11 February 2014

Minor Movie Series vs. the Thin Man Effect

Some time back I wrote about the big three of the old-time mystery movie series, The Thin Man, Sherlock Holmes, and Charlie Chan series.  In that column, I noted how popular mystery series were with audiences of the thirties and forties, just as popular, in fact, as mystery television series are today. I also mentioned then that I might return to the subject from time to time to consider "minor" series.  Here is just such a return visit, though with a twist, as I'd also like to consider the balance between comedy and detection in the mystery.  A discussion of B-movies series is a great place to discuss this balance, because, in your humble correspondent's humble opinion, more than one series tumbled into obscurity when the balance was lost.  
The Balancing Act

Anyone who decides to use humor in a mystery story, and that's a fair number of writers these days, faces a balancing act:  how much humor to how much mystery element.  The recipe varies from writer to writer, just as a taste for humor in the mystery varies from reader to reader.  The men and women who wrote B-movie mystery series in the thirties tended to err on the side of humor, since these films were light entertainment meant to fill out a film program.  For my money, what gave humor the upper hand was the amazing success of The Thin Man, staring William Powell and Myrna Loy and released in 1934.  Prior to that money making machine, mysteries tended to be a  little more serious, afterward, less so.  Unfortunately, nobody could match Powell and Loy's comic technique (or the crisp direction of W.S. Van Dyke), and few even came close, so what I'll call the "Thin Man Effect" wasn't always a positive thing.  For an example, compare the original Maltese Falcon of 1930, pre-Thin Man, with its first (loose) remake, Satan Met a Lady from 1936, post-Thin Man.  The first is straight and memorable, the second silly and forgettable, despite the presence in the cast of a young Betty Davis.

Here's my personal position, nailed to the cathedral door:  Though I enjoy reading P.G. Wodehouse as much as I do Raymond Chandler, when it comes to a mystery story, I want the mystery elements to hold the upper hand.  (And not just against humor; I want mystery to win out over romantic elements in romantic mysteries, over small-town interactions in cozy mysteries, and against existential angst in noir mysteries.  Even against literary flourishes in literary mysteries.)  The following film series demonstrate the pitfalls of tilting the balance the other way. 

Perry Mason

Warren Willams
No series was more adversely affected by the Thin Man Effect than the Perry Mason films made by Warner Bros.  In the first entry, 1934's The Case of the Howling Dog, Mason (played by Warren Williams) was a serious investigator, not unlike the later television incarnation created by Raymond Burr.  But by the second entry, released on the heels of The Thin Man, Mason, still played by Williams, was transformed into a hard-drinking gourmet who can barely be bothered with the crime.  By the time Williams left the series two films later, Mason was almost a lush, a la early Nick Charles.  There were two more films post Williams, and they came somewhat back to earth, but the damage had been done.  It would be years before an authentic Mason returned to the (small) screen.

Ellery Queen

Ralph Bellamy
For this mystery fan, one of the great lost opportunities of the 1940s was the Ellery Queen series made by Columbia, starting in 1940.  Ellery Queen was at or near the height of his considerable popularity back then, thanks to a string of successful books, none of which portrayed him as a bumbling idiot.  But that was exactly the way he was played first by Ralph Belamy (four films) and then by William Gargan (three films).  Neither actor was young enough or cerebral enough to play Ellery, who comes across in these programmers as too dumb to read books, never mind write them.  It was an inexplicable decision, all the more so because a successful radio show, The Adventures of Ellery Queen had debuted in 1939.  Its Ellery, played by Hugh Marlowe, was much more faithful to the books.  Why ignore that successful model?  I blame the Thin Man Effect.         

Boston Blackie

Chester Morris
Hollywood never met a gentleman jewel thief it didn't love, from the venerable Raffles to Michael Lanyard (the Lone Wolf) to John Robie (the Cat).  Boston Blackie's literary roots went back as far as those of Raffles, and there were even Blackie films in the silent era.  But he didn't get a series until Chester Morris took on the part in 1940.  Morris was a square-jawed actor who would have made a great Dick Tracy, if he could have kept himself from smiling.  As Blackie, he didn't have to try, as the films made by Columbia between 1940 and 1948 were lighter than air.  The plots were very similar.  Blackie, a reformed thief, would be in the wrong place at the wrong time, often because he was trying to help some poor soul, often a beautiful Columbia starlet.  He would then spend the rest of the movie's very brief running time clearing his name.

