When wealthy and unscrupulous Henry Calvert (Davison Clark) dies in a car crash, his greedy relatives assemble to collect his fortune, but find it has apparently been mislaid. State Police detective Bob Stewart (Robert Kent), believing Calvert was murdered, investigates the “baffling case crowded with intrigue” (to quote Knox Manning’s opening narration), despite the uncooperativeness of all the parties involved. These secretive potential culprits include Calvert’s overbearing sister Mrs. Caldwell (Belle Mitchell), Calvert’s shifty nephew Curt Bennett (Bruce Donovan), Curt’s wife Rita (Jayne Hazard), slick lawyer Horace Black (Sam Flint), eccentric housekeeper Mrs. Dill (Minerva Urecal), sinister butler Patton (Charles Middleton), and mystery woman Ruth Allen (Amelita Ward)–allegedly the daughter of a late partner of Calvert’s. Calvert’s twin brother Walter (Davison Clark again), missing since Calvert’s death, is also a prime suspect; could he be the mysterious figure who keeps ordering Patton the butler to perform sinister deeds? Despite the obscurantism practiced by the suspects, and the bumbling of his reporter “friend” Duke Ellis (Tim Ryan), Bob Stewart doggedly tries to determine Who’s Guilty.
Above: The suspects as featured in the overview at the beginning of each chapter: left to right (top row) are Minerva Urecal, Charles Middleton, and Sam Flint. Left to right (bottom row), we have Amelita Ward, Bruce Donovan, Jayne Hazard, and Belle Mitchell.
Who’s Guilty sounds like great fun in theory, with its use of stock characters and plot devices often seen in whodunit features but seldom featured in serials. Unfortunately, the serial is so leadenly paced, shoddily produced, and poorly written that it effectively kills any enjoyment a viewer might have garnered from its unusual “Old Dark House” ambience. Most of the blame should lie with the serial’s producer Sam Katzman, who never cared about making good serials as long as he could successfully market bad ones. Katzman quite obviously designed Who’s Guilty to be pre-sold on the novelty value of its whodunit gimmick, and it’s also quite apparent that no one involved in the serial’s production was willing (or able) to add anything of interest to the serial once the basic premise had been determined.
Writers George Plympton and Ande Lamb include precious little mystery in their script; the serial’s storyline might have been interesting enough in an hour-long B-film, but it’s miserably unable to sustain interest when stretched out to a five-hour running time. Its inevitable solution becomes painfully obvious in the first chapter to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the clichés of the mystery genre. To make matters worse, the killer’s motives are never really explained, and the motivations of the characters who withold information from the hero are flimsy at best.
The weakness of its mystery elements isn’t the thing that sinks Who’s Guilty, however–many Mascot serials managed to be entertaining with even weaker plotlines; the real damage is done by the serial’s tedious pacing. Characters waste far too much time in conversations and arguments that lead nowhere; the dialogue is so poorly written that it’s not even interesting, unlike similarly talky sequences in Universal’s serials from the same era.
Fight scenes are not only extremely scarce, but brief and perfunctory when they do come; one fight in a crowded warehouse full of barrels and crates is so listlessly staged that only three of the numerous barrels even tumble over. The notoriously cheap Katzman obviously didn’t want to incur any extra costs by accidentally breaking a prop. The outdoor chase in Chapter Four is a little more exciting, with Robert Kent chasing some crooks into the hills after a shootout at a Mexican shack; there’s nothing particularly riveting in the scene’s staging, but it’s so energetic by comparison with the rest of the serial that it feels like a breath of fresh air. The somewhat tense rescue of a hostage at another shack (actually, the same shack, but playing a different role) in Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen is also more interesting than most of the serial’s other action scenes, though marred by an extremely weak cliffhanger sequence (obnoxious sidekick Tim Ryan stumbles into a room full of steam pipes; not only do we want to see the character destroyed by that point, but it’s also hard to believe he’s in actual danger).
The serial’s other cliffhanger sequences are not much better than the steam-pipe one; most of them are not only unspectacular (the hero is shot by a desk gun, the heroine is grabbed from behind by the villainous butler) but also suffer badly from a complete lack of suspenseful buildup. The worst offender is the chapter ending that has a bound Tim Ryan and Amelita Ward dropped into an apparently boiling lake by a platform that’s released when a suspension rope is burned through; not only is the sequence haphazardly set up and sloppily staged, but its resolution is absolutely ridiculous: the pair walk out of the lake almost immediately because, it seems, the water was cold instead of hot and instantly loosened their bonds.
The serial’s mansion sets, including a mammoth front porch seen in many of Columbia’s features, are impressive, but they quickly wear out their welcome when it becomes obvious that most of the action will be confined to these indoor locations. The writers do throw in a few outdoor sequences, principally in the good guys’ extended trip to Mexico in the earlier chapters, but while these scenes provide a temporary relief from the visual tedium of the mansion sequences, they are so carelessly linked to the main “plot” that their function as padding is made blatant.
