Thursday, June 21, 2018

Tell No Tales (1939)

Directed by Leslie Fenton; produced by Edward Chodorov

The tough but likeable editor (Melvyn Douglas) of a big newspaper is hit with the stunning news that its owner is shutting it down. A stroke of luck brings Douglas a clue in the story currently gripping the city. With less than a day to plumb the depth of the story and save his newspaper, Douglas follows the clue from person to person and crisis to crisis, until he becomes the person in the deadliest crisis of the day.

While not the most original, or realistic, story – a journalist, with much at stake, races to solve a mystery – Tell No Tales is nonetheless a snappy crime drama, thanks to its uncluttered direction, lean editing and lead performance. It’s running time is a mere 69 minutes. I would write that it seems longer but that would imply the film is drawn out, boring, which it is not. Instead, I should write that much is packed into little more than an hour.

Douglas (who bore a strong resemblance to the more rugged Richard Boone of the next generation) is convincing as a man who, while on the one hand, arranges a birthday party for the paper’s longest serving employee, and, on the other, lies to a witness in order to secure her co-operation. He switches identities swiftly, depending on what he needs to be, assisted by the innocent days when someone claiming to be a policeman, or a federal law agent, was believed, even without an identity card. Less compelling is the female lead (Louise Platt), who lacks the personality to match Douglas.

The story is populated with minor characters who come and go and reappear, and most are played by actors who do a fine job with the little they are given. (That’s Ian Wolfe, an actor with a career spanning most of the twentieth century, as Gene Lockhart’s Man Friday.) An interesting aspect is how Douglas’s search affects several of the people and situations he encounters. From a comical attempt to question a prospective bridegroom – already hen-pecked – to a sorrowful wake – the black people depicted here are far from the stereotypes we sometimes see in movies from this era – a few minutes suffice for a whole other tale to be told.

The actual crime at the plot’s centre is called a kidnapping – the “Roberts kidnapping” – and described as “brutal”, the perpetrators, if they are ever caught, likely “going to the chair”. This, and the fact that there is no mention of the victim still being held or missing, suggests the victim was murdered. I drew a parallel to the Lindbergh kidnapping case, though there is nothing more than implication given.

Tell No Tales doesn’t feel its age as it moves along at a good clip, and could show more than one director and screenwriter these days how to take an ordinary tale and make something entertaining. With a short running time and undoubtedly a slim budget, this film deserves a tip of the hat.


  1. The shorter films are often underrated. Too many movies--especially nowadays--are bloated with completely useless scenes.

    I find it interesting that--from what you say--we are told so little about the kidnapping that is in the center of the film.

    1. I forgot to add that Platt's character, a witness to the crime, is a teacher - another clue that the victim was a child. I think the reticence about the kidnapping may have been a combination of the production code's strictures, the horror felt at a child's murder and possible legal repercussions. Instead of making the crime insignificant, it creates instead something that everyone talks of but no one actually says anything about.

    2. And from what I've read of this movie online, the teacher had been given a hard time by the press--which reminds me of the tough media treatment given to Lindbergh's household staff after his son disappeared.

      I'm guessing the Lindbergh kidnapping indirectly inspired a lot of fictional mysteries/crime dramas from that era.