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,The Murder of Dr. Harrigan

The Murder of Dr. Harrigan

The Murder of Doctor Harrigan (1936) was the second of six films to be made in Hollywood featuring the character of Sarah Keate, a sleuthing nurse invented by novelist Mignon G. Eberhart. (In this film the character is named Sally Keating, and her name would be altered in some of the other films as well.) Eberhart was a renowned, extremely successful American crime writer who specialized in romance-mysteries in a career that spanned the years 1929-1988. Her first several novels featured Sarah Keate, and The Murder of Doctor Harrigan is based on the fourth work: From This Dark Stairway, published in 1931.

In the film version, the nurse is played by 23-year-old Kay Linaker in her movie debut. Linaker already had a Broadway career -- and the trailer for this film told audiences, "You'll love this girl!" -- but movie stardom was unfortunately not in the cards. She went on to appear in some five dozen movies, with her parts getting smaller and smaller all the way down to uncredited bits, until she retired from the screen in 1945. Linaker is probably best remembered by modern film fans for appearing in a handful of Charlie Chan pictures, but she also (under the name Kate Phillips) wrote the screenplay for the 1958 sci-fi classic The Blob, and wrote for radio and television. Later she became a college professor in New England, teaching courses on acting, writing and public speaking, before retiring in 2005 at the age of 92. She died in 2008.

The action of The Murder of Doctor Harrigan is set in a hospital, where a doctor is murdered on his way to an operation, opening up a plot involving the secret formula for a new anesthetic. Linaker is paired romantically with Ricardo Cortez, playing a doctor. Variety thought they generated "fair romantic interest" but overall deemed the film too formulaic and routine to cause any great shakes, even with the presence of co-star Mary Astor.

While Hollywood in the 1930s did put some popular female detectives on the screen -- like Nancy Drew, Hildegarde Withers and Torchy Blane -- Nurse Sarah Keate never really caught on. She was almost always played by a different actress and went by different names, and moreover the character was never really devised as an actual sleuth. Instead of solving mysteries, she helps others do the solving. In The Murder of Doctor Harrigan, she doesn't even do much of that! Eberhart, in her novels, also conceived the character as older, as something of a spinster, but Hollywood brought her age down for most of the films. In the first, While the Patient Slept (1935), she was played by Aline MacMahon. Then came Linaker in The Murder of Doctor Harrigan. Afterwards, she was played by Marguerite Churchill in Murder by an Aristocrat (1936), by Jane Darwell in the Fox entry The Great Hospital Mystery (1937), and then by Ann Sheridan back at Warner Brothers in the final two films, The Patient in Room 18 (1938) and Mystery House (1938). A seventh, unrelated, film, The Dark Stairway (1938), was made in England from the same source material as The Murder of Doctor Harrigan.

Mary Astor had already appeared in about 75 films at this point, in a career stretching back to 1920. She later described this and her other pictures of the time as "all enjoyable for me in a sort of social way: congenial people, no problems -- set it up and shoot it. Lunch and jokes in the commissary. No sweat. No nothing."

She also wrote that during this period in her career, she was simply grinding out movie after movie, doing her job and building up experience: "In the beginning I had a bit of enthusiasm -- I usually did at the start of a picture -- but after awhile I got to the point where I'd come on the set and ask, 'Which door do I come in, where do I stand, and what do I say?' And it showed. I was as two-dimensional as the screen itself: cool, indifferent, looking lovely in close-ups. Period. Period. Period. When was I ever going to learn to act! You can't learn if you can't experiment and find what works, and doesn't work. But the hours are long, the schedule rigid, so I did what I was told and saved time and money for the front office. And got a lot of jobs that way."

This was the second film to be directed by Frank McDonald, a veteran dialogue director. He'd go on to direct over 100 films -- mostly in the "B" world -- and dozens of TV episodes.

The Murder of Doctor Harrigan carries a "Clue Club" label in its credits -- a reference to a promotional tie-in to Black Mask Magazine, which endorsed several Warner Brothers mystery films this way in 1935-36. Youngsters were encouraged to attend the pictures and win prizes by filling out special cards. The series was short-lived. Some of the other titles bearing the Clue Club stamp are The Florentine Dagger (1935), While the Patient Slept (1935), The White Cockatoo (1935), The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936) and The Case of the Black Cat (1936).

By Jeremy Arnold

SOURCES:

Mary Astor, Mary Astor: A Life on Film

Ron Backer, Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood

Michael R. Pitts, Famous Movie Detectives II

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