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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

For the second column of 2004, I'm going to take a look at the numerous detective series films turned out during the studio era with particular emphasis on Sherlock Holmes. I also have the usual compilation of new classic release announcements and the database has been updated accordingly. You'll notice, however, that the column includes no reviews of the latest classic discs. My intention is to provide the reviews as a separate package in future, staggered with the column's appearance. So look for my next set of reviews in ten days time or so.


Sherlock Holmes and Other Detective Series Films of the 1930s and 1940s

In the early 1930s, double bills became a standard offering at movie theatres desperate to lure in paying customers at the height of the Depression. The bottom half of the double bill was often filled by a series film, that is, a film containing recurring characters whose familiarity would attract movie-goers on a regular basis. The series film should not be confused with the serial. The latter was a 12-to-15-episode chapter play with a new episode lasting about 15 minutes in length and concluding with a cliffhanger ending being shown each week. Series films, on the other hand, used a basic set of lead characters, but individual entries in the series might have had different locales and supplementary characters. Each film was typically 60 to 70 minutes in length.

The studio system was well set up for such films, for each studio had numerous cast and crew members under contract who could be kept busy in this way. The series films also proved to be either excellent testing and training grounds for newly signed employees (the likes of James Stewart, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Robert Mitchum, and Lloyd Bridges, for example) or comfortable niches for veteran players on the down sides of their careers (such as Warner Baxter, Lionel Barrymore, or Warren William). The best of the series films made innovative use of existing sets constructed for the studios' more prestigious movies. As a result of all these considerations, the series films were usually turned out on a fairly modest budget which assured a good profit even though the films' exhibition was confined to double bill showings. The 1950s spelled the end of the series picture as television increasingly filled that niche and much less expensively to boot.

Series films were made for virtually all genres of movies, ranging from comedies (Blondie, Mexican Spitfire, Andy Hardy), westerns (Hopalong Cassidy, the Three Mesquiteers, Red Ryder), jungle adventure (Tarzan, Jungle Jim), animal pictures (Francis the Talking Mule), mystery (The Whistler) to medical fare (Dr. Kildare, Dr. Christian), but the most popular by far (if the number of different series is any indicator) was the detective series film. Examples of the latter include Boston Blackie, Bulldog Drummond, Charlie Chan, Crime Doctor, Dick Tracy, Ellery Queen, The Falcon, The Lone Wolf, Mr. Moto, Mr. Wong, Philo Vance, The Saint, The Thin Man, and perhaps the best known of them all - Sherlock Holmes.


Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous Victorian sleuth first appeared in the 1887 novel, "A Study in Scarlet" and the character has been popular ever since with numerous incarnations on both film and television. There were several silent filmings of the character, with John Barrymore providing an apparently interesting interpretation of the role in a 1922 Goldwyn production (Sherlock Holmes) that included exteriors shot in London. Paramount produced the first sound Holmes film in 1929 - The Return of Sherlock Holmes, starring Clive Brook as the master detective. Other individual early sound filmings included The Speckled Band (1931, with Raymond Massey), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1931, with Robert Rendel), Sherlock Holmes (1932, with Clive Brook), and A Study in Scarlet (1933, with Reginald Owen). The former two were British productions while the latter two were made by Fox and World-Wide (distributed by Fox) respectively.

The first of what one might call a series of Sherlock Holmes films was made in Britain, beginning in 1931. Starring as Holmes was Arthur Wontner, an accomplished stage actor, who was soon recognized as an ideal embodiment of the character both in looks and temperament. Dr. Watson was portrayed by Ian Fleming (not the James Bond creator). There were five films in all and although the budgets were limited, all managed to please due to decent scripts and particularly Wontner's characterization. Distributed in the United States at the time of their original release, the films are now presumably in the public domain and at least two of them (The Sign of Four and the one considered the best of the Wontners - The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes) have appeared on home video over the years. Those two titles are currently available on DVD.

Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour (1931)
The Missing Rembrandt (1932)
The Sign of Four (1932) - available on DVD from Alpha, quality unknown
The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935) - available on DVD from Alpha, quality unknown
Silver Blaze (1937)

After a six-year Holmes drought in Hollywood, Darryl Zanuck decided to resurrect the character (sources vary as to exactly how it came about) in a new 1939 Fox production. It was The Hound of the Baskervilles, with the film taking place back in the Victorian times in which the original story had been set. More important, however, was the inspired casting of Basil Rathbone as Holmes and his friend Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. Both appeared to fit the roles very appropriately, although with time, Bruce's characterization would come to be a point of contention, with many feeling his Dr. Watson to be too comedic and bumbling. For this first Rathbone/Bruce outing, Fox provided a fine supporting cast including such players as Richard Greene, Wendy Barrie, Lionel Atwill, and John Carradine. The director was the less-than-electrifying Sidney Lanfield, but the result was very satisfactory nonetheless both critically and at the box office. Fox immediately ordered a follow-up, to be called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The title derived from a William Gillette stage play which Fox then chose to ignore, fashioning a completely new plot for the most part. Rathbone and Bruce returned, and the villainy was provided by George Zucco as Prof. Moriarty. Ida Lupino and Alan Marshal had major supporting roles. Again set in Victorian times, the second film was superior to the first as director Alfred Werker kept things moving well and Zucco's Moriarty proved to be an excellent adversary for Holmes. The film was another unqualified success, but this time Fox decided against further follow-ups. Some distribution issues were cited as a consideration, but more likely events in Europe in 1940 made Victorian mystery seem somewhat out of place.

In 1942, Universal expressed interest in resurrecting Sherlock Holmes for a series of films. These would see the Holmes character updated to contemporary times with conditions in Europe such as bombings and espionage being integrated into the plots. Rathbone and Bruce were both keen to reprise their roles, and over the next five years, a dozen titles would be produced. At the time, Universal was not a major studio such as Fox and it generally focused on lower budget films. It was, however, adept at such productions and was able to turn out very well crafted efforts. Roy William Neill would direct all the new Holmes films and that proved to be a plus, as he was able to invest them with the strong sense of atmosphere that they all possess. The key, however, continued to be Basil Rathbone who really threw himself into the Holmes role and made every entry worth seeing even when the scripts were somewhat pedestrian. The supporting casts were also generally a benefit with the likes of Lionel Atwill, George Zucco, Henry Daniell, and Gale Sondergaard playing various adversaries and Dennis Hoey and Mary Gordon playing recurring roles such as Inspector Lestrade and Holmes's landlady Mrs. Hudson respectively. The best of the Universal films are generally the middle ones such as Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, The Scarlet Claw, and The House of Fear as they seem to convey the essence of the original character even though he's placed in an updated milieu.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939, Fox, with Richard Greene and Lionel Atwill)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939, Fox, with Ida Lupino and George Zucco)
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942, Universal, with Henry Daniell)
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942, Universal, with Lionel Atwill)
Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943, Universal, with George Zucco)
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943, Universal, with Arthur Maretson)
Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1944, Universal, with Gale Sondergaard)
The Scarlet Claw (1944, Universal, with Gerald Hamer)
The Pearl of Death (1944, Universal, with Rondo Hatton)
The House of Fear (1945, Universal)
The Woman in Green (1945, Universal, with Henry Daniell)
Pursuit to Algiers (1945, Universal, with Martin Kosleck)
Terror by Night (1946, Universal, with Alan Mowbray)
Dressed to Kill (1946, Universal)

All of the Universal Sherlock Holmes films are now available on DVD from MPI. These releases all utilize the UCLA restored film versions and they all look and sound superb given the degree to which the materials had previously been allowed to deteriorate. One only has to look at several of the earlier DVD releases by FocusFilm and other public domain companies to appreciate the improvement. The 12 titles are available either individually or in three box sets of four titles each. Purchasing them in the latter format means that, for each box, you get some nice supplements including an audio commentary on one of the four films, thorough liner notes, photo galleries and trailers. All three box sets are very highly recommended. On April 27th, MPI will also release the two Fox films on DVD. Each will have audio commentary, liner notes, photo galleries, and trailers.


The Rest of the Detectives...

Boston Blackie

The Boston Blackie character was a former jewel thief now working on the side of the law as a private investigator. He had first appeared in a 1910 book by Jack Boyle and had surfaced in several films before Columbia began its 14-picture series in 1941. Veteran actor Chester Morris played Blackie in every film (with a fair degree of wit and vitality), with support from George E. Stone as Blackie's pal Runt and Richard Lane as Inspector Farraday. The series lasted until 1949, but generally the first half dozen films are the best of the bunch. Some of the Columbia contract players who showed up in the various films included Lloyd Bridges, Dorothy Malone, Nina Foch, and Larry Parks. None of the films are available on DVD; Columbia holds the rights.

