Archive for Bert Lytell

The Stepford Sleuths

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2020 by dcairns

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…

Mohr and Blore

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2020 by dcairns

Thinner than the Thin Man! Saintlier than the Saint! Crimier than the Crime Doctor and more masonic than Perry Mason! Michael Lanyard, the Lone Wolf, is back, accompanied as ever by his faithful manservant, Jamison… wait, how can he be a lone wolf if he’s accompanied?

We sold Marvelous Mary on the idea of a Lone Wolf watch party so she can feed her Eric Blore addiction (for it is he who essays the role of Jamison, apart from one outing where Alan Mowbray stepped in, with Ron Randall in his only appearance as Lanyard — I’m saving that one for a day when it is not only rainy, but SUBMERGED).

Our double-feature was to consist of ONE DANGEROUS NIGHT, Warren the starving lion’s penultimate Lanyard performance, and then THE LONE WOLF IN MEXICO, in which the now ailing WW is subbed out by pod person Gerald Mohr, a Columbia upstart best known for fading into the background of GILDA. Both films acquired in suitably ratty form, poor prints duped from VHS off-air recordings, the latter one graced with massive, decomposing Spanish subtitles crawling over half the image, through which the actors peered like convicted felons, as perhaps they were. A good evening in.

These subtitles are illegible, it’s a good thing I don’t understand Spanish.

Mary suggested we invite our mutual chum Stuart to partake also. Stuart produced my first short film, so would seem to have much to answer for, but he answered for it fully at the time, I can assure you. I don’t know what he’s done since to make him deserving of this cinematic treat, but probably plenty. I sold the show to him as “pre-televisual time consumption units.” There was eventually a Lone Wolf TV show, after Ron Randall murdered the movie series, and it starred Louis Hayward who seems like excellent low-budget casting, which lets face it is all the series ever got. I might check it out, Alfred E. Green directed some and there are exciting guest stars like Denver Pile and Morris Ankrum. Oh goodie!

I am curious about THE FALSE FACES, the silent Henry B. Walthall vehicle which is available purely because Lon Chaney’s in it. Curious about the numerous other silents also, but none is within my grasp, and the part-talkie THE LONE WOLF’S DAUGHTER is considered lost. Maybe I’ll never find out if Bert Lytell was a worthy precursor to the Starving Lion. With a name like Bert, it’s hard to picture him doing the suavity.

Curious also about the early talkies with Melvyn Douglas (pretty classy casting) and Francis Lederer (pretty surprising casting, though Lederer is ALWAYS surprising, not to say alarming, in any role). I can get those.

ONE DANGEROUS NIGHT is standard Lone Wolf stuff, enlivened by WW failing to take himself or anything else seriously, and by Blore’s “bits”: he’s called upon to impersonate an entire 4th of July party, to loudly feign illness, and to fire a prop Tommy gun, all of which he does so with his usual enthusiasm, which rightly should belong to a man twice his size, but who’d pay for the damage?

Blore being a party.

Blore feigning illness.

Michael Gordon directs, having worked his way up from Boston Blackie by way of the Crime Doctor, with Cyrano still in his future.

Sample dialogue from a henchperson: “Kid’s got a bad case of ants, always in a stew.”

Eric Blore gets to say: “We’re being followed, sir. Couple of storybook characters.”

Anne Savage gets to say: “Come on, honeybunch, let’s go places.”

MEXICO, despite Mohr being somewhat overshadowed by his immediately predecessor, is the same kind of fun. Co-writer of DETOUR, Martin Goldsmith, is one of the credited scribes, and the dialogue has zest. It’s directed by D. Ross Lederman, whose first initial and middle name seem to form their own critical commentary.

Weirdly, though Jamison/Blore is characterised as a reformed thief in all the films, these two are the only ones I’ve seen where he’s portrayed as a sort of kleptomaniac, snatching purses in both flicks to jump-start a spare bit of narrative.

Eric Blore gets to say: “What have we done now??” Also he gets to wear a sombrero and sing the “Ay, ay, ay!” song. You know the one I mean.

Last line of the film is a Mexican policeman saying “…I thee-eenk.” More innocent times. Subtitling this for the Spanish market may have been an act of post-war optimism.

ONE DANGEROUS NIGHT stars Paul Kroll; Cedric Cosmo, aka Captain Braceridge Hemingway; Eve Corby; Stephanie ‘Steffie’ Hajos; Eloise Matthews; Vera; Mr. Bel-Goodie; Sgt. Murphy; Noah Joad; Buddy De Sylva; Capt. Delgado; Joe Brody; Count Alexis Rakonin; The College Cad; Gort; Spat; Leatherstocking; Trustee, Boston Waif Society (uncredited); and Steve McCroskey.

THE LONE WOLF IN MEXICO stars Capt. Delgado again; Cedric Cosmo, aka Captain Braceridge Hemingway again; Ann, Cowgirl in Movie (uncredited); Mona Plash; Minor Supporting Role (uncredited); Roy Church; Megalos (uncredited); Reverend Hawthorne (uncredited); Bret Harte (uncredited); Mendoza (uncredited); Reuben Klopek; Cannabis Dealer (as Leon Lenoir); Samaris (uncredited); Spectator at Medusa Presentation (uncredited); and Leatherstocking again.