Murder in the Private Car (1934) and One Frightened Night (1935): A Double Feature for Mary Carlisle

“I’m still here!” That was the cheerful reminder in the card I received from Mary Carlisle last Christmas. Since Carlisle turns an astounding 104 today, I thought I’d share the message and recommend 2 of my favorites from her filmography.

If you love classic movies, you’ve certainly seen Carlisle, whether floating through the lobby of Grand Hotel in a chic aviator costume, dancing with Bing Crosby in a madcap Paramount musical, or mediating between Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance.

After paying her dues as an “extra girl” at MGM, Carlisle rose to supporting roles in movies starring the likes of Lionel Barrymore, May Robson, Will Rogers, and Walter Huston. She continued as a featured player and sometime leading lady until she retired in 1943.

Over 85 years after her first credited part, Carlisle is last of the WAMPAS Baby Stars, one of very few folks who can remember Hollywood’s pre-Code days firsthand, and (to my knowledge) the only living person who was photographed in two-color Technicolor.

Handed many generic ingenue roles, Carlisle infused them with a verve and sparkle that was uniquely hers—the same luminous joie-de-vivre that has sustained her for over a century. Screenland described her as “our personal pick for sure-fire pep in any screen scene.” And in 1934, Picture Play magazine sounded downright surprised at the dedication and charisma that went with her sweet appearance: “Mary Carlisle might easily be just another blonde cutie and be content with that but it happens the girl can act! Steadily improving in each part she plays, never neglecting her sense of humor, she’s one of the really talented newcomers.”

Our talented newcomer did her share of demurely gazing into a screen-beloved’s eyes, but the Mary Carlisle moments I cherish most are those that show her feistiness. After all, you didn’t make a place for yourself in 1930s Hollywood without possessing some serious moxie. Watch Carlisle give crotchety old millionaire Charley Grapewin a real tongue-lashing in One Frightened Night when he accuses her of being a fortune-hunting impostor.


In this delightful whodunit, Carlisle is the second girl claiming to be the long-lost heiress to a vast fortune. Despite a fantastic cast, the movie drags ever so slightly until Carlisle arrives at the 20-minute mark and buoys it up with with that “sure-fire pep” of hers.

Carlisle makes a dramatic entrance, seen from the outside of the gloomy manor, running out of the howling rain (on the prerequisite Dark and Stormy Night). She opens the door, shouts a cautious “HELLO!” into an unresponsive house, settles in front of the nearest fire, and engages in some mocking patter with Regis Toomey, the first person she encounters.

She swiftly impresses the audience as the opposite of inert, simpering granddaughter claimant #1, Evelyn Knapp. There’s something enchantingly Mae West-ish about the way 21-year-old Carlisle then proceeds to assert herself with the family lawyer. A haughty chin tilt and defiant tone cuts her challengers down to size. This is the kind of gal who really does value her dignity above 5 million dollars. Though she be but little, she is fierce!

Playing a sassy vaudevillian, Carlisle gives us an old dark house heroine who’s more than usually capable of taking care of herself. When ne’er-do-well Regis Toomey tries to put the moves on her, she likes him, but she’s not ready to trust him. She rolls her eyes and expertly brushes his hand right off her shoulder.

Toomey goes to leave her in a creepy-as-hell room filled with mummy cases, shrunken heads, and skulls. “You’re not afraid, are you?” He asks. Though quaking with fear, she steels herself and replies, “Well, I guess I’ve played tougher houses than this.” Unlike many a damsel, she reflexively grabs a weapon when she’s alarmed. She may be spooked, but she continues to intrepidly explore the lugubrious family manse.

An independent production, One Frightened Night is cozy good fun, an underrated gem among old dark house movies. Even the opening—in which the camera tracks towards rain-spattered windows as the blinds are pulled down to reveal credits—displays exceptional panache, despite the shoestring-budget.

This flick delivers everything we expect. Secret passages! Exotic murder weapon! A gallery of eccentric suspects! Goofy comic relief! Most importantly, the cast clearly is having a ball. It’s like the audience has been invited to the swellest murder mystery dinner party ever. Because it’s in the public domain, you can watch One Frightened Night right now.

If One Frightened Night is cinematic comfort food, Murder in the Private Car is like a chocolate-covered hot pepper.

Essentially an old dark house movie on wheels—and steroids—this action-packed oddball thriller also casts Carlisle as an imperiled lady set to inherit a fortune. Murder was her penultimate pre-Code and one of 9 movies that she made in 1934. Although Charlie Ruggles and Una Merkel run amok, Carlisle serves as the linchpin of the plot. I can’t think of many 1930s ingenues who could hold this vortex of zaniness together and make us care about her character as much as Carlisle does.

There’s a special place in my heart for zippy B-movies that commit to their wackiness. You know, the sort of earnestly outlandish programmers and cult films that play their material—wild contrivances, plot holes, and all—utterly straight. You’ve gotta admire the sheer accelerating weirdness of a 63-minute barn-burner like Murder in the Private Car. The thick layer of MGM gloss and glamour is icing on this time bomb cake.

If the phrases “kidnapped heiress,” “killer gorilla on the loose,” and “runaway train loaded with explosives” tickle your fancy, then you are in for treat with this one, my friends.

The bond between Carlisle’s and Merkel’s characters imbues this film with a sense of sisterhood and solidarity. As harried telephone operators, they work side-by-side in teasing harmony. When Carlisle discovers that she’s the long-lost daughter of a rich man, even such a dizzying class change doesn’t break their friendship. Merkel is genuinely happy for her friend. She smiles sadly, not because she’s jealous or resentful; she expects that she’ll have to say goodbye forever. But Carlisle isn’t going to abandon her. She gleefully yanks out the telephone lines and pulls Merkel out of the office, towards a better life for both of them.

