Saturday, January 24, 2015

Stubs – The Plot Thickens

The Plot Thickens (1936) Starring: James Gleason, ZaSu Pitts, Owens Davis Jr. Directed by Ben Holmes. Screenplay by Jack Townley, Clarence Upson Young. Based on the short story The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl by Stuart Palmer (Mystery, Nov. 1933). Produced by Samuel J. Briskin (Executive), William Sistrom (Associate). Run time: 69 minutes. US. Black and White. Mystery, Drama, Comedy

It seems Hollywood has always liked sequels. If The Thin Man was good, why not five more films with the same actors and the same basic frame work. Except, back in the heyday of studios they didn’t call them sequels so much as a film series. They weren’t called franchises, probably because studios made so many films that they weren’t dependent on one big film to carry the day as much as they are now.

But then as now Hollywood is always on the lookout for the source for a series of films. As with sequels today, they can develop a built-in audience that comes because they know what to expect. Sometimes there is a popular book or books that propels the series forward. In the 1930s one such series was made based on the characters developed by Stuart Palmer.

Author Stuart Palmer.
A former taxi driver and newspaper reporter, Palmer turned to writing fiction in 1932 with the mystery, The Penguin Pool Murder. His main character was a spinster school teacher named Hildegarde Withers, who also happened to be an amateur sleuth. Miss Withers was apparently based on Miss Fern Hakett, Palmer’s high school teacher.

RKO studios made a film version of Palmer’s book in 1932 starring Edna May Oliver. Her co-star James Gleason played Inspector Oscar Piper. While leading ladies came and went, Gleason would continue to play Inspector Piper in five more films. Twice more with Oliver, Murder on the Blackboard (1934), Murder on a Honeymoon (1935), once opposite Helen Broderick, Murder on the Bridle Path (1936) and twice opposite ZaSu Pitts: The Plot Thickens (1936) and Forty Naughty Girls (1937).

The Plot Thickens was only in production for a few weeks from mid September to early October 1936 and was released on December 11, 1936.

Pitts and Gleason’s first pairing, The Plot Thickens, starts late at night at the estate of John Carter (Richard Tucker). Two of Carter’s household employees are going out on a date, but Carter, who had promised them the roadster, commandeers it for himself. He tells them to take his sedan instead, but before they can take it, another household member, Joe (Paul Fix), the chauffer, takes it and follows the roadster.

While he’s out driving, Carter spies Alice Stevens (Louise Latimer) looking abandoned by the side of the road. He stops to offer her a lift when he is accosted by her boyfriend Robert Wilkins (Owen Davis, Jr.), who tries to stop her from going with Carter. Defending himself, Carter punches Wilkins, who is about to retaliate when a policeman who has witnessed the encounter steps forward. He plans to take Wilkins into custody, but Carter intercedes. Instead the policeman walks Wilkins back to his car, while Carter and the girl drive off. Even though the policeman tells Wilkins to go home, Wilkins promises revenge on Carter.

Later, when Carter puts the moves on Alice, she gets out of the car. While she is only a few feet away, Carter is shot and killed by an unknown assailant. Alice flees, looking for a phone to call the police. A gas station attendant (Billy Dooley) offers to let her use his phone, but before she can call the police, Wilkins, who has been following her, shows up. She tells him what happened and they return to the scene of the crime.

Trying to protect her, Wilkins sends her away in his car while he takes care of Carter’s body. Of course, the right thing would be to call the police, but that wouldn’t be thick enough for this plot. Adding flour to the gravy, Wilkins drives Carter’s car back to his estate.

But the next morning, Kendall (Arthur Aylesworth) finds Carter’s dead body in his study. He calls the police and inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason) is assigned to the case. When you get Piper you also get Hildegarde Withers (ZaSu Pitts), a schoolteacher and clever amateur sleuth. Since first appearing in films, the character’s relationship had heated up. When Edna May Oliver played Hildegarde, she and Piper were careful not to touch. Now, Piper and Hildegarde are considered to be dating.

If Inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason) is on the case,
amateur sleuth Hildegard Withers (ZaSu Pitts) is not far behind.

Oscar's first suspect is pretty Alice who was with Carter seconds before he was murdered, and her boyfriend, Wilkins whose jealous tirade against Carter had been witnessed. While inspecting Carter's house, however, Hildegarde discovers a mysterious jewel case containing a large emerald and learns from a jeweler that the gem is the famous Sultan emerald, which had been stolen years before from the Louvre. Her inquisitiveness nearly gets her arrested when the jeweler calls the police.

Under pressure from Oscar, Robert admits that, to protect Alice, he had returned Carter's corpse to his garage but not to the study. Back in his office, Hildegarde tells Oscar about the jewel and the two return to Carter's estate to question Joe, but Joe has fled. While Oscar tries to get to the bottom of Joe’s disappearance, Hildegarde goes through Carter’s study, looking at photographs of a decorative cup. With her back turned, Hildegarde is knocked out by a masked thief, who steals a cup from Carter’s safe that resembles the one in the photographs.

