Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Hubrisween 2020 :: O is for One Body Too Many (1944)

We open in the offices of the Emperor Life Insurance Company, where Albert Tuttle is currently bragging-it-up to a co-salesman about how he managed to land as a client the eccentric tycoon, Cyrus J. Rutherford. Seems this Rutherford’s total net-worth is somewhere north of $8-million, who also lives in a secluded mansion on top of a mountain; and on top of all that, Rutherford then built a private observatory so he could keep track of the stars and planets to feed his well-known astrological obsessions.

Thus, when asked how he convinced such a reclusive kook into a deluxe $200,000 policy, Tuttle says it was easy. He lied, telling Rutherford they were both born under the same Zodiac sign. Consulting the stars further, his client then agreed to sign on the dotted line at the stroke of midnight one month and two days later, when Venus was in full retrograde with Jupiter, or something, which just so happens to be this very night.

Unfortunately for Tuttle (Haley), in the interim, it appears that Cyrus J. Rutherford has unexpectedly died -- only Tuttle doesn’t know that yet. But his heirs sure do, who have all gathered at Rutherford manor, where the body is lying in state in the library, where the family lawyer, Morton Gellman (Nedell), addresses those gathered here today, reading the words of the deceased as he contemptuously calls the roll from beyond the grave:

First is his sister, Estelle (Helm), who ignored Cyrus’ warning 20-years ago when she ran off and married that nincompoop, Kenneth Hopkins (Littlefield), of whom he had the pleasure of  meeting
only once, which was enough.

Followed by their daughter, Margaret (Fife), whom Cyrus never met, which was probably for the better, considering who her parents were.

Next is his no-account nephew, James Davis (Talbott), whom Cyrus hadn’t seen since Davis was an impertinent youth; but the old coot never did like impertinence, and so, he never did like his nephew either.

He softens a bit with his niece, Carol Dunlap (Parker), even though he despised her late father, because she seemed more intelligent than he and had a “less selfish interest” in her rich uncle than his other heirs.

And lastly, we have nephew Henry Rutherford (Fowley), who at least bears the Rutherford name, and who appeared honest enough when dealing with Cyrus’ financial investments; but his wife, Mona (Granger), always drank too much and wore way too much makeup as she waited with undue impatience for Cyrus’ eventual demise.

There’s also Cyrus’ faithful butler, Merkil (Lugosi), who always padded the household bills and pocketed the difference; his housekeeper, Matthews (Yurka), who really didn’t keep the house all that well.

And then there's Professor Hilton (Edmunds), who taught the deceased how to unlock all those celestial secrets. 

And finally, Gelman, who at first skips the scathing details on himself, saying they’re irrelevant, until the others demand to know what the cantankerous old fart thought of him, too -- who apparently trusted his lawyer for about as far as he could throw an elephant.

Gellman then gets into the details on what was to happen with Cyrus’ estate and legacy after he died. To his eleven heirs, he has left shares of his fortune: some as large as $500,000, some as small as $1.50 -- enough to cover a taxi ride home. But before they find out who gets what, there are several stipulations that must be met:

First, Rutherford’s body must not be buried underground and instead be interred in a yet-to-be-constructed glass-topped vault in the observatory, so the stars may continue to shine down upon him in perpetuity. Second, if these wishes are not met to the letter, those promised shares will be reversed, with the largest shares going to those who least deserved it and vice versa with the smallest. And third, to ensure his wishes are met, no one knows who is getting what yet because the bequeathment shall remain sealed and unread until the vault is completed and Cyrus is laid to rest. And fourth, none of them can leave the mansion until the vault is finished and the ceremony completed, otherwise they forfeit their share.

Now, after assuring his belligerent and back-stabbing captive audience that the will is airtight and unbreakable, fearing the worst, Gellman immediately puts in a call to the Atlas Detective Agency, who agree to send an agent to guard the body until the reading of the will to prevent any shenanigans for increased shares, which shouldn’t take more than a few days. He also assures them all that he hasn’t read the will either, which explains the several instances he is almost caught trying to break into a hidden wall safe to get at it.

Meanwhile, the others are shown to their rooms for the duration of their stay. Carol, the obvious favorite of her late uncle, answers a knock at her door and lets Merkil in, who delivers her suitcase. But when she opens it, the girl finds a note warning her to leave the house immediately if she values her life!

As to who wrote it? Well, I’m guessing it's the same shadowy figure who ambushes the rent-a-cop before he reaches the house, removing him from the board. But then the unwitting Tuttle arrives, and everyone mistakes him for the detective -- except for Matthews, who warns him to leave before it’s too late, which leads to several comical misunderstandings and mismatched conversations.

