Watching 1939: Private Detective (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
Private Detective (1939)

Release date: 
Dec. 9, 1939

Jane Wyman, Dick Foran, Gloria Dickson, John Eldredge, Maxie Rosenbloom, John Ridgely, Morgan Conway, Joseph Crehan, Vera Lewis, Joseph Crehan, Willie Best, Henry Blair, Leo Gorcey (uncredited)

Warner Bros.

Noel Smith

Ex-husband and wife Millard Lannon (Eldredge) and Mona Lannon (Dickson) are fighting for custody of their son Bobby (Blair), with Millard trying to take the son from his wife. When Millard is killed, Mona is suspected, and private detective Myrna Winslow (Wyman) takes the case to prove she’s innocent. This is to the chagrin of her police officer boyfriend, Jim Rickey (Foran), who just wants to get married.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– Jane Wyman was in five films released in 1939.
– Gloria Dickson was in six films released in 1939.
– Henry Blair was in two films released in 1939. He entered films this year also.
– Maxie Rosenbloom was in six films released in 1939.
– Dick Foran was in six films released in 1939.
– John Ridgely was in 35 films released in 1939.
– John Eldredge was in six films released in 1939.
– Joseph Crehan was in 27 films released in 1939.
– Vera Lewis was in 18 films released in 1939.
– Morgan Conway was in 12 films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• The film is based on the short story “Invitation to Murder” by Kay Krausse, which was originally published in the Pocket Detective Magazine.
• Working titles were “The Lady Detective” and “The Lady Dick.”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
A female private detective solving mysteries; getting in the way of her policeman boyfriend who is trying to get (unsuccessfully) get her to the alter.

The plot of “Private Detective” (1939) sounds pretty familiar, right? If you think it sounds similar to the Torchy Blane series, you aren’t alone. Even film critics of 1939 agreed that all that changed was the female lead’s occupation change from reporter to a private detective and the leads’ names.

Audiences and critics didn’t imagine this similarity. “Private Detective” was initially set to be a Torchy Blane film, according to Bernard F. Dick in his book, “The President’s Ladies: Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis.”

The same year, Wyman played the sleuthing reporter in the last Torchy Blane film, “Torchy Blane … Playing with Dynamite” (1939), which was released in Aug. 1939. With short, curled blond hair, it appears that Wyman was supposed to look like Glenda Farrell, who originated the role of Torchy Blane.

“Private Detective” even has the same director and producer as “Torchy Blane … Playing with Dynamite,” but after one film, the female detective film wasn’t picked up as a series.

Differing from Torchy Blane, Wyman’s private detective falls into the arms of her police officer boyfriend (after nearly dying from carbon monoxide poisoning). So I guess that was the end of her career.

This girl detective series didn’t continue after this film.

However, while “Private Detective” is nearly a carbon copy of Torchy Blane, it still is a fun mystery film. Jane Wyman is great as the sleuth, and Dick Foran is always an affable leading man. I also love Maxie Rosenbloom, who plays the friendly but dopey sidekick.

One highlight is character actor John Ridgely, who appears in this film. Ridgely appeared in 35 films released in 1939 – so far, that’s the most of any actor in a film I’ve written about.

“Private Detective” is an enjoyable, 55-minute mystery. My only complaint is that we really didn’t get any closure if the little boy was reunited with his mother.

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