Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Two 1941 RKO “Saints”: "The Saint in Palm Springs” and “The Saint’s Vacation”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The last two nights Charles and I watched the final films (with one exception, noted below) in RKO’s cycle of Saint movies between 1938 and 1941: The Saint in Palm Springs and The Saint’s Vacation. The Saint in Palm Springs was the last one in the series that starred George Sanders, and next to him probably the most important person in the relative success of this film was its art director, Carroll Clark. (As usual in RKO movies of the period, the art director credit goes to the department head, Van Nest Polglase, and you have to look at the credit below his for “associate” to find out who actually did the production design for this particular film.) Clark had worked on all but one of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals for RKO, and the Palm Springs resort where most of the action takes place shows the same style: all those Bakelite floors and buildings with curvy Art Deco surfaces make it seem as if world-class dancers and a well-drilled chorus line are going to come in waltzing through at any moment.

Alas, the actual movie doesn’t have the appeal of the sets it was filmed on: apparently it was based on an original story Saint creator Leslie Charteris wrote for it, but he was upset at how little the filmmakers used of what he wrote (Jerome Cady is credited with the script) that he later used his plot as the basis for the novel The Saint Goes West and included some “digs” against the movie industry. Actually the plot device is almost too familiar from some of the other films in the series that used Charteris’s previously published novels or stories for their plots: a MacGuffin in miniature that can be handled on the person of hero or villain as the situation requires. In this case it’s three postage stamps from 19th century Guiana, worth $65,000 each (according to one imdb.com poster there weren’t any stamps that valuable in 1941), purchased by Peter Johnson (Edmund Elton) and inherited by his daughter Elna Johnson (Wendy Barrie) after Peter is murdered in New York.

The stamps are concealed inside a locket the killers somehow miss when they ransack Peter’s room, and the Saint recovers the locket and has to take the stamps to Elna in Palm Springs and evade the killers — who of course come after her, as does the Saint’s long-time nemesis on the official police, Inspector Fernack (Jonathan Hale), who’s understandably convinced that the Saint murdered Peter because he was in the next room when Peter was offed. The Saint movies pretty much followed the same general pattern: marvelously witty openings in which George Sanders got to show off his insouciance and flair for bon mots (he was almost the inevitable choice to play Lord Henry Wotton when The Picture of Dorian Gray was filmed at MGM four years later) and an all too typical air of sloppy-mystery ennui when the plot rears its boring head and we’re asked to care whodunit. After this one RKO briefly lost the rights to the Saint character — instead they raided Michael Arlen’s novel The Gay Falcon and put George Sanders in a film of it, then recycled Arlen’s character for a series that, when Sanders bailed on it, was taken over by his brother, Tom Conway (they even wrote a story especially to dramatize the transition, The Falcon’s Brother, in which both Sanders and Conway appeared; Sanders spent most of the movie incapacitated and Conway filled in for him, then took over the part completely as the original Falcon’s brother when Sanders was conveniently killed off at the end) — and when they made another Saint movie it was in England, where they had previously filmed a Sanders Saint entry called The Saint in London.

The Saint’s Vacation picked up where The Saint in London left off and featured that earlier film’s leading lady, Sally Gray — though this time she played a reporter instead of a damsel in distress; it seems that every reporter in London is waiting with bated breath for a story about the Saint, who’s about to take a vacation on the Continent with his long-suffering friend Monty Hayward (Arthur Macrae, a genuinely charming actor who gets to be both more intelligent and more witty than the usual dumb sidekick for the master detective). What this film didn’t have that The Saint in London had had was George Sanders; instead the Saint, a.k.a. Simon Templar, was played by Hugh Sinclair, whom William K. Everson referred to as “less sardonic.” You can say that again; though Saint creator Leslie Charteris is not only credited with the original story but co-wrote the actual script (with Jeffrey Dell) as well, this film is almost totally lacking in the insouciant wit that gave the character its appeal when Sanders played him; not only is the script deficient in wisecracks but Sinclair, a decent-looking but stiff and unamusing actor, probably couldn’t have got much out of them even if he’d had the chance.

According to a “trivia” note on imdb.com, The Saint’s Vacation was RKO’s attempt to get some of their frozen funds out of Britain — I had thought that hadn’t started until after the war, but apparently as early as 1941 the British Parliament had passed a law that American film companies could only take out 50 percent of the revenues from their releases in Britain. (They got the idea, ironically enough, from Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, the minister of finance in Hitler’s Germany; in 1937, a year before he quit the government because he wanted nothing more to do with the Nazis’ racist policies, he pushed through the world’s, or at least Europe’s first frozen-funds law — and though Britain and Germany were at war in 1941 they presumably weren’t going to be deterred from instituting a policy they thought was a good idea just because an official from an enemy country had thought of it first.)

Oddly, The Saint’s Vacation is at least a bit more exciting as a thriller than some of the U.S.-produced films in the series; there’s a good Moriarty-esque villain, Rudolph Hauser (Cecil Parker), and the action moves effectively from Britain (Simon escapes the reporters who are trying to ambush him by donning a transparently fake beard and boarding the Channel steamer, then addressing Monty with a ridiculous Russian accent until he takes off the crêpe whiskers and reveals himself) to France to an unnamed but presumably German-speaking country. The war doesn’t seem to be going on — maybe we were supposed to believe this was taking place in the summer of 1939 — but the MacGuffin was genuinely topical: it’s a mysterious music box whose metal roll, when removed and rolled over a sheet of paper, reveals the blueprint for a new form of sound detector that would revolutionize air defense. (The British actually had such a thing: it was called radar.) The Saint’s Vacation is a decent, unassuming little movie — Sinclair doesn’t have Sanders’ personality or star power but he’s O.K. as a “type” for the role, and the plot moves effectively and more or less makes sense — but it was enough of a disappointment to RKO that the second and last Sinclair Saint film, The Saint Meets the Tiger, was made later in 1941 but wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1943 — and then not by RKO but by Republic, to whom RKO had sold the rights.