Director – Bernard Carr, Screenplay – Maurice Geraghty & Dorothy Reid, Story – Robert F. McGowan, Producer – Robert F. McGowan, Photography – John W. Boyle, Music Director – Heinz Roemheld, Photographic Effects – Roy W. Seawright, Makeup – Burris Grimwood, Art Direction – Jerome Pycha, Jr. Production Company – Hal Roach Studios.
Larry Olsen (Curley), Dale Belding (Speck), Eilene Janssen (Betty), Gerald Perreau (Dudley), Ardda Lynwood (Ardda), Whitford Kane (Dan ‘Fix-It’ Cameron), Virginia Grey (Ann Loring), George Zucco (Hugo ‘Doc’ Robbin), Don Castle (George), Renee Beard (Dis), Donald King (Dat), Grant Mitchell (Judge)
An explosion has occurred at the laboratory home of Hugo ‘Doc’ Robbin. His secretary Ann Loring is placed on trial for his murder. As the trial gets underway, five children burst into the courtroom claiming to have information about what really happened. They tell the story of how they accompanied their inventor friend Dan ‘Fix-It’ Cameron out to Doc Robbin’s gloomy home. An argument took place over Robbin having financed Dan’s building a firing chamber for a potential weapon. After hearing of this, the police arrest Dan. The kids decide they need to head out to Doc Robbin’s home to find the firing chamber and prove Dan’s innocence. Arriving, they find the mansion full of spooky happenings, murdered bodies and a menacing gorilla.
Who Killed Doc Robbin was one of the numerous children’s films produced by Hal Roach Studios. Roach had had great success with the series of Our Gang shorts between 1922 and 1944, featuring a bunch of mischievous kids and their adventures. Who Killed Doc Robbin is not one of the Our Gang shorts but it is made in the same style. It was also one of what Roach called his ‘streamliners’ – films under one hour in length (Doc Robbin runs to only 55 minutes) that were designed as supporting features.
Who Killed Doc Robbin wields the Our Gang formula to the Old Dark House comedy that began with the Bob Hope The Cat and the Canary (1939) in which people investigate a big spooky house and, in between various comedic yocks, encounter some seemingly haunted elements before everything is revealed to be of mundane origin. Doc Robbin whips up all of the cliche elements of the Old Dark House genre – skeletons, eyes peering out from behind peepholes in portraits, sliding panels, hijinks with a chimpanzee, a sinister ape, dead bodies found in the closet. It is however less a scary film than it is about kids running around being scared. George Zucco plays another of the sinister scientists that he made a career out of during this decade. There is an absurdly improbably end revelation about him having faked his death and hiding in the house inside an ape costume. There is also the firing chamber, a McGuffin device of extremely vague super-scientific potential, which notedly comes with the word atomic, which had become the new buzzword of the decade, slapped onto it.
The Old Dark House element takes up the second half of the film, while the first is centred around the comedic antics of the kids. There is a peculiar opening over the credits where a voiceover poses the title question and each of the kids appear to answer with some variation on “not me”. The liveliest moments are the silly antics with the kids interrupting the court case with bubble gum, dropped marbles, a pet dog and by banging stones outside the window in echo of the judge’s gavel. There is also some silliness with them trying to smuggle files and guns to where Whitford Kane is locked up in jail. None of the kids are particularly good actors, although would have been serviceable for the demands of this sort of material in the 1940s.
The humour with the two Black kids of the group (Renee Beard and Donald King) is undeniably racist – they act perpetually scared (which is the way every Black supporting character in the comedies of this decade was portrayed), while there is also some humour derived from them hiding in a washing machine and coming out covered in soap suds and turned white.
Full film available here