'Raffles' Is an Education on How to Become a Proper Gentleman Thief

by Michael Barrett

4 November 2014

These two versions of the minor classic character Raffles are two peas -- or pearls -- in a pod.
 
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Raffles Double Feature

Director: George Fitzmaurice, Sam Wood
Cast: Ronald Colman, David Niven

US DVD: 26 Aug 2014

A.J. Raffles was a cricket player and “Amateur Cracksman” (in other words, a safecracker) created by E.W. Hornung, the brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle. Just as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes took the public by storm and launched a thousand detectives, so did Raffles cover the other end of the criminous street with the concept of the “gentleman thief” who would raise so much hay in popular culture. After featuring in three silent films, Raffles made his succesful talkie debut in 1930 in the person of Ronald Colman, thanks to producer Samuel Goldwyn. David Niven played the role with as much success in the 1939 remake. Both versions are available on demand in this generous bargain from Warner Archive.
  
For the remake, John Van Druten adds to Sidney Howard’s 1930 screenplay in numerous small but crucial ways. Details of plot mechanics are rearranged to make the whole story smoother and more logical, so that everything makes sense in addition to being sleek and entertaining. For example, the 1930 Raffles comes out of retirement to help out his old friend Bunny (Bramwell Fletcher), a jolly old chap in a spot of bother, while the 1939 version makes Bunny (Douglas Walton) into Raffle’s prospective brother-in-law, thus making his trouble more vital.

The 1930 movie asks us to believe that a gang of thieves, conveniently overheard by Raffles and somehow already on Scotland Yard’s radar, plan to enter the mansion without realizing they’d set off an alarm, and that Raffles would blithely reveal himself to the burglar. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Mackenzie (David Torrence) arrives as a deus ex machina who somehow knows a theft is planned. In the remake, it’s a sensibly staged inside job with one burglar who must use his wits to figure out Raffles’ identity, and Mackenzie (Dudley Digges) now has excellent reason to suspect Raffles’ involvement. The biggest change is an additional scene that spells out the difference between a pre-Code movie and one in which the notion is strictly enforced that nobody may get away with crime.

Otherwise, the movies are like as two peas, or perhaps two pearls. Colman is dashing and sexy in the 1930 version, with Kay Francis as his decorative yet insightful fiancee. Niven and Olivia de Havilland easily slip into the roles in 1939. Redoubtable character actress Alison Skipworth plays the gullible fleece-worthy dowager in 1930, Dame May Whitty in 1939.

You might suspect the early talkie to exhibit the creaky, stagy quality sometimes noticeable in this era, but it’s one of those plentiful examples that really doesn’t, thanks to stylish, motion-oriented direction by George Fitzmaurice and camerawork by George Barnes and Gregg Toland. There are a few wonky bits of focus on the right side of the screen, possibly due to warping of the print or negative, but it’s not terrible. Toland returned to shoot the 1939 version, directed by Sam Wood. Although the later film makes a little more sense, the earlier is arguably a tad more elegant, perhaps due to its extra patina of a lost world that never existed. Both remain excellent entertainments.

Raffles Double Feature

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