I don't mean to suggest that this series was a failure.  Far from it.  They were popular enough to run to fourteen installments, two more than Universal's Sherlock Holmes series.  But Blackie was a much tougher character in print and might have been on the big screen, even with the debonair Morris in the part.  That he wasn't is another example of the Thin Man Effect.  

Nick Carter

Walter Pidgeon
MGM, the same studio that had struck gold with Nick Charles, tried again in 1939 with a Nick who had appeared in print before Sherlock Holmes:  Nick Carter.  The brief movie series had little in common with the Nick Carter dime-novels that began appearing in 1886, except for the hero's name and some "outlandish" plotting, to quote film critic Leonard Maltin.  The three-picture run starred Walter Pidgeon, before that actor hitched his wagon to Greer Garson's star.  It aimed for a light and breezy tone, but was often only silly.  This silliness was embodied by Carter's self-appointed sidekick, the Bee-Man.  Played by Donald Meek, the Bee-Man kept live bees in his pocket for timely use against bad guys.  (I am not making this up.)  It gave a whole new meaning to B-movie.

In my next installment, if I have one, I'll look at series featuring female sleuths.       


  1. Even the Sherlock Holmes films suffered a bit of buffoonery from Watson.

    Deborah Elliott-Upton is a major Nick Carter fan. I preferred the print and radio stories.

    Another character who changed from print to screen was The Falcon.

  2. I hope you write another installment!

  3. And the Charlie Chan, always the stereotypical Chinese. With his Number one son. And Nero wolfe playing with his Orchids while Archie
    Went out to catch the bad guy.

  4. And the Charlie Chan, always the stereotypical Chinese. With his Number one son. And Nero wolfe playing with his Orchids while Archie
    Went out to catch the bad guy.

  5. Terence, I'm eagerly awaiting your take on the female detective films. I became a latch-key kid when I was ten years old. We had a local TV channel that played old mystery movies all afternoon beginning with Charlie Chan every day at noon, so these people are included among my childhood friends. Critics now would say that was far too much television for a child, but it kept me inside and out of trouble. At that time, I wasn't bothered (even aware) of the stereotyping of the Chinese; I simply loved to watch them.

  6. As an Ellery Queen fan I agree completely. The films are unwatchable.

    The 1975 NBC series, by contrast, is wonderful, and with a slightly re-imagined Ellery who DOES introduce humorous sequences, pegged to forgetfulness, that work fine for the character.

    Looking forward to that next column!

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  9. Sorry for those deleted posts -- Blogger (in all of its infinite wisdom) decided to publish my previous post three (count 'em, three) identical times!

  10. There was Peter Lorre's Mr. Moto, but it wasn't as tongue-in-cheek as Charlie Chan. Still, both men were the smartest people in the room.

  11. Yes, Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto - I liked the Charlie Chan movies as a child, but then I also loved The Thin Man (whose alcoholism makes the movies pretty unbearable these days). I never watched any of the others, and you've given me some excellent reasons to avoid them!

  12. Thanks for the comments, folks. Don't avoid the Boston Blackie films completely; they're an easy way to pass an hour. The early ones are the best, which is true of most series. I think they were the first mystery movies I discovered on television. (There was also a Boston Blackie television show, but I missed that.) I soon moved on to Charlie Chan, like Fran, but I retain a soft spot for Blackie.

  13. Terence, never saw the Chester Morris pictures, but I remember the Blackie TV series, which starred a guy named Kent Taylor, who did a lot of B pictures, early on, and then worked steadily in television during the 50's and 60's. Blackie was shot very fast, and loose, and cheap, like a lot of shows in that era, but it wasn't tongue-in-cheek, the mystery/thriller aspect set the tone. The cuteness factor was minor. Blackie was a generic tough guy with a soft spot for a dame in trouble.

  14. David, There's a song (country, I think) whose lyrics include a reference to Boston Blackie's pencil-line moustache. That bothered me, since Chester Morris didn't wear a moustache in the movies. Kent Taylor must have been the Blackie in question.


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