Entertaining in a "Gothic by-the-numbers" sort of way, with atmosphere to burn...but in the end, a pretty dopey murder mystery romance. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Moss Rose, the 1947 period chiller from Fox, based on a novel by "Joseph Shearing" (a.k.a. "Marjorie Bowen"), and starring Peggy Cummins, Victor Mature, Ethel Barrymore, Vincent Price, Margo Woode, George Zucco, Patricia Medina, and Rhys Williams. A notorious flop when first released (due to excessive tampering, according to Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, apparently), Moss Rose is certainly watchable, with excellent performances and sensational production design...but you'll figure out the mystery way before anyone does on the screen. No extras for this good black and white transfer.
Blonde, beautiful chorus girl "Belle Adair" (Peggy Cummins) wants to be a lady. She sees how others in Victorian London look down on her as nothing more than a common guttersnipe...but how can she make this childhood dream happen? When her roommate, beautiful Daisy Arrow (Margo Woode), is horrifically drugged and smothered in their flat, Belle sees her chance: she saw the murderer, brooding, tortured aristocrat--and Daisy's secret lover--Michael Drego (Victor Mature), leave their flat the morning Daisy's body was discovered (alongside her bed was an opened Bible, with an out-of-season moss rose laid across). Armed with this leverage, Belle blackmails Michael into letting her stay with his family at their ancestral home, Charnleigh Manor, in Devonshire, for just a few weeks, so she can experience what she's always dreamed about: living like a proper Victorian lady. Having no choice, Michael grudgingly agrees, and is mortified when Rose Lynton ("Belle's" real name), acts so common in front of his befuddled fiance, Audrey Ashton (Patricia Medina), who can't understand the exact nature of Michael's "friendship" with Rose, and Michael's mother, Lady Margaret Drego (Ethel Barrymore). Lady Margaret, however, takes an instant shine to the honest, straightforward Rose, as does Michael, eventually...but when Scotland Yard Inspector R. Clinner (Vincent Price) comes calling with more suspicions about Daisy's murder, the murderer strikes again.
I've never read any of highly-respected "Marjorie Bowen's" (the most popular pseudonym for author Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long Campbell) Gothic romance novels, published under her "Joseph Shearing" nom de plume, so I can't compare what's going on here in Moss Rose with what was on The Crime of Laura Saurelle's printed page. From what I've read, 20th Century-Fox and in particular Darryl F. Zanuck expressed great confidence in adapting her material, paying agent/producer Charles Feldman the princely sum of $200,000 1946 dollars (over 2 million bucks today) for the screen rights. What resulted on the screen, however, didn't satisfy anyone, apparently (except some big-city critics, ironically), with disappointing box office against a high budget--due in some part to extensive post-production tampering that Zanuck later admitted negatively impacted the original screenplay. Zanuck also blamed the casting, of which I assume he meant Mature in the role of an English gentleman, and perhaps too the untried Peggy Cummins, who never "hit big" with the public, as he had hoped (originally, Zanuck wanted Cornel Wilde for the lead, and Reginald Owen or Charles Laughton for the inspector). Quite a few hands were involved with the screenplay--often a worrying sign--including credited Jules Furthman (Shanghai Express, Mutiny on the Bounty, Only Angels Have Wings, Nightmare Alley), and Tom Reed (from an adaptation by Niven Busch, of The Westerner, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Duel in the Sun), while Leonard Bercovici, Gene Markey, and even noir novelist James M. Cain, made subsequent uncredited contributions (and you can bet Zanuck was red-penning in additions and subtractions, too).
