Friday, April 21, 2017

Crime Does Not Pay #3: “Desert Death” (10/19/35)


I’m two weeks into the Crime Does Not Pay series here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and already I have been able to gauge its monumental success because the CDNP shorts that had been previously posted at YouTube have been removed.  I swear I’m not making this up.  Some kind soul uploaded some of the two-reelers to the ‘Tube, blissfully unaware that they are owned by legitimate copyright holders…so you could argue that it was only a matter of time before it was brought to someone’s attention and the necessary “cease and desist” letter mailed to the violator.  (As always, cartooners—Uncle Ivan frowns on people who disregard copyrights…unless it’s a movie he really wants to see and can’t become some rat bastard has it locked it away in a vault somewhere.)  I thought that if I refrained from mentioning the shorts’ presence on YouTube, I could continue to conveniently view them in the confines of Count Comfy von Chair and not have to resort to sitting in my painful office desk chair, preparing my weekly snark.  As for those of you who are smugly saying to yourself right now “Well—he’s certainly overstated his importance in the blogosphere, the conceited ass!” I can only counter: “Can you prove it didn’t happen?”


This week, even though the “MGM Reporter” is identified at the (always reliable) IMDb, it would not have been necessary for me to consult that reference source because I recognized him right off as actor Richard Carlson—star of TV’s I Led 3 Lives and many science-fiction movie classics like It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).  (The [always reliable] IMDb says this is his first movie—believe them if you must.)  In fact, Desert Death (1935) is the first Crime Does Not Pay short to credit performers in its main titles—the lucky winners are character great Raymond Hatton (a silent film veteran best known for his appearances in the “Three Mesquiteers” series) and not-quite-yet-a-character-great-but-on-his-way Harvey Stephens, remembered for his impressive stage work and appearances in movies like The Cheat (1931) and Evelyn Prentice (1934).  And now, let’s see what’s going on down in Pine Ridge…

REPORTER: How do you do, ladies and gentlemen…this is the MGM Reporter drawing your attention once again to the fact that crime is one business in which the final entry must always be set down in the debit side of the ledger…

Suppose you’re using two sets of books?

REPORTER: At this time, it’s my privilege to interview for you Mr. Burton James, chief investigator for one of the nation’s largest insurance companies…

As always, the individual who narrates these shorts is completely fictional—“James” is played by actor John Hyams, whose slightly-more-famous daughter Leila appeared in such movie classics as Freaks (1932) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935).


REPORTER: From your experience, Mr. James, do you believe that crime does not pay?

“I’d be a fool to answer ‘no,’ young fella—do I look like I want MGM to stop payment on my check?”  James explains to Reporter Guy that “the criminal, no matter how clever he is, can’t win.”

JAMES: Now in this work of insurance investigation—we deal with some of the brainiest and most astute criminals in the world…
REPORTER: And if the smart criminal can’t win—there certainly isn’t much chance for any of the others, eh?

“That’s right, my boy.  Crime is not a profession for morons.”  Because we have twenty minutes to kill, James has just such a tale to illustrate how not even the best and the brightest can advance in the challenging, dog-eat-dog world of wanton criminality—ace investigator Bob Mehaffey (Stephens) is sent out into “desert country” to probe into the death of a man named John Collins…accompanied by a local sheriff (Erville Anderson) who looks as if he and Chet Lauck share the same makeup man.  The deceased Collins had been living with his cousin, George Lesh, out on Lesh’s sheep ranch for the past six months.  According to “Sheriff Alder.” Collins had been out to pick up some supplies and in his driving haste, badly negotiated a hairpin turn.  He went down an embankment, and might have walked away with nary a scratch had the cans of gasoline in the back of his vehicle not explodiated upon impact.


