Playboy Criminologist

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As soon as I saw a news headline in THE GAY FALCON describing George Sanders’ character as a “playboy criminologist” I knew that was the job for me. Though I’m not sure — is 46 too old to start in that line of work?

And yes, the film is called THE GAY FALCON and George does say “This seems to be my night for using back doors.” Get your sniggering over with.

Indecisiveness: George just finished playing THE SAINT in a popular RKO series and handed the job over to Hugh Sinclair, and then they create a near-identical series for him about The Falcon, with Wendy Barrie, who was his romantic interest in three Saint movies, playing different characters. Here she seems set to be just a guest star, but the Falcon’s fiancee, Nina Vale, mysteriously dropped out of movies after one appearance so Barrie returned to replace her with not a word of explanation.

This movie sets up Arthur Shields as a dumb Irish cop stereotype, foil to the Falcon, but he’s replaced for two follow-ups by James Gleason (knot together three strands of sinew then stretch to breaking point), who played similar stooges to crime-solvers Barbara Stanwyck (THE MAD MISS MANTON), Edna May Oliver (PENGUIN POOL MURDER and sequels) and William Powell (THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD and TAKE ONE FALSE STEP)  Peggy Ann Garner and pals (HOME, SWEET HOMICIDE) and probably others. If he wasn’t available, Sam Levene would do it and no one would know.

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Dibble by lamplight.

Allen Jenkins becomes the main element of consistency across the Sanders entries in the series, appearing as hapless sidekick “Goldie” Locke each time, but the writers only decide to make him a spectacular malaprop in the later films (“Me and my neck prefer to remain in magneto.”)

The writers are Lynn Root and Frank Fenton, fresh from the Saint films, though for THE FALCON TAKES OVER they adapt Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and change Marlowe into the Falcon.

And apparently Dr. Terwilliker himself, Hans Conried, made such a hit as a police sketch artist in the first film (he’s hilariously bored and aloof) that they brought him back as a hotel desk clerk in the second film and a shady playboy in the third.

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Turhan Bey, an oiled baby with a moustache, plays a jewel thief in the first film and a psychic in the third.

George’s manservant changes from an old Chinese guy to an old English guy, vanishes for an entire film, and then comes back as Keye Luke. And, as in a dream, no one else seems to notice.

In the fourth film, THE FALCON ‘S BROTHER, George meets his screen brother, Tom, played by his real brother, Tom, who the takes over the series for nine more films while George seeks his pleasures elsewhere. Conway is like dilute Sanders: listening to them together is uncanny, they’re so similar, but you notice the edge and the droll lassitude in George, the source of his Georgeness. Tom is theoretically handsome, but he’s like a walking argument against the importance of handsomeness — George, with his big fat head, like an Arcimboldo sausage-face, is a consistent pleasure and wonder to look at, whereas the eye slips off Tom, can find no purchase on his smooth frontage. Tom was nicer, they say, and his blandness fitted him perfectly for Val Lewton films, which thrived on colourless leads, low-key as the lighting.

This FALCON episode is like the INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS of the series — not only is George rendered comatose for most of the action while his brother goes investigating (nobody worries, it’s just like “He’ll be fine as soon as he COMES OUT OF HIS COMA.”), but Jenkins and Gleason have been replaced by cheaper, crapper actors playng characters with different names but the exact same attributes and histories and roles.

A guy comes home and finds that everything in his apartment has been stolen and replaced with identical replicas…

Even the writers have been replaced: Root & Fenton wrote delightful material: repetitive, of course, but that’s part of the charm. Their replacements create blotchy carbon copy dialogue that sounds like a distorted echo of the previous films, piped through the lips of wan replicants.

…He asks his flatmate, “What happened here?” …

And still, this is nothing compared to Warner Bros Perry Mason series, where not only the co-stars but the genre (straight mystery or broad, drunken comedy) changed from show to show, with Allen Jenkins playing different characters and Mason’s girl Friday, Della Street being played by a beauty parade of contract starlets — just to confuse things, Ann Dvorak appeared twice, so the series was not even consistent in its inconsistency.

…His flatmate says, “Who are you?”

