REEL PROCEDURALS: From Headquarters (1933)

Without a doubt, the most prestigious film studio during Hollywood’s Golden Age was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Under the auspices of its leader, Louis B. Mayer, MGM adapted classics and concentrated on wholesome family fare and “big pictures.” This was the era when actors were mostly shackled to one studio, and MGM boasted of having “more stars than there are in heaven.” 

Nowadays, many of those classic films come across as a bit turgid, thanks to Mayer. The real fun, at least during the 1930’s, was to be had at rival studio Warner Brothers. Its roster of stars was genuinely exciting, and the films were snappy and fun, no matter what the genre. A lot of the best Pre-Code films can be found at WB, where the specialties were gangster pictures, melodramas, and musicals. 

1933 was a banner year for the studio, where young star James Cagney made five pictures and up and comer Bette Davis made four (and she wasn’t even getting started with the good stuff). Three of the best film musicals of all time appeared, all choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley (42nd StreetGolddiggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade); the last displayed Cagney’s excellent skills as a hoofer. The year saw the release of a fine murder mystery, The Kennel Murder Case, which, as you may know by now, can be found on my buddy Scott K. Ratner’s list of favorite whodunnits. Also on the list, from the same studio and year, is From Headquarters, which I’ll admit I’d never heard of before Scott mentioned it. 

In our last discussion after my post on The Phantom of Crestwood, Scott highly recommended my checking this other film out. His description: “With a very similar cinematic pizazz, it comes off as a cross between Kennel and an episode of CSI.” The New York Times disagrees with Scott. When it came out, their review called the film, a tidbit for the hardier addicts of the mystery melodramas. Less specialized students of the cinema are likely to find in it only the mildest sort of entertainment.”

The New York Times got it wrong. With a snappy screenplay by Robert N. Lee and Peter Milne, fast-paced direction by William Dieterle (substituting for the great Michael Curtiz, who was supposed to direct Bette Davis in this), and some wonderfully innovative camera-work that makes even the examination of fingerprints exciting, From Headquarters is a first-class procedural whodunnit that benefits from the Warner Brothers treatment and the inclusion of many from its stable of character actors. 

*.  *.  *.  *.  *

At just over an hour long, the film has no time to waste, and yet the opening takes a few moments to establish its setting: a large police headquarters that will be our base of operations throughout the movie. The credits play over shots of members of the great police bureaucracy at their jobs answering phones, booking criminals, and so on. A paddy wagon arrives with its haul of urban low-lifes, all rendered so lovingly that I felt the same vibe as when I watch the opening of Golddiggers of 1933 and see all those chorines spouting their fatalistic wisecracks about the lack of work on Broadway. None of this has anything to do with the mystery at hand, but it’s a sign of the greatness of early cinema that a sixty-one minute film could establish the atmosphere with such graceful economy. 

Ultimately, the bulk of the film takes place in three places: the offices of Inspector Donnelly, whose top detective team of Lieutenant J. Stevens (George Brent) and Sergeant Boggs (Eugene Pallette) work; the police lab where Dr. Van de Water (Edward Ellis) works his forensic magic with hilarious gusto; and the press room, where reporters frantically phone in their scoops, making this one of the most entertaining relays of exposition I’ve even seen. 

Brent was a sturdy leading man and then a fine character actor. Known as Bette Davis’ favorite acting partner, his mystery credits include an early role in one of the first Chan films (Charlie Chan Carries On) and a truly great turn in the classic 1946 horror mystery classic, The Spiral Staircase. I grew up loving Edward Ellis as Pop Shea in one of Shirley Temple’s best films, Little Miss Broadway, but for our purposes what more do I need to say than . . . . title character in The Thin Man???

Good cop/Bad (but really good) cop team: George Brent and Eugene Pallette

But far and away my favorite of this sleuthing team was Eugene Pallette as Sgt. Boggs (“no brains but lots of instinct”) whose delight in trying to beat his boss with theoretical solutions provides much humor but who can turn on the brutality when he interrogates a suspect (and then makes us laugh again with his comment, “The way you act you’d think that we enjoy this kind of work.”) If Pallette seems born to play a detective sergeant here, he already had a lot of practice playing Sergeant Heath in the Philo Vance series. Once a stunt man and lead in silents, Pallette came back from military service and indulged in his favorite pastime of eating a lot, thus transforming himself into a character actor who could do almost anything. (Watch him play a millionaire in the screwball classic, My Man Godfrey, and then steal the movie Robin Hood out from under Errol Flynn’s nose as Friar Tuck. IMDB lists 261 acting credits for Pallette, and there’s something for everybody.)

News comes in over the wire that Broadway playboy Gordon Bates has been found shot through the eye in his Park Avenue apartment. At first, it is thought to be a suicide. Bates’ character and the initial rundown of the crime is seen through the press room reporters as they phone their scoop in, and it’s hilarious: 

“(Bates) stole millions from widows and orphans to build hospitals for orphans and widows.”

“He musta been a nut. Collects guns. Been pinched two or three times for shooting them out of the window just to see if they go off. Perhaps he was trying one out this time and – boy! Was he surprised!”

