SWING HOSTESS. PRC, 1944. Martha Tilton, Iris Adrian, Charles Collins, Cliff Nazarro, Harry Holman, Betty Brodel, Philip Van Zandt, Earle Bruce. Music and lyrics by Jay Livingston, Ray Evans and Lewis Bellin. Director: Sam Newfield.
There are maybe three reasons to watch this low-budget wartime musical, and the first, by a wide margin, is Martha Tilton, perhaps best known as a longtime singer for the Benny Goodman band. In Swing Hostess she plays an aspiring singer named Judy Alvin who can’t seem to catch a break in show business, what with a series of never-ending mixups between who sang what song on which recording disk, missed phone calls and messages, and a competitor (Betty Brodel, sister of Joan Leslie) who can’t sing but whom fortune seems to smile upon a lot more often.
Miss Tilton made only a handful of movies, and was one of the stars in even fewer, but she has a pleasant and relaxed onscreen presence that should have opened the door for making many more. She sings six songs in Swing Hostess, all charmingly and in good cheer. Back in the 1940s you’d have gotten your money’s worth from this film from the music alone. (If you’re of a certain age, today as well, for that matter.)
Another interesting aspect of Swing Hostess is that a sizable portion of it takes place at Judy Alvin’s day job, as she waits for bandleader Benny Jackson (Charles Collins) to notice her. Instead of self-contained juke boxes, back in 1944 they apparently consisted of units with phone lines to a central location where the operators would locate the 78 on a rack and play it back to the person on the other end whose nickel or dime it was. I’ve not been able to find anything online about this kind of operation, if it really existed, so if anyone knows more, tell me about it.
The plot is really rather dopey and not worth saying anything more about, but some of the supporting cast is worth a mention. I’ve probably heard comedian Cliff Nazarro’s double talk ability before, but if so, I’d forgotten about it. All I can say is amazing. Earle Bruce, whose nice guy character seemed to be on a direct path to Judy’s heart, is dumped in the middle of the movie and sent off to the army instead. This gives bandleader Benny Jackson a clear shot, which he takes full advantage of, but since this was the only movie that Bruce ever made, even at this late date I’m going to cry foul.
KATHLEEN MOORE KNIGHT – Footbridge to Death. Doubleday/Crime Club, hardcover, 1947.
What I said about “overwrought prose” [in my recent review of Sea Fever, by Ann Cleeves] goes double for this one, but along with it is a plot that’s complex and totally satisfying as an honest-to-goodness detective novel. I’ll go so far as to say that books like this are the reason I started reading mystery fiction in the first place.
This is an Elisha Macomber story — he’s Chairman of The Board of Selectmen on Penworthy Island, somewhere off New Bedford on the Massachusetts mainland, and while they do have a police force, when it comes to murder, he’s the detective in charge — a warm-hearted philosopher-psychologist who’s as hard-boiled as anyone when it comes to finding out the facts in the case.
There is a prologue in the book — you may be interested in knowing — but this time it’s one that’s there for a reason, and that’s to keep us on our toes. We know as soon as Elisha does that Mme Caron, the newly arrived Frenchwoman on the island, is suspected of aiding and abetting the enemy when she was in Europe — and that’s enough to keep you guessing: is this an espionage story, or is it one of merely domestic violence?
There is a marriage in trouble, in other words, preceded by a broken railing on a bridge, an attempted poisoning, then murder followed by another — surprisingly, this one that of one of the leading suspects in the first. No one liked the second victim very much, and any one of them could have done it, as well as various and sundry townspeople with a stake in either the family fortune or the fortunes of war.
The atmosphere (and prose) is often dark and brooding, a perfect reflection of the post-war years — reunions not always being the happy affairs they’re cracked up to be. But detective novels like this are very much like the old shell game. You’ve got to keep your mind on the story as well, or (like me, at least in part) you’re bound to find yourself snookered again.
