Origin stories fascinate me and this extends to my own life. I often try to delve into the mists of my memory and try to figure how I ever came to love certain movies or music. In the case of classic film, I really can’t remember why or even how it all started for me. My earliest memories in this area are of walking the 32 minutes to junior high school while reading books on Charlie Chaplin and the Universal horror films. I also remember taking out from the local public library a book called Saturday Afternoon at the Bijou, a book from 1972 that highlighted series of films like Sherlock Holmes movies and Charlie Chan movies. Years after the fact, I tracked down a copy of this wondrous book from my past and I’m happy to own it today.
When it comes to viewing, I have an even harder time remembering where I came in watching old movies. I think I recall the first movies I ever saw. My cousin was first in our family to own one of those new fangled VCRs and he managed to obtain copies of Enter the Dragon, Smokey and the Bandit and G.I. Blues and those are at the very least among the first films I ever saw. When our family acquired a VCR, I decided to start my own film collection. I can only assume that, as the rules were pretty strict in my home, current movies were frowned upon and classic ones deemed OK; same with music. I’m going to say I was 14 and it was 1986. The CBC at that time programmed a good, old fashioned late show and I started taping them. The very first thing I ever taped – and I still have the cassette – was The Falcon in Hollywood (1944) and this started my love of this amateur gentleman sleuth.
The story starts with Dikran Kouyoumdjian, an Armenian born in 1895 in Bulgaria. When he was 6, his family fled their home and impending war and settled in Lancashire, England. After briefly attending medical school in Scotland, Dikran made the move to London to start a literary career. A year later, the First World War broke out and England became suspicious of Dikran, still a Bulgarian, as his homeland had aligned with Germany. Not being able to change his name or to become a British citizen, he hid out in literary circles with other writers in similar situations, people like Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence. He began writing articles for Armenian and British magazines. Eventually, he had short stories, essays and plays published and was finally, in 1922, able to become naturalized. To further mark this new chapter in his life, Dikran officially changed his name to Michael Arlen.
As Arlen, he found success in 1924 with the publication of the novel The Green Hat. Arlen adapted the book for the stage and the adaptations of the play starred Katherine Cornell, Leslie Howard and Tallulah Bankhead. With this novel, Arlen found instant fame and was lured to Hollywood to help further adapt his book for the screen. It was filmed in 1928 as A Woman of Affairs, starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. The book had been provocative so the screenplay omitted references to homosexuality and venereal disease. This screenplay was nominated for Best Writing at the 2nd annual Academy Awards. It was made again in 1934 as Outcast Lady which starred Constance Bennett and Herbert Marshall. Arlen later mixed in political writing and science fiction with his society romances. Here’s where things get a little muddy.
Author Charles H. Huff wrote fiction under the name Drexel Drake. At least a trio of books by Drake featured a character named Malcom J. Wingate – also identified as Michael Waring – who used the alias “The Falcon”. In the late-1930’s novels The Falcon’s Prey (1936), The Falcon Cuts In (1937) and The Falcon Meets a Lady (1938), the Falcon fights crime “his own way” and has a sidekick called “Sarge”. Wingate is American though educated in England and the books are set in the metropolis of New York City. He was left a fortune by his parents and would liberate stolen funds and property from thieves and thereby pad his accounts. He adopted his name while he watched a falconer at work; “The falcon, powerful of wing and indomitable of courage, takes its quarry as it moves, plunging down upon it from above.”1
In 1940, Michael Arlen created a character named Gay Stanhope Falcon and featured him first in his short story called “Gay Falcon”. This character was also an adventurer and trouble-shooter. Drake’s Falcon stories clearly contain elements that were utilized later in film but it seems that it was Arlen’s character that Hollywood brought to the big screen. However, it is undeniable that Drake’s work predates Arlen’s stories. A mystery of sorts – worthy perhaps of the Falcon himself – continues to exist as it seems Arlen either adapted a previously created character for use in his own stories or simply appropriated Drake’s work. At any rate, a year after Arlen’s story appeared in Town and Country magazine, RKO Radio Pictures came calling.
Simon Templar, alias “The Saint”, is a character I’ve cherished throughout my life. It actually started for me with The Fiction-Makers, a TV film from 1966 starring Roger Moore as the Saint. This lead me to start reading the books by Leslie Charteris. I was much older when I learned that the character had appeared in films starting in the 1930’s with George Sanders as the suave British adventurer. Sanders was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia and after his family moved to London, George got work on the stage before moving into films. His “smooth, upper-class English accent, his sleek manner, and his suave, superior, and somewhat threatening air made him in demand for American films for years to come”2. He had appeared in smaller English and American films when he got RKO’s call with an offer to play Simon Templar. When RKO’s Saint movies began to run afoul of Charteris, who felt he was not being paid the appropriate film rights due him, the studio simply abandoned those films and began using another character who would feature in similar stories; The Falcon. Charteris, in turn, filed suit, claiming that the Falcon was simply a copy of his character and constituted “unfair competition”. Were the Falcon films simply copies of the Saint movies? Two of the first five Saint movies were called The Saint Strikes Back and The Saint Takes Over. Two of the first five Falcon films were called……..The Falcon Strikes Back and…The Falcon Takes Over.
