The Body Vanished

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The Body Vanished is so old school you half expect it to be Vanishéd, Regency drama style. In fact it’s a 1939 British whodunit, a “quota quickie” intended as a programme filler and running only 46 minutes.

It covers plenty of ground in that time and that is its main claim to your time – it tells a decent story at pace.

Two men arrive in the small British backwater of Middle Wickering. They’re up from London and don’t the locals know it – the two newcomers have soon bought the entire clientele at the pub they’re staying at a drink. “Most kind, sir… don’t mind if I do etc etc”.

They are Scotland Yard detective Rodney Paine (Anthony Hulme) and journalist Pip Piper (C Denier Warren), neither of them looking for a case to crack when suddenly Snelling (Wilfred Noy) bustles into the pub looking for the local bobby, Sergeant Hopkins (Ernest Sefton). Snelling is a butler and his master, Mr Gosling, has been murdered up at the big house. Will the sergeant come urgently?

Hopkins is much put out at having to interrupt his game of darts and so Inspector Paine steps into the breach, with eager hack Piper along for what might be a scoop. Which turns out to be a double story – Gosling’s body has disappeared. Duh duh duuuuh.

So not just a case of who done it, but who disappeared it… and why. Things remain opaque until, towards the end, an accident reveals what’s really been going on, leading to a fun climax at an auction where the truth is exposed, masks are pulled from faces and virtue emerges triumphant.

Snelling the butler with Inspector Paine
Snelling the butler with Inspector Paine

Along the way there is much snooty twitting of the social underlings. The sergeant who won’t really do his job, the local old boy who rides a tricycle, which Piper is perpetually borrowing. Even Piper himself, who is a touch infra dig though Paine is to much the gent ever to say as much. Only ladylike Miss Casson, who was in the area to be interviewed by the (now) dead man for a job, gets the sort of sympathetic treatment accorded to Paine. And, being of a similar social background – she doesn’t drop her aitches either – a tremor of romantic interest is soon swelling.

It looks kind of amusing and even touching today, all this class distinction, but it was in fact the bugbear of British movies of the era. One more reason why British audiences of the era wanted to watch American movies more than the homegrown ones – and who can blame them when they’re being constantly run down by their own team.

The “quota quickie” system had been brought in by the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act to ensure that US product didn’t swamp British output by forcing studios based in the UK and its territories (ie the Empire) to produce a certain “quota” of homegrown product. But the problem, as Alfred Hitchcock could have told them, wasn’t swamping so much as the domestic industry’s failure to realise what a democratic art form the movies were. In British movies of the era, toffs tend to triumph. Things are not so very different now. Colin Firth and Hugh Grant have built an entire career on it. So, in a different way, has Ken Loach.

All that said, Anthony Hulme’s well spoken Inspector Paine is a likeable enough chap, in a sub Sherlock Holmes way, with Warren an able approximation of a Watson. Ernest Sefton’s workshy, gurning, double-taking Sergeant Hopkins gets most of the laughs.

It’s an enjoyable and occasionally witty whodunit also offering a window on a lost world, with Walter Tennyson directing efficiently and not wasting any time (he can’t afford to at this length). If you watch it today it’ll probably be on a channel like the UK’s Talking Pictures TV, which specialises in old British stuff. Don’t expect the picture to be too great – the contrast was shot and the highlights were blowing out when I watched it, and the sound was popping and crackling too. But watch in a forgiving frame of mind and it’s good fun.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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