There have been many notable, historically celebrated examples of a literary character enjoying a long and happy life (or death) over the course of several decades (or even centuries) via not only their original work, but through the lucrative cash-cow known as franchising as well. But for every Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, or Dracula, there is a staggering amount of lesser-known fictional entities that ultimately failed to make the grade within the grand scheme of things. In fact, it’s quite frightening to think of how many once-briefly-popular imaginary men and women (and to some degree, those who would have to mark “other” on an application were they real) have come and gone since the very advent of storytelling itself.
And while I stay up night after night praying to God that the entire bibliography of Stephenie Meyer will someday be forgotten, my heart goes out to some of the others who probably shouldn’t have been. One such instance could be the character of A.J. Raffles, an English gentleman who moonlights as a jewel thief. But the sympathy I extend to Raffles has nothing to do with that, and exists solely over the very laughable fact that Raffles’ creator, E.W. Hornung, also made the amateur cracksman a championship cricketer. Yes, that’s right: our protagonist plays cricket. The Dark Knight is a millionaire playboy in the daytime, whereas The Amateur Cracksman engages in one of the most boring sports known to man. I think that’s a fair trade-off, don’t you?
But since cricket doesn’t pay, crime ultimately does when it comes to Raffles paying his escalating bills or wooing ladies of high society in 1930s London. Hornung published a series of short stories telling about the adventures of antihero Raffles and his trusty sidekick, a guy named Bunny, from 1898 to 1909, with the latter character serving as chronicler. If that sounds suspiciously like another literary coupling like, say, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, then you’re spot on. Surprisingly, the series received high praise from Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, commenting Hornung’s creations as a darker version of his own crime-fighting duo – though the shock of such swiftly comes to an end once one discovers Doyle and Hornung were, in fact, brothers-in-law.
And while history has no doubt revealed who the more talented (or at least) popular author of the family was, it must be noted that Raffles enjoyed a brief franchise stint in various forms of media over the years. In the realm of film, Raffles was originally brought to life upon the silent silver screen in 1905, and was effectively rebooted a total of three times after that (once in 1917, with John Barrymore playing the eponymous role; again in 1921, with Gerald Ames; and finally in 1925, with House Peters starring), though it appeared poor Raffles was never quite sought-after enough to make it past the introductory movie phase. And while speculation abounds to this day over whether Raffles’ apparent unpopularity in the filmic format was due to the fact that his best friend liked to be called Bunny, Raffles was sent back to the drawing board twice in the 1930s, wherein prolific producer Samuel Goldwyn had a say in things.
Of course, by the look of things, that which Goldwyn said was “Look, I don’t care, just make the same damn movie again!” as both of the Raffles included in this double feature from the Warner Archive Collection use the exact same stage play adaptation as their plot (hey, they did the same thing with 1931’s Dracula; it was just the way they did things then, I guess!). The first Raffles, released in 1930, delivers a suicidal drama queen of a man named Bunny (Bramwell Fletcher) onto Raffles’ doorstep after he writes a bad check for £1,000 after gambling all but his soul away. Unbeknownst to all, Raffles (Ronald Colman) is in fact the same notorious burglar Scotland Yard has dubbed “The Amateur Cracksman”, and he’s ready to retire from his dark evenings of latent larceny after falling hard for high society dame Lady Gwen (Kay Francis). But with his best friend in peril (are we sure Bunny’s suicidal tendencies have nothing to do with Raffles dating a girl?), Raffles decides it’s time for one last job.
And that job is the theft of the Melrose necklace, as once worn by Empress Joséphine, and which is currently adorning the double-wide sagging scrag of old Lady Melrose (Alison Skipworth). But the heist proves to be more of a challenge than even an amateur like Raffles is prepared for after a group of professional hoods led by a fellow named Crawshaw (John Rogers) set their sights on the same target, to wit a Scotland Yard detective, McKenzie (David Torrence) – who is actually Scottish – comes barging in to spoil all the fun along with his trained staff of total buffoons. So, it’s up to Raffles to figure out a way to snatch up the necklace while wooing both Lady Gwen and Lady Melrose, buttering up to Lord Melrose (Frederick Kerr, who practically played the same character as the elderly patriarch of Universal’s Frankenstein family a year later), keeping an eye out for Crawshaw and a suspicious McKenzie, and – most importantly of all – making sure Bunny stays on his meds.
