Tuesday, February 1, 2011

MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM (1939)

The "white room" of the title is the operating room where Dr. Finley Morton is stabbed in the back with a scalpel during surgery on a rich society woman. By the time the operation is over, hard-boiled big city police Sergeant MacIntosh Spencer has arrived and is untangling the various relationships of the doctors and nurses in the operating room in order to find a motive. It is the usual soap opera-- some of doctors and nurses are romantically involved with one another; two rival doctors are competing for the big promotion that Morton is helping to decide; there are senior medicos with a complicated professional relationship involving medical ethics, jealousy, and a five year-old botched surgery; and there's even a skulking senior medical staff superintendent thrown in for good measure. One of the most likely suspects is the dashing Dr. Bob Clayton (Bruce Cabot), but he confounds Sgt. Spencer by trying to solve the case on his own with the help of his lover, Nurse Carole Dale (Helen Mack). There is also an irritating comedy relief couple consisting of a meddlesome half-witted ambulance attendant (Tom Dugan) and a braying, grating nurse (Mabel Todd), but the less said about these two, the better.

The Daily Times-News, Burlington NC, October 28, 1939, seven months after MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM was released theatrically


The only witness that can help solve the Morton murder is Tony the deaf janitor; the killer tries to do away with Tony by viciously smashing a bottle of acid into his face, an attack that leaves Tony blind, unable to speak, and paralyzed. This surprising bit of nastiness is one of the fleeting grotesque touches in MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM that makes this whodunit into something different from the usual fare. The other bit of pulp wackiness is the lurking scalpel-wielding murderer; on the eve of an corneal transplant operation (using Morton's dead man's eyes) that will hopefully restore Tony's sight and allow him to recognize his attacker, the shadowy, surgical-glove-wearing killer appears in the middle of the night on the fire escape outside of Tony's room and hurls a scalpel at him through some venetian blinds.


But none of these almost-horror tweaks is enough to make MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM into anything other than a B-movie murder-mystery of the 1930s. The cast is interesting one that connects MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM to KING OF THE ZOMBIES, KING KONG, SON OF KONG, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, DR. X, HOUSE OF FEAR, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY'S CURSE, MAN MADE MONSTER, VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES, and some of other things, but there's really not a whiff of horror to be had despite the best efforts of some TV horror hosts over the years.
San Antonio [TX] Express, May 2, 1958
The copy in this oddly-shaped ad reads in part: "A mystery 'Shock' thriller about the terror that stalks the corridors of a hospital. To bed before the Witching Hour"


Daily Review Hayward, CA, April 9, 1960


The Capital, Annapolis, MD, December 22, 1973

MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM was one of three "Crime Club" movies that Screen Gems had bundled into the SHOCK! assortment for TV (Universal made eight all together between 1937-39 and MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM was the second to last). Mirek mentioned the "Crime Club" series in a post here two and a half years ago; the helpful "Crime Club" blog sketches out the history of Doubleday's series and includes mention of both the Universal film series and the radio show (CBS 1931-32; Mutual 1946-47). According to that blog, Universal subcontracted Irving Starr Productions to make the films and retained control over only half of them later on, with the last three being sold off to Screen Gems in 1957. I know nothing about the history of the book series' sales figures or its popularity in the late 1950s-- would knowing that this was a "Crime Club" movie draw in viewers to the SHOCK! telecast? I didn't see any promotion of that angle in the television listings, so maybe not...

From the perspective of 2011, the copyright business seems tangled enough to doom MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM to never appear on legitimately-licensed DVD. There's not a big market for obscure B-movie thrillers these days, particularly those that would require some expensive legal wrangling to secure the rights. That's unfortunate, because this might be the best of the "Crime Club" bunch-- once the relationships between all the characters are established in the first reel, this 58-minute film plugs right along and does its damnedest to cover up some of its flaws in narrative logic. And the sprinkles of weirdness help this one go down easy on late-night viewing.

(As a footnote to this, let me add that any viewer interested in seeing a murder-mystery set in a hospital ought to check out the well-made British film GREEN FOR DANGER [1946].)



MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM page from the SHOCK! catalog:


click to make larger

NEXT: "They accused him of risking human lives for his experiment! Shrieking headlines declared he invented a mechanical monster. For top thrills and excitement in televiewing, see William Gargan fight the man-made terror stalking the skies in REPORTED MISSING, the Shock feature film presentation coming on this channel."

2 comments:

Max the drunken severed head said...

Blogs like this fill a void and help create interest in films like MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM that otherwise might get neglected.

Thanks for the public service!

kochillt said...

The 3 Crime Club titles that were part of SHOCK! are THE LAST WARNING, MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM, and THE WITNESS VANISHES, but only MYSTERY aired on Pittsburgh's CHILLER THEATER (twice- Feb 8 1975 and Apr 16 1977). Having seen all 7 Crime Clubs, this one remains my favorite, recorded back in 1987. THE WESTLAND CASE, THE LADY IN THE MORGUE, and THE LAST WARNING featured the popular team of Bill Crane and Doc Williams, played by Preston Foster and Frank Jenks. THE BLACK DOLL and DANGER ON THE AIR teamed Donald Woods and Nan Grey, with the remaining two stand alone features (THE WITNESS VANISHES with Edmund Lowe, the last, is the only one I didn't care for). Though not part of SHOCK! THE BLACK DOLL aired 4 times on CHILLER THEATER, but I was too young to have caught up with it at the time. The 7 titles here are the only ones that carry the Crime Club logo, and are superior to the Inner Sanctum series that followed, but with less of a horror pedigree (THE HOUSE OF FEAR with Irene Hervey, is often mistaken for a Crime Club, but is a remake of the 1929 Paul Leni part talkie THE LAST WARNING, no relation to the Preston Foster title). An excellent cast, brisk 58 minute running time, and sharp dialogue make MYSTERY OF THE WHITE ROOM hugely enjoyable. "would you do me a favor? go down to the morgue, tell 'em I said you're ready!"