It's really rather good. It's not horror, despite being a Universal film with Boris Karloff, but that's because Universal left the horror genre after Standard Capital Corporation foreclosed on the studio's loan and kicked out the Laemmles in 1936. Instead it's a crime film, with Karloff playing an adorable old inventor who's getting screwed over by Samuel S. Hinds.
Twenty years ago, Karloff invented a new kind of electrical burglar alarm, which Hinds stole and used to build a business empire. (Given the high-tech nature of this alarm, by 1937 standards this film was mild science-fiction.) Karloff got nothing. In any other film, you'd expect this to be terminal news for Hinds... but fortunately for him, this is a kinder, gentler Karloff. He's a bumbling sweetie-pie. He's nearly blind and he loves his daughter. He's a technical genius, but he's also fiercely moral and he hasn't the slightest interest in using his alarm-busting skills for crime.
In short, he's Peter Cushing. It's the kind of role that would have had Cushing's name stamped on it, if he hadn't been in his early twenties and still working in repertory theatre in Sussex. It's interesting to see Karloff almost putting on another horror icon's skin and, interestingly enough, he's really good at it. They're completely different kinds of actors, mind you. Karloff is a stage actor, brilliant at transformation, physicality and commanding an audience's attention. His range is far greater than Cushing's, but his camera technique isn't as flawless. Here, though, he's at the top of his game. You'd never recognise him as the sinister monsters and killers he's known for. He's an old man who can be incapacitated by the loss of his spectacles and destroyed by a threat to his daughter (Jean Rogers). He's kind-hearted and frail, but determined. You've got to love the scene where he comes back from crushing disappointment and doesn't tell Rogers, instead playing along with her celebrations.
What makes him particularly interesting is his confrontations. He has to deal with crooked businessmen, petty thieves and gangsters. Karloff's gentle and honest with all of them. He tells the crooks to their faces that they're crooked, then goes away and does something clever to beat them.
The rest of the cast is fun too. The criminals are interesting. There's a clear distinction between Hobart Cavanagh's harmless little housebreaker and the hard-boiled gangster outfit led by Alan Baxter. We think we're watching a gentle caper flick until halfway through, when Baxter's mob walk in from a proper gangster film. Cavanagh is a silly little man, weak but charming. "Why couldn't you have been a big-time crook?" "I've asked myself that question a hundred times. I think I'm shy." He's unreliable and crooked to his bones, yet he's even more adorable than Karloff. Baxter on the other hand is a psychopath. He doesn't react emotionally. He doesn't smile. He just gives orders that will destroy lives. He's like a very well-made robot, but adenoidal.
Samuel S. Hinds though is just as ruthless, using money as his weapon and destroying people only through legal means. He turns relationships into a minor theme, I think. Karloff would stand by his friends and family to the death, whereas Hinds's people tend to be changeable. (Even Baxter's a more dependable employer.) Sometimes Hinds bribes someone away from their first loyalties. Sometimes he fires them. Sometimes the entire plot's built around his repeated attempts to backstab them.
There's a romantic subplot with Jean Rogers and adventure serial hero-to-be Warren Hull. That's fun too, because Hull's working for the man who's trying to destroy Rogers's father. He's got his work cut out for him, but the thing about Hull is that he's so cheerful and good-natured that he's fun to watch even when you're rooting for him to fail. He was the same in his adventure serials. He and Rogers are very likeable together... and by the way, Jean Rogers was Dale Arden in the 1936 and 1938 Flash Gordons.
The plot's lively. Karloff's such a sweet old dear that we're always surprised by the machiavellian schemes he's liable to come up with. His anti-crime spree is whimsical and amusing, but it occasionally made me slightly nervous given the quality of his ally. The most gobsmacking, though, is how he escapes from the gangsters at the end. He electrocutes a man! What's more, it's not just a one-shot "zap and fall over", but an ongoing bzz-zzz-zzz as the gangster goes on flapping around in that armchair. I presume we're not meant to see this as a killing, but it's unclear to me that he'd still be alive after a few minutes of that. From almost any other hero this scene would be unremarkable, being no more than just deserts, but from Dear Old Karloff it had me laughing out loud.
I also like Karloff's clever idea at the end, even if I'm not sure it makes sense electrically. It feels right, though. Turn on all the lights!
It's a B-movie, but a good one. The fourth-choice director was better known as an actor, but he'd directed an Oscar-winning short in 1934. The plot's pacy and interesting, the cast are good and there's a lot of eccentric charm going around. Karloff, Cavanagh and Hull are all charming in different ways. Meanwhile the bad guys mean business and the film has a sense of danger that makes for an almost edgy contrast with cuddly Cavanagh and cuddlier Karloff.
Cuddly Karloff? Yes, but he's really good at it. It's worth watching just for him.
"You mind if I eat breakfast here?" "No, please do. The food's terrible."