Thus, confusion reigns when Gellman welcomes Tuttle and pays him $200 upfront, which is fine because the rest of the payment for the policy can wait until after his client passes a physical first, says Tuttle, which causes even more confusion. A besotted Mona instantly flirts with him, and Carol comments she expected someone a little more rugged as Tuttle is ushered into the library and then promptly locked in, where he is assured his “client” is waiting.

Inside, Tuttle lays his briefcase on the coffin, not realizing what it is until he takes a closer look. One-spit take later, the man realizes his client is a corpse and makes a bee-line for the front door. When he’s intercepted by the others, the mistaken identity is cleared up at last when he reveals who he is and why he was there -- stress on the “was” as he continues to leave.

Only Carol doesn’t want him to go, chasing Tuttle outside, begging him to stay, wanting some outside help since she can’t trust the others. And since the real detective has failed to show up, that leaves only Tuttle to help her figure out who is trying to scare her away and steal her share of the inheritance -- and who is more fearful of what they’ll try to do next since she refuses to leave.

And the answer to both of those questions is lurking somewhere above them on the roof, where a chunk of masonry has just been dislodged and is currently rocketing downward on a direct collision course with the unsuspecting Carol’s lovely head...

Headed by William “Bill” Pine and William “Bill” Thomas, Pine-Thomas Productions was one of the most prolific of Paramount Studio’s B-units, who produced 81 films between 1940 and 1957, and not a one of them lost the studio money, earning Pine and Thomas the nickname, The Dollar Bills. “We don’t want to make million dollar pictures,” Pine said. “We just want to make a million dollars."

After graduating from Columbia University, Pine landed a job in the Paramount publicity department, which he became the head of in 1933. Looking to expand his horizons, Pine then latched onto Cecil B. Demille, serving as an associate producer on four of his pictures: The Plainsman (1936), The Buccaneer (1938), Union Pacific (1939) and North West Mounted Police (1940), which, in some circles, is considered Demille’s worst film.

Thomas, meanwhile, worked his way through USC by playing the drums in several nightclub orchestras. He broke into the business at MGM in 1925, also working in publicity, and then bounced around between MGM, Paramount, and Columbia, where he ran the department for a year and a half before returning to Paramount in 1937, where he first met Pine. And after experiencing the ridiculous excesses of DeMille, Pine had a few ideas on how to make films cheaper and more efficiently. The two hit it off and started expanding on those notions, bringing Richard Arlen into the equation.

Arlen was an actor who had won an Academy Award for his work in William Wellman’s silent film Wings (1927) and was the lead opposite Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls (1932), but his stardom was fading and he had been languishing at Universal in a series of cheap, stock-footage heavy bottom bills, where he was teamed up with Andy Devine as the Aces of Action in films like Tropic Fury (1939), Danger on Wheels (1940), and The Devil’s Pipeline (1940). And after doing fourteen of those, Arlen was looking for something different, too.

The actor was also a pilot, who owned several planes and ran his own aviation school, and suggested they do a series of films centered around that, starring him and his planes. And so, Pine and Thomas formed Picture Corporation of America and cooked up three titles -- Power Dive (1941), Forced Landing (1941), and Flying Blind (1941), and went to their bosses at Paramount, saying they had a star, three scripts, and three low budget estimates, all looking for financing and a distribution deal.

When Paramount agreed, Pine and Thomas then set-out to actually write those scripts, bringing in people that would eventually become their unofficial behind the scenes stock company, including screenwriters Maxwell Shane, who had just helped resurrect The Mummy franchise for Universal with The Mummy’s Hand (1940), and who would go on to write or co-write over half of those 81 films Pine-Thomas did for Paramount (-- in fact all of them between 1941-1946), and author Daniel Mainwaring, who wrote for them under the pseudonym, Geoffrey Homes, on films like They Made Me a Killer (1946) and Hot Cargo (1946).

Mainwaring would later comment, "Bill Thomas of Pine and Thomas, who made very small and very bad pictures at Paramount, gave me my first real screenwriting job. I wrote six pictures in one year, all of which I'd just as soon forget except Big Town (1947). At the end of the year, I fled to the hills and wrote the novel Build My Gallows High,” which was later adapted by Jacques Tourneur as the film noir classic, Out of the Past (1947).

