Thu 16 Apr 2015
CURTAIN AT EIGHT. Majestic Pictures, 1933. C. Aubrey Smith, Dorothy Mackaill, Paul Cavanagh, Sam Hardy, Marion Shilling, Russell Hopton, Natalie Moorhead, Hale Hamilton, Ruthelma Stevens. Screenplay: Edward T. Lowe. Director: E. Mason Hopper.
This rather wretched murder mystery movie has only one thing going for it: C. Aubrey Smith in a rather unusual role for him, that of Jim Hanvey, the detective character created by Octavus Roy Cohen. Although the credits don’t mention it, but Curtain at Eight, the movie, was based on Cohen’s book The Backstage Mystery (Appleton, 1930), and what the resemblance is, I’d like to say slim to none.
Unless, that is, there is a monkey in the book — or rather a chimp — although none of the characters in the movie know the difference. If you cant stand chimps in movies any more than I can, avoid this film. I stuck it out, though, so I can’t follow my own advice, then why should you?
Murdered on the stage as they are celebrating his birthday is actor and notorious womanizer Wylie Thornton (Paul Cavanagh) — one of those scenes when the lights go off and wouldn’t you know it, a shot rings out. There are more than the usual number of suspects, and before the movie is over, the dopey homicide detective on the case (Sam Hardy) has locked up almost all of them, along with another one who simply wanders in at about the two-thirds mark.
Thankfully also on the case is Jim Hanvey, played by Aubrey Smith as a tall, lanky, homespun (aw, shucks) sort of guy, with a shank of unruly hair — a far cry from Smith’s usual role as a British officer and a gentleman. His portrayal of Hanvey is also a far cry from that of Guy Kibbee, who was the star of Jim Hanvey, Detective (Republic, 1937). To me, Kibbee sounds as though he’s be more appropriate as the character, as Kevin Burton Smith describes him on his Thrilling Detective website: “…full-time good ol’ boy. He’s fat, slow-moving, [with] fishy eyes…”
Besides the chimp, Curtain at Eight is plagued by a script that could have used a lot more time to stretch out and introduce the real players in the story, not the chimp and not the dopey guy from homicide. Between the two, the two must take up half of the movie’s sixty minutes running time, or did it only seem that way?
I’ll bet bits and pieces of the movie came from the book, picked up from here and there and strung together in some hope of a coherent mystery plot, and not succeeding. Maybe even the chimp came from the book, but I hope not.
As for director E. Mason Hopper, he had a long career making silent films, but he made only one more with sound, the truly abysmal Hong Kong Nights (First Division Pictures, 1935), a spy film in which one of the major stars, the hero’s good buddy and constant sidekick, simply disappears half way through the movie, never to be seen or mentioned again. I watched it a short while ago, and I’m almost embarrassed to say that I did.
The screenwriter, though, Edward T. Lowe, went to much better things, including worthwhile entries in the Charlie Chan, Bulldog Drummond, and Sherlock Holmes series, not to mention a couple of Universal horror movies in the mid-1940s.
Note: For Dan Stumpf’s comments on this same film, which I didn’t read again until just now myself, go here. We clearly watched the same movie, but he seems to have found more charm in it than I did.