Monogram Pictures

The Thirteenth Guest (1932, Albert Ray)

The Thirteenth Guest has a lot of problems, but its biggest failing is Frances Hyland’s script. Hyland doesn’t just have a lot of logic problems, he also has a bunch of lousy humor. There’s Paul Hurst’s moronic police detective, who Hyland relies on for Guest‘s version of comic relief. Hurst whines a lot and annoys J. Farrell MacDonald, who should be a lot better as his superior. Why isn’t MacDonald better? Because Hyland writes in a bunch of jokes about MacDonald being upset about eccentric wealthy people.

But the dumbest part of Hyland’s script has to be protagonist Lyle Talbot’s passionate anti-murder position. He just can’t stand murder… as opposed to being pro-murder. But Hyland also decides to make the dapper Talbot a reluctant genius detective. So, while Talbot can’t stand murder, he apparently can’t stand having to solve murder cases even more.

Still, Talbot gives a strong performance and, at times, he nearly makes Guest worthwhile. There are some other good supporting performances from James Eagles and Frances Rich. In the other lead role, Ginger Rogers is somewhat ineffective. She’s a lot better in her first scene than she is in the rest of the picture.

Ray’s direction isn’t bad, but Leete Renick Brown’s editing is terrible. The low budget hurts Guest quite a bit. Ray isn’t able to establish any settings. It all looks too cheap in daylight.

Guest should have a compelling narrative, but the budget keeps those involved from taking advantage of it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Albert Ray; screenplay by Frances Hyland, based on the novel by Armitage Trail; directors of photography, Tom Galligan and Harry Neumann; edited by Leete Renick Brown; produced by M.H. Hoffman; released by Monogram Pictures.

Starring Lyle Talbot (Phil Winston), Ginger Rogers (Marie Morgan), J. Farrell MacDonald (Police Capt. Ryan), Paul Hurst (Detective Grump), Erville Alderson (Uncle John Adams), Ethel Wales (Aunt Jane Thornton), James Eagles (Harold ‘Bud’ Morgan), Crauford Kent (Dr. Sherwood), Eddie Phillips (Thor Jensen), Frances Rich (Marjorie Thornton) and Phillips Smalley (Uncle Dick Thornton).


The Mystery Man (1935, Ray McCarey)

I hope Robert Armstrong got paid well for The Mystery Man, because it doesn’t do him any other good. While it’s nice to see Armstrong in a lead role, the film’s so incompetently produced, it’s sometimes painful. Armstrong acts well but director McCarey doesn’t know how to compose shots. You’ll get what should be a close-up as a medium shot. Of course, the script’s bad too so Armstrong’s working against it too.

The plot isn’t terrible—Armstrong’s a newspaper reporter with more ego than sense who finds himself broke after a week-long bender. He meets Maxine Doyle, who’s in similar financial straits. The problem with the film is mostly Doyle. If she were any good, the film might be charming, regardless of technical merits and writing. But she’s awful—just painfully bad.

But so’s the rest of the supporting cast. Armstrong’s sidekicks, played by James P. Burtis, Monte Collins and Sam Lufkin, all awful. His bosses—Henry Kolker and James Burke—awful. Guy Usher turns in the closest thing to a decent performance, but he’s not good by any stretch.

Meanwhile, there’s Armstrong moving through these inept actors, trying to do what he can with the bad dialogue, on the incredibly cheap sets (the hotel suite appears to be the newspaper editor’s office too, based on the wall design)… and he maintains some dignity.

The concept isn’t bad; it could have been a good leading man vehicle for Armstrong… instead of an unfortunate, disappointing entry in his filmography.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ray McCarey; screenplay by John W. Krafft and Rollo Lloyd, based on a story by Tate Finn and an adaptation by William A. Johnston; director of photography, Harry Neumann; edited by Carl Pierson; released by Monogram Pictures.

Starring Robert Armstrong (Larry Doyle), Maxine Doyle (Anne Ogilvie), Henry Kolker (Jo-Jo), LeRoy Mason (The Eel), James Burke (Managing Editor Marvin), Guy Usher (District Attorney Johnson), James P. Burtis (Whalen), Monte Collins (Dunn), Sam Lufkin (Weeks), Otto Fries (Nate), Norman Houston (T. Fulton Whistler), Dell Henderson (Mr. Clark), Lee Shumway (Plainclothes Man) and Sam Flint (Jerome Roberts).


