The rise of A.J. Raffles, gentleman thief, was perfectly timed to take advantage of the new medium of motion pictures. Still fresh in the memory of readers, Raffles made his earliest known screen debut in 1905. Although no print of this film exists, one can safely assume based on its vintage that it’s relatively short and simple in construction. The history of Raffles films in the 1910s is murky, bizarre, and from the vantage point of someone with little information beyond a title and release date, frequently amusing. For example, there is a Danish Sherlock Holmes film from 1908 in which a character named Raffles reportedly appears (despite the close relation of their respective creators, Raffles and Holmes never crossed paths in any story written by either Doyle or Hornung). There are several shorts in a series called Pimple, in which Raffles, played by Joe Evans, is listed as appearing alongside the unfortunately-named Pimple, though how sanctioned those appearances may have been is suspect, but the Pimple series of shorts resulted in quite a few entries. There’s also a Baffles series from around the same time starring Wilfred Lucas. The Burglar and the Lady, a play written by Langdon McCormick in 1905, pitted Raffles against Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and was adapted into a film 1914, but McCormick didn’t bother to secure the actual rights to use Holmes or Raffles. Cutting through the clutter of comedic shorts and spoofs and unsanctioned appropriations, the first true, authentic Raffles feature film was released in 1917. It, like all subsequent Raffles films, was based largely on the stories “The Ides of March” and “Gentlemen and Players” which had themselves been adapted into a sanctioned stage play by Eugene W. Presbrey in 1910. The 1917 film stars an actor who would become one of the most iconic American actors of the golden age.
Before he was the Great Profile, before he was the Beloved Rogue, before he was the man who, perhaps more than any, typified the virtues and vices of Old Hollywood, young John Barrymore was just another actor struggling to emerge from the shadow of famous parents. His father was an acclaimed stage actor named Maurice Barrymore who along with friend and fellow actor Ben Porter, was once shot by a notorious gunman during a game of cards. Porter was killed, and Barrymore was shot in the chest but survived. John was the youngest of three siblings, all of whom went on to great acclaim and helped established the Barrymore family as the preeminent American acting dynasty, one that endures still in the person of John’s granddaughter, Drew, and is so complex and produced so many famous people that their family tree has its own Wikipedia page. The three children of Maurice — Lionel, Ethel, and John — suffered the collapse of their famous father into madness later attributed to syphilis. During a 1901 performance on the burgeoning New York vaudeville stage, Maurice suddenly stopped mid-monologue and launched into a tearful, hysterical anti-Semitic screed. He was committed to a sanitarium shortly thereafter, John having been given the task of luring their mad but physically imposing father to Bellevue hospital. Maurice was later transferred to a sanitarium in Amityville on Long Island, where he remained until his death in 1905.
John’s mother, Georgina Drew, was the member of an already established dynasty. Her parents and most of her siblings were actors of no small acclaim. She met Maurice while both of them were starring in a New York production of the play Pique. They married in 1876, though as is often the case when actors marry actors, it was an unstable relationship, and Maurice was frequently accused (and guilty) of extramarital dalliances. Despite that, she enjoyed great success on-stage, but her career was cut tragically short when she contracted tuberculosis in 1891. She passed away in 1892, at the age of 36. The death of Georgina — by most accounts, the more responsible party in the marriage — threw the family into disarray, even though young John had hardly known her (or his father) due to the incessant touring demanded of a professional actor.
Financial difficulty led both Lionel and Ethel Barrymore into careers as professional actors, carrying on the family names, but John, being the youngest, rebelled against the idea of becoming an actor. In fact, he rebelled against pretty much anything, continuously enrolling in then dropping out of or being expelled from a steady procession of schools. He dreamed of becoming an artist, but the gravitational pull of acting was strong, and he occasionally found himself on stage, usually in bit parts, as a substitute for some actor or another alongside either Lionel or Ethel. These brief forays onto the stage rarely went well. In 1901, having attended more schools than one could reasonably be expected to remember, it was young John who bore the brunt of their father’s descent into madness.
“It looks as though I’ll have to succumb to the family curse: acting,” John Barrymore soon lamented. Despite his professed disdain for the stage, he was slowly having to face up to the fact that he wasn’t cutting it as a cartoonist and illustrator. Desperate for money, he reached out to his mother’s old agent, Charles Frohman, and soon found himself playing bit roles on a midwestern tour. As he gained experience, he moved up in the ranks, mostly in comedic roles, debuting on Broadway in 1904 and finding himself a mentor in actor William Collier. Collier took on the task but found Barrymore, an advanced alcoholic even at that young age, difficult at times to work with. Still, through all the struggles, Barrymore continued to hone the craft he did not want. In 1907, he finally scored his first lead role, though his drinking and general undependability continued to undermine his success and frustrate his sister Ethel. He received as many good reviews as bad, and several times was compared to his uncle John Drew. From time to time, it was pointed out that young John Barrymore tended at times to a bit of hamminess.
Sometime around 1912 — it’s difficult to pinpoint — Barrymore started supplementing his stage actor’s income with work in short films. Most of his early film work has been lost over time. 1914 saw the release of his first confirmed feature, and it would seem from reviews that the tendency toward overplaying things a little on stage served John Barrymore well in the exaggerated world of early motion pictures. The money was better, but Barrymore remained committed to the stage — odd, perhaps, for a man who multiple times professed that he was in it only for the money. He began to explore more dramatic roles on stage, usually to similarly mixed reviews as plagues his comedic work. He worked on stage alongside his brother Lionel, and at that point finally started collecting more good notices than bad. The brothers appeared together in a stage version of George du Maurier’s novel Peter Ibbetson in 1917. That same year, on screen, John Barrymore stepped into the shoes of A.J. Raffles.
