Tuesday, February 21, 2012
SYNTHETIC MURDER TALES
Strange Films – Children and the Cinema – Need for More Intelligent Subjects
By Mordaunt Hall
May 8, 1932
Several peculiar stories reached the screens last week and one of them, “Letty Lynton,” is being held over at the Capitol.
In this film a stunning but tarnished girl is responsible for her objectionable former lover drinking poison.
“The Trial of Vivienne Ware,” is principally concerned with an attractive girl being tried for a murder committed by a gangster.
“Roadhouse Murder,” tells of a cub reporter who, for the sake of contributing a series of sensational articles to his newspaper, poses as a man hunted for two killings.
And “Behind the Mask,” is a vain attempt to spread horror by showing a fiendish individual disposing of his enemies on an operating table.
The sole wholesome production, aisde from the foreign works, was the new version of Edna Ferber's novel, “So Big.”
Unfit for Youngsters
As one examines the plots of these effusions one appreciates the attitude of many parents toward motion pictures, for, with the exception of “So Big,” none of these attractions is fit for children to see.
In the suburbs and even in New York City one hears on all sides fathers and mothers deploring the fact that there are no pictures suitable for their youngsters to attend, and the result is that not only the children are kept from the cinemas but the parents also stay away.
These were the days when such worthy diversions as “Tom Sawyer,” “Skippy,” “A Connecticut Yankeee” and “Ambassador Bill” not only offered excellent entertainment for the young but also for adults.
One father, whose home is in a New Jersey town, said the other day that it was harmful for his children to attend local cinemas and had therefore decided to give them screen entertainment at home. It is quite likely that other parents are doing the same thing, or will do so, but it is an idea that is costly.
Mary Pickford is one of the few producers who have urged making films that will bring the children into the film theaters, she being wise enough to realize that if the picture is suitable for the youngsters it is highly probable that they will be accompanied by their parents.
Adults as well as youngsters have enjoyed “Peter Pan” and “A Kiss for Cinderella” on the stage and the screen, and in the old days a film of Stevenson's “Treasure Island” proved to be quite popular.
Who knows but that there may be a fortune in store for the producer who concentrates on making pictures for the young, not silly sentimental tales, but really good ones like those enumerated. For while there naturally must be a preponderance of mature subjects turned out in Hollywood, there is no reason why there should not be a certain percentage of productions that would find favor with parents for their offspring.
Sorry Studio Ideas
A mother complained the other day that producers appeared to delight in emphasizing distasteful ideas, so as to appeal to a certain element.
These film tales, this woman thought, might have been acceptable for both adults and children if they had been pictured in a more rational and restrained fashion. This is true, for many a good story comes to the screen with the earmarks of a dime novel.
If the same thing were set forth in a book as it is on the screen, it would in many instances be considered silly by the very persons who are moderately interested in such film ventures. To appeal to children in a wholesome fashion, motion pictures actually need to be less childish than many of them are at the present.
B. O. Shelton, manager of the RKO Pickwick Theater in Greenwich, Conn., shows a picture every Saturday morning for children, the subjects being sponsored by a joint committee on motion pictures, made up of members of women’s clubs of the town.
Mr. Shelton exhibits pictures such as “The Big Trail,” “Cimarron,” “City Lights,” “Forward Pass,” “Skippy,” “Sooky,” “Tom Sawyer,” & c. Would there were more films like them.
A Tarnished Heroine
Letty Lynton is a picture with many implausible – in fact, impossible – ideas. The spectator’s credulity is strained by the first scenes, for Letty Lynton, in the person of Joan Crawford, is a wealthy girl who has apparently fallen from grace because of the glib talk and good dancing of a man named Emile Renaud.
Letty has been more or less hypnotized by Emile, but finally she leaves him, going by steamship from Montevideo to New York.
The first glimpse that Hale Darrow, a rich young man, gets of Letty aboard the ship, he evinces a marked interest in her. He requests that the steward put her at his table. This is the first sight Letty has of Hale and results in a similar reaction, and in a short time they are in love with each other.
One suspects that the path of this true love is not going to be smooth, and soon the notion is confirmed, for Emile has traveled by airplane to New York and is there to meet Letty when she disembarks. She is naturally averse to having Emile and Hale meet, and therefore she asks Emile to attend to her customs declaration while she hurries to her home.
The more one learns of Emile’s nature, the more one is astonished at Letty's having been infatuated with him. She hopes to go to meet Hale's family, but Emile, threatening to publish some of Letty's affectionate epistles to him in the newspapers, causes the girl to postpone her departure for the Adirondack home of the Darrows.
This blackguard insists that Letty must come to his apartment at 8 o'clock one night and she, hopeing that Emile will give her the letters, decides to go. She turns up in a charming gown of metallic cloth, looking more attractive than in any previous scene. In her handbag she has a vial of poison, which, it is presumed, she intends to take if she fails to gain possession of the missives. While Emile's back is turned, Letty pours the poison into a glass containing some champagne.
