Saturday, March 24, 2018

Tonight's Movie: Murder in the Big House (1942) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

It's hard to believe, but yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the Warner Archive. Readers can revisit my very first post describing the Archive, dated March 22, 2009.

Over the years the Warner Archive has brought us classics and rareties alike, and I especially appreciate the company's work making available lesser-known films. The recent release MURDER IN THE BIG HOUSE (1942) is a great illustration of the Warner Archive's value.

Those who have access to Turner Classic Movies can catch MURDER IN THE BIG HOUSE there on occasion, but this is the kind of film that would never make it to DVD without the Warner Archive. This Warner Bros. "B" film won't be found in many cinema history books, but it's fast-paced fun and lets viewers take a look at Van Johnson in his very first leading role, along with seeing an early role in the career of Faye Emerson. A couple of years later Emerson would also be known for marrying Elliott Roosevelt, son of the President.

The movie is shown under its reissue title, BORN FOR TROUBLE, with the original title noted later in the credits. Johnson plays Bert Bell, who's trying to get a job as a newspaper reporter when spunky Gladys Wayne (Faye Emerson) takes advantage of what might be called a "leadership vacuum" and hires Bert to cover a big story.

On a dark and stormy night Bert goes to the "big house" to witness an execution, but shortly after arriving, the reporters are told the man about to be executed (Michael Ames, also known as Tod Andrews) is already dead -- killed by a lightning strike!

Bert and seasoned reporter "Scoop" Conner (George Meeker) are suspicious and begin an investigation, which nearly gets them killed.

It's pretty obvious what the solution is from early on in the film, but this newspaper/prison film is a pleasant enough time-passer, clocking in at just 59 minutes.

Johnson had previously appeared in the chorus of TOO MANY GIRLS (1940) at RKO. MURDER IN THE BIG HOUSE was his lone film for Warner Bros.; they dropped him at the end of a six-month contract, but he landed on his feet at MGM, where he had a highly successful career. Here he's pleasant but not particularly noteworthy; he developed a more engaging screen persona thanks to his training at MGM. (Update: While this was Johnson's only film at WB in the early part of his career, a correspondent points out that he starred in the 1956 film MIRACLE IN THE RAIN for the studio.)

The striking Emerson had been in a number of films over the course of 1941-'42, ranging from bit parts to the lead of another "B" film, LADY GANGSTER (1942). She's saddled with a rather severe hairstyle in the film's early scenes, but she's personable and fun to watch.

The supporting cast includes Frank Wilcox, Roland Drew, Joseph Crehan, William Gould, Ruth Ford, and Patrick McVey. IMDb lists William Hopper (PERRY MASON) as a reporter but I didn't spot him.

MURDER IN THE BIG HOUSE was directed by "B movie specialist B. Reeves Eason. It was filmed in black and white by Ted D. McCord.

The DVD is a good print with strong sound. There are no extras.

Another reason to love the Warner Archive: MURDER IN THE BIG HOUSE is one of three Faye Emerson films just released to DVD, along with HOTEL BERLIN (1945) and DANGER SIGNAL (1945). I first reviewed DANGER SIGNAL after seeing it on Turner Classic Movies back in 2011, and I'll soon be taking a fresh look at it via the Warner Archive DVD. I hope to eventually also review HOTEL BERLIN.

Thanks and happy birthday to the Warner Archive!

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Bill O said...

Orson Welles said he got Johnson his screen test - impressed with him on Broadway. Obviously not a Warners guy.

1:39 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Johnson sure landed on his feet at MGM! It's fun to watch him there in the Dr. Gillespie movies and a variety of smaller roles, then moving into his own starring in movies like TWO GIRLS AND A SAILOR (1944).

Best wishes,

12:30 AM  

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