Thursday 18 March 2010

Miss Pinkerton (1932)

Director: Lloyd Bacon
Stars: Joan Blondell and George Brent

I wasn't initially sure what to expect from Miss Pinkerton but it's a precode starring Joan Blondell so that's all the reason I really need to watch. The opening credits identify that it's based on a novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart though, so the tone becomes obvious. If you didn't know that she wrote creaky old house mysteries, you'd have worked it out from the use of atmopheric shadows as we're introduced to the setup. Old house mysteries are where murder mysteries and horror films blurred together, Rinehart's best known novel being The Bat, and sure enough this one begins with a murder at the old Mitchell home at 10th and Sylvian. Young Herbert Wynn is dead, shot through the head.

Inspector Patten is investigating, in the friendly form of George Brent, but he's an inexperienced detective, this being his first case. Wynn's body was set up to appear like a suicide but the family are naturally trying to pass it off as a sad accident while he was cleaning his gun. Patten knows it's neither as there are no powder burns and moreover, he would seem to be an unlikely candidate for taking his own life. 'He couldn't kill himself, not the kind he was,' says Hugo the butler. Aunt Juliet puts it in more definite words. 'He was a coward,' she says, straight out. With a fresh $100,000 life insurance policy on the table and odd people continually turning up to claim their part in the story, the motives for murder are plentiful.

What he can be sure of most is that everyone in the Mitchell house looks suspicious, so he acquires some surreptious help in the form of Georgia Adams, a nurse at the Polyclinic Hospital. After all Wynn's aged Aunt Juliet found the body and has been confined to bed with shock. A nurse to care for her can be there all day and all night and see things that a detective might not, and Nurse Adams is more than willing to help out because the routine of hospital life is driving her nuts. 'Mind a change?' she tells her matron. 'Lady, if you only knew!' Naturally Joan Blondell plays Nurse Adams and she looks as fetching in her uniform as you might expect. Patton dubs her the Miss Pinkerton of the title.

The old house mystery followed a reasonably strict formula and this one is no exception, adhering to all the conventions. Women are attacked but however it's done they get the opportunity to scream long and loud. Lights go out at inopportune moments to conceal nefarious activity that usually involves escaping through windows or locked doors. Shadows play a big part in proceedings and there have to be at least a couple of scenes where they show us menacingly clutching hands. Revelations are made as the story progresses of secret marriages, secret passages, in fact anything that has been kept secret. Most important of all, characters have to pronounce impending doom. 'Something might happen,' says Aunt Juliet here, 'something terrible.'

Every character sneaks around looking suspicious, including any that aren't. The detective's task is always harder in an old house mystery because they can't just watch for telltale signs of guilt because everyone looks so continually guilty that they all must be guilty of something, even if it isn't murder. Guilt is guilt in an old house mystery, whether the character is guilty of murder or sneaking an extra bowl of cornflakes in the morning. Here Mary the maid is uncommonly close to Aunt Juliet, Hugo the butler can't stand up straight and really knows how to skulk and even Dr Stuart looks uncommonly sinister. Actors like John Wray, C Henry Gordon and Blanch Friderici are far from well known names but they all look familiar. Holmes Herbert is more recognisable as the Mitchell lawyer, Arthur Glenn. Elizabeth Patterson impresses as Aunt Juliet.

All in all this one's a routine affair, fun to watch but without much substance. It doesn't do anything that any other old house mystery doesn't do, with the single exception of the presence of Joan Blondell. She can usually be counted on to elevate anything at least a notch but she struggles here. The whole thing needed a little something extra to really engage, there really being no solid detective work being done by anyone. Nurse Adams gets to provide some of the glue but she isn't anywhere near as fun as many of the unlikely female detectives of the era and she really doesn't have much passion for it, being relegated to being a pleasant diversion. For his part Insp Patten merely arrests everyone apparently on the basis that he'll get it right in the end. It's worth watching if you're a fan of someone here but not for much more.

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