MEHAFFEY: What can you tell me about Collins?
SHERIFF: Well, nobody rightly knows much about him…and even less about old Lesh…Lesh is a…county mystery, you might say…came here to herd sheep for the Magowan Brothers about fifteen years ago and scarcely a…a soul has as much as laid eyes on him close up in all that time…
MEHAFFEY: How come?
SHERIFF: Well, he’s what you might call a ree-cluse

When Mehaffey inquires as to how Lesh gets his supplies, Alder explains that in addition to his being a lawman he owns the local store (you thought I was kidding with the Lum ‘n’ Abner comparisons, didn’t you?)—and his delivery man makes regular trips up to Lesh’s mailbox.  (Lesh’s box, by the way, is fourteen miles from his spread.  And to think I complain about having to dodge mud puddles to pick up the House of Yesteryear’s mail.)  Old Lesh will leave a list of what he needs in the box and the money to cover it, and once the delivery guy picks that up he returns to town, grabs what the old hermit needs from the Jot ‘Em Down Store’s inventory, and brings it back to deposit at the mailbox.  Lesh then waits until sundown to retrieve the goods.  (I suppose I don’t have to tell you that if Lesh ever needs any dairy products he’s going to be seriously boned, what with living in the desert and all.)

MEHAFFEY: Queer old duck, eh?
SHERIFF: Ain’t no name for it…gets his pay the same way at the mailbox…
MEHAFFEY: Ever see the dead man—Collins?
SHERIFF: Only sorta…

Sheriff Lum relates spotting Collins when he first arrived in Allenville six months ago.  He wasn’t able to identify Collins’ body in the wreck at first—“There wasn’t much left of him as you could see back there in the undertaking parlor”—and originally assumed it was Old Lesh who cracked up in the vehicle (it was his “flivver”).  But there were items in the wreck with Collins’ initials on them (a hat, a ring, and a pocket watch), and upon stopping by the shack, Old Lesh accompanied Alder to identify the body.


The two men arrive at the scene of Collins’ accident.  I strongly suspect that the “large insurance company” referenced by the MGM Reporter at the beginning of this narrative is Central Casualty, the outfit that employs Eric Gregg (Ronald Reagan) in the 1939 programmer Accidents Will Happen.  Why, you may be asking?  Well, because after an examination by Mehaffey…there are elements to this “accident” that do not add up.

A pool of oil clearly visible on the highway…


The ignition switch is in the “off” position…


MEHAFFEY: Strong smell of gasoline, isn’t there?
SHERIFF: Shouldn’t wonder…he had twenty-five gallons in that back seat…

“Twenty-five gallons?  What was he doing, drinking it?”  Mehaffey finds the remnants of one of the cans…with a peculiar gash in the top…


An additional canvassing of the area turns up evidence of some sagebrush that’s been removed from its base…a further search reveals the missing piece, tossed aside a few yards away…


SHERIFF: What’s that you got there?
MEHAFFEY: Piece of sagebrush, isn’t it?
SHERIFF: Sure…country’s all cluttered up with it…

“We are in the desert, you know.”  Finally, Mehaffey locates a teensy scrap of paper on the ground…and breaks the silence with “Sheriff…I’m not sure that was an accident.”

SHERIFF: No?  You think it was planned, mebbe?
MEHAFFEY: I’m not sure yet…
SHERIFF: Suicide?
MEHAFFEY: Might be…guess we better get up and see Old Lesh…


And so our heroes arrive at what used to be the old Haney place—now the address of Lesh the Hermit.  They’re greeted by several dogs, who commence to barking at the strangers until an elderly gent (Hatton) emerges from behind the shack, and adroitly tends to the nuisance by throwing a few rocks at the canines.  Alder makes the proper introductions, and the trio go inside the house.


MEHAFFEY: Mister Lesh?  Sheriff Alder here tells me you’ve been living here alone for a long time…up until about six months ago…
LESH: Yeah…that’s right…
MEHAFFEY: Do you mind if I ask you just how it happened that Mr. Collins came out here to live with you?

Lesh explains that he and John Collins (Arthur Stone) are cousins, and in a series of flashbacks he tells Mehaffey that while he was reluctant to take Collins in, he felt an obligation since he was his only living relative.  Collins wrote in a letter that he was dying and needed a change of climate for his health.  As he strolls merrily along Memory Lane, Mehaffey offers him a cigarette…and Lesh accepts it as if he hasn’t made a trip to Flavor Country in months.


