Watching 1939: Tell No Tales (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: 
Tell No Tales (1939)

Release date: 
May 12, 1939

Melvyn Douglas, Louise Platt, Gene Lockhart, Douglass Dumbrille, Florence George, Halliwell Hobbes, Zeffie Tilbury, Harlan Briggs, Sara Haden, Hobart Cavanaugh, Oscar O’Shea, Theresa Harris, Esther Dale, Phillip Terry (uncredited)


Leslie Fenton

On the 75th anniversary of The Evening Guardian newspaper, the publisher Matt Cooper (Dumbrille) tells editor Michael Cassidy (Douglas) that the newspaper is being shut down. Cooper also owns a scandal paper that Cassidy thinks is trash. To help prove The Evening Guardian’s value, Cassidy works on solving a prominent kidnapping case by tracing a $100 bill tied to the case. He seeks out Ellen Frazier (Platt), a teacher who was the only witness to the kidnapping. Cassidy and Frazier work together to solve the case so that Cassidy can save the newspaper.

1939 Notes:
• First feature film project for director Leslie Fenton.
• By the numbers:
– Melvyn Douglas was in four films released in 1939.
– Louise Platt was in two films released in 1939.
– Gene Lockhart was in eight films released in 1939.
– Douglass Dumbrille was in nine films released in 1939.
– Florence George’s last film and only one of two films she starred in.
– Halliwell Hobbes was in seven films released in 1939.
– Harlan Briggs was in 16 films released in 1939.
– Sara Haden was in 10 films released in 1939.
– Hobart Cavanaugh was in 22 films released in 1939.
– Theresa Harris was in three films released in 1939.

Melvyn Douglas in “Tell No Tales”

Other trivia: 
• Working title was “A Hundred to One.”
• H. B. Warner, Marjorie Main, Florence George and Inez Courtney were originally announced to be in the film.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
For a 69-minute B-budget movie, this week’s 1939 kept me intrigued throughout.

From dashing Melvyn Douglas in the lead to cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg, Leslie Fenton’s feature film directorial debut feels more elevated than it probably is.

“Tell No Tales” is a mystery – another reporter trying to solve a crime. But rather than being a meddling reporter getting in the way of police (see: Torchy Blane, etc). At its core, Douglas’s character of Michael Cassidy is solving a mystery to save his newspaper.

The film begins on the 75th anniversary of the newspaper. It also happens to be the 75th birthday of an elderly copyeditor, Miss Mary, played by Zeffie Tilbury. Michael Cassidy visits Miss Mary, hard at work at her desk, and escorts her to a surprise party held in her honor.

Right from the get-go, the movie hits you with emotion. This is a sweet and teary moment.

Then, immediately after, you learn the newspaper’s publisher is closing the paper. While Cassidy is on a binge after learning this news, a bartender tells him that he received a $100 bill that is connected to a kidnapping case, which is a top headline. Cassidy goes to his publisher, evidence in hand, about covering the story. The publisher demands that Cassidy cover the story for his scandal sheet, or he will be arrested (not sure if this is logical, but okay). Cassidy fleas, seeking out a teacher, Ellen Frazier (Louise Platt), who was the only witness to the kidnapping. Together, they trace the bill to various people to solve the kidnapping case.

“Tell No Tales” is one of the more interesting murder mysteries, especially of this length and budget. There are many twists and turns that keep you guessing and many suspects to weave through.

While I was enjoying it … halfway through, I did think, “Wait, so who was kidnapped?” That never is really clarified, but I guess it doesn’t matter? Who knows.

A major highlight of the film is Theresa Harris. Harris’s role is small but powerful. The $100 bill brings Cassidy to the home of boxer James Alley. When Cassidy arrives, Alley is already dead and Harris plays his grieving wife, Ruby, who is holding a wake in her home. Harris gives an excellent, emotional monologue about the loss of her husband. It’s heartbreaking, and she’s excellent. It makes you angry that Harris was never able to have a leading role in Hollywood due to racism.

Melvyn Douglas is also wonderful in this film (per usual). As an editor playing amateur detective, he’s suave, smart and also sympathetic.

The only week aspect is Louise Platt as the leading lady. Platt was still relatively new to Hollywood and doesn’t add much to the film.

What really struck me about the film was the use of storytelling through Leslie Fenton’s direction and Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography. Some of the shots were as good as a film noir of the late 1940s.

Even the New York Times was impressed:
“A director who can take such a thin and unimaginative story … and still cause it to walk along a knife-edge of suspense and melodramatic excitement,” wrote Frank Nugent in his New York Times review.

While “Tell No Tales” may not be a top film of 1939, it’s certainly a mystery worth seeing.

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