Thursday, July 14, 2011

Footsteps in the Dark - 1941

“Footsteps in the Dark” (1941) displays Errol Flynn’s ease and confidence in a comic role, and provides another showcase for his unique and unabashed charm. He carries the film, and is in practically every scene, which is good and bad. He is far and away never boring and delightful to watch; however, he’s got a great cast of character actors in supporting roles that don’t get to do too much.

Mr. Flynn plays a society blue-blood, an investment broker who lives with his lovely wife, Brenda Marshall, and his patrician mother-in-law, Lucile Watson. His relationship with both is good, and it’s particularly funny to watch him flatter his mother-in-law with comments that her new hairdo makes her look like a girl, practically every time he sees her. He does not seem insincere, just like a man who has the gift of making people happy, especially when their being happy makes things run smoother for him.

Except for the police inspector Alan Hale, and his sidekick detective, William Frawley. Unknown to his family, Flynn leads a double life. He writes murder mysteries on the side, and his latest is called “Footsteps in the Dark”, where we get the title of the film. In his book, he lambastes the very society set his mother-in-law so proudly represents, and so to keep peace in his home, he writes under a pseudonym.

He hangs out with the police to get story ideas and to help them solve their cases, because he is, of course, smarter than everybody. Especially William Frawley, who is the stupidest police detective in the universe.

Mr. Flynn’s closest relationship appears to be with Allen Jenkins, his chauffeur who also lives a double life as Flynn’s secretary. I love the scenes when Flynn leaves his brokerage office for lunch and heads out with Jenkins to a cozy suburban house he keeps for his writing space.

They peel off their suit coats, and Flynn dictates his story into a Dictaphone (have a look here at our previous post on movie Dictaphones and tape recorders), while Mr. Jenkins types out the manuscript. We see Jenkins with transcription earphones, but I can’t tell if there is also a foot pedal. I’d love to know more about the mechanical devices and method of transcription in the 1940s if anybody has any information.

I’ll leave the plot alone so as not to ruin the story, but Flynn encounters shapely but not overly talented burlesque queen Blondie White, played with trampy gusto by Lee Patrick (for whom he poses as a naïve, “aww-shucks, Ma’am” Texas oilman. Catch his funny attempt at an accent.)

Grant Mitchell plays the family attorney, about whom Flynn makes up outrageous stories of being romantically involved with the burlesque queen in order to cover up his own activities.

Roscoe Karns is a smarmy private detective Brenda Marshall hires to track her husband.

Ralph Bellamy, always reliable and believable in any situation, is a dentist, and there is one particular scene with he and Flynn, with Flynn in the dentist’s chair, that flits alternately between both comedy and tension. It’s almost hard to concentrate on the nuances of the scene, at least for us today, because at one point Bellamy joins his patient in a cigarette break, and companionably plunks an ashtray down on the instrument tray for them to use. Yuck.

We want to see more of these great character actors, but the movie is Flynn’s, and so we see them only through his brief interaction with each one of them in turn through the course of the movie. They really are wasted.

Another good scene: Brenda Marshall, having discovered Flynn’s preoccupation with Blondie White, goes to the burlesque theater herself to see what’s so special about her. We later find Miss Marshall play-acting a strip tease in front of her bedroom mirror to practice for her husband, when she is interrupted by the butler. It’s one of the few scenes without Flynn; the rest of the movie rests on his capable shoulders. However, because he is so capable and so charming, we know he’ll win the day and there is no real suspense, except for a scene at the very end.

The studio could have taken this further and made sequels, but this lightweight, breezy whodunit stands on its own.


Caftan Woman said...

I'm sold!

Shucks, most movies waste Grant Mitchell anyway, so what's new?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

You're right about that. He has had a few good turns in comedy, like "The Man Who Came to Dinner", but I really like his dramatic role in "The Secret Bride" covered here in this previous post:

It really shows his acting chops. To think he didn't make these films until his 60s. Makes you think there's hope for us all.

ClassicBecky said...