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Anyhow, the films are slick, fun and forgettable, just like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY only half as long and about ten thousand times cheaper and quieter. Also, nobody wears frocks made from caterpillar tracks, which is either a relief or a disappointment depending on your taste.

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9 Responses to “Playboy Criminologist”

  1. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    Wonderful post. The descriptions of Sanders, Conway, Gleason, Bey, etc. are terrific. Lynn Root & Frank Fenton toiled on 2 of my 40’s favorites: They Got Me Covered & The Sky’s The Limit.

  2. Thanks! Haven’t seen TGMC but love TSTL. I must explore them further.

  3. In some alternate Universe there is an episode of “Columbo” guest starring George Sanders as an aging, fading private detective who murders a rival played by Tom Conway.

  4. RKO was looking to shave costs, so they traded the Saint — and Leslie Charteris’s high fees — for a less expensive character. Think it was a few years before the Saint came back under different management.

    The Falcon is more directly comic than the dry-witted Saint, even on Sanders’s watch. And I don’t think Falcon even had a poignant moment. Sanders’s final round as the Saint ends with the girl — one who supposedly made an impression — dying. Sanders walks off into the night without so much as a comedy relief, whistling his theme. The Falcon made a running joke of being lured away from the final clinch by a NEW damsel with a new mystery. These last-scene gags sometimes hinted at the next film, but the actress didn’t reappear and the mystery wasn’t quite the same.

    I enjoyed the series, which ended just in time with a weak but not awful postwar entry (unlike Charlie Chan, whose final Monograms looked like early cheap television). You can see Falcon edging towards the gritty modern detective but not quite getting there.

    Note that Hans Conried hasn’t quite developed his grand, all-purpose foreigner yet. Almost odd to see him so thoroughly American.

  5. And if you’re immersing yourself in series, I suggest Warner’s four Nancy Drew features. Fans of the books regard the films much as fans of Agatha Christie regard the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple series, for much the same reason.

    Bonita Granville is pretty, perky, hyper and a bit of a jerk around around social inferiors as Nancy. Her grouchy semi-boyfriend Ted reluctantly tags along. He has two interludes in drag, gets knocked around while impersonating a sparring partner, and generally suffers for his loyalty. I think he’s hanging on only because she might be crazy enough to put out.

  6. I’ve seen one Drew (Reporter?) and enjoyed it.

    Just looked at The Saint in New York (Louis “Wayward” Hayward’s sole entry before joining the war effort — a venture to which George expressed indifference, freeing him up to take over) and The Saint in London (actually shot in the UK, it seems, though you’d hardly know it since the thing’s so studio-bound) and was suprised at what a cold-blooded vigilante killer Templar is. His insouciance just makes him seem more callous. I knew MGM had fascistic tendencies (Templar is brought in by the authorities to do their dirty work) but I didn’t know RKO… wait, I did. They distributed Disney.

    Are the Conway Falcons worth seeing, at all?

  7. They’re variable, but I enjoyed them. Falcon is definitely more a playful whodunit solver than a cynical avenger. Keep in mind I’m a sucker for series films in general and even found entertainment value in the Mr. Wong mysteries.

    That first Saint movie was just odd and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the series. There, the Saint was a famous extra-legal entity you could hire from the yellow pages, announce to the press, and leave to his own devices. Like the camp TV Batman who was a “duly deputized” law enforcement agent, emphatically devoid of mystery. The Sanders entries kept to the notion of the Saint doing whatever he did without approval. It was a bit fuzzy whether anybody connected Simon Templar’s name with the Saint or not.

    The Torchy Blaine series is all over the map in quality, but an intriguing social document. There comes a point where you sensed they were firmly domesticating the feisty broad; at one point even dropping in younger and prettier replacements for Glenda Farrell and her crusty cop lover. Farrell came to need more rescuing by her man; in her last appearance she’s elected mayor, but promptly resigns when holding a baby triggers her biological clock.

  8. THAT’S depressing. But I like Farrell loads so I’ll eventually look at some of those I’m sure. And The Lone Wolf awaits also. Warren “the starving lion” William is a great favourite.

  9. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    Glenda’s great. She & Joan Blondell were a fab team. I’m looking forward to seeing all the Torchys again. Warren William is swell as well. I’ve been binging on the Lone Wolf series on get TV.

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