How would the amateur cracksman fare under the stricter enforcement of the Production Code ushered in by Joseph Breen? The Code had been in existence well before 1934, but that year the office was taken over by Breen amid an atmosphere of increased scrutiny by and pressure from moral watchdogs who wanted to put a damper on the sex and violence rampant in horror and gangster films (the box office returns expose that, as usual, the professed outrage of society did not necessarily align with their movie-going habits). He vowed to make good on the promise of the Code, which until then had been at best mildly enforced, with studios having devised a number of ways to circumvent its restrictions. Under Breen’s stewardship, things got tough, and movies like Frankenstein and Scarface were no longer going to slip by.
Among the tenets of the Code was a demand that crime must not pay, and that criminals should always be seen to pay for their transgressions. But, one wonders, does that apply even to dapper, good-natured gentlemen thieves like A.J. Raffles? It’s true that in the Hornung’s original stories, Raffles was seen to pay, and pay dearly, for his life of crime — including, in the end, the ultimate price. But that depressing business was well in the past, and audiences had been thrilling to a more light-hearted version of Raffles since the original stage play and on through several cinematic adaptations. Would anyone want to see the playful, charming Raffles of John Barrymore or Ronald Colman or, as the case was in 1939, David Niven pay for his crimes? Probably not, but that didn’t mean the Hays Office wasn’t going to insist upon it anyway.
Once again, we’re getting the same old story. There was a point to remaking it in 1930, when the technology of movie making had advanced so much since the 1917 version (we’ll skip the 1925 version, since it was actually a step backward in sophistication from the 1917 version), but what, one wonders, was the point of trotting out the same ol’ Raffles movie yet again when the previous version was so recent? This is especially puzzling given that so much of what is done in 1939’s Raffles — from mannerisms to camera set-ups to the very way lines are delivered — is almost identical to what was done in 1930. Screenwriter John Van Druten really does little more than take Sidney Howard’s script for the 1930 version and tack on a stinger ending and his own name. However, taking into account the more forceful application of the Production Code, we can hazard to guess that the 1930 version of Raffles would not have been certified for redistribution after 1934. Any film approved before that period had to be resubmitted if the studio wanted to put it back in circulation (and most films from the first half of the 1930s were rereleased in the second half to meet the demand for programming). Given that Raffles makes a dramatic escape at the end of the film and does not “pay for his crimes” (the idea that exposure itself would be punishment is not carried over from the short stories) would make it difficult for the Colman-Francis version to secure a certificate under the new regime. Easier to just remake it and graft a Code-friendly ending onto the thing.
As a result, what we get is a somewhat spiritless film saved by the boundless energy and debonair charm of young David Niven, who I call young but has actually been the same age since the day he was born and clear through until the day he died. Niven, who made a career out of playing dashing gentlemen, is not quite the Raffles Ronald Colman was, but he’s a damn good second place and has, at the least, as good a pencil thin mustache. It may be a bit tiresome to watch the movie go through the same old plot points, but David Niven makes it all right. Given the wealth of Raffles stories at the disposal of filmmakers, it’s unfortunate that they kept going back to the same one again and again. One can only imagine what could have happened had they delved into the amateur cracksman’s vendetta with the Camorra. The film was rushed into production to take advantage of Niven’s contractual obligation before he departed Hollywood to fight the Nazis. Given the undertaking on which he was about to embark, one could forgive Niven if he was distracted or not entirely invested in the role. But that’s not the sort of man David Niven was, and so he gave a spirited performance as the amateur cracksman, buttoned his top coat, and then left to give a similarly spirited performance during the war, during which he served with the British Commandos as part of the “Phantom Signals Unit.” As to the particulars of his wartime exploits, he was as tight-lipped about them as a fellow British actor and commando, Christopher Lee.
It’s unfortunate that the rest of the movie isn’t up to David Niven’s effort. Olivia de Havilland, one of the great immortal icons of Hollywood, is serviceable as Gwen, but she lacks the spark of Kay Francis and has less chemistry with her lead. Part of that might be chalked up to a difference in eras. Kay Francis was allowed, in 1930, to be sexy, and she and Colman as a result seemed like they might collapse into a fit of passionate lovemaking at any moment. That sort of liberal attitude toward grown-up front wasn’t acceptable in 1939 though, and so de Havilland, though gorgeously dressed, is bundled in enough fabric and kept at a safe enough distance to satisfy the most sour-faced of prudes. The rest of the cast suffers from a case of “like the ones in the previous film, only less so,” which is an odd case of history repeating itself not just in the plot of the film, but also in that the 1939 version is inferior to the 1930 version in the same way the 1925 version is inferior to the 1917 version. The only improvement over the previous one is the addition of E.E. Clive as Raffles’ valet. In much the same way Ronald Colman was born to play A.J. Raffles, E.E. Clive was born to play a butler — and frequently did.
Worst of all, though, is the tag ending meant to clumsily fulfill the demand of the Production Code. No one but Joseph Breen would want to see Raffles arrested. And yet, after the familiar showdown between Raffles and McKenzie, after Raffles clever escape through a false grandfather clock, the film is saddled with an awkward epilogue in which Raffles visits Gwen one last time and then announces that so impressed is he with McKenzie that he has decided to turn himself in. It’s obvious the ending is there as an afterthought, and as such one can easily dismiss it, but given that the rest of the film is a retread of the 1930 version, modern viewers can instead just savor the fact that we are not at the mercy of waiting for a film to be rereleased in the theaters. The 1939 Raffles is a reasonably enjoyable affair. Director Sam Wood, who previously directed the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races and would win an Oscar for his work on Gone with the Wind, was too accomplished to let the film drag, and so he fills it with the wit and action we want; it’s not his fault he couldn’t also give us the sex appeal and had to satisfy “crime doesn’t pay” edict of the Code. Seconding him (one presumes he was distracted by Gone with the Wind) as an uncredited director was William Wyler, a man of no small accomplishment himself. He went on to direct, among other things, Roman Holiday, Ben Hur, Funny Girl, and in 1966, another gentleman thief classic, How to Steal a Million, starring Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn. Together, Wyler and Wood keep Raffles springing along amiably enough, always boosted by the can-do attitude of consummate professional David Niven. But then, in the end, who wants their gentleman thief to turn into a responsible citizen lecturing us all on morals in the final minute of the film? Obviously, the film’s heart isn’t in it any more than horror films were when they were forced to placate the censors by tacking on an “all’s well that ends well” final shot so incongruous with the rest of the film that at times they play like knowing jokes. Ah well, Mr. Raffles. We’ll always have 1930.
1939, United States
David Niven, Olivia de Havilland, May Whitty, Dudley Digges, Douglas Walton, E.E. Clive, Lionel Pape, Peter Godfrey
John Van Druten