Hildegarde determines that the cup is the valuable Cellini Cup, which is housed in the city's Cosmopolitan Museum. At the museum, we see street kids running around making mischief and noise and a sculptress, Dagmar (Agnes Anderson), attempting to copy a museum piece. Hildegarde talks with Mr. Gordon (John Miltern), a guard very knowledgeable about the Cellini Cup. He shows Hildegarde that a dangling pearl in the cup vibrates to the clock chimes. But shortly after they talk, Gordon is murdered by being thrown down the steps. In the confusion, the cup is stolen, but the exits are locked and everyone is trapped inside. Dagmar is found unconscious and the police search in vain for a man wearing a derby. After an exhaustive search of the museum, the cup is found quite easily in the cloak room, wrapped as a package being held. But Hildegarde notices that its dangling pearl doesn’t vibrate; it’s a fake.

The police funnel everyone in the museum out through a single door and search them on their way out. Oscar notices one of the boys taking great interest and then running back into the museum to warn his accomplice, who happens to be Dagmar, of the search. The boy turns out to be a midget (John T. Bambury) in disguise, sort of a la Mission: Impossible. The Cellini cup is found in the base of Dagmar’s sculpture. Oscar and Hildegarde deduce that a gang of thieves connected killed Gordon (the only expert on the cup) and tried to plant a fake in its place.

With all the suspects lined up in Oscar’s office, the inspector, in the tradition of cozy mysteries, goes down the line, telling why each one has a reason to be a suspect. Joe snaps, stealing a policeman’s gun. But it’s full of blanks and he’s arrested for Carter’s murder.

It is the pairing of Gleason and Pitts that carries the film. Both are talented actors who possess great comedic timing. They make for a cute onscreen couple and the chemistry plays into the relationship between amateur sleuth and her policeman partner.

The pairing of James Gleason and ZaSu Pitts makes The Plot Thickens worth watching.

While I best remember Gleason as a bit actor, playing the parts like Sylvester the cab driver in The Bishop’s Wife (1947), there really was a lot more to the man. Like practically every film actor, he got his start on stage. He was also a writer of plays and for our purposes, dialogue for comedies. As an example, along with Norman Houston, Gleason is credited with writing The Broadway Melody (1929), the second film and first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. And this was at the beginning of his career. He also made his first movie appearance in The Broadway Melody in an uncredited role.

In 1931, Gleason and Robert Armstrong, Carl Denham from King Kong (1933), starred in a radio sitcom, Knights of the Road. The syndicated series, sponsored by Union Oil, ran for 103 episodes which were each fifteen minutes long, including commercials. While I have never heard an episode, the series revolved around two men, oddly enough named Jimmy Gleason and Robbie Armstrong, who have a dream of opening a gasoline station on land they plan to buy from Robbie’s girlfriend’s father. Their plan is to tour the U.S. for one year, observing how other filling stations are run so they can make theirs the best.

Gleason would appear in Change of Heart (1934), which he also wrote; Meet John Doe (1941); Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), A Guy Named Joe (1943); Arsenic and Old Lace (1944); The Bishop’s Wife; Suddenly (1954) and The Night of the Hunter (1955) to name a few. He was nominated Best Supporting Actor for his role as Max Corkle in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which he later reprised in the musical sequel Down To Earth (1947).

ZaSu Pitts’ career goes back even farther. She got her first break in films playing in The Little Princess (1917) starring Mary Pickford. She appeared in a series of one-reel comedies for Universal starting in 1919, which led to a rise in her popularity. Her first full length lead was in King Vidor’s Better Times (1919).

Known as a comedic actress, Pitts was cast in 1924 to appear in Erich von Stroheim’s adaptation of Frank Norris’ 1889 novel, McTeague. Called Greed, the original film is both celebrated and notorious for being a 9 and a half hour long, line for line adaptation of the book. Hailed by many, seen by few, Greed is often touted as one of the greatest films ever made. Pitts played Trina Sieppe, McTeague’s wife.

ZaSu Pitts as she appeared in Greed (1924)

Declaring the comedienne “the greatest dramatic actress”, von Stroheim would cast her in The Honeymoon (1928), The Wedding March (1928), War Nurse (1930) and Walking Down Broadway, released as Hello, Sister! (1933). Pitts would also show off her dramatic skills in Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

She would also continue to make comedies: Finn and Hattie (1931), The Guardsman (1931), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Sing and Like It (1934) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). She would also appear in Life with Father (1947), the film adaptation of the long running Broadway play. Her last film was It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, playing Gertie the switchboard operator.

My first attraction to the film was the title, which, as it turns out, nails it. The plot is as thick as gravy. It is saved by the fairly brisk pace. This is a lighthearted approach to the murder mystery and there are some funny moments. One of the more memorable ones revolves around the search for the man wearing a bowler whom Dagmar claims knocked her out. The bowler the police find and are trying to match, unbeknownst to them, belongs to Oscar. Having not read Palmer’s short story, I don’t know if these are touches from his pen or from Jack Townley and Clarence Upson Young, who wrote the screenplay.

This is not a movie to take too seriously. This was meant as a comedic diversion rather than a heart-pounding mystery/thriller. The Plot Thickens follows the standards for what is termed a cozy mystery the established routine of a crime victim, suspects, clues, questioning, locked rooms, alibis and so on, throwing in comedy without being an outright spoof of the genre like The Cheap Detective (1978) or as over-the-top as say Clue (1985).

The Plot Thickens is a B-picture all the way and one that is worth watching, especially if you’re in the mood for a comedic cozy mystery.

No comments:

Post a Comment