The Hidden Hand (1941)
National) 67mins. BW. US.
Credits: Dir: Ben Stoloff; Prod: William Jacobs; Sc: Anthony Coldeway & Raymond
Schrock; Ph: Henry Sharp; Ed: Harold McLernon; Art: Stanley Fleischer; Sets: George James
Hopkins; Mu: Perc Westmore. From a play by Rufus King.
Cast: Craig Stevens, Elizabeth Fraser, Julie Bishop, Willie Best, Frank Wilcox, Cecil Cunningham,
Ruth Ford, Milton Parsons.
The spooky old house thrillers that delighted a multitude of cinemagoers in the Twenties,
still seemed to be flourishing during the early Forties and beyond. Even the major studios
believed that there could be life left in this old chestnut that lent itself nicely to a
blend of the horror and comedy genres.
The word was out when Paramount scored two successes with The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The
Ghostbreakers (1940), both vehicles for Bob Hope's undeniable comic talent. Other
studios soon followed suit, but among the releases some poor parodies emerged such as
RKO's abysmal You'll Find Out (1940) starring
Kay Kyser and his band, that wastes the talent of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi
and Peter Lorre.
THE HIDDEN HAND is one of
the better mysteries, and maintains its horror elements while providing some effective
comedy routines. Many reviewers tend not to place this any higher than the average
programmer, but the menacing first title card of a clawed hand's shadow reaching towards a
door promises so much more.
During a thunderstorm, John Channing, (Milton Parsons), a dark-eyed maniac, escapes
from an asylum after a ten year incarceration and makes his way under the cover of
darkness to the Channing estate. There he meets his sister Larinda Channing
who was responsible for his escape so that he can help her in a plan to test the greed of
her money-grubbing relatives who she has invited to the mansion for the weekend. With obvious glee John poses as Martin the butler when the relatives are
told that Larinda has died and that her secretary Mary Wingfield is the sole heir to the
estate. With his eyes rolling, the butler exclaims "I do like sharp edges,
there's nothing more fascinating than a scalpel. It cuts...so quickly, so silently, so
deeply...which reminds me. I'm going to be a surgeon..."
Also resident is Eustice, a manservant who is easily spooked, played by the
marvellous Willie Best who appears in many films as a similar character. Dr. Lawrence is summoned by Larinda to place her in a state of suspended
animation for the sake of the pretence and claim that she had a heart attack. "You
know, it gives me a thrill, to know I'm going to die tonight!"
Upon learning that there is a fortune in treasure hidden somewhere in the house,
the relatives begin to become rather shifty. Someone poisons the Channing's pet raven
appropriately named Mr. Poe, and a nurse is killed.
John is obviously having a whale of a time posing as the butler and takes full advantage
of the ensuing chaos to appear from secret panels, peer through the eyes of a family
portrait, pose as a corpse and skulk about in a cape.
Larinda later wakes from her induced sleep just in time to rescue Mary from falling
through a hidden trap door to her death. Eventually Horace Channing is revealed to be the
murderous culprit and the police arrive to cart him away and return John
Channing back to the asylum. As John goes he remarks "Do come up and see me
sometime. Visiting day is Thursday and we always serve tea or scotch and spiders if you
Ben Stoloff routinely directs, but his work
is overshadowed by Henry Sharp's (1891-1966) photography having already had some
impressive credits to his name including Douglas Fairbanks' THE BLACK PIRATE
(1925), THE CROWD (1928) and the Marx Brothers classic DUCK SOUP
Although the majority of the cast are good, Milton Parsons stands out amongst them all in
a role that doesn't require any restraint, and as John Channing, Parsons is obviously more
than happy to comply.
Whether Warner Brothers noticed it or not, THE
HIDDEN HAND is quite a stylish entry to the Old-Dark-House theme. Compared to the
other spoofs of this sub-genre, this film holds its own against the best of them.
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