Review of “The Crooked Circle” (1932)

This week, we had enough leftover pizza in the freezer we didn’t have to venture into the world to buy any more for Saturday pizza and bad movie night.

crooked circle
Image from IMDB

Plot:

The Crooked Circle is a gang of criminals, engaging in thievery, counterfeiting, and other wayward and unproductive acts against society. Hot on their trail is the Phoenix Club, a group of amateur criminologists. The opening scene is of the Crooked Circle meeting, complete with black hoods and club slogan (“To do for each other, to avenge any brother, a fight to the knife and a knife to the hilt.”) The order of business is to assign one of their number the task of dealing with Col. Walters (Berton Churchill), a Phoenix Club member who has sent a Crooked Circle to jail. They draw lots. The sole female member gets the job.

Col. Walters has just bought an old house (“Melody Manor”) in an isolated place because, well, of course, he has. Once he receives notice from the Crooked Circle he’s on their list, the other Phoenix Club members join him at his new, creepy, old place in the middle of nowhere to guard him against attack. One Phoenix is in the middle of leaving the club at the insistence of his fiancée. A new member, a Hindu mystic by the unlikely name of Yoganda (C. Henry Gordon), joins the party at Melody Manor.

Before the Phoenixes arrive at Melody Manor, there is a silly scene in which some creepy neighbor with apparently nothing better to do convinces the excitable maid, Nora Rafferty (Zasu Pitts), the house is haunted. It leads to one of the taglines of the movie, that is, “Something always happens to somebody.”

Melody Manor is chockful of mysterious violin music, clocks that strike thirteen, secret passages, hidden panels, a skeleton in the attic, and all the amenities. Suspicion is cast on nearly everyone. A bumbling cop (Tom Kennedy) later shows up. We know a female assassin is about. Just why was that fiancée so adamant that her dearly beloved leave the Phoenix Club? Who is the mysterious Yoganda, who goes around muttering, “Evil is on the way!” (When the maid Nora first sees him in his turban, she says, “I’m sorry you have a headache. Can I get you a Bromo-seltzer?”)

Thoughts:

According to IMDB, this was the first movie shown on commercial television, specifically, on March 10, 1933. Only a few people owned television sets. An experimental station, W6XAO-TV, broadcast it while it was still playing in theaters.

Zasu Pitts received top billing for a part that more or less unnecessary to the plot but apparently for adding… atmosphere? She wrings her hands and spends a lot of time worrying about ghosts, saying, “Oh,” while repeating the tagline. Apparently, she was an inspiration for Olive Oyl of the Popeye cartoons.

The opening scene of the meeting of the Crooked Circle in their black hoods contains some admirable camera work. At one point, the viewer looks down from above and sees the five clasp hands over a skull set on a circular table. The effect is not only creepy but over-the-top in seriousness. These are bad’uns who mean business.

There is a lot of just plain silliness in this movie, both in action and in dialogue. The slapstick is minimal, but it exists. This is not one to take seriously. Nora’s hand-wringing can become tiresome.

There are a couple of twists near the end, which are enjoyable. Overall, I liked this flick. Best with wine and pizza.

Title: The Crooked Circle
Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone
Writing Credits
Ralph Spence … (screenplay)
Tim Whelan … (additional dialogue)

Cast (in credits order)
Zasu Pitts … Nora Rafferty
James Gleason … Arthur Crimmer
Ben Lyon … Brand Osborne
Irene Purcell … Thelma Parker
C. Henry Gordon … Yoganda

Released: September 25, 1932
Length: approx.: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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