Friday, May 18, 2012

HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME: Like, Write On, Rice!

(Apologies in advance for the photos not being quite as sharp as I'd hoped!)

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!

But first, a little background: Rice’s original stories and novels are set in 1940s Chicago with her popular protagonist, Attorney-at-Law John J. Malone. These stories were especially popular, with their lively blend of zaniness and surrealism. If Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man showed that marriage and murder-solving was a match made in mystery fiction heaven, then consider the books showcasing Malone and his friends to be screwball noir turned up to 11!  Meet our protagonists:

  • 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!
If you thought The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles could put away liquor with the greatest of ease, wait’ll you get a snootful of Malone, Jake, and Helene! In Rice’s novels, when our trio wasn’t solving murders, they hung out at Joe the Angel’s City Hall Bar, where they’d good-naturedly rib homicide cop Daniel von Flanagan (he’d added the “von” so he wouldn’t seem like just another just another Irish cop. Sorry, von Flanagan isn’t in the film version of HWC). According to Tom & Enid Schantz of Rue Morgue Press, “such antics eventually earned (Rice) the unheard-of sum (for a mystery writer) of $46,000 a year by 1945.” Is it any wonder Rice’s inimitable brand of daftness made her books smash hits, with her kisser on the cover of Time in the bargain?

That said, Rice's life wasn't necessarily a bed of roses—or maybe it was, if you count all the thorns. So many talented comedy writers and comedy novelists seem to have a “sad clown” thing going on. Alas, Rice wasn’t immune.  She was born Georgiana Craig in 1908 to a wanna-be painter and a wanna-be sculptress, who named the little girl Georgiana. Too bad her folks apparently didn’t wanna-be responsible, loving parents; poor kid! To make a long, sad story a bit shorter, little Georgiana was schlepped from pillar to post. Being unable to conceive a child of their own, Craig’s half-sister Nan and her husband Elton were happy to adopt the child, whose name officially became Georgiana Craig Rice. Still, even with all her success in her adult life as an author, it seems Rice was never quite able to get past the rejection she’d experienced during her childhood. Over time, her life was further complicated by her chronic alcoholism (what is it about renowned authors and substance abuse?!), glaucoma, deafness in one ear, blindness in one eye, and possibly bipolar disorder. With everything Rice had to contend with, I’m surprised she even made it to the age of 49! And yet with all these obstacles in her way, somehow she managed to achieve success as a popular author, blending nutzoid comedy and suspense like nobody's business!


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!
Rice’s novel output (in every sense of the term) ranged from her 1939 novel 8 Faces at 3, through her 1957 novel My Kingdom for a Hearse, published two weeks after her untimely death at the age of 49 from a fall down the stairs. 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.

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.

Admittedly, HWC takes liberties with Rice’s plot, but the film’s frantic and funny shenanigans nevertheless have that Craig Rice feeling (not to be confused with that Barton Fink feeling), capturing the overall madcap air and good-natured goofiness of Rice’s storytelling style. With its fleet-footed 70-minute running time, its sharp and snappy comedic timing, and its great cast, I enjoyed HWC  all the way!

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!
Jake and Helene are spending their honeymoon at charming Lenhart Lodge, with Malone aiming to take a separate room and check out the single girls, including a cutie with a polka-dot wardrobe (model/actress Chili Williams, a nice bit of eye candy). However, a fender-bender involving our merry trio changes everyone’s plans when the hot young couple from The Great Movel’s act, French-accented Gilda Mayfair (Lenore Aubert from the Bob Hope/Dorothy Lamour comedy-thriller They Got Me Covered; Bud Abbott & Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein; and Bud Abbott & Lou Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff), and her hunky hottie, Lance (Richard Martin, seen in The Bamboo Blonde and such Westerns as West of the Pecos with Robert Mitchum) find themselves in a trunk full of trouble, literally. Soon the exasperated Malone and our kooky newlyweds find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery involving the fussy hotel manager (Charles D. Brown from The Killers; The Grapes of Wrath; and Team B’s favorite among Brown’s roles, Norris the butler in The Big Sleep), the Lenhart sisters, one of whom signs checks in vanishing ink (silent film actress Blanche Ring); sleepwalking after practically each member of the cast unwittingly doses Gilda with a sedative (The Great Movel sees a lawsuit in the Lenhart Lodge’s future!); falling ladders; hairbreadth escapes; a lovely swimming champ (Anje Behrens, better known as Gloria Holden of Dracula’s Daughter; The Life of Emile Zola; The Corsican Brothers) and speedy, snappy patter that makes His Girl Friday sound tongue-tied!