Quickly, the opinion of the police change, and Bates’ death is investigated as a murder. The film then becomes a procedural in the best sense of the word. Stevens and Boggs haul in one person of interest after another and interrogate them, while Dr. Van de Water keeps running in and out, having analyzed blood, bullets, and fingerprints and coming up with new twists on the case every hour. The filming of how forensic evidence is gathered and tested is always interesting: every member of the force is in collusion to gather fingerprints from unsuspecting suspects, and the ballistics tests are especially fun. 

Ballistics comparisons: lots of up-to-date (for 1933) police technology, including a data base, were shown

As an interrogator, Stevens is always the good cop, especially with prime suspect Lou Winton (Margaret Lindsay) a classy showgirl who was engaged to marry Bates. Lindsay had a long career on film and television, and even if she never really cracked the A-list as a star, she was a lovely presence and deserves our interest for playing Nikki Porter in all the Ellery Queen movies. It turns out that Stevens and Lou were once an item before she dumped him for Bates, and he still carries a torch for her. He treats her with kid gloves, while Boggs, the “bad cop,” gives her the third degree. 

Steven’s interrogation technique
Bogg’s interrogation technique (LOTS of cool camerawork like this throughout the film)

The suspect list also includes Lou’s hot-headed younger brother Jack, Bates’ English valet Horton (Murray Kinnell), another girlfriend of Bates named Dolly White (Dorothy Burgess), and a business associate named Anderzian (Robert Barrat). Barrat had played Archer Coe that same year in The Kennel Murder Case, and Kinnell went on to play key roles a couple of years later in Charlie Chan in London and Paris! As each person is questioned, the film flashes back to the evidence they give. I have to say that I very much approve of this flashback technique over the dizzying camerawork found in The Phantom of Crestwood: here, each story is told largely with the camera acting as the witness’ point of view. A lot of people physically fought with Bates during the night, and the capture of physical violence between the victim and the camera-standing-in-for-a-character works better here than in The Lady in the Lake (1947) which was filmed entirely (and tiresomely) through Philip Marlowe’s point of view. The pace of the film never lags. While I am not often fond of the extraneous humor that early film comedies felt it necessary to include, the comic relief here, a buffoonish bail bondsman played by stalwart Warners comedian Hugh Herbert, earns his place in the story by the end. The suspense builds to a great climax where a second murder is committed under the cops’ noses, prompting the entire force to work together to close in on the culprit. And after all that, there’s room for one or two excellent twists to bring it all to a memorable close. Yet again, Ratner has not failed me, and I am more than happy to bring this all but forgotten gem to your attention.

5 thoughts on “REEL PROCEDURALS: From Headquarters (1933)

  1. Thanks, Brad. I’m glad you liked it, and suspected you would. I love it, though, despite an excellent performance by Brent, I think the film’s emphasis on the team effort of police work results in it somewhat lacking a central character, which I consider its only liability. As for its denouement flashbacks, they seem so similar in style to that of The Kennel Murder Case and 1935’s The Case of the Curious Bride that it’s quite surprising that this film shares so very few technical credits with either of those films.

    I still consider Paramount the great studio of the Golden Age, but I agree with your assessment of MGM as vastly overrated (indeed, I consider it artistically the very least of all the major studios in the 1930’s). And though Paramount is first for me (the last six months of 1932– for me the greatest concentration of great movies in cinema history— was dominated by Paramount, IMO), Warners does come in as a very close second. Their great year was indeed 1933, and Warners was particularly strong in the mystery department from 1933 to 1935, with certain players almost constituting a specific “mystery film stock company”— Robert Barrat, Henry O’Neill, Lyle Talbot, Spencer Charters, Margaret Lindsay, Charles C. Wilson, Mary Astor, Milton Kibbee, Renee Whitney, Monte Vandegrift, etc…

    For instance, from just ‘33 to ‘35, Robert Barrat appeared in— besides The Kennel Murder Case and From Headquarters— The Silk Express, Fog Over Frisco, Return of the Terror, The Dragon Murder Case, The Firebird, I Am a Thief, While the Patient Slept, and The Florentine Dagger, playing variously murderer, detective, murder victim, and murderer suspect. And that’s not including such borderline crime films as Midnight Alibi and Upper World… as well as Secret of the Blue Room at Universal and The Murder Man at Metro. And in those same years Margaret Lindsay appeared in Private Detective 62, From Headquarters, Fog Over Frisco, The Dragon Murder Case, and The Florentine Dagger (if her mystery film quota from the period isn’t quite as impressive, it’s only because she was a leading lady, and thus didn’t appear in as many films per year as a character actor like Barrat— indeed, bit players like Milton Kibbee even outdo Barrat).

    If there’s one name I would propose as a possible “auteur” of the Warner Bros. Golden Age of Mystery, it might be screenwriter Peter Milne. His mystery film output isn’t all that dense or impressive, but he did have a screenwriting credit on three of my top dozen whodunit films: The Kennel Murder Case, From Headquarters, and The Verdict (1946- his work on Kennel clearly influenced the last few minutes of Verdict). And he also worked on The Return of the Terror, one of the few Warners whodunits I’ve never had the opportunity to see. With a cast including Robert Barrat, Mary Astor, Lyle Talbot, Frank Conroy, Renee Whitney, etc, it’s on my top 10 wishlist.