Such was Hollywood in the golden age. But no matter. The Falcon took flight in 1941 with George Sanders along for the ride as Gay Laurence in the debut film, The Gay Falcon.
THE GAY FALCON (1941) // Directed by Irving Reis and co-starring with Sanders are Wendy Barrie, Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, Gladys Cooper and Turhan Bey
This origin story finds Gay Laurence engaged to be married to a girl who wants him to give up his life of adventure. In fact, future Falcon films also start with our boy in this situation; his adventures have placed him in contact with a beautiful and wealthy woman and the two fall for each other. But she is respectable and hopes to change Laurence into a similarly respectable mate. Invariably, a crime is committed which gets the Falcon’s blood pumping and he reverts to his default settings. Eventually, the socialite realizes it can never be and Laurence returns to his life of adventure. I do love the premise of a classy, well-heeled woman finding a dashing rogue irresistible and then hoping to wedge him into her life. My favourite example of this is in the relationship between Nick and Nora Charles. The Thin Man films are all the better though in that Nora doesn’t get Nick to change and in fact wants him to stay just the way he is as she finds his life thrilling.
Jonathan “Goldie” Locke is established as the Falcon’s sidekick. Much comic relief can be found in the fact that, while the Falcon is being rehabilitated by a society girl, he brings his old crony with him. While sharpie Laurence – like Nick Charles – can don tuxedo and rub elbows with the rich with no one knowing he is of the street, Goldie is more likely to be found out when in proper company. This is often played for laughs. Allen Jenkins originated the role of Goldie here in the first Falcon film. Jenkins (1900-1974) was a prolific B movie actor who can be seen in everything from Grand Hotel (1932) to For Those Who Think Young (1964). Jenkins would reprise the role of Goldie in the next two Falcon pictures.
Interesting to note that the police detective adversary in The Gay Falcon is played by Edward Brophy (1895-1960). Brophy (The Thin Man) would soon take over the role of Goldie. Wendy Barrie – born 1912 in British Hong Kong and died 1978 in New Jersey – may never have rose above B movie status but hers was a welcomed face in any film. She starred opposite Sanders in the Saint films and made the move with him to the world of the Falcon. She became a familiar presence in living rooms when she hosted one of television’s first talk shows, The Wendy Barrie Show (1948-1950). She reportedly was engaged to and had a daughter with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
Cutey Nina Vale plays Laurence’s betrothed. She has big, beautiful eyes that make her look like Ann Dvorak’s kid sister. Vale appeared in only four films in about a five year period in the Forties. Fans of classic film will know that Gladys Cooper appeared in scores of notable films and TV episodes in her 60-year career. I love watching her transformation in The Bishop’s Wife (1947). Sharpie Turhan Bey was an Austrian who was dubbed “The Turkish Delight” by his many fans. I love it when his handsome mug turns up in films like The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and The Amazing Mr. X (1948). Bey lasted until 2012 and died back in his homeland, aged 90. Lucille Gleason was the wife of the prolific James Gleason who can be seen in the aforementioned The Bishop’s Wife and Loving You (1957) with Elvis Presley. James would play the best of the Falcon’s police adversaries in later installments.
George Sanders carried on in A Date With the Falcon (1942) – another one I grew up with – and The Falcon Takes Over from the same year which was based on Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely which brings up the Falcon’s film noir credentials. While perhaps too lightweight or not containing all of the elements of noir, the Falcon films were certainly in the vicinity. Perhaps you could say they were film noir-lite. Or film noir for the family. Certainly the desperate, fateful nature of films noir and the more realistic but sometimes harrowing plot lines and the not-so-happy endings are not present in the Falcon films.
THE FALCON’S BROTHER (1942) // Directed by Stanley Logan and co-starring with Sanders are Jane Randolph, Cliff Clark, Edward Gargan, George J. Lewis and Tom Conway as Tom Lawrence
In January of ’42, George Sanders announced he was done playing the Falcon. RKO hoped to coax one more film out of him and to this end they said they would help advance the career of his big brother, Tom, by casting him in the lead role in future films. Sanders agreed with the proviso that his character, Gay Lawrence – the spelling had been changed from “Laurence” after the first film – be killed off. The Falcon’s Brother then offers fans a rare treat; a character is killed off and his death is avenged by his brother and the characters are played by real-life brothers. Tom Conway was also born in Saint Petersburg and followed his brother to Hollywood. Changing his surname to Conway, Tom appeared in small roles in small pictures, some – the larger Waterloo Bridge – only utilizing his mellifluous voice. He gladly accepted the offer to take over the Falcon role from his brother. In fact, RKO was surprisingly pleased when Conway’s Falcon pictures proved to be more successful than Sanders’.
