Saturday, February 14, 2015

Raffles (1930)

The stories of the gentleman-thief A.J. Raffles by E.W. Hornung, written between 1898 and 1909, enjoyed immense popularity at the time and are still in print and still have a strong following to this day. It was inevitable that they would attract the attention of movie-makers and there have been quite a few movie adaptations, the best known being the 1930 version with Ronald Colman in the title role.

Raffles was a true anti-hero and an extremely complex character. A celebrated cricketer (renowned as the finest spin bowler of his day), Raffles makes his living as a burglar. And a very successful burglar indeed. Unfortunately none of the character’s complexity and none of the subtle nuances of the stories make it into the 1930 film. That’s not to say that it isn’t an enjoyable movie. If you’ve never read the Raffles stories you’ll probably find the movie an absolute delight. If you have read Hornung’s stories you’ll be a little disappointed by the movie although you’ll probably still enjoy it.

The movie opens with Raffles, having fallen in love with Gwen (Kay Francis), vowing to renounce his criminal career. Unfortunately his old friend Bunny (Bramwell Fletcher) has landed himself in very hot water by writing a very large cheque which he cannot possibly cover. Bunny faces disgrace, social ruin and quite possibly prison. Raffles is not a man to let down an old friend so he decides to help him in the only way he knows how to, by stealing a valuable necklace in order to obtain the money to cover Bunny’s cheque.

A weekend house party at the home of Lord Harry Melrose (Frederick Kerr) provides the ideal opportunity. Lady Melrose (Alison Skipworth) owns a necklace which is more than sufficiently valuable to provide the funds Bunny needs. The presence of Gwen at the house party makes things rather more complicated and they are made more difficult still by the presence of the indefatigable Inspector McKenzie (David Torrence). And to add further to our hero’s problems a team of professional burglars are also on hand, also after that necklace.

Inspector McKenzie is confident he’ll get his man but Raffles proves to a hard man to catch. The real problem for Raffles is that he doesn’t want to lose Gwen and he certainly doesn’t want her to know that he’s the celebrated Amateur Cracksman.

The plot lacks both the sparkle and the cleverness of Hornung’s stories. Ronald Colman is good although it’s a great pity he wasn’t given the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles by playing the real Raffles. Kay Francis adds glamour although the romance sub-plot does cramp Raffles’ style.

What makes the original stories so interesting is the ambiguity of Raffles as a character. He is not in fact a gentleman. He is almost one, but not quite. He has the public school education but he does not have the breeding to qualify, nor does he have the money to live like a gentleman. That’s his tragedy - he’s too well-educated to be satisfied with a middle-class lifestyle but he does not enjoy the advantages of birth that would give him an entrĂ©e into the world of fashionable society. His prowess as a cricketer has made him more or less accepted in that society but he is keenly aware that he is tolerated rather than being entirely accepted. He is also penniless. He could earn a good living as a professional cricketer but that would disqualify him entirely from acceptance as a gentleman. Thieving not only allows him to live the life of a gentleman, it also gives him a kind of revenge.

There are other complexities to his personality. He is charming, cultured and capable of great kindness, but there is a darker side to him. He is manipulative and can be gratuitously cruel.

All of this makes Raffles one of the more interesting characters in fiction but alas these complexities are ignored in the movie. As played by Ronald Colman he is merely a charming but rather bland gentleman-thief. If you want to see the real Raffles then you need to watch the truly superb 1977 British television series Raffles with Anthony Valentine as the famous Amateur Cracksman. Valentine perfectly captures the mix of charm and manipulation, of generosity laced with a hint of sadism, that is the true A.J. Raffles as Hornung portrays him in his wonderful stories.  

If you haven’t read the original stories I urge you to do so. You need to start with the first short story collection, The Amateur Cracksman.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD includes both this 1930 version and the 1939 version with David Niven (which I haven’t yet had time to watch).

The 1930 Ronald Colman Raffles is a good deal of fun, but it’s not quite the genuine article. Of course it may have been thought that an authentic portrayal of the ambiguous thief would have perplexed American audiences to whom the subtleties of class distinctions in English society may have been somewhat impenetrable. Despite its weaknesses it’s an entertaining enough if lightweight and light-hearted romance/crime melodrama. Recommended, with reservations.

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