Meet Boston Blackie (1941, directed by Robert Florey, Charles Wagenheim played Runt in this entry only)
Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941, directed by Edward Dmytryk)
Alias Boston Blackie (1942, with Lloyd Bridges in a small role)
Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942, with Forrest Tucker)
After Midnight with Boston Blackie (1943, with Ann Savage)
The Chance of a Lifetime (1943, directed by William Castle)
One Mysterious Night (1944, directed by Budd Boetticher, with Janis Carter and Dorothy Malone)
Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion (1945)
Boston Blackie's Rendezvous (1945, with Nina Foch and Steve Cochran)
A Close Call for Boston Blackie (1946)
The Phantom Thief (1946)
Boston Blackie and the Law (1946)
Trapped by Boston Blackie (1948)
Boston Blackie's Chinese Venture (1949)


Bulldog Drummond

The Drummond character was an ex-British army officer who manages to get involved in various adventures. The definitive portrayal was by Ronald Colman in 1929's Bulldog Drummond and 1934's Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back. The former was a Samuel Goldwyn release that did appear on laserdisc, but not on DVD so far. MGM presumably holds the rights. The 1934 film was a Fox release, and again is not available on DVD. The Drummond series films were produced by Paramount beginning in 1937. They were more standard whodunits than the witty Colman films, and featured Ray Milland as Drummond in the first one, but with a rather bland John Howard replacing him thereafter. Other regular performers were John Barrymore as Inspector Neilson of Scotland Yard, Reginald Denny as Drummond's pal Algy, and E.E. Clive as the butler Tenny. There were eight entries in the consistently entertaining Paramount series which ended in 1939. Columbia then resurrected the character in two less interesting programmers in 1947 with Ron Randell in the lead, and Fox followed with two more in 1948 (with Tom Conway as Drummond). Most of the Paramount titles have made their way to DVD courtesy of various independent releasers, but none of the later ones.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937, Paramount, Ray Milland as Drummond) - available on DVD from Image in a double bill with Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police and recommended (also available as a single disc from Alpha, quality unknown)
Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937, Paramount, John Howard's first film as Drummond) - available on DVD from Alpha, quality unknown
Bulldog Drummond's Revenge (1937, Paramount) - available on DVD from Alpha, quality unknown
Bulldog Drummond's Peril (1938, Paramount) - available on DVD from Alpha, quality unknown
Bulldog Drummond in Africa (1938, Paramount) - available on DVD from Alpha, quality unknown
Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police (1939, Paramount) - available on DVD from Image in a double bill with Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police and recommended (also available as a single disc from Alpha, quality unknown)
Bulldog Drummond's Bride (1939, Paramount) - available on DVD from Alpha, quality unknown
Arrest Bulldog Drummond (1939, Paramount)
Bulldog Drummond at Bay (1947, Columbia)
Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1947, Columbia)
The Challenge (1948, Fox)
13 Lead Soldiers (1948, Fox)


Charlie Chan

Earl Derr Biggers's famous Chinese detective first appeared in the 1925 novel "The House Without a Key", the first of six Chan books to eventually appear. The first book was turned into a 1926 serial of the same title by Pathé and a later one was filmed in 1928 by Universal (The Chinese Parrot). In 1929, Fox Films produced the first sound Charlie Chan film, Behind the Curtain, with English actor E.L. Park portraying Chan. Then, two years later, Fox returned to the character with Charlie Chan Carries On in which Swedish actor Warner Oland played the title role. This triggered the long-running Chan series from Fox which lasted until 1942. There were 26 films in all - 16 with Oland and after he died, the last ten with Sidney Toler as Chan. In 1944, Monogram resurrected the series, again utilizing Toler in the lead role. Toler died in 1947 after 11 Monogram films and was replaced by Roland Winters for six final efforts, the last of which was released in 1949. Oland is generally considered to be the best Chan and most of his films are highly entertaining (Charlie Chan in Egypt and Charlie Chan at the Opera are particularly good). Toler is slightly below Oland in effectiveness, although several of his Fox films are very good also (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island and Charlie Chan on Broadway, for example). The lack of Charlie Chan on DVD is a sore point. Fox has apparently restored its Chan titles but so far has refused to release them on DVD citing lack of marketability for the titles as its reason. One suspects there is more to it than that given last year's actions by Fox to yank the films from its Fox Movie Channel in response to objections from misguided special interest groups. Several of the Fox Chans were previously available on laserdisc. The Monogram titles are now controlled by Warner Bros. who have so far not indicated any intention to release them on DVD either. Again, several of the titles were previously available on laserdisc, in a box set.

