Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
The Silk Express (WB, 1933) – Director: Ray Enright. Writers: Houston Branch (story and s/p) & Ben Markson (s/p). Stars: Neil Hamilton, Sheila Terry, Arthur Byron, Guy Kibbee, Dudley Digges, Arthur Hohl, Allen Jenkins, Harold Huber, G. Pat Collins, Robert Barrat, Vernon Steele, Ivan F. Simpson, & Guy Usher. B&W, 61 minutes.
The Silk Express is a fast paced programmer that seems to move faster than its 61 minutes allow. It’s a good diversion; a murder mystery set aboard a moving train with no end to the list of suspects and a limited amount of time in which to solve the crime. Like many low-budget mysteries of the day, the plot is somewhat implausible, but as Mordaunt Hall wrote in his review for The New York Times (June 28, 1933): “It is a good robust thriller, with two murders, well-sustained suspense, a vein of amusement and a dash of romance.” And isn’t that what any mystery needs to hold its audience?
The film begins with a clever montage of phone calls and conversations. It seems that silk is the next big thing in the fashion industry. Speculator Wallace Myton (Hohl), having gotten wind of the news, has gotten his cronies together and bought up the supplies of raw silk on the market. His aim is to make the silk manufacturers pay through the nose if they want to survive. But Donald Kilgore (Hamilton), the head of the association of mill owners, isn’t going to fold, not just yet. He and his board invite Myton to a sit-down to discuss price. When Myton refuses to budge off his original quote, Kilgore informs him that he and his fellow manufacturers have no choice but to buy raw silk directly from Japan, $3 million of it, in fact. But there’s a hitch in the plan: Kilgore must assure delivery by a set time or the manufacturers will have to accede to Myton’s terms.
Kilgore’s plan is that, once the silk arrives in Seattle, it will be loaded on a specially chartered express train for New York City. However, knowing Myton will try to stop or delay the train, Kilgore and his attorney, Calhoun (Barrat) have hired two train guards, Craft (Huber) and Burns (Collins) to accompany the shipment. However, what he doesn’t know is that Craft and Burns are operatives in the employ of Myton.
The first sign of trouble occurs when the silk is unloaded in Seattle. A customs agent (Usher), having been tipped off that something is wrong, examines the silk and finds evidence of “Mongolian Rust.” He wants to seize it, but Kilgore notices that the “rust” has only affected a small portion of the shipment and has the rest loaded aboard the train.
To complicate things further, Kilgore is approached by Dr. Harold Rolph (Steele), who is armed with a letter of introduction from the mayor of Seattle. Two people are accompanying Rolph: his patient, Professor Axel Nyberg (Digges), and Nyberg’s daughter and nurse, Paula (Terry). It seems a fly carrying a variation of sleeping sickness has bitten the professor while on expedition in Asia. The only hope for a cure is at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, and if they don’t get him there in 72 hours, the paralysis will reach his heart and the professor will be history.
Kilgore, being the good guy he is, tells the train’s conductor, Clark (Byron) that the trio is accompanying him to New York and has room made for them aboard the train. Shortly after another suspect is added as we see a tramp (Allen Jenkins) slipping aboard right before departure.
As the train departs, we come to a stretch in the film where the characters are getting to know each other and explaining their various missions. Meanwhile, Hohl is receiving telegrams at his headquarters in New York from yet another operative on the train, a special operative he placed there in case Craft and Burns fail.
The train is moving along at a goodly pace when Kilgore and Paula, who have stopped out onto the rear platform to get some fresh air, notice that one of the cars is on fire. The train is stopped and Kilgore and Calhoun, along with Clark, enter the car to extinguish the fire. They find none of the silk is damaged, but discover a body in the car. It’s the body of Johnson (Simpson), Kilgore’s secretary, who was last seen on the train platform in Seattle. Yes, there’s a murder, and yes, it’s a tragedy, but the train needs to be in New York, so they push on. But not for long; someone drops a note outside one of the main stations the train passes through and it’s brought to the attention of railway detective McDuff, who races down the line and stops the train to investigate. He tells Kilgore and the others the train is going nowhere until a full investigation is performed. Neither Kilgore nor Nyberg can wait that long, so a plan is devised to conk McDuff over the head, tie him up and deposit him in one the sleeping berths until the train gets to New York.