As would be the case with many subsequent Raffles movies, this version is based in part on the stage play, which in turn was based primarily on “The Ides of March” and “Gentlemen and Players.” Which makes sense; in terms of what one thinks of when one thinks of Raffles, gentleman thief, those two stories are the most Raffles of the Raffles stories, full of snappy action and spirited fun (as opposed to the darkness and depression that would creep into later stories). This film also adapts “The Gift of the Emperor,” transforming it into an action set piece prologue rather than a climactic death scene, and “The Return Match,” which makes good sense as it’s a direct continuation of events in “Gentlemen and Players.” Pieces are tweaked here and there, so that the film opens with Raffles orchestrating the heist of a necklace from a society boor (rather than a German military envoy, as was the case in “The Gift of the Emperor”) on an ocean liner. He is found out but escapes with a dramatic dive over the side of the boat, returning to England some time later to legends of “the amateur cracksman” but without suspicion falling on him.
That is, until he agrees to travel to the estate of Lord and Lady Amersteth, which he sees as an excellent opportunity to nick a bauble or two from some people who probably deserve it. Unfortunately, a wrench is thrown into his scheme when he discovers also in attendance is a Mrs. Vidal (Christine Mayo), who happened to be on that fateful cruise and can identify Raffles as the same man branded “the amateur cracksman” during the high seas jewel heist. She intends to use the information to blackmail Raffles into a romance. But Raffles finds the woman insufferable and only has eyes for pretty young Gwendolyn (Kathryn Adams), Lord Amersteth’s ward. As if the situation wasn’t complicated enough, Raffles discover another man, an old school acquaintance named Bunny Manders (Frank Morgan) is also vying for the young woman’s affections. Well, a romantic tangle and the threat of being exposed by a vindictive society dame aren’t enough to deter Raffles from pulling a heist which, as with the same in the short story, is made more challenging by the presence of the professional thief Crawshay (Mike Donlin) and ace detective Bedford (Frederick Perry).
Although the movie follows the short stories fairly faithfully, there are a few significant changes, at least one of which was brought about in efforts to assuage local censorship boards. Gone is Raffles “teach society snobs a lesson” vindictiveness. Also gone is his willingness to profit from his crimes. Instead, he is explained away as the proverbial modern-day Robin Hood, who never keeps what he steals, and always takes from the rich to give to the poor. Or more accurately, who takes from the rich and later gives back to those same rich after he’s had a good laugh and an opportunity to dive through a few windows. Added to the mix is the romantic angle, considered a necessity for the screen but absent from the short stories. Bunny confides his financial predicament to Raffles at the Amersteth estate rather than in Raffles’ apartment, and instead of a separate crime to cover Bunny’s debts, that’s all rolled into the “Gentlemen and Players” heist. The final third of the film, based largely on “The Return Match,” tweaks things so that there’s a thrilling finale, a revelation, a few jokes, and Raffles once again diving through a window.
Also jettisoned is any concern on the part of Raffles or Bunny that being exposed as charming criminals will ruin their station in British society. When the jig is finally up, rather than resulting in anxiety or disgrace, it seems only to add to the allure of Raffles. Even Bedford excitedly exclaims “He’s splendid!” and is overjoyed that Raffles has escaped arrest, since it gives Bedford himself a sporting bit of adventure to look forward to as the two friendly rivals, presumably, continue to match wits. Of course, in the novels, Raffles and Bunny are ruined by the public revelation of their nefarious side hustle, and Bedford never warms to the duo. However, recasting Raffles as a beloved rogue was in tune with how the concept of the gentleman thief had evolved since the debut of Raffles. The next major gentleman thief in literature to sneak in through the window, Arsene Lupin, went a long way to advancing the dashing, lovable nature of the thief and the friendly rivalry between cop and criminal. Raffles started it all, but it was Arsene Lupin that provided the true template for all gentlemen thieves to come.
These changes to Raffles, both in character and story, aren’t necessarily for the worse. They make for a cohesive narrative (at a time when a fractured, episodic narrative would have sufficed) that moves along at a brisk pace and affords Barrymore ample opportunity to strike dramatic poses, show off his comedic skills, and perform a number of stunts. It’s a low-budget film; despite the film language and technological innovations of epics like Cabiria and Birth of a Nation, Raffles sticks to limited, static camera set-ups and, except for the opening aboard the ship and a few scenes of gardens and fields, only a few sets. Still, it feels like a more dynamic film because Barrymore and his supporting cast fill the screen with energy. Barrymore’s acting style is well-suited for the character of Raffles, effusing the character with the perfect amount of charm and mischief. Frank Morgan makes an excellent Bunny Manders, capturing all of that character’s confusion and enthusiasm (though, in alignment with the overall tonal simplification of the movie, skipping over much in the way of moral conflicted-ness). Morgan, like Barrymore, was quite a drinker, and later in his career was known to carry a briefcase with him that folded out into a fully stocked mini-bar. While his might not be well-remembered, one of his characters is — far more so, in fact, than Bunny Manders. In 1939, when negotiations with W.C. Fields fell through, it was Frank Morgan who stepped in to fill the titular role in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.
1917 was the beginning of a transitional time for silent film, as the industry was really getting its feet under itself. New techniques were being introduced constantly, and the ramshackle studios that had pioneered the industry were starting to figure things out. A star system had been formed, magazines were published in support of the movies, and cinematic style was advancing in leaps and bounds (and would really kick into high gear during the 1920s). Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman possesses enough artifacts of the early silent era to keep it from being as much as it could have been, but it also contains enough of the new, primarily in its spritely performances, to keep it fun for anyone used to the static conventions of the era. It won’t convert anyone to the cause of silent cinema, but it will probably satisfy fans already seasoned in the limitations of 1917.