Benjamin Stoloff | Subjects
| Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style
Films: To Beat the Band
| Two in the Dark | Super-Sleuth
| Radio City Revels | The Lady and the Mob
| The Mysterious Doctor
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Benjamin Stoloff was a Hollywood filmmaker. He directed B movies at RKO in the 1930's.
During the 1940's he became a producer. Anthony Mann
directed a remake of Stoloff's Two in the Dark for producer Stoloff, at an early stage of Mann's career.
Benjamin Stoloff: Subjects
Common plot elements in Benjamin Stoloff films:
- Amateur detectives (amnesiac hero and woman: Two in the Dark,
movie detective tries to solve real crime: Super-Sleuth,
society lady vs. the mob, ex-crooks get deputized: The Lady and the Mob,
doctor, Bart: The Mysterious Doctor)
- Characters getting dressed up in fancy new clothes (hero shops for suit after murder: Two in the Dark,
Oakie and Berle lure Bob Burns into wearing tails: Radio City Revels,
heroine gets Hymer chauffeur's uniform, new dress for Lupino: The Lady and the Mob)
- Characters tend minor injuries (hero after attack at start: Two in the Dark,
good guys after fights: The Lady and the Mob)
- Openings of mystery films set in misty darkness, out of which
the hero emerges, as out of nothing (Two in the Dark, The Mysterious Doctor)
related (rain outside the night club: Super-Sleuth)
- Amnesia (hero: Two in the Dark, Bart: The Mysterious Doctor)
- Characters write at desks (villain writes threatening letter: Super-Sleuth,
doctor keeps small concealed journal: The Mysterious Doctor)
- Country inns (Palooka's Country Inn: Palooka,
Running Horse pub: The Mysterious Doctor)
- Jails (The Lady and the Mob, The Mysterious Doctor)
- Tiresome, dull comedy relief - the low point of some Stoloff films.
Benjamin Stoloff: Structure and Story Telling
- Use of character actors and comedians as his leads, rather
than conventional leading men and stars (Jimmy Durante: Palooka,
Hugh Herbert, Helen Broderick: To Beat the Band,
Walter Abel: Two in the Dark,
Jack Oakie: Super-Sleuth, Jack Oakie, Bob Burns: Radio City Revels,
Fay Bainter: The Lady and the Mob)
- Comedy scenes of actors in dual roles (Jimmy Durante as baby: Palooka,
Hugh Herbert as aunt: To Beat the Band)
Benjamin Stoloff: Visual Style
- Highly geometric sets, featuring circular forms
(fountain, with a circular sidewalk: Two in the Dark,
reception area, nightclub circular ceiling: Super-Sleuth,
spiral staircase, circular sunken lounge, rugs: Radio City Revels,
elliptical drive: The Lady and the Mob)
- Circular objects and props (sphere-and-cone puzzle: To Beat the Band,
umbrella with circular hole in center: Super-Sleuth,
gas mask openings, cylindrical gas mask containers: The Mysterious Doctor)
- Art Deco sets (To Beat the Band,
film studio: Super-Sleuth, Radio City Revels)
- Occasional overhead shots, used for staging action (Two in the Dark)
- Symmetrical balance of groups of characters in spectacles
on the left and right side of the screen (perhaps due to the choreographers)
(finale with male and female orchestras: To Beat the Band,
"Take a Tip from the Tulip": Radio City Revels)
- Looking through obstacles to sets (witness peering through crack in screen, through umbrella: Super-Sleuth,
heroine observing night club through window: The Lady and the Mob,
looking through small jail window with curved bars: The Mysterious Doctor)
- Multi-level sets and groups of people arranged on them (band stands at end: To Beat the Band,
pub landing inside, pub porch outdoors: The Mysterious Doctor)
These are not found in all Stoloff films.
