The Stepford Sleuths

Hang about, this is more complicated than I thought.

I was aware it was odd: George Sanders gets bored playing Simon Templar, the Saint (boredom was a recurring problem he had), so he switches to playing Gay Lawrence, or sometimes Laurence, the Falcon. When he gets bored of that, he brings in his brother, mysteriously named Tom Conway, to play the Falcon’s brother, Tom Lawrence, and then lets him be the Falcon. Meanwhile, Hugh Sinclair has taken over playing the Saint. Fine. That’s sort of rational.

Not Hugh Sinclair

But the Saint was not the first reformed criminal gentleman sleuth. Nor was Michael Lanyard, the Lone Wolf, but let’s talk about him for a minute. I think of him being Warren William, the starving lion, and anyone else is an interloper, but WW by no means originated the part. Louis Joseph Vance’s hero first came to the screen in 1917, played by Bert Lytell, making his film debut. Lytell played the character three more times in the late twenties, but in between he essayed the role of Boston Blackie twice.

Now, Boston Blackie was the original reformed thief and gentleman adventurer, created by an actual reformed criminal, Jack Boyle. Bert Lytell was the original BB on screen, so the guy must have been suaver than his first name suggests.

While Lytell was on a break from playing the Lone Wolf and had given up playing Boston Blackie, Henry B. Walthall and Bertram Grassby and Jack Holt were busy filling his shoes as the all-new Lone Wolves and William Russell and Thomas Carrigan and Forrest Stanley and Bob Custer were personating Blackie. Nobody seemed able to make a go of it until Lytell returned to the Lanyard part and knocked out a few more installments, seeing the character into the sound era and round things off with THE LAST OF THE LONE WOLF, which was only true as far as he was concerned.

Meanwhile, Philo Vance (no relation to Louis Joseph Vance, though the author may have been on S.S. Van Dine’s mind when he penned his own suave sleuth) was operating a revolving-door policy of his own. A relative latecomer, he was played by William Powell in THE CANARY MURDER CASE which came along so close to the end of the silent era that it was hastily sonorized, with Louise Brooks refusing to have anything to do with it and thus getting badly dubbed. Powell stayed Philo for more creaky talkies before things took off with the snappy KENNEL MURDER CASE in 1933. Unfortunately, Powell then took off himself, making Nick Charles in THE THIN MAN his own. His part was taken by Warren Williams, who handed it off to Paul Lukas, who had played opposite his Vance just two films back, which seems a bit confusing to me. But one film later, Philo Vance bore a striking resemblance to Edmund Lowe, and then he was Wilfred Hyde-White in 1936, which blows my mind. That state of affairs couldn’t be expected to pertain for long, and sure enough, if you went to the movies a year later you got someone called Grant Richards, and the following year you got… Warren William, again. Are we sure this is Philo Vance and not Perry Mason or Michael Lanyard?

It couldn’t last. After co-starring with the title figure of THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE, WW was out and the tragically short-lived James Stephenson was in, which of course couldn’t last either,

Then the movies seemed to be tiring of gentleman sleuths, at least relatively speaking, as there was a seven-year gap before the character made his final movie appearances, played by both Alan Curtis (who?) and William Wright (who?). In separate movies, mind you. I think that’s where they went wrong. If they’d played him in the same movie, switching around randomly from scene to scene like Bunuel’s OBSCURE OBJECT, the character would have achieved the protean ideal to which he’d for so long aspired.

Failing that, Curtis could have played the front half and Wright the back.

That seems to have been the end of Vance for the movies, with only a couple of foreign TV versions thereafter. I’m not sure why he didn’t get a TV series in the fifties: everyone else did.

BUT MEANWHILE, back in the early thirties…

With Bert Lytell safely out of the way (retired? he made a comeback as the MC in STAGE DOOR CANTEEN), Michael Lanyon was anybody’s: Melvyn Douglas and Francis Lederer had their way with the Wolf. I plan to see the Douglas film: it introduces Thurston Hall as Inspector Crane, who would suffer through several subsequent incarnations of his lupine adversary, so it’s arguably the start of the Warren William series, and it’s directed by the gifted Roy William Neill, who made the SHERLOCK HOLMES series with Rathbone and Bruce his own.

THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT introduces Warren William (at a surrealist part, above), with Don Beddoes as a Crane-like cop opponent with a dumb sidekick. Beddoes would, like several other co-stars, crop up in a perplexing variety of other roles later in the series. Jameson the butler or valet is Leonard Carey, who is no Eric Blore but he’s quite good. Blore joins the series in the next film and outlasts the ailing Warren William, who gets supplanted by Gerald Mohr and then Ron Randell and then the thing is finished with until its last gasp as a TV show starring Louis Hayward… who had actually been the first screen Saint.

Boston Blackie had been playing possum, but sprang back into action in ’41, played by the insufficiently suave Chester Morris, formerly the Bat. His sidekick the runt was Charles Wagenheim for this one movie, who would return in a ’45 sequel playing a different role, staring piteously at George E. Stone who was now firmly embedded in the sidekick position, and who had previously tangled with both Philo Vance (the Warren William one) and Mr. Moto. Battle-hardened.

Chester Morris kept banging them out until 1949, when both Boston Blackie and Michael Lanyard bowed out. Blackie got a brief TV show too, with Kent Taylor being the last actor to inhabit the sketchy role. He had cropped up in a Warren Williams’ Philo Vance movie back in 1939. Maybe it affected him.

Is Perry Mason a gentleman sleuth? He;s not a reformed criminal, like the Saint and Boston Blackie and the Lone Wolf, poachers-turned-gamekeepers all. At any rate, the Warner Bros films with Warren William exemplify the musical-chairs approach to casting I’m celebrating today. William is a constant, until suddenly and regrettably he’s Donald Woods, who had played third lead to William’s Mason just a few films back. Also, the tone of the series sways wildly from light comic thriller to outright farce, reminiscent of, but more successful than, William’s single turn as Sam Spade, of which we shall not speak. Allen Jenkins, future sidekick to the Falcon (George Sanders incarnation), recurs, a honking shapeshifter essaying different parts from film to film, and Mason’s Girl Friday, Della Street, is positively a different dame each time we meet her: she’s Helen Trenholme, Claire Dodd, Genevieve Tobin, Claire Dodd again (the repetition by now seeming more startling than the constant substitution), and finally Ann Dvorak.

With all of this… this… going on… delving into forties gentleman sleuth films is akin to an attack of the Fregoli delusion.

There must be some films in which two or three Lone Wolves or P. Vances or B. Blackies rub shoulders, their guilty pasts quietly embarrassing them, but I can’t think of any offhand, apart from ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS, which has two former Philos, one of whom is also the title character, a reformed jewel thief turned adventurer…

This is a case for…

11 Responses to “The Stepford Sleuths”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Aton and a half to unpack here. George Sanders has always been one of my favorite actors, less for his standard-issue sleuthing than for his work with Albert Lewin (especially “The Moon and Sixpence”) Rossellini’s “Viaggio in Italia,” Lang’s “While The City Sleeps,” and of course Joseph L. Monkeybitch’s “All About Eve” (“You’re too short for that gesture” is one of my all-time favorite movie lines.)

    Louise Brooks’ extreme ambivalence about having a film career has always fascinated me, especially in regard to “The Canary Murder Case” in which she looks just lovely. But her iconic power triumphed in spite of her. Just looking last night at “Singin’ in the Rain” for the skeenteeth time and in the big “Broadway Rhythm” number (which is why the film out to be called “The Broadway Melody of 1952”) Cyd Charisse is made up as Louise Brooks and dances with Gene Kelley, who is made-up as Harold Lloyd. An Iconographic Mind-Meld if there ever was one.

    Chester Morris may be “insufficiently suave ” in some circumstances but he’s terrific in Roland West’s “The Bat Whispers” which simply must be seen in its original 70mm form on the largest screen available.

