Tuesday, October 22, 2019


Murder mysteries were quite a staple in the early days of sound film, and hundreds were made both by the B-programmer divisions of the established studios and by independent production companies that distributed through the states rights market. They tended to be largely talk (or if set in old dark houses, they’d also have atmospheric creepy production design), and because of that, could be shot on a handful of small sets, with different combinations of the cast shot from different angles, and audiences would be paying attention to the dialogue and the performers, not the furniture.

A fine example of an indie murder mystery from the early 30's period is TAKE THE STAND, which moves quickly, has a colorful cast, has a raw urban feel to it (though shot entirely on small sets and with no outside or location shots at all, except for about 15 seconds of stock footage of a hockey game), and keeps one guessing until the end. The great movie tough-guy Jack LaRue plays a muckraking journalist and radio broadcaster, who through his columns and radio broadcasts casts aspersions on all kinds of business people, pillars of society, bankers, gangsters, couples in the society pages, etc. Not by name, but by innuendo. He even threatens to out someone he describes as a “soprano crooner” (yes, this is a pre-code film). In the first ten minutes of the film, we see a number of his columns on screen, along with the reactions of the people hurt by the claims. Then for the next twenty-five minutes, we see the various victims of the gossip trying to find and threaten LaRue, all of them of course saying or doing something that could later be considered a threat to kill him. This gives master character actor LaRue the chance to strut around, putting the others in their place, and it’s a joy to see a pro like him at work.

At about the 35 minute point (the film runs just short of 70 minutes), LaRue is killed while broadcasting (or so it seems)….in a room locked from the inside….and we hear a shot on his broadcast, and his begging “don’t shoot,” but it seems as though he’s been stabbed….and there is no knife in the locked room. Pretty much every suspect is out in the hall at the time of the murder, listening to the broadcast from a room with a speaker, after having been at his office trying to stop him from doing that night’s broadcast.

Each person is grilled by the police, and of course everyone was right near the scene of the murder and everyone hated the victim. People who watch murder mysteries regularly might catch a few tossed-off details earlier in the film, which would perhaps provide a special motive unlike the others for one character, and the opportunity for another character. Still, though, how the murder is committed is quite novel….although it was more novel in 1934 before it’s been used fifty times in later films.

The great lady of early 30’s film, Thelma Todd, loved for her Laurel and Hardy work and for her comedy shorts with Zasu Pitts and later with Patsy Kelly, plays LaRue’s assistant, who runs his office, and she does a fine job of seeming alternately sympathetic and suspicious. Also, as the over-eager sidekick of the gangster character is BTC fave Vince Barnett (see B&W pic of him brow-beating Thelma Todd), the bald, usually mustachioed, jittery scene-stealer who had his own comedy shorts at one time and appeared in hundreds of films as a supporting player. He’s constantly asking his employer, “ya want me to rub him out, boss? Ha, do ya?” and the like.

TAKE THE STAND does what it needs to do quickly and efficiently. Director Phil Rosen had a long and productive career, often in crime films and mysteries (including some Monogram Charlie Chans), and never keeps any scene running too long. After a long day at work in a sweaty print-shop or driving a cab or bagging groceries or whatever the typical BTC reader would have been doing to pay the rent in 1934, TAKE THE STAND is the perfect escapist murder-mystery entertainment, much easier to enjoy than reading a mystery novel, and with unforgettable character actors like Jack LaRue (see pic), Thelma Todd, and Vince Barnett. And thanks to Mr. Public Domain, it’s ready for YOU to watch online the next time you’ve got a spare 70 minutes.

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