Operatic tenor Gino D’Acosta (Leo Carrillo) has been warned by a mystic (Pedro de Cordoba) that if he attempts to sing in a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the Hollywood Bowl as scheduled…well, he’s going to be turning in his voice for a harp, because he will die as a result. D’Acosta is a superstitious sort—but he’s also vainglorious, and insists the show must go on. Sadly, he doesn’t even get to “The Anvil Chorus” before he keels over in front of a crowd of 10,000. (I’ll spare you the “boy, he really died out there” jokes, by the way.)
Detective Steve Farrell (Chester Morris) takes up the investigation—much to the dismay of his superior (Robert McWade), who answers to “Quinlan”—and he gets an assist from lovely lady-scientist Toni Adams (Madge Evans), the niece of D’Acosta’s physician (Grant Mitchell). There are no shortage of suspects in this short-and-sweet whodunit: Gino was quite a ladies’ man, and dallied with two females also in the production, Diana (Benita Hume) and Louisa (Katherine Alexander). Conductor Godfrey Chiltern (H.B. Warner) was quite jealous of Gino’s attentions with regards to Louisa, and singer Pedro (Duncan Renaldo) likewise of his rival’s preoccupation with Diana. There’s also a disgruntled composer (J. Carrol Naish) who’s gone a little funny in the head because D’Acosta has rejected one of his operas. But this breezy little programmer eventually reveals the murderer’s identity in a rather novel way—touching, interestingly enough, on the subject of euthanasia.
Here’s what you need to know about Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Tiffany’s of motion picture studios: sure, they made B-pictures, but there was so much gloss and celebrity wattage that they were really more like A-minus pictures. There are no really big names in Moonlight Murder (1936); the star is Chester Morris…who, despite scoring an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in Alibi (1929) and appearing in top films like The Divorcee (1930) and The Big House (1930), was by this time in his movie career one of the silver screen’s most dependable second feature leads. Morris was not incapable of fine performances—he could hit one out of the park every now and then (Three Godfathers, Five Came Back)—but for most movie buffs he’s best remembered for 14 pictures he made at Columbia between 1941 and 1949 as Horatio “Boston” Blackie, the reformed jewel thief-hero introduced by author Jack Boyle in magazines around 1914.
Morris’ character is really mostly fill-in-the-blank here, and his comic byplay with the dyspeptic Quinlan can’t quite match the marvelous chemistry between he and Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane) in the Boston Blackie pictures. Then again, much of the lighter stuff in Moonlight falls a little flat (MGM wasn’t really the go-to studio for comedy); even Frank McHugh, who plays D’Acosta’s dresser, has nothing to work with. (I’m curious as to how McHugh even got into this picture—didn’t Warner Bros. have anything for him to do that day?)
Despite the unconvincing romance (based on an original story by Albert J. Cohen and Robert T. Shannon) that screenwriters Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf have fashioned for Morris and leading lady Madge Evans, it’s really hard to dislike Evans’ character; I’ve seen the actress in movies like The Mayor of Hell (1933) and What Every Woman Knows (1934) and she’s always a treat.
The casting that amused me the most, however, was seeing a young Benita Hume as one of D’Acosta’s girlfriends; Hume later married Ronald Colman (and after Ronnie’s death in 1958, hooked up with George Sanders) and the two of them were often featured as Jack Benny’s “neighbors” on his radio program. They were such a hit and so popular that they landed their own sitcom, The Halls of Ivy (1950-52), which made a brief transition to the small screen in 1954-55.
The other inspired bit of casting features Duncan Renaldo as Pedro, D’Acosta’s rival; later in their careers, Renaldo and Carrillo would team up in movies and then a long-running TV series (1950-56) in which Dunc played the O. Henry creation The Cisco Kid…with Leo as his sidekick Pancho. Truth be told, I was kind of bummed when Carrillo’s character snuffed it; the actor has a good deal of fun with his role (his singing voice was dubbed by Alfonso Pedroza) and displays a lot of charisma …which was really the secret to Carrillo’s long career: even when he was saddled (sorry about the Pancho pun) with playing stereotypical Latino characters he was never less than likable.
Moonlight Murder was directed by Edwin L. Marin, an MGM journeyman who was unremarkable but reliable (Marin did direct a very good noir in 1946’s Nocturne, so he was capable of delivering the goods), with the film set against an obviously studio-bound facsimile of the Hollywood Bowl (cue the stock footage!). Even though it’s a little slow-going at first, it’s an entertaining little yarn with one of the most interesting denouements I’ve seen in a programmer of this type.
The only detriment of Moonlight is that the comedic elements don’t work at all—but there is a priceless unintentionally funny moment when Doc Mitchell, analyzing subdued madman Naish, announces to all assembled: “I don’t know anything about your music…but I do know dementia praecox when I see it.” And you know, the entire time I watched this, I kept thinking that since the opera performed in Moonlight (Il Trovatore) is the same as that in A Night at the Opera (1935) the studio must have been stoked about getting to recycle all those costumes. (If only Groucho, Chico and Harpo had been enlisted for the comedy in this one.)
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr is the associate editor at ClassicFlix…because he’s the only one who’ll associate with the editor. He blogs about classic film, vintage TV and old-time radio at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. 'Where's That Been?' is a regular review column that highlights overlooked or under appreciated films from the golden age.