Saturday, November 27, 2010

Everyone's a suspect, even the chimpanzee!

Curtain at Eight (aka "Backstage Mystery") (1933)
Starring: C. Aubrey Smith, Paul Cavanagh, Sam Hardy, Dorothy Mackaill, Natalie Moorehead, Herman Bing, Russell Hopton, and Syd Saylor
Director: E. Mason Hopper
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When the lights are suddenly turned off, obnoxious stage actor Wylie Thornton (Cavanagh) is shot to death at his own backstage birthday party. Homicide detectives Havney and Gallagher (Smith and Hardy) have their work cut out for them, as everyone in the building--including the trick-shooting trained chimp--had numerous reasons for wanting Thornton dead.

"Curtain at Eight" is a neat mystery film that meticulously sets up its suspects and murder victims in the first half, including the gun-wielding chimp, and then unleashes an odd-couple of detectives on them during its second half. It's the standard formula for this genre and it's well implemented here, even if the second half is just a little bit too comedic for my tastes.

Stars Paul Cavanagh (as the womanizing, self-centered actor who is his own biggest fan), C. Aubrey Smith (as the experienced, sharp-eyed and sharp-minded police detective), and Sam Hardy (as the inexperienced, dimwitted colleague he has been saddled with) are all perfect in their parts. While Hardy is at times a bit too much to take with his moronic cop antics, more effective comedic bits come from supporting players Herman Bing and Syd Saylor helps the more unpalatable aspects of his character easier to swallow. The steady parade of 1930s eye candy provided by the stylish female members of the cast also goes a long way to making the film enjoyable for fans of old time movies.

And, of course, it's a must-see if you are as obsessed with monkeys and apes as low-budget movie producers in the 1930s and 1940s seemed to be. This one, the ape is actually a real ape, rather than some guy in a suit. And even if you aren't obsessed with apes, I think this might be a film that will stick in your head as "the one where the chimp as a gun".

"Curtain at Eight" was one of the many movies from small studios of the 1930s that was considered lost. A print was uncovered, however, when the advent of DVDs (and the relatively cheap and easy duplication methods involved, once a film's been digitized) sent people scurrying into attics, basements, janitorial closets, and dusty vaults looking for misplaced movies. I recommend you take advantage of this digital age to experience that which was lost and now has been found. It's a pleasant way to spend an hour.

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