The serial’s cast is a very mixed bag; some of the players manage to bring energy to their poorly-defined roles, while some make no effort to perform at all and others actively damage the serial. Robert Kent is quite good in the lead, giving an unusually tough and hard-boiled air to his character while still remaining likable; it’s easy to sympathize with his gruffness, since we in the audience share his frustration with the serial’s roundabout plot.
Amelita Ward, on the other hand, is one of the most unsympathetic heroines in any serial. Much of this is the fault of the script, which keeps her motivations in the dark until the final scene and has her character not only keep refusing to assist the hero’s investigations, but also keeps her snapping at him angrily even after he’s saved her life multiple times. She certainly doesn’t make any effort to take the edge off this scripted nastiness, however; she goes through the serial with an almost perpetual scowl.
Tim Ryan is even more irritating as the serial’s alleged comic relief, however (the scenes in which his character and Ward’s team up and become the focus of the action are almost unbearable). Ryan’s cocky swagger, clumsy pratfalls, and dialogue delivery (alternately smirking and blustering) have us longing for his character to be murdered by the third chapter. His performance is even more annoying than the “comic” turns by the likes of Lee Ford (SOS Coast Guard) and Sonny Ray (Perils of Pauline); Ryan’s character seems much more intelligent than these earlier serial buffoons, and his antics thus come off as deliberately offensive rather than merely mindlessly stupid.
Charles Middleton has relatively little to do as the sinister butler Patton, but his performance is one of the brighter spots in the serial; whether he’s ominously sharpening knives or hypocritically affecting a respectful “servant” pose, he gives his hoary melodrama character (the butler who did it) the right combination of menace and subtle humor.
Veteran character actress Minerva Urecal is also entertaining as the daffy housekeeper Mrs. Dill, who’s convinced she’s in contact with the spirit world; though she has even less screen time than Middleton does, she makes the most of it, dropping the no-nonsense grumpiness she used in most of her other roles in favor of a ghostly manner that seems to be a deliberate imitation of Gale Sondergaard’s many “creepy housekeeper” characterizations in various Old Dark House movies.
Sam Flint, as the shady lawyer Horace Black, seems to be delighted with the opportunity to cast off his usual upright serial persona; his slick, unctuous delivery and his sly facial expressions are very enjoyable. Belle Mitchell is similarly lively as grande dame Mrs. Caldwell, but is saddled with some embarrassing dialogue apparently intended as double entendres; she also overdoes her character’s “high society” accent to a comical extent.
Bruce Donovan as Curt Bennett is bland and underenergized, and often seems to be sleepwalking through his part. Jayne Hazard as his wife is only a little more energetic, but her pulchritude is so strong that she’s a lot easier to watch than her screen husband. Wheeler Oakman pops up in the middle chapters as a gangster debtor of Donovan’s named Smiley; his swaggering manner peps up a few scenes, but he’s killed off much too soon. Richard Cramer, Oakman’s fellow 1930s badman, plays a heavy during the Mexican sequence, and, like Oakman, enlivens the proceedings a little before dropping out.
Robert Tafur plays a Mexican police officer who aids Robert Kent during the latter’s detour to Mexico, and is the recipient of ludicrously fawning Good-Neighbor-Policy-inspired praise from both the hero and narrator Knox Manning (who pointedly reminds us that Kent is receiving “the efficient aid of the Mexican police”). Nacho Galindo is one of Tafur’s men, while Eddie Parker (who also doubles Kent in occasional action scenes) is a thug working with Richard Cramer.
I couldn’t identify the stocky actor playing Burk, the crooked mine foreman in the Mexican scenes–but he’s definitely not Charles King, despite a credit to this effect on the Internet Movie Database and in Les Adam’s index of King’s roles on the Old Corral. “Burk’s” cohorts are also unfamiliar to me–I’d guess them to be players who worked with Katzman in the features he produced at Monogram before taking on serial-making duties at Columbia. If anyone can identify Burk and friends (or the attractive but amateurish actress who plays Richard Cramer’s female accomplice) in the comments section, I’d be grateful.
Terry Frost plays a crook named Edwards who enters the serial towards the end, and John Merton has a brief bit as a policeman. Jack Ingram has a much more extended part as Kent’s police-sergeant aide, while Milt Kibbee plays a Calvert relation killed off in the first chapter. Davison Clark is on the periphery for most of the serial, but is colorfully cranky in his dual role as the Calvert brothers.
Directors Howard Bretherton and Wallace Grissell handle their material with a decided lack of energy; both men turned in good work under other producers (particularly Bretherton’s Hopalong Cassidy films for Harry Sherman and Grissell’s collaborations with Spencer Bennet over at Republic), which once again directs the finger of criticism back at Sam Katzman. Who’s Guilty, like Son of the Guardsman and several other Katzman serials from the mid-1940s, ranks as one of the worst chapterplays released by a major studio. I watched the thing from completist motives, but no reward short of the entire Calvert fortune could induce me to sit through it again (and even then I wouldn’t do it if Katzman was presenting the reward; I’d expect it to be in counterfeit money).