Series Sleuths

Growing up in an era when the TV schedules were regularly padded out with all kinds of vintage entertainment was a great experience. It meant that my tastes became eclectic without my ever realizing it. Choice of channels was limited, but that actually meant that I was exposed to a wider range of material than can be the case in the increasingly fragmented media landscape of today. While it might appear to be a paradox, the restricted options led to a whole generation of us getting to see the kind of movies, and shows too, that we would probably never have bothered seeking out on our own initiative. The fact that almost everybody you knew saw pretty much the same stuff also resulted in a lack of any negative stigmatization based on the age or style of the movies – old, new or whatever, it was all just entertainment. And this leads me on to the detective movie series. These tended to run in seasons, either during the school holidays or sometimes in the early evening slots. Essentially, these formed cheap fillers for the schedulers, and the overall quality could be variable. Nevertheless, I developed a lifelong love of these old B movies. They were made on the cheap, often featuring distinctly hokey plots, but they usually moved at an incredibly brisk pace and always seemed to be steeped in atmosphere. I guess I’ve seen entries from all the major series but I’ll confine myself to highlighting the five which I remember enjoying the most, and of which I also saw the complete run.

Sherlock Holmes

Arguably, this was the finest series of all. Conan Doyle’s character has appeared on the screen countless times over the years and everyone will have their own favourite incarnation. For me though, nothing will ever surpass the teaming of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. They started out with two fairly lavish productions for Fox before moving to Universal, where the tighter budgets meant the stories and characters were updated and modernized. Some may object to this development, but I’ll remain forever enchanted by the intrepid duo making their way around those old abandoned Universal horror sets, which seemed to be permanently shrouded in studio fog.

Charlie Chan

The Chinese detective from Honolulu, with his impossibly large family, has to run Doyle’s immortals a very close second. Earl Derr Biggers’ creation was conceived as an antidote to the sinister Asians popularized by the fiction of Sax Rohmer among others. Chan’s wit, good manners and razor-sharp mind meant he stood out from the bumbling or villainous white characters around him. The long running series of movies originated at Fox and later moved to poverty row outfit Monogram, with Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters all playing the lead in succession between 1931 and 1949. While Oland’s characterization is probably the most sympathetic, I especially like the spooky atmosphere of the Toler films.

Mr Moto

The popularity of Chan meant there was an obvious market for heroic Asian sleuths. That void was filled by John P Marquand’s Japanese detective Moto. Between 1937 and 1939 Peter Lorre played the role in eight movies for Fox, before the political situation of the time led to the notion of a hero of Moto’s nationality falling out of fashion fast. Moto was younger and physically more dynamic than the portly Chan, so the movies tended to play up the action to a greater degree. Still and all, Lorre’s characterization is fun and the movies are marvelously entertaining.

The Falcon

I had to make my mind up  whether to include The Falcon or The Saint here. In the end, I settled on The Falcon, mainly because I feel the tone and quality of the movies are more consistent than the variable nature of The Saint entries. Those two series are inextricably linked due to RKO’s decision to launch The Falcon as a way around the difficulties it was having with Leslie Charteris’ character. There were thirteen films made between 1941 and 1946, starting out with George Sanders in the lead before he bowed out and handed over the reins to his brother Tom Conway – who played The Falcon’s brother but kept on the alias.

Crime Doctor

While my previous four choices all had their roots in novels or short stories, Robert Ordway, the Crime Doctor, came to the screen via the radio. The title character had an interesting history, being a criminal with amnesia who adopted the identity of a psychiatrist. In ten films for Columbia between 1943 and 1949, Warner Baxter took the lead as the former crook now dedicated to fighting crime. These were very low budget affairs, but Baxter brought plenty of gravitas to the role, and are of interest for the way they blended the then fashionable use of cod Freudian psychoanalysis into the solutions of the problems.

