Nelson Rood (C. Henry Gordon) lives in a mansion with his daughter Marian (Nan Grey), his sister Laura Leland (Doris Lloyd) and her son Rex (William Lundigan). Nelson is an overbearing and corrupt man. Everyone hates him, even his servants Esteban (Fred Malatesta), the butler, and Rosita (Inez Palange), the housekeeper. Nelson’s nephew Rex is always in trouble and in need of money. His mother tries to cover for him but Nelson has decided to stop paying his gambling debts. His daughter Marian is in love with a private investigator, Nick Halstead (Donald Woods), but Nelson disapproves of him.
Nelson finds a black fabric doll on the desk in his library. The doll is a warning of death. Nelson knows the meaning of the doll. He summons to his house the only two other people who know the significance of the doll, Mallison (Addison Richards) and Walling (John Wray). Years ago Nelson, Mallison, Walling and another man, Knox Barrows were partners in a mine. Nelson killed Barrows for his share of the mine and for his wife. Mallison and Walling know what Nelson did and he believes one of them put the doll on his desk.
By the time the two men get to the estate a major storm is raging. Nelson confronts them about the doll. They both deny knowing anything about it. Since the storm makes the roads impassible Mallison and Walling must stay the night. At dinner time no one shows up in the dining room. Everyone has an excuse not to eat with Nelson. Nelson goes to Marian’s room to insist she come down. When Marian opens the door Nelson falls to the floor dead, a knife sticking out of his back.
Marian rushes out of the house to find Nick. She is attacked on the way. When Nick hears her scream he rushes to find her unconscious. Nick brings her back to the mansion and calls for Esteban and Rosita to help her. When Nelson’s body is found the police are called, the coroner is called and the doctor is called. Arriving on the scene is the worst sheriff ever, Sheriff Renick (Edgar Kennedy) and his various idiot minions. With incompetence everywhere it is up to Nick to solve the puzzle and find the murderer, but the bodies start to pile up and the suspect pool begins to shrink.
“The Black Doll” was released in 1938 and was directed by Otis Garrett. It is an American comedy film and an old dark house style mystery based on the novel written in 1936 by William Edward Hayes. The movie is one of Universal’s low budget “B” movies and is one of their Crime Club series.
In the 30’s Universal made a deal with Doubleday to turn some of their books into films. Universal produced these films under Doubleday’s "The Crime Club" imprint. They had planned on producing two films a year but only did eight films. Universal licensed the rights but some of them were farmed out to producer Irving Starr. “The Black Doll” was the second of these Crime Club films to be done.
Doubleday published four books a month under the Crime Club imprint. They were available in hard cover at book stores or mailed to homes. One each month was designated the “Crime Club Selection” that was automatically sent to subscribers as sort of a “book of the month club” type deal.
This particular offering was, for the most part, fine. The story was interesting but not real deep. The acting, for most of the main characters, was also decent. My problem was, of course, with the comic relief Sheriff Renick. He was annoying. From the moment he appeared to the end of the film he was just plain irritating. His deputies were not much better but at least they had fewer lines.
As for some of the other stars, I remember Donald Woods mostly as Captain Phil Jackson from “The Beat from 20,000 Fathoms” 1953 and Nan Grey as Lili from “Dracula’s Daughter” 1936. Several of the actors in this movie were in some decent films. William Lundigan and John Wray for example. Even Holmes Herbert was no slouch so the acting wasn’t the problem. I just didn’t like the Sheriff Renick character.