted research into the study of curing people who are fearful of developing criminal tendencies…the only problem is that he has neglected to heed the time-honored saw: “Physician, heal thyself.”

Brandt’s latest client is a bank president named Philip Ames (Samuel S. Hinds), who is struggling with uncontrollable compulsions to steal…and by placing Ames under hypnosis; Brandt hopes to treat the man’s illness.  But in his hypnotic trance, Brandt has instead ordered Ames to bring him the sum of $100,000 to his estate that evening, whereupon he will relieve Ames of the weight on his wallet and then kill him with a fatal knife wound to the heart…taking care to dissect the bank president and dispose of him so the constabulary can find no trace of the body (and the long arm of the law will probably be on the hunt for a live man—not a dead one, thus insuring the ingenuousness of Brandt’s scheme).

Brandt’s necessity for acquiring that tidy sum stems from the fact that he is married to the greedy, grasping B-word Frieda (Wynne Gibson)—who has threatened to leave him unless he is able to provide her with the financial means to which she has grown accustomed.  But Brandt is a righteous man, and cannot carry out his evil deed…which is why he’s turning himself in.  Both Riley and Martin assure the good doctor that they will keep him on the straight-and-narrow; Martin will stay with Brandt until his shift is over at 8:30 (must be a union cop) and then Riley will take over from there.  As Martin accompanies Brandt to his car, the two men are followed by Dan McKee (Stuart Erwin), a wisecracking reporter on the police beat.  McKee hails a cab to follow Brandt and Martin…unaware that he’s being tailed by a mysterious individual as well.

Arriving at the doctor’s house, we are introduced to Brandt’s daughter Doris (Frances Dee), who attempts to comfort her father…and is just the tonic the doc needs, for he soon dismisses Martin and tells him he’ll be just fine.  We are then introduced to the loathsome Frieda, who reiterates her demands for money…and the argument between the Brandts is interrupted by the arrival of Ames, dazed from his trance but carrying the 100 large.  Brandt, seated with Ames on a sofa, attempts to atone for his actions by planting a suggestion into Ames’ mind to return the money…at the same time the scheming Frieda has designs on swiping the cash.  But the lights suddenly go out…there is a scream (courtesy of Frieda)—and when power is restored, Frieda has been attacked…Brandt is unconscious…and Ames has been murdered.

Reporter McKee decides that his participation will involve solving this baffling murder, and in the process he falls hard for Doris, who stands by her father when he’s accused not only of murdering Ames but Frieda (she’s snuffed during the cops’ investigation).  With twenty minutes left to go in the film, an announcer (Arthur Hohl) appears on screen to generously give the viewing audience one minute (via a “countdown clock”) to consider all the suspects in the case…the reasoning being that the picture is moving so swiftly the theatergoers probably haven’t had sufficient time to sift through all the clues.  (And you thought William Castle came up with this gimmick.)

An intriguing little B-mystery that opens with an interesting montage featuring the cast members in silhouette, The Crime of the Century awards top-billing to character veteran Jean Hersholt, whose immortality in the movie industry was cemented when he helped establish the Motion Picture Relief Fund—the purpose of which was to provide medical care for those employees down on their luck, and later led to the creation of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, an honorary Oscar given out to those individuals “in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.”  Hersholt was also the star of the radio drama series Dr. Christian, a CBS program that ran from 1937 to 1954 and whose novelty was that it often solicited scripts from the general public.  (The character was inspired by a 1936 film that Hersholt appeared in, The Country Doctor, and he later made six Dr. Christian films to cash in on the success of the radio program as well.)  Hersholt acquits himself nicely in a sympathetic role…even though the filmmakers are trying to manipulate you into thinking he’s a cold-blooded killer he seems like too nice a fellow to be involved in such nastiness.

But don’t get the impression that Crime is Hersholt’s show…because it really isn’t.  Most of the action involves reporter Erwin, who’s cast against type here…Stu usually played slow-witted hicks in films like Ceiling Zero and Pigskin Parade (the last film earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nom), and his solid character actor credentials occasionally allowed him to be the lead in undistinguished B-pictures.  He’s probably best known as the star of the 1950-55 sitcom The Stu Erwin Show (on which he played a high school principal, and one of his daughters was a young Sheila “Zelda Gilroy” James), which was also titled on various occasions The Trouble with Father.  Erwin’s likable enough in the role of Dan McKee, though the way he solves the murder in Crime can be attuned more to happenstance than shrewd deduction on his part.

I was uncomfortable with Erwin’s McKee winding up with Frances Dee at the end of this movie, because she could do much better and because I’ve been a fan of hers since seeing her in the 1933 cult pre-Code film Blood Money—I also enjoy her performances in movies like Headline Shooter, So Ends Our Night and I Walked With a Zombie…she eventually drifted out of moviemaking once she tied the knot with Joel McCrea.  Her character of Doris Brandt displays a palpable dislike for her stepmother Frieda, wonderfully played by actress Wynne Gibson…and when I use that adverb I mean in the sense that Gibson doesn’t resort to the evil stepmother clichés present in most characterizations—I genuinely missed her once she got croaked.  (Gibson was your girl when you needed someone to play bad dames like prostitutes and bar floozies; she, too, quit the business but did so to become an agent.)

You’ve seen Samuel S. Hinds in a gazillion movies (probably recognize him as George Bailey’s father in It’s a Wonderful Life), and the rest of the cast is serviceable (you may be able to spot Isabel Jewell as one of the gals playing bridge with Dee, and if you look at the fellow on the right in the picture to the left you’ll recognize Columbia serial and short subject utility man Fred Kelsey, who plays a chowhound cop).  The “countdown clock” is a little too gimmickry for a movie that’s actually fairly satisfying, with a screenplay by Florence Ryerson and Brian Marlow (based on Walter Maria Espe’s The Grootman Case (Der Fall Grootman).

You probably won’t see this one turn up on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ anytime soon, owing to the fact that it’s an obscure Paramount programmer—I obtained my copy from the now-defunct VintageFilmBuff.com, and I’m not sure I would have paid for what they were asking if I had the knowledge that the print of the film was a little worse for wear (I got a freebie for writing some reviews on their since vanished site).  If you’ve got the pesos to spend, an outfit entitled Loving the Classics offers it for sale—despite its stiff tariff, it’s an enjoyable little movie that wraps up its 72-minute running time with an interesting ending.


Anonymous said...

Hersholt has played a psychotic killer, so it's not out of the realm of the possible. As far as Erwin, Arline Judge is too good for him, let alone Frances Dee.

R.A. Kerr said...

This sounds like a terrific movie. Will check out "Loving the Classics" - thanks for the tip!

KimWilson said...

Never heard of this one. Sounds like a good one. Would like to see Wynne Gibson as Frieda, as the character sounds like a great bad girl.