ISLE OF MISSING MEN. Monogram, 1942. John Howard, Helen Gilbert, Gilbert Roland, Alan Mowbray, Bradley Page. Screenplay by Richard Oswald and Robert Chapin from a play by Ladislav Fodor. Directed by Richard Oswald.


   An unexpectedly classy thing to come from Hollywood’s second-most-beggarly studio of the 1940s, thanks mainly to a literate story from Ladislav Fodor (who gave us Tales of Manhattan and Kiss Before the Mirror), evocative camerawork from Paul Ivano (of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series), and a surprisingly sumptuous cast for a Monogram film.

   John Howard, from Paramount’s “Bulldog Drummond” series headlines as the governor of a prison island somewhere in the tropics returning to work from vacation who meets a lovely woman (Helen Gilbert) on board the ship taking him back and persuades her to stop over on the island for a few days so they can get to know each other.

   Turns out the lady in question has an agenda of her own and has deliberately wangled the invitation to the island prison to help her husband (Gilbert Roland, then at the nadir of his career) escape. Dramatic complications ensue when she discovers that he is no longer the gentle, loving man she married, and, later, that he never was, really.

   Meanwhile, other complications are busy ensuing, including Howard’s officious lieutenant (Bradley Page) who feels duty-bound to check up on Miss Gilbert’s background, and Alan Mowbray’s delightful comic/pathetic drunken doctor, compelled by his love of beauty to help her in what he knows is an ill-advised scheme.

   All this spins out in a little over an hour, and if the ending seems to lack punch, the surprising depth of characterization makes the trip worthwhile. Director Oswald (father of Gerd Oswald, of the old Outer Limits show) did some interesting work back in pre-Hitler Germany, then fled to the U.S. where his career never got out of the “B” picture rut. His work here shows genuine sensitivity.


   Similarly, Bradley Page was a perennial second-string movie bad-guy who deserved better; in fact his easy-going outlaw in The Outcasts of Poker Flat (RKO, 1937) deserves a place in Western Movie lore that somehow slipped between the hoofprints.

   John Howard was forever stuck in place as the low-budget Ronald Colman, and Gilbert Roland ended up a respected character actor, but the real treasure here is Helen Gilbert. Miss Gilbert (whose many husbands included composer Mischa Bakaleinikoff and gangster Johnny Stompanato) simply radiates a sensuality that even a low-wattage movie like this cannot dim, the sort of thing one sees in actresses like Dietrich and Moreau, who had big studio resources to back them up. Her luminous presence here is just the foremost pleasure of a film that deserves seeing.