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Something Always Happens to Somebody: The Screwball Spookiness of The Crooked Circle

The modest, goofball “old dark house” adventure-comedy The Crooked Circle (1932, H. Bruce Humberstone) occupies an important, if almost totally forgotten, place in history. It was a cheap B-film quickie whose most notable stars were comedians Zasu Pitts (soon to become the model for Popeye’s Olive Oyl) and James Gleason. In 1933, a year after it was released, it became the the first movie to be broadcast on television. Granted, the broadcast went out to “half a dozen or fewer” sets in the Los Angeles area, but still. It was sent over the airwaves by the Don Lee Broadcasting System, a company founded by Donald Musgrave Lee, a man who made a fortune as one of the early pioneers of the automobile industry and a head of General Motors’ design division. Lee became interested in broadcasting while working as a Cadillac salesman catering to the celebrity set.

He purchased a San Francisco radio station in 1926 and moved it to LA, mounting the antenna on top of his dealership. Over the next few years, he purchased additional stations in LA, San Diego, and Santa Barbara, partnering in 1929 with CBS. In 1931, he was granted a license to experiment with the emerging technology of television transmission. He installed his transmission tower atop a mountain that now bears his name — Mount Lee. Just below his tower was a giant sign that had been installed on the mountainside to promote a new housing development: Hollywoodland. Both the antenna and the sign are still there, though the antenna has been updated and the sign shortened, in 1949, to simply read Hollywood.

Chances are the reason The Crooked Circle became the first film to be broadcast on television was because Don Lee could get it for cheap, and possibly because its stagey presentation wouldn’t tax the tiny screen of a circa 1933 television set. On March 10, 1933, the half dozen or so owners of a television set in Los Angeles could tune in to watch The Crooked Circle‘s hour of old dark house hijinks which include a violin playing ghost, a mysterious Hindu, hooded criminals, hidden doors, secret passages, skeletons, and Zasu Pitts meekly whining “Something always happens to somebody” while James Gleason tries to out New York the most New York cop who ever New Yorked. All in all, despite the film’s low status, they could have done worse. If you have an affinity for the trappings of old, dark house movies — both their strengths and their weaknesses — then The Crooked Circle is an entertaining hour.

It opens as any good film should: with a secret society of hooded criminals — the Crooked Circle — swearing allegiance to one another, to crime, to the occult, to pretty much anything evil they can think of. The opening ceremony thus dispensed with, they get on with notes from their previous meeting, which lead to new business: getting even with those dastardly do-gooders in the Sphinx Society, a local club dedicated to solving crimes and, more accurately, foiling the schemes of the Crooked Circle. It seems that the only crimes the Crooked Circle ever commits are against the Sphinx Society, and the only crimes the Sphinx Society ever foils are those of the Crooked Circle. Neither one has much point without the other. On this night, the fiends of the Circle swear to get revenge against Colonel Walters (Berton Churchill, whose career is composed mostly of roles where he is named “Colonel”). Walters is the leader of the Sphinx Society because he’s one of those jowelly old men who still insist on being called “colonel” even though their last active service was in the Boer War. This murder is to be carried out by the sole female of the Circle, presumably because they just go around the table for this sort of thing, and it was her week.

That same night, The Sphinx Society is meeting to send off one of their members, Brand Osborne (Ben Lyon), who is retiring from amateur crime fighting to marry Thelma Parker (Irene Purcell). They’re also there to welcome their newest member, a mysterious Hindu named Yoganda (C. Henry Gordon), who sometimes has the power of precognition, but only in the most useless of instances. Case in point, the jolly get-together is interrupted when the colonel receives a cryptic letter from the Crooked Circle informing him, via 1930s emojis, of their intent to murder him. Yoganda views the letter and is able to make the prediction that evil is on the way, and it’ll have something to do with string. The Colonel isn’t worried, because he’s the leader of a crew of pipe-smoking sleuths who do nothing all day and night but foil the Crooked Circle. They decide to retire to the colonel’s newly purchased horrifying old haunted house, much to the chagrin of Thelma, who warns Osborne not to join the lads at the old, dark house, because something awful is going to happen. Could she be the Circle’s assassin??? A thug visits Osborne later that evening to issue the same proclamation, leading to a mix-up in which the movie is able to introduce over-the-top tough-guy cop Crimmer (James Gleason) and his lummox of a partner, Mike (Tom Kennedy).

