Private Detective (1939)
Directed by Noel Smith and starring Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda (1948)) this “B” comedy mystery may remind you of TV’s Moonlighting series but only briefly. The laughs are few and far between and the overall credibility of the characters make the solving of the “mystery” inconsequential; it’s not like the culprit will surprise anyone either. It’s unfortunate that Wyman’s initial characterization of the title character as a strong intelligent woman is weakened and indeed sacrificed by the end of the film. The only remaining highlights worth mentioning are the several recognizable character actors one sees and the story’s rapid pace. Plus at less than an hour you won’t feel as if you’ve wasted much time if you choose to endure this one.
The story begins with a court case over the custody of a boy who’s inherited $20 million from his grandfather. His absent father Millard Lannon (John Eldredge) currently living off his own father’s estate is suing his ex-wife Mona (Gloria Dickson) for custody of Bobby (Henry Blair) with the help of his lawyer Nat Flavin (Morgan Conway). Their strategy has been to sully Mona’s reputation with a lot of false accusations and innuendo such that the judge will rule in Millard’s favor. Mona shouts out “there all lies” regarding the accusations and her lawyer (Frank Mayo uncredited) successful gets a continuance for the next day. Mona is then comforted by her fiancé Donald Norton (John Ridgely). It’s then that Flavin speaks with ‘Jinx’ Winslow (Wyman) who’d witnessed Mona’s breakdown to tell her that she’ll be the first witness on the stand the next day.
Jinx was so sickened by her client’s tactics that she goes straight to her office to speak with her boss Simmy Sanger (Selmer Jackson). She tells him that she wants no part of the trial and quits. Jinx then telephones her boyfriend of 5 years police lieutenant Jim Rickey (Dick Foran the “Singing Cowboy”) to tell him now that she’s out of a job she’ll marry him if he’ll seal the deal tonight! He’s all for it as is his sidekick Detective Brody (Max Rosenbloom) and Captain (Joseph Crehan) who’s delighted to finally get private detective Jinx out of their hair. Apparently Jinx gets herself involved in all the murder cases they get and her skills make her somewhat of a rival to the police force. Of course their nuptials are interrupted by circumstances beyond their control.
In the next scene Millard is at home discussing the custody trial with his lawyer Flavin. They decide to phone the police to tell them that Mona has threatened her husband. Millard has had his chauffeur Chick (Dick Rich uncredited) take Bobby from school that day. After a disagreement with his servant Millard wants to fire him but Flavin convinces him that because of what the chauffeur knows Millard can’t get rid of him until after the trial. Though Chick was supposed to have left with Bobby taking him to Flavin’s beach house Chick overhears this conversation between Millard and his lawyer. Mona arrives at the residence to find out if Millard knows what happened to Bobby; Norton is seen exiting his car just outside the same home. She’s upset to learn that her ex-husband has her son and flees his home. Millard pursues her and is then seen being shot in the doorway. We don’t know whether Mona Norton Chick or even Flavin is responsible at least initially.
Of course the police we’ve already been introduced to are called to the scene. They instantly conclude that since they’d received the call from Millard about his wife’s threats and that a neighbor (Vera Lewis) had seen a woman running from the home after she’d heard a shot that Mona must have done it. Jinx arrives on the scene and unable to enter the premises overhears the police conversations while she discovers a bullet outside the room where Millard was killed. She then uses her brains to find Mona before the police deduce that she is innocent and help her to hideout while she tries to find the real murderer herself. Her investigation involves Norton whose valet is played by Willie Best and then Flavin. But as I’ve said before the story deteriorates on several levels. The police are shown to be too one-dimensionally dumb (and not too concerned about breaking the law themselves!) and it seems to be “catching”. For example Jinx does some rather stupid things herself such that in the end she’s a helpless female that must be rescued. The writers were too lazy to provide much mystery regarding the guilty party and they invented a too convenient plot point (a typewritten letter) to wrap things up.