The Moonstone marks our first real foray into a universe in which we will be spending a lot of time: the Poverty Row thriller. An understanding of what Poverty Row was — if not an actual appreciation for its product — is an important part of any cult film education (and given the way you kids are allowed to make up any damn thing and call it a college major these days, you can probably go PhD in Cult Film Studies or some such nonsense, when you should be spending your time in college learning about Hammurabi, thermodynamics, and beer funnels), because Poverty Row is where the b-movie was born. So let’s set the stage.
The more popular movies became, the more demand there was for something — sometimes, anything — to fill the marquee. There was only so much the big studios could produce, and the hunger for cinematic entertainment was fast starting to outpace production schedules. When the studio system — by which certain production studios were allowed to own and operate their own theaters, showing only their own movies — was broken up, it opened the door for a number of prospective upstart studios to step in and both fill the void with their own product as well as find a screen on which to play it. Newly independent theater owners often paired these films of lesser prestige with a film from one of the big studios — the b-picture to the a-picture main event.
The b-movies were often produced very quickly and on the cheap, usually with a cast of unknowns, though sometimes they’d score a star whose name had some marquee value during the silent era. Most of the major studios eventually started their own b-movie production machines, and these films benefited from access to recognizable contract players from the studio as well as all the sets, props, and costumes that had been used in other, bigger budget productions. This is why b-movies like the Mister Moto series look far more lavish and expensive than they actually were. They had access to all the stuff that was lying around for the bigger budget Charlie Chan films.
But the bulk of the b-movies and programming filler was produced by smaller studios. Among these studios, few were as prolific and respectable (relatively speaking) as Monogram. So successful was Monogram, in fact, that it soon took on the appearance of a “little major,” with it’s own stable of contract players, directors, writers, and sets. Monograms and the studios like them were dubbed “Poverty Row,” as much a reference to the budgets they had to work with as it was a reference to less cultured hoi polloi who flocked to see the cheapies. This was truly the cinema of the people, giving the unwashed masses like you and me exactly what we wanted. And what we wanted, at least at the time, was westerns and thrillers. It’s the thrillers that concern us today, and The Moonstone is a perfect place to begin.
In 1868, an author by the name of Wilkie Collins had published a story called The Moonstone which is generally considered the first English-language mystery novel. Of course, as soon as something is proclaimed to be the first of anything, someone else is going to show up with ample evidence why some other work deserves the honor being considered the first. Look at attempts to pin down the first slasher film. For a while, everyone agreed that it was Halloween, but then some smartie pants started maintaining that it was actually Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, and then it was Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, and now I think it’s gotten to the point where the world’s first slasher film is actually attributed to Sophocles.
So whether or not The Moonstone is the world’s first English language detective and mystery novel, instead of the C. Auguste Dupin stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the fact remains that T.S. Eliot called it the first English detective novel, and who’s going to argue with T.S. Eliot? W.B. Yeats? Please. Whatever the case, Collins’ story sets the template for the many, many detective thrillers that would follow. There’s the isolated British manor house, the large group of suspects brought together in a common location, copious red herrings, amateur sleuthing by one or two people who are also among the gathered cast of characters, and of course, the gruff inspector from Scotland Yard. In particular, The Moonstone deals with the theft of a precious stone from a young British heiress.
The movie sticks to the original novel in some basic respects, but for the most part it varies quite remarkably. One of the the elements that made the novel such a success was its references to drug use. That aspect of the novel’s script is excised entirely from the plot of the film, seeing as such open depiction of drug use and abuse was strictly taboo in 1934 — the very same year that the Hayes Code enacted in 1930 was put into heavy enforcement. Monogram certainly wasn’t in a financial position to take on the United States government and defend their picture, so the easier route was simply to write around the opium. Additionally, the novel takes place over the course of many, many months. In the movie, everything takes place in the course of twenty-four hours. Where as three mysterious jugglers from India play a major role in the novel — the moonstone was originally stolen by a British officer in India, and disciples of the god from whose forehead it was stolen have sworn to get it back, no matter how many generations it takes — in the movie, there is only a single Indian, a servant, who has very little to do other than show up for some questioning. In fact,the movie, while entertaining, the whole movie plays like an adaptation of the novel done by someone who sort of read the novel a long time ago and is now doing their best to remember what they can.
