(director: James Whale; screenwriters: from the play “Suspicion” by Ladislas Fodor/Myles Connolly; cinematographer: George Robinson; editor: Charles Maynard; music: Charles Previn; cast: Warren William (District Attorney Jim Stowell), Gail Patrick (Lucy Stowell), Constance Moore (Elizabeth), William Lundigan (Phil), Ralph Morgan (Professor Shaw MacAllen), Cecil Cunningham (‘Sharpy’), Samuel S. Hinds (Dave Marrow), Jonathan Hale (Dan Allison), Lillian Yarbo (Creola), Milburn Stone (Eddie Kirk); Runtime: 69; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Edmund Grainger; Alpha; 1938)

“It was better than it should be, which is about the best that can be said about it.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Legendary Brit filmmaker James Whale (“Frankenstein”/”Show Boat”/”The Man in the Iron Mask”) shoots a remake of his own 1933 A Kiss Before the Mirror. Myles Connolly was recruited to rewrite the risqué script; it’s based on the play “Suspicion” by Ladislas Fodor. It’s shot as a low-budget B-film and with an eye out for the stricter Production Code censorship of 1938, as it keeps things tame. Universal had grown weary of Whale, even though all his films brought in a profit, and tried to bring him down a peg by forcing him to make this cheapie; their complaint seemed to be that his pics went over budget and they weren’t too pleased with all the artistic touches he insisted on. But rumors persisted that it was his open homosexuality that really got their goat.

Jim Stowell (Warren William, the film’s first Perry Mason) is an uncompromising DA, who is a workaholic, arrogant and keeps by his office desk an abacus with skull-shaped heads to keep a morbid account of those who were executed that he prosecuted. The hard work schedule and rigid attitude is taking a toll on his married life to the beautiful Lucy (Gail Patrick). When set to go on a well-needed three-week vacation, Jim can’t resist instead prosecuting a mild-mannered, beloved, millionaire political science professor, Shaw MacAllen (Ralph Morgan), who murdered his philandering wife in a fit of jealousy. The high-profile case pits him against MacAllen’s outstanding attorney Dave Marrow (Samuel S. Hinds), who wants the first-degree murder charges dropped to manslaughter due to temporary insanity. But Jim gets on his high horse and won’t budge, especially when he tricked the prof into a taped confession when he wasn’t represented by a lawyer. The ruthless DA just sees this as another score on his abacus of death. But as the trial progresses, Jim finally notices that the defendant’s irrational actions are on a parallel track with his life (he stalks his wife and has a jealousy attack when he sees her talking intimately with her handsome young friend Phil) and if he doesn’t lighten up and come to his senses a similar tragedy could be in the works.

The film is noteworthy for its 1930s racial stereotyping. The black maid of the Stowell’s, Creola (Lillian Yarbo), is thought of as a typical black dummy by Lucy. She tells her hubby, when the maid is out of the room, that “she certainly can cook, that’s more than what most of them can do.” Such a racist remark might be expected in Birth of a Nation, but here it comes as a rude awakening to how blacks were treated in the ordinary films back in the day.

This courtroom thriller was better than it should be, which is about the best that can be said about it. It’s to Whale’s credit as a first-rate filmmaker that he could make such a schlock story bearable. The studio was happy that Whale finished filming ahead of schedule and under budget, ensuring a profit even though the reviews were mixed.

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