Watching Moss Rose, it's tough at first to put your finger on why it's not quite working, because its genre elements, though conventional and even cliched, are so confidently put over that you keep insisting to yourself that you're being entertained. All the Gothic romance fundamentals are here--a troubled, handsome hero, hiding a secret torture; an imposing-yet-kind aristocratic matriarch, perhaps mad, as well, presiding over a gloomy pile of a mansion, who's hiding a secret torture; a young, beautiful scrubber with ambitions to put on airs, falling in love with the man who may become her murderer...and not caring--all of whom are set down in foggy, sooty, wet cobblestoned, gas-lit London, and in a spooky, darkly-shadowed mansion where the wind howls and doors creak. And those essentials of the genre can't help but be welcomed by the viewer; the best stories are the most familiar ones. We also can't help but be impressed by Fox's lush, cobbled-together sets from The Late George Apley, Forever Amber, Hangover Square, The Lodger, and Cluny Brown, re-arranged most convincingly to resemble Victorian London and a Devonshire estate, all atmospherically photographed with impressive, noir-like chiaroscuro by cinematographer Joseph MacDonald. If we're looking for the tangible, palpable pleasures associated with a Gothic mystery/romance, then Moss Rose correctly catalogues them and puts them attractively on display for us to enjoy.
We can find pleasure, as well, from the performances--even with some of the more curious casting choices here. Top-billed Irish actress Peggy Cummins (still going strong at 87) is quite fetching as the scheming little minx with enough bottle to blackmail a suspected murderer...before she's suddenly asked to switch gears and play an earnest, meek Rebecca (more about that below). Gorgeous Margo Woode makes a brief but strong impression as the doomed Daisy Arrow, with Patricia Medina going attractively off-kilter as she realizes Mature is falling for Cummins. Vincent Price isn't around long enough to make much of a dent in a role that seems like a toned-down version of his Leave Her to Heaven performance, while Ethel Barrymore is proficient, as expected, when she's meant to be strong-yet-kindly to Cummins...and perhaps a tad over-the-top--and most enjoyably so--near the finale. As for Victor Mature, I would imagine some movie fans would find it ridiculous that he's playing an English gentleman here, but as usual with Mature, he's far better in Moss Rose than some might expect, (wisely) forgoing an English accent to concentrate on the brooding, tortured, Gothic tone of his character, which he accomplishes quite nicely. As with the thematic and visual conventions of the Gothic mystery genre in Moss Rose, the performances here, too, deliver the goods we expect.
But that's all. And that's the problem with Moss Rose: it's a compendium of Gothic conventions (and cliches), pleasantly enough done...but with nothing new or original in conception or delivery. Even worse, the mystery that these familiar elements server, is easily sussed out. Why couldn't Cummins' character stay a little vixen, intent on blackmailing Mature? Why does this little chiseler change, in the flash of a fade-out, to a meek, mild girl who's forgiving of her rival Medina, anxious to please imposing Barrymore, and swoony-in-love with suspected murderer Mature? Unfortunately, we're not told why, and not only is the change unsatisfactory--how interesting would Moss Rose have been if the conventional besieged Gothic heroine wasn't actually a "good" person?--it's poorly executed and ultimately uninteresting. Several characters here in Moss Rose undergo abrupt personality changes that discombobulate us at first, until we figure out they're merely the crudest forms of red herrings. Medina is a loving, devoted fiance, until she's transformed into a wild-eyed harridan, vaguely threatening mayhem (again, with no explanation present that satisfactorily excuses our confusion). Mature, as well, is delivered to us as a tormented soul suffering some sort of hidden agony (which is never really revealed), before he's happily picnicking with Cummins.
Whether these unexpected switches in character and motivation happened during production, with a script that was in flux, or in post, during the final edit, is anybody's guess. However, they matter little by comparison to Moss Rose's biggest problem: its lame mystery. I won't reveal the ending, even with a "spoiler alert," but suffice it to say, when one particular performer goes a trifle batty for a moment, about half-way through the picture, the rest of Moss Rose is laid out at the feet of even the most casual mystery movie aficionado. When the simplistic, utterly unconvincing (and worst crime of all: boring) ending is revealed, simultaneous thoughts of, "That's it?" and "Who cares?" compete, while we contemplate the waste of this proficient studio evocation of so many enjoyable Gothic mystery/romance genre conventions, for such meager ends.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.