Friday, April 3, 2020

Watch it Here: MEET NERO WOLFE / FER-DE-LANCE (1936)

As of this posting, I have not yet seen this film. I've been saving it so I can watch it along with you. I had a chance at the 1982 Bouchercon in San Francisco, but missed it because I was either jawing with William Campbell Gault or chasing Robert B. Parker for an autograph. In any case, I never got another chance, and that movie poster above has been hanging on my wall for nearly forty years, just taunting me.  

By all accounts, the film is no great shakes. Cap'n Bob Napier gives it a resounding two thumbs down, with his third hand busy plugging his nose. But hey, this was the very first attempt to get the big guy on film, making it a genuine historical artyfact. I'm looking forward to seeing it, warts and all. 

Legend has it that Rex Stout wanted Charles Laughton to play Wolfe, but Columbia got Edward Arnold instead. At the time, no more than three novels had been published. (The third, The Red Box, appeared in 1936, but whether before or after this filming I don't know.) This one was based on the first book, Fer-de-lance

Later that year, the same studio filmed The League of Frightened Men, with Walter Connolly waddling into the Wolfe role. (Good Lord willin' and the creek don't rise, I'll have that one posted to YouTube and featured here next week.) 

So how does Meet Nero Wolfe compare with the book?  Noted Wolfean (and part-time rock 'n' roll idol) Tough Jim Gaston will share his notions on that subject down below, so after the movie you can see if his thoughts jive with your own. 

Okay, done watching? Tough Jim, who's read the Wolfe series so many times it runs through his veins, offered the following liberally edited observations:

Well, the start of the movie is more or less on the money, but it gives away some of the main mysteries of the novel. Mainly, where did Bartstow get the driver he was playing with, and how was the poison delivered? 

While Edward Arnold spouts Wolfe-like philosophy now and again, he does way too much laughing. He'd be good in a series called "the laughing detective," but for god's sake, Nero Wolfe? And Lionel Stander is just awful. He should be shown the electric chair.

About halfway through, the plotline takes a sharp left turn and abandons the book. It seems to forget all about Wolfe and Archie. Ellen Barstow's mother blames Barstow's death on some South American mystic named Hamansa. What? Where did that come from? And this golf pro - where in the book does he appear? Nowhere. The goofy chick named Maisy who wants to marry Archie is another addition. Fritz the cook was renamed Olaf, and looks like he belongs in a soup kitchen. Meanwhile, Lt. O'Grady's presence is actually correct, because Inspector Cramer did not appear in this book. 

With fifteen minutes to go, I just had to keep watching, because I had no idea where it was going. Certainly not where Fer-de-lance ends up. At the very least, I had to find out who this mystic dude Hamansa was. But the end didn't tell me. And what was Ellen Barstow's place in all this? And where did they come up with Maisy, whom Archie actually marries at the end? 

Bottom line, it's not a bad detective film, but Arnold is just not Nero Wolfe. Maybe if I put the idea of Wolfe aside and watch it again someday, I'll figure out what it's all about. Or maybe not.


Elgin Bleecker said...

Laughton would have made a great Nero Wolfe. And James Gleason, in the 1930s, would have been a terrific Archie Goodwin.

Art Scott said...

Tough Jim is right on the money. Arnold could have aced the role successfully, were it not for some idiot deciding to turn Wolfe into The Laughing Detective. Keep your eye out for a lovely but not easily recognized Rita Hayworth in a small role, maybe her first non-dancing part. She was 18 at the time.

Angela M. Sanders said...

It was a fun movie, but, whoa, were so many people miscast! Really, except for Fritz, I wouldn't have known any of them. And Nero let Archie's girlfriend hang around like that? No way. But, like I said, it was fun. Thank you!