‘B’-ware, My Love: HOUSE OF SECRETS (Chesterfield 1936)


Do you like movies with gloomy old mansions, secret passageways, clutching hands behind curtains, bloodcurdling screams, and the like? How about we throw in some Chicago gangsters and a hidden pirate treasure? Then you may like HOUSE OF SECRETS, a ‘B’ mystery originally sold to audiences as a horror thriller. It’s no classic, to be sure, but it is an enjoyable little low-budget film produced by tiny independent Chesterfield Pictures, who specialized in this sort of thing, and featuring a better than average cast of Familiar Faces.

Aboard a ship bound for London, a young American woman is accosted by a cad who swears he saw her leaving a drug palace in Paris. Globetrotting but near penniless Barry Wilding defends her honor, but the mysterious blonde won’t reveal her name. Barry runs into his old friend Tom while in Jolly Olde England, a detective on the trail of a murderer. Meanwhile, someone slips a piece of paper under Barry’s door, summoning him to a barrister’s office.

The lawyer informs Barry he’s inherited his late uncle’s estate, which consists of $50,000 and a mansion called The Hawk’s Nest. When he arrives there, he finds people already living on the property, including that mysterious blonde! Her father insists he leave the premises, and the girl appears the next day at his hotel, telling him her name’s Julie Kenmore, and pleads to stay at The Hawk’s Nest for six months. Barry agrees, and she tells him he must keep away… fat chance of that happening! The smitten Barry keeps coming back, and gets enmeshed in sinister doings out of his control…

Leslie Fenton  (Barry) is good, but his acting career never really took off; he later had more success as  a director. Muriel Evans (Julie) is appealing, but she never quite made the leap to stardom, either. Sidney Blackmer (Tom) had a long career as a character actor, Noel Madison , featured in many a 30’s gangster picture, plays a crook called Three Fingers Dan, Morgan Wallace (Julie’s dad) is best known as the perverted jailer in SAFE IN HELL   and the man demanding his “kumquats” in W.C. Fields’ IT’S A GIFT , and Western sidekick Syd Saylor offers up some comic relief as one of the hoods.


Chesterfield Pictures was formed in 1925, and had a ten-year run making movies for the bottom half of double bills until being absorbed (along with some other indies) into Herbert J. Yates’ mega-indie Republic Pictures. Their films featured stars on their way up (Betty Grable, Myrna Loy) and their way down (Betty Compson, Erich Von Stroheim), and competent directors like Phil Rosen, Frank R. Strayer, Richard Thorpe, and John Ford’s brother Francis. HOUSE OF SECRETS was helmed by Chesterfield workhorse Roland D. Reed, who later became a producer of early TV (BEAULAH, ROCKY JONES – SPACE RANGER, MY LITTLE MARGIE). Like I said, the movie’s no classic: the production values are extremely low, the photography murky in spots, and it can be slow going during those dreaded exposition scenes. But all in all, it’s a likeable little ‘B’ that managed to hold my interest until the very end.

(HOUSE OF SECRETS is airing all this month on The Film Detective )  

Pre-Code Confidential #1: James Cagney in LADY KILLER (Warner Brothers, 1933)

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Pre-Code Hollywood movies like LADY KILLER are always fun to watch. They’re filled with risqué business, sly innuendos, and are much more adult in content than post-1934 films. This little gem features James Cagney in one of his patented tough guy roles as Dan Quigley. Dan’s a brash, cocky movie usher who gets fired for insulting his patrons. While indulging in rolling some dice at a hotel lobby, he sees Myra (Mae Clarke)  drop her purse as she’s leaving. Ladies man Dan follows her to her apartment with it, hoping for some afternoon delight.

