The Dastardly Past: Colin Dexter.
Today’s post will be short, but I could not let the anniversary of the birth of Colin Dexter pass without comment. I am a huge Dexter fan, and I love reading his books as much as playing Spot the Author in various episodes of the television series starring John Thaw. I was heartened to learn that Colin Dexter came to writing mystery novels later in his life—his mid-forties. I think it gives hope to those of us wanting to follow in his (impressive) footsteps as part of our post-children, nearing retirement plan. We lost Mr. Dexter this March, but he left us an impressive legacy as consolation.
On September 27, 1947, Warner Bros. studios released the movie Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This was the real-life couples’ third movie together; their last would be in 1948 in John Huston’s Key Largo. The use of the “subjective camera” technique (which I personally find annoying) in the beginning of the film is more than compensated for by the many location shots of San Francisco, looking its post-war best.
Dark Passage was adapted from a novel, originally published as Convicted, by the lesser-known writer of noir, David Goodis. It was his first successful novel, after years of writing advertising copy for PR firms and publishing short stories in pulp magazines. Goodis had arrived in Hollywood to work as a screenwriter in 1942 and would continue to live and work there until 1950. Dark Passage alone netted Goodis $25,000 in serial rights from the Saturday Evening Post, as well as a new, more remunerative contract with Warner Bros., and film deals for two more of his novels. Goodis could not sustain this level of success, however. He eventually returned home to Philadelphia to look after family, and wrote original paperbacks for Fawcett. His spent his later years as a near recluse, and died in 1967 at the age of 49. Dark Passage remains his best-known work.
The Dastardly Past: the NBC Saturday Mystery Movies.
On September 15, 1971, NBC launches its popular NBC Saturday Mystery Movie “wheel” series. The network’s idea was to feature a revolving series of movie-length episodes with a variety of sleuths. Introduced with theme music composed by Henry Mancini, the initial programs included Columbo, starring Peter Falk; McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver; and McMillan & Wife, starring Rock Hudson and Susan St. James. Hec Ramsey starring Richard Boone was a second-season addition, when NBC shifted its mystery “wheel” to Sundays. The network added another mystery wheel series, first on Wednesday nights and then on Tuesday nights. Some of the detectives featured in these slots included some heavy caliber Hollywood names, such as George Peppard as Banacek, Richard Widmark as Madigan, Dan Dailey in Faraday & Company, and Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as The Snoop Sisters. The initial three series, however, remained the staples of the wheel’s success and few baby boomers will forget Columbo, McCloud, or McMillan & Wife.
The Dastardly Past: Sean Connery.
August 25, 1930 saw the arrival in this world of Sean Connery–international actor of mystery, suspense, and espionage and the quintessential James Bond. Really, what more needs to be said?
The Dastardly Past: The Front Page.
On August 14, 1928, a new kind of play debuted at the Time Square Theatre in Manhattan. Called The Front Page, it was a raucous comedy about unscrupulous pressmen and crooked politicians, set against the impending execution of a wrongly convicted criminal. The playwrights, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, drew from their own days as journalists in the Chicago of the 1910s and 1920s. While some critics complained of the play’s coarseness and cynicism, it was nevertheless a smash hit. It has been revived successfully on Broadway numerous times and made into successful films, including Howard Hawks’ deft adaptation entitled His Girl Friday (1940), with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in the lead roles.
The Dastardly Past: Robert Shaw.
On August 9 in 1927, actor and writer Robert Shaw was born in Lancashire, England. Known for playing tough guys, Shaw was a Bond villain opposite Sean Connery in From Russia with Love (1963). My favorite of his roles, however, is Doyle Lonnegan, the gangster who menaces Robert Redford and Paul Newman in The Sting (1973). His character’s distinctive limp was an actual injury Shaw sustained a week before filming began. He wore a leg brace throughout the movie’s production, which somehow made his character even more threatening. Shaw went on to play several more distinctive parts until 1978 when his life was cut short by a heart attack at the age of 51.
The Dastardly Past: Revisiting Charlie Chan.
Several weeks ago, I posted about Charlie Chan at the movies in The Scarlet Clue. The question came up about why the world’s most famous Chinese detective was played by European-American actors? This led me to pick up a book by Yunte Huang entitled Charlie Chan: the Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (2011). The book itself is well written in an academic way although, as some reviewers have mentioned, it regularly strays from its subject. Nevertheless, I found much of interest. Charlie Chan fans should definitely take a look at it.
So why didn’t they use Asian actors for Chan? Well, in the first two Charlie Chan productions, filmed in the silent era, they did. The first starred George Kuwa, the second Kamiyama Sojin. So, on the plus side, the first two Charlie Chans were Asian. On the minus side, they were both natives of Japan—and let’s not delve any further into the thought processes of the producers who cast them. As it turned out, neither of these Chan films proved popular at the box office.
So when it came to sound motion pictures, why did Hollywood break with recent precedent by casting European-American actors? If I understand him correctly, Huang attributes the reason to what he calls “cultural ventriloquism.” He uses 19th century minstrel shows to illustrate what he means. In minstrelsy, black and white entertainers alike put on blackface to “safely” caricature African Americans and diminish their perceived threat to the social order. In the 1930s and 1940s audiences concerned about immigration and international unrest would pay to see racial stereotypes, but the real thing was far too scary. So in the same way that Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood caricatured a real theatre in China, Warner Oland and Sidney Toller provided a caricature of what a real Chinese detective might be.
To his credit, Warner Oland did study the philosophy and art of China and worked at learning Mandarin. He also wore minimal make-up, attributing his appearance to his Russian mother’s central Asian ancestry. In contrast, Sidney Toller’s ancestry derived from central Missouri, and he relied on heavier treatments from the make-up department.