“Forward: The producers of this picture feel that the attorney depicted herein should be disbarred and strongly suggest that the American Bar Association do something about it.”
Recently, my friend Scott K. Ratner made the claim that the wild success of the film version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) did much to waylay the popularity of the puzzle mystery. I’m not going to argue that point here (Scott’s wrong!), but The Thin Man came up as I was researching today’s film. As I pointed out to Ratner, what the pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy to solve a murder did for/to films was to popularize the sleuthing team – a man and woman brought together by circumstances to piece together a crime and, in the course of their investigations, grow closer in a way that was romantic or as friendly adversaries – or a little bit of both.
We can’t give all the credit for this trend to Hammett’s creations or even to Powell and Loy, as wonderful as they were together. The creation and popularity of these sorts of teams in crime literature from the mid-30’s through the 40’s also inspired studios repeatedly to pair up the popular conventions of genre mysteries with the equally successful tropes of screwball comedy.
Stuart Palmer had introduced Hildegarde Withers, his schoolteacher detective, in 1931, and Hollywood accepted the character as a gift the following year with The Penguin Pool Mystery, starring Edna Mae Oliver. Five more films followed (one with Helen Broderick and the sleuth and the final two with Zasu Pitts); so did a pilot for a sitcom starring Agnes Moorehead that is sadly lost, and a 1972 TV-movie with Eve Arden as Withers. In all of these, the greatest source of entertainment wasn’t the mystery but the fractious relationship between Hildegarde and Homicide Inspector Oscar Piper. (James Gleason may not be William Powell, but he shone in all six films.)
In 1936, married authors Frances and Richard Lockridge introduced the Norths, a witty New York couple who, when it came to crime-solving, beat the police to the game every time. Their twenty-six novels inspired a Broadway play, a 1942 film (starring Gracie Allen as Pam North!), a radio series that ran for twelve years (tying with The Adventures of Ellery Queen in 1946 to win an Edgar for best radio mystery series), and several TV productions. Some even more engaging sleuthing couples, like Kelley Roos’ Jeff and Haila Troy series and Delano Ames’ Jane and Dagobert Brown, never were filmed, at least as far as I could determine. And lots of original couples like these appeared in one-off films, like 1935’s Star of Midnight (with Ginger Rogers teamed with Powell) and TV series, like McMillan and Wife, which sought to duplicate the vibe set by couples like the Charleses and the Norths for a modern generation.
If anyone wrote crime novels totally well-suited to adaptation to screwball mysteries, it was Craig Rice. Rice was a fascinating character, sometimes called “the Dorothy Parker of detective fiction. She led a madcap life, with four marriages and three children (whom she seems to have left behind to travel with her husband). Like Parker, she liked her men and her booze, but while Parker flirted with the “appeal” of suicide in her work, Rice actually made several attempts to end her life. And while Parker, despite her self-destructive habits, survived until age 73, Rice died of a combination of barbiturates and alcohol at 49.
Despite the bumpy road of her life, Rice’s artistry flourished, and her popularity soared to the point where she was featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1946. She debuted as a mystery novelist in 1939 with Eight Faces at Three, which introduced the sleuthing trio of John J. Malone, a hard-living, wisecracking attorney, Helene Brand, an eccentric heiress and press agent Jake Justis (who would eventually marry Helene.) Rice’s ability to infuse humor on every page made her a natural fit for the type of screwball mystery film that gained such popularity from The Thin Man through the 1950’s and into television. Rice herself adapted a couple of these for film, as well as her widely considered best novel, the standalone Home Sweet Homicide (see JJ’s rave review here) and several films not based on her own work. And so MGM came up with a great idea to (hopefully) repeat its success with the Thin Man series: team up Craig Rice with Stuart Palmer and create a film that paired Rice’s J.J. Malone with Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers. What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, the publisher of the Withers books would not agree to the idea. Undaunted, Palmer and Rice co-wrote a short story, “Once Upon a Train (The Loco Motive),” and published it in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1950. (The authors would eventually pair up Withers and Malone in some short stories that were published in 1963 as The People vs. Withers and Malone.) In the story, J.J. Malone is teamed with an original character named Mrs. O’Malley, a Montana-born widow who wins a radio contest and boards a train bound for New York to accept her prize. While stopping in Chicago to visit her niece, Mrs. O’Malley, a crime story fan, meets Malone, whose sleuthing abilities have been advertised (and exaggerated) in one of her favorite detective story magazines.
