by Arnold Goldman

The self-serving machinations of the film "industry" come in for forty whacks in The Black Gardenia, where intricate wheeler-dealing is easing out the unstable screen star Shirley Hall and attempting to replace her with the Mexican "black gardenia," Eulalia Noguera. Three Chicago gangsters are muscling in on E Pluribus Unum Pictures, a pseudo-Hungarian producer simultaneously kowtows to them and intrigues to undermine their efforts, and much else.

Homer Evans is in Los Angeles to establish his protégé Finke Maguire as a private detective. After settling Maguire in at his new office in the Griffith Building, 777 Sunset Boulevard, Evans absents himself from the first third of The Black Gardenia to attend a spellbinding performance of the Berlioz Requiem in San Francisco, Pierre Monteux conducting. Finke forthwith makes a complete mess of his first assignment, which is to protect Shirley Hall and her half-cut screen partner and fiancé, Bob Reynolds. Soon not only is Finke in danger of arrest - for apparently giving Shirley a gun (with which she has taken a potshot at Bob for being in Eulalia’s knockout screen test) and then passing it on to a studio monkey (who sprays bullets at passersby) - but Shirley has been fatally poisoned. It is a classic demonstration that the fledgling was not yet ready for solo flight. Finke betrays his suppressed emotion by anger over Homer Evans’s return; finding Evans has arrived at the deceased’s apartment before him, Finke is "ready to burst," though soon "more resigned than deflated." The County police, sensing Evans’ innate authority, let him take command of their investigation, which "started Finke boiling again, internally.... But... he relaxed again, and grinned. What the hell was the use of palling around with a cerebral whiz, if he didn’t come through." "Come through," Evans does, though his antagonist is not the murderer but the representative of the Los Angeles City police, Lieutenant Marcus. In the many scenes which gather suspects together to review progress and squeeze them, Marcus vies with Evans, jumping to wrong conclusions and pig-headedly holding to them. To Marcus, Evans is only "Professor Crapola"; Evans is neither disconcerted nor deflected.1

Since Reynolds’ understudy had recently died of unknown causes, and then Shirley Hall herself - and thirdly Eulalia’s millionaire protector’s botanist handyman, her sworn

enemy - the previously comical  studio plotting takes on a darker aspect. While Lieutenant Marcus assumes, on the  cui bono principle, that the malefactors  must be the Gardenia and the gangsters,  Evans maintains that his conclusion is a vulgar error of plodding policemen,  stereotypical whodunits, and contemporary fashion. When with serene improbability it transpires that half the large cast of characters were involved before the War in Dutch and German politics in Batavia, Java (now Djakarta, Indonesia) Evans even while explicating their significance denies that we should look to the motives of nation states in the murders. We are disabused of a second type of supposedly expected whodunit:

"I am fed up, and the world is with me, with the tendency lately to link purely personal murder intrigues with international complications. Man longs, again, to be an individual - one who can slit a throat or sprinkle a pinch of arsenic without involving satraps and principalities, democracies and dictatorships, or pitting one whole race against another."2

It is only the methods of poisoning which stem, Evans realises, from Java. Personal, private motive is the driving force: it is the stars’ psychiatrist’s "diehard Nazi" nurse’s passion for Reynolds which drove her to extreme measures. Homer tells everyone so, the nurse shoots at her new (imagined) rival, the Gardenia, but Finke Maguire’s quick lunge deflects her aim. ("Finke! Quick!" says Evans.) A Postscript tells us that the industry quickly resumed its wonted deal-cutting, instantly forgetting the disturbing "purely personal" murders. Evans is not left to brood about his usual proclivity for getting his acquaintances into difficulties and worse, and his sentiments betray as much post-War weariness of abstract commitments and ideology as criticism of other writers’ pretentions. As in his magazine articles, Paul’s relish for tilting at Hollywood shibboleths seems undiminished, but he cannot repress either a sneaking admiration for the emotional power of its most tawdry images. The "quality" and attraction of the Gardenia herself is attested throughout, and serves along with Evans’s noted sleuthing "objectivity" as a counterweight to the knockabout humor.


1 Elliot Paul, The Black Gardenia (New York: Random House, 1952), 156, 163, 198.
2 Ibid., 170.

This analysis of The Black Gardenia is taken from Arnold Goldman's biography-in-progress of Elliot Paul. ©Arnold Goldman 2001.

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