Things I Read Off the Screen in The Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case

PROFESSIONAL BUILDING. Well,what kind of Crime Doctor would operate out of an Amateur Building?

This was my first CRIME DOCTOR film — pure B movie goodness. I’ll definitely watch more. William Castle directed a couple, but this one was by the noir-adjacent Eugene Forde, who throws in an expressionist-adjacent dream sequence:

POISON!

So, anyway, Warner Baxter is Dr. Robert Ordway from the radio programme Crime Doctor, where he was played by THE NAKED CITY’s House Jameson. For the movies, you need a movie star (radio adaptation I LOVE A MYSTERY ported over the audio actors from its source, and they were a tad disappointing to gaze upon). For a B-movie you will settle for a FORMER movie star. Enter Warner.

(Cary Grant described stardom as a crowded bus — he hung off the back for a few years, then squeezed inside, “then Warner Baxter fell off and I got to sit down.”)

ROBERT ORDWAY M.D. PRACTICE LIMITED TO PSYCHIATRY

And crime-solving, of course. Lloyd Bridges and Lynn Merrick, both staple supporting players in B pictures — he keeps turning up as waiters and stuff in the LONE WOLF films — are the nice young couple who come to ask Crime Doc’s advice. He was an innocent suspect in a previous murder case where his employer was offed, and Ordway got him off. The police still think he’s a little off. Soon, he’ll be a suspect again — perhaps he’s been hired precisely to divert suspicion from the real killer. This is roughly the plot of Carol Reed’s THE GIRL IN THE NEWS, made a few years earlier in the UK, and therefore suitable for re-arranging into a fresh plot.

POISON. Soon, even L. Merrick will be suspecting L. Bridges of being the poisoner. Hard not to, when he carries poison about with him. But that’s too simple for the Crime Doctor, who explains that a guilty man would have thrown the poison away. An innocent man suspected of murder might have done the same, but not our Lloyd.

PATRICIA GIRLS. GOLDEN NIGHTS. G ROOMS OFFICE. NO SMOKING. QUIET.

A flashback takes us into a vaguely Gay Nineties theatrical setting, which feels like a different movie. I joked that from now on the film would be a period musical and we’d never return to the detective story. B movies very rarely go that far awry but sometimes, out of sheer cheapniz, you get peculiar narrative strategies.

CAFE MAN DESERTS WIFE AND CHILD. A truly magnificent headline. Cafe man? I imagine the same editor’s other works: LAMP WOMAN SLAYS FOUR. FLASK PERSON IN WASP SHOCK. BANISTER THING DESTROYS IDAHO. They’ve also buried the lede: this is a case more of theft than abandonment. Unusually for the period, the full newspaper story has been typed up and printed by some Columbia employee, rather than just some Latin text or a cut-and-paste article about the Chamber of Commerce. So you can learn that the theft victim is one Walter Burns, so we’re back to Cary Grant again.

UNIONS. SUPER-SOFT SCHOLL’S NO-PADS.

BURNS PHARMACEUTICAL CO. ADDISON BLAKE PRESIDENT. 1128. FOR SALE. APPLY BUSINESS PROPERTIES INC. 916 WEST 18TH AVENUE. CITY CAB CO.

The B-movie world is full of Acme-type generic business names. City Cabs. Professional Buildings. Business Properties Inc. Looking forward to REPO MAN, where characters drink from cans labelled BEER, or buy tins of FOOD.

PHYSICIAN 7X 38 51.

The Warner Baxter we meet in this film (not pictured) is a strangely muted fellow — perhaps preferable to the barking bully of the 1930s. He’d suffered a nervous breakdown and was going to die pretty soon. Either this, or the underwritten character, makes him gentler and actually more appealing. But not very lively or interesting.

JOE’S LUNCH ROOM. SHORT ORDERS. OPEN ALL HOURS. “What the hell is a lunch room?” demanded Fiona. “A Room where you get Lunch,” I suggested. She felt any business opening only at lunchtime would be a failure, but the answer is painted on the window: the round-the-clock lunch, a great American invention. But is it really lunch if it’s all hours? Another mystery we’ll never solve.