Poor tearful Helene! It’s no laughing
matter when you're cornered by a killer.
Yikes! Has The Great Movel
played his final matinee?
Not to be a downer, but it’s such a shame that Craig Rice and Carole Landis both ended up being “sad clowns” who died too young. Landis had so much charm, beauty, and screen presence, yet somehow her career began to flounder in the mid-1940s. Only 29 years old, Landis had already been married and divorced twice, and her third marriage was already going down for the last time.  She had an adulterous romance with Rex Harrison, who was apparently was also about to end their relationship. What happened? Did poor Landis have emotional problems in addition to the health issues with malaria and pneumonia she’d been battling since her days of entertaining the troops during World War 2?  Whatever contributed to Landis’ downward spiral, it all tragically ended for her in July of 1948, when she left a suicide note and took a lethal overdose of Seconal; Rex Harrison reportedly found her body. Landis’ pallbearers included HWC co-star Pat O’Brien, actor Cesar Romero, director Eddie Sutherland, actor Willard Parker (A Slight Case of Murder; Kiss Me Kate); and Carole’s close friend and personal make-up man William Nye. Aw, man! It’s times like that that I wish I had a time machine and could help folks like Landis to get their lives turned around live in joy and triumph. Incidentally, author Jacqueline Susann based tragic character Jennifer North partly on Landis in her best-seller Valley of the Dolls.

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.

Sim Sala Bim! Now you see
The Great Movel, now you don't!
HWC co-stars Pat O’Brien and George Murphy had much happier endings to their life stories. O’Brien had a long career and lived to the ripe old age of 84. George Murphy served as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s, and retired from acting in 1952. He was eventually elected Senator of California in 1964 and served for six years.

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!

20 comments:

  1. Dorian, you might be shocked to learn this but I am not familiar with either Rice or Landis. It is strange how so many good writers ended up to be drunks. Coping mechanism for writer's block, maybe?

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    1. Kim, I'm making it my business to school you and other avid readers and classic movie fans about the late, great Craig Rice and Carole Landis! :-) Seriously, you're so right that so many wonderful writers like Rice -- and wonderful comediennes like Carole Landis -- sadly ended up being drunks or having other serious emotional issues. Sounds like a grim way to handle writer's block, but I can certainly sympathize. Perhaps sharing the life stories of Rice and Landis might encourage other talented people to gather the courage and moxie to avoid these ladies' fates and overcome their demons. Here's hoping! Glad to have you join the conversation, Kim, as always!

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  2. Aha! So that's what it takes for a writer to get on the cover of TIME. Unfortunately, the prospects aren't too good for me to become a hot brunette anytime soon.

    (She sort of looks like Susan Hayward. Had I been producing biopics back in the 50s I might've been having some ideas.)

    "I'm making it my business to school you and other avid readers and classic movie fans about the late, great Craig Rice and Carole Landis!" Pity they haven't yet made any movies about Andrew Greeley's "Bishop Blackie" or I'd be pushing that character like a cheap car.

    Fran Lebowitz said that all writers are inherently self-destructive. Tragic but true. Craig Rice is just following the curve. It might be that writers possess such fully developed inner visions that the "outside world" holds no real attraction and, as such, they risk everything (even their health) in order to devote themselves to realizing their visions. Not that you've indicated any bad habits (unless you secretly always keep a bottle of Jack Daniels in your desk drawer, or something), but tell me true: don't your characters have voices that sometimes speak out to you more than the people outside your head?

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  3. Michael, I agree with you about Rice's Susan Hayward look on that TIME cover! I'd like to think Rice would appreciate that! You make a good point about writers being inherently self-destructive -- at least some of the ones you and I have known! I'd like to think we take better care of ourselves than poor Craig Rice and many of her colleagues were.

    I really think you're onto something with your theory: "It might be that writers possess such fully developed inner visions that 'the outside world' holds no real attraction, and as such, they risk everything...to devote themselves to realizing their visions."
    I agree with you about Rice's Susan Hayward look on that TIME cover! I'd like to think Rice would appreciate that.devote themselves to realizing their visions."

    Yes, I've known many writers, including myself, whose "voices...something speak out to you more than the people outside your head." I'd like to think it's just the result of a vivid imagination, but hey, I think as long as we use our imaginations for good instead of self-destruction, all will continue to be right in the world, or at least our particular corners of it! :-) I've really enjoyed this discussion, Michael; we must talk writing more often, my friend!

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  4. Dorian, you have got me captivated by "Mr." Craig Rice. As we have talked about before I love comedic mysteries so this movie sounds like one for me to look out for. Her books sound intriguing. I love you background information you provide, excellent stuff. Carol Landis was gorgeous; I have to say, sad that she, and Rice, both died so young. Admittedly, I have only seen Landis in only two films, TOPPER RETURNS and I WAKE UP SCREAMING but she wonderful. You mention the late Ed McBain so I have to tell you that he is one of my favorite mystery writers, brilliant dialogue. I've read more than 30 of his books and still have many to go. He was so prolific. Wonderful post!!!

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    1. John, your enthusiasm for author Ed McBain is further proof that you're a gent of superb taste and breeding! Wish I had the time and talent to be such a prolific writer (but I'm working on it! :-)).