Jacqueline, I'm such an Errol Flynn devotee that one of my movie friends has dubbed me Errolette. I loved his work in comedy, and he was so good in this. It's a shame the studio system typecast stars like him to such an extent they were too dumb to see other possibilities. He is breezy and fun, and you caught his charm just right -- complimenting his mother-in-law was part of that charm, making someone feel good and getting his way in the bargain.

Boy, if cigarette scenes bother you, it must be a constant source of irritation in being a classic film fan. LOL!

I really enjoyed your review of this fun movie. Don't you think Brenda Marshall is just so pretty? You are so right about the great character actors being under-used. I guess I was such a Flynn fan when I saw this as a kid that I didn't even notice! Now I'm more objective, but still love that he is in most every scene. Thanks for a good read on a good movie!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Becky. I agree Erroll was great at comedy. I also wish there was more interraction between him and Brenda Marshall, but I guess they figured they didn't need another Thin Man.

As for the smoking, I think we're all used to seeing a good deal of it in classic films, but this might be the first time I've ever seen dentist and patient in the chair taking time out from the procedure to have a smoke.

ClassicBecky said...

This will certainly date me, but when I had my first baby in '73 (well, I DID marry young), my obstetrician would come in to my room and we'd have a cigarette together while we talked about stuff. My dentist would light up after he was done. Our family doctor when I was a kid always had a cigar in the ashtray on his desk during appointments. I knew very few people who didn't smoke, except my Mom. It was a different world. I'm still struggling with it. Honestly, I think I would have to stop watching classic movies when I try to stop again. Especially Bette Davis movies! LOL!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

The obstetrician? In 1973? Since the Surgeon General's warning first appeared in 1965, one wonders what kind of (excuse me, please) airhead you were seeing.

I grant you, Bette Davis is never seen without a cigarette, Bogart, too. Somehow they're easier to accept with a cigarette in hand (if you try not to think about Bogie's dying from them).

A different world, is right. But perhaps not entirely. I know a few nurses who still smoke.

Just not in the exam room. I hope.

Yvette said...

I love Errol Flynn, especially in his early roles. He was something.
So smooth, so charming and so damned handsome. Jeez.

I've seen this film several times, Jacqueline, though not lately. I love Lee Patrick, by the way. She looks like she was a hoot. And who doesn't love Allen Jenkins and Roscoe Karns and Alan Hale, Jr.?

The one thing that annoys me just the teensiest bit about this film is the way the Flynn's character treats his wife. By implication he is saying that she's a dolt. Really.

Well, maybe she is. Brenda Marshall was never a fun looking broad. Ha!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Yep, Yvette, great bunch of character actors. Good point about Lee Patrick. I agree that Flynn doesn't really seem to warm up to his wife until the very end, when we have the charming picture of them leaving out the door to go together on his next case.

Kevin Deany said...

I like this one too, and wish the series had continued. I think Flynn would have as well.

My dad always like Ralph Bellamy's character in this one, since he was a long time employee of the American Dental Association.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kevin. I liked Ralph Bellamy in this role, too. So many layers to this dentist fellow.

Three cheers for the American Dental Association. Long may they wave.

Jubilo said...

Thanks for posting this! I have always enjoyed this film!

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, I've been meaning to mention how much I enjoyed your delightful review of FOOTSTEPS IN THE DARK; life just kept getting in the way! :-) Errol Flynn had a nice flair for comedy (too bad he didn't get to show it often enough), and he and Brenda Marshall had charming chemistry together. And how can you go wrong with all those awesome character actors? (Heck, sometimes I like the character actors better than the leads in some films! :-))

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Dorian. I agree, sometimes the character actors are the ones that really make the movie.

Ryan said...

This movie has been hanging out on my DVR for years now. I've watched it a handful of times and never tire of it.

Steven said...

Fans may want to know that around this time BRENDA MARSHALL married WILLIAM HOLDEN!

Unknown said...

I've seen this movie a few times & very enjoyable. Get a kick out of the pronounciation of autopsy in this movie as 'ought-opsy' said by Flynn & Alan Hale, Sr. Have wondered if the idea for "Castle" came from this movie.

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