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June Moon: Moonlight Murder (1936)

This month we’re under the sway of the pale satellite in the night sky. Because it’s June, the spotlight is on the Moon. This week Rodney and Adam gaze upon Moonlight Murder.

AW: The location: The Hollywood Bowl. The event: a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore under the stars. The victim: famous tenor Gino D’Acosta (Leo Carrillo). The witnesses: 20,000 audience members. The suspects: the swami who foretold the crime (Pedro de Cordoba), the women in D’Acosta’s life (Katharine Alexander and Benita Hume), and a snubbed writer loose from the insane asylum (Duncan Renaldo).

Boston Blackie is on the case. Actually, it’s Chester Morris as a regular police detective. Morris was in the interim period between Academy Award-nominated leading man and his most famous stint as an “enemy to those who make him an enemy, friend to those who have no friend.” Still, with very few tweaks to the script this could have been a series B-picture.

Moonlight Murder leo carrillo b-movie opera mgm 1936 Chester Morris
Chester Morris as Boston--sorry, Steve Farrell.

RB: I felt the same way! As soon as the plot kicks in and Morris appears, it all felt very familiar and comfortable, aside from that MGM sheen that permeates every shot. But naturally, MGM couldn’t let this serviceable B stand alone. They had to throw in some opera, and lots of it. Leave it to MGM to class up the joint.

AW: I checked the theater owners’ reports in the Motion Picture Herald expecting some griping about the classed-up atmosphere. L.A. Irwin of the Palace Theatre in Penacook, New Hampshire unenthusiastically noted the padding: “Considerable portions of opera fill in time while unraveling the mystery.”

Moonlight Murder leo carrillo b-movie opera mgm 1936 Chester Morris
Leo Carrillo as the famous tenor & infamous lothario.

Of course, this movie isn’t that odd in bridging the gap between high and low culture—a year prior, MGM released A Night at the Opera. Besides both films revolving around Il Trovatore, this film has a few other connections to MGM’s more prestigious comedy. Both have a musical score by Herbert Stothart, sound by Douglas Shearer, art direction by Cedric Gibbons, and wardrobe by Dolly Tree. Again, this is not an astounding coincidence; these names do show up in a multitude of MGM productions of the era. But taken together, this can be considered the less-funny and less-ambitious cousin to the Marx Brothers’ classic. I may be stretching but I couldn’t help but think that Duncan Renaldo looked like Chico Marx, especially with the hat he wears.

Moonlight Murder duncan renaldo b-movie opera mgm 1936 Chester Morris
Duncan Renaldo gets carried away as the lunatic Pedro.

RB: There is another connection to a more famous film here as well. This unassuming little B was written by the writing team of Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf. Their names are probably only familiar to the most discerning film fan, but surely everyone is familiar with another film that they worked on a few years later; The Wizard of Oz. I guess Moonlight Murder wasn’t their peak after all.

AW: He might be unrecognizable without his little sailor outfit, but comedy fans should keep an eye out for Al Christie’s silent comedy star Billy Dooley as a police detective.

Moonlight Murder leo carrillo b-movie opera mgm 1936 Chester Morris
The oft-uncredited Don Brodie as Hotel Desk Clerk.

Also, keep your eyes peeled for another actor who went from headliner comedian to bit player. For our fraternity of great bit actors (should it be called The Odd Foils?), I nominate the inclusion of one Don Brodie, seen fleetingly as the hotel clerk in this film. In 1931, Universal announced an influx of cash going to its short subjects division and had signed a bevy of comedians for their upcoming season. Brodie, a Cincinnati-born former Proctor and Gamble employee and local stage actor, answered the golden call to Hollywood. His beaming face and stage moniker “Steve Brodie”—possibly after the man who legend has it leapt from the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886—appear in a two-page ad in the Motion Picture Herald: “Here they are!!!!! World’s Greatest Line-Up of Box-Office Short Subjects.” That was about five exclamation points too many. Brodie didn’t quite “do a Brodie” by travelling west, but his career in pictures never riveted the nation. One measly short was produced at Universal, 1931’s Out Stepping, and after that began a 58-year procession of inconspicuous bit roles. Reporters, henchmen, cabbies, and clerks—Brodie is that lanky mustachioed background presence in hundreds of films. He was more than just a warm body though. He continued working on stage, directing many small productions in Los Angeles, and even directed the 1944 indie feature A Fig Leaf for Eve. His greatest legacy might be donning cloak and wart-covered prosthetic nose to provide reference movements for Walt Disney’s animation of the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Moonlight Murder leo carrillo b-movie opera mgm 1936 Chester Morris
Revealed! The secret to D'Acosta's boyish figure.

RB: Fascinating background info about Brodie, who probably lived just a few miles from where I write this. I’ll also note that there is another fun casting choice here for B movie fans, as Duncan Renaldo and Leo Carrillo are in the cast (albeit not paired together). If those names don’t immediately strike a chord with you, that’s okay. Into the next decade, they found a measure of fame together as the Cisco Kid and Pancho.

AW: It feels persnickety to complain about such an unassuming movie, but there was one aspect where Moonlight Murder comes up short—the much-anticipated moonlight murder! The titular crime is filmed so indifferently, in a matter-of-fact static medium shot, that the viewer is likely to miss it if they happen to be reaching for a handful of popcorn. Without revealing too much about the method of slaying, I’ll just state that it’s a bit too quick and clean for those of us with a penchant for the macabre.

Moonlight Murder leo carrillo b-movie opera mgm 1936 Chester Morris
A rare headlining engagement in Oklahoma.

RB: Working titles for this film really capitalize on the setting of the Hollywood Bowl, which was doubtlessly world famous and, as still is the case today, a notable tourist attraction when visiting southern California (said working titles included Hollywood Bowl, Murder Under the Stars and Murder in the Bowl). But we don’t really see too much of the Bowl do we? So we wind up not getting a whole lot of murder and not a whole lot of the Hollywood Bowl.

AW: This is not the most engaging mystery, nor is the writing particularly sharp. I agree that it lacks a sense of place, but my biggest complaint is the dearth of thrills ‘n’ chills. I can’t accept studio policies or the enforcement of the Production Code as an excuse. MGM released one of the most unhinged studio films of all-time, Mad Love, less than a year prior. Unfortunately, what we have here is a mildly diverting mélange of opera and whodunnit. Two stars.

RB: As a B mystery, I liked this well enough, but I cannot ignore that the film grinds to a halt multiple times for opera. This isn’t the only 1936 B mystery to take place during the proceedings of an opera (there was at least one more and frankly, it’s much better: Charlie Chan at the Opera) so it may have been something of a trend around this time. Still, the musical padding on top of the other faults leaves me cold. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s just a movie. Two and a half stars.

Moonlight Murder 1936 MGM Chester Morris Madge Evans Grant Mitchell
Morris, Madge Evans, & Grant Mitchell have good chemistry.

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