Over at the sinister mansion, which is known by the non-spooky name Melody Manor, the colonel’s nervous housekeeper, Nora (Zasu Pitts), is plagued by a procession of creepy old men who wander in to tell her ghost stories about the mansion and relay its bloody past, which includes murder, suicide, disappearance, and a spectre who hangs out in the attic and plays the violin, which is how the place came to be known as Melody Manor. Pitts reacts to these yarns by wringing her hands and whimpering, which was pretty much the definition of every role she had for most of her career. When the rest of the crew arrives, the movie gives itself over to the usual old, dark house shenanigans, which means there are lots of hidden doors, sliding panels, people sneaking in and out of rooms, faltering lights, and of course a skeleton. Suspicion is cast upon multiple people as the lads of the Sphinx Society lock horns with the skulking killers of the Crooked Circle in a final showdown to determine whose treehouse club is tops.

Zasu Pitts had been working a long time with everyone from Mary Pickford (who predicted that no one would pronounce “Zasu” correctly — a prediction on par with those of Yoganda) to directors King Vidor and Erich von Stroheim, the latter of whom saw in the comedian a great dramatic actress waiting to emerge. He cast her as the lead in his epic 1924 film Greed and continued to work with her throughout the 1920s. In the 1930s, Pitts formed a successful partnership with fellow comedic actress Thelma Todd. She was cast in another dramatic film, 1930’s World War I epic All’s Quiet on the Western Front, but by then audiences so identified her with comedy that her role elicited snickers despite its serious nature. She was removed from the film and the role was recast. Pitts was relegated during the talkies era almost entirely to supporting comedic roles in B films, which is how she finds herself whimpering and screaming her way through The Crooked Circle. Despite the mildly grating nature of her act, she gets a few funny lines (“Do you even know what a myth is?” “Sure I do; it’s a female moth”).

Similarly entertaining is James Gleason’s belt-tugging “why I oughta” Long Island cop who covers his own incompetence with boundless bravado and a thick accent. Rounding out the comedy is Roscoe Karns as Harry Carter, a glaringly obvious homosexual who also gets to be the gun-toting hero of the Sphinx Club. Ben Lyon and Irene Purcell are forgettable as the presumed leads, she relegated mostly to sneaking in and out of rooms without saying much while he spends all his time running in and out of rooms while loudly shouting his intention of finding Thelma. C. Henry Gordon fares better as the enigmatic Yoganda. He built a career playing sinister “exotic” characters of vaguely Mediterranean origin, and here he gets to lean on that characterization to keep people guessing as to his true purpose in the movie.H. Bruce Humberstone, whose name makes him sound like he should be a member of the Sphinx Society,  wasn’t very experienced when he slipped into the director’s chair for this film, but he keeps everything moving along. Not a minute goes by without someone falling into a secret chamber or backing into a skeleton. There’s even an Egyptian sarcophagus and mummy that serves no real purpose other than, well, you gotta have a mummy, right?

The Crooked Circle was released the same year as James Whale’s higher budget, higher profile Old Dark House. Old Dark House is a little tongue in cheek, but it’s not as “horror-comedy” as some people would have you believe. The scares outnumber the laughs (especially when dealing with Boris Karloff’s menacing brute of a character). If it’s straight yuks you want, The Crooked Circle is more what you’re looking for. It doesn’t play subtly with its laughs. It’s all big dumb cops, worried housekeepers, amateur crimefighters, and people backing into skeletons and falling through trap doors. It might be a footnote in both the history of television and old dark house films, but that’s no reason to underestimate it. If The Crooked Circle finds itself in the shadow of other, greater films, even in the old dark house genre — well, isn’t that where a film like this belongs: lurking in the shadows?

About Keith Allison

Keith Allison is a writer and pop culture historian living in New York. His interest in film and adventure started at an early age, when he was left to his own devices in the wee small hours and discovered the Universal monsters, Godzilla, and "Matinee at the Bijou." He has written for Alcohol Professor, The Cultural Gutter, Teleport City and the book Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head. He is also the author of Cocktails & Capers: Cult Film, Cocktails, Crime, and Cool.

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