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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.