The Ape (1940, William Nigh)

I always forget awful films have always been made; I usually establish some arbitrary point in the mid-fifties when they started getting unwatchable. Then something like The Ape comes along and reminds me I need to set that point earlier.

The film’s based on a play, which must be a hoot considering how many different locations it moves from. Nigh loves to intercut one sequence with a glimpse of another, a technique he probably came up with for the film, but who knows… All of those intercuts are awful and jarring, much like the rest of Nigh’s direction. When he does manage to compose a mediocre shot it’s startling, because the rest of The Ape looks so bad, just looking normal is too much for it.

The story seems absurd, but I’m sure there are other low budget films with a similar one. A mad doctor lives in an otherwise innocent little town. They use a Western set for some of it, which fits since the sheriff (Henry Hall) walks around dressed up like a cowboy. The mad doctor-played by a terrible Boris Karloff, who’s almost unrecognizable due to a goofy hair style-thinks he’s found the cure for paralysis and he’s going to do anything to make sure he succeeds.

Anyway, the script’s awful. The dialogue sinks over and over. Especially with otherwise earnest young lovers Maris Wrixon and Gene O’Donnell.

The Ape stinks. One might feel bad for Karloff, but he’s so absent charm, it’s unlikely.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by William Nigh; screenplay by Curt Siodmak and Richard Carroll, based on an adaptation by Siodmak and a play by Adam Shirk; director of photography, Harry Neumann; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; music by Edward J. Kay; released by Monogram Pictures.

Starring Boris Karloff (Dr. Bernard Adrian), Maris Wrixon (Miss Frances Clifford), Gene O’Donnell (Danny Foster), Dorothy Vaughan (Mother Clifford), Gertrude Hoffman (Jane), Henry Hall (Sheriff Jeff Halliday) and Selmer Jackson (Dr. McNulty).


Mystery of the 13th Guest (1943, William Beaudine)

About two minutes after I finished watching Mystery of the 13th Guest, I realized no one ever solves the titular mystery. There’s a mysterious thirteenth guest in the first scene; the guest is absent and his or her identity is never revealed. Tim Ryan’s police lieutenant is supposed to be sort of dumb (but smarter than his hilarious, completely moronic–and narcoleptic–sidekick Frank Faylen), but Dick Purcell’s private investigator is supposed to walk on water and he never mentions it either.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film where the title introduces a mystery totally unrelated to the film’s actual plot. 13th Guest‘s mystery is a relatively simple one–which family member is killing off the other family members to get an inheritance. Nothing to do with the missing thirteenth guest.

The mystery itself isn’t bad, but the plot is idiotic. Ryan and Purcell discover the murderer’s method of electrocuting his victims and they leave it set up because they’re too busy. They also don’t tell anyone.

It doesn’t help Purcell’s just terrible. Ryan’s not very good, but he’s competent. Purcell makes the film a chore to get through–the necessity of a solid character investigating a mystery is now clear to me.

Beaudine is an inoffensive director. He doesn’t bring anything to the film but doesn’t take anything away. Unfortunately, that description also broadly applies to the film. Damsel in distress Helen Parrish, for example, is genially useless.

The best performances are Lloyd Ingraham and Jacqueline Dalya in very small roles.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by William Beaudine; screenplay by Tim Ryan, Charles R. Marion and Arthur Hoerl, based on a novel by Armitage Trail; director of photography, Mack Stengler; edited by Richard C. Currier; produced by Lindsley Parsons; released by Monogram Pictures.

Starring Dick Purcell (Johnny Smith), Helen Parrish (Marie Morgan), Tim Ryan (Police Lt. Burke), Frank Faylen (Speed Dugan), Johnny Duncan (Harold Morgan), Jon Dawson (Tom Jackson), Paul McVey (Adam Morgan), Jacqueline Dalya (Marjory Morgan), Cyril Ring (Barksdale) and Addison Richards (Jim, District Attorney).


Manhattan Tower (1932, Frank R. Strayer)

Manhattan Tower opens with the Empire State Building and closes with it. I’m not entirely sure they ever call it by name in the film but it’s not supposed to be “real,” I don’t think. Tower‘s Empire State is a world onto itself, so much so, it’s a shock people leave it to go home at the end of the picture.

The film takes place in a day, the morning accounting–roughly–for the first half.

Strayer–Tower‘s easily the best film I’ve seen of his–and screenwriter Norman Houston keep a rapid pace. When it’s introducing characters and situations (there’s a lot of drama on this particular day), Houston always introduces at least two characters and some problem they’re having. The film doesn’t leave anything unresolved and the amount they do resolve–in the last eight minutes or so–is incredible.

