Cinevent May: Michael Shayne, Private Detective (1940)
May is typically capped off by our favorite movie convention, Cinevent. This year’s festivity—co-presented by Columbus Moving Picture Show—is rescheduled for October so we’ve decided to honor the annual rite of Spring by looking at films inspired by the great Cinevent lineups of years past. This week Rodney and Samantha discuss Michael Shayne, Private Detective, screened in 1986 and 1997.
RODNEY: This week, we turn our attention to a favorite genre amongst Cinevent attendees as we focus on a film that has the prestige of being screened twice(!) at the beloved festival, Michael Shayne, Private Detective. This is the first of a relatively short-lived Fox film series, launched after the Mr. Moto series fizzled out and was ultimately killed when Fox shut down their B unit in 1942 (Laurel and Hardy being the exception, which shows just how popular they still were, in spite of the relative poor quality of their films, but I’m getting on a soapbox here)… Anyway, I’m a big fan of B mysteries so you can bet that I was plenty excited to revisit this and spend some time with Lloyd Nolan again.
SAMANTHA: This is one of my very favorite film series ever. I've purchased the Michael Shayne Mysteries set for a couple of my friends over the years who weren't familiar with it and who wound up loving it. It can usually be found for less than $10; I highly recommend it. Nolan is charming and funny and self-deprecating; we relate to him and root for him as he interacts with a myriad of shady characters. He delivers one-liners like, "That broach is as phony as a mother-in-law's kiss," with ease.
R: Unlike some other films in this genre, this film plays it sort-of close to the source material (except the funny stuff). This was based on the second Michael Shayne novel, The Private Lives of Michael Shayne, and the film introduces us to a few characters that played pivotal roles in the novels, but were, typically, ignored in the rest of the series. Not the least of which is cute Marjorie Weaver, in the midst of her stint as a Fox contractee. She plays Phyllis, who in the books becomes Shayne’s girlfriend and later wife. In the movies, this is her only appearance. Although, it should be noted, that Weaver appears a few more times in the series in different roles.
S: Brett Halliday wrote the Michael Shayne series which ran much longer than the film series, into the 1970s. They're fun books if you like pulps. Halliday was one of those man's man types, like William Wellman or Sam Houston or Hunter S. Thompson; he wore an eyepatch, ran away to join the cavalry when he was underage, and traveled around the country doing odd jobs in his youth. He was married for a time to another pulp writer I enjoy a lot: Helen McCloy.
R: I don’t mind a little lightness and humor in my mysteries at all, and the Shayne films, particularly the earlier ones have a nice balance. The characters are likable and fun in this. And while I usually try to just go along for the ride I do admit that I was not able to solve this mystery and the time breezed by.
S: When I watch mysteries, I don't usually try very hard to solve the case; I'm terrible at it. However, standout in this film is Elizabeth Patterson as Aunt Olivia, an Ellery Queen enthusiast who does try to assist Shayne in solving the case. She provides color to a film which speeds along efficiently as B-efforts from this era often do, and makes it more memorable than its movie cousins.
GORDON: Funny thing about girls. You try to help them; that's the thanks you get. SHAYNE: Yeah well, that's the younger generation.
R: Looking back on it, this is one of the types of films that I think Cinevent identifies with very much. The festival thrives on practically forgotten silent classics and these little B films that people never really paid a lot of attention to, but were in many ways the bread and butter of the film industry during the studio era. Motion Picture Herald felt that this was “generally average”, while later bemoaning the state of the Fox B lineup in general, feeling that even if the Shayne series was successful, that Fox was still creating bills that weren’t fairly balanced due to the weakness of the bottom of the bill. That may be true, but how many of us wouldn’t want to go back to see just one of those double features? Would it be Second Chorus with Michael Shayne, Private Detective, which did “unexciting” business at the Metropolitan in Boston? Maybe not, but you get the picture.
S: It has been a while since I saw Mr. Dynamite at Cinevent, but my memory linked it to this series, and it isn't a part of it. That was my first exposure to Lloyd Nolan in a detective role. The next year they showed Just Off Broadway, so that was my official first Michael Shayne film. We love those forgotten Bs because they often haven't been seen in decades, but they're often a lot of fun. We also love character actors, faces that pop up again and again because they were part of the studio stock company, who always deliver a good performance.
R: As for me, this is a four star film. I love this genre so much, and I love spotting all of the beloved character actors that pop up so often in this kind of series. What a delight. I may dig into the others before long!
S: I give it three stars. One of my favorite entries in this series is Sleeper's West, sort of a precursor to The Narrow Margin, an excellent thrilling noir. That's a four star film to me. This one is pleasant and fun, but the overall setting and case are forgettable on the whole compared with some of the other entries in the series.