Friday, September 15, 2017

REMAKE AVENUE: From Headquarters (1933) and When Were You Born (1938)

Another amble down the twisty byways that lead to those movies you watch and say to yourself, "Haven't I seen this before?"

You say you like your fast-paced Warner Brothers programmers particularly fast-paced? You have come to the right place, the municipal building of a city that hosts, among other things, its police headquarters, a jail, a records facility with IBM technology, a press room, and a forensics lab. Everything that happens in the next 64 minutes occurs within its environs.

Director William Dieterle, whose classics include The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Portrait of Jennie, shows a masterful hand with with the cut and the swipe in moving us through the action. Howard Hawks himself would sit back and applaud the off-hand delivery of the dialogue.

Robert N. Lee, Oscar nominated for Little Caesar, came up with the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Milne, who gave us The Kennel Murder Case. We are introduced to headquarters through the round-up of undesirables and the routine they go through at booking. The crowded hall shows workers coming in for the day including Lt. Stevens played by George Brent and Sgt. Boggs played by Eugene Pallette. Apparently Inspector Donnelly played by Henry O'Neill sleeps in his office. Edward Ellis as Dr. Vanderwater, the top lab man is a hoot in his glee at each conflicting clue.

The whole crew is on the job.

Gordon Bates is the name of our murder victim played by Kenneth Thomson in flashback, a known playboy and a suspected blackmailer. Suspects include Bates' fiancee, a showgirl called Lou Wynton played by Margaret Lindsay, her brother Jack played by Theodore Newton, the butler Horton played by Murray Kinnell, and Bates business associate, a Mr. Anderzian played by a heavily accented Robert Barrat. Hobart Cavanagh as a hapless safecracker called Muggs Manton roams the halls, as does an annoying bail bondsman Manny Wales played by Hugh Herbert. Ken Murray as a pushy newshound called Mac shoves the cops  and the copy around.

Orders are barked into phones, punch cards relay data, officers rush in and out with information and physical evidence. Dr. Vanderwater rushes ballistic tests and autopsies, and fingerprints are covertly gathered. Our pretty showgirl is grilled by Sgt. Boggs who bets his badge on every hunch. She's a former girlfriend of Lt. Stevens, so he's more gentle with his questioning. Evidence of Bates blackmailing schemes are discovered. Compounded with his collection of antique firearms and his drug habit, the suspect net widens. Why won't Sgt. Boggs listen to what Muggs has to say? There's another murder and a lockdown. Just when you think everything is wrapped up - aha! From Headquarters is a dandy use of an hour.

When Were You Born is credited as an original story by Manly P. Hall, an Ontario born astrologer and mystic who introduces the film onscreen. The screenplay is by Anthony Coldeway who wrote dozens of B westerns and mysteries. The movie was directed by cinematographer and Oscar nominated effects director William C. McGann. You may have seen some of his films like Penrod and Sam, The Case of the Black Cat and The Parson of Panamint.

The mystery plot of When Were You Born with the victim a wealthy, drug-addicted, blackmailing playboy, and the myriad suspects including the women in his life, his business associate, butler, etc., basically follows the template of From Headquarters. Where the two films differ gives When Were You Born its cache.

The introduction by Manly Hall takes us through the different signs of the Zodiac and our characters are identified by their birthdates. The story is opened up to introduce us to our victim and suspects on board a luxury liner about to reach San Francisco. Anna May Wong plays Mei Lei Ming, a popular passenger who amuses many with her predictions based on their horoscopes.

Margaret Lindsay has deja vu.

James Stephenson is our disagreeable about-to-be victim, and he is quite put out when Mei Lei warns him of impending danger. Margaret Lindsay repeats her role of a reluctant fiancee from the earlier film and Lola Lane is a rejected girlfriend. Eric Stanley plays the loyal valet and Leonard Mudie a nervous business associate. Jeffrey Lynn plays a reporter, who is moved into the romantic lead position, and hefty Charles Wilson plays the chief inspector. Maurice Cass is our excitable wizard of the lab and Olin Howland the johnny-on-the-spot bail bondsman.

Suspects are called into headquarters, including Mei Lei Ling. She cleverly uses her knowledge of astrology to become an unofficial member of the investigative team. Her strange abilities and coolness under stress leads to the solution of the case. This version of the story is opened up to include street chases and mysterious tunnels. Despite these brackets to the murder story, the run time of both From Headquarters and When Were You Born differs by only one minute. Those studio folks certainly knew how to get a story across without numbing your backside!

Anna May Wong on the case!

Anna May Wong began her film career as a teenager in the silent era. She made her mark in classics like The Toll of the Sea, The Thief of Bagdad, Peter Pan, Old San Francisco, Piccadilly and Shanghai Express. The ground-breaking actress deserved more from her career than the odd character role as in Impact or on television in The Barbara Stanwyck Show. Where, oh where was the foresighted producer to suggest a series based on Mei Lei Ling and starring Anna May Wong?


  1. Great write up. Two interesting films. I love Anna May Wong, its too bad she didn't get some better roles. Should have played the lead in the "Good Earth".

    BTW, for years 2 of my subordinates were named Wong and finally, finally, after years of waiting, HR sent me someone named Wright. You can guess the rest.

    1. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. HR had a slow sense of humour.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. It was fun comparing the two films. You are so right about Anna May. She was perfect for The Good Earth. Truly, a missed opportunity.

  2. I am completely unfamiliar with both of these, but I always enjoy Eugene Pallette in anything.

    1. An understandable reaction to Mr. Pallette. He played the bombastic sergeant in From Headquarters the same year he first played the bombastic sergeant in The Kennel Murder Case. He'd play him again in The Dragon Murder Case. He played the heck out of act first, think later guys.

  3. I haven't seen either of these movies, so I especially enjoyed your comparisons. The Philo Vance connections are interesting and here's another one: James Stephenson played Vance in CALLING PHILO VANCE, which is a loose remake of THE KENNEL MURDER CASE.

    1. I think the western movie universe is a small one, but the mystery world is equally closed, isn't it?

      I enjoy what I have seen of James Stephenson. It is a shame, for many reasons, that he died so young.

      TCM has shown both of these movies in the past, experience teaches us that they will pop up again some time. I hope at convenient times for you.

  4. it is so rare to see remakes getting pulled of real good. i think its true what they say that old is gold. it breaks my heart to see shitty remakes but some do quite a good job. well lets see how this goes

    1. Some people know a good story when they see it. Others only spin it way off base.



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