Jane’s Quick Take on: Mystery Liner (1934)

For folks that think all Bs must be genre films, I offer up this 62 minute Monogram cheapie, designed to fill the bottom half of double bill alongside something much more artistic from one of the majors. It caught my eye for combining two of my favorite things, murder mysteries and cruise ships (OK, technically an ocean liner, but who can afford to be picky).

Based on an Edgar Wallace novel, the plot involves the voyage of a commercial ocean liner that is being secretly used to test the concept of remote controlled ships for warfare.  Because drone battleships and subs would have won WWI in months instead of years. I know, I know, just roll with it, ‘k?

Shortly before launch Captain Holling (Noah Beery) is struck by a nervous breakdown and is sent to a sanitarium (which he promptly escapes) and his ship handed over to a new master. But all is not well, there are ‘foreign interests’ who also want the secret of the S-505 (the remote control thingy, which is apparently just some sort of vacuum tube) and as the bodies begin to pile up, can the clever Major Pope (Edwin Maxwell) get to the bottom of things before the agents provocateur steal the secret weapon for their own nations gain?

As a Wallace adaptation, naturally it’s full of secret doors, shadowy figures, gimmicky killings and folks who are not who they first appear to be, which is part of the fun of such things.  And while not truly a genre picture, I was surprised at the science-fiction trappings that marked the secret experiment.  Sure the two way blackboard on which the ship and shoreside lab communicate via slowly drawn out cursive missives is a remarkably inefficient (and therefor plot-convenient) answer to the problem of being unable to communicate by radio, so as not to have you messages intercepted by the enemy. But at least it shows they thought about the problem. Someone even rented the Strickfadden equipment to make  sure we all know that what is happening back in the shoreside lab is Science!

Best of all, it contains a comic relief character who is not odious, the delightful Granny Pritchard (Zeffie Tilbury), who is  basically an upper-class Nanny Ogg-type who has been saddled with an obnoxious adult grandson (who is odious, but hardly ever on screen) as chaperone when all she really wants is a stiff drink and a single man (or two). She gives what is by far the best performance in the film, being the only cast member actually bothering to act, and is clearly having the time of her life. It also features a brief appearance by George (not yet Gabby) Hayes, who would go on to be the biggest ‘name’ appearing herein, although here he’s hardly recognizable without his thicket of a beard and genuine frontier gibberish.

Granny indulging in her two favorite pastimes.

Alas, it suffers all usual issues of a Monogram production, small crowded sets, static shooting, talky and confusing script, and ‘actors’ whose main talents lie in being able to hit their marks and deliver their lines in one take.  An ocean liner is an ambitious setting for this sort of thing and more than usual attention has been paid to the sets, it looks like the inside of a ship, with rounded bulkhead doors, narrow metal stairways, porthole windows, rather than just pretending that a room set is identical to a cabin one.  But the illusion shatters on two (mercifully brief) shots of the ship at sea, risibly realized by pulling an obvious cardboard cutout silhouette of a liner across a static backdrop. It also sets its climactic scene during a ship-wide blackout to maintain the mystery for another minute or two, which leaves the audience in the unenviable position of being able to tell that all sorts of ‘exciting’ things are supposed to be taking place but leaving them unable to actually see any of them as anything but black blurs.

I can’t really recommend this one to any but Wallace completists, but it is certainly not the worst hour I’ve ever wasted on a film.  More ambitious than the usual Poverty Row fare and too short to be dull. If you feel you must see it for yourself, it’s currently available on the excellent Cult Movie Classics channel on YouTube.

Incidentally, I have moved my Social Media presence off of the Book of Faces. Now you can find me on MeWe at https://mewe.com/group/5d5d4df75cc228096a618bce

It’s a great place to have a chat with me and like-minded others about B-Movies, genre films, film making, whatever catches our interests over there.

Questions? Comments? Want to tell me why I'm wrong? Have at it below.

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