Behind That Curtain (1929, Fox)
Charlie Chan Carries On (1931, Fox, Warner Oland's first appearance as Chan) - a lost film
The Black Camel (1931, Fox)
Charlie Chan's Chance (1932, Fox) - a lost film
Charlie Chan's Greatest Case (1933, Fox) - a lost film
Charlie Chan's Courage (1934, Fox) - a lost film
Charlie Chan in London (1934, Fox)
Charlie Chan in Paris (1935, Fox) - previously available on a Fox laserdisc
Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935, Fox)
Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935, Fox)
Charlie Chan's Secret (1936, Fox)
Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936, Fox)
Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936, Fox)
Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936, Fox) - previously available on a Fox laserdisc
Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937, Fox)
Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937, Fox)
Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo (1938, Fox, Oland's last Chan film)
Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938, Fox, Toler takes over as Chan)
Charlie Chan in Reno (1939, Fox)
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (1939, Fox)
Charlie Chan in City of Darkness (1939, Fox)
Charlie Chan in Panama (1940, Fox)
Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise (1940, Fox)
Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum (1940, Fox) - previously available on a Fox laserdisc
Murder over New York (1940, Fox)
Dead Men Tell (1941, Fox)
Charlie Chan in Rio (1941, Fox) - previously available on a Fox laserdisc
Castle in the Desert (1942, Fox)
Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944, Monogram) - peviously available on laserdisc in an MGM box set
The Chinese Cat (1944, Monogram) - previously available on laserdisc in an MGM box set
Black Magic [aka Meeting at Midnight] (1944, Monogram) - previously available on laserdisc in an MGM box set
The Jade Mask (1945, Monogram) - previously available on laserdisc in an MGM box set
The Scarlet Clue (1945, Monogram) - previously available on laserdisc in an MGM box set
The Shanghai Cobra (1945, Monogram) - previously available on laserdisc in an MGM box set
The Red Dragon (1945, Monogram)
Dark Alibi (1946, Monogram)
Shadows Over Chinatown (1946, Monogram)
Dangerous Money (1946, Monogram)
The Trap (1947, Monogram, Toler's last Chan film)
The Chinese Ring (1947, Monogram, Winters takes over as Chan)
Docks of New Orleans (1948, Monogram)
The Shanghai Chest (1948, Monogram)
The Golden Eye (1948, Monogram)
The Feathered Serpent (1948, Monogram)
Sky Dragon (1949, Monogram)


Crime Doctor

The Crime Doctor series originated as a pre-World War II radio show about a character named Dr. Ordway who was an ex-gangster turned psychiatrist specializing in the criminal mind. Ray Collins initially voiced the character. Columbia contracted to make a series of detective films based on the show. Warner Baxter took on the title role and the initial entry, Crime Doctor, appeared in 1943. There would be nine further films, all starring Baxter, with the final one being released in 1949. Each of these programmers is an enjoyable whodunit, with little drop-off in quality over the series's seven year run. Aside from Baxter's role, there are no other recurring characters in the films. William Castle directed four of the entries. None of the films are available on DVD.

Crime Doctor (1943, with Margaret Lindsay, John Litel, and Ray Collins)
Crime Doctor's Strangest Case (1943, with Lloyd Bridges and Barton MacLane)
Shadows in the Night (1944, with Nina Foch and George Zucco)
Crime Doctor's Courage (1945, directed by George Sherman)
Crime Doctor's Warning (1945, directed by William Castle)
Crime Doctor's Man Hunt (1946, directed by William Castle)
Just Before Dawn (1946, directed by William Castle)
The Millerson Case (1947)
Crime Doctor's Gamble (1947, directed by William Castle)
Crime Doctor's Diary (1949)


Dick Tracy

Chester Gould's crimefighter Dick Tracy first appeared on film in four Republic serials released during the late 1930s and early 1940s. The first was somewhat slow moving, but the other three made up for its lack of action and excitement. The four serials' chief asset was Ralph Byrd who was an excellent embodiment of the popular comic strip detective. In 1945, RKO decided to start a series of Dick Tracy programmers. For the first two entries, they chose Morgan Conway to portray Tracy, but he was uninspiring in the role. Ralph Byrd replaced Conway for the next two entries, but the writing remained lackluster and the series ended prematurely. The four RKO titles have been popular grist for the public domain releasers and numerous DVD copies abound. The set from Roan Group is as good as any. Falcon Picture Group's box set is also a reasonable choice. VCI will be releasing a set in May.

Dick Tracy [aka Dick Tracy, Detective] (1945, with Anne Jeffreys, Mike Mazurki, and Jane Greer)
Dick Tracy Versus Cueball (1946)
Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947)
Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947, with Boris Karloff)


On to Part Two

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