Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Overlooked Films: DAFFY DILL (almost) Goes to Hollywood in "Find the Witness"

Take a gander at the movie still above and the pulp art below. Similar, ain't they? That's because the 1937 Columbia film Find the Witness was based on the 1935 Daffy Dill story "A Slug for Cleopatra." Sadly, the movie did not feature Daffy himself. If it had, it might been the start of a decent series of B-mysteries.

Find the Witness was author Richard Sale's first brush with the film industry. At the time, he likely had no idea it would become his new career. Over the next fifty years Sale racked up screenwriting credits on over twenty films, directed thirteen and produced three. He also created the western TV series Yancy Derringer, writing many episodes for that show and others. 

If you've yet to read "A Slug for Cleopatra," this would be a good time. I posted the complete novelette on Monday (that's HERE), and the synopsis of the movie (below), reveals at least one major plot element.

Rosalind Keith (Linda) and Charles Quigley (Larry)

For reasons unknown (at least to me), Daffy was replaced here by a reporter named Larry McGill, played by actor Charles Quigley. Since I haven't seen the film, I can't say how Daffy-like McGill was. Judging by the synopsis, though, the movie retained only the basic concept of the story, adding angles and characters that took the tale in different directions. 

Sale's original story featured about a dozen named characters, and of those, only Daffy and two others made the jump from magazine to movie more or less intact. Those two were escape artist Harry Mordini (renamed Rudolph Mordini for the film and played by Henry Mollison) and movie star Sylvia Calmette (who became Rita Calmette). 

At center, Rita Calmette (played by Rita LeRoy)

Daffy's inamorata, reporter Dinah Mason, is represented here by Linda Mason, secretary to the movie star. In the magazine stories, Daffy proposed - and was turned down - by Dinah on a regular basis for almost ten years. This being Hollywood, Larry McGill meets Linda Mason and is marching down the aisle with her in the space of 55 minutes. 

"A Slug for Cleopatra" has two major cop roles, Daffy's friend "Poppa" Hanley and his sometime adversary Inspector Halloran. It's possible both have counterparts in the film, but I see only one definite copper listed among the cast (Inspector Collins played by Wade Boteler), so their roles may have been combined. Making up the rest of the cast are a lot of folks I've never heard of, with two exceptions: future Dick Tracy Ralph Byrd plays a guy called Tex, and B-Western heavy Charles King plays someone named Burton. 

Is this Larry on the ledge? Probably.

Some reviewers, like the one for the Sydney Morning Herald, were kind:
     “Find the Witness” is an adroitly constructed story. All surface interest and no depth. It contains a murder mystery, which will be no mystery to the average picture-goer; a rambling, wise-cracking romance; a mob of tough American Pressmen hot on the trail of a scandal; and a roaring climax, in which a diving-suit, a sealed coffin, and speeding cars play important parts. With the help of Charles Quigley, Rosalind Keith and a hard working supporting cast, time-honoured characters and situations are rejuvenated into a brisk entertainment.

But when TV Guide got around to describing it, they were nasty:
     A lame film about a reporter-cum-detective. A magician murders his wife and a couple of other people while doing a magic act at a seaside resort. His act consists of having himself sealed in a box and then dropped in the ocean. The reporter proves to the inept police that the magician had a deep-sea diver pull the box to land, allowing him to commit the murders. 

The synopsis from presents a fuller picture:
     When opera star Rita Calmette's magician husband, the Great Mordini, walks out on her, she follows him to Los Angeles with her secretary, Linda Mason, her French maid Louise and her pet pekingese. Covering the sensational story is newspaper reporter Larry McGill, who follows Rita to her hotel but is kept away from her by Linda. Later, Larry disguises himself as a doctor, enters the hotel and tries again to approach the singer, but when Linda discovers that he is about to flee with a story he overheard, she prevents his departure by locking him in a closet. Larry escapes, only to learn that the story has made its way into a rival newspaper. 
     Determined to find a lead, Larry looks for Mordini in the hotel, and when he finds him, he listens in on a telephone conversation in which the magician makes plans to rendezvous with a woman. Larry beats Mordini to the meeting place, a cocktail lounge, but discovers that the woman on the telephone was Linda. After blackmailing Linda into having dinner with him, Larry promises her that her secret rendezvous with Mordini will not be printed. The promise proves worthless, however, as Larry's editor decides to print the story without Larry's consent. When Rita reads about the secret meeting, she becomes infuriated and accuses Linda of attempting to steal her husband. 
     Later, Larry goes to Santa Monica to cover Mordini's next stunt, in which he seals himself in a casket submerged underwater for four hours. During the act, Larry discovers that his story has been printed and rushes to telephone Linda to explain, but she refuses to listen to him. By the time he gets back to Linda's room, he discovers that Rita has been murdered. Linda is immediately suspected of the murder, but because the police do not have enough evidence, she is released. Larry does not believe that Linda had anything to do with the crime, and suspects that Mordini was behind it. His suspicions are confirmed when he sees a newspaper picture of a dock worker whom he had seen in Santa Monica, and reads that the man has supposedly committed suicide. 
     Larry's investigation into the murder turns up the fact that Mordini's casket was dragged underwater by a deep sea diver to a different location, where the magician was freed and afforded an opportunity to go to Los Angeles, kill his wife, and return to Santa Monica in the space of four hours. Larry decides to prove his theory by re-enacting the crime, but when his editor prints the story of his stunt, Mordini reads it and rushes to Santa Monica in time to sabotage the effort. As a result, Larry is barely alive when he is pulled from the casket. Meanwhile, Linda manages to capture Mordini with the help of some sailors, and the magician is arrested for the murder. Larry recovers from the ordeal and resumes his coverage of the story but shows up late for his own wedding.

Linda and Rita swap looks. 

For those who came in late, here's a recap of DAFFY DILL WEEK:
FRIDAY: "The Dancing Corpse" HERE
SATURDAY: Daffy Dill cover gallery HERE
SUNDAY: "A Dirge for Pagliaccio" HERE
MONDAY: "A Slug for Cleopatra" HERE
TUESDAY: Daffy Dill interior art HERE

And coming up:
THURSDAY: "Death on High Iron"
FRIDAY: Monte Herridge recounts "The Life and Times of Daffy Dill"
SATURDAY: "The Murderous Mr. Coon"

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