- Evening clothes (To Beat the Band, Super-Sleuth, Radio City Revels)
- Dressy uniforms (Ward Bond as cop at start: Two in the Dark,
Warren Hymer as chauffeur: The Lady and the Mob,
Bruce Lester as officer: The Mysterious Doctor)
To Beat the Band
To Beat the Band (1935) is a minor but cheery film. Lots
of the material in it is cornball or just plain dumb, but it always
makes one smile. It is better visually and in its musical numbers
than in the comedy elements of the script.
RKO's little B musicals of the mid 1930's are unlike anything
else. They have almost nonsensical plots. The stories tend to
be comic extravaganzas. They are not primarily romances, and they
are not rags to riches backstage stories: the two most common
kinds of Hollywood musical plots. The tone of the RKO films is
bright, cheery and absurd, with plenty of upbeat comedy. Everyone
seems full of energy. The musical numbers themselves are frenetic,
and tend to have a comic tone, with silly lyrics and comic dance
Costumes: Walter Plunckett at his best
Some aspects of this film are genuinely good. Walter Plunckett
shows his skill with costumes. The tuxedos worn by everybody half
way through the picture are terrific; I'd love to have one of
these myself. The way they are worn by the whole band gives plenty
The white tie and tails worn by the band-leader later is also
very stylish and upbeat. Today, when people in film wear white
tie and tails, they always look unstylish. But in old movies,
everyone looks sensational in them. It is unclear why. The band
leader's tails are full of carefully designed curves. His white
waistcoat curves into two points at its base, the claws of the
coat are curved, with two circular buttons right above them, his
white tie is unusually large and rounded, and his stiff collar
is unusually large and tall, with a mass of interesting curved
surfaces in 3D. All of these visually interesting regions add
to the geometric complexity of the scenes in which he is in.
The band leader (played by Fred Keating, a real life orchestra
leader) is often dressed at one level up from his band. If they
are in shirt sleeves, he is in a tuxedo. If they are in tuxedos,
he is wearing white tie and tails. The film as a whole gets its
characters more and more dressed up it progresses; this is a standard
approach in 1930's musicals. In other films, it often correlates
with and visually signifies a "rags to riches" plot;
but it has no such significance here. It is just a purely emotional
pattern followed by the movie.
The night club scenes organize the band into two groups. At the
right of the stage is an all woman band. They are dressed all
alike in silver gowns, with black trim. On the left, are the male
members of the band we have seen throughout the picture. They
are in black tuxedos, with white shirts forming an accent. The
two groups are like mirror images of each other. They reflect
polarities: male-female, left-right, black clothes edged in white,
silver clothes edged in black. Both groups sing the same song,
"Meet Miss America of 1936".
Stoloff does a beautiful rapid pan from one group to the other.
The night club scenes have several pans, sweeping through the complex set
and the ornately costumed characters. These pans tend to be fast,
and full of visual information.
Dancing - part of the performance of Music
The band members often move rhythmically as they play. Some stomp
their feet, others move a violin bow, or pluck a bass. The band
leader is always moving his hands in time with the music. Even
though the band and its leader are not strictly speaking dancing,
these are clearly dance scenes, and seem to be choreographed.
They give the film a strong rhythmic propulsion, as everything
in a shot moves in accord with the beat of the music. The band
leader is often shown in front of his men. They will all be arranged
in some complex pattern behind him, while he appears in the foreground
of the shot. The whole group seems to operate as a team, visually
as well as musically.
Even the non-dance numbers in this film seem choreographed. The
various members of the band are often arranged in geometric patterns
on screen. So are shots with just two or three performers - they
all seem to have some geometric construction. Especially beautiful
are the scenes with the dance band at the end. Some of the compositions
have a beauty worthy of Mizoguchi.
Each band member is positioned so that he is visible as an individual,
and also so that he blends into the geometry of the ensemble staging.
When the dance soloist does come out, he is dressed just like
the musicians in the band, in a matching tuxedo. He first appears
as a musician, plucking on a bass. His solo is performed all over
a group of musical instruments, that look just like those played
by the band. This makes him part of the band team, sending many
strong visual signals to indicate his membership in this group.
The tap dancer here is Sonny Lamont. He is terrific, but unfortunately
only made a handful of films in the later 1930's.
