Sunday, October 3, 2010

At the (old) movies with The Lone Wolf

Some notes from a recent meeting of the local cinephile society:

The title character in “The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance” (Columbia, 1941) got his start in a series of novels by Louis Joseph Vance. “The Lone Wolf” was the alias of Michael Lanyard, a gentleman jewel thief.

The character was featured in silent movies and talkies, and in this entry from Columbia’s B-movie series about the character, the Lone Wolf is a reformed jewel thief who now solves crimes, even though the cops are always more than willing to think the worst of him. This setup is similar to the Boston Blackie movies – also made by Columbia.

In this film, directed by Sidney Salkow, the character is played by Warren William, who had been an A-movie actor in the 1930s. The Columbia series also gave Lanyard a valet named Jamison, played by the great British comic actor Eric Blore.

When he’s unjustly accused of murder, Lanyard has to try to both clear himself and solve the kidnapping of a young man who has invented some much-coveted printing plates for the government.

A newsreel-within-the-movie shows that the inventor, Johnny Baker, has been keeping the plates in a special railroad car that he’s come up with. The car has a lock with a combination, and if you try to get into the car and get the combination wrong, you’re trapped by poison gas.

Of course, as Anton Chekhov once said, if you have a railroad car with poison gas in the first reel, then someone must be gassed by it – or in danger of being gassed by it – in the last reel.

(OK, OK, I know he said something like that somewhere. Can I help it if my knowledge of the Russian language is spotty? OK, OK, make that non-existent.)

If Warren William was disheartened by his drop in status from A’s to B’s, his performance doesn’t show it. He seems to be having a good time and seems livelier than he does in some of his A pictures.

The young inventor is played by a newcomer named Lloyd Bridges, many years before his “Sea Hunt” days and decades before he became better known in some circles as the daddy of Beau and Jeff. Lloyd made a number of Columbia B pictures in this era; he can be seen as a college student in a Blondie movie, and I once spotted him as a bus driver in a Boston Blackie film.

Although it’s a B movie, “The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance” seems to have been made with extra care, and although you might not remember much of it long after you’ve seen it, you’ll probably remember it as a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

(Footnote: The fake newsreel is narrated by Art Gilmore, the master radio announcer who also did a lot of movie voiceover work, perhaps most memorably as the narrator of the Joe McDoakes shorts, which starred George O’Hanlon, who later became the voice of George Jetson. I’d thought Mr. Gilmore had died some years ago, but he actually died a few days after I saw this movie. He was 98. By all accounts he was quite a gentleman, and he might well have been the last of the great living radio announcers.)

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