"You'll Gasp Between Laughs!"
Obviously, 20th Century Fox was reaching for the bottom of the barrel when searching for a suitable poster tagline for their 1938 programmer Island in the Sky, but don't let that stop you. This competent if not earth-shattering b-mystery has arrived as part of Fox's Cinema Archive program - 67 minutes' worth of tightly-packed thrills, looking unexpectedly clean on made-to-order DVD.
Is it worth a peek? Well… probably the best reason to see Island in the Sky nowadays is that it offers an early look at the saucer-eyed blonde actress Gloria Stuart, several decades before playing the wizened, elderly Rose in Titanic. In this big-city crime story, Gloria glamorously romps around as a lovelorn secretary who races against time to help exonerate a man whom her attorney fiancée helped sentence to death. Stuart's vivaciousness goes a long way towards elevating this movie's standard-issue story, although there are a few good bits from supporting players Paul Kelly, Leon Ames and the swarthy, forgotten Robert Kellard.
Island in the Sky gets its title from the swanky New York City nightclub that bookends this gritty little caper, a luxe Art Deco destination located on the top floor of a towering skyscraper. Stuart's character is Julie Hayes, a stenographer who patiently puts up with the workaholic habits of her long-time boyfriend and boss, Michael Fraser (bland Michael Whalen). The couple are at first seen sharing a celebratory night out before making plans to finally exchange vows, only to be interrupted with the District Attorney's office calling up Michael (again) to investigate a murder. With the help of his go-getting assistant, Happy (Paul Hurst), Michael looks into an episode where a wealthy gentleman named Mr. Vincent was found dead of a gunshot wound in his apartment. With all apparent evidence pointing to Mr. Vincent's reckless son, Peter (Robert Kellard), Michael eventually convinces a jury to send the young man to the electric chair. While Peter's innocence has always been plain as day to his faithful girlfriend, Lucy (June Storey), the plucky Julie also begins to believe that the earnest young man was unfairly railroaded as well. With the clock ticking away toward his execution, Julie defies her fiancee and launches her own investigation to find the true killer. The trek leads her to Doyle (Paul Kelly), a convict who was friendly with the murder victim, along with Marty Butler (Leon Ames), the shifty manager of the Island in the Sky nightclub. Like an adult Nancy Drew, Julie's capable sleuthing results in finding the true culprit, but can she convince Michael in time to free an innocent man?
Enjoyable enough as a breezy time-waster, Island in the Sky nevertheless fails to stand out amongst any of a number of other 1930s Thin Man knockoffs. The film shares other traits with typical b-movies of the time, efficiently packing lots of dense story into a slim running time. Director Herbert I. Leeds navigates this blend of tense drama and comedy with a workmanlike, somewhat invisible hand. Casting-wise, it's all over the place - Gloria Stuart is charming, yet they couldn't have found a duller man to play her boyfriend than Michael Whalen (seriously, the guy has all the screen charisma of wet cardboard). The nightclub counts as another one of those audacious, overdone set pieces that makes '30s movies so fun - a gleaming palace of zebra-print chairs, palm trees, tubular furniture, curving staircases, and (in the lobby) a gigantic bowl full of live fish. Too bad the filling between that swelligant bread is so lacking in flavor.
Looking good! Fox has had a spotty record on these m.o.d. releases, seemingly making them from whatever they've got on hand (25 year-old VHS tape on a shelf? Fine.). Island in the Sky is mastered from a soft but relatively clean print with pleasant light-dark values and a lack of specks, scratches, dust and other artifacts.
The mono soundtrack is a simple affair, a relatively clean track sporting a less-than-usual amount of pops, hiss and other artifacts heard in '30s-era movies. No subtitles are provided.
None. As with other Fox Cinema Archive discs, chapter stops are inserted every ten minutes in the film.
Fairly watchable 1938 potboiler Island in the Sky fails to distinguish itself in any meaningful way, although it does serve as a good showcase for plucky actress Gloria Stuart. For what it's worth, a clean-looking print was found for 20th Century Fox's Cinema Archives made-to-order DVD. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.