Back in the 1930s and 40s, it wasn't uncommon for popular radio dramas to make the leap to the big screen. Crime and adventure serials were a natural fit for the sort of breezy programmers that filled out the bottom bills at theaters, such as Boston Blackie, Dick Tracy, etc. This was the heyday of the B movie mystery and detective series, many of which became very popular and ran for a long time and many films, such as Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, The Saint and The Falcon, to name just a few. Others fizzled out after only a few films. The I Love A Mystery series is a prime example of the latter. Based off one of the most famous and popular radio shows of its day, I Love a Mystery came to the screen in a trio of little-seen and rarely talked about films that aren’t easy to find, but are nonetheless well worth seeking out.
I Love a Mystery (the radio show, known in OTR circles as ILAM) was the brainchild of Carlton E. Morse, who penned most of the adventures and was also responsible for the long-running radio soap, One Man's Family. ILAM stood out from the pack of adventure and detective shows in its frequent emphasis on the macabre and the supernatural (usually proved by the end of each serial to be mere window dressing in an elaborate crime plot, but not always). The program featured the incredibly atmospheric adventures of Jack Packard (no-nonsense leader of the group), Doc Long (a laid-back Texan who loved pretty girls and a good fight) and Reggie York (stalwart, stiff-upper lip Brit), friends during WWI who after the war ended formed the A-1 Detective Agency, mainly as a means to keep getting into trouble.
The series originally was broadcast from Hollywood in various forms from 1939-1944, and was later re-cast and re-done, using Morse's original scripts, in a later New York run from 1949-1952. For most of both series, the show ran in a 15-minute serial format, nearly every chapter ending on a hair-raising cliffhanger. Stories featured such evocative titles as "Bury your Dead, Arizona," "Temple of Vampires," "The Fear That Creeps Like a Cat," "The Thing That Cries in the Night," "Pirate Loot of the Island of Skulls," and "I Am the Destroyer of Women," etc. Sadly, very few stories exist in complete form today, and those that do are from the second run of the show. What does survive is wonderful stuff, full of action, humor and bloodcurdling, creepy goings-on. (Interesting trivia alert: a young Tony Randall voiced Reggie in the N.Y. run of the show, with Mercedes McCambridge voicing most of the female characters).
The three films based on the radio show can't match the original for gruesome violence, globe-trekking locales or eerie atmosphere, but they are all highly enjoyable mysteries just the same. The series kicks off with I Love a Mystery (1945), based off Morse's “The Decapitation of Jefferson Monk.” Tall, deep-voiced, lantern-jawed Jim Bannon takes the role of Jack Packard, and Doc Long is played by the actor who voiced the character on radio in the original Hollywood run, Barton Yarborough. (Reggie, who was eventually written out of the radio series, is absent and never mentioned in the films).
Our intrepid detectives, Doc Long and Jack Packard.
The movie begins with an odd little framing device, wherein a crime reporter questions a morgue attendant and we learn that one Jefferson Monk has been...well, decapitated in a car crash. We then flash back to several days before, when Jack and Doc, chilling out in the Silver Samovar restaurant, meet the morose Mr. Monk (George Macready), who's accompanied by a beautiful stranger (Carole Matthews). Monk tells the two detectives that he's being followed by a mysterious, limping masked figure, and that he has received ominous letters threatening his life.
Despite concerns that Monk is drugged and possibly insane, Jack and Doc agree to follow him home and end up thwarting an attack on him by the aforementioned masked man. Now convinced there's something to Monk's story, they escort him home, where they meet his wheelchair-bound wife (Nina Foch), and soon are on the case to find out who wants Monk dead, and why.
While a shadow of their vivid radio selves, Jack and Doc make for an engaging enough pair of investigators and the mystery itself is pretty interesting, with a few twists and turns thrown in to keep the audience on their toes. Henry Levin directed all three films and he gives this one some nice noirish touches, including its wrap-around, flashback-fueled structure and general air of fatalistic doom. It's a good start to the series, and things only get better from there.
That first film must have done well enough to warrant further ILAM adventures, as 1946 saw the release of The Devil's Mask. This one wasn't based on a Carlton E. Morse radio script, but contains some nice macabre touches of its own. When an airplane on its way to South America crashes near San Francisco, the authorities are puzzled to find some cases full of five shrunken heads. The heads are eventually found to belong to the Cordova Museum, in a collection of artifacts brought back to the U.S. by famed (and now missing, presumed dead) explorer Quentin Mitchell.