On the night of her birthday, young Ann Verinder (Phyllis Barry) receives the gift of the Moonstone, though how good a gift it is remains dubious. Although obviously precious, the stone has a bloody past and carries a curse. Originally stolen by a shifty British officer in India (as in the novel), the Moonstone has since been the object of spookiness, with various Indians swearing revenge on the family of the man who stole it and to return it to its rightful home, whatever the cost. On top of the oogy boogy factor, Ann seems to only know people who would have some sinister reason for wanting to steal the jewel. Her own father is in dire financial straights, and the Moonstone could save him from ruin. A moneylender to whom her father owes most of the money is keen on the stone as well. The family’s young maid is a former thief. A cousin’s servant happens to be Indian. The assistant doctor that works with Ann’s father has a terrible secret about his past.
Not surprisingly, amid all these potential thieves, the Moonstone ends up being stolen — from right under Ann’s pillow, no less. I’ve always wondered about people who put precious items under their pillow for safekeeping — that includes guns. Now I guess if you are one of those people who lies perfectly still, on your back, with your hands folded across your chest in angelic repose, then putting valuable sunder your pillow would be fine. But seriously, how many of you sleep like that? And how many of you sleep in two dozen different positions over the course of a night, including ones where you wake up and find your knee against your chin and your pillow shoved between your knees, with a second pillow somehow ending up on the floor clear on the other side of the room? If I went to sleep with a Moonstone under my pillow, there’s a good chance that I would wake up and find the thing under the dresser, stuck between my butt cheeks, or possibly in the fridge, since I tend to get up in the middle of the night and sleepily make myself bowls of cereal.
And especially if I knew my house was full of people who might want to steal the jewel, I’d find somewhere safer than under my pillow. First, why would you be friends with nothing but people who want to steal your cursed birthday present? Second, if you are a well-to-do heiress, even one who doesn’t know her father has secretly blown the family fortune, you still have your big British manor house, and I’m pretty sure there must be a secure place for such things as cursed moonstones. I mean, even if the attempt to steal the stone woke you up, what’s to stop the thief from wearing a mask and punching you in the face? So really, I guess what I’m saying is, if your security system is to put your valuables under a pillow then lie a wispy British heiress on top of it, you deserve to have your moonstone stolen.
Complicating the case is the fact that a number of odd things happened at conveniently inconvenient times: the arrival of the moneylender, the departure of Ann’s father int he middle of the night to deliver a baby, and the arrival of a storm so violent that no one could possibly leave the house. Also on hand is Inspector Cuff of Scotland Yard (Charles Irwin), dispatched upon hearing about Ann’s inheritance because Scotland Yard expected such a young and naive owner would be the victim of treachery. One by one, Cuff grills the inhabitants of the house, airing their dirty laundry and conveniently explaining for the audience what the motivation for theft would be. As Cuff goes about his business, Ann’s father falls ill with pneumonia contracted whilst mucking about in the storm, delivering babies, and a number of people decide to solve the mystery themselves. The only real clue is a smudge left on the door by a careless thief — a very careless thief, because the smudge is gigantic.
And then, just as the mystery is getting good and mysterious, everything is wrapped up in like three minutes with a minimum of fuss, and the movie ends.
According to some sources, this movie’s original running time was a little over an hour, as was customary for cheap films of this period. But all the existing copies that have been released on DVD run just under fifty minutes. So somewhere there are ten to fifteen minutes of this film lying around that are not included in the version I watched. While that still makes for a brisk movie, it would explain a number of plot threads that are introduced and never really picked up again. It would also make for a little more suspense than we get with the movie in its current state, which although it is wrapped up in more or less the same way as the novel, comes very abruptly and without any sense of a big reveal.
But first, let’s talk about the good. For an early thriller based on an early thriller, and with a minimal budget, The Moonstone is pretty entertaining. It confines itself to two locations — or only one, if you discount the opening scene in a Scotland Yard office — and a small cast, with the whole thing feeling a bit like a stage production, but the movie never looks or feels as cheap as it is, even if the exterior of the mansion is just a model. Monogram obviously put some time and effort into the production, and that extra care translates into a more impressive end product that Poverty Row often gave us. On top of that, there’s no real weak link in the cast. Most of them were experienced hands, if not well-known actors. Phyllis Barry was a bit player in all sorts of films, including the Errol Flynn epic The Prince and the Pauper and one of the Bulldog Drummond films. She was usually relegated to roles like “Barmaid” and “Housekeeper,” but given something a little more substantial, she acquits herself nicely.
