Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Old Man in the Corner: Episode 1: The Kensington Mystery

GB 1924. PC: Stoll Film Company. D+P+SC: Hugh Croise from the short story collection The Case of Miss Elliott by Baroness Orczy (1905); DP: John J. Cox, D.P. Cooper; CAST: Rolf Leslie (Old Man), Renée Wakefield (Miss Hatley), Dorothy Harris (Mrs. William Yule), Reginald Fox (William Yule), Kate Gurney (Mrs. Yule), Donald McArdle (William Biggs), Elsa Martini (Mrs. William Biggs, aka Marie Tourneur); n.c.: Wally Bosco, Gibb McLaughlin, Alex G. Hunter; 2150 ft, 29' (DigiBeta transferred at 20 fps. No 35mm print of this film is currently available for screening). From: BFINA. Grand piano: Stephen Horne. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, 5 Oct 2009.

From the GCM Catalogue: "The expression “armchair detective” appears to have been invented to describe The Old Man in the Corner stories written by Baroness Emmuska Orczy (1865-1947). Their premise was simple and effectual, thanks in great part to the cleanliness and conciseness of Orczy’s prose: a journalist named Polly Burton (changed to Mary Hatley in the Stoll films) regularly meets with a conceited elderly man forever fiddling with a piece of string in the corner of the A.B.C. teashop. He has views on all the latest crimes, which he unravels in a singularly crotchety style that never fails to denigrate the work of Scotland Yard. Many of the mysteries are never officially solved, and the Old Man frequently expresses admiration for the cleverness of the criminals over the police detectives. In “The Mysterious Death in Percy Street” Orczy gives him a name, Bill Owen, and intriguingly hints that he murdered someone in the hazy past.
The characters first appeared in the pages of The Royal Magazine in 1901, and in book form in 1905, under the title The Case of Miss Elliott. Oddly, the tales in that first collection came from the third series of stories; the first two series were published as a single volume later in 1909 under the now commonly-used umbrella title The Old Man in the Corner. Orczy returned to the characters in 1923, and Stoll, clever marketers that they were, introduced their series in June 1924; the final volume of stories, Unravelled Knots, was published in 1925.
Some dispute the idea of Orczy inventing the “armchair detective”, noting that Sherlock Holmes’ brother Mycroft similarly solves cases without leaving his home. Certainly Orczy, living in modest circumstances with her English husband, illustrator Montague Barstow, was looking for a way to cash in on the detective craze, and set out to create a figure worlds apart from that of the active clue-sniffing Holmes (two years later she invented The Scarlet Pimpernel, and their financial worries were over). The Old Man solves mysteries entirely from a seated position, often at inquests and trials or simply from newspaper accounts, when he pits his fine-tuned reasoning against the illogic of the press and the police. He’s always fidgeting with a piece of string, his “adjunct to thought”, which alternately annoys and amuses the journalist. This armchair-style of detection spawned a whole subset within the genre, leading to such sedentary investigators as Nero Wolfe and even TV’s Ironside.
“The Kensington Mystery” derives from Orczy’s story “The Tragedy in Dartmoor Terrace”, which first appeared in The Royal Magazine in June 1904. The episode is something of an anomaly, for unlike the original story and the other films, the Old Man is seen actively hunting down clues, and in the end he tips off the police once he’s gathered the evidence. A few minor changes have also been incorporated: the Yules are more developed as characters, William Bloggs (“not a euphonious name, is it?”) becomes the amusingly insufferable goody-goody William Biggs, and, in an undoubted bid to play up the humour element, Mrs. William Biggs is turned into a French golddigger with a stereotypical accent to match. The structure of the stories however is retained throughout the series, always opening with Miss Hatley and the Old Man in the teashop discussing a case, so that the majority of the unfolding narrative takes place as a flashback. The brevity of the source material lends itself to the 2-reel format, and each episode (there were 12 in all) stands alone. Kinematograph Weekly on 3 July 1924 spelled it out for exhibitors: “Each story must be distinctly mentioned as a separate plot in itself. The central figure plays no part in the actual crime events but simply talks of them and solves them. This should be emphasised in order that the serial-loving public may come repeatedly … and that the serial-hating public shall not stay away thinking they are compelled to see every episode in order to appreciate them.”
Director/adapter Hugh Croise was new to Stoll, having started his career as a writer and actor. In one of those strange twists of fate, he’s remembered today for a film he never finished: either illness or a clash with actor/impresario Seymour Hicks prevented him from completing the 1923 short Always Tell Your Wife, so the young Alfred Hitchcock stepped in for his first completed directing assignment. – Jay Weissberg." -

I watched just the start of this film to get an idea what the first ever Armchair Detective was.

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