Sunday, December 28, 2008
Ronald Colman ... Raffles
Kay Francis ... Gwen
Bramwell Fletcher ... Bunny
Frances Dade ... Ethel Crowley
David Torrence ... Inspector McKenzie
Alison Skipworth ... Lady Kitty Melrose
Frederick Kerr ... Lord Harry Melrose
John Rogers ... Crawshaw
Wilson Benge ... Barraclough
Directed by George Fitzmaurice & Harry D'Arrast.
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn.
Based on a novel by Ernest William Hornnung.
Screenplay by Sidney Howard.
Art Direction by Park French & William Cameron Menzies.
Cinematography by George S. Barnes & Gregg Toland.
Film Editing by Stuart Heisler.
A Samuel Goldwyn Production.
A United Artists Release.
Released July 24, 1930.
Raffles was Kay Francis’ first prestige Hollywood production. But don’t be fooled right away, this isn’t her movie. Ronald Colman, already a legend as early as 1930, received solo star billing in this one, which became one of the highest grossing movies of the year.
For such a popular movie, Raffles was dated material as early as 1930. Film versions of Ernest William Hornung’s novel, “The Amateur Craftsman,” had been produced in 1905, 1917, and 1925. John Barrymore had starred in the 1917 version, which was directed by George Irving and featured Frank Morgan and Evelyn Brent.
But it’s Sam Goldwyn’s 1930 film version which most critics consider the quintessential version, despite the excellent handling of the material by David Niven and Olivia de Havilland in the 1939 remake. This, Goldwyn felt, was the perfect star vehicle for his protégé, Ronald Colman, who had been one of the foremost leading men in silent films. Now with talkies, which enabled him to really show off his distinct British accent, in vogue, Goldwyn decided his star should be highlighted amongst lesser known players, such as Kay Francis.
Surprisingly, even lesser names were considered. Bette Davis---yes, Bette Davis---was one of the suggestions for the role of Lady Gwen. “What are you guys trying to do to me?” Goldwyn asked when her name came up in the pre-production months. He flat out refused, and she continued her string of B movies at Universal.
Kay Francis, however, was a different story. She was relatively new to movies, making her film debut only the previous year in Gentlemen of the Press (1929), with Walter Huston. She completed The Marriage Playground (1929) with Fredric March, and Street of Chance and For the Defense (both 1930) with William Powell. Borrowed from Paramount, Raffles really introduced Kay Francis to a wide range of moviegoers in a sophisticated, sympathetic role which would become the antithesis of her later roles at Paramount (once her vamp characterizations were over, that is). He considered her the perfect choice; she was sophisticated and popular, but not popular enough to distract attention from the film's real star.
She made her test for the movie on January 2, 1930, and thrilled Goldwyn and Colman so much she was asked to reteam with the two men for Cynara (1932), on loan out from Warner Brothers. The latter film proved to be another must-see, though not on the level of this one, which garnered a 1.2 million-dollar profit at the box office.
“Considering the condition of the country,” wrote Sam Goldwyn to his General Manager Abe Lehr on October 2, 1930, “I think this is marvelous.”
This movie opens with bored policeman discussing the Amateur Craftsman as they sip their tea. “They all get nabbed sooner or later,” says one officer.
We see A.J. Raffles, a shadowy figure, stealing from a safe during the middle of the night. Outside, a silhouette of a police officer patrols the outside grounds. Taking jewelry, he leaves a note reading “The Amateur Craftsman-His final appearance.” This skilled “Amateur” is so brilliant, he leaves his location of crime through the front door.
At an elegant party, Raffles dances with the beautiful Lady Gwen. He often confesses his love for her, but she refuses to see him in the serious, marrying way, or at least that’s what she wants him to think. They celebrate their plans to marry with a drink with friends. He places a stunning diamond bracelet, the one which he stole from the safe, around her wrist and kisses her goodnight.
Back at his home, Raffles and his servant discover Bunny Manders lying on the floor of his bathroom; a suicide attempt with gas poisoning because he fears his own future. “I’m a thief!” he exclaims to Raffles, telling him he wrote a bogus check for $1,000 pounds. “They might even arrest me!”