So there are my five picks. I could have expanded this group and included the other sleuths that had their own series in the 30s and 40s. However, I wanted to keep it to those that remain most firmly in my memory – also, five seemed a nice, neat number. Of course that means I had to omit the likes of The Saint, The Lone Wolf, Boston Blackie, The Whistler, Bulldog Drummond, and so on. My apologies if I’ve left out anyone’s particular favorites, but it’s an opportunity to stop by and tell me which one(s) I should have featured and why.

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26 thoughts on “Series Sleuths

  1. Terrific list Colin – I am a huge fan of all of these – the Oland / Toler Chans and the Rathbone and Bruce Holmes films will live forever I think, superb entertainments. I am though especially fond of MR MOTO, which I grew to love from screenings on Channel 4 with their superb production values and the atmospheric direction of the underrated Norman Foster, who wrote many of them too in collaboration with one of my favourite 30s writers, Philip MacDonald. The only series I am not actually familiar with is the CRIME DOCTOR which I have never watched at all, which now seems absurd! I’ve also only seen a few of the Warren William LONE WOLF films which I’d like to remedy eventually.

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    • Thanks Sergio. Yes, I think the Moto series is generally undervalued and it has so much going for it. Fox movies always featured decent budgets and that’s reflected in the production values. Norman Foster has some interesting credits, hasn’t he? It’s also worth bearing in mind that he is the credited director of Journey into Fear – although I think Orson Welles had more than a little involvement behind the cameras on that one.

      I’m not surprised you’re unfamiliar with some of these. I don’t know if the Crime Doctor movies ever ran on network TV. When I was growing up in the border country of Northern Ireland we could receive all the UK channels and also the RTE service from the ROI. RTE2 ran all these series, mostly on Saturday afternoons, but also some around 9pm on Thursday evenings in the early 1980s. Anything I didn’t catch off BBC2 generally turned up on RTE2, and that was definitely the case with the Crime Doctor and the Lone Wolf films.

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      • Channel 4 definitely showed some LONE WOLF titles rather late at night as I recall but about 20 years ago probably (sigh …). Foster was a better than average filmmaker and remained friends with Welles, who was definitely the producer, but was otherwise off shooting MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS at the time. On the region 1 set of the Moto films (volume 2 to be exact) there is a very nice profile of Foster by the way.

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        • Yes, those Moto, and Chan, sets were very nicely put together by Fox, weren’t they? Aside from the fine transfers of the films themselves, the extra features were all thoughtful and interesting. Sadly, quality releases like that seem to be a thing of the past.

          BTW, I have had a nice omnibus edition of Marquand’s Moto books for years – still haven’t managed to actually read any of the stories though.

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          • I read a couple ofthe novels in Italian but it was so long ago that I can’t remember much now. They were a bit closer to the style of the first Moto film, the more serious one, while the series developed along lighter lines with Foster and MacDonald’s priginal scripts. I have the Chan and Moto sets and as you say, things of great beauty. Still, at least the Holmes films are on Blu-ray both in Region A and B (looks like the Koch release is the one to get – the Spanish one is cheaper but has no extras and also may have a few encoding issues actually)

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            • I will give those Marquand books a go, eventually.

              It’s good to see the Holmes films out on Blu-ray even if I don’t see myself buying them. I was perfectly satisfied with the old UK box set and can’t really justify buying them again.

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              • I know what you mean, though the Optimum set I bought seemed to suffer from Chroma problems on some of the films – well, that was my excuse but of couse it has the commentaries so not getting rid of it! If you don’t have it and can get it at a reasonable price, the MICHAEL SHAYNE box from Fox is loads of fun.

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                • I have that Michael Shayne set, and I agree it’s very enjoyable – Lloyd Nolan was always terrific. It’s just a pity we never got a second volume to complete the unreleased films.

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                  • You did tell me you had the set when we talked about Nolans, sorry, plain forgot! The second set seems to have been kiboshed over concerns over the rights to the Chandler novel but as they have now put BRASHER DOUBLOON out as an MOD release, hopefully they might put the rest of the Shayne titles out (though probably MOD as well but it would be nice to tthink that decent masters were made in anticipation).