As the train continues another crisis rears its head. Calhoun discovers the letter of introduction Dr. Rolph handed Kilgore has the mayor’s signature forged. Calhoun deduces the mayor was in Montana when the letter was typed. Rolph admits the signature is a forgery, but maintains it had to be done in order to get Nyberg to New York. Paula pleads for her father, who Kilgore determines is not faking, and lets the trio stay on, as Paula, in his estimation, “wouldn’t know how to lie.” How’s that for deduction?
Yet more problems mount. A snowstorm threatens to delay the train. Nyberg begins fading fast. Dr. Rolph advises Kilgore to open the windows and let the cold air in to keep his patient awake. Clark, the conductor, disappears, and when he’s found, it’s too late. As there has been another murder committed aboard the train, Kilgore has no choice but to free McDuff and allow him to investigate. What he can’t figure out, however, is the manner in which Clark was killed. Enter the tramp, who identifies himself as Lloyds of London insurance investigator Raymond Griffith. He explains that Clark was another of Myton’s men. Clark killed Johnson and in turn was killed by driving a sharp icicle through his eye and into his brain. The only question now is, “Who done it?”
Kilgore has noticed that Nyberg has been in an extremely agitated state since Clark’s death was announced. Nyberg has reached the state where the paralysis has set in so deep that he has lost the power of speech and can only move his eyes. They know someone in the present company is the murderer. Kilgore believes Nyberg knows who did it and gets him to communicate by making a list of everyone on the train and asking the professor to blink once for “no” and “twice” for yes” each time a name is read out. It turns out Craft is the guilty man; Nyberg saw him remove one of the icicles hanging from the window.
Now that they have their man, all is well as the train pulls into New York. Nyberg is transferred onto an ambulance, but not before Paula and Kilgore promise to hook up. McDuff gets credit for solving the murders. The police want to close the train down until the investigation is finished, but Kilgore talks them into unloading the silk in time to defeat Myton, save the silk manufacturers, and prevent the consumer from paying high prices for silk garments.
Plot inconsistencies aside, The Silk Express has some things going for it. Ray Enright’s excellent direction keeps things balanced and moving, with no dead spots. In fact, the movie is so intent on covering its intrigues that there is no time for the usual sappy romance; the love story between Paula and Kilgore is more insinuated than expressed. Another point I noticed is that the film moves so quickly that we fail to realize there are several detectives working at odds with each other to solve the killing of Johnson in the storage car.
A nice touch is the realization by Craft and Burns that, although they are supposed to be working with the mystery man, they are in reality mere pawns whose real purpose is to have the murder pinned on their shoulders, especially since they believe they committed it. Another point about the film is that, in case the audience missed anything in the whirligig of a plot, the director cuts to Hohl explaining what is happening to his cohorts in New York. It’s as if Enright realized the film was, like its train, speeding out of control.
On the whole, the acting is decent; it’s a nice ensemble performance. The only person that sticks out is Guy Kibbee, who turns in a marvelous performance. I liked how Kibbee’s character was introduced, as a man with little to do but watch the stationmaster play a game of checkers with a counterpart via the station’s telegraph. As it turns out, Kibbee became involved in a little checkers game of his own.
Allen Jenkins was also fine, as his usual bombastic antics were toned way down. Arthur Hohl is fine as the heel and Sheila Terry makes the most of her role as Paula. And the casting of Barrat was Calhoun was a nice touch, as Barrat was familiar to most moviegoers as the bad guy in many films. It gave the audiences another red herring to consider, which adds to the fun.
The most interesting performer in the film is top-billed Neil Hamilton, who was rapidly reaching the end of his leading man status. Unlike other stars who began at the bottom and moved upward, Hamilton began at the top and moved his way downward: from star to supporting player to minor player to guest star on television series. He’s most famous to us today as Commissioner Gordon, from the camp-classic television series Batman (1966). Perhaps Hamilton’s strangest film appearance came in David O. Selznick’s war romance, Since You Went Away (1944). Cast as star Claudette Colbert’s husband, his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, and his only appearance in the film is in a photograph on the table.