The Geometric Sets: Art Deco
The entire film seems to be designed on geometric lines. Most
of the sets are Art Deco. Deco emphasizes pure geometric forms:
rectangles, circles and their three dimensional equivalents. This
means that every set is a feast of geometric forms. Aside from
the people and the plants (there are flowers everywhere), everything
in the film is a pure geometric object. Even the comic toy with
which Hugh Herbert is obsessed is a combination of a sphere and
a cone. The view through the apartment window shows a typical
Deco skyscraper of New York City, built according to the famed
Deco Rule of Threes. The apartment is full of recessed windows
and doorways; these recesses form 3D rectilinear solids that add
to the geometric splendor of the sets.
Zig Zag walls - and shooting angles. The night club set
at the end has walls that constantly indent, at pure 90 degree
angles. These walls are typically featured in the background of
the shots. This gives a pure geometric form to the rear of the
composition. The indenting is often repeated, and at a series
of irregular intervals. This allows for elaborate compositions
to be formed. There is also a horizontal band running at head
level along the zig zag walls. This too helps create compositions.
Multi-level sets. Stoloff often stages scenes with different
groups of characters at different levels of the set. In the nightclub
scene, the patrons at their tables are at one level, the band
leader at another, and the various members of the band on three
more levels on the band stand. This allows all of the characters
to be easily seen, and to be organized into systematic visual
zones on screen. It also allows for beautiful compositions, with
all the performers on screen to be arrayed into visually pleasing
- shoot almost frontally, parallel to the zig zag walls
- or introduce long perspective shots, which arrange every aspect
of the nightclub, patrons, band stand, wall, along long diagonal
lines (very beautiful)
- or he can shoot at exactly a 45 degree angle to the wall,
so that its zigzag in and out produces a diamond lozenge effect
in the composition. These diamond scenes have a breathtaking geometrical
purity, that underscores the Deco, Constructivist nature of the
Two in the Dark
The Opening: Geometric Sets
Two in the Dark (1936) is a mystery story, dealing with
amnesia. It has a beautiful opening, in a foggy park. The fog
symbolizes the mental confusion of the hero, who is just coming
to and taking stock after his amnesia.
The sets here are geometrical. There is a round fountain, with
a circular sidewalk around it. Radiating from it are spoke like
paths. These are bounded by park benches, and sometimes fences
through which Stoloff shoots. There are also spherical light globes
on lamp posts. Such geometric worlds remind one of the complex
interiors of Stoloff's musicals, which are also filled with circles,
and with rectilinear regions.
The most unusual shot in the film is the one in which Abel drops
out of the rooming house window. The camera shoots straight down,
and we see Abel land on the ground below, then stand up. It is
visually quite dramatic. It has a different feel from any other
shot in the cinema that I can recall.
Later, Stoloff will include another nearly overhead shot of a
Seton I. Miller's script shows expert construction. Every scene
brings us a little more knowledge about the hero's background,
and the mystery plot. The story is based on a novel by Gelett Burgess,
Two O'Clock Courage (1934). Two O'Clock Courage
is also the name of the play within the movie. Two O'Clock
Courage was also used by Anthony Mann
as the title of the movie remake he made in 1945, a film that
had Stoloff as producer.
This film has a serene quality. In Mann's remake, there is a great
sense of menace to the hero, and a feeling of suspense. Here,
by contrast, the hero never seems in great danger. Instead, one
feels he is a major intellect, calmly putting his life back together
piece by piece, and solving the mystery. He is a figure representing
Many of the scenes seem carefully timed. Both in the script and
the direction, one feels that just enough time has been allotted
for the characters to perform their actions. Partly, this reflects
a 1930's film aesthetic, in which a huge plot had to be crammed
into 70 minutes, as economically as possible. But it is also a
figure of style in this movie. Take the brief scene where Abel
goes back to his old friend's room. Events happen thick and fast
after he reopens the door. They are timed with razor sharp rapidity.
