The Hidden Hand (1942)

hiddenh2 

Director: Benjamin Stoloff

The Mad Channing family spends a few dark and stormy nights trying to kill each other to get to an inheritance in this madcap comedy thriller. On the night that dignified criminal maniac John Channing (Milton Parsons) escapes from the asylum, a Sheriff and detective unwittingly give him a convenient ride off of the asylum grounds when he sneaks into the car’s rumble seat. In a brief episode of exposition theater, we get a concise summary of Channing’s crimes as the lawmen drive directly to the place John needs to go: back to the Channing home. There, they inform his sister Lorinda (Cecil Cunningham) of John’s escape, but she isn’t the least bit worried since she’s the one who helped break him out. Thanking the police for their kind warning, she sends all the servants away on vacation and warmly welcomes her brother John.

These siblings are equally looney and deadly, cackling over stories of their previous victims and getting excited about “all the fun they will have” this time. Lorinda needs John’s help to put her greedy heirs to a big test over her inheritance. John will pretend to be the new butler and Lorinda will fake her death with all the family and some outsider rivals present, rile them all up with murders, a mockery of a will (a dollar to some and a framed photo for others) and set them on a treasure hunt that leads to more death traps than piles of loot. They invite nephews Walter (Roland Drew) and Horace (Tom Stevenson), their wives Rita (Julie Bishop) and Estelle (Ruth Ford), Lorinda’s beloved secretary and the heir she’s chosen, Mary Winfield (Elisabeth Fraser), and her boyfriend, attorney Peter (Craig Stevens). Also present are nephew Dr. Lawrence (Frank Wilcox) who’ll get a handsome payoff for administering Lorinda’s death simulation drug and reviving antidote, his nurse (Marian Hall), a Japanese cook (Kam Tong) and houseboy/chauffeur Eustis (Willie Best).

hiddenh1

From the first giant clay flowerpot that “falls” from the second floor and almost claims two victims, the guests smirk at each other knowingly about their creativity and murderous intentions, but they’re patzers compared to the crazy Channing siblings. Any grins still visible at Lorinda’s funeral get wiped away when murders rack up and bodies vanish into the mansions’ countless hidden passageways and trapdoors. Other than the angelic Mary and Peter, nobody is to be trusted with the poisoned fruit, electrified furniture or sedatives in drinks. Paintings have moving eyeballs, and everybody’s peeping, sneaking, spying and sometimes strangling. Even the good doctor goes back on his pledge to inject Aunty Lorinda’s antidote at a precise time, unaware that the antidote was stolen before he decided not to give it, which sets up some nice twists. 

hiddenh3

Lorinda’s will, recorded on a record album, gives her another opportunity to gloat and insult her nasty family, and one “clue” is a phoney document revealing the combination turns of a wall clock that everyone assumes will open a safe or vault. Little do they suspect that it actually drops them into a raging river far below (a startling scene each time).

There’s a raven named Mr. Poe, a handy mausoleum in the backyard where John sleeps in a coffin, and hands reach out from behind hinged picture frames to steal sandwiches. Weirdness like this is accompanied by Looney Tunes-style twangy music, and mostly witnessed by poor Eustis, who comically overreacts, shudders violently, flees in terror, and can’t get anyone to believe him because it all disappears by the time he summons help. Of course the police are dumb as rocks until the solution is served to them on a platter, but some of these stereotypes are to be expected in this era’s silly Bs. It’s still fast, catty fun that zips through several reversals, frame ups and deaths, is played out by a diverse cast of zany and ruthless characters and neatly tied up with both fortune and criminals falling into the right hands.

This movie is available from Warner Archive in this WB Horror/Mystery Double Feature set.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “The Hidden Hand (1942)”

  1. Willie Best is one of those African American actors who really challenges us to think about stereotypes in old movies. As much as I shudder at some of his roles, I often find him to be the best actor (and certainly the best comedian) in some of the programmers he appeared in. Probably his best-known gig was as Bob Hope’s manservant in “The Ghost Breakers.”

    1. Very true, it was a special talent to do an interesting, memorable, scene stealing variation on stereotypical roles–reminds me of Theresa Harris, always bringing something unique to her tiniest bit as a servant, etc. Good comedy for him here, rattled by the disappearing sandwiches and bodies, and he gets the final gag/scene of the picture.

    1. Yes the will, the fortune and the greed make for some fireworks. And people faking their deaths to see reactions is always good.

  2. I saw this film (I think it was on YouTube) a while back and really liked it. I love those light engaging B-film mysteries and thrillers that they did in the 1930s and 1940s (which many, thankfully, are on YouTube) and this one was even more interesting because of the crazy brother and sister team. It was more in the line of the early screwball comedies really.

    Tam

    1. That’s true, that really added interest,to have them both be nutty, and yet, almost better than the rest of their greedy family, or at least honest about their intentions! Thanks!

Comments are closed.