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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Mary Carlisle at 101: The Last of the WAMPAS Stars

If you examine the picture below, taken on the Paramount backlot in the 1930s, you can pick out quite a few Hollywood legends. Cary Grant. Charles Laughton. Josef von Sternberg. Maurice Chevalier.

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Only one person in that photograph is still alive as of this writing: Mary Carlisle, pictured in the second row, next to W.C. Fields.

And, as of today, she’s 101 years old!

It’s somewhat mind-boggling to consider that, in California, there still lives a stylish screen veteran who was photographed in two-strip Technicolor and starred in pre-Code films with the likes of Bing Crosby, Lionel Barrymore, and Jimmy Durante.

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Carlisle is the last surviving member of the WAMPAS baby stars, a yearly crop of young women chosen as the industry’s most promising hopefuls. A 1932 WAMPAS alum, Carlisle appears in this (rather sexist) short “Stars of Tomorrow” along with Ginger Rogers, Gloria Stuart, and several others.

marycarlisleAlthough major stardom eluded Carlisle, her gracious, effervescent personality improved quite a few films between her debut in 1930 and her retirement in 1943. For instance, amidst the cacophony of a whacky, big-budget Paramount musical like Double or Nothing (1936), Carlisle exerts a positively tonic influence.

During the 1930s—an era of dangerous, street-hardened women and slinky, suffering sinners on film—Carlisle’s maidenly charms struck a note of nostalgia. MGM’s comedy-melodrama Should Ladies Behave took an amusing pre-Code slant on Carlisle’s disarming sweetness. Her sheltered character, Leone, despairs when her boyfriend complains that she’s too “inexperienced” for him to marry!

Pert and plucky, Carlisle was Hollywood’s ideal of the vivacious, all-American co-ed. Despite her angelic appearance, she gave the impression of being a down-to-earth idol, an approachable dream girl that a fellow might get up the courage to talk to at a dance.

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The writers of “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” could’ve been describing Carlisle: “The blue of her eyes and the gold of her hair/ Are a blend of the western skies.” And, indeed, Carlisle would star in a 1933 film inspired by the popular college song.

She made a delightful onscreen counterpart for the mellow suavity of Bing Crosby, with whom she co-starred in three films—College Humor, Double or Nothing, and Dr. Rhythm—and whom she “still remembers fondly,” according to her Facebook page.

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My favorite Carlisle performance adorns a film that I consider the best of the Poverty Row old dark house movies, Christy Cabanne’s One Frightened Night (1935). 21-year-old Carlisle makes the most of an unusual turn as a sassy vaudevillian poised to inherit a fortune… if she’s not killed off first!

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If there were such a thing as 1930s character actor bingo, One Frightened Night would surely win with Hedda Hopper, Wallace Ford, Regis Toomey, Charles Grapewin, and Rafaela Ottiano among its ranks! In contrast to the dismal, almost pathetic feel that some low-budget films of this type exude, this mystery reminds me of a themed house party, with every actor clearly having a ball.


Since it’s in the Public Domain, I encourage you all to curl up with this cozy, lightweight thriller.

More film clips and complete movies of Mary Carlisle on YouTube:

For more information about Carlisle, I strongly recommend this typically thorough post at Immortal Ephemera.

And be sure to “like” Mary on Facebook! And wish her a happy birthday!

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Free Friday Film: Dead Men Walk (1943)

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“You creatures of the light, how can you say with absolute certainty what does or does not dwell in the limitless ocean of the night? Are the dark and shrouded legions of evil not but figments of the imagination because you and your puny conceit say that they cannot exist?”

Prologue, Dead Men Walk

The name George Zucco stokes the deepest reserves of my film geek love. This classically trained Englishman—with his cultured, grave baritone speaking voice and his startling black eyes, indecently bulging forward at will—is a veritable institution in horror.

Despite a distinguished stage career and several notable supporting roles in big Hollywood productions, Zucco found most of his work among B-movie chillers from Universal and cheap Poverty Row shockers. No matter how tawdry the material or how small the part, his effulgent glee in playing mad scientists, wicked priests, and all-round nasty rotters makes his horror performances richly pleasurable.

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Unlike many of Zucco’s films, Dead Men Walk gave him some hammy material he could really sink his teeth into: a double role as an upstanding community doctor and his degenerate, occult-obsessed twin brother. The story starts with the funeral of Elwyn Clayton, as his brother Lloyd stands over the coffin. (Note to self: never name my child Elwyn.) Hmm. Lloyd doesn’t look too broken up. Suddenly, the town crazy lady bursts into the chapel and announces that the dead man doesn’t deserve a Christian burial—he was an unnatural sinner. You know, I get the feeling that something’s not right here…

Sure enough, later that night, vampire Elwyn has risen from his tomb, abetted by his servant, Zolarr, played by Dwight Frye. Who else would you call when you need toady to the undead.

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After feasting on a lovely young maiden the first night, he drops by his brother’s office the evening after. It turns out—rather surprisingly—that the good doctor Lloyd killed his blasphemous brother, or tried to, not knowing that his twin had attained immortal life as a vampire. Gloating over his power, Elwyn throws down the gauntlet and promises a horrible retribution:

“You’ll know that I am no intangible figment of your imagination when you feel the weight of my hatred. Your life will be a torment. I’ll strip you of everything you hold dear before I drag you down to a sordid death. You’ll pray you’re dead long before you die.”

Yeah, and you thought your sibling was a troublemaker! In all sincerity, Zucco’s bald-ish, chortling vampire scares me just as much as prime Lugosi. Elwyn is the nice old man down the street… who secretly wants to drink your blood. His aged, ordinary appearance renders his ugly, mirthless chuckle and his desire to corrupt and destroy young women all the more appalling. He glows with malice.

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(Who knew Woodrow Wilson had an evil vampire twin? Which reminds me, does anyone want to greenlight my script for Woodrow Wilson: Vampire Hunter?)

While we expect the bad twin to be effectively spooky and awful, the “normal” twin has a surprisingly grim side too. He murdered his brother, no matter how pure his motives might have been. The side of good isn’t so spotless as we might hope, raising questions about the corruption inherent even in fighting evil. The element of fratricide lends gravitas and ambiguity to this dark tale of sibling rivalry, a muddied, supernatural Cain and Abel.

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Is Dead Men Walk a great film? Well, no, it was made at PRC and it’s not Detour. Directed by Sam Neufield, who’s probably best known for the dorky-as-hell I Accuse My Parents, this movie wasn’t worthy of its acting talent. The pacing definitely lags, and I’m phrasing that kindly.

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Mary Carlisle, one of the few living members of the Hollywood old guard, turns in a likable performance, adding suspense to the story as we see her life essence waning under the vampire’s influence. Alas, her love interest could barely choke out his lines. And Dwight Frye does not get enough to do at all. The visuals are appropriately shadowy—often to the point of blacking out parts of faces to suggest the depravity of the villains. Not everyone agrees with me, unfortunately, and some of the reviews elsewhere are just plain cruel. This movie was probably shot in less time than it takes to coax most of today’s movie stars out of their trailers. 

If you love horror and derive comfort from snuggling up with a slightly creaky but very creepy 1940s horror flick, you can watch this one for free. And if you don’t love that, I will totally haunt you after I’m gone.

This film is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch and download it at the Internet Archive, as well.