From Radio Waves to the Silver Screen: Bewitched and Crime Doctor's Man Hunt
November 23, 2016
From January-March 2016, the UCLA Film and Television Archive hosted a series titled: "Out of the Ether: Radio Mysteries and Thrillers on Screen." Classic thrillers are a rather beloved genre of mine (the crazier they get, the better), but the radio mysteries part - that really intrigued me. Though radio soared in popularity during the 1920s and 30s, I tend to forget just how popular the medium was. As explained on UCLA's site: "Lesser known is the movement of radio programs to film," a statement I certainly agree with.
Of the 16 movies programmed, I was able to attend six of the screenings, and those ran the gamut of pre-Codes (1932's The Trial of Vivienne Ware and 1932's The Phantom of Crestwood), your typical whodunits (1945's I Love a Mystery) and even the occasional star vehicle (1948's Sorry, Wrong Number).
The final two presentations of the series, Bewitched (1945) and Crime Doctor's Man Hunt (1946), fell squarely into the B-movie category. Both also boasted well-known directors: Bewitched's writer/director Arch Oboler had already made quite a name for himself in the radio world, while Crime Doctor Man Hunt's William Castle soon graduated from B-pictures to indie shock flicks known for their gimmicky marketing. Series co-programmer Nina Rao, who was warmly sent off on her next professional endeavor by programmer Paul Malcolm before the evening began, noted that both of these prints were extremely rare, though it appears that Bewitched is now available on DVD from Warner Archive. (And while she warned the audience that part of the last reel of Bewitched was slightly out of focus, I actually failed to notice any abnormality.)
Joan (Phyllis Thaxter) admits to her fiancée Bob (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.) at their engagement party that she's been hearing voices in her head for most of her life from her hostile alter-ego Karen. Karen's voice and aggressions have been steadily growing stronger, eventually persuading Joan to leave town and her whole life behind so Karen can finally get some action out of life (read: men).
Joan begrudgingly complies and moves to the east coast, requesting that Bob and her family leave her be. In New York, she takes a job at a cigar counter where she meets attorney Eric (Stephen McNally, credited as Horace McNally). She tries her best to ward off Eric's advances as she feels herself getting better, but eventually Karen takes over during an impulsive moment while Joan is out with Eric. When she returns to her apartment that evening, Joan finds Bob there. This time Karen fully overpowers Joan, and she murders Bob, per the voice's instructions.
Eric comes to Joan's defense, but Joan refuses to speak out on her behalf and court appointed Dr. Bergson (Edmund Gwenn) declares her sane. After Joan tragically changes the course of the ruling, Eric, Dr. Bergson and her family race against the clock to prove to the Governor (Minor Watson) that Joan was not responsible for the crime.
Guess which version of Phyllis Thaxter this one is? (Answer: Definitely Karen).
Writer/director Oboler, a well-known radio talent, had this story in his head at least seven years prior, as Bette Davis starred in a radio production based on the idea, then called "Alter-Ego," in 1938. Oboler again included the narrative on radio programs in 1939 and 1945 (right before the film version debuted), so he obviously had some time to hone the tale.
The fast-paced film version clocks in at 65 minutes, recounting the entire story in almost the same amount of time that Joan has left to live at the very beginning, one hour, in a High Noon-esque way, though we follow most of the story through flashback. The performances from one or two of the actors were a bit rough - looking at Bob in particular - but Phyllis Thaxter, who I hadn't heard of before, impressed me with a solid turn in a demanding role, though the dramatics did get the best of her at times. Edmund Gwenn did a fine job in a rather snarky part, bringing down the hammer with the Governor after he himself declared Joan sane: "It's not vaudeville, not hocus pocus!" he insists.
The whole battle between Joan and Karen certainly makes for some interesting scenes, to say the least. (Plus, Karen's voice is a mixture of southern drawl and Wicked Witch of the West, which is unsettling.) Oboler and company also made use of some amusing effects, visually at the end of the picture and also audibly, through a voiceover heard at the beginning and also closer to the film's finale. These details and the slightly nutty story help elevate this swift B-picture's entertainment value.
Crime Doctor's Man Hunt (1946)
Dr. Robert Ordway (Warner Baxter) sees a patient suffering from memory loss who wants his visit kept secret...which is fine until his fiancée Irene (Ellen Drew) follows him to the office and asks questions of the Doctor, who refuses to answer them.
When Ordway leaves for the evening, he spots two men hauling a dead body - his mysterious patient from the morning! He reports the incident to the police, and they begin an investigation but uncover no body. Convinced by what he saw, Ordway explores the case on his own and stumbles upon a carnival-working blonde, Ruby (Claire Carleton), two shady men who hit him over the head previously when he was snooping around and an abandoned house which is owned by Irene's father Gerald (Francis Pierlot).
The body is finally found and the men identified, but now there's another mystery: in talking with Irene, Ordway discovers she has a sister, Natalie. Irene admired her sister greatly as a child, but her father thought she was a bad influence and forced Natalie out of the house, so Irene hasn't seen her in several years. As pieces of the puzzle fall into place for Ordway and the cops, it seems that the mysterious Natalie may factor into this equation. Thus, Ordway returns to the abandoned house with Irene to capture the murderer, signaling for the cops to storm in at just the right time to unveil the perpetrator.
Watch out Dr. Ordway (Warner Baxter)!
I enjoyed this fast paced whodunit more than expected; though the movie boasts several moving parts, it was an entertaining ride. I particularly relished the reveal, because the murderer's identity only clicked with me moments before - and that was definitely one satisfying 'aha!' moment when I finally put all the pieces together. Warner Baxter (the Oscar winner!) turns in a solid performance, though I won't lie - it pained me to see his name headlining a B-movie at first, but since he had already thoroughly owned this role in five previous Crime Doctor films, and given that the picture turned out to be more entertaining than I originally anticipated, I'd call my initial reaction hasty.
I was also drawn to Ellen Drew - specifically, her look. Visually, she seemed a chameleon of sorts; at times, she appeared a combination of Yvonne De Carlo, Maureen O'Hara, and a softer Susan Hayward (and, if you see the movie, Lucille Ball as well). As with Phyllis Thaxter in Bewitched, Drew also was handed a hefty assignment, albeit in a more subtle way, and she handled the job quite well.
What a spooky image of Joan/Karen in Bewitched.
I found these films fantastic screening companions, as both dealt with characters struggling with multiple personalities in different ways. In fact, while watching Bewitched, I was reminded of Norma Barzman's discussion after a screening of The Locket (1946), which Barzman co-wrote with her husband, where she divulged that psychology was rather a new and exciting topic for movies to tackle at the time. (My mind also strayed to that film because I thought Phyllis Thaxter closely resembled The Locket's Laraine Day at times).
The psychological ideas expressed in both pictures were explored with a curious tone, especially in Bewitched when Bergson tries to convince the Governor of Joan/Karen's condition in order to reverse her ruling; the Governor's response to such a foreign psychological claim (to him) is incredibly incredulous. The topic plays a more minor role in Crime Doctor's Man Hunt, briefly touched upon in the beginning and handled with another character at the end, though all examples of the latter are contained to dialogue and events occurring off-screen.
Though neither film blew me away, I found both quirky and captivating in their own ways. If you're a fan of B-pictures, radio tales and/or psychologically-skewed stories, I'd gather that one or both of these movies would pique your interest and would be worthy of a viewing - if you can track Crime Doctor's Man Hunt down, that is. (As mentioned above, Bewitched is available from Warner Archive.)