With a novel based on the work of the funniest, zaniest, most surreal mystery writer the comedy-thriller genre had ever known at that time, I would have been more surprised if I hadn’t enjoyed the 1945 film version of Craig Rice’s novel Having Wonderful Crime (HWC)! What’s more, despite the masculine nom de plume, Craig Rice was a woman; specifically, she became the first female mystery novelist to make the cover of Time Magazine, plus she practically invented the screwball noir! Back in high school at dear old St. Catharine Academy in the Bronx, I read and very much enjoyed several of Rice’s books, especially the Malone stories I’d found in mystery anthologies in our school library. After graduating from Fordham University, I’d been prowling used bookstores to find Rice’s books. Even now, with eBay making it easier to track down hard-to-find books, I’ve barely scratched the surface, partly from rarity, partly from poverty. All I need is a winning lottery ticket to actually afford all the vintage books I want!
- Malone, our lovable girl-chasing hero, renamed Michael J. Malone for the film version of HWC. (Apparently someone at RKO was fond of the letter M.) Malone is played in HWC by Pat O’Brien (Knute Rockne All-American; Crack-Up; Angels with Dirty Faces; Some Like it Hot);
- Malone’s breezy pal, the two-fisted (but only when necessary) press agent Jake Justus, played by George Murphy (Broadway Melody of 1940; This is The Army; Battleground);
- Helene Brand, Jake’s lovely, wealthy, eccentric sweetheart, who becomes Mrs. Justus in both the novel and movie versions of HWC when the newlyweds break the happy news to Malone early on—not that these lovebirds would ever let a little thing like a honeymoon put the kibosh on their penchant for recreational sleuthing. The new Mr. and Mrs. Justus are compulsive amateur gumshoes, always cooking up new murders to solve! To borrow a line from Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, these two just love “weird excitement!” Helene is played by the lively, lovely, luminous Carole Landis, dubbed “The Ping Girl” by a press agent who explained, “She makes you purr.” In happier days, Landis lent her bubbly personality, talent, and beauty to such films as Team Bartilucci favorite I Wake Up Screaming; My Gal Sal; Turnabout; Topper Returns; One Million B.C.; Four Jills in a Jeep, in which co-writer Landis and her fellow actresses Kay Francis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair reenact their real-life USO tour during World War 2; and The Powers Girl, a film close to Team Bartilucci’s heart because our late mom and aunt were both John Robert Powers models back in the day! (More about Landis and Murphy shortly.)
|Sweet, sassy Helene can |
get on our case anytime!
|When you smile, the world smiles with you. |
When Helene and Jake are the only ones smiling,
it means you’d better get tea bags, because
they’re about to get Malone into hot water!
A number of Craig Rice’s books were adapted for the big screen, and of course, HWC was among them! The trio of screenwriters include:
- Howard J. Green (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang; Morning Glory; Reveille with Beverly);
- Parke Levy (My Friend Irma and its sequel, My Friend Irma Goes West; TV’s Many Happy Returns; Pete and Gladys; and December Bride);
- Stewart Sterling, a.k.a. Prentice Winchell, popular and prolific pulp author of the Gil Vine and Fire Marshal Pedley novels, as well as a producer of crime fiction for radio and magazines. For the record, I am the proud owner of a 1954 book Sterling and Dev Collans co-authored, I Was a House Detective.
With composer Leigh Harline’s sparkling score in the background, we first meet Helene onscreen in media res, nervously holding a gun on an ominous thug (who looks and sounds like the guy running Florian's in Murder, My Sweet, but he's not credited) as she talks to an impatient desk sergeant who’s obviously used to Jake and Helene playing amateur detective: “Please hurry, Sergeant, I’m biting my fingernails already, and you know how hard it is to get a manicure these days!” Luckily, the long-suffering Malone manages to save his friends’ bacon in the proverbial nick of time!
Slipping out of their firearms and into a nearby theater once Malone points out he’d withheld important evidence to crack their current case, our heroes have no sooner found three on the aisle than it’s announced that the show won’t go on: it seems someone’s misplaced the star attraction, The Great Movel (George Zucco from My Favorite Blonde; Topper Returns; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as Professor Moriarty; The Mad Ghoul with Lady on a Train’s David Bruce; and Team B’s fave, After the Thin Man, as Dr. Adolph Kammer)! You’d think that since Jake and Helene are on their honeymoon (heck, they seemed to be truly into each other even without the homicide angle), they’d surely be more interested in, as the song says, the “sweet mystery of life” rather than scampering around solving other people’s murders. (Maybe it’s the lovebirds’ idea of foreplay? Hey, whatever floats their collective boat!)
With Chili Williams around,
everyone has spots before their eyes!
|Poor tearful Helene! It’s no laughing |
matter when you're cornered by a killer.
Has The Great Movel |
played his final matinee?
As for Rice, The April Robin Murders was her final novel after her fatal fall. In fact, the novel was only two-thirds finished at the time of Rice’s death, so the rest was completed by the great Ed McBain, a.k.a. Evan Hunter, author of the 87th Precinct novel series and screenwriter of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's The Birds, among other triumphs. I remember reading and enjoying The April Robin Murders years ago and finding it quite entertaining, with a nice balance of comedy and sentiment. Several posthumous Craig Rice story collections were completed by other authors and published: The Name is Malone (1958); The People vs. Withers and Malone, a 1963 short story collection completed by author Stuart Palmer, featuring his beloved Hildegarde Withers character; the short story collection Murder, Mystery and Malone (2002); and The Pickled Poodles (1960) by Larry M. Harris, a continuation of the John J. Malone series.
Sala Bim! Now you see |
The Great Movel, now you don't!
With so many Rice books and films I haven’t caught up with yet, I think it’s time for a Craig Rice renaissance, in both books and films! Who’s with me?
|We crown Helene the Queen of Screwball Noir!|
|I don't know about you guys, but |
I'm a sucker for a romantic ending!