Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Mandarin Mystery (1936)

The Mandarin Mystery is a 1936 murder mystery made by Republic Pictures and based on  the Ellery Queen detective novel The Chinese Orange Mystery

The screenplay is a very loose adaptation indeed of the novel. In fact, sadly, it has almost nothing to do with the novel.

A young woman named Josephine Temple arrives in New York with a stamp which she hopes to sell to noted philatelist Dr Kirk. The stamp, the famed Chinese Mandarin, just happens to be the most valuable stamp in the world, so valuable that the sale will set up Miss Temple and her parents for the rest of their lives.

Of course the stamp gets stolen, and by a stroke of good fortune crime novelist and amateur detective Ellery Queen is already on the scene. In fact he’s at the hotel and already has his eye on Miss Temple, for romantic rather than detectival reasons. Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen of the New York Police Department, is soon on hand as well.

The stamp gets stolen a few more times and there are a couple of murders. The first corpse is found with his coat on back-to-front, just like the fellow on the famous stamp (the explanation of the back-to-front clothing on the figure on the stamp is one of the more unconvincing elements in the screenplay).

The stamp is the key to the mystery, but the stamp is the only one of its kind in existence so it would be very difficult to sell. Why would anyone steal it? The explanation of this is another rather unconvincing element.

The novel has a wildly original and brilliantly conceived plot. So if you’re going to make a film from such a story what’s the first thing you do? Why of course you eliminate everything that is original and brilliant and substitute a predictable piece of third-rate hack work. That’s exactly the course that was followed in this case. Even worse, they kept a few of the clever ideas but changed them around so they were no longer clever and no longer made any sense.

Why does Hollywood so often insist on taking a perfectly good story and ruining it? Perhaps the theory is that if the source material was a very popular novel (as it was in this case) then many members of the audience would already have read the book and would therefore know the solution. So changing the plot out of all recognition would avoid this danger. On the other hand the audience for books has always been pretty small compared to the audience for movies so I don’t see such a strategy would be necessary.

I’m inclined to think it’s just the way Hollywood works. Too many people taking a hand in things and they all want to justify their involvement and the best way to do that is to change something even if it doesn’t need changing. There were four writers involved in this movie and that’s always an ominous sign.

Director Ralph Staub spent most of his career making shorts with only a handful of features in his résumé. Judging by this effort he should have stuck to shorts.

The movie is played for comedy and romance rather than being a serious murder mystery movie. Eddie Quillan plays Ellery Queen as an irritating loud-mouthed comic character rather than the slightly foppish upper-class aesthete that he is in the early Ellery Queen books. I guess it was figured that brash motor-mouths were more popular with the movie-going public.

Wade Boteler is OK as Ellery’s father, Inspector Richard Queen, although he’s a bit too big and beefy and obviously cop-like for my tastes (the character in the novels isn’t quite a stereotypical New York homicide cop). Franklin Pangborn contributes a typical Franklin Pangborn performance as the rather effete hotel manager. The other cast members are instantly forgettable.

The film is in the public domain and my copy comes from one of the Mill Creek 50-movie public domain sets (the Dark Crimes set which is actually quite worthwhile if you can find it for a good price). The image quality is poor and washed out and the sound quality is very iffy, but on the other hand at the price I paid for the set it worked out at about 26 cents a movie so I can’t complain. And it is watchable. It’s also been issued by Alpha Video but I suspect their release is every bit as bad - if you were contemplating paying $6 for the Alpha Video DVD you’d be better off paying $13 for the Mill Creek set and that way you get 49 other movies as well!

This is one of those movies that is much easier to enjoy if you haven’t read the book. If you fall into that category you’ll find this is just a stodgy uninspired second-rate B-feature. If you’ve read the book then the movie is an abomination. The Mandarin Mystery is not really particularly worth bothering with. The Mill Creek Dark Crimes DVD set is worth getting though - at 26 cents a movie it’s hard to beat for value if you don’t mind the fact that these are public domain films and the transfers are pretty rough. Actually 26 cents is about what The Mandarin Mystery is worth.

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