— Reprinted from Mystery*File 36,
[UPDATE] 09-28-12. Most of the revisions were small ones. I was tempted to cut down on my own overwrought prose, but for the most part, I resisted. I did make some changes to clarify certain matters regarding the plot, or at least I hope I did.
The crack I made about prologues is a carryover from several reviews in earlier issues of Mystery*File, in which I expressed my extreme distaste for them. For now, I’ll leave it at that. If the reviews I’m referring to ever show up on the blog, we’ll revisit the idea.
LOOKING FOR TROUBLE. 20th Century, 1934. Spencer Tracy, Constance Cummings, Jack Oakie, Morgan Conway, Arline Judge, Judith Wood, Paul Harvey, Joseph Sawyer, Franklyn Ardell, Paul Porcasi, Charles Lane. Director: William A. Wellman. Shown at Cinevent 38, Columbus OH, May 2006.
Tracy made a number of very enjoyable films before his MGM years that include this pairing with Jack Oakie in which the two star as telephone lineman troubleshooters.
The brash, fun-loving Oakie is thrown off-balance by his assignment with the more experienced, hard-bitten and terse Tracy. Tracy, disillusioned by the shady activities of his former partner (Morgan Conway, whom Tracy has had dismissed) and by problems with his girlfriend (Constance Cummings), not the least of which is her occasional dating of Conway, quits, only to return precipitously when Oakie learns of an impending bank robbery in which Conway is involved and which implicates Cummings.
Wellman’s tight direction of this Zanuck production and the highly capable cast made this one of the more satisfying films of the weekend. A contrived earthquake (several production levels below the mighty quake of San Francisco) added little to the film beyond some obstacles for Oakie and Tracy to overcome in rescuing Cummings, but this momentary lapse didn’t significantly diminish my enjoyment of the film.
DOROTHY GARDINER – The Seventh Mourner. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, October 1958. Popular Library, paperback, 1964, as The 7th Mourner.
Sheriff Moss Magill, of Notlaw, Colo., population 415 counting two unborn babies and home of the third worst hotel in the country, is left $100,000 in the will of a late citizen of Notlaw — though her death does not seem to deplete the population — if he will escort her ashes to Scotland and bury them on top of a mountain.
For reasons not made clear, Magill is not interested in the money and does not want to go to Scotland. However, the stipulations in the will lead him to believe, again for reasons not made clear, that one or more of the legatees might be murdered if he doesn’t.
Magill is an engaging character and worth meeting despite his not preventing murder. In addition, Gardiner presents the Scottish Highlands lovingly. But more should have been done with Magill’s culture shock, and the mystery aspect undoubtedly could have been handled better. For example, the villains are obvious and witless.
Enjoy Magill and the scenery and try not to pay too much attention to the plot.
– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall 1992.
The Sheriff Moss Magill series —
What Crime Is It? Doubleday 1956.
The Seventh Mourner. Doubleday 1958.
Lion in Wait. Doubleday 1963.
Editorial Comment: Considerably more about the author and a complete crime fiction bibliography for her may be found following my review of The Trans-Atlantic Ghost, her first book, written in 1933. (Be sure to read the comments, too.)
ERLE STANLEY GARDNER – The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece. William Morrow, hardcover, March 1936. Pocket 277, paperback, December 1944; 17th printing (shown to the right), July 1953. Reprinted several additional times, both hardcover and soft. TV episode: Perry Mason, 28 September 1957 (Season 1, Episode 2).
Veteran and long-time readers of detective novels always know what’s going to happen when the lights go out at night in a large house full of guests and two individuals decide to change bedrooms at the last minute. Warning bells go off every time, don’t they? They should. It never fails.
And when you have an uncle who’s been known to go sleepwalking before, carrying a large carving knife along with him, you also know exactly who’s going to be accused of the murder that occurs, don’t you? You needn’t answer. It’s a rhetorical question.
