[1 July 2012]
When George Sanders stopped starring in RKO’s mystery series about the suave, shady sleuth called the Saint, he started up in a similar series about a suave, shady sleuth called the Falcon. A set of the first seven films is now available on demand from Warner Archives. In theory, this new character was created by Michael Arlen, except that his Falcon was more hardboiled than suave and actually had the surname Falcon, while his movie counterpart has the somewhat unfortunate moniker Gay Laurence—hence the title of the first entry, The Gay Falcon.
The first three films are still scripted by Saint writers Lynn Root and Frank Fenton. These three are directed by Irving Reis and two of them co-star a regular actress from the Saint movies, Wendy Barrie (once as the Falcon’s fiancée, once as the other woman). All this was apparently a bit much for Saint creator Leslie Charteris, who sued RKO. He had wanted too much money to renew his Saint contract, so RKO dropped it and contrived this thinly disguised Falcon series instead.
The first two entries are more or less the same barely serviceable plot decorated by a running gag about the philandering hero’s ability to charm and avoid a nagging fiancée, and serving mostly as a springboard for amusing character comedy and a few riotous scenes of slapstick misunderstandings. Laurence lives with his driver, Goldie Locke (Allen Jenkins), a wise-cracking Brooklynite out of Damon Runyan. They’re surrounded by comic Irish cops (known as “flatfoots” in the lingo) and such character actors as Hans Conried (thrice in different roles) and exotic villain Turhan Bey (twice).
The same type of comedy prevails in The Falcon Takes Over, even though this episode takes its source from Raymond Chandler’s novel Murder My Sweet, filmed again a few years later with Dick Powell. Since the noir style hadn’t been developed in movies yet, a serious story was turned into a lark with Goldie forever stumbling over corpses and smacking his forehead while the Falcon alternates between nonchalance and brisk running-about. We’d crack a joke about this Falcon not even being Maltese, but that was Dashiell Hammett, not Chandler.
Meanwhile, Saunders became tired of cranking out these B’s (and moved on to better parts in A pictures). He left the series with the fourth film, The Falcon’s Brother, which introduced Gay’s younger brother Tom (played by Saunders’ actual brother, Tom Conway), who then took over for nine more entries. The up-to-the-minute plot’s all about WWII conspirators and current events like Pearl Harbor. This is the only episode where the great forgotten singer Cliff Edwards, aka Ukulele Ike (Jiminy Cricket to you), plays Goldie, and Keye Luke plays Jerry, the Falcon’s servant or valet or houseboy or butler or whatever he is.
As in the Charlie Chan films, he gets comic mileage out of pretending to talk pidgin around clueless causasians, and then dropping the mask to rattle off mid-American lingo. Frankly, I’m a sucker for the kinds of movies where hep supporting players are liable to break into lines like “Solid, Jackson!” Not only do I love outmoded slang, but it reminds of the secret African-American pulse in nominally white pop-culture artifacts. You dig? True that. Go, girl.
I hope it’s not giving away too much to reveal that Gay actually dies in this entry, which must be the first time that happened to the hero of a movie series in passing the baton from one lead to another. (I’m aware of at least two examples that occurred later in television: Naked City and the short-lived western Nichols.) Anyway, don’t be sad, because nobody ever mentions it again or acknowledges that anyone other than Tom was ever called the Falcon, so you’ll undoubtedly forget this spoiler by the end of the paragraph.
From this point, the script duties are frequently handled by two professional crime novelists: Stuart Palmer (creator of spinster teacher Hildegarde Withers) and Craig Rice, a woman who invented a popular hybrid of screwball/hardboiled mystery. I suspect but can’t prove that she’s responsible for some of the sharper lines. Maurice Geraghty, who took over as producer from Howard Benedict, also contributed scripts. One point that remains true through this convoluted pedigree is that these films are brisk, funny entertainments with spunky females, wacky comic characters, and unimportant plots.
Edward Dmytrik directs The Falcon Strikes Back, set mostly in a hotel run by a pretty manager and featuring comic veteran Edgar Kennedy as a sinister puppeteer. This entry has the most prominent part for Jerry (here played by Richard Loo), who masquerades delightfully as a Chinese millionaire and reveals his chess expertise. The war is worked into all these entries, and here the disguised Jerry reminds a European refugee that both their countries are fighting the fascists.
Even better, though no more airtight as plot constructions, are two directed by William Clemens. The Falcon in Danger opens with the most baffling mystery so far (an empty airplane) and has our hero threatened by his most charming fiancée, a feisty Texan who says whatever comes into her head.
Possibly the most entertaining entry in this set is the less vaguely titled The Falcon and the Co-Eds, which finds our hero tiptoeing through the calender models at a coastal women’s college. It might have been called The Falcon and the Bobby-Soxers, especially when he’s trailed by a trio of jive-talking, harmony-singing, sentence-finishing pre-adolescent sisters. Now we’re cooking with gas. The previous movie’s fiancée, Amelita Ward, shows up in a totally different role, and that’s par for the series.
The most important question raised by this film is: since the students are all female, how are they co-eds? You may well ask. You see, the idea that “co-ed” could signify one gender reveals both the increasingly common phenomenon of higher education for women and its simultaneous sense of novelty. They needed a word for it. There will be a quiz on the series’ socio-cultural readings for those who wish to do more than just enjoy the Falcon’s breeze.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/159909-the-falcon/