  2. It’s startling to see Morris in The Bat Whispers, especially his final scene where he performs in a totally different register from anything he ever attempted later. A friend theorised that maybe he was mocking the material. And of course he’d not often be called upon to play a part like that. But I do regret that he never returned to that kind of overt expressionism, not even as Dr. Carlo Lombardi in The She-Creature (opposite Tom Conway!), which would surely have benefitted from it.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    In defense of Chester also, I would recommend seeing his poignant starring role in KING FOR A DAY, his guest appearance in one of the NAKED CITY episodes I first saw on UK TV in the 60s and his last performance in THE GREAT WHITE HOPE. His career needs better explorarion.

  4. Oh, I need to see The Great White Hope — what a cast! From RG Armstrong to Dalio!

  5. I’m not sure Chester Morris was supposed to be suave. If you read Jack Boyle’s book, Boston Blackie isn’t a gentleman thief, but a rough-edged, working-class safecracker.

  6. Jeff Gee Says:

    I feel like I just failed an IQ test.

  7. Boppa, thanks, that makes sense. I was judging him unfairly by the standard of Warren William, an inappropriate model.

    No mention here of Raffles, who is probably mixed up in it somehow.

    Jeff, the test comes later. I’ll spring it on you.

  8. bensondonald Says:

    “The Bishop Murder Case” (1930) offered Basil Rathbone as gentleman sleuth Philo Vance. It’s a slog and doesn’t suggest Basil would someday prosper at Baker Street.

    The legend is that RKO simply dropped the Saint in favor of the near-clone Falcon because the latter was cheaper to license (Leslie Charteris, creator of the Saint, sued). At the outset the Falcon was more comedic that the Saint and sometimes even goofy; less an outlaw than a dabbler — but probably not enough of a change for Sanders. In time the Falcon acquired the Saint’s outlaw reputation, ever suspected by the police of committing the murder he ultimately solves. Maybe one film into Conway’s run, characters talk about him as if he has a long personal history as the Falcon. The Falcon films wind down over time but never turn awful.

    In addition to inheriting the Falcon, Conway inherited Sherlock Holmes on the radio, playing opposite Nigel Bruce after Rathbone refused to renew his contract. Later he inherited the radio version of the Saint, after Vincent Price left it.

    Some lady sleuths worth seeing: Edna Mae Oliver was schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers in three snappy murder mysteries; when Edna decamped to MGM the series limped on with Helen Broderick (good, but stuck in a lame movie) and Zasu Pitts (reduced to near-sidekick status). The glory of the Oliver films is her treating cops and killers as schoolchildren who just need stern handling. Glenda Farrell played newshound Torchy Blaine in a bunch of films. At one point feisty Farrell and her tough cop boyfriend were replaced by younger, prettier actors; the originals were back in the next film. In the final few films Torchy Blaine was written as foolish rather than sharp and tough; her last entry ends with her literally running off to get married and have babies. Bonita Granville played Nancy Drew in four Warner programmers that must have grated on little girls who worshipped the confident, capable teen of the books. Granville’s comedic take is hyper, demanding, yet cute enough that you sort of get why not-quite-boyfriend Ted grumpily goes along with her spectacularly bad ideas.

    I must have mentioned it before, but “The Falcon in Hollywood” includes Sheldon Leonard as a gangster delivering this threat: “Stay outta my hair, or I’ll comb you out with a roscoe!” Still waiting for the proper occasion to borrow it.

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    According to his 2018 biography of Claire Trevor Derek Sculthorpe mentions that the actress attempted to interest radio and TV producers about a series featuring a female detective in the 50s but nothing came of it. She also appeared in MURDER MY SWEET, an earlier version of the source novel used in one of the Falcon films.

  10. I’d enjoy Claire T as a lady dick.

    So, it now seems like the gentleman sleuthiverse revolves around Tom Conway. Any film featuring him and Warren William would cause massive antimatter destruction. Don’t cross the beams!

  11. John Seal Says:

    Here’s my musings on same from (yikes!!) eighteen years ago.

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