It would have been interesting to see a Raffles film that reinstated the literary Raffles’ cruel streak, his temptation to murder, and his conflicted hatred of and addiction to upper class society. But that wasn’t the case. By 1930, the stage version of Raffles, stripped of his social grudge and dark streak, had supplanted the original in the minds of audiences in much the same way the lighter cinematic version of James Bond would come to supplant Ian Fleming’s moodier original creation. As such, it’s a harmless, breezy crime-comedy for the amateur cracksman, but when that movie stars Ronald Colman and Kay Francis, it’s hard to be upset about a hypothetical. As it stands, the 1930 Raffles remains the definitive screen version of the character: dashing, witty, romantic, and enthused despite himself by the prospect of a little thievery. Ronald Colman was born to play Raffles, just as he was born to play Bulldog Drummond (and did, just one year prior, in 1929). Drummond and Raffles are practically the same man. Granted, Drummond eventually falls on the side of solving crimes rather than committing them, but for the chance of a case to be solved presenting itself before one to be caused, Drummond could have just as easily become another amateur cracksman.
Colman was a veteran of the Great War who had a permanent limp after taking shrapnel in the leg during the Battle of Messines. He cut his teeth on the British stage which meant, when the rapid switch over to sound came in 1929, he was well-positioned to transition away from silent cinema (where as many other stars of the silent era were unable to make the switch). With his perfect hair, athletic build, and expertly crafted pencil thin mustache, he was the very picture of an adventurous English gentleman (it’s a little shocking he never played Richard Hannay, hero of John Buchan’s beloved adventure novel The 39 Steps). Colman hit the big time in the role of Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond in a smash 1929 hit, one of the earliest talkies, and producer Samuel Goldwyn was keen to capitalize on Colman’s sudden fame. The amateur cracksman seemed a perfect fit. Colman slips effortlessly into Raffles’ top hat and tuxedo, bringing a near overwhelming amount of sly sex appeal and charm as he cuts a dashing swathe through polite society, relieving them of their diamonds when the opportunity arises.
Being a rushed production, screenwriter Sidney Howard had to pare down the story. Gone is the 1917’s silent version’s shipboard prologue, and gone with it is the character of Mrs. Vidal, the spinster who knows Raffles’ secret. With her out of the way, the 1930 version has more time to concentrate on the romance that was, of course, not present in the original stories but has been part and parcel of the story since the stage play -— though this version thankfully drops any pretense of a love triangle (Bunny has his own girl). Slinking into the role of Raffles’ one true love Gwen is a woman who was one of the great icons of the pre-Code era. Kay Francis was still formulating the persona that would make her the envy of many an American woman during the 1930s, but you can still see she’s well on her way. Francis was an Oklahoma City girl who grew up in the tough world of touring performers. Her mother was a struggling actress and her father was gone, having abandoned Kay when she was only four. She dabbled in school, married, divorced, and moved to New York to pursue a Broadway career despite having a slight speech impediment. She made her Broadway debut in 1925, and split her time between New York and a touring troupe in the midwest. In 1928, she took to the stage for what would become her final performance, in a play called Elmer the Great. Her co-star Walter Huston was so impressed by her acting talent that he brought her with him to the the Paramount Pictures headquarters in Astoria, Queens. A year later she debuted in her first films: Gentlemen of the Press, alongside Walter Huston; and The Cocoanuts, the debut film of vaudeville sensations The Marx Brothers.
It didn’t take long for Francis to cement herself as one of the premier stars of the talkie era. With her tall, slender frame, dark hair, and smoky good looks, she could have fallen into the role of femme fatale. Instead, she often played witty, urbane liberated women — thoroughly modern and unconventional and, in a break with the films of the 1920s, rarely punished for being so. Her height meant studios wouldn’t cast her alongside many popular male stars (for fear of exposing their modest stature), but she works fantastically alongside Ronald Colman (and, later, William Powell). What’s more, costumers loved her and draped her in a stunning array of haute couture. In an era most dramatically defined by the Great Depression, Kay Francis was the glamorous dream. Her chemistry with Colman is palpable, but she seemed to have chemistry — or at least the acting ability to fake chemistry — with just about everyone.
The plot of Raffles is pretty much the same as the 1917 version. As mentioned, subplots have been trimmed away to make room for a quicker pace and more sexy banter between Raffles and Gwen. One of the most notable changes is the involvement of Raffles himself in the theft of the diamond necklace that causes so much consternation. In the Barrymore version, Raffles intercepts the necklace as a crooked maid is passing it off to professional thief Crawshaw (here played by John Rogers). Here’ Raffles is much more involved with the theft and with assisting the escape of Crawshaw from Inspector McKenzie (David Torrence). In fact, Raffles is so involved with the crime that it really makes no sense. He reveals himself to Crawshaw for no good reason beyond a sense of fair play and camaraderie, thinking that since he has bested Crawshaw, the least he can do is try to help the man escape. Which is to say, it doesn’t matter that it makes no sense from a logical perspective. Raffles isn’t acting from a logical place. It’s all about the sport for him, and revealing his secret identity to Crawshaw is just one more way to keep the game interesting. It’s also entirely likely that as much as Raffles disdains the approval of high society, he craves the approval of the criminal element. He wants a seasoned old hand like Crawshaw to know what he did and nod. Raffles is a little kid desperate for the approval of criminal parents.
Colman and Francis are joined by a picture perfect supporting cast anchored by Bramwell Fletcher (who famous went mad at the sight of a revived Imohotep in Universal’s 1932 classic The Mummy) as the definitive Bunny Manders. Unfortunately, as much as Fletcher looks the part, any development of his character is sacrificed on the altar of expediency. This version has even less time for side characters than the 1917 version, and as such, poor Bunny, such an important part of Raffles’ life in the book and indeed the point of view from which the stories are told, is relegated to something little more than a glorified cameo. The lamentable 1925 version was just as uninterested in Bunny as this one, and the subsequent 1939 remake would marginalize Bunny even further. He deserves better, the poor abused clod, and maybe one day he’ll get it. Still, Bunny getting shafted yet again is par for the course in the world of Raffles, so one can’t grieve for him too dramatically, especially since the film is so much fun. Along with a brisk and stylish job of direction by veteran George Fitzmaurice, everything in this heist comes together perfectly, making for one of the most enjoyable caper comedies of the 1930s.