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The Amazing Mr. Williams
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The Amazing Mr. Williams

The Amazing Mr. Williams

Ahead of its time or out of its mind? It's hard to tell with The Amazing Mr. Williams, a 1939 comedy mystery. Melvyn Douglas stars as police detective Kenny Williams, who's so in love with his job that he continually stands up fiancée Joan Blondell in the pursuit of duty. Although some of his cases seem typical by Hollywood standards, including taking a convicted felon along for a last double date or leaving Blondell on their honeymoon to prove a convicted killer innocent, his slapstick pursuit of a serial killer seems decidedly strange by '30s standards. To some it might seem strange even today, notwithstanding the gallows humor in more recent films such as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), Sidney Lumet's No Way to Treat a Lady (1968) and the Scary Movie series.

The idea of mixing mystery and comedy was nothing new by 1939. Like most Hollywood studios, Columbia was trying to copy MGM's successful Thin Man films, which had raised eyebrows in 1934 with their sophisticated take on murder and modern marriage. Columbia had even tried to team Douglas and Blondell in a similar story as husband-and-wife private detectives in There's Always a Woman (1938). That franchise had failed to take off, however, so they were back in 1939 with different characters drawn from a play by co-writer Sy Bartlett. Finding humor in what were then termed "stranger killers" was a little outré and it wouldn't be until the '70s that the term serial killer was commonly used. Nonetheless, Douglas got into drag, without shaving the moustache that was his trademark at the time, to prevent the lady killer from claiming another victim.

The Amazing Mr. Williams had a fascinating group of writers working on it. Sy Bartlett would achieve his greatest fame after World War II when he drew on his Air Force experience (he was the first man to drop bombs on Berlin during the war) to co-write the novel Twelve O'Clock High. That would lead to a long association with the film's star, Gregory Peck, for whom he produced the classic, and the much more serious thriller Cape Fear (1962). Bartlett's co-writer on The Amazing Mr. Williams was also destined for greater things. After years of lesser assignments in Hollywood, Richard Maibaum would relocate to England and forge a partnership with producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, for whom he would write 13 James Bond films, from Dr. No (1962) to Licence to Kill (1989).

As outrageous as it was, The Amazing Mr. Williams was naturally destined for problems with the Production Code. Among things objected to by the Hayes Office were references to drag and a "sex maniac." The censors also insisted that the female impersonation have "absolutely no suggestion of a 'pansy' flavor or 'pansy' gags of any kind" and that Douglas' trip to buy women's clothes for his disguise not include a visit to the underwear department. The PCA also insisted that the script omit references to crooks covering the license plates on their getaway cars and wearing gloves to conceal fingerprints. Such omissions were standard for the era and part of the belief that putting such information in films would teach people how to become more efficient criminals.

The film set of The Amazing Mr. Williams was something like a family reunion. Douglas and Blondell had worked together not just on There's Always a Woman but also on Good Girls Go to Paris (1939), both of which had been directed by Alexander Hall, a comedy specialist at Columbia also assigned to The Amazing Mr. Williams. When Blondell turned 33 during filming, shooting stopped for the presentation of a large cake and visits from stars like Lucille Ball, who were working nearby.

The Amazing Mr. Williams also featured a sterling compliment of character players. Blondell's boss, the town's mayor, was played by one of the screen's most famous bosses, Jonathan Hale, who played Dagwood's boss, Mr. Dithers, in most of Columbia's Blondie films. Blondell's wise-cracking roommate was Ruth Donnelly, a comedienne who had just played Guy Kibbee's wife in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Another of the screen's most famous bosses, Clarence Kolb, played Douglas' police captain. He would be best remembered as Charles Farrell's boss on the early television hit My Little Margie. Smaller roles went to dialect comic Luis Alberni, grizzled Maude Eburne, Preston Sturges regular Jimmy Conlin and Barbara Pepper, the one time gold digger type who achieved her greatest fame as the adoptive (but don't tell her) mother of Arnold the Pig on Green Acres. On the road to greater success were Julie Bishop -- who appears as a murder victim photo in the newspaper, just before a move to Warner Bros., where she would become a reliable leading lady opposite stars like Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart -- and Robert Sterling, who appears unbilled as an "Elevator Boy." Although he had been in the running for the lead in Golden Boy (1939) (which went to William Holden), it would take a move to MGM in 1941 to bring him better screen roles and a television stint as the ectoplasmic George Kirby in Topper, opposite wife Anne Jeffreys, to make him a star.

Producer: Everett Riskin
Director: Alexander Hall
Screenplay: Sy Bartlett, Richard Maibaum, Dwight Taylor
Based on the play by Bartlett
Cinematography: Arthur L. Todd
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Music: Felix Mills
Principal Cast: Melvyn Douglas (Lieutenant Kenny Williams), Joan Blondell (Maxine Carroll), Clarence Kolb (Captain McGovern), Ruth Donnelly (Effie), Edward Brophy (Buck Moseby), Donald MacBride (Lieutenant Bixler), Don Beddoe (Deever), Jonathan Hale (Mayor), Luis Alberni (Rinaldo), Julie Bishop (Face of 7th Victim in Newspaper Photo), Jimmy Conlin (Master of Ceremonies), Maude Eburne (Landlady), Barbara Pepper (Muriel), Robert Sterling (Elevator Boy).

by Frank Miller