Buncha names. MR. MRS. MALLORY CARTWRIGHT.

This charming couple supplies all the eccentricity the film can bear. She’s discovered working as a cook in the murdered man’s house, but she’s clearly not legit. The Crime Doctor catches her “pretending to cook.” She soon throws off her disguise and flees through an open window. Learning her real name, he tracks her to her home address, where alas she does NOT say “Come in, I was just pretending to make coffee.” We learn that she’s a process server, and was serving food in order to get close enough to her target. Her husband is played by Jerome Cowan, and he’s a sheet music salesman and unconscious pyromaniac — small fires break out whenever he’s around. This becomes a hilarious running gag. This couple have little to do with anything, they’re mainly herrings of a deep crimson hue, but they bring the entertainment. The fact that Cowan’s job requires him to play the piano to demonstrate songs, and he does this very, very badly, is also hilarious. Does he sell many songs to the people whose homes he ignites? THAT question may actually be the Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case, but there’s no time for a solution because this is —

COLUMBIA THE END

19 Responses to “Things I Read Off the Screen in The Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

  2. Since there’s no diacritical mark over the “e” in “Cafe Man,” I think it’s just a typo for “cave man.”

  3. That would make sense, except he also ran a cafe, an unusual venture for neolithic man.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

  6. Dan Sallitt Says:

    I’d never heard that Cary Grant quote before: it’s wicked but very funny. I like Warner Baxter, though. He worked in a few good films with good directors in 1936-37, presumably just after he fell off the bus.

  7. The good directors are scattered throughout his career, but not always with their best films. I’ve never gotten far into Broadway Bill, where he hits Clarence Muse for being dumb just a few minutes in. But I think he works as a hardboiled but desperate producer in 42nd Street. It helps when he gets to suffer, as in Prisoner of Shark Island.

  8. Dan Sallitt Says:

    I always think of him first in THE ROAD TO GLORY, where he definitely gets to suffer, albeit without much expression of his suffering. I haven’t seen SLAVE SHIP in a really long time, but I thought it one of Garnett’s best.

  9. Oh that film gave me the creeps. Well-staged, but horrible.

  10. bensondonald Says:

    The Crime Doctor had a pretty nifty origin: An amnesiac studies medicine and becomes a doctor in search of a cure for himself. He regains his memory and discovers he was a criminal, but chooses to remain a doctor who more or less specializes in rehabilitation. A few films in they sort of forgot this and he was just a detective MD.

    Such Columbia series detectives as I’ve seen are disappointing; perhaps because they tend to be late in the day and feel more like stale TV shows than programmers. The one Lone Wolf I caught was mostly about the hero and sidekick (Eric Blore) impersonating an Arab potentate and minion in sitcom situations. Boston Blackie is said to have started strong, but the only official DVD has three tail-end efforts, where everybody goes through the motions (affably, but still). In one, Blackie’s police detective nemesis simply admits he accused Blackie of the crime to get him to solve it, as usual.

    My favorite B sleuths:
    — Sherlock Holmes, with Rathbone and Bruce: The gold standard
    — The Thin Man: Excellent, but really slumming As.
    — Charlie Chan, the Fox years: Solid, and with swell bonus features. Get the sets before Disney vaults them. The Monograms’ primary value is their mockability.
    — Mr. Moto: Likewise, with the added charm of never quite settling on a genre.
    — The Falcon: Managed to phase from funny 30s whodunits into postwar noir, and remained at least watchable to the end.
    — The Saint: Uneven, but George Sanders is always amusing.
    — Hildegarde Withers, when played by Edna May Oliver. Murderers are just bad boys, and no match for a no-nonsense teacher.
    — Perry Mason, when played by Warren William. The happy shyster.
    — Nancy Drew, when played by Bonita Granville. Energetic, comically obnoxious teen drags grumbling boyfriend into danger.
    — Torchy Blaine, at least the early ones. Then the scripts got dopey and liberated Torchy was reduced to silly broad trying to do man stuff.
    — Michael Shayne, when played by Lloyd Nolan. Cheerful mug, often applying most of his energies to getting paid.
    — Miss Marple, when played by Margaret Rutherford. Christie may have hated her, but the films are cute and amusing. Love that Rutherford has to fend off suitors like Robert Morley.

