Friday, September 18, 2009


I love the Turner Classic Movies cable tv station. On occasion TCM runs episodes of classic detective movie series from the 30s and 40s. It is just another reason why TCM is the absolute best cable, or broadcast, television station around.

Here are some of the series that I have seen on TCM over the past few years-

* Two famous film series about literary detectives that began with George Sanders as the star – "The Saint", more famous as a British tv series with Roger Moore, and "The Falcon".
Interestingly enough, after making 3 Falcon films Sanders decided to retire from the role, and in the 4th of the series, THE FALCON’S BROTHER, Sanders was killed in the end and his fictional brother, played by Sanders real-life brother Tom Conway, took over as the new Falcon and continued for all but the last three of the 16-film series.
A point of information – when called in one title THE GAY FALCON the reference was not to the detective’s sexual preference. Back then gay meant something else entirely.

* The adventures of retired jewel thief Boston Blackie, brought to life by Chester Morris, a real-life amateur magician who shared the hobby with his screen character, and his sidekick “Runt”. I had seen many of the Blackie movies during my youth on Saturday afternoon television. It was one of the few series in which the same actor played the lead throughout the run.

* The Perry Mason series, which, while keeping the actual ESG mysteries intact, took too many liberties with the characters, portraying Perry as a drunk bon vivant amateur chef who marries Della Street in one episode, a far cry from the more true to the books portrayal of Raymond Burr with which all boomers are familiar, and Paul Drake as a typical bumbling movie sidekick nicknamed “Spudzy”.

* Another retired jewel thief who appeared in a series of 15 files over 14 years – Michael Lanyard, aka "The Lone Wolf". This literary detective’s nickname was actually the source of the popular term “lone wolf”, used to describe “one who prefers to go without the company or assistance of others.”

* The uniquely named debonair detective Philo Vance, whose initial entry, THE CANARY MURDER CASE was completed as a silent film and hastily adapted for sound for its 1929 release. This series included THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE, not among the TCM offerings, written especially for the comedienne by Vance’s creator S.S. Van Dine. A later entry in the series, CALLING PHILO VANCE, was actually a remake of the earlier THE KENNEL MURDER CASE, both of which have been shown on TCM.

* A very interesting series I had never heard of before about Nick and Nora–ish rare booksellers Joel and Garda Sloane, from a novel by famous screenwriter Harvey Kurnitz writing as Marco Page. There were three films with three separate sets of actors playing the couple – Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice in FAST COMPANY, Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in FAST AND LOOSE, and Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern in FAST AND FURIOUS, directed by Busby Berkeley.

* And of course, the father of all such detective series – William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. Of course you do know by now that the Thin Man was not Nick Charles but a character in the first book that never reappeared, despite the movies’ titles.

While the individual detectives had their unique quirks and subtle differences, to be perfectly honest in many cases the characters and stories are interchangeable. All the heroes are handsome, urbane, witty, and intelligent, generally with some kind of shady past or underworld connection. They usually have a comic relief sidekick and, even if married, are often in the company of a beautiful dame. And they are frequently at odds with a hard-boiled police lieutenant or inspector with a blundering sergeant. They become involved in the mystery or adventure to help a friend, or one of the aforementioned beautiful dames, or to clear themselves of wrongful charges. As some of the films were made during the war years, the heroes occasionally tangled with Nazis and foreign spies.

While these films were considered to be “B” films they often featured actors and actresses who would later go on to greater fame on the big and and small screens early in their careers. One young dame who crossed paths with Boston Blackie was Harriet Hilliard, who would later marry a band leader named Nelson and raise her two boys on radio and television.

As with any genre, some series were better than others. And as with any episodic series, some entries, usually the earlier ones (although not always), were better than others. With few exceptions, different actors portrayed the various detectives during the runs of the individual series, and some casting choices were far superior to others. But they all were entertaining.

A few of the movie series were later translated to the small screen – Boston Blackie, The Thin Man (which starred Peter Lawford as Nick Charles), and of course Perry Mason and the Saint.

TCM has also offered the comic series about radio detective "The Fox", which starred Red Skeleton “Whistling” in Dixie, Brooklyn and the Dark, and Margaret Rutherford’s classic run as Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple.
Some bits of movie trivia – Joan Hickson, who played Miss Marple in the first BBC series, had a minor supporting role in MURDER SHE SAID (not Wrote). And did you know that before she updated the Marple retired school teacher detective character to modern day Jessica Fletcher, Angela Lansbury was Jane Marple in the 1980 film THE MIRROR CRACK’D, whose cast included Rock Hudson, Liz Taylor, Kim Novak, Tony Curtis and Pierce Brosnan.

PS - That ends my "Totally 1040 Free" week of posts. I will be back Monday with tax-related topics.

1 comment:

Stacie Clifford Kitts said...

I too love TCM. However, I do not have cable. I quit subscribing about eight years ago as a punishment for one of my teenagers who was watching too much TV and not getting her schoolwork done. Anyway, I never did hook the cable back up, it got to the point where I just did not miss it. I have inquired on a few occasions about getting it again, but I just cannot get over the cost. My cable company wants $50 a month for a basic package including TCM, which also includes 49 other stations I do not want. If I could pay $1 a month for the one I did want, I might go there.

Whenever my husband and I travel and we are in the hotel, I am like a kid in a candy store flipping through the cable channels as if it is the first time I have seen TV. Nevertheless, no matter how many things there are to watch, many more programs are just a waste of time. Besides, the way I figure it, I don't need any more excuses to sit around on my butt.