Mystery Liner (1934)

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Sexed up grandmas looking for love in all the wrong places. “Continental men are my weakness.”
  • Uh, it’s about… war. And radio. And stuff. I got nothin’.
The role of a lifetime! Or about ten minutes.

The Never Ending Battle

“Radio controlled battleships and submarines would have won the first World War within a year!”

I’m going to start this review off with an embarrassing story. When I was in high school, I sat down and tried to watch Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. Now here’s the kicker: I couldn’t. Why? I couldn’t tell a single damn one of said angry men apart.

12 Angry Men is a tight little drama about twelve white men all in one room for about ninety minutes, and that’s about all I can remember about it. Nowadays I could easily pick out Henry Fonda or Martin Balsam, but back then they just blended together. I guess all old white men just look the same to me.

That’s the same issue I found in Mystery Liner, which involves a great number of men who look identical, talk identical and look identical. Did I mention that one already? The biggest name in the cast is Noah Beery(who shouldn’t be confused with his brother Wallace by any means), and he’s in exactly two scenes in the whole picture. I guess with star talent like that, they have to hold back a bit.

I do like that the film's shorthand for Grannie's son being a ninny is the wrinkled copy of Detective Comics he keeps on him at all times.

There are two women in the picture. One’s a pretty young nurse (Astrid Allwyn, a better name than actress) who falls in love with whatever handsome beau is left standing when the curtains fall. The other is Grannie Plimpton (Zeffie Tilbury), an unceasing horndog who is playing Rose to the titular mystery liner’s rendition of Titanic.

Not that the ship manages to go down, mind you, it’s just that it almost befalls an unspeakable disaster. And by unspeakable I mean unshowable since the special effects for the movie was blown completely on light bulbs. Blinking light bulbs, big light bulbs, steady light bulbs, slow ones. If you need but one film to research the history of light bulbs, get out more.

There are so many bulbs around because, and I do believe this is the first time I’ve run into this in a Pre-Code, the mystery liner is actually a remote controlled mystery liner. Scientists have been working long and hard to finally be able to drive cruise ships like they are but children in bathtubs, and thanks to the miracles of radio they can.

I forgot to get a screencap of the lightbulbs for some reason. Here's a shocked nurse instead. Shocked!

In case you don’t understand it, they drive the film to a dead stop for about twenty minutes to explain it. Twenty minutes. Of a 55 minute movie.

There are plenty of nefarious forces who think that this technology would be pretty cool to have– after all, with remote control boats, there’s absolutely nothing that could go wrong here in any foreseeable way– and so the boat is awash in spies.

And to be quite honest, the most impressive thing in the film to my modern eye isn’t the boat that’s supposedly remote controlled, but that the scientists and ship choose to communicate with each other by means of a writing on a machine and then seeing their writing appear on a screen on the other end. That they’re only about three leaps of thought away from text messaging makes it’s kind of stunning.

To give the movie a measure of credit, I didn’t see the ending of the film coming if only because it’s impossible to tell when the end is coming. When every scene seems the same, time becomes a miasma of nothingness.

End of this sentence: "two sexxxy, j/k, lol <3".

Don’t get me wrong: it’s never as bad as being incompetent like in The Lawless Frontier or The Big Shakedown, just on the side of bad with boring and bland.

The Sound of Sound

This film is another cheapo from Monogram, one of those studios that was more in the business of making movies than films. Besides the uninspired direction and laughable special effects, the easiest way to notice is in the sound design of the picture.

“Talkies”, as I’m sure you’re aware if you’ve bothered to track down this review, were still less than a decade old by the time Mystery Liner made the scene. Sound design, for an industry rooted in indifference to it, became a top priority. Even now, you can hear how much professionalism is behind a movie than you can oftentimes see it.

And, frankly, if I have to watch a bunch of people reacting to an out-of-control luxury cruise, when the filmmakers don’t show any shots of the boat actually moving through water and while everyone is standing around normally looking mildly concerned, I think a nice shrill violin or two may have made things a bit more tolerable. Not much, but a bit.

The issue with Mystery Liner may run into the waters around there. Every male has the same cadence. The boat and the ocean and the waves? Completely silent. If you’re thinking that they may be drowned out by the background music, then you’re even wrong there: that was a bit too much of a luxury.

"Gentlemen, dare we try the impossible? Should we.. . try and tell each other apart??"

Without it, the best that can be said about the film is that it’s at exactly the right pitch to lull you off to sleep. In fact, I think I’m headed that way myself…

Trivia & Links

  • I’ve got no Trivia for you this week. This film is widely available in the Public Domain, though, so it’s easy to watch. Huzzah.


Danny lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

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