Also on board were production manager, L.B. “Doc” Merman, and director Frank McDonald, who had helmed the first three entries of the Torchy Blane series back in the 1930s, starting with Smart Blonde (1937), Fly Away Baby (1937), and Blondes at Work (1938), which all star my gal Glenda Farrell and I cannot recommend them enough. McDonald came onboard with the third film, Flying Blind. All three cost under $90,000 to make and Power Dive alone earned almost a million. And so, in June, 1941, Picture Corporation of America ceased to exist and Pine-Thomas Productions signed a six-picture deal with Paramount; three with Arlen, and three more with the recently signed Chester Morris, another aging star that still had some drawing power.

All the budgets were small, all the plots were simple, and all involved men of action doing dangerous jobs, ranging from flying, to deep sea diving, to car racing -- and someone usually perished doing these very things in the first reel to hammer this peril home, with Variety claiming in March, 1942, “The pair have shown a showman's flair for turning out thrill-heavy action dramas. They have consistently led their production classification in Box Office returns.” And by December of that year, they had scored another contract extension with Paramount and an agreement that would allow them to expand and make at least one A-picture a year.

Arlen left the company in 1944 and was replaced with Jack Haley, who signed a multi-picture contract. Haley was an old vaudeville performer and a song-and-dance man. His biggest role, of course, was playing the Tin-Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939), replacing Buddy Ebsen due to a massive allergic reaction to the silver make-up. And so, with his signing, Pine-Thomas would venture into some new low-budget territory with a series of musicals, starting with Take it Big (1944), and comedies -- along with a pinch of mystery, with One Body Too Many (1944).

McDonald would direct both, and Shayne would co-write the script for One Body Too Many with Winston Miller, an actor turned screenwriter, who had assisted David O. Selznick in the myriad rewrites for Gone with the Wind (1939), and who would later script My Darling Clementine (1946) for John Ford. “Westerns happened to be what I could do best,” said Miller in a later interview. “There are a lot of pictures I couldn't do, like a highly dramatic Bette Davis picture. I can only speak for myself, but you find your niche, you find that other people like it. I never took an assignment I didn't think I could make a good picture out of."

Well, turns out Miller and Shayne were pretty adept at writing comedy, too. For what they’ve concocted here is a smart and snappy comical farce on the Old Dark House murder mysteries, whose set-pieces and characters are constantly moving around and overlapping at a breakneck pace, chock full of a metric ton of rapid fire dialogue and running gags, ranging from the screwy, cuckoo clock inspired soundtrack, to Tuttle’s cowardly, self-deprecating one-liners, to Merkil and Matthews constant offer of percolated coffee that may or may not be tainted with rat poison that our hero won’t drink because, well, he’s a drip.

But Tuttle does have his heroic moments, too, like when he saves Carol from being flattened by that falling masonry. And then, against the better judgement of both angels on his shoulders, Tuttle decides to stay, get to the bottom of things, and ferret out the culprit before anything else happens to her.

The problem is, everyone is in on it. Or they’re all at least in on something as alliances are forged and plans are hatched to get rid of the body to scramble those inheritance shares by those convinced they’re on the shallow end of the trough. But only one of them will resort to murder.

And so, Tuttle once more takes up his morbid vigil in the library for a pretty good gag, where he pulls a book off the shelf to pass the time, Murder at Midnight, which he begins to read out loud only to have everything described in the book happen to him in real life -- the storm breaking, the clock striking twelve, and most shockingly, a secret passage opening up behind him, where two devlish hands reach out of the darkness to strangle the unwitting hero of the piece. Good thing this all proves too outlandish for Tuttle, who moves away and out of reach just in time as he tosses the lurid book away, leaving his attacker to resort to Plan B as the power is suddenly cut and Tuttle, lost in the dark, is knocked-out by someone.

When he comes to, surrounded by the others, Tuttle fears Carol has been hurt because she has blood on her hands only to find out it's his, from a scalp wound, and nearly passes out again. Worse yet, when the lights went out -- the house's and his, someone made off with the body. But as Tuttle dramatically reenacts the events that led to this dire predicament, familial hostility finally boils over, a punch is thrown intended for someone else only to land on our ersatz detective's jaw, sending him reeling into the fireplace, where he inadvertently triggers a secret chamber, which reveals Cyrus' corpse stuffed inside.

Later, we learn it was Davis, Kenneth and Margaret who were behind this latest subterfuge -- well, sort of, when the conspirators regroup to try again, only to realize that none of them actually got around to moving the body the last time, meaning someone else is up to no good, too.

Meantime, Gellman has come up with a plan to catch the conspirators in the act. Seems he wants to remove the body from the coffin and have Tuttle replace it. Thus, when the guilty party tries again, they’ll nab them. Meanwhile, someone is sneaking into the kitchen, where they secure a very large butcher knife. 