LESH: You been here three days now, John…it’s time I said somethin’…
COLLINS: Well?
LESH: The minute I laid eyes on ya I knew there wasn’t nothin’ wrong with your health…’cept maybe a little too much alky-hol…what’s this all about?
COLLINS: Well, I’ve been meaning to tell you all along, George…the fact is I…I didn’t know how you’d take it…I’m…well…I’m in a jam…you see…I got mixed up in a shady deal over some government bonds and…I’ve just gotta have a good, safe place to hide until the whole thing blows over…

Mehaffey informs Lesh that Collins wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie as he produces a piece of paper from his pocket—it’s a notice with Collins’ picture on it, and the words “Fugitive Wanted” printed above.

LESH: Of course…after I heard about this I…told him to clear out…but he begged me to stay…he said he wasn’t wholly to blame…and you know, after he’d been here the first few days…I really enjoyed talkin’ to someone…

“Felons always seem to tell the best stories.”

MEHAFFEY: Did anyone see him during the six months he was here?
LESH: Why…uh…no…not that I recollect…you see, he wanted to avoid seein’ folks…
MEHAFFEY: Did he usually go up to the junction for the supplies?
LESH: No…no…I did…but I got in kinda late and I was just plumb tired out and…he said he’d go up for the stuff so I...I let him…I guess I hadn’t oughta done it…he’d be alive yet…

“Didn’t you wonder what happened to him when he didn’t return?” presses Mehaffey.  Lesh claims he knew nothing about it until Alder came in and woke him up the next morning to report the accident.  Then the investigator goes for the Coup de Gracie:


MEHAFFEY: Mr. Lesh…did you know that John Collins took out a $75,000 life insurance policy…naming you as beneficiary just before he left the East?
LESH: Why…no!
MEHAFFEY: Well, he did…he had a double indemnity in case of accident clause, too…that’s why I’m here…we’ll be paying out $150,000

Mehaffey is puzzled that Collins never mentioned what a grand guy he was to be so thoughtful of his cuz…until Lesh remembers that Cousin John did refer to it in passing:

COLLINS: I’m innocent…but if you turn me out, they’ll put me in jail for something I didn’t do just the same…let me stay…just a little while…you’ll never regret taking me in…I’ve…seen to that…

“But this policy is voided in case of suicide,” continues Mehaffey.  “Now, can you think of any reason—apart from the fact that he was a fugitive from justice—why he might have wanted to take his own life and make it look like an accident?”  George pooh-poohs this notion, recalling that the deceased Collins was feeling “pretty chipper” the last couple of days and had even made noises about returning East.  “You don’t mean that…that he’d take his life to pay me back?” inquires Lesh.  Lesh refuses to entertain such a notion…but let’s be reasonable, old timer—he’s been hiding out from the long arm of the law for six months; I wouldn’t put anything past him.

“Do you mind if I look around a little?”  Mehaffey asks the old man.  “I’ve got to make my report sound like I’m on the job.”  (“And to justify this fat expense account the company affords me, no questions asked.”)  In looking about the cabin, the investigator notices a pipe and a nearly full tin of tobacco.  “Yours?” he asks Lesh, and Lesh replies in the affirmative.  The investigator also asks upon spying a straight razor and shaving brush if the items belong to Lesh, with the bearded Lesh remarking that “I gave those up years ago.”  (They belonged to Collins.)



Having completed his snooping, Mehaffey seats himself at a desk to jot down some notes on a pad…and deliberately breaks the point of his pencil.  “Got a knife?” he asks his host, and Lesh produces one from his pocket.  Mehaffey re-sharpens his pencil, but before returning the knife to George he pulls the piece of the gas canister from his pocket, and inserts the blade in the puncture.  It fits like a glove.  He hands the knife back to Lesh, and remarks to Alder: “Well, Sheriff…guess we can be getting back to Allenville now…”

SHERIFF: Suits me…
MEHAFFEY: …but I think we’d better take this gentleman back with us…
SHERIFF: Him?  Why?
MEHAFFEY: So you can book him on a charge of murder


Dun-dun-DUN!!!!

