“Murder on the Campus”

June 28, 2008

There’s something that I struggle to figure out as I watch these films, especially the early ones like this 1933 number. It is the mystery of Charles Starrett’s appeal.

I am tempted to call it an Everyman’s appeal, but it’s not that. Tom Hanks has that. Gary Cooper has that.

He looks like a movie star, if a goofy one, with his height and his trim physique, his hair and his chin. It’s more like he’s an adequate star. I’m struggling here, because there are plenty of those (Audie Murphy comes to mind) and he doesn’t remind me of him. And it’s not just that he seems like a nice guy, cuz he doesn’t exude niceness like Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart.

Damn. I’m still on it. I’ll get back to you. You know I will.

On to the movie.  There’s been a murder on the campus.  A student named Mal Jennings with an equally strange occupation as athlete/bell-ringer has been shot atop the belltower. Charles plays Bill Bartlett, reporter from the Times Star, who is following the case and is sweet on a gal who may be the killer.

As a noir hero, Charley gets to wear a raincoat and smoke a lot. As a noir hero, he’s also pretty emotional. He has lines like this one, “Murder? You’ve charged her with murder! Sure. Sure, you cops have to do something to save your face, so you pick on an innocent gal. Why she had no more to do with those murders than you did.”

His slugging skills are still a little underdeveloped. Underdeveloped? Sure. Sure, pick on the young star. Just remember this: he’s young.

There’s lots of suspects: a gambler named Blackie, some jerk named Brock, a rich broad named Ann.

There’s also a Professor of Criminology who inexplicably works in a lab with beakers bubbling and formulas brewing. There’s an extremely weird non-scene where he and Charley have just found a dead man in the other room, and are waiting for the cops to show up. They kill time by wandering around the lab playing with the devices there.

In closing, may I return for a moment to my ongoing examination of what the French call Appeal de la Starrett? Maybe the thing is, or part of the thing is, that Charley clearly works so hard. In this film, in which he’s in almost every scene, when he’s not leading the action, he’s in the background, in soft focus yes, but clearly watching with rapt attention. Participating in any way he can.

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