Character Actor as Lead
Stoloff tended to make films without conventional stars. Here
classy supporting actor Walter Abel is his lead. Abel often played
District Attorneys and other refined intellectual types. Here
he has a chance to star in a picture. The lack of big stars in
Stoloff films is partly a matter of their B-movie status - the
filmmakers clearly couldn't afford to hire Clark Gable. Yet many
other B movie directors would try to find some young unknown guy
who could play a Gable-type leading man. Not Stoloff. He would
star supporting actors, either such off trail comedians as Jimmy
Durante or Hugh Herbert, or character actors like Abel. This gives
his films a different feel from much of Hollywood cinema.
Two in the Dark is also full of familiar supporting players,
mainly comic types. This reaches its high point in an early scene at
the victim's mansion, with Alan Hale as a policeman, Wallace Ford
as a reporter, Eric Blore as the butler, and Erik Rhodes as a
visiting violinist. All of these beloved character comics play
non-suspects in the movie. Later, when we shift to the hotel,
and start meeting the suspects in the mystery plot, they are played
by much less well known actors. The delicacy of the performances
is sustained throughout. Everyone acts in a restrained and low
The costumes are also subdued. All of the men wear suits throughout
the movie: no one is in evening clothes. The heroine wears suits
as well. The numerous police in the film are in matching uniforms,
that also are suit-like with white dress shirts and ties. There
is much less sense of class divisions here than in the remake.
The heroine is an actress, moving in the same theatrical
world as the hero; both seem equally refined. All of the men in
the film are equally well dressed in good but quiet and dignified
suits. This also conveys a sense that they are part of the same
social class and world.
Super-Sleuth (1937) is a crime comedy, with a backstage look
at the film industry. Its first half is fun, but it runs out of ideas midway.
The film also suffers from stereotyped "comedy" with its black servant.
Crime Film Atmosphere
The scenes outside the night club, with the villain wandering around in the rain,
show Stoloff's fondness for scenes involving mist at night. They are atmospheric.
They seem to anticipate all the night-and-rain scenes, that will soon run
through film noir in the 1940's.
The villain is shown writing a threatening letter at his desk, at the start.
It reminds one of Peter Lorre's mad killer writing to the newspapers in
M (Fritz Lang, 1931).
Geometry, Sets and Art Deco
The film studio is in complete Art Deco mode. Notable is the reception area,
which has a circular desk under a circular ceiling fixture. The studio exterior
also contains circular logos. The nightclub also includes a circular ceiling,
and many round tables.
Not part of a set, but still geometric, is the strange umbrella used by the villain.
First we see him filmed through a circular opening in the center of the umbrella.
This shot has two concentric circles from the umbrella, and is quite striking.
Looking through Obstacles
Next, we see the night club through the umbrella. It serves as a circular mask.
This sort of circular masking effect is common in the films of
Later, we see shots of a witness peering through a crack in a screen.
Backstage in the Film Industry
The screenwriters show ingenuity, in finding ways to integrate
various aspects of the film industry, into the mystery story.
There is both a scene being shot on a studio set, and one on location.
Both display camera movement being created:
The sound stage includes a sound effects team, who make noises live during
filming - just as if this were a radio broadcast. We also see an immediate
playback (on a phonograph record) of the sound from a just-completed shot.
- We see a camera receding, on the studio sound stage.
- An outdoor car chase is filmed with a "Camera car", as its label says.
Character Actor as Lead
Jack Oakie, a comedian often seen in support, here gets the starring role.
Super-Sleuth also features such gifted supporting actors as Edgar Kennedy as a cop,
and Paul Guilfoyle as the director of the film-within-the-film.
Perhaps to make up for this, there are some leading man types in small roles.
Ronald R. Rondell makes a strong impression, in his single scene as the Battling Headwaiter.
He speaks in both English and his native Italian. He looks sensational in
his white tie and tails, once again from the great costume designer
Alan Bruce also looks good in his supporting role as a stand-in.
One wonders why this young actor's screen career was so short lived.
