Sat 27 Jul 2013
TELL NO TALES. MGM, 1939. Melvyn Douglas, Louise Platt, Gene Lockhart, Douglass Dumbrille, Florence George. Dorector: Leslie Fenton.
Tell No Tales offers a Good Idea for a Movie, almost buried under MGM production gloss. Melvyn Douglas — who, in his day, starred opposite Greta Garbo and Boris Karloff with equal aplomb — plays a big-city newspaper editor who gets a break on a kidnapping case: a Hundred Dollar bill marked as part of the ransom payment falls into his hands. Using his connections and newsman’s instinct for a story, he follows the bill from hand to hand, back to the kidnappers.
This is fairly standard stuff for a 30s crime reporter story, but writer Lionel Houser milks a lot of extra interest from it. As Douglas tracks the bill from person to person, we get unsettling glimpses of the lives he’s walking in on: an older man whose pretty young wife bought a gift for another man with it; a black prizefighter who paid his doctor bill before dying or a prestigious singer afraid it will betray a sordid secret.
Writer Houser and director Leslie Fenton make the most of this Woolrichian bent (the scene at the prizefighter’s wake, held over a seedy nightclub, is particularly unsettling) with flashes of insight that lift this film well out of the ordinary.
Unfortunately, there is that MGM Gloss to contend with, and it almost suffocates a very intelligent little B-movie. At Warners, Tell No Tales would have established the lead character cracking a case with a quick montage of sirens, bullets and screaming headlines; Monogram would have opened the film with economic stock-footage and a wise-cracking talk on a pinch-penny Editor’s Office Set.
But not MGM. No sir. They open Tell No Tales with a big money shot of editor Douglas walking through a busy newsroom packed with extras, taking a few minutes of his (and our) time to give a break to an honest politician, and organizing a surprise party for file paper’s oldest employee, thus establishing him as a man of character and sensitivity (like all big city newspaper editors) and incidentally wasting about ten minutes of a one-hour movie.
The surprising thing is that once you get past this yawning chasm, Tell No Tales still manages to pack a lot of interest, thanks mainly to fine writing and the considerable charm of leading players Melvyn Douglas and the under-used Louise Platt (who played the pregnant army wife in Stagecoach that same year) seriously abetted by veteran nasties like Douglas Dumbrille and Leroy Mason.
Look for this one.
Editorial Comment: This movie has been reviewed once before on this blog, the earlier post contributed by David L. Vineyard. Check out what he had to say here.
WARNING: Part Two of the YouTube video provided is incomplete. (See Comment #1.)