This was a very early case for Perry Mason, either the eighth or ninth. (The Case of the Stuttering Bishop was published the same year, but if Niece was published in March, my money would be placed on it being the earlier of the two, making it the eighth.) The Mason persona changed over the years, the harder-boiled version gradually becoming softer over time. The novels being serialized in The Saturday Evening Post may have had much to do with it, with the process accelerating even more when the TV series with Raymond Burr came along.
In Sleepwalker’s Niece Perry skates inside the boundaries of proper judicial behavior, and just barely. A key point in the murder is a question of timing. When was the murder knife in the locked cabinet when it should be and when it not there? Just to confuse matters a little, Perry buys an identical knife from a hardware dealer who just happens to be the fiancé of the secretary of the defendant, who also happened to be in the house the night of the murder.
And Perry of course has the knife along with him when the case goes to trial. There is a lot more to the book than the murder, though. Besides nearly a dozen possible suspects, or so it seems, there is also a pending divorce action, a case of business fraud, a neurologist who says the defendant’s nervous affliction is phoney, plus wills, pre-nuptial agreements and more.
It’s a complicated case, with all these ingredients in it, and it’s no wonder that from the bottom of page 201 to the top few lines of page 203 there is one solid chunk of text — a single paragraph without a break — which is what it takes for Perry to explain all the details to Della Street when the trial is over.
From me to you as a would-be reader of this novel, the moral of the tale is to keep an eye on Perry every single instant. He has rabbits in a hat he can pull out at any time, and he brings his own hat.
It might also be noted (so I will) that he and Della also have eyes on each other. It was fun to see Paul Drake pop into Perry’s office just in time to see Perry and his devoted secretary break away from each other after more than a peck on the cheek.
THE MOST DEADLY GAME. ABC / Aaron Spelling Productions. 10 October 1970 through 16 January 1971. Created by Mort Fine and David Friedkin. Executive Producer: Aaron Spelling. Cast: Ralph Bellamy as Mr. Arcane, George Maharis as Jonathan Croft and Yvette Mimieux as Vanessa Smith.
“Murder is the most deadly game. These three criminologists play it.” The Most Deadly Game featured three criminologists working together to solve only the most unusual crimes.
Before we get to the series itself, lets deal with its back story. The series original title was Zig Zag, and was listed as a pilot for ABC in Broadcasting(November 17, 1969). It was an Aaron Spelling production with no cast mentioned but the “key creative people” were listed as David Friedkin, Mort Fine, Joan Harrison and Aaron Spelling.
Over at the Thrilling Detective website, an article by Ted Fitzgerald cites Ric Meyers’ TV Detective (A. S. Barnes & Co., 1987) claim that Eric Ambler (Checkmate) created Most Deadly Game. Producer Joan Harrison was married to Ambler, but I have found no evidence that Ambler and not Mort Fine and David Friedkin created the series.
In Broadcasting (March 2, 1970), Zig Zag appeared on the announced ABC fall schedule for September 1970. It was to air on Saturdays at 9:30-10:30pm (Eastern) and listed Ralph Bellamy, George Maharis, and Inger Stevens as the cast.
The three were promoting the series when on April 30, 1970, Inger Stevens was found dead.
The series executive producer Aaron Spelling had produced a TV movie called Run Simon Run (December 1, 1970, ABC) that starred Burt Reynolds and Inger Stevens. During the picture the two stars became romantically involved.
Aaron Spelling wrote (with Jefferson Graham) in his book Aaron Spelling: A Prime Time Life (St. Martins, 1996):
She was so beautiful and vulnerable, we created a series for her, The Most Deadly Game, and we really felt like we had a winner.
Inger, George Maharis, and Ralph Bellamy starred as a trio of great criminologists who dealt only in unusual murders (i.e., the most deadly game). After we completed the pilot and sold the show, Burt and Inger broke up, and a few days later, Inger, who had a history of personal problems and had attempted to commit suicide in 1959, tried again, and this time she was successful.
We recast the part with Yvette Mimieux, reshot the pilot, and missed our September airdate, premiering instead a month later than usual, but we were dead on arrival. The show just had a feeling like it was damned. We couldn’t recover from the negative publicity.