Back in the library, as Tuttle barely holds it together inside the cramped and apparently sound-proof coffin, someone sneaks in and locks it. This forces those other three conspirators to just take the whole coffin, not realizing who’s really inside it, which they schlep outside and dispose of by dropping it and Tuttle into a murky man-made fish pond.

Luckily for Tuttle, Carol couldn’t sleep and spied through her bedroom window three unrecognizable people in hats and raincoats moving the coffin toward the concrete pond. 

However, by the time she arrives, the others are long gone but she is able to drain the water before the coffin is completely swamped and saves Tuttle. 

When they get back inside, where Tuttle will continuously pull live goldfish from his pockets for the next ten minutes or so, he reveals this was all Gellman’s idea as they move to retrieve the real body from the closet they stashed it in -- only once again, the body has been replaced; this time by Gellman, who is most definitely dead.

Gathering up all the suspects, Carol relates how she saw three people moving the coffin but recognized none of them -- much to Davis and the other’s relief. Then, Tuttle notices Merkil’s shoes are muddy, but the butler claims he went out to let the family cat in due to the storm. Now, moving bodies around is one thing, but murder is a whole new level of peril. Thus, Tuttle declares this is too much for him and he is going for the police -- only he can’t, because one, the phones are no longer working, and two, according to Merkil, the storm has washed out the bridge on the one and only road to the mansion because OF COURSE it did.

Thus and so, it’s decided that everyone should lock themselves up in their bedrooms for their own safety until morning, including Tuttle, who is given a room and a spare pair of pajamas so he may get out of his wet clothes. But while avoiding eye contact with a creepy portrait hanging in his designated bedroom -- that appears to be keeping an eye on him as well, Tuttle, wrapped up in a towel, hangs his suit up in the closet to dry, where he once again accidentally triggers another hidden panel, which reveals an extensive secret passageway that snakes its way all throughout the mansion.

What happens next is fairly hysterical comedy of errors as Tuttle soon gets trapped in the passageway, gets lost in the dark, stumbles back into the wrong bedrooms, thinking they’re his, catching several of the womenfolk in a state of undress.

He then continues to sneak around, and then loses his towel when it gets caught in a door, only to wind up hiding in a clothes hamper, where he is finally caught with only a batch of kittens to use to save what little dignity he had left.

Later, after things calm down considerably, Tuttle is awoken when he hears someone prowling around in the room above his. These noises lead both him and Mona Rutherford upstairs to the observatory. Seems she and Henry have been sleeping in separate rooms for awhile now due to her constant boozing and flirting with other men. When they don’t find anything, he escorts her back to her room, where once again, his robe gets caught when the door swings shut, which is now locked, trapping him. Strangely, no one responds when he knocks on the door. And then Carol finds him and figures Mona has gotten her hooks into him, too.

Now, these two have been sort of developing feelings for each other as this cataclysmic night of errors and terrors has elapsed. And not wanting to spoil that, Tuttle is determined to prove nothing happened between he and Mona and inevitably breaks the bedroom door down, where they find Mona on the bed, dead, with a knife sticking out of her chest.

Carol’s startled scream brings everyone else into the room, where they all grill Tuttle, who was the last person to see both murder victims alive. They don’t believe his story about the secret passage and decide to lock him up in the tower before he murders anyone else until the police can be summoned. And while everyone else thinks he’s guilty, Carol believes he is innocent and sneaks in to see him.

And as that romantic spark between these two starts to flare up, Carol takes a look through the massive telescope to see what the stars say about their future only to make a gruesome discovery instead: Cyrus’ body has been stuffed inside of it!

Tuttle stays behind to guard the body while Carol rousts everyone else and sends them to the tower -- only she can’t find the grieving Henry. She checks Mona’s room but he’s not there either. However, that secret panel Tuttle swore was there all along is now open; and when she enters the darkened passage Carol finds the missing detective alive but all trussed up. She also finds Henry lurking in the shadows, and then suddenly realizes he was the killer all along.

Seems Mona was following him into the tower when Tuttle found her. And since she was getting too curious, she had to be eliminated. As for Gellman, well, he caught Henry after the villain broke into that safe so he could read the will, where he found out he was on the short-end and has been working hard to rectify that ever since. And now Carol must be eliminated, too.

But her screams alert the others, who trace them to the secret passageway, where they also find the detective, who says it was Henry and he’s taken Carol deeper into the catacombs. 

