Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

June 18, 2020

Grief Street (1931)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 7:39 pm
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GRIEF STREET (Chesterfield Pictures, 1931)

directed by Richard Thorpe (a regular at Chesterfield in the early 30’s, Thorpe directed 187 films between 1923 and 1967, including the Elvis films JAILHOUSE ROCK and FUN IN ACUPULCO)

Chesterfield Pictures released 120 films between 1925 and 1936. They started out in the mid-20’s with low-budget westerns, some directed by Horace Carpenter, best known today for his acting turn as the mad doctor in Dwain Esper’s MANIAC (1934). By the late silent and early sound days, Chesterfield had a distinctive house-style, specializing in murder mysteries, often of a “drawing-room” nature. The early sound features were often made on existing sets on the Universal lot, which gave the films an elegant look, certainly by B-programmer standards, and the films were also well-cast, full of talent from the silent era, who retained name appeal and facial recognition. Contrary to the stereotype of silent actors not adapting to sound (though there are certainly examples of that), the majority made the transition, although major players in the silent era sometimes became supporting players in sound….or even uncredited day players by the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Many of them did bring a kind of old-fashioned stage-y acting style to sound films (think of leading men turned supporting players such as Robert Frazer), but that suggested old-school elegance to early 30’s Depression-era audiences and was appreciated, at least according to my parents, who were teenagers at the time and told me about that perception, and according to write-ups in the trade magazines of the day. If Chesterfield was going for an “elegant” moderately budgeted product, then shooting on Universal soundstages and using old-school silent-era actors helped achieve that feel.

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All of the principals in GRIEF STREET have excellent credentials…. the murder victim, a conceited ham actor, is played by Crauford Kent, who was Silas Marner in the 1920’s adaptation of the George Eliot classic, and also appeared in the same role in both the silent and sound versions of George M. Cohan’s SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE… the leading lady, who is a kind of mysterious character, an former understudy, is played by Barbara Kent, star of the 1928 expressionist masterpiece, Paul Fejos’s LONESOME, who retired from the screen not long after this feature…. the leading man, John Holland, who plays an investigative reporter who helps solve the murder case, had co-starred the year before with Lupe Velez in HELL HARBOR…. the unhappy wife of the murder victim is played by Lillian Rich, born in England, who’d starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s THE GOLDEN BED in 1925 and had many featured roles throughout the 20’s, but by 1932 was leading lady in a Bob Custer indie western….Lafe McKee, a face and voice instantly recognized by western fans, had 450 acting credits going back to 1912, and here he plays the one-time actor, down on his luck, who has stayed with the theater life as a kind of building supervisor for this house who pretty much does every unglamorous job that’s needed, along with delivering some crusty and weather-beaten soliloquies about the nature of life. Then there are the players who would go on to greater things…. the murdered actor’s unhappy wife is played by Dorothy Christy, later known to millions as Leon Errol’s wife in many of Errol’s RKO comedy short….and as a stuttering fellow reporter at the newspaper, the young Walter Brennan, future three-time Academy Award winner and a man whose acting style (not too much in evidence here, with the stuttering routine imposed upon him) and speech patterns are a genre unto himself.

As someone who is a regular watcher and reader of murder mysteries, I must give this one credit for being well-constructed, with every piece of evidence right there in front of the viewer. In fact, it’s a LOCKED ROOM mystery, and those are always hard to pull off successfully. After the final scene of his present play (which we see performed onstage at the film’s start), the lead actor goes to his dressing room after the show. The entire time his dressing room door is within view of McKee, the house manager who is at his desk, and then fifteen minutes later he is dead, with the cord of his dressing gown around his neck. There are no other entrances or exits to the dressing room—-the door was never out of McKee’s sight. How could that happen? Well, there are no cheats here, no last minute revelations the viewer could never had anticipated, the way there are in some lesser B-murder mysteries (some of the lesser Monogram Charlie Chans, for instance). As with a magic trick, you see everything that’s relevant—-it’s just the magician’s sleight-of-hand that has you perceive what you see in such a way that parts of what you see don’t register as being significant.

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With the old-school formal acting style of the leads, with the limited number of sets, and with the dialogue-heavy, early-sound script, GRIEF STREET plays a lot like a stage drama.

With the Covid lockdown, Mary Anne and I have been watching a number of  “staged readings” of plays online, via Zoom, so perhaps we are getting used to this kind of mannered, stage-bound presentation, but GRIEF STREET is a great way to spend 63 minutes for the murder mystery fan.

Actually, virtually any of the early to mid 30’s Chesterfields I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few dozen) are worth watching. Some are better than others, but they rarely disappoint….unless you judge them by 2020 standards. In the 1933-35 period, a number of them starred upcoming actor CHARLES STARRETT, before his western stardom at Columbia Pictures. A Dartmouth football star before going onto the stage, the lanky Starrett often played a kind of Ivy League type in these films, quite a bit different from his 131 western feature films, many in his “Durango Kid” persona.

The Chesterfield films are in the Public Domain, and many are on You Tube. Sinister Cinema also offers at least SIX multi-film sets of Chesterfield productions in very good transfers. However, there’s no need to delay. GRIEF STREET is waiting below for you…

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Watch the 1931 Chesterfield film GRIEF STREET (63 minutes):


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