And it’s a good thing she does drag her friend along with her. I mean, when you’re in your lingerie and you need to fend off an escaped gorilla trying to rampage into your train compartment, you need a gal pal, am I right? Battling a man in a bad monkey suit, Carlisle and Merkel define professionalism.

They really do look terrified, bless their hearts. This dynamic duo valiantly sells that scene in all its glorious, colossal silliness. Because they take it deadly serious. Oh, did I mention that the gorilla has nothing to do with the main murder mayhem plot? Really, this movie is nuts.

Una Merkel garners the lion’s share of funny lines—and who could deliver them better? Commenting on Carlisle’s hunky bodyguard, Merkel can’t help but drool, “I wish there were a man like that guarding my body.” Carlisle get some snappy dialogue too. At the conclusion of a nonsensical speech, Charlie Ruggles asks, “Simple?” Carlisle disapprovingly quips, “You certainly are.”

Murder in the Private Car culminates in a slam-bang set piece that makes you feel like you’re riding a roller-coaster with the characters. The combination of skillful rear projection and shenanigans with real trains demonstrates that MGM didn’t do things by halves. Given how exciting the finale is on my laptop screen, I suspect that moviegoers left the theaters feeling very satiated with thrills.

Fair warning: Not everybody enjoys this film as much as I do. (My pal Danny of Pre-Code.com gave it a rare “dislike”!) Apart from a few cringe-inducing gags, Murder in the Private Car strikes me as uproariously entertaining, but then again I happen to think that wildly implausible plots are endearing.

Many of Mary Carlisle’s films are difficult to find, but this duo of comedy-chillers is within easy reach. I hope you’ll seek them out—although, in all of their strangeness and wonder, they’re certainly not as amazing as Carlisle’s own life.

If you want to learn more about Mary Carlisle, be sure to like her Facebook page.

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Mel Brooks Gets Serious (Almost) at TCMFF

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Photo credit: Mark Hill/Turner Entertainment Networks

“Hi, I’m Robert Osborne…” seems like a pretty traditional opener for a discussion at TCM Classic Film Festival.

Unless, of course, it’s Mel Brooks saying it. And then following that up by blowing a raspberry into his microphone.

At the age of 87, Brooks shows no signs of mellowing; his madcap personality was in full salute yesterday in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel as he spoke to Robert Osborne about his career.

Although Brooks will introducing his hilarious parody Blazing Saddles at the festival tonight, the discussion took a somewhat different path. Rather than focusing solely on Brooks’s vocation as a funnyman, Osborne brought out some details about his more serious side. Brooks opened up about the surprising range of films that he produced, including the classic melancholy comedy My Favorite Year and the gruesome horror drama The Doctor and the Devils, about famous grave-robbers Burke and Hare.

I am the producer of very dark and important films, but I have always kept my name and my face away from them.” Brooks worried that his image as a comedian would skew audience expectations: “If you go to see Mel Brooks in The Elephant Man, you’d expect to see me with a trunk!”

elephantBrooks might’ve tried to keep his participation in The Elephant Man on the down-low, but he contributed to the film’s triumph with his fine-tuned story sense. The original screenplay offered a more cheerful ending, with Queen Victoria stepping in like a deus ex machina to assure Merrick’s medical treatment. It was Brooks who insisted on the cyclical structure of the plot and believed that the tragic title character had to die in the hospital to bring the film to an emotional conclusion. As he explains, “If movies don’t end right, they don’t work.” Brooks also recounted how, after seeing Eraserhead, he chose David Lynch as the right man to bring the macabre, but moving story to live.

(Note to self: write a book about thematic and narrative overlaps between The Elephant Man and Young Frankenstein.)

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The comedian told a crowd-pleasing anecdote about  Cary Grant who happened to occupy the bungalow next to Brooks’s during the days of his early success. After watching the dapper Cary come and go in his Rolls Royce with yellow flowers in his buttonhole, Brooks couldn’t get up the courage to speak to the icon—let alone ask for an autograph. Well, who should come up to Brooks in the commissary a few days later, calling out, “Why, Mel Brooks! I’ve got your ‘2000 Year Old Man’ Record!” but Cary himself.

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At first, Brooks had to get over the impression that Grant must’ve been “a mirage”: “You can’t be real!” However, it sounds like the unlikely pair of Mel and Cary were on the way to becoming BFFs.  Alas, the comedian noticed that, at each of their costly breakfast chats, notoriously parsimonious Cary never paid his share. Finally, Brooks had no choice but to cut him loose: “‘—Cary Grant called…’ ‘—I’m not in!'”

And so we must weep for a bromance unfulfilled.

tbontbWhen Osborne asked what it was like for Brooks working with real-life wife, the astounding Anne Bancroft, in To Be or Not to Be, he elicited howls of laughter from the audience by exclaiming, “It was terrible!” Bancroft would constantly push Brooks to do another take, insisting that he could do better. Still, he admits that she was a perfect lifeline for his rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”—in Polish!—helping him memorize the words and leading him in the performance.

Finally, when asked which films had made the greatest impact on him, Brooks mentioned the elegant escapism of the Astaire-Rogers movies. “They took me to a different world… I wanted to live in that place!” he explained with uncharacteristic reverence. That’s right, folks: at TCMFF, we’re all classic movie geeks—especially the movie stars themselves.

The discussion yielded some good news for hardcore Brooks fans, so start filling out your wish lists. Later this year, a limited edition boxed set of his films—only about 1000 of them—will be released, each signed by Brooks himself.