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  2. Turner Classic Movies has been having “Whodunnit Wednesdays” all month. Some of the showings were obvious, while others were rarities. That doesn’t mean they were all good! For every The Phantom of Crestwood, there was The Mystery of the 13th Guest, a Monogram dud – and this was a REMAKE of a film, The13th Guest, which was just as bad.

    This Wednesday is the final night, and some of the films on the schedule are indeed classics (all times are PDT in California):

    5:00pm: After the Thin Man (1936): I like the 3rd one more than the 2nd, but by then you see the pattern of killer identity that will last throughout the series. Still, the reveal is great fun, if only for the over the top reaction of the killer.
    7:00pm: The Kennel Murder Case (1933): Definitely worth a rewatch (and a review?) from me, this is a well-filmed adaptation of a second-tier Philo Vance case. One interesting tidbit: every person cast as a suspect had played a murderer before, so you can’t really go by “type” casting (although, as Scott points out above, studio character actors played so many roles each year that they were almost bound to all get cast as different types.)
    8:30pm: Green for Danger (1946): Brilliant filming of Christianna Brand’s classic. If I had my way, all her books would be republished, and all of them made into a classic BBC series!
    10:15: The Woman in Green (1945): I dimly remember this one as a not so great entry in the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes oeuvre, but I’m willing to give it another chance because of the great Hillary Brooke.
    11:30pm: The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935): Haven’t seen this one in a while, but I’m not a huge Warren William fan, and he makes a so-so Perry Mason. None of the films from this era did the character or the stories much justice, although they sometimes featured great support in the acting department.
    1:00am: Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937): Not a character I’ve ever been drawn to, but I might give this one a try.
    2:15am: The Saint Strikes Back (1939): Ditto.

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  3. My take on these:

    Totally agree on 13th Guest and Mystery of 13th Guest. Yucky!

    After the Thin Man – I too prefer Another to After (though I assure you, we’re in the minority). I have written long diatribes about my problems with the second film. It’s got some great laughs in the first half, but the second half seems written by a team who thinks character comedy beings can be written by formula, and a very cynical formula at that. The Hacketts smashed the few interesting GAD plot points Hammett handed them, and don’t seem to like Nick and Nora either. It’s a nasty film, and not in a good way. But the gimmicky casting will always keep it popular.

    The Kennel Murder Case – I quite agree about the film— to me, the perfect cinematic visualization of the American Golden Age detective novel— but I don’t agree with the consensus opinion that Kennel is a second-tier Vance novel. Because of its independent-agent aspect, I feel it actually has a much better plot than the earlier Vance novels, which for all their interesting opening premises, have almost nothing to offer in terms of clueing… or surprising solutions (or, in the case Bishop— which makes he end of Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia look like a model of realism by contrast— any sense of believability). And the superficial characterization of the film version of Kennel is in fact an asset— more shaded characters would muddy the effect. As for the culprit, this player was known as the most consistent and reliable surprise killer of the genre, but the actual guilt average of this player in whodunits was really less than 50%.

    Green for Danger – I totally agree. I wish that her Death of Jezebel— which I consider her masterpiece— was adapted, but I also realize it would not be easy to avoid screwing up. As for Green, one of the greatest of whodunit films, and retrospectively the most audacious use of the “flashback” (or subjective visualization) technique in the history of motion pictures.

    Woman in Green – Yeah, it’s not so great, but… Hillary Brooke. I’ve always found the flower petals in hypnosis scene the most memorable thing in the film (leading to an almost exact duplication of the ending of MGM’s The Garden Murder Case). In fact, I can never remember the rest of it. Maybe she hypnotized me!

    The Case of the Lucky Legs – I’m in a different camp here. I LOVE Warren William, and think he was a pretty great Mason. And I think The Case of the Curious Bride is one of the great mystery films of the decade. But this one is far too much of a forced-screwball comedy, and I can well understand Gardner’s loathing of it. I still get some amusement from it, but it’s not Perry Mason.

    Bulldog Drummond Escapes – THE great Drummond film is 1934’s Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, Colman’s second shot at the role, and one of the most impressively-cast films of the era (Ronald Colman, Loretta Young, Charles Butterworth, Una Merkel, C. Aubrey Smith, Warner Oland, Arthur Hohl, Mischa Auer, Ethel Griffins, E. E. Clive, Halliwell Hobbes, Kathleen Burke, George Regis, Billie Bevan… supposedly even Lucille Ball as a Bridesmaid). Bulldog Drummond Escapes can hardly compare in terms of cast, production, or plotting, though I’ve always had a crush on Heather Angel.

    The Saint Strikes Back – It never breaks free like one would want it to… a bit like a car that never quite gets going— but still one of the better Saint films, and George Sanders is one of the greatest and most compelling watchable of all actors.

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  4. Brad

    For a serious fan of old movies I cannot recommend highly enough The Genius of The System by Schatz.
    I have read quite a lot of books on the studio system and the making of films in the studio era. This is the indispensable one.

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