Dan and Myra
Dan and Myra

Myra’s grateful, and offers him a drink (Her: “Chaser?” Him: “Always have been!”). Myra’s “brother-in-law” Duke (Douglass Dumbrille) emerges from the next room, and invites Dan to play a little poker. Losing all his dough, Dan leaves the apartment. He comes across a gentleman holding another purse in the hallway looking for Myra. Realizing he’s been set up, he storms back in and demands his money back. Yet another sucker comes in with a purse, and Dan muscles his way in on the con. Soon he’s leading the gang, and they make enough to open their own speakeasy, the Seven-Eleven Club. The gang branches out into burglary, targeting a rich widow. Dan fakes a car accident, weaseling his way into her home to get a layout of the joint. Things go awry when a maid is “brutally slugged” and dies. One of the gang squeals and gets iced by his pals just as the cops raid the Seven-Eleven. The gang takes it on the lam, with Dan and Myra ending up in LA. The coppers pick him up at the train station for questioning, and hold him on bail. He calls Myra at their pre-arranged hotel room to post bond, but the devious dame has hooked up with Duke scramed to Mexico, leaving Dan high and dry. Dan’s released when “New York can’t get the goods” on him, with a warning to find employment in 48 hours or get out of town. At a pool hall, Dan’s discovered by a Hollywood producer looking for new faces, and begins working as an extra in a prison picture.

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LADY KILLER now shifts gears to give us a backstage look at Hollywood. Cagney does bits as a con and an Indian chief (!) as the tone turns from gangster pic to comedy. He meets up with leading lady Lois Underwood (Margret Lindsey) and becomes a star in his own right. Seems the studio’s looking for the “rough and ready” type, and Dan writes bogus fan letters extolling his popularity! Now a star (complete with pencil-thin moustache), Dan and Lois start dating. She facetiously tells him she wants “a crate of monkeys, Tyrolean yodelers, and an elephant” for her birthday party, and wise guy Dan obliges in a hysterical scene.

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Dan’s still the same street kid he’s always been, as we see where he makes a critic literally eat his words (an actor’s dream!). Dan brings Lois to his apartment, only to find Myra waiting in his bed! Lois storms out. In a scene that could only happen in a Pre-Code movie, he drags Myra out by her hair and kicks her ass out the door! It’s not the first time Cagney brutalized Clarke on screen. Film fans all remember the classic grapefruit scene in PUBLIC ENEMY.

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Next day, we find the old gang back in town (including Myra), wanting Dan’s Hollywood contacts to set up more robberies. Dan gives then ten grand to keep away from him and leave Hollywood, but Duke and his boys take a guided tour of star’s homes to do their own dirty work. Lois’s house gets robbed and a cop is killed during the escape. Dan busts in on their hideout, gun in hand, and demands the loot to return to Lois. The cops then arrive and arrest him, allowing the gang to flee. They bail him out, and Myra is waiting for him in a car. She confesses to Dan he’s being set up by his old pals who plan to bump him off on the highway. But Dan’s no dummy. He’s alerted the coppers, and they’re in pursuit. A wild car chase with tommy-guns blazing sets up the final shootout. Dan is exonerated, and he and Lois fly to Yuma for their wedding.

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LADY KILLER is fast paced fun, loaded with snappy dialogue. One of the gang asks Dan where he’d like them to go, and he replies with a smile, “Need I say?” Offering one of them some fruit, Dan slyly says, “You like fruit. That I know.” In one scene, he sneakily kisses Myra on the breast (through her dress). The film’s director Roy Del Ruth got his start as a Mack Sennett gag writer. The veteran also worked with Cagney in BLONDE CRAZY, TAXI, and BLESSED EVENT. Other films include THE BABE RUTH STORY, the noir RED LIGHT, and horror entries PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE and THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE. Del Ruth was by no means a top-flight director, but he did some interesting films and his career deserves a second look.

LADY KILLER abounds with familiar faces, Besides Dumbrille (who’s good as Duke), the gang members are Raymond Hatton, Leslie Fenton, and Russell Hopton. Others in various roles are Henry O’Neill, Luis Alberni, Herman Bing, George Chandler, Edwin Maxwell, Dewey Robinson, Sam McDaniel, and Dennis O’Keefe. While not a classic, LADY KILLER is a great example of Pre-Code filmmaking, with an energetic performance by Cagney. Pre-Code fans, gangster buffs, and movie manques looking for a peek at the soundstages of 30s Hollywood will all enjoy this well made time capsule.

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