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Wednesday, August 08, 2018

The Clue Club Wants YOU


Warners Has A New Mystery Slant

We'll never know how many mysteries there were back when people took time to read. Tycoons and presidents were known to curl up with a whodunit, and authors after a sure-thing knew that puzzlers were surest route to grocery counters. There were pulps, lurid mags, and above all radio to entrance a public as to who killed who. Detectives, be they suave, hardboiled, or bungling, entered folklore quickest of any fictional hero on a shelf, for here was product you could cycle and recycle to seeming infinity. How many Perry Mason stories would there be, or Ellery Queens? I can't count that high. Much of old radio is vanished, but we can listen yet to hundreds of thriller broadcasts that have survived. Movies, especially after Code enforce, would thrive on mysteries, for most were civilized, detection a keynote rather than violence (at least before noir got its upper hand), sex seldom entering into situations or solutions. Also they were fertile ground for charismatic stars to carve out franchise for themselves --- imagine William Powell, Warren William, Rathbone, Oland, without crimes to sort out. All studios wanted a detecting saddle they could ride, and ride again, keynote an ongoing sleuth or generic series pitching tent for variety of investigators. What Warners cooked up was a thing called the "Clue Club," their 1934-35 tie with Black Mask magazine to make loyal showgoers out of already loyal pulp consumers.




It took appetite for sex and gore to properly appreciate Black Mask, covers putting its public well enough on notice that no one could duplicate such bloodlust on screens. Bad enough was miscreant Dads or boys sneaking the stuff into houses, or as Prof. Harold Hill might suggest, corncribs. WB would scrub all that, their association with Black Mask mostly a matter of trading on the mag's product recognition. There would be Clue Club chapters at far-flung sites, a "Miniature Mystery Contest" where patrons would guess a solution to yarns put before them by cooperating dailies, plus cash prizes now and then for best analysis given at theatres during post-screening club meets. Everyone saw him of herself as equal at least to gumshoes on view, amateur detecting a hugely popular indoor sport through Depression years when entertainment was best got cheap, or at home. Radio in the parlor, a pulp now and then, or price of a movie ticket could stave off loneliness, or worse, the gnaw of knowing you couldn't afford livelier amusement. Popularity of mysteries got to where lots wouldn't read anything but. This was enormous reserve WB sought to tap with Clue Clubs.






Exhibitors were put to search of a magic promoting wand, reward a Bermuda trip for two for whoever found it. Warners meanwhile loaded Black Mask issues with ads and got busy toward twelve Clue Club features, one per month the goal. Special accessories were issued, authors noted in the field adapted, these to include Erle Stanley Gardner, Dashiell Hammet, S.S. Van Dine, and one less familiar to me, but known well then, Mignon Eberhardt (see ad at left). These were famous folk, each more a draw than second-string names cast in Club films. First from the box, for 1/23/35 release, was The White Cockatoo, where Ricardo Cortez ploddingly solves a hotel murder. I couldn't guess the killer for mind wandering to lights on or off upstairs, whether I'd rinsed out the oatmeal pan from breakfast, just anything to take me out of Ricardo's detecting universe. Fact to face: These Crime Clubs just weren't packing the gear, at least from eighty-years later perspective. Some were good, notably a few Perry Masons on which WB slapped the Crime Club label. Trades warned Warners at the time that patronage may weary of the series, especially at monthly rate. Exhaustion would set in, but only after strenuous effort to ignite interest with live lobby broadcasts, $100 cash prizes, Clue Club authors in attendance (these stunts to boost The Case Of The Curious Bride). Within a short year, the Club would fold, but not mysteries, a genre embedded in movies for what all would predict eternity (but wait --- does anyone make them for theatres anymore, or is Netflix and such streaming spots an only resource?).






Radio A Dominant Purveyor Of Mystery During The 30's
Mysteries had been self-servingly referred to as "another type of show in which Warner Bros. admittedly excel," but admitted by whom? WB would continue doing Mason post-Clue Club, also Nurse Keats, where ministering angels solved murders in addition to taking pulse. Rival companies weren't napping, of course, and would develop their own series. Universal with their "Crime Club" went about clubbing audiences with whodunits for a most part listless. MGM had name brand of the Thin Man, but also Joel and Garda Sloane mysteries off the Thin Man blueprint. Fox with Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto seemed to dominate in both quantity and quality. Then came Universal again with the Inner Sanctums, which was price a lot of youth paid for staying up too late. It's a rich field, of which books have been written (a best? Perhaps Jon Tuska's In Manors and Alleys). Most of the Clue Clubs are available from Warner Archive on DVD, and show up at TCM from time to time. The concept is as meaningless now as it probably seemed then, being nothing other than a hook on which to hang advertising and exploitation, but for a brief while, the Clue Club satiated thirst for thrills, another arresting footnote in salesmanship of movies.

4 Comments:

Blogger Donald Benson said...

Fox also had the affable Michael Shayne mysteries with Lloyd Nolan, a private eye too cheerful for noir. In "Dressed to Kill" he stumbles onto a murder and happily seeks out multiple clients to pay him to solve it.

Whodunits prospered best as pre-sold series -- either a star detective or a brand-name author -- that could slip in and out of town before the ending was all over the schoolyard. Word of mouth is counter-productive if the main attraction is the final surprise.

The exceptions were the movies that made the puzzle almost peripheral. The A-list Thin Man series was about stars and banter; nobody would stay home because they'd heard the butler did it. Likewise nominal mysteries with Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Abbott & Costello, etc. The laughs are more important than the final payoff.

Even straight detective series could often forego the puzzle: Sherlock Holmes, the Saint and even Nancy Drew might reveal baddies up front and focus on the battle between hero and known villain. If there was a mystery, it might be How rather than Who. Or sometimes Why ("It's all part of my master plan ...").

Television is now the natural home for proper whodunits. The puzzles and twists can hit most of the intended audience before the spoilers are everywhere. Back in the day, Perry Mason could be all about the puzzles -- who could spoil the endings for you when they first ran?

4:12 PM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

I remember reading once that something like 40% of entertainment produced in the 30s and 40s -- books, magazines, films, radio -- was in the mystery genre. I have no idea if that figure is accurate, but it probably isn't far off either. It was a staggeringly popular genre in its heyday. It's still around, of course, but is nowhere near as predominant.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Now I know what Clue Club refers to in these movies. I figured it was a mystery book club.

3:14 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

Warren Williams's four Perry Mason outings are little gems - they're wonderfully entertaining and I've watched them several times. They deserve more attention (as does Williams's other early 30s films).

9:29 AM  

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