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 may be the best television station around.
Here are some of the series that I have seen on TCM over the 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. FYI - when called 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.
* 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 films 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 early in their careers who would later go on to fame on the big and small screens. One young dame who crossed paths with Boston Blackie was Harriet Hilliard, who would 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. Different actors often 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, Lone Wolf, 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.