Radio City Revels
Radio City Revels (1938) is an uneven musical, parts of
it being good and parts awful. Its big problem: endless scenes
of unfunny comedy relief. The film manages to reduce such expert
comedians as Jack Oakie, Helen Broderick and a young Milton Berle
to dullness. Helen Broderick repeats a similar role and characterization
as in Stoloff's To Beat the Band. We also see then popular
radio comedian Bob Burns doing his Arkansas hillbilly routines,
which seem very uninteresting and stereotyped. Milton Berle does
do a good job with the scene in which he declares his loyalty
to Jack Oakie. This is unexpectedly touching.
Musical Numbers - and a strange, abstract montage
Radio City Revels has some merits. Its musical numbers
were actually directed by someone other than Stoloff: in this
case, Joseph Santley, and were choreographed by Fred Astaire's
long time collaborator, Hermes Pan.
The film starts off well, with popular tenor Kenny Baker singing
"I'm Taking a Shine to You", followed by Ann Miller doing a delightful tap dance
to this same tune. Unfortunately, this is the last time Ann Miller
gets to dance till the finale of the picture, in "Speak to
Your Heart". Kenny Baker later does a pleasant serenade of
Miller at the party with "Good Night, Angel", but on
the whole, he and Miller are woefully underemployed here. The
filmmakers would have been much smarter to make a Miller-Baker
musical in the style of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies.
Instead, these two talented performers are relegated to the sidelines
throughout the picture. However, even the musical numbers throughout
much of this film are pretty ho-hum.
Aside from the opening and closing numbers, with their pleasant
singing and Ann Miller's dancing, the best part of the picture
is a long middle sequence mainly set at Jack Oakie's apartment.
First, we see the composition of "Take a Tip from the Tulip".
This includes a creative montage, showing the song's popularity
with the public. This montage emphasizes dissolves and superimpositions.
Many of the superimposed images seem to be abstract white patterns
representing music. The whole effect is oddly different from the
typical Hollywood montage. It represents abstract prettiness rather
than gritty imagery.
Next comes a musical performance of "Take a Tip from the
Tulip". The chorus singing is all in white tie and tails,
the first use of this costume in the picture. They enter from
the left and right side of the screen, formally marking the entrance
of a new element into the film.
A Spectacular Geometric Set
Immediately afterwards comes a long party sequence at Oakie's
apartment, which is the dramatic highlight of the non-musical
sequences in the movie. All the men are in white tie and tails
here, just as in the musical number. This sequence is a triumph,
largely due to the highly creative apartment set.
Alfred Hermann's sets are in full Art Deco mode. Jack Oakie's
huge Art Deco apartment is especially delightful. Had this set
been part of a more consistently entertaining movie, it might
now be fondly remembered as some sort of classic. Unfortunately,
it is embedded in one of Hollywood's more routine musicals. The
chances of many people seeing it or studying it are slim. The
cylindrical spiral staircase is especially beautiful. It looks
like a piece of geometric sculpture, arising from the middle of
the floor. The circular sunken lounge is also geometric. The entire
apartment is like a giant sculptural environment in which the
characters can wander. The geometric effect is enhanced by the
rugs. Some are circular, others rectangular. These white rugs
are arranged at intervals on a dark floor, and form geometric
regions that integrate with the furniture and windows to produce
compositional effects. The alternation of white rugs and black
floor echoes the white tie and black tail coats worn by the men.
The apartment also has a huge terrace, with a complex balustrade.
Beyond it we see the New York City skyline, with skyscrapers and
many lights that constantly blink on and off.
There is a pleasing camera movement, which follows Oakie as he
walks around, greeting the spiffy guests at his party. The camera
movement has a gentle start and stop quality, as Oakie moves from
group to group of guests.
Stoloff employs other camera movements in the film, as the characters
explore the large set.
