By Doug Gibson
"The Rogues Tavern," 1936 black and while film, directed by Bob Hill, produced by Mercury Pictures and released by Puritan Pictures, is one of the reasons I love film. It's just a stroke of luck, and a blessing, that this low-budget, 70-minute C-movie is still around for film fans to enjoy. It's like stepping into a wonderful time capsule, and getting a glimpse of what your grandparents watched in the 1930s before the "A" picture was shown.
Enough reminiscing, here's the plot. Wallace Ford (Jimmy Kelly) and Barbara Pepper (as Jimmy's fiancee Marjorie Burns) are detectives heading to the Red Rock Inn to meet a justice of the peace and get hitched. "It is a dark and stormy night" with lots of whistling wind and there are quite a few eccentrics in the tavern. They include the renters, Mr. and Mrs. Jamison (Clara Kimball Young and John Elliott), a mentally-challenged handyman, Bert, (Vincent Dennis), and a collection of nervous, shady characters, including a nervous, but very beautiful Mexican lady named Gloria Rohloff (Joan Woodbury). Finally, there's also a dog, Silver, Wolf, running around.
For reasons known only to themselves, the Jamisons deny Jimmy and Marjorie two rooms, or one if the justice of the peace arrives. The couple, who are a poor man's Nick and Nora -- for those who recall William Powell and Myrna Loy of The Thin Man series -- settle down in the lobby, which boasts a very impressive fireplace. (According to the book, Forgotten Horrors, the film was lensed at RKO-Pathe Studios, which was favored as a place for low-budget production companies, who liked the fireplace as a prop)
Back to the film: One by one, the nervous, shady characters start getting murdered. Jimmy, with typical Wallace Ford bravado, starts to take charge of the investigation. Fiancee Marjorie, a very pretty blonde who acts a lot like Lucille Ball, tries doggedly to help her slightly sexist love interest. At first the dog is the chief suspect, but interest soon coalesces around a mysterious "Wentworth," who apparently called the endangered characters to the inn, and later a mysterious "Morgan." We soon learn that the nervous character at the inn have a history of jewel thievery.
That's all the plot I'll provide. This is an "old dark house" programmer, common for the era. What makes The Rogues Tavern special is that it's better than the average C-movie programmer. The murders are well plotted, it' a bit goofy, Ford and Pepper are talented actors with good comic timing. My favorite lines of witty dialogue involve Pepper, after reflecting on the romantic fireplace, exclaim to Ford, "I feel so poetic, I could make love to a snowman." Ford retorts, "If that justice of the peace doesn't show up, you'll have too!"
In fact, Rogues Tavern boasts an excellent cast. Besides Fox and Pepper, Kimball Young and Elliott were silent film stars. Woodbury wears a very slinky dress that thumbs its nose at the Hays Commission morality censors of that era. Her breasts, while not shown, are quite well defined despite being covered.
Ford starred in the legendary "Freaks" for Universal but was mostly a C- and B-movies star. He was a good actor with comic timing and may be best known for his role in the Bela Lugosi Monogram effort The Ape Man. Woodbury was a steady actress who appeared in the Monogram film, King of the Zombies. Pepper, who was a friend of Lucille Ball's, later in her career was a regular on Green Acres.
The film is fairly easy to find. It can be purchased at oldies.com and sinister cinema and is part of a 50-film set that can be bought cheaply. You can watch it free on the Net (YouTube's is above) and it's the type of film that should pop up on Turner Classic Movies. I've been lobbying TCM to air it. The sets are better than an average C-programmer, which probably was filmed for less than $40,000.
The film has a lot of twists, some clever, some clumsy. It's about 10 minutes too long, particularly in the last third, with too many red herrings and static scenes. But the climax is fun, and a bizarre surprise, and the first 45 minutes are very entertaining in its mixture or murder and comedy mystery.