LESH: Oh, I see…you’re tryin’ to frame me…to cheat me out of that insurance money… (To Alder) I tell ya he’s talkin’ nonsense!
SHERIFF: I’m halfway inclined to agree with ya!

“But on the other hand…it’s possible he’s right.”  (Fence straddler.  Must be a Democrat.)

SHERIFF: I’m right curious, Mister—just how you figure out this murder business…

“He probably didn’t commit any murder.  It’s just that…well, we are an insurance company and we’ll do just about anything to avoid paying a claim.”  No, I’m just kidding—Mehaffey has the goods on old George:

MEHAFFEY: In spite of what you say, you did know that John Collins had taken out a life insurance policy payable to George Lesh…you planned this murder for months…you ordered the gasoline and knew when it would be delivered…so in some way, you either killed your victim or knocked him out…then you drove to the junction in the dark and picked up the cans of gasoline…you drove back and stopped the car where the so-called accident happened…I know you stopped, because I found the little pool of oil that formed in the road while the car stood there…

There’s more, of course.  The ignition switch was still in the “off” position, because the murderer forgot to turn it back on as he was shoving the vehicle over the embankment.  The gasoline cans were gashed open with the knife, and the snapped sagebrush was where the killer used a piece to cover up his footprints.  The scrap of paper Mehaffey found at the scene was what was left of the torch the murderer fashioned to set the gasoline-soaked flivver ablaze.  An outraged Lesh accuses Mehaffey of lying, and concocting the story to get out of paying the claim (hey, there must be some reason why there’s fifty gazillion lawyer commercials on the tee vee warning me not to trust insurance companies).  It looks to be a “he-said-he-said” situation until Lesh stupidly picks up a shotgun by the door and brandishes it at the two men…then makes a run for it…


Get him, Lassie!  Go get him, girl!  One of the barking dogs leaps upon Lesh, sending him to the ground and allowing Alder and Mehaffey to procure his weapon.  Mehaffey asks the sheriff for the handcuffs, and he quickly snaps them on Lesh’s wrists.  “You men are crazy,” snarls Lesh.  “I swear I didn’t murder John Collins.”

“I don’t remember saying that you did,” replies Mehaffey as he grabs the shaving brush and razor and promises the Sheriff “a big surprise” as he moves toward Lesh.  (Yes, this is where Desert Death goes south for me because I seriously doubt Lesh would sit there and allow someone to shave him without struggle or protest.)


“There…you’re nice and clean…although your face…looks…like…it’s…gone…t’ru…a…machine…”  Mehaffey’s back is toward the camera, and when he steps out of the way “Lesh” is revealed to be none other than John Collins.  Since no one had seen “Old Lesh” in years, the two men’s builds and height were virtually identical—and Collins waited six months before he killed the old codger to allow his beard to grow in approximation of his victim.  How did Mehaffey know “Lesh” was Collins?  Well, Collins attacked that cigarette he was offered even though he had a pipe and tobacco within reach.  If the razor and shaving brush did belong to Collins, there would have been signs of use (earlier, Mehaffey touched the bristles on the brush and raised up a small cloud of dust).  But what cinched his suspicions was the reaction the two men got on their arrival from the dogs around the shack: “No sheepherder ever lived that had dogs who wouldn’t obey.”  (So you’re saying the damn dog did most of the work, and you couldn’t even give him a simple “Well, King…thanks to you, this case is closed.”)


And in slipping the handcuffs on Collins, he saw an untanned band around one of his fingers—one that had been accommodating the same bit of bling that Alden found among the effects in the wreckage.  “The sun gave him away.”  (Stupid sun.)

JAMES: Collins was one of the cleverest and brainiest crooks the police have ever had to deal with…but he wasn’t quite clever enough…he died in the electric chair…

It hurts, they tell me.


REPORTER: And if the law finally gets a brilliant criminal like Collins—what chance do the others…the…the less clever ones…of making crime pay?
JAMES: No chance in the world, my boy…no chance


Remember, kids—if you’re going to commit a crime, be sure to take that I.Q. test beforehand.  Next week: A Thrill for Thelma.  G’bye now!

No comments: