Friday, April 10, 2020


Last week we looked at the 1936 film, MEET NERO WOLFE (HERE), and just about everyone who commented, both here and on Facebook, expressed dislike. Jeez, I liked it. No, it was certainly not an accurate portrayal of Wolfe (though Edward Arnold did look the part), and yes, Lionel Stander did indeed suck at being Archie, but I enjoyed the humor, and I can understand why they used it.

These days, after reading all thirty-some novels and forty-some novellas (many of us more than once), we have a firm understanding and appreciation of the relationship between Wolfe and Archie. It's what makes the series great. But it's a subtle thing, developed mostly through Archie's glib narration. The first time I read Fer-de-lance, I thought it was just okay, and only after reading The League of Frightened Men did I begin to enjoy the characters.

Back in 1936, only those two books had seen print. Wolfe was unknown to most movie viewers, and introducing them to that subtle relationship in little over an hour would have been mighty tough. If they'd tried to play things straight, leaning heavily on Archie's narration, I fear the film would have been deadly boring. So they used humor (and Archie's gooffiancé Mazie) to bring the characters quickly to life. No, they weren't the guys we came to love in the books, but they were engaging enough (at least to me) to make the movie enjoyable. Jon Tuska, in The Detective in Hollywood (a book I possess due to the generosity of Mr. Richard Robinson. Thanks Rick!), called MEET NERO WOLFE "one of the finest detective films produced in the Thirties," and judged Arnold's characterization "superb."  I wouldn't go that far - on either count - but I did like it. A lot.

Anyway, Arnold, so the story goes, chose not to return for THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN, and the role went to Walter Connolly. I haven't watched it yet, but I did catch the opening scenes while uploading it to YouTube, and the fact that Connolly speaks like a total twit does not bode well for the rest of the film. And, of course, Lionel Stander is back, so it's a fair bet this one won't make anyone happy. Tough Jim Gaston reports that he tried to watch it at some ancient Bouchercon, but fell asleep. Hm.

In the book Stout Fellow: A Guide Through Nero Wolfe's World, author O. McBride says that in later years Stout thought George Sanders or a young Humphrey Bogart would have made an acceptable Archie, but did not like the idea of Paul Newman. Interesting stuff. (It should be noted, however, that the book also says Edward Arnold played Wolfe as "sternly unlikable," and drank hot chocolate instead of beer, both statements being decidedly untrue. Maybe he was thinking of Walter Connolly.)

A note on the film quality: I fiddled with this in several video editing programs, experimenting with more or less brightness, contrast and gamma, and failed to improve it. Adding the slightest bit of sharpness just made it grainy. So aside from adding the title card, I left it alone. It is what it is.

In any case, THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN is a rarity, and longtime fans like me will be compelled to see it. I have it on good authority (because he told me so) that even so august a personage as The Emperor of the Universe has never seen it. Now's his chance. And yours. Bring on the brickbats. 


Art Scott said...

This was a surprise. Much better than Meet NW. Connolly is a rather bland (& teetotaling) Wolfe, but not the laughing hyena that Arnold was. Given that LOFM is one of the longest tales and most complicated plots, with a large cast of characters, the scriptwriters manage to cram a fair compressed facsimile into 65 minutes, though not without some major alterations, especially in the solution.

LOFM is the most "psychological" of Stout's Wolfe stories, and Paul Chapin is arguably the most complex & interesting one-shot character in the canon. Most of that is lost, and Eduardo Ciannelli's take on the character is like a tryout for his turn as super-villain in Gunga Din a few years later. Irene Hervey, 4th billed, is entirely superfluous, as is her love interest, the not-in-the-book brother of Paul Chapin. But note that the couple appears in every poster; evidently the studio demands a romance.

Yes, Stander still grates as Archie, but at least we're spared Maisie. Yes, Wolfe is way too mobile, "Butch" is even worse than "Olaf" as houseman, and you can tick off many other non-canonical gaffes if you care too, but overall this film deserves far fewer brickbats than the first one.

Evan Lewis said...

You're right, of course, right down the line, but I still had a lot more fun watching Meet Nero Wolfe.

Anonymous said...

My impression was that Walter Connolly was told he would be playing the part of Charlie Chan and so he prepared himself accordingly. At least Lionel Stander was slightly less annoying this go around. But thank you for putting this out for posterity.

Evan Lewis said...

I could see Connolly as Charlie. He could do a good sing-song voice.