George Fitzmaurice (Son of the Sheik) took over directing after Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast was canned, and Raffles was actually nominated for Best Sound in 1930, as it was the first time such a category was included on the Academy Awards roster. (The film was shot in silent form as well, proving to be the last Goldwyn film to do so in the process.) Hearing the scratchy soundtrack today makes it almost as amusing as a protagonist who plays professional cricket, as the ultra-sensitive microphones of the early ’30s picked up everything, and Foley had yet to become the fine art it is today. But of course this adds to the fun here, and I liked the pairing of Colman and Francis here (wait, did someone say Coleman Francis?), and the constant bickering between Lady Melrose – who has two pugs named Gin and Tonic – and Lord Melrose (especially Kerr’s interpretation of him) is a delight to watch. But of course, you get to see it all over again in the 1939 version of Raffles, with a few slight alterations, naturally.
For starters, the great David Niven takes on the lead part (and does a damn fine job, naturally, and who had to take a grace period from joining the British Army in order to finish the film), with another icon – Olivia de Havilland – portraying Lady Gwen, who, this time ’round, happens to be the sister of Bunny Manders (Douglas Walton), who is nowhere near as overly-dramatic as his predecessor in this incarnation. In fact, Bunny is far more of a minor character in this outing, and their visit to the Melrose estate (with Dame May Whitty and Lionel Pape hosting) is pre-arranged in the beginning of the film, with Bunny’s need for cash arising later into the story. The arrival of Inspector McKenzie (Dudley Diggs) is also altered for this version; having achieved in the obtaining of a clue as to the possible whereabouts – and subsequently, the identity – of The Amateur Cracksman in the beginning of the movie (wherein a cute l’il kitten is involved in one of Raffles’ many burglaries).
But what sets this Raffles apart from the previous one is its timing. With the art of editing – not to mention filmmaking in general – having come a long, long way since those talkies came into existence, Goldwyn’s 1939 version presents a tighter-paced (though still rather slow) offering that amazingly still clocks in at almost the exact same length. Sam Wood, best known today as one of the few directors capable of putting up with the outrageous antics of The Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, takes many of the same angles (and maybe even same sets in some instances) and adds a little more flair to them; an opening scene wherein a television set is seen as a way of introducing the main character seems downright surreal for a movie made in 1939.
Also of note here in this version is a slightly-different ending (wherein Raffles willingly surrenders to the police after giving them a run for their money; I suppose with it being wartime and all…), a better-written butler character for Raffles (expertly played as a friend, too, by E.E. Clive), and an almost brilliant bit of casting with Peter Godfrey as the criminal Crawshaw. Laurel and Hardy regular James Finlayson can be seen in the beginning as a hansom cab driver with a slightly stubborn horse named Lucy. Even with these very subtle changes, Raffles still never managed to make it past the odd film in the motion picture industry; the next time he was seen on the big screen was in 1958 – in a Spanish-language Mexican production (!).
Sadly, that version is nowhere to be seen here, nor is the alternate silent take on the 1930 film. But what we do get out of this Warner Archive release is a rather queer (no, not like Bunny) two-fer that delivers the titles in their best-surviving, available elements (read: a bit flawed, audio and video-wise). Neither film is what you might call great filmmaking today. It may have not even been back then; at least it certainly didn’t seem popular enough to spawn a lasting legacy of photoplay installments. But both movies (each on loan from the Samuel Goldwyn collection) deserve a viewing in their own right just the same, and pairing them back-to-back like this was a very wise move – even if you know how the other story’s going to go once you watch the other.
But hey, the more movies we have with guys named Bunny and cricketers masquerading as sportsmen in ’em, the better, I say. Enjoy.