Costumes: Edward Stevenson and White Tie and Tails
Edward Stevenson's costumes have merit. Even Bob Burns looks classy
and sophisticated in the white tie and tails Stevenson has provided
for him. The party at Oakie's apartment, in which all the men
are in tails and with the Deco set beautifully lit shows the glamour
and escapism that RKO's expert technicians could provide. Each
man's dress suit is slightly different, showing plenty of visual
variety. Everyone looks as if they thoroughly enjoy wearing these
polished looking outfits. Perhaps this quality of enjoyment is
one reason people looked so good in the 1930's films. These were
also clothes the audience would love to wear. The film makes Oakie
and Berle's luring Bob Burns into wearing the dress suit part
of the actual plot.
The Lady and the Mob
The Lady and the Mob (1939) is a mystery-comedy. It spoofs gangster
films, with a city's sweet dowager going after the Mob. The comedy is much better
in The Lady and the Mob than in some other Stoloff films.
The comedy about the heroine and her team's amateur detective work recalls
Super-Sleuth, where Jack Oakie also did comic amateur detection.
Character Actor as Lead
Fay Bainter, a fine actress usually seen in support, plays the elderly heroine.
She is quite funny as the maniacal dowager. A note: normally, one might be
concerned about her breaking the law and using vigilante tactics going after gangsters.
I'm not embracing these illegal, immoral approaches here - but it is funny to see a
sweet society lady doing all these outrageous things.
Warren Hymer, also a supporting actor, gets a sizable role. And Ida Lupino,
not yet a big star, does her usual good job with what is more a
character comedy part than a leading lady.
When the car demonstrates its special features, it swirls round and around
the drive in front of mansion. The drive is curved: maybe an ellipse.
Looking through Obstacles
The night club scene is staged oddly. We mainly see the heroine looking
through a window from outside, peering into the club.
Stoloff sometimes show characters getting dressed up in new clothes.
Warren Hymer is given by the dowager a chauffeur's outfit that is spectacular, with boots
and prominent gloves. He even gets a scene where he admires himself in the mirror.
Ida Lupino also gets a funny scene, where she gets a slinky black dress to do
undercover work in a night club. We see her modeling it for the dowager,
as the two crack wise.
The Mysterious Doctor
The Mysterious Doctor (1943) is one of many Hollywood mystery
films set in the British Isles. Its story recalls a bit the much-filmed play
The Gost Train (1923) by Arnold Ridley. Both have settings in
remote parts of Britain, where fake supernatural elements are
terrorizing the locals, and hiding sinter schemes. Both have much eerie atmosphere.
Stoloff and the Mystery Plot
This little mystery film is in a distinct mode: one Stoloff reserved
for his mystery films. Its opening recalls that of Two in the Dark (1936).
Both have characters wandering around in the
misty darkness. Both protagonists emerge out of nothing, and gradually
get involved with mysterious situations.
Once again, we have amateur detectives.
And like Two in the Dark, we have a character with amnesia.
Unlike Two in the Dark, where the amnesia is a major, initial plot premise,
in The Mysterious Doctor Bart's amnesia emerges only gradually during
We have another eerie scene of a character writing at a desk.
Here it is the doctor, making notes on a secret journal he conceals in
Geometric Sets and Props
The gas masks have circular openings. And they are carried in cylindrical
containers, worn by a strap.
The sets have some curved elements. But they lack the full circular architecture
sometimes found in Stoloff:
- The pub has an arched portico.
- Inside the pub, the entrance landing has two rounded pillars.
Inside the pub, there is a stairway landing at the entrance.
The landing is at a higher level than the main floor of the pub.
This allows Stoloff to stage action on two levels: crowds of people on
the main pub floor below, other people addressing them from the landing
Stoloff creates beautiful compositions out of such groups of people.
They recall the similarly gorgeous compositions of people on the
multi-level band stands at the finale of To Beat the Band.
Stoloff also creates some striking compositions, looking down from the
landing to the people standing on the floor below. These are also beautifully
Outside, the pub has a front porch, that is also at a level slightly above the street.
Stoloff can also use this for staging on two levels.
There are pointed remarks, about how bad it is for people to make fun
of mentally ill Bart. This is an example of the growing concern in this era
over the prejudice shown against minority groups.
The film also shows skepticism about the supernatural: the stupid superstitions
about ghosts that inhibit constructive action.