Oo-oo-oo-dunnit

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THE SECRET WITNESS is a 1931 pre-code with Una Merkel as a crime-solving society dame (I know! Una Merkel?), Zasu Pitts as a hapless switchboard operator (I feel your eyebrows, raised to stratospheric astonishment by the previous bit of casting, burn up on re-entry as they hasten to resume their customary position on your face), and, most excitingly of all, a pistol-packing chimpanzee known only as “the monk.”

We open on a miniature skyscraper somewhere in a sound stage New York, its snowglobe dinkiness so perfect that it’s no surprise to find Clarence Muse as doorman. The movieness of this movie is well-established before a room has even been entered.

Funniest bit is Zasu describing the book she’s reading to her offscreen beau, Elmer, over the phone. “Oh, it’s a book about a… well.”

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When a well-heeled heel played by Hooper Atchley (that NAME!) gets plugged in the gut, a bevy os suspects is drawn into the web of the bumbling loudmouth police inspector played by Purnell Pratt (!), but it will be Merkel who uncovers the culprit. Among the mugs lining up to off Atchley are perennial yegg Nat Pendleton and his intellectual superior the aforementioned primate, a pet of the deceased who is discovered grieving over his slain master (about the only display of emotion in the film (Philip K Dick wrote a space whodunnit where one of the characters suddenly realizes the entire cast is composed of psychiatric patients, this explaining their terrifying lack of emotional response to the slaying — something that would never have struck the reader, who is inured¬†to the calm way supposedly everyday characters in thrillers react to slaughter in their midst).

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Anyhow, later it turns out that “Monk” is more than capable of firing a pistol himself, so he takes his place among the possible assassins. Of course, Fiona and I were rooting for him to be proved innocent. And to get more closeups. We get endless footage of Merkel’s Play-Doh pan, while the versatile and emotive ape is relegated to a couple of reaction shots. I love Merkel’s sullen quack of a voice, but she’s no hairy ape.

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8 Responses to “Oo-oo-oo-dunnit”

  1. An ape called Caesar is prime suspect in CHARLIE CHAN AT THE CIRCUS (1936).

  2. Is he a man in a costume or the real McCoy? His name is a certainly superb bit of foreshadowing!

  3. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    Play-Do pan? Was that nice? Poor Una.

  4. Warner Oland was Chinese, so I took the ape at face value.

  5. David E, huge congratulations!

    I love Una Merkel, who proves that a sullen, pudgy kisser can be beautiful. I may have a vested interest in this.

    It’s the great Charles Gemora in CC at the C. A man who deserved to be declared an honorary gorilla.

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