Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Falcon and the Co-eds

The Falcon was arguably the suavest and smoothest of all movie sleuths. Think James Bond minus the enormous pressure of saving the world.

The Falcon is a kindred spirit to The Saint, and I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two. Independently wealthy and holding no job, these dashing playboys help beautiful women who find themselves in peril, and solve murders that the befuddled police are unable to. All this while attired in their tuxedoes or well-cut suits, smoking, drinking the finest champagnes and being welcome faces at casinos and gambling halls throughout the world.

The Saint was the creation of British author of Leslie Charteris, who, if memory serves, sued Falcon creator Michael Arlen for plagiarism.

But the similarities between the two don’t end there. RKO Studios bought The Saint to the screen in eight entertaining B films from 1938-1943, one with Louis Hayward, two with Hugh Sinclair and five with George Sanders.

When Sanders left the Saint series, RKO put him into The Falcon series as Gay Lawrence. In fact the first Falcon film was titled “The Gay Falcon” (1941), and that’s the character’s name, not his orientation.

Even RKO could see Sanders’ enormous talents wasted in these B mysteries, so in “The Falcon’s Brother” (1942), Gay Lawrence dies fighting enemy agents. Sanders’ real-life brother Tom Conway played Gay’s brother Tom in that outing, and took up his brother’s crime fighting mantle in ten very entertaining mystery movies, each averaging about 70 minutes.

I’ve always liked Tom Conway. He’s very smooth. Very urbane. He also sounds just like George Sanders, and if you close your eyes it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the two. What marvelous speaking voices they had. Conway was known around Hollywood as “the nice George Sanders”, as Sanders in real life wasn’t too different from the scoundrels he played so well in the movies.

The Falcon is cut from the same cloth as other screen sleuths of the era, such as Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, Philo Vance, Boston Blackie and yes, The Saint, who solve the crimes while the police look helplessly on. Tom Lawrence’s foil is Inspector Timothy Donovan (Cliff Clark) and The Falcon has a great deal of affection for Timothy. After all, can The Falcon help it that beautiful women turn to him first instead of the police?

One of the best in the series is “The Falcon and the Co-eds” (1943), a nifty mystery boasting an above average story of murder and scandal at Bluecliff Academy, an upscale girls college. Such a setting allowed RKO to trot out their roster of starlets, and with a variety show in the offing, opportunities for them to perform in musical numbers. It also allows lots of looks of bemusement from The Falcon as the girls ooh and ahh over him. Of course, The Falcon is too much the gentleman sleuth to lead the young girls astray, but he is taken by one of the teachers, played by the alluring Jean Brooks (star of Lewton’s “The Seventh Victim” (1943)).

The photography in “The Falcon and the Co-eds” is really beautiful in the best RKO noir-like tradition. One of the students is thought to have psychic abilities and she’s accompanied by spooky music. Another student is prone to fainting spells, understandable when bodies are popping up everywhere on school grounds.

Bluecliff Academy is set near a cliff, and you just know that cliff, as well as an access point called The Devil’s Ladder, will play a part in the climax. I rarely correctly guess who the murderer is in mystery movies, but I guessed right this time.

A fun aspect of many of The Falcon movies is after the mystery is solved and The Falcon is looking forward to a little relaxation, a beautiful young woman appears at the end to beg for his help. She sets up the situation in a sentence or two and they’re off. It’s like a mini-coming attractions for the next movie.

TCM ran a whole day of Falcon movies last month and I taped about six of them. They’re a very enjoyable way to spend 70 minutes and the Falcon’s later adventures will take him Out West, in Hollywood, Mexico and San Francisco. Good stuff.


Hoppy Uniatz said...

Leslie sued RKO for unfair competition, Michael Arlen was not involved in the law suit.

Leslie and RKO settled before it came to trial.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks for the clarification, Hoppy. Thanks for stopping by.

Simes said...

The BBC have been showing all the Falcon movies recently. Just catching up with them now. They're great fun, love these sort of films.