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Murder in the Private Car

Murder in the Private Car(1934)


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teaser Murder in the Private Car (1934)

MGM's comic murder mystery Murder in the Private Car (1934), which runs a scant but brisk 65 minutes, is a lightweight programmer with a capricious attitude toward plotting and a script unencumbered by logic. That gives it a kind of camp entertainment value today, and director Harry Beaumont, once a marquee director for MGM, moves it all along with brisk snap. But what lifts Murder in the Private Car from the obscurity to which most B-movies are resigned is the disarmingly unpredictable comic turn from Charlie Ruggles, the venerable character actor who steals the film from the generic romantic leads.

Mary Carlisle, a capable but undistinguished starlet who never got her breakthrough role, plays switchboard operator and office sweetheart Ruth Raymond. She's just your average young working girl in New York with a nice boyfriend (Russell Hardie) and a smart-aleck but stalwart best friend (Una Merkel), until a private detective reveals that Miss Raymond is really Ruth Carson, the long-lost daughter of a millionaire railroad magnate. With whiplash speed, Ruth is whisked away to a five start hotel and then a private railroad car to meet her daddy, with best friend Georgia (Merkel) in tow, quipping up a storm through a soft southern accent.

Ruth is, of course, immediately in peril. A mysterious pair of gloved hands reach menacingly into the frame to kidnap and murder his way closer to Ruth, and the private car she takes to meet up with railroad baron daddy has been dutifully outfitted with hidden panels and booby traps and various other surprises. By the time the ride is over, she and her harried party (Merkel, Hardie, official bodyguard Porter Hall, and others) face threatening notes, the disembodied voice of a mad super-villain of a mystery criminal, a corpse, escaped animals from a circus train wreck, and finally a runaway rail-car hurtling down the tracks on a collision course with an oncoming train.

Bobbing along through the mystery is Charlie Ruggles as the lightheaded and seemingly distracted Godfrey D. Scott, self-appointed protector of Ruth and self-described "deflector." His job is not to solve crimes, but to deflect them before they occur. In his own unconventional manner, which includes befuddling bystanders with non sequitur comments and double-talk, this enthusiastic amateur manages better than the so-called professionals and even manages to win the affections of Georgia, who becomes rather fond of the kooky yet resourceful deflector.

As a mystery, Murder in the Private Car is pure hokum, a slapdash collection of old dark tropes (transplanted to the private car of the title), comic thriller clichs and absurd complications. For no apparent reason, the girls are menaced by one of the least convincing gorillas in the movies, which is not at all helped by the uninspired stunt man whose idea of menace is waddling around like a clown in a fat suit. And the comic African American porter played by Fred Toones (under his screen name "Snowflake") is an unfortunate racial stereotype that marks this early period in American sound films.

Beaumont had directed some of MGM's most prestigious productions, from the John Barrymore hit Beau Brummel (1924) and the creaky 1929 Oscar®-winning Best Film The Broadway Melody, as well as a couple of snappy pre-code classics that helped launch the career of MGM starlet Joan Crawford: Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). By 1935 he was relegated to cranking out programmers in MGM's low budget division, making the most of very little. He keeps the wheels of the film turning through all the diversions and pours on the steam for a zippy finale on the runaway train scooting in and out of close calls. He even works in a hint of his pre-code sauciness in a scene where the girls get down to their slips and Ruggles suggests a game of post-office to pass the time. The jokes may not be particularly clever, but Ruggles has a way of verbally dancing through his lines to keep us off-balance and Merkel lobs back sardonic comments and wisecracks with a deadpan drawl that manages to straddle the distance between worldly experience and innocent sweetness. Romantic leads Carlisle and Hardie tend to dissolve into the background as these pros take over their scenes with quiet command and underplayed effortlessness. They give Murder in the Private Car its defining comic sensibility. Beaumont, pro that he is, lets them run with it.

Producer: Lucien Hubbard
Director: Harry Beaumont
Screenplay: Ralph Spence, Edgar Allan Woolf, Al Boasberg; Edward E. Rose (play "The Rear Car"), Harvey Thew (adaptation)
Cinematography: Leonard Smith, James Van Trees
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt (uncredited)
Film Editing: William S. Gray
Cast: Charlie Ruggles (Godfrey D. Scott), Una Merkel (Georgia Latham), Mary Carlisle (Ruth Raymond/Ruth Carson), Russell Hardie (John Blake), Porter Hall (Alden Murray), Willard Robertson (Hanks), Berton Churchill (Luke Carson), Cliff Thompson (Mr. Allen)
BW-63m. Closed captioning.

by Sean Axmaker

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