What do you think of when you hear the name William Castle? Classic chillers? Clever marketing gimmicks? If you asked a movie-goer in the forties, though, they would have thought of mysteries.
In the forties, Castle was known as a B director who could get films done on-time and on-budget. His output varied during this decade but two series kept cropping up on his resume: The Whistler and The Crime Doctor. Both were low-budget films series involving amateur sleuths and both featured former silent leading men: Richard Dix and Warner Baxter, respectively.
The Whistler Series
The Whistler was based on a popular radio series of the same name. (You can listen to episodes on the Internet Archive) There were eight films in the series between 1944 and 1948. Castle directed four of them. The Whistler is an interesting series because its leading man (Richard Dix in all but the final entry) plays a different role in each film. What ties them together are curious twists of plot observed and commented on by the unseen narrator, The Whistler.
When a 29-year old William Castle was given the script to The Whistler as his next project, he was excited. The tale of murder and madness suited his tastes and ambitions and he loved the writing. Veteran actor Richard Dix was cast in the lead. In his autobiography, Castle wrote that he found the prospect of working with Dix (whose earlier work he admired) to be intimidating but he found his leading man to be friendly and encouraging.
The plot involved a grieving widower who hires out a hit on himself. He discovers that his wife is alive and changes his mind but is unable to call off his own murder. You see, the man who arranged the hit was himself murdered. Oops.
Castle wanted his leading man to be nervous and weary so he had Dix quit smoking, put him on a diet and did everything he could to annoy him. He called him in early in the morning, he kept him waiting, he made him repeat scenes until he was ready to explode. The strategy worked and Castle got the nervousness that he wanted.
And since William Castle was William Castle, he suggested hiring a Richard Dix lookalike to run screaming through the movie theater and plant “fainting” audience members among the paying customers. Castle’s ideas were nixed but he vowed to incorporate his quirky gimmicks as soon as he got the chance.
(I hope I am not coming off as condescending. Castle himself called his tricks gimmicks. I personally find them incredibly charming and wish there were still some William Castles in the world. If you are unfamiliar with the Castle touch, here is a list of his top ten gimmicks.)
Castle was enormously proud of The Whistler (even if no screaming Richard Dix lookalikes were allowed in the theaters) but it was not the only crime series that he was involved in.
The Crime Doctor Series
Unlike The Whistler series, William Castle was not associated with The Crime Doctor series from day one; he did not work on the series until the fourth entry. The Crime Doctor was based on a radio series and continued for ten installments, all starring Warner Baxter as the crime solving psychiatrist.
In his memoirs, Castle is decidedly meh about the films. Actually, that may be too weak a word. You see, he made The Crime Doctor’s Warning and his bosses at Columbia wanted him to make The Crime Doctor’s Secret as well. Castle was sick of churning out these unchallenging films and refused. As punishment, Columbia suspended him. Of course, the silver lining to the situation was that during this suspension, Castle met his wife, Ellen.
By the way, Castle did end up directing two more films in The Crime Doctor series. Here’s a clip from one of them.
Now it’s time to give some attention to the two silent leading men of these series.
Richard Dix started in the movies in 1921 and he proved to be a very popular leading man. He was born Ernest Brimmer in Minnesota in 1893. Dix’s father wanted him to be a surgeon but the young man’s acting talent was undeniable. His chiseled profile and strapping frame perfectly suited the outdoorsy pictures that were so popular in the silent era.
Dix had parts in films like The Ten Commandments (1923), Souls for Sale and The Vanishing American. To me, though, his finest silent acting can be found in a forgotten 1929 film.
1929 was a sad year for the silents. Studios had realized that talkies were the future and were unceremoniously shoving out the last of their silent films. Many wonderful movies were lost in the shuffle– buried by the wave of talkies and the now-unwanted final silents.
One of these buried films is called Redskin. The title may seem pretty awful to modern viewers but the film is actually a rather sympathetic view of Native Americans. Dix plays a Navajo man who is accepted into a white college. He experiences racism from his classmates (the title refers to slurs aimed at him) and ostracism from his own people back home. The film sensitively explores the social and emotional consequences of being trapped between two cultures. Dix is marvelous in the lead, his every expression containing dozens of emotions.
Plus, the film was made with two-strip technicolor! That makes me very happy!
Dix made a successful transition to sound and earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his role in Cimmaron. Another career highlight was his turn as the charismatic, psychopathic Captain Stone in The Ghost Ship, another forgotten gem.
Dix retired from films in 1947 and passed away two years later. Many of his silent films are lost but those that remain are a testament to this powerful actor– a success in silence and in sound.
Warner Baxter is one of the most popular actors you’ve probably never heard of. He was the original Jay Gatsby in the 1926 version of The Great Gatsby. He also starred in the original 1925 version of The Awful Truth and the 1926 version of Aloma of the South Seas. Basically, pick a random classic and there is a good chance that Warner Baxter was the star of the silent original. Baxter was also the second Best Actor Academy Award winner ever and the first to win for a talking picture (In Old Arizona was the film).
Baxter did extra work in the ‘teens but was a star by the twenties. In addition to being a box office draw in his own right, he ably supported Bebe Daniels in Miss Brewster’s Millions, Pola Negri in Three Sinners and Lon Chaney in West of Zanzibar (the latter being an uncharacteristically grimy role for the dapper Baxter).
Obviously, Baxter transitioned well to the talkies. I mean, look at him! He was born to be a 1930’s leading man!
Highlights from his talkie career include Penthouse, 42nd Street, The Prisoner of Shark Island, and The Cisco Kid (a sequel to his Oscar-winning performance). And, for a change, he starred in a remake! He was the male lead in the 1931 version of Daddy Long Legs, opposite Janet Gaynor.
The last years of Baxter’s life were painful, plagued with emotional and physical health issues that slowed his film output. He died of pneumonia following a lobotomy in 1951.
Warner Baxter, if he is mentioned at all today, is generally defined by his friendship with William Powell and the emotional support he lent him during Jean Harlow’s tragic illness and death. However, as you can see, Mr. Baxter deserves to be remembered for his many important contributions to the silver screen.
So, now you know just two of William Castle’s connections to silent Hollywood!