While a fifteen-minute presentation film of Zig Zag (with Stevens) still exists, no completed pilot has been found. Currently, YouTube has an early ABC promo that may be from the presentation reel:
In Broadcasting (April 3, 1970), the series was still called Zig Zag. Stevens’ obit in Broadcasting (May 11,1970) called the series The Most Deadly Game.
Another problem facing the series before it even began was its time slot, opposite the popular NBC Saturday Night at the Movies and CBS’s Mary Tyler Moore Show and the first half hour of Mannix.
ABC was last in the ratings. Broadcasting (November 16,1970) noted that in the “latest Nielsen report” nine of the bottom twelve series in the ratings were on ABC and one of them was The Most Deadly Game. After just a month on the air, ABC cancelled the series.
I have seen four of the twelve episodes (thirteen if you count the missing pilot “Zig Zag”):
“Breakdown” (10/31/70) Written by Leonard B. Kaufman. Directed by George McCowan. Produced by Joan Harrison. Guest Cast: Jessica Walters, Tom Bosley, Joe Don Baker, and Terry Carter. *** A corporate psychiatrist is murdered. The company boss hires Arcane to solve the murder so the company can get rid of the nosy cops. Conveniently that weekend there was a psychological retreat scheduled where the five most likely suspects would spend seventy-two hours role-playing and talking about themselves. Jonathan and Vanessa go undercover. It ends with an unbelievable role-playing confession, then a chase and fight.
Opening of the episode “Breakdown”:
Early scene from “Breakdown”:
“Photo Finish.” (11/14/70) Written by John McGreevey. Directed by Norman Lloyd. Produced by Joan Harrison. Guest Cast: Marlyn Mason, Eileen Brennan, and Stephen Young *** Someone named ‘Scorpio, Mars In The Eighth House’ is sending Arcane pictures of murder victims and begging Arcane to stop him or her.
The astrology gimmick is used for act break graphics, but the killer never mentions astrology, not even during the cliché nut-job confession scene at the end. Arcane does not tell the police about the photos he is receiving from his murderous Pen-pal despite the fact people keep dying. Three victims and they figure out motive, but a missed guess of identity of the killer puts Vanessa and friend in danger.
“War Games.” (11/28/70) Written by Jack Miller. Directed by Lee Madden. Produced by David Friedkin and Morton Fine. Guest Cast: Barbara Luna, Pat Harrington Jr., Billy Dee Williams, Dan Travanty (later known as Daniel J. Travanti of Hill Street Blues) and Peter Brown. *** The police believe Jonathan killed his former military commander who had been shot while recreating battles with toy soldiers (the cops are looking for a 38 caliber gun, unaware the murder weapon was a toy cannon).
Four men, who with Jonathan had survived a suicide mission ordered by the Colonel, all confess to killing the old man. This ruins the cop’s day, as now he has to find actual evidence. Add the wife and you have your required five suspects. Heavy-handed clues make the motive obvious and the ending a major letdown.
“Lady from Praha.” (1/9/70) Written and Produced by David Friedkin and Mort Fine. Directed by Gene Nelson. Guest Cast: Bert Convy, May Britt, Brenda Benet, and Hank Brandt *** A foreign spy is killed during a foxhunt. His government hires our three because it believes the American government did it. They are given five suspects to check out.
The spy angle then is virtually ignored. Actions make little sense as the killer tries to kill Jonathan for no reason other than the writer needed an act break. There is a locked room mystery that lasts only a couple of scenes and has a lame solution. (No one would notice a bellboy leaving a hotel room.)
The clues are so clumsy and obvious we know who the killer is long before our brilliant criminologists. Then when they finally figure it out, no one tells the police. Instead Jonathan goes macho and runs off alone to get revenge and nearly gets killed. But all ends well, and Arcane happily looks on as Jonathan and Vanessa share a romantic moment.
