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