Jack and Doc are hired by Mitchell's wife (Mona Barrie) to get to the bottom of who's following her. Meanwhile, the missing man's devoted daughter (Anita Louise) suspects her mother-in-law of doing away with him, and enlists her shady boyfriend (Michael Duane) to help her prove it. Jack begins to suspect that one of the shrunken heads doesn't hail from a remote Amazonian tribe, but actually belongs to the missing explorer, and soon he and Doc are up to their necks in a weird mystery that also involves Jivaro Indians, hypnotism, murder by blowgun, and a taxidermist (Frank Wilcox) who keeps an indoor jungle complete with all manner of stuffed wild animals brought back by Mitchell from past expeditions...as well as a very alive, and unpredictable, black panther...
1946 saw the curtain come down with the final (and best) film in the series, The Unknown. Basically a Southern Gothic version of an "old dark house" thriller, the film opens with an odd, ethereal 15-minute-long extended prologue, narrated by the recently-deceased Mrs. Martin (Helen Freeman), a stern matriarch whose heavy-handed herding over her three children has resulted in the twisted stagnation of their lives. In this lengthy set-up, we see daughter Rachel (Karen Morley) try to run away with the husband she has kept secret from her autocratic family, Richard Martin (Robert Wilcox). Rachel's disapproving father pulls a gun and tries to stop the couple, Richard wrestles with him, the gun goes off, and the father's corpse is subsequently bricked up in the walls of his den, Richard banished from the household forever, and the terminally-weak Rachel unable to escape her mother's oppressive will. Now, some twenty years later, Rachel flits around the grounds like a madwoman, and along with her two brothers, still remains in the crumbling manse, attended to by the one remaining servant, loyal butler Joshua (J. Louis Johnson).
Jack and Doc escort Nina (Jeff Donnell) to her ancestral home.
Enter Jack and Doc, who have been hired by a mysterious benefactor to accompany young Nina Martin (Jeff Donnell, cute as a button), who has just found out she’s Rachel's daughter, and possible heir to the Martin estate. Jack, Doc and Nina arrive the evening before the reading of Mrs. Martin’s will, by family lawyer Reed Cawthorne (Mark Roberts), much to the consternation of her two uncles. All sorts of strange goings-on ensue, including the wailing of a seemingly-invisible baby that haunts the corridors of the house at night, driving the already mentally-disturbed Rachel to the brink of insanity.
Jack and Doc make up for their absence at the beginning of the film by jumping full on into the fray, and from this point on the movie moves like gangbusters, as the duo begin poking around shadowy secret passageways, find a freshly-stabbed body in the family crypt, chase mysterious, murderous figures in the night, and otherwise trying to keep Nina alive until the missing will is found.
Hampered only by a limited pool of possible suspects (leading to a fairly predictable, if lively, unmasking of the killer), in all other respects The Unknown is a crackling little gem of a mystery, moody and more imaginatively staged and shot than the first two films. If the series had to end here, well, it goes out with a bang. (I have no idea why the series was shut down just as it seemed to be heating up; likely it was just a case of diminishing returns as far as the studio was concerned.)
Produced by Columbia Pictures, doubtless to cash in on the popularity of the original radio show, these three films might be lacking in star names but otherwise boast decent budgets, occasionally stylish black-and-white cinematography and fairly inventive scripts. While the characters of Jack and Doc are sometimes treated almost as guest stars in their own series, and the movies fail to live up to the heights of the hallowed radio version, they're still diverting, fast-moving entertainments.
Jim Bannon (later to go on to minor fame in a series of Red Ryder cowboy flicks) makes an acceptable Jack Packard, less hard-boiled than the original, but still very much the take-charge leader and obvious brains of the detective pair. Barton Yarborough is the embodiment of the expression “a face made for radio,” but his experience playing Doc on air gives him an ease and charm on camera that the handsome but rather stiff Bannon lacks. The movie Doc Long is a watered-down version, but Yarborough still maintains some of the character’s trademark cornpone humor and wry asides (when confronted by a cop bearing a shrunken head in a box in The Devil's Mask, Doc opines: "Oh no...no, we ain't interested in no human heads - shrunk, preserved, pickled or otherwise."). Though the lead detectives might lack the instant color and authority of a Mr. Moto or Charlie Chan, they remain good company throughout these three oddball murder mysteries.
Henry Levin (who years later would direct Journey to the Center of the Earth) helmed all three films, and while his direction can’t be said to be overly innovative, he does a good, workmanlike job and gives them a pleasantly weird, off-kilter vibe...and in the case of The Unknown particularly, achieves some quite moody, stylish visuals. Like the best of these kinds of quick-moving, fun programmers, there’s a lot of good stuff packed into their brief runtimes (the movies are 69, 65 and 70 minutes long, respectively) and they never outstay their welcome. I found a lot to like in all three, and they deserve to be better known.
DVD Note: None of the three I Love a Mystery movies have received a DVD release, but they do crop up from time to time on the Turner Classic Movies schedule.
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