But as the men pursue them, Henry uses his knowledge of this maze to open several trapdoors, whittling away his pursuers until only Tuttle is left, who chases him up to the observatory, where he intends to toss Carol from its highest perch.

But as he raves, the others inside activate the telescope, which knocks Henry to his doom as it trundles to its new position just as Tuttle wrests Carol away to safety and they embrace.

Considering its vintage, One Body Too Many has a little more bite than you’d probably think. It’s a little rowdy, a little bawdy, and is an absolute delight. This kind of mash-up of comedy and chills had been a thing since Bob Hope zinged his way through The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940). 

Some of the cash-ins on this formula were pretty good. Most were not, and relied way too much on schtick, slapstick, and ah-lot of screaming and yelling and property damage. I guess it all kinda depended on which comedian was in the lead. Milton Berle did just fine in The Whispering Ghost (1942), as did Red Skelton with Whistling in the Dark (1941). And I’m happy to report that Jack Haley was more than up to the task, too.

Haley was a bit of a revelation here. I had only seen him in The Wizard of Oz before catching One Body Too Many, a rare headliner for him, and loved it enough to immediately track down the follow-up feature, Scared Stiff (1945) -- not to be confused with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s 1953 film, which was in fact a remake of Hope’s The Ghost Catchers, where Pine and Williams basically brought the whole band back together: McDonald, Shayne, this time co-writing with Mainwaring, and Haley, who teams up with Ann Savage to solve another string of murders.

Haley is funny as hell in this as the constantly befuddled Tuttle. He has a wonderful sense of comedic timing, waiting for just the right moment to finish off a line someone else started or to punctuate a joke -- especially with all of those fish. That whole segment where he’s half naked, sneaking from room to room belongs in the Hall of Fame of such things -- and that final punchline with the kittens, omigod.

His co-stars are also a lot of fun, and it's always great to see some career second bananas come to the forefront. Here, Haley has excellent chemistry with Jean Parker and their scenes together just crackle. I kinda wish Douglas Fowley, who was so fantastic as the lunatic director in Singing in the Rain (1952) and as the squad malcontent in Battleground (1949), had a little more to do but he makes for a fine enough villain. And I love William Edmunds as the hair-brained professor -- watch for the scene where he loses his shit when they find Cyrus plugged into the telescope.

And then there’s Bela Lugosi. I tell ya, it did my heart good to watch his performance as the kooky butler. Always in the scene, always listening, helping his co-stars, and delivering plenty of genuine laughs -- none of them at his expense. Yeah, One Body Too Many was a rare opportunity for Lugosi to show off his comedic side, where he wasn’t constantly overwhelmed by Bud and Lou. 

That running gag with the coffee, as he keeps foisting it on people, only to be rejected over and over, and the hangdog look on his face when they do is priceless. And for the record, the coffee wasn’t poisoned and provides a perfect final punchline for the film.

But the most hysterical moment is when Haley is grilling him over the incriminating mud on his shoes, saying it was due to the storm. When Haley asks what storm? Lugosi marches to the sliding glass door, swings it open, lightning flashes and thunder booms, waves his hand in a “duh” motion, and says, “That storm.” It’s all in the delivery, and it's a lot funnier in motion. Trust me. It’s so good. We hadn’t lost him completely to the needle yet, Boils and Ghouls, and this role for Lugosi needs to be better known than it is.

Hell this whole film needs to be better known than it is. This is no Moldy-Oldie, this is a Classic Creaker, with so many good little bits that they all really add up to something pretty great. Personally, I found it to be hysterical, which means you all will probably at least find it amusing. Also, if you’re a fan of the chaotic Clue (1985), here’s something from the fossil record you should probably dig into.

And the only real complaint I have about One Body Too Many is that it’s currently stuck in Public Domain Hell, and every print I have found is pretty dreadful and either washed-out or murky as hell and likely to remain that way, which is too bad. Because right now, we’re only seeing about half the sequence when Haley is running around in the dark in his birthday suit due to the murk and I would like to see all of it, dammit.

Well, if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's 15 films down with 11 yet to go. Up next, Beware the Wheel Ezekiel says he saw.

One Body Too Many (1944) Pine-Thomas Productions :: Paramount Pictures / P: William H. Pine, William C. Thomas / D: Frank McDonald / W: Winston Miller, Maxwell Shane / C: Fred Jackman Jr. / E: Henry Adams / M: Alexander Laszlo / S: Jack Haley, Jean Parker, Bela Lugosi, Blanche Yurka, Lyle Talbot, Douglas Fowley, Fay Helm, Bernard Nedell, Lucien Littlefield, Dorothy Granger, Maxine Fife

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