After a heated discussion during which he embraces Letty against her will, Emile drinks the poison, finds his sight going, and eventually dies. The circumstantial evidence before a jury would not leave Letty with much chance of going free, but the picture producers have a good-natured District Attorney, who after giving Hale Darrow credit for quick thinking, in saything that he (Hale) was with Letty that night, permits the girl to go on her way.
Imagine a District Attorney in real life saying to a young man in such circumstances:
“Darrow, I've got a girl about half that age, but she has not brought anyone around yet who thinks as fast as you do, young fellow.”
It should be stated, however, that Joan Crawford delivers an admirable portrayal and Robert Montgomery is quite clever as Hale. Nils Asther does as well as possible with the part of Emile and Louise Closser Hale furnishes a certain amount of amusement in the role of an elderly maid to Letty.
Shades of Old Serials
“The Trial of Vivienne Ware,” which hails from a radio entertainment, is another shamelessly implausible affair.
A man throws a knife at a witness testifying in a murder case and has little difficulty in escaping. Later, after he is apprehended by the police, he is himself fatally shot while on the witness stand.
It is a picture in which the prosecutor thunders at the witnesses and in which the lawyer for Vivienne War, impersonated by Joan Bennett, actually believes she killed Damon Fenwick in self-defense.
Of course, in the end, Vivienne is found guiltless, and the real murderer is pursued and dies by plunging from a skyscraper.
In the opening sequences one finds that Vivienne is in love with Fenwick, who looks the villain from the moment he appears. John Sutherland is in love with Vivienne, Dolores Divine, a cabaret dancer, is infatuated with Fenwick and the sinister Scarface Parone looks upon Dolores as his property.
It is a tedious bag of tricks, but the flashbacks of the testimony during the murder trial are set forth interestingly.
Miss Bennett is attractive and as capable as the demands of her role permit.
Richard Skeets Gallagher appears as a radio announcer who is broadcasting the trial, there being a glass partition to facilitate such work. Zasu Pitts is a feminine radio expert who concentrates on the appearance of the fair Vivienne. Donald Cook gives an ingratiating performance as John Sutherland.
A Dangerous Idea
So far as “Roadhouse Murder” is concerned, it has a good basic idea which with more experienced principals and better written dialogue might have been excellent diversion, As it is, it emerges as mild entertainment.
Here the young reporter, after having been upbraided by his city editor, goes for an automobile ride with his sweetheart. During a storm thy seek refuge in a lonely looking road house.
Two murders occur while they are there and the newspaperman, Chick Brian, decides that it will make an excellent series of articles under his own name if he assumes the role of the man hunted for the crime and narrates his experiences. He has proof of his innocence, but when that is snatched from him by interested parties, it looks rather black for Brian; in fact the jury finds him guilty of the crime.
But Brian is not executed, for the real criminals finally are discovered. It proves that pretending to be a muderer is a risky matter, even though it may result in some sensational newspaper articles.
Many of the scenes in the audible picturization of Edna Ferber's novel, “So Big,” are nicely filmed and efficiently played by Barbara Stanwyck.
It is a work with a good deal of wholesome sentiment and restrained scenes, but a lifetime in an hour or so on the screen is too much.
The cheery Miss Stanwyck starts life as a girl and ends up an elderly woman. Selina Peake (Miss Stanwyck) lives for her son, So Big as she calls him, and he does not come up to expectations until the end.
Humdrum though this tale is here it is at least free from murders, women falling in
love with lounge lizards, and mysterious doctors deriving pleasure from using the knife to kill.
In the Secret Service
Secret Service agents are pitted against members of a drug ring in “Behind the Mask,” a story based on one by Jo Swerling.
The man who causes all the trouble is known to friends and enemies as Mr. X. His underlings communicate with him by telephone and their reports are recorded on wax cylinder.
Nobody is supposed to know who Mr. X is and yet he succeed in running things very much as he wishes. Sometimes you want to know how he pays off his henchmen or how he gets the money from them, but this film is not concerned with simple events; it dilates upon picking up packages of drugs from a vessel 200 miles at sea and landing them in New York by seaplane.
Parts of this offering recall old-time serials that were written in the studio a few moments before they were photographed.
Mr. X likes nothing more than to have his victims on an operating table. He delights in killing these enemies slowly. Where he buries them is not revealed, for in the one coffin that is brought on the screen it was disclosed that instead of containing a body it was filled with drugs.
There are all sorts of queer ideas in this film, and in one of the closing sequences Jack Holt, who plays Hart, a secret service agent wizard, is trapped by Mr. X and is about to have all kinds of forceps, scissors and little knives used on him when the heroine, Julie Arnold, creeps in the room and kills Mr. X with a well-aimed bullet.
Jack Holt and Constance Cummings serve their parts, such as they are, well.