    Someday I’ll list the bottom of the barrel.

  11. I like all those except Boston Blackie. Never seen a good one. The Whistler series seems good, what I’ve seen of it.

  12. “the round-the-clock lunch, a great American invention”
    … equalled by London’s “Breakfast served all day”, though that is definitely served in caffs (or even kaffs), with no debates about diacritical marks and often with palaeolithic tea from a urn.

  13. The all-day breakfast is definitely a major step forward in human civiilsation. Unfortunately my new diet prohibits 90% of the ingredients of the Full English, which, when done right, is a killer.

  14. I could never figure out if Boston Blackie was a private eye or a Robin Hood-ish crook or what. When I went to his Wikipedia page to find out, I discovered he was created by an opium addicted ex-reporter while serving time in San Quentin. He really ought to be better. Or at least more fun.

  15. It’s possible that if we trace him back far enough,we’d locate a period in which BB was fun. The original book? The early silent movies?

    It was clear from the Chester Morris ones I saw that he was the same as The Lone Wolf, an ex-crook turned troubleshooter still regarded as a hood by the cops. Some of those movies have good, or soon-to-be-good, directors, but I could never discern any visual personality in them. Mostly useful for Earl Morris to sample in The Thin Blue Line.

  16. Years ago, I read Jack Boyle’s novel, which was actually a collection of short stories with some added connecting material. Boston Blackie was a very different character, an actual criminal, not a crime solver. He was married to the daughter of a master criminal, and lived in a world in which thieves were far more honorable than the police or the legal profession. How did BB transform into the Chester Morris character? It might have been in the various silent pictures about him. And I’d be tempted to watch one, but the only one available isn’t too appealing — it co-stars Strongheart the Dog.

  17. Oh, I like silent movie dogs, I’d watch that! Though if BB is being impersonated by a canine thesp, that would indeed argue against the accuracy of the adaptation.

    Seems plausible that BB got warped to resemble another popular hero, like the Saint, and reforming him would make him much more acceptable to the censors.

  18. bensondonald Says:

    And for no good reason, my bottom-of-the-barrel detective series:

    — Chan at Monogram: Blurring the line between low-budget programmer and low-budget early TV. Chan is now seemingly separated from his wife and family as well as the police force, a freelancer with one son and Mantan Moreland as hokey comedy relief.
    — Mr. Wong: Boris Karloff in four Monograms even cheaper than their later Chans. In the last film Karloff is replaced by Keye Luke, but it’s a wasted opportunity since barely any adjustment is made for the fact Luke is playing a generation younger.
    — Brass Bancroft: Ronald Reagan as a Secret Service agent, playing it naturally and dull. The films dwell in a dead zone, too silly to be gripping procedurals and too stodgy to be snappy crime dramas.
    — Nick Carter: Merely mediocre, but the scripts have Carter being a jerk to the eccentric Bee Man, the best thing in the films. That leaves a sour taste.
    — Dick Tracy, the RKO features: Actually acceptable Bs, but you can’t play Dick Tracy like a “real” police story. Instead of the comic strip’s outrageous villains (pictured in the opening credits) you got mugs — murderous mugs, but too much like real life criminals. Somebody figured this out too late, introducing the cartoony Vitamin Flintheart in the last few and tossing in a sci-fi freezing ray and Karloff as Gruesome in the final entry.

    They all have some amusement value, but mostly of the inappropriate amusement variety.

  19. Dick Tracy is OK, especially those late ones. I think Jacques Tourneur did a Nick Carter, but he didn’t get to bring much to the party.

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