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                    • Yes, it would be nice to think those rights issues that seemed to be blamed for the failure to release the other titles had been cleared up. Dressed to Kill actually got a stand alone pressed release ages ago, but that’s not going to happen now – unless they happen to turn up in other territories of course.

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                    • Me too. Frankly, I’d welcome a MOD set of the remaining Shayne movies if for no better reason that it practically guarantees their subsequent appearance somewhere in Europe.

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  2. Colin,

    I recall watching Charlie Chan on the “The Early Show” in the afternoon or “The Late Show” after the 10:00 news. I also preferred the Toler films. Ironic, isn’t it, that none of the Charlies were Chinese?

    I also do not recall ever viewing one of the “Crime Doctor” films. Didn’t Warren William portray Perry Mason in a series?

    Stormy

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    • Yes, while it’s true that none of the actors who portrayed Chan were Chinese, the character was played by a handful of Asian actors before Oland got the gig. Success only came though when Oland was cast, and the rest, as they say, is history.

      You’re quite right about Warren William playing Perry Mason – I don’t think I’ve seen any of those films but they are available on DVD now from the Warner Archive.

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  3. TCM in USA has been running these detective series every Saturday morning. Torchy Blaine is the most recent series shown.
    In fact, for Warner Baxter’s birthday last week, TCM featured several Crime doctor movies.
    There are a few Perry Masons the next couple weeks, the The Falcon series is running in May and June

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    • Muriel, that’s great that these old series still get regular airings in the US. Sure film fans like ourselves can track the movies down on DVD these days, but it’s also important that TV continues to show them. Without TV screenings, new fans are unlikely to even be aware of their existence.
      By the way, I’ve never seen any Torchy Blaine films.

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  4. Great idea for a post, Colin, and I especially liked your opening paragraph reminiscing about a time when a youngster could catch all manner of entertainment on TV – a time I remember as well. I put that down as largely responsible for my love of older movies and TV series. Though I saw tons of great stuff, unfortunately most of the TV affiliates where I grew up (in Washington State) rarely showed any of these marvelous B detective series. I used to read Leonard Maltin’s movie guides and rue all the cool-sounding films of this type I was missing. I’ve since caught up with a number of these series and you’ve certainly highlighted some of the most notable. There are many other less well-known ones that I’ve yet to see, like the Hildegarde Withers, Crime Doctor, etc. Coincidentally enough, I just finished watching the I LOVE A MYSTERY trio of films from the 40s (based off the famous radio show) with the idea of doing a post on them. Great minds think alike, and all that. I hope you someday get around to a more in-depth take on these films (especially the Motos, which are such fun a heap fun and move like nobody’s business.)

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    • Good to see another fan of the Mr Moto films Jeff. I’ve never seen any of those Hildegarde Withers moves myself, or the I Love a Mystery trio either – I hope you do get round to doing a piece on them.
      As a kid, I loved reading up on the films I had yet to see via Otto Penzler and Chris Steinbrunner’s rather wonderful Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection.

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  5. Nice, Colin – I didn’t realise those Sherlock Holmes films were made on the sets of old Universal horrors? Very interesting. I always thought about picking up the SH boxed set but never quite got around to it.

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    • Hi Paul. Roy William Neill (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) directed most of the Holmes films and he brought a nice sense of the macabre to some, especially the mid-series entries – The Scarlet Claw, The Pearl of Death, The Spider Woman, The House of Fear. With your interest in horror, I figure you would get some enjoyment from these.

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  6. By this post really takes me back! While reading here I discovered that I have failed as a parent because my children have never seen any of these. Apperently we have some catching up to do. Thanks again Colin!

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    • Paul, one of the great things about these movies is the short running times – most clock in at around the hour mark – so they never outstay their welcome, and it does make catch-up viewing a whole lot easier. They really are the forerunner of the TV detective show and share that brisk, compact feeling.

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  7. The Moto series still pack a punch today. They are solid programmers with good stories and fine work from the cast and crews involved. Love them.

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