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Saturday, 23 September 2017

MURDER IN THE BLUE ROOM (1944)

The haunted house became a trusty setting for a mixture of horror and comedy for Forties war-time audiences. It offered a ready-made opportunity for disparate groups of people to be brought together and challenged by a spooky mansion’s mythology - in particular those who could gain mileage from an amusingly cowardly persona such as Bob Hope (The Cat and the Canary, The Ghost Breakers) or Abbott and Costello (Hold That Ghost). There was also an excuse to shoehorn in musical performances by way of entertaining the guests and calming each other’s fears. In December 1944 Universal released the B-movie Murder in the Blue Room which contained both in a genial, fast-moving piece of candy-floss.

Script-wise, it’s of passing Hollywood history interest as the first screenplay co-credited to I.A.L. Diamond, Billy Wilder’s famous partner in crafting such comedy classics as Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). The other notable facet was the fresh coat of paint applied by making the laughter providers a female-centric team. Originally Blue Room was intended as a vehicle for the Ritz Brothers, Fox’s former resident trio of knockabout gagmeisters (rivalling Columbia’s Three Stooges) who left for Universal after complaining about the shoddiness of The Gorilla (reviewed here). The studio plugged them into a series of musical comedies until they disbanded as a threesome in 1943.

Blue Room was then remodelled to showcase three spirited and talented song-and-dance actresses to form the plot’s nightclub act The Three Jazzybelles, a close-harmony trio clearly inspired by the successful Andrews Sisters who had already co-starred with the Ritz Brothers and Abbott and Costello. The team of Grace McDonald, Betty Kean and June Preisser blend together so convincingly that it’s a surprise to find they were entirely separate performers in real life. Cute diminutive blond Preisser made her name as a love rival to Judy Garland for Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939) and Strike up the Band (1940). McDonald, the gals’ sensible brunette leader, started out as a brother-sister tap team before landing a series of B-picture musicals with Paramount that slotted her into films designed for the Andrews sisters. Tall, kooky redhead Betty Kean began as one half of a duo with her sister Jane; her madcap rangy physicality recalls the ‘loose-limbed lunacy’ ascribed to the 
young Jonathan Miller.

The basic plot is a straightforward piece of frippery concerning a high-society family whose palatial home conceals a macabre Blue Room in which the patriarch died under mysterious circumstances twenty years ago. Since then no-one has been allowed in, until two men vying for the hand of the eligible Nan (Weird Woman and House of Frankenstein‘s beautiful Anne Gwynne) compete to impress her with their bravery by each volunteering to spend a night there – with fatal consequences. The Jazzybelles ladies are brought in as old fellow performer friends of Nan’s to perform for the gathering and soon become embroiled on suspicion of murder.

As opposing suitors Larry and mystery writer Steve the duelling pair of Bill Williams and Donald Cook are fairly interchangeable stock players, whose disappearance/murders are less engaging than the byplay between the Jazzybelles. After Nan gets an opening solo, the girls then eclipse everyone with their sassy blue-collar “Gee, that’s swell” attitudes and three musical numbers that showcase their excellent vocal and tap chops. They also get the lion’s share of the comedy with the kind of rim-shot vaudeville shtick that rattles along agreeably enough:

“I came for the bags”
“He’s not only gruesome – he’s insulting”.

That sequence is part of a brief Chauffeur cameo by Milton Parsons, the busy, bald-headed eccentric specialist we glimsped earlier as the Funeral Director in Cry of the Werewolf.
As guests unknown to most of the party, the Jazzybelles are chief suspects targeted by Regis Toomey’s Inspector McDonald, one of those fedora-wearing cops hard-boiled enough to resemble Warner Brothers’ gangsters (another of which he’d play in that studio’s classic The Big Sleep a year later). They also fall foul of butler Edwards played by the enormously prolific Ian Wolfe whose credits spanned from the Thirties right up to 1990’s Dick Tracy, working until his death at age 95). He gets in a memorably game burst of showbiz sparring with the gals:

“My mother warned me against people like you. She said acting is the devil’s profession”
“Are you saying actors are bad?”
“In yours case, decidedly yes”.

The negligible chills in the film are really just for fun, courtesy of a self-playing piano during McDonald and Preisser’s bravura tap set-piece, a clich├ęd pantomime-style hand taunting the girls in bed and an inexplicable but funny turn by Robert Cherry as an actual ghost complete with transparent bed-sheet body topped with a white derby. His two appearances make no sense but are thrown in as part of the breezy devil-may-care tone.

The brisk 60-minute running time ensures that such daffy developments and any lame gags are never dwelt on, meaning that Murder in the Blue Room doesn’t outstay its welcome on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

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