Sunday, June 25, 2023

From Stage to Page: Milton Herbert Gropper's and Edna Sherry's Inspector Kennedy/Homicide and Is No One Innocent? (with a tease on Edna Sherry's Sudden Fear)

The Bijou Theater, where Inspector Kennedy played, 
adjacent to the Morosco, where the Bat started it all

In December 1929, Inspector Kennedy, a mystery play co-scripted by Milton Herbert Gropper and Edna Sherry, premiered at New York's Bijou Theatre.  The decade of the Twenties had commenced with a roar on  Broadway with the staging of the hugely popular mystery thriller The Bat, adapted by Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart from Rinehart's 1908 landmark mystery novel The Circular Staircase.  Although no Mousetrap (though it shares many points of similarity with Agatha Christie's mighty hit), The Bat was hugely influential in American theater, launching the so-called "old dark house" sub-genre of neo-Gothic mystery in stage and film.  

The Bat, which ran for two years and 867 performances, inspired many a playwright to take a stab at a crime thriller, particularly of the old dark house type like The Bat, loaded with clutching hands, sliding panels, masked murdering fiends and terrified, wilting, imperiled heroines.  Just from 1922 there came The Cat and the Canary (the best known of these plays after The Bat), Whispering Wires, The Monster and The Last Warning, none of which, it must be allowed, enjoyed the success of The Bat, though they performed decently to quite well, Cat and Canary leading the way (101 to 349 performances).  

Soon the old dark house thriller and its cinematic incarnations (all of these plays were adapted as films in the Twenties and Thirties) became utterly clichéd in the eyes of the critics (and audiences too, at least in New York), who resultantly became jaded rather than thrilled with the shocks they had to offer.  Later plays like The Gorilla (1925) and Sh! The Octopus (1928) bombed on Broadway, The Gorilla managing to stay open for just 15 performances and Sh! The Octopus for 47.  

There were as well numerous mysteries staged in the 1920s that dispensed with the gothic trappings of The Bat and its fearsome progeny in presenting less spooky murders, more akin to those found in classic detective novels of the 1920s.  (In England thriller writer Edgar Wallace made a cottage industry out of both types of crime plays, with The Terror, 1927, being his most notable contribution to the old dark house mystery.)  Milton Gropper's and Enda Sherry's Inspector Kennedy is one of these.  Though it takes place entirely within the walls of a wealthy New Yorker's brownstone house and the lights do go out a couple of times, its thrills are not really of the Gothic order, but rather the modern Twenties murder mystery (including a couple of locked room situations).

In 1929, when Inspector Kennedy premiered on Broadway at the Bijou Theater, Edna Sherry was a comparative neophyte in the world of stage.  Six years earlier in 1923 when she sold the stage rights to her play Guilty? to theater impresario Albert Herman Woods (formerly Aladore Herman), she was nearly forty years old and the married mother of two children.  Woods tried the play out in Baltimore on March 5 in a production starring lovely silent film actress Hazel Dawn and dashing English actor Henry Daniell, the latter of whom went on to a distinguished film career of over thirty years' duration, which for mystery fans included a definitive turn as Sherlock Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarty in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce film The Woman in Green (1945).  

A review of Guilty? in the Baltimore Sun deemed the play's dialogue "stilted and unconvincing" but pronounced the plot "remarkably good" and and concluded that the play held promise if considerable revisions were made.  (The critic also panned Hazel Dawn, but singled out Daniell for praise for acting his part of the "neurotic artist" with "grace and finesse" despite "being killed three times during the performance.")  

"rough sketch" of the first floor of
wealthy dead man 
Dwight Mortover's brownstone

Sadly for Sherry, however, the production's electrician turned the play into an unintended farce by repeatedly turning on the lights while the hands were still on stage shifting scenes, inducing in the audience "roars of laughter" as startled men rushed "for elusive exits."  The play died a quick death in Baltimore and has never been heard from again.  

When Sherry and Milton Gropper together wrote Inspector Kennedy six years later, Sherry drew on elements of the plot of Guilty? for her new play.  The contribution of Gropper--a handsome playwright and screenwriter of Rumanian Jewish origin who, though a decade younger than Sherry, had already had a half-dozen plays performed on Broadway, including the provocatively titled hit Ladies of the Evening, adapted in 1930 by Frank Capra as the hit film Ladies of Leisure, starring a youthful Barbara Stanwyck--seems to have been with the dialogue.  

The same year Gropper and Sherry had collaborated on a Hollywood courtroom mystery film (another popular stage mystery subgenre in the Twenties), Through Different Eyes, which innovatively was told in a series of flashbacks from three different perspectives, recalling the classic Japanese film Rashomon (1951).  The New York Times deemed the film an "ingeniously conceived murder trial story."

William Hodge and Margaret Mullen
in Inspector Kennedy/Homicide

Unfortunately, Inspector Kennedy fared less well with New York critics and died a fairly quick death there, running for only forty-three performances over December 1929 and January 1930, despite starring, in the title role, popular actor William Hodge, who also directed the play.  However, later that year Hodge took the play, retitled Homicide, on the road, performing in Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Wilmington, Boston and Windsor, Ontario, among other locales, to much greater praise and success.  

The same year Gropper and Sherry published a novelized version of Inspector Kennedy/Homicide, retitled Is No One Innocent?  

The novel adapted the plot of the play, concerning the murder of a despised rich man by the name of Mordaunt in a locked room (the living room in this case), actually changing the identity of the murderer.  "Rough sketches" of the first and second floors of the house are provided, along with a raft of suspects, all of whom, with one exception (and he ends up as the second murder victim) confess to the crime!  

Let's see, there's the pretty secretary, the business partner and his son, the glamorous movie star, the professor and Mary Ann...Wait a minute, let me start over!  

The pretty secretary, the business partner and his son, the lawyer nephew, the housekeeper, a drug-addicted girl, and the visiting telephone repairman....There's also a Chinese butler named Wong, but he gets dispatched before he ever gets to utter more than a few lines.  He never had a real chance to confess to the crime had he been so inclined!  He's killed in the locked living room too, under similar circumstances to the first murder, right under Inspector Kennedy's eyes, though in the dark.  

Goo Chong on stage

Aside from William Hodge, the play's cast included in the role of the secretary one Margaret Mullen (Margaret Mullen Root), a tall, pretty brunette then only nineteen years old, who later became a fixture at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, which Philadelphia mystery writer Milton Propper fictionalized in his detective novel The Station Wagon Murder (1940), reviewed by me here.  There's a nice interview with the actress, who died in 2003, here,  

The chinese butler Wong was play by Goo Chong, or Peter Chong, a pioneering American Asian stage and film actor, though his film roles mostly went uncredited.  (He was credited, however, as Ingrid Bergman's cook in The Inn of Sixth Happiness and Fred Astaire's valet in Easter Parade.)

Peter Chong as Fred Astaire's 
manservant in Easter Parade

Gropper's and Sherry's collaborative work ended after this and Edna Sherry faded from the world of the New York stage, never having made, truth be told, a lasting impression.  Her early stage writing did serve her well, however, when, eighteen years later at the age of sixty-three, she published her second novel and most famous work, the suspense thriller Sudden Fear (1948).  This classic, filmed in 1952 as a highly-regarded Joan Crawford vehicle, will soon be back in print, courtesy of Stark House.  More on this soon!

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