“We’ll have to use our wits,” Raffles informs him. “Or I should say, my wits.”
Raffles spends the weekend at the Melrose Estate, the home of Lord Harry Melrose and his wife, Lady Kitty. At dinner, Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard arrives to inform Lord Harry of a coming robber to the Melrose Estate. Trying not to panic, they prepare the house for the worst, but Lady Melrose goes into a complete over the top fiasco. She takes advice from Raffles which is to hide the case for the necklace in the safe, and keep the real thing around her neck the entire night.
She sees his point with this. The first stop a robber is going to make is at the safe. He’s going to grab the case, thinking that the necklace is already inside, and head out as soon as possible.
During the night, Raffles goes into the room where the burglar alarm is set up and turns it off. Crawshaw breaks into the house and steals the necklace from the fat neck of Lady Melrose while she sleeps. As he is heading out, Raffles grabs hold of him by taking him at gunpoint. Alone with him, Raffles gets the necklace and tells Crawshaw to beat it.
Mackenzie notices that a window in the hall has been opened, and he closes it at once and resets the alarm. When Raffles tries to aid Crawshaw out of the window, the alarm sounds, and the entire house goes into a panic. Crawshaw is captured by the detectives, and threatens Raffles with a coming revenge.
During all of this, Lady Melrose remains asleep, and when the detectives find nothing on Crawshaw, they let him go, assuming all is in the safe. When the morning comes, however, Lady Melrose is in a panic that he necklace is gone, but Mackenzie doesn’t assume that it was Crawshaw, but Mr. Raffles himself.
Adding to Mackenzie’s suspicion is the fact that Raffles insists on leaving for London the following day. He decides to follow him back, and arrives at Raffles apartment to search around for the missing necklace. Gwen overhears Mackenzie’s plan, and heads to Raffles to warn him of coming danger.
In London, at Raffles apartment, the two hide the necklace in a tobacco tin. When Mackenzie casually arrives, he looks over Raffles’ apartment, and then sits down on the couch and goes straight for the tin to add tobacco to his pipe. Gwen distracts him for a brief second, allowing Raffles to quickly grab the necklace from the tin.
Crawshaw arrives in Raffles apartment, looking for the necklace. Raffles struggles for the gun Crawshaw has drawn, then again helps him escape from the house before Mackenzie and the other detectives spot him. There comes a big confrontation in the main room, and Mackenzie confronts Raffles, in front of Gwen, as being the Amateur Craftsman. Raffles returns the necklace, and Gwen returns a bracelet Raffles had stolen for her, and the police go to arrest him.
Like a true debonair criminal, he manages to get away. “They’ll nab him downstairs,” Mackenzie says.
“I wonder,” Gwen says with a charming smile on her face.
This is Ronald Colman’s movie. He’s the perfect sort of actor for the Raffles role. Only he had the right balance of charm and danger to pull off being such a slick English criminal. He’s at his best when Crawshaw breaks into the Melrose Estate and steals the necklace from Lady Melrose. He’s so sneaky and on his toes, just ready to grab a hold of Crawshaw so he can steal the necklace from another robber already after it.
It’s a great example of irony of the situation. A robber hustling another robber for a valuable necklace.
Kay Francis doesn’t have many scenes, but she’s beautiful, butch hairstyle and all. She’s sophisticated and has great chemistry with Colman, particularly in an early scene when the two are in the back of her car, kissing and cuddling. When she learns what Raffles is up to, she doesn’t panic, but if anything, loves him even more. She becomes determined to help him, not run away.
Kay makes this believable without coming off as stupid or corny.
Look at the dress Alison Skipworth wears at the dinner at the Melrose Estate. For such a large woman, it is quite a revealing dress, but she’s hysterical as the out of her mind Lady Melrose, and the dress adds to this strange bit of comedy.
The film as a whole is a little slow moving, but it doesn’t have a ridiculous running time, and once things get going the action unfolds quickly. The last ten minutes of the movie, which are supposed to be the climax of the story, are actually the longest, to me at least.
It’s a great companion piece to The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929, with Norma Shearer and Basil Rathbone). Anyone who likes one picture, will certainly like the other.