BOOTLEG FILES 661: “Murder in the Blue Room” (1944 mystery-musical flick).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It fell through the cracks.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely at this time.
During the 1940s, Universal Pictures arguably produced the most entertaining films playing in American theaters. This is not to say that Universal had the most artistically extravagant or intellectually provocative output. But for sheer pleasure viewing, this scrappy little studio was aces when it came to noir, Westerns, jukebox musicals, cheesy horror and lowbrow comedies. Back in the day, nobody ever left a Universal film feeling bored.
Typical of the snappy output from Universal was a 1944 B-level flick called “Murder in the Blue Room.” This was actually a third version of a property that Universal owned for years: the 1932 German haunted house thriller “Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers,” which Universal filmed as “Secret of the Blue Room” in 1933 and “The Missing Guest” in 1938. Initially, Universal planned “Murder in the Blue Room” as a vehicle for the musical-comedy trio the Ritz Brothers. But that sibling act completed a three-picture deal with Universal in 1943 and were not interested in returning for another film.
Without the Ritz Brothers, Universal was in a quandary. The studio had two other comedy teams under contract, Abbott and Costello and Olsen and Johnson, but each had their own haunted house film (“Hold that Ghost” for Abbott and Costello and “Ghost Catchers” for Olsen and Johnson), so it made no sense to repeat the formula. Rather than jettison a tried-and-true vehicle, Universal opted to create a new musical-comedy act – and in a twist on the standard practice, the studio decided to create a female team. (This was sort of odd, as Universal frequently used the Andrews Sisters in their films, but did that beloved trio was not tapped for this vehicle.)
And, thus, “Murder in the Blue Room” saw the debut of the Three Jazzybelles, a distaff version of the Ritz Brothers who could sing, dance and wisecrack. Three Universal contract players – Grace McDonald, Betty Jean and June Preisser – were recruited and presented as this new act. Sadly, “Murder in the Blue Room” was also the swan song for the Three Jazzybelles – but this was due to lack of studio enthusiasm for its creation rather than for the act’s perceived shortcomings. Indeed, the Jazzybelles were fun and put new life into the hoary old thriller.
“Murder in the Blue Room” takes place in the suburban society settings that too many films of Hollywood’s Golden Era presented: the wealthy environment where people attended parties in tuxedos and gowns, enjoyed champagne without getting drunk and managed to stay charming despite all sorts of tumult percolating about. In this case, the setting was a seaside manor where the charming young Nan (B-movie lovely Anne Gwynne) is the belle of a party hosted by her mother and stepfather. Nan’s father died in the house years ago – he was found in a section of the residence known as the “blue room,” and his death was ruled a suicide even though there was suspicion it was murder.
But Nan is not eager to let the past spoil her fun. A current boyfriend, intrepid writer Steve Williams (Donald Cook) and playboy ex-beau Larry Dearden (Bill Williams) are in attendance, and Larry gets Nan to sing a tune for the party guests. (Anne Gwynne was no singer and deft lip-synced to Martha Tilton’s charming vocalizing.) The Jazzybelles are presented as Nan’s pals, and they turn up to perform their own sassy musical number “A Doo-Dee-Doo-Doo” at the party.
In a belated reminder that the film is supposed to be a haunted house flick, Larry volunteers to spend the night in the dreaded blue room, just to prove it is not haunted. Come the morning, Larry is nowhere to be found – which is odd because the room was locked from the inside. An obtuse and humorless police detective (Regis Toomey) arrives and suspects everyone, even though there is no evidence blaming everyone. Steve offers to spend the following night in the blue room, and he vanishes in the morning.
So, who is responsible for Larry and Steve disappearing? Who’s the guilty culprit? Is it Nan’s mother or stepfather? Is it the creepy butler? Is it the family doctor who keeps hanging about when mayhem is afoot? Is it the Jazzybelles, or the odd derby-wearing ghost they keep seeing?
Eh, who cares? Despite a surplus of shadows, creaky floorboards and suspicious characters, the solution to the mystery is an unremarkable conclusion that is not worth repeating her. But “Murder in the Blue Room” is less interesting as traditional mystery and more fun as a relic of the mid-1940s machinery that churned out fast, cocky and invigorating programmers designed to keep war-weary audiences amused for an hour and change. Anne Gwynne and her Jazzybelle pals were easy on the eyes (the Vera West gowns helped) and the musical numbers (including the Jazzybelles’ spooky-camp “The Boogie Woogie Boogie Man”) were happy nonsense. And the Jazzybelles generated some guilty-pleasure laughs with their urban-chic attitudes that quickly disappeared when ghosts and the threat of murder popped up.
So why didn’t Universal continue with the Jazzybelles? Well, “Murder in the Blue Room” was a B-level toss-away rather than a prestige film, and it didn’t generate enough audience reaction to warrant an expansion into a standalone series. Rather than invest time and money in a new act, the studio disbanded the Jazzybelles as quickly as it created them.
As a side note, the screenplay for “Murder in the Blue Room” was co-written by I.A.L. Diamond, who later collaborated with Billy Wilder on classics including “Some Like it Hot” and “The Apartment.” This was his first credit as a screenwriter, and he obviously went upwards after getting his feet wet.
“Murder in the Blue Room” was a staple on the movie shows broadcast by independent television channels in the 1970s, but it fell out of circulation since then. The film was never released in any home entertainment format, but unauthorized postings from 16mm prints can be found on YouTube. While it is not a classic, by any stretch, the distracting joy that this little film gave to audiences back in the 1940s still shines through today.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
Listen to “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, now in its third season.