Malone is trying to collect a delinquent $10,000 fee from a client of his who he helped get paroled from a long sentence at Joliet. Instead, the client skips town aboard the same train on which Mrs. Malone is riding. Also at hand are several other people with an axe to grind against the ex-con, as well as Chicago detective Marino, who wants to arrest the guy for skipping bail . . . and who has a very antagonistic relationship with Malone.
The set-up is perfect for a screwball mystery, and it would have made perfect sense for Rice and/or Palmer to write the screenplay. Unfortunately, MGM never thought that logically, although their screenwriter of choice, William Bower, did have some experience writing screwball; he also wisely hewed to the plot points and dialogue from the original story. And veteran director Norman Taurog, who made 180 films over four decades, including most of the Elvis Presley films, knew exactly what to do with the farcical material.
Then the studio began dipping into its stable of character actors and came up with a wonderful cast – no A-List actors perhaps, but a perfect blend of faces and personalities from top to bottom. Fred Clark, the perfect dour-faced foil, plays Detective Marino, and Ann Dvorak shows her lighter side as the murder victim’s beleaguered wife. Willard Waterman, who would go on to star as The Great Gildersleeve on TV in 1954 and then play comical antagonists in virtually every TV sitcom and Western in the 1960’s, has an early role here as a train passenger who keeps getting in the way of Malone and O’Malley’s attempts at sleuthing. Waterman essentially plays it straight here, but he has too funny a persona not to elicit laughs. And if you don’t blink, you can catch Herb Vigran and Regis Toomey as reporters; even Toomey is funny here.
As Malone, MGM cast James Whitmore, who is a comic revelation here as his lengthy resume doesn’t include much in the way of comedy. This was the fifth film he had made that year (they really worked ‘em in the old studio days!), and he brings a breezy energy to the role, juggling clue finding and body switching with a boyish horniness for every female on the train – except Mrs. O’Malley, who he treats with an easy-going friendliness.
Mrs. O’Malley is played by Marjorie Main. There was a time when I ate up rural humor! The sitcoms of the 1960’s – The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and its spin-off Green Acres – all of these were “must-watch TV for this pre-teen representative of a nation hungry for cornpone. And on Saturday mornings, the local station would play the old Ma and Pa Kettle movies, starring Main and Percy Kilbride. I can’t watch them now, but I couldn’t get enough of them as a kid.
In 1950, Main was most closely associated with the Ma Kettle character, which had spun off from the 1947 screwball comedy The Egg and I. Before that, Marjorie Main had had a long career playing supporting roles. She could be dramatic, as in Dead End (1937), but her go-to role was the bucolic housekeeper or farmer’s wife. In The Women (1939), she is a welcome straightforward contrast from all the sophisticated bitchery of the rest of the characters; that same year, she even appeared in the third film featuring Nick and Nora Charles, Another Thin Man.
Tastes change as we grow, and I don’t go in so much for bucolic humor anymore. But Main is wonderful here, a perfect companion to the “always playing the con” antics of Malone. She gets all the best lines, too, often spoken with more subtlety than most of her film characters possess.
For those of you reading this to find your next great puzzle mystery film, move along, please. There’s nary a clue here; in fact, no real mystery exists despite the fact that multiple murders are committed and the killer is revealed at the end. More than anything, this is an out-and-out farce set mostly on a train, with that screwball pace that leaves you breathless. A passenger train has many doors, and I think all of them are used here in perfect farcical fashion; it’s just that, instead of sneaking lovers, we have the passing around of dead bodies. So if you go in with that knowledge – and if you are not put off by the absolutely terrible theme song (written by Adolph Deutsch, who composed the background music for some of MGM’s best musicals) that plays over the opening credits – you will be happily entertained throughout.
I watched this on Turner Classic Movies, so it should come around occasionally. It’s a quick 75-minute romp you won’t regret watching. Also, I have to say as someone who has never read Craig Rice that this really spurs me to seek her novels out – recognizing that the humor might trump the mystery in a lot of these. I’m open to suggestions. (I have Home Sweet Homicide and plan to read that before the next millennium . . . )