Murder in the Private Car DVD Review: A Pre-Code Mulligan Stew

An out of control railroad car inhabited by a loose gorilla and runaway madman, and crazy madcap comedy are the ingredients that make up the mulligan stew of early cinema that is known as Murder in the Private Car, now available for the first time on home video from the Warner Archive Collection. An oddity from engine to caboose, the 1934 pre-Code offering from MGM finds one of America’s premium forgotten comediennes, Una Merkel, as its leading wisecracking lady, who is joined on-screen by another unremembered great of the silver screen, Mr. Charles Ruggles. The weird part about that, of course, is neither top-billed performer is the lead: that honor goes to Ms. Mary Carlisle, who stars as simple L.A. secretary who discovers she is, in fact, a missing heiress.

Packing up best friend Merkel (who, in turn, packs up her best comebacks), the two trek off with several shady fellows who are supposed to deliver her to her long lost father. Naturally, nothing is as it seems in Murder in the Private Car, including all of the red herrings the film sets itself up for but never delivers on. Fortunately, Mr. Ruggles manages to steal a few scenes for himself as a bungling mental case of a private investigator who refers to himself as a “deflector” ‒ a detective who figures out the crime ahead of time, but shows up to deflect it. And Ruggles tries his best to protect the film’s two heroines (lead or otherwise) throughout the 63-minute ride as a number of perils are introduced and quickly solved, including an uncredited Ray “Crash” Corrigan in a gorilla suit (who is part of a travelling circus, along with MGM’s very own famous four-legged mascot himself!).

The highlight of the film here finds our story’s heroes aboard a railroad car coasting down the incline of a treacherous mountain route (reportedly Donner Pass) towards an oncoming locomotive. By the time this moment occurs, the list of men and women in danger has expanded to the point where it now consists of master “deflector” Ruggles; wisecracking firecracker Merkel; our heiress Carlisle, her long lost father (Berton Churchill), her stowaway boyfriend (Russell Hardie); and one truly terrified stereotype of a train porter (Fred “Snowflake” Toones, who is billed solely as “Snowflake” in an effort to make the rampant racism of Hollywood’s past all the more offensive to modern audiences). The original theatrical trailer for this weird (but enjoyable, just the same) relic of yesteryear is included on this Warner Archive MOD release.

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Luigi Bastardo

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