The film does have a villain, which makes things a little easier to solve, and Clay Clement is fantastic in the role. In a lot of ways, it’s the least flashy role in the film, because he’s just a sleazebag. The film’s constantly revealing his further lack of character.

Mary Brian’s kind of the lead, giving the best “star” performance in the film. James Hall’s good too, but he’s mostly around just for scenes with Brian.

Hale Hamilton is unexpectedly (his role, at the start, doesn’t seem big) great, turning in the film’s second best performance. All the acting’s good, but Nydia Westman too deserves some singling out.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Frank R. Strayer; screenplay by Norman Houston, based on a story by David Hempstead; director of photography, Ira H. Morgan; edited by Harry Reynolds; produced by A.E. Lefcourt; released by Remington Pictures.

Starring Mary Brian (Mary Harper), Irene Rich (Ann Burns), James Hall (Jimmy Duncan), Hale Hamilton (David Witman), Noel Francis (Marge Lyon), Clay Clement (Kenneth Burns), Nydia Westman (Miss Wood), Jed Prouty (Mr. Hoyt), Billy Dooley (Crane-Eaton) and Wade Boteler (Mr. Ramsay).


Navy Secrets (1939, Howard Bretherton)

Low budget filmmaking–both today and in the past–has always been the most successful when the narrative takes the budget into account. Navy Secrets takes place over one day, with most of the locations being in cars, apartments or restaurants. In other words, easy sets. There’s one slightly more complicated scene in a park. The scenes are all competently lighted and, in general, the film never reveals its b-movie status. The lack of recognizable actors does a little.

What’s so smart about the film is its structure. That one night, with two main characters who the viewer knows relatively nothing about–all the viewer knows, five minutes in, is not to trust Fay Wray. The viewer isn’t necessarily supposed to distrust her, just be wary of her actions. It makes the film an almost interactive experience, with each line of dialogue, each look between characters possibly revealing information (or not). It’s a smart way to do a low budget film, to make the whole thing as quiet as possible.

The other main character, played by Grant Withers, is also suspicious. So is the entire supporting cast after a while. Navy Secrets‘s resolution is one of the obvious possibilities, but it’s never confirmed until the final moment and until that confirmation, there’s always a chance of something else. It keeps the whole narrative unsteady, especially since for the majority of the film, it isn’t even clear if there’s a mystery to be solved.

The chemistry between Withers and Wray has to do well to sustain the film, since there’s little action (there’s one decent fight scene towards the end, which is a surprise, given the one early is awful). The film only runs an hour and two minutes, but it actually seems to go much longer, a combination of it being all dialogue and all in one night. It’s not real time, but–for the most part–the viewer only misses eating scenes and some traveling scenes. The film seems to relate the rest of the characters’ evening… omitting, eventually, some story points to later surprise the viewer.

There’s one particularly nice scene–that park scene–where Wray and Withers kill five or seven minutes of the running time. The flirtation between the characters is rather nice, with Wray’s performance the most engaging. Withers is no slouch, but Wray assumes the lead in the film–the script doesn’t assign it to her–just because of her performance. In some ways, from what I’ve seen of her films, it’s her best performance.

The supporting cast is okay, unless they’re doing accents. Even if the accents are real, they come off poorly. But accent-free Dewey Robinson is solid. Maybe it’s simple–with the accents, the characters are automatically suspect, while without, there’s some added doubt.

The film ends somewhat nicely… a little too neat, a little too style-free. The majority of the film takes place at night with some well-produced street scenes. The last scene, an interior, lacks any flavor. The street scenes–with the rear projection of locations–give the film a real mood, one they should have kept.

Navy Secrets is a fine diversion–the title doesn’t really work for the content–and it’s a nice role for Wray.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Bretherton; screenplay by Harvey Gates, based on a story by Steve Fisher; director of photography, Harry Neumann; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; released by Monogram Pictures Corporation.

Starring Fay Wray (Carol Evans), Grant Withers (Roberts), Dewey Robinson (Nick Salado), Wilhelm von Brincken (Cronjer), Craig Reynolds (CPO Jimmy Woodford), George Sorel (Slavins), André Cheron (Joe Benji), Robert Frazer (Peter), Joseph Crehan (Captain Daly), Duke York (Babe), Arthur Housman (Singing Drunk) and Joseph W. Girard (Navy Captain).


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