Sunday, December 12, 2010

Frank Gruber's Human Encyclopedia goes to Hollywood: "Death of a Champion" (1939)

This post winds up our Frank Gruber weekend extravanganza. On Friday we had a review of Brass Knuckles: The Oliver Quade Human Encylopedia Stories, yesterday we looked at Gruber's 11-point Mystery Story Formula, and today we go to the movies.

In the intro to Brass Knuckles, Gruber makes several references to Hollywood's interest in the Human Encyclopedia series. In 1936, when the series was still appearing in Thrilling Detective, he got offers from both David O. Selznick and Sam Goldwyn. Excited, Gruber signed a deal with Selznick that turned out to be a 30-day option for $200. When the option was not excercised, other studios lost interest until the radio show Information Please went on the air, and once again Gruber appeared to have a hot property. His agent was tossing around numbers like $75,000 from MGM and $100,000 from Warner Brothers, but those deals too failed to materialize.

Eventually Gruber got a Hollywood agent, who made something real happen: he sold the stories to Paramount for $2500. The result was Death of a Champion, released in 1939 and based on the Black Mask story "Dog Show Murder." Paramount apparently had plans for a series, but - most likely due to poor casting - this was the only film produced. 

As a mystery film, it's not too bad. It's definitely a B movie, but Paramount put enough into it to produce a film on a par with most of the Charlie Chans. But they really took very little from Gruber's work. They used the name and concept of Oliver Quade the Human Encylopedia. They used the dog show setting. They used the names of two supporting characters, though their roles in the film bear little resemblance to those in the short story. And they used a scene where Quade is trapped in a locked room and uses his encyclopedic knowledge to create Greek Fire and escape. That's it. Everything else was invented by the screenwriters.

The film follows the tried and true formula of so many Chan and Thin Man movies, where the suspects are assembled in one room and the detective tricks the killer into revealing himself. And that works okay. The main problem, as I see it, was the casting of Lynne Overman as Quade. In the pulp stories, Quade is a young and dynamic con-man type. Overman was over 50, with a squeaky voice and a mild demeanor. And despite the fact that he looks like Red Skelton, viewers were expected to believe he was a babe magnet. (Contrary to the image on the poster above, Overman does not wear a deerstalker or use a magnifying glass.)

Lynne Overman and Donald O'Connor

Quade's assistant Charlie Boston (a Sam Cragg type) is not here at all. Instead, Quade's partner is 14-year old Donald O'Connor, known in the film only as Small Fry. O'Connor gives the best performance of the movie (reminding me of a teenaged Christian Slater), and does most of the detecting. Though he's supposed to be a Human Encyclopedia-in-training, he's more interested in reading a pulp mag called Detective Horror

The action starts with the murder of a Great Dane, resulting in the murder of three humans, veering far afield from the doings in "Dog Show Murder." The acting is okay, and the script a few good one-liners, so I did enjoy the movie, even though it didn't merit a sequel.

A special tip of the coonskin cap goes out to the Almanack follower known as Rittster. When I reviewed Gruber's Simon Lash - Private Detective back in January, I whined about the fact I had not seen the film version, called Accomplice. Rittster was kind enough to send me a DVD featuring a double feature. Accomplice - and Death of a Champion. Thanks again, guy!


Randy Johnson said...

I'd like to see this one. I'm about to start reading the book(it came in the mail the other day).

Deka Black said...

So many movies and so many time... I would need a week with days of 60 hours.

David Cranmer said...

I would like to see this as well. Even if it is so-so, there is always something to take away from an old flick. Donald O'Connor was always good. I remember him being reduced to TV work in the 70's and 8o's and he still turned in excellent performances.

Evan Lewis said...

If I can figure out how to copy a DVD, I'll be pleased to share this. I did manage to burn my film of the Alamo battle reenactment to disk, but that was my first and only experiment with a DVD-R.

Richard R. said...

Oh my, a young Donald O'Conner. Never liked the fellow much. By the way, the weather has been interesting the last couple of days. Went to our first party last night and got pretty wet walking home (it was at a neighbor's home).

Oscar Case said...

The poster is interesting with the magnifying glass and everyone looking curious.