Without a doubt, the most prestigious film studio during Hollywood’s Golden Age was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Under the auspices of its leader, Louis B. Mayer, MGM adapted classics and concentrated on wholesome family fare and “big pictures.” This was the era when actors were mostly shackled to one studio, and MGM boasted of having “more stars than there are in heaven.”
Nowadays, many of those classic films come across as a bit turgid, thanks to Mayer. The real fun, at least during the 1930’s, was to be had at rival studio Warner Brothers. Its roster of stars was genuinely exciting, and the films were snappy and fun, no matter what the genre. A lot of the best Pre-Code films can be found at WB, where the specialties were gangster pictures, melodramas, and musicals.
1933 was a banner year for the studio, where young star James Cagney made five pictures and up and comer Bette Davis made four (and she wasn’t even getting started with the good stuff). Three of the best film musicals of all time appeared, all choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley (42nd Street, Golddiggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade); the last displayed Cagney’s excellent skills as a hoofer. The year saw the release of a fine murder mystery, The Kennel Murder Case, which, as you may know by now, can be found on my buddy Scott K. Ratner’s list of favorite whodunnits. Also on the list, from the same studio and year, is From Headquarters, which I’ll admit I’d never heard of before Scott mentioned it.
In our last discussion after my post on The Phantom of Crestwood, Scott highly recommended my checking this other film out. His description: “With a very similar cinematic pizazz, it comes off as a cross between Kennel and an episode of CSI.” The New York Times disagrees with Scott. When it came out, their review called the film, a tidbit for the hardier addicts of the mystery melodramas. Less specialized students of the cinema are likely to find in it only the mildest sort of entertainment.”
The New York Times got it wrong. With a snappy screenplay by Robert N. Lee and Peter Milne, fast-paced direction by William Dieterle (substituting for the great Michael Curtiz, who was supposed to direct Bette Davis in this), and some wonderfully innovative camera-work that makes even the examination of fingerprints exciting, From Headquarters is a first-class procedural whodunnit that benefits from the Warner Brothers treatment and the inclusion of many from its stable of character actors.
*. *. *. *. *
At just over an hour long, the film has no time to waste, and yet the opening takes a few moments to establish its setting: a large police headquarters that will be our base of operations throughout the movie. The credits play over shots of members of the great police bureaucracy at their jobs answering phones, booking criminals, and so on. A paddy wagon arrives with its haul of urban low-lifes, all rendered so lovingly that I felt the same vibe as when I watch the opening of Golddiggers of 1933 and see all those chorines spouting their fatalistic wisecracks about the lack of work on Broadway. None of this has anything to do with the mystery at hand, but it’s a sign of the greatness of early cinema that a sixty-one minute film could establish the atmosphere with such graceful economy.
Ultimately, the bulk of the film takes place in three places: the offices of Inspector Donnelly, whose top detective team of Lieutenant J. Stevens (George Brent) and Sergeant Boggs (Eugene Pallette) work; the police lab where Dr. Van de Water (Edward Ellis) works his forensic magic with hilarious gusto; and the press room, where reporters frantically phone in their scoops, making this one of the most entertaining relays of exposition I’ve even seen.
Brent was a sturdy leading man and then a fine character actor. Known as Bette Davis’ favorite acting partner, his mystery credits include an early role in one of the first Chan films (Charlie Chan Carries On) and a truly great turn in the classic 1946 horror mystery classic, The Spiral Staircase. I grew up loving Edward Ellis as Pop Shea in one of Shirley Temple’s best films, Little Miss Broadway, but for our purposes what more do I need to say than . . . . title character in The Thin Man???
But far and away my favorite of this sleuthing team was Eugene Pallette as Sgt. Boggs (“no brains but lots of instinct”) whose delight in trying to beat his boss with theoretical solutions provides much humor but who can turn on the brutality when he interrogates a suspect (and then makes us laugh again with his comment, “The way you act you’d think that we enjoy this kind of work.”) If Pallette seems born to play a detective sergeant here, he already had a lot of practice playing Sergeant Heath in the Philo Vance series. Once a stunt man and lead in silents, Pallette came back from military service and indulged in his favorite pastime of eating a lot, thus transforming himself into a character actor who could do almost anything. (Watch him play a millionaire in the screwball classic, My Man Godfrey, and then steal the movie Robin Hood out from under Errol Flynn’s nose as Friar Tuck. IMDB lists 261 acting credits for Pallette, and there’s something for everybody.)
News comes in over the wire that Broadway playboy Gordon Bates has been found shot through the eye in his Park Avenue apartment. At first, it is thought to be a suicide. Bates’ character and the initial rundown of the crime is seen through the press room reporters as they phone their scoop in, and it’s hilarious:
“(Bates) stole millions from widows and orphans to build hospitals for orphans and widows.”
“He musta been a nut. Collects guns. Been pinched two or three times for shooting them out of the window just to see if they go off. Perhaps he was trying one out this time and – boy! Was he surprised!”
Quickly, the opinion of the police change, and Bates’ death is investigated as a murder. The film then becomes a procedural in the best sense of the word. Stevens and Boggs haul in one person of interest after another and interrogate them, while Dr. Van de Water keeps running in and out, having analyzed blood, bullets, and fingerprints and coming up with new twists on the case every hour. The filming of how forensic evidence is gathered and tested is always interesting: every member of the force is in collusion to gather fingerprints from unsuspecting suspects, and the ballistics tests are especially fun.
As an interrogator, Stevens is always the good cop, especially with prime suspect Lou Winton (Margaret Lindsay) a classy showgirl who was engaged to marry Bates. Lindsay had a long career on film and television, and even if she never really cracked the A-list as a star, she was a lovely presence and deserves our interest for playing Nikki Porter in all the Ellery Queen movies. It turns out that Stevens and Lou were once an item before she dumped him for Bates, and he still carries a torch for her. He treats her with kid gloves, while Boggs, the “bad cop,” gives her the third degree.
The suspect list also includes Lou’s hot-headed younger brother Jack, Bates’ English valet Horton (Murray Kinnell), another girlfriend of Bates named Dolly White (Dorothy Burgess), and a business associate named Anderzian (Robert Barrat). Barrat had played Archer Coe that same year in The Kennel Murder Case, and Kinnell went on to play key roles a couple of years later in Charlie Chan in London and Paris! As each person is questioned, the film flashes back to the evidence they give. I have to say that I very much approve of this flashback technique over the dizzying camerawork found in The Phantom of Crestwood: here, each story is told largely with the camera acting as the witness’ point of view. A lot of people physically fought with Bates during the night, and the capture of physical violence between the victim and the camera-standing-in-for-a-character works better here than in The Lady in the Lake (1947) which was filmed entirely (and tiresomely) through Philip Marlowe’s point of view. The pace of the film never lags. While I am not often fond of the extraneous humor that early film comedies felt it necessary to include, the comic relief here, a buffoonish bail bondsman played by stalwart Warners comedian Hugh Herbert, earns his place in the story by the end. The suspense builds to a great climax where a second murder is committed under the cops’ noses, prompting the entire force to work together to close in on the culprit. And after all that, there’s room for one or two excellent twists to bring it all to a memorable close. Yet again, Ratner has not failed me, and I am more than happy to bring this all but forgotten gem to your attention.