You can't keep a good B down

Jim Lundstrom

A publicity still for the 1933 murder mystery  The Sphinx.

Streaming may be the greatest gift to movie fans who find it hard to sleep. I find movies from the 1930s to be particularly calming, and Amazon Prime is a great resource. Often I fall asleep before it’s over – not because it’s boring but because I’m exhausted. 

But there are occasions when the movie I’m viewing on a sleepy night captures me, and I am compelled to see it through to the end.

The most recent example is a 1942 murder mystery called Phantom Killer. It involves a philanthropic deaf mute who is accused by a witness – a building janitor – of being the murderer of a stockbroker, but the problem is that the alleged murderer asked the witness for the time and a light for his cigar, and the man he accuses is a highly respected philanthropist who has been a deaf mute since birth.

 I have to admit that when I started this movie, I fully expected to fall asleep immediately. I was well tucked in, the TV set on a timer and my eyes shut. Then I heard the voice of an actor who I was always enjoy seeing. It was Mantan Moreland portraying the building janitor where the first murder in this twisty mystery has just taken place. For him, I had to watch instead of falling asleep.

 Mantan Moreland was a black comedian and actor relegated to playing comic relief in the 300-some movies he made. I first ran across him as chauffeur Birmingham Brown in 13 Charlie Chan movies made between 1944-49.

Now there are those who will argue that Mantan Moreland played nothing more than a bug-eyed stereotype, but I disagree. Both his charisma and comedy tend to make him dominate scenes, and this is particularly on display in Phantom Killer, which is a remake of the 1933 pre-code Poverty Row offering called The Sphinx.

The building janitor in The Sphinx is also played to comic effect, but here by an Italian immigrant. The part was obviously written to get laughs, but Mantan has by far the funnier delivery of the very same lines. He’s a scene stealer of the first order.

It turns out I am not the only admirer of Moreland’s comic turns. When Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame died in 1955, the remaining Stooges, Moe Howard and Larry Fine, wanted to replace Shemp with Mantan Moreland.

Moe Howard once talked with an interviewer about adding Moreland to the act.

“We’d all seen our better days by that time, but ol’ Moreland, – now there was a talent that could’ a’ invigorated the whole act! He had the word play – you ever heard him do that ‘anticipation’ routine, where he and one or another of his partners finished each other’s sentences? – and he had the physical shtick, the jive moves and double take receptions that would’ a’ filled in the gaps Jerome (Curly) and Shemp had kept covered.

“But of course Columbia (Pictures’ management) demanded a white guy, because they’d apparently been scared off of Mantan, and we ended up with that prissy damned Joe Besser, who was whatcha might call a pain…I’ve always thought what a great act the Stooges could’ a’ stayed for a while, if only we’d’ a’ gone with Mantan.”

 That really would have been something, to have an integrated comedy act in 1955.

The “anticipation” routine Moe mentions is seen to best effect in the 1946 Charlie Chan movie Dark Alibi. Mantan and his old Vaudeville partner Ben Carter introduce their fast-paced interrupted sentence routine, with one asking a question and the other responding before the first sentence is finished.

The product of directing machine William Beaudine (he made hundreds of movies, beginning as a director in 1915 after working as an assistant director with pioneer D. W. Griffith), the 1942 Phantom Killer follows the storyline of The Sphinx with just a few alterations, such as the hero of The Sphinx being a reporter and in Phantom Killer he is an assistant district attorney.

In both movies, the hero’s girlfriend is a reporter who just happens to be involved in doing a series of feature stories on the man her boyfriend believes is a serial killer who targets stockbrokers.

Both begin with the building janitor at his work when a man steps out of a stockbroker’s office and asks the janitor for a match to light his cigar, and after that is provided, asks for the time. When the body of the stockbroker whose office the anonymous man left is found, the janitor identifies the man who asked for a match as a well known philanthropist who happens to have been a deaf mute from birth. The philanthropist’s alibi gets even better when our hero’s girlfriend tells him she was covering an event where the philanthropist made another public donation at the very same time the janitor was supposedly lighting his cigar.

Despite the reports of the suspect being a deaf mute, both the reporter in the first movie and the DA in the second version believe the beloved philanthropist is the murderer. They just can’t figure out how he can be in two places at once.

Can you by now? 

Yes, of course, there are twins – the beloved philanthropist who is a deaf mute and his brother, who can speak and hear. A twin no one else but the brothers’ live-in servant knows about. Hmmm? The twins in both versions are not spring chickens. How in the world have they gone through life with only the deaf mute twin being known to the world?

While Mantan Moreland is a standout in the 1942 version, John Hamilton seems like a human potato as the evil twins in Phantom Killer. He just doesn’t have the creep factor that Lionel Atwill has as the same character in The Sphinx.

Atwill would become a staple of Universal horror films, perhaps best remembered as Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein (1939), whose arm was ripped off by the monster when he was a child, a character brilliantly parodied by Kenneth Mars in Mel Brooks’ loving 1974 parody of Universal Frankenstein flicks, Young Frankenstein.

Atwill has a haughty gravitas that makes him the superior movie murderer. You can understand why the beautiful young female reporter would want to report on the suave, sophisticated, charismatic philanthropist as played by Atwill, but it’s harder to understand why she would be interested in the philanthropist as played by the doughy Hamilton. 

A decade after this was made, Hamilton was signed to a TV series that sealed his future, being cast as blustery Daily Planet newspaper editor Perry (“Great Caesar’s Ghost”) White in the Adventures of Superman (1952-58).