Friday, March 16, 2018

'Murder by Invitation' is a fine effort from Monogram

Murder by Invitation (1941)
Starring: Sarah Padden, Wallace Ford, Marian Marsh, Gavin Gordon, and J. Arthur Young
Director: Phil Rosen
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After her scheming relatives fail to have her committed to a mental hospital, eccentric millionaire Cassie Denham (Padden) invites them to her remote mansion, ostensibly to show she forgives them and to determine who is worthy to inherit her wealth. Within hours of their arrival, the guests start to disappear, and it falls upon reporters Bob White (Ford) and Nora O'Brien (Marsh) to identify the killer before they fall victim themselves.

"Murder by Invitation" is a fast-paced comedy-mystery with all the Old Dark House tropes. The acting is solid from all performers, the dialogue is sharp and quippy, and even the buffoonish cops act logically in the steps they take to capture the murderer. The plot is also above average, as screenwriter George Bricker actually took the time to present several viable suspects and a few credible twists that made it hard to guess who the killer was, but not impossible because enough clues were provided to let the viewer play along.

Of special note in this film is Marian Marsh, who was at the end of her ten-year rollercoaster acting career. She gives an excellent performance as a sharp-tongued newspaper woman who can stand toe-to-toe with the boys that is different from the damsel-in-distress parts she was most-often cast in. It's a shame that marriage and burn-out caused her to, in her words, "drift away from the acting profession."

The only true weak spot of the film is the opening courtroom scene... and I may think of it as such because of changes in American culture. The allegedly mentally incompetent Cassie Denham is put on the stand to testify in her own defense, and almost every response she gives is met with gales of laughter from the gallery. The problem is that she's not all that funny; she's being a smart-ass and she's putting her obnoxious relatives in their places, but she's not being fall-out-of-your-chair laughing like the courtroom audience seems to think. Given the skillful way the rest of the film is put together, I can only assume that some banter that was hilarious in 1941 isn't in 2018.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Abigail Spencer

One of my all-time favorite TV shows--"Timeless"--is back for a 2nd Season (after almost being cancelled on a cliffhanger)! To celebrate, and to illustrate the unifying theme of this blog, here's phere's actress Abigail Spencer. She plays the secret-society-busting, time-traveling-historian Lucy Preston on "Timeless.", showing us the unifying theme of this blog!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

'Tomorrow at Seven' is a one-suspect mystery

Tomorrow at Seven (1933)
Starring: Chester Morris, Vivienne Osborne, Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins, and Henry Stephenson
Director: Ray Enright
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A writer (Morris), working on a book about the serial killer known as the Black Ace, gets close to his subject while onboard a chartered flight where another passenger becomes the maniac's latest victim.

"Tomorrow at Seven" is one of those films that needs to be remade. It's a story with TONS of potenial that is mostly unrealized because no risks are taken in the way the plot developes... and what is set up as the ultimate locked room mystery (a murder takes place with all suspects and potential victims together, in the air, in an airplane!) instead unfolds as a mildly interesting comedy with some dramatic moments and romantic overtones.

Maybe it's because it's 85 years since this film was made, but all the characters had barely been introduced when I settled upon who I thought was the Black Ace. I turned out I was right, despite the fact there was a second character who could just as easily have been the killer (and a third who would have been slightly more far-fetched but still plausible)... and I was right, because the cast of characters are the stock figures you expect them to be based on their roles at the beginning of the story and the physical appearance of the actors playing them; once the handsome, romantic male lead is crossed off the list as the murderer, there's really only one suspect left. (That said, there are some nice steps taken to cast suspicion around on a couple different characters... and what a great movie this could have been if more bravery had been shown in the plotting.)

As it stands, "Tomorrow at Seven" isn't a bad movie... it's just unremarkable. All the actors are good in the parts, the film moves along a good pace, and there's never a dull moment. Even the comic relief characters--a pair of bumbling police detectives (portrayed with great charm by Jenkins and McHugh)--are good, because they are actually funny instead of just annoying or stupid as is often the case in films from this period.

If like "old dark house" flicks, or light mystery films from the early 1930s, "Tomorrow at Seven" is worth checking out if you dont' have to go out of your way for it.

(For my part, I think "Tomorrow at Seven" has inspired inspired to do another random mystery plot generator for the NUELOW Games blog, like "Who Killed Buck Robin?" and "Who Killed Major Payne?")

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Valerie Valusek

Over a ten year span, from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, Valerie Valusek gave shape to hundreds of characters for fantasy games and fiction publisher TSR. Here's a small sample of her work.

Valusek's last work for TSR was some last-minute art on a Ravenloft adventure module, which had been overlooked by an incompetent art director. Valusek was unfairly blamed for the scheduling problems and her long-standing relationship with TSR ended.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

'The Perfect Clue' is flawed

The Perfect Clue (1935)
Starring: Dorothy Libaire, David Manners, and Richard 'Skeets' Gallagher
Director: Robert G. Vignola
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A rebellious rich girl (Libaire) and a hard-luck ex-con (Manners) must rely on the help of her besotted friend (Gallager) when they are falsely accused and arrested for murder.

"The Perfect Clue" is a film with no clue about what it wants to be. It lurches back and forth from being a screwball comedy, to being a melodrama, to being a romantic comedy, to being a crime drama. To make matters worse, what's presented is a fair to awful example of those genres, and when it's at its best--in crime drama mode--it feels at times like we're watching scenes from an entirely different movie.

The acting ranges from standard for a film of this period and budget-level, to quite good. With the exception of one scene that feels like it was being performed for the stage, Libaire is excellent throughout. I've never been a big fan of Manners, but he is worse here than I've ever seen him; not only is he playing a fairly unpleasant character, but he's doing so with a manner that makes me wonder if he wanted to be anywhere but working on this picture. 

While Libaire and Gallagher elevate the film with their performances, everything else about it drags it down... and the Four-star rating I am giving it is on the brink of slipping to a Three.

By a curious coincidence, Libaire and Manners, who had been extremely busy and appeared in a number of successful films during the early 1930s, were at the end of their careers by the time the co-starred in "The Perfect Clue".  Libaire would only make two more films, Manning five more. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Barbara at Home

French actress Barbara Laage shows that some movie starts have their priorities straight. Here she is spending some quality time at home with three of life's necessities: Comfortable shoes, books, and money (an abundance of the latter which can provide an abundance of the former).