Ralph Bellamy gave his usual professional if not exciting performance as Mr. Arcane, wise respected criminologist and father figure to his two young protégé.
George Maharis played Jonathan Croft as the typical condescending macho hero of the era. Jonathan was a widower with a growing romantic interest in his co-detective Vanessa.
Vanessa Smith had a growing romantic interest in Jonathan as well. As a young girl her father had been executed for a crime he had not committed. Arcane, who had been too late proving her father innocent, had taken Vanessa in and raised her. Vanessa was no Emma Peel. A girl’s girl but independent, she may let Jonathan handle the fights, but she insisted on doing her part taking on danger.
Watching Yvette Mimieux as Vanessa Smith walk through a room was the highlight of the series. They never used “that” camera angle on Joe Mannix, and for good reason.
The Most Deadly Game wanted to be a traditional mystery in a television world that depends more on characters than plot. It was a two-hour mystery shoved into a sixty-minute time slot. There were too many suspects, too many pointless red herrings, and too many series regulars to develop for any quality mystery to survive.
Clues such as the killer using an exotic astrology name need to mean something. Red herrings are fine but they still have to be explained.
We needed to believe in our main characters. They needed to be special, they should be brilliant criminologists, not bumbling around clueless or even worse wrong. They don’t have to work with the cops, but no one should die while they are withholding evidence.
The Most Deadly Game is available only in the collector market. The series is not worthy of recommendation, but worthy of regret that it could have been so much better.
THE TATTERED DRESS. Universal International Pictures, 1957. Jeff Chandler, Jeanne Crain, Jack Carson, Gail Russell, Elaine Stewart, George Tobias, Edward Andrews, Phillip Reed, Edward Platt. Director: Jack Arnold.
Back in the 1950s, Universal Studios had two really fine trashy directors under contract: Douglas Sirk did garish melodramas like Written on the Wind, and Jack Arnold handled the more overtly pulpy stuff, Westerns and monster movies like Tarantula and Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The Tattered Dress finds Arnold encroaching on Sirk’s territory with a tawdry tale penned (or typed, as the case may be) by George Zuckerman, who churned out Written on the Wind and the engaging scripts for Dawn at Socorro and The Brass Legend. The results in Tattered maybe aren’t purely successful, but they’re at least fun to watch.
The story starts in a small desert town where wealthy Phillip Reed murders the guy who seduced his wife (said wife played with classy trampiness by Elaine Stewart, one of three actresses here who deserved better). Reed gets arrested by that perennial comic foil Jack Carson, playing a hick-town Bozo-Sheriff, and Jeff Chandler shows up as a high-powered attorney hired to defend him in court.
Chandler coolly gets Reed acquitted by making a fool of Carson on the witness stand (not a terribly difficult task, given Carson’s persona) and prepares to go back to the Big City — only to find that the sheriff isn’t such a hick ass he seems, and Chandler is on the receiving end of some rather sticky and perhaps deadly revenge.
Jack Arnold always seemed to like desert locations, and he does well with this one, evoking a lonely isolation where passion and violence seem to simmer below a hot, dusty and deceptively still surface. Zuckerman’s script has its slack moments, but director Arnold gets through them as quickly as possible to highlight the occasional scenes of tension and violence.
As far as the acting goes, Jeff Chandler delivers his usual clapboard performance, and Jeanne Crain simply marks time in a role so thankless as to make her casting seem positively churlish, but Gail Russell, a sad-eyed actress who died tragically young, does a fine job in an interesting bit, and Jack Carson trades on his buffoonish image impressively as the apparently-dumb cop.
It’s not a totally riveting ninety minutes, but The Tattered Dress has its moments, and it sure won’t put you to sleep. I might add that this was produced by one Albert Zugsmith, an auteur too colorful to explore here in any depth, but definitely a subject for further research.
Editorial Note: The video you see above consists of only the first four minutes of the movie. For some reason I haven’t been able to embed the entire movie, but you can watch it on YouTube, here.