      Thanks for your enthusiastic praise for my HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME post and my bio about "Mr" Craig! :-) While I'm sorry that Carole Landis is no longer with us, at least there are many films to remember her by, especially her comedies; she was such a delightful comedienne! While I've seen a number of her films, I especially want to catch up with her Thorne Smith film adapations, TOPPER RETURNS and TURNABOUT. Glad you joined us for the HWC conversation!

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  5. I love classical books. Thanks for taking the time to review those books. I really enjoy true crime books. I am reading a wonderful book right now called, "Angels Gate" by authors Andrew J. Rafkin and Louis Pagano. This a true crime story based in Los Angeles in 1983 about the largest monetary drug heist in history. http://www.andrewrafkin.com/ I would love to hear what you think of it!

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    1. Thanks for the tip about ANGEL'S GATE, Robyn! Hope it's a big success!

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    3. You will LOVE it! I just finished it.

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  6. You can count me in your Army of Rice Revivalists. If only to get a decent copy of "Home, Sweet Homicide" out to the public. We Randolph Scott fans gotta have it.

    She also, I believe, ghosted a mystery for George Sanders where he was billed as author and featured as detective. Now, wouldn't that make for a swell picture?

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    1. Caftan Woman, I'm glad you enjoyed my HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME post; many thanks! Thinking of HOME, SWEET HOMICIDE, would you believe the first time I ever heard of Randolph Scott was in BLAZING SADDLES, back when it first hit the big screen? :-) My mom turned me onto Scott with RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. Like you, I'm also on the hunt for a decent copy of HOME, SWEET HOMICIDE. Randolph Scott and Craig Rice sound like a match made in movie heaven to me! Yoo-hoo, TCM, are you listening? :-)

      You're absolutely right that Craig Rice ghosted a comedy-mystery novel for George Sanders (a proud member of TotED's Suave Hall of Fame, you may recall :-))! It was the 1944 comedy-mystery CRIME ON MY HANDS, ghosted by Rice and Cleve Cartmill. I don't own it, alas, but if I recall correctly, this was Sanders' dedication: "To Craig Rice, without whom this book would not have been possible." Oh, that George! :-) I agree, my friend, that would have been a swell picture indeed!

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  7. Craig Rice sounds like a true inspiration for those of us who love writing screwball humor. Keep up the wonderful work Dorian and keep me educated on these amazing works of art.

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    1. Eve, I'm glad to hear you love screwball humor, too! I've always felt that the world needs more screwball noir stories and movies in this complicated old world. I'm always looking for a great comedy-thriller, whether it's in a book, film, or a TV series.

      In addition to the comedy-thrillers of our TotED subject Craig Rice, I also enjoy the work of Stuart Palmer, Richard Prather, and G.G. Fickling (the couple behind HONEY WEST; I love the 1960s TV series, too). The best TV screwball noir I've found and enjoyed in recent years is HBO's BORED TO DEATH as a great example of the kind of screwball comedy-mystery I like to read and write. Eve, let's keep each other posted and keep the screwball noir alive and well! :-)

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  8. nice idea.. thanks for sharing.

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  9. I'm familiar with this film, Dorian, but I haven't seen it in years. It's one of those movies that used to show up pretty regularly in the good old days of Million Dollar Movie and/or The Late Show or for that matter, the Early Show.

    I think it's about time for another re-watch, if I can find it. Thanks for another great post which, of course, made me smile.

    Poor Carole Landis and poor Craig Rice. I never could figure out why Landis' career began slipping or maybe it's just that I never noticed. But looking back, you have to wonder what it was about her that led to her own downfall. Of course multi-marriages and an affair with Rex Harrison didn't help.

    Admission: I've never read any Craig Rice. Now, after your review, I'm adding all her books (the ones that I can find, anyway) to my list. Now why doesn't that surprise me?

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    1. Yvette, thanks for your kind words! I was sure that a gal with your excellent taste in books and movies was bound to enjoy HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME, both the book and film versions. I assure you that taking the time to find Craig Rice's marvelous screwball noir novels is time well-spent!

      It's so sad that the talented, luminous Carole Landis' career and life was cut tragically short. What is it with people that makes them their own worst enemy? Heck, Vinnie and I were watching Landis and her friend and co-star Cesar Romero last night in the 1942 lovable-rogue comedy A GENTLEMAN AT HEART, and she and the whole cast were a delight. I'm telling you, Yvette, we need to figure out how to build a time machine and go back to help folks like Landis get their act together! :-)

      All wishful kidding aside, my friend, I hope you find and enjoy HWC and other works by Craig Rice and/or Carole Landis. In the meantime, I think I may have come across a download of HWC! Here's the link:

      http://ieorzlnk.multiply.com/journal/item/68/Full_Having_Wonderful_Crime_Film_High_Quality?&show_interstitial=1&u=%2Fjournal%2Fitem

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  10. Thanks for the intro to Craig Rice. I need to get caught up on these books!

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    1. Ruth, you're most welcome! With your own smart and sparkling sense of humor, I think you'll really enjoy Craig Rice's stories, be they novels or movie adaptations! :-)

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