John Davidson gets to parade around in a turban, making menacing intense eyes as Yandoo, the Indian servant who may or may not be part of a cult dedicated to retrieving the Moonstone. Davidson had been in movies for almost twenty years by the time he appeared in The Moonstone, starting his career way back in 1915 — not quite the dawn of the feature film, but awful close. His experience with silent film is most likely the reason Davidson is able to do so much with only a few lines of dialog. It’s too bad that his role is relegated to something relatively unimportant in the movie, because the Indians in the novel apparently had more to do.
The most recognizable face for cult film fans is probably David Manners, best known for inhabiting the role of Jonathan Harker in Todd Browning’s 1931 production of Dracula. Manning went on to appear in Universal’s The Mummy, as well. In fact, very few members of the cast of The Moonstone could be considered inexperienced, and their adeptness at the craft is evident. Poverty Row features sometimes saddled the audiences with remarkably wooden actors, but that’s not the case here.
Similarly, director Reginald Barker was an old hand, having begun his directing career in 1912. The Moonstone actually comes to us at the end of his career — just as the novel came at the end of Wilkie Collins’ career — and it’s obvious that, even if this is a B production, it’s being helmed by a man who knows what he’s doing. As with director Michael Curtiz, who made Captain Blood just one year later, and as with many of the directors working at the time, Barker’s experience with silent films translates into an effective use of things like light and shadow and the facial expressions of the actors — the tools you had to use in a film when dialog couldn’t do the talking for you. Barker’s direction and little flourishes keep the film from feeling static, even though this is a movie comprised almost entirely of people sitting around.
In fact, if there’s a weak component to this film besides the rushed ending, it’s the dialog, which is bland but relatively harmless. However, in a movie in which there is almost no action at all, it needs to make up for that with cracking good dialog, and The Moonstone falters in this regard. Scriptwriter Adele Buffington wrote about seventy-five billion Poverty Row westerns, and the screenplay for The Moonstone smacks of what I would call “rushed competence.” It’s a perfectly serviceable script, but it takes the easiest route and avoids dealing with any of the complicated affairs that made the novel more engrossing. The drug references are dropped almost entirely, with the final solution coming in the guise of a medicine considerably less controversial that laudanum.
Wilkie Collins was, himself, an addict, and drew on his own experiences with laudanum for the story. However, drug references would hardly fly under the new Hayes Code, so Buffington more or less drops it. He also does considerably less with the thief-turned-maid character than does the original novel, and she, like Yandoo and a number of the suspects, more or less disappears after she has her interview with Inspector Cuff. But like I said, this is “rushed competence.” Buffington has an hour to tell the story, instead of a novel. Subplots and extraneous digressions, interesting though they may have been, had to be cut. Buffington’s final product is perfectly serviceable, but one can’t help but notice that inside this good movie is a great movie that was never quite made.
The Moonstone lacks the spark of the better films of the time, and even of the better Poverty Row productions. The Mister Moto films didn’t just enjoy access to the props from the Charlie Chan movies; they also benefited from snappier dialog and pacing. And when compared to other low budget thrillers, like the Bulldog Drummond films, the short-comings of The Moonstone become more obvious. Luckily, since it clocks in at about three-quarters of an hour, the movie never affords itself the chance to get dull. Still, acceptable but uninspired dialog is what prevents The Moonstone from being a must-see on entertainment terms instead of just historical importance terms.
Still, The Moonstone makes for a fun, if brief, way to spend some time. Well shot, well acted, and at least adequately written. In terms of Poverty Row productions from an independent like Monogram, it represents the top of the heap, though I wouldn’t say it’s the best. But films like this are where it all began. In the conventions a movie like The Moonstone establishes, we see the bits and pieces that will become everything from horror films to giallo. Even Hitchcock did much of his best work in the same confines defined by the Moonstone novel. If you’re interested in where modern cult films come from, The Moonstone should be on your list of things to watch. Heck, even if you don’t like it as much as I did (and I liked it enough, though it’s not a film I’d run through the streets singing the merits of — I save that honor for Howling II), it took you less than an hour to watch it.
Release Year: 1934 | Country: United States | Starring: David Manners, Phyllis Barry, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Jameson Thomas, Herbert Bunston, Charles Irwin, Elspeth Dudgeon, John Davidson, Claude King, Olaf Hytten, Evalyn Bostock, Fred Walton | Screenplay: Adele Buffington | Director: Reginald Barker | Cinematographer: Robert Planck | Music: Abe Meyer | Producer: Paul Malvern