George Sanders would go on to play indelible characters and cut a unique swath through Hollywood. He eventually would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950) but, sadly, happiness proved elusive. Suffering from dementia, from bad investments and broken relationships, he took his own life in Spain in 1972. He was 65.
The script for The Falcon’s Brother was written by Craig Rice. Born Georgiana Craig, Rice was a writer of hard-boiled fiction with screwball comedy touches. An alcoholic who attempted suicide many times, I like one quote I read about her; “(she was) the Dorothy Parker of detective fiction. She wrote the binge and lived the hangover.” Pretty Jane Randolph is present as she was in Val Lewton’s Cat People and its sequel. She made it to 94 years old and had the class to die in Gstaad. The prolific Keye Luke acquits himself well as an intelligent valet and George J. Lewis is a sneaky actor who shows up in countless films. You can see him in Casablanca, Gilda and much later I caught him with Presley in Kid Galahad!
Speaking of the Falcon’s relationship with film noir, not only was Takes Over based on Chandler, but the next film in the series, The Falcon Strikes Back (1943), was directed by Edward Dmytryk. At the time a director of B movies, some that were broadly successful, Dmytryk would soon be promoted to bigger projects and make his name with noirs like Murder, My Sweet, based on – once again – Farewell, My Lovely, and Crossfire (1947). Strikes Back keeps many of the same faces on board and adds Harriet Hilliard, Mrs. Ozzie Nelson.
The Falcon in Danger was another I had taped off TV and featured regular Falcon player Jean Brooks. Brooks may be best known for her work in two Val Lewton films, The Leopard Man and The Seventh Victim, both 1943. Brooks was a victim herself and suffered from crippling alcoholism that eventually cost her her career. She died of complications from this disease three days after the assassination of JFK; she was 47. Oddly, in 1990, an item appeared in the Hollywood Reporter asking if anyone knew the whereabouts of Jean Brooks. The next few entries in the series utilized the usual Falcon stock company while adding some interesting names. Isabel Jewell, Dorothy Malone, Ian Wolfe, Barbara Hale, Lyle Talbot, Lawrence Tierney and Martha Vickers all made appearances in Falcon movies.
THE FALCON IN HOLLYWOOD (1944) // Directed by Gordon Douglas and co-starring with Conway are Veda Ann Borg, Barbara Hale, Jean Brooks, Sheldon Leonard, Emory Parnell, John Abbott, Konstantin Shayne and Rita Corday
Another favourite of mine, The Falcon in Hollywood boasts a good story and excellent cast although it has the Falcon rolling without a sidekick. On vacation in La La Land, Lawrence ends up hanging around the lot of Sunset Pictures Inc. and running into a corpse. He does acquire a partner of sorts when his eager cab driver played by Veda Ann Borg won’t let him out of her sight. A career B actress, Borg can be seen in Falcon-type films like those featuring Dr. Christian, Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason but she also shows up in Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947). She was married for 12 years to director Andrew McLaglen. Pretty Barbara Hale makes her second Falcon appearance here. The future Della Street is in one of my Top 25, Big Wednesday (1978). Jean Brooks is of the party again but a real standout is the inimitable Sheldon Leonard who plays a – wait for it – gangster. This is a really fun one.
The Falcon in San Francisco saw the return of Edward Brophy, this time as sidekick Goldie Locke. Robert Armstrong is also on hand and Myrna Dell debuts as “Beautiful girl”; indeed. The Falcon’s Alibi adds Jane Greer and Elisha Cook, Jr. to the impressive roll call of the Falcon Players. Poor Jean Brooks is relegated to a minor role. Oh, and director Gordon Douglas? He graduated from Dick Tracy vs. Cueball to direct Presley in one of his very best acting roles in Follow That Dream (1962) before hooking up with Frank Sinatra to direct four films starring Frank including the wonderful Tony Rome (1967). He later added They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! (1970) and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973) with Jim Brown to his impressive resumé.
THE FALCON’S ADVENTURE (1946) // Directed by William Berke and co-starring with Conway are Edward Brophy, Madge Meredith, Robert Warwick, Steve Brodie, Ian Wolfe, Myrna Dell and Jason Robards, Sr.
All I will say is that The Falcon’s Adventure is one of my Top 25 favourite films. While my list is not ranked – after the Top 3 – I could use length of service to rate them; how long have I loved this film? In this case, Adventure would be among my five absolute favourite movies. The Falcon and Goldie (the excellent Edward Brophy) are fixing to go on vacation when they run into dishy Louisa Braganza (Meredith). The boys intervene when a hood attempts to kidnap Louisa and she explains that her uncle has a formula for industrial diamonds. The formula has to get to an associate of her uncle’s in Florida. So – Tom Lawrence and Goldie travel south on a train. The idea of train travel in this golden age absolutely fascinates me and so this is a wonderful feature of this film as is the Miami setting.
Gorgeous Iowa-born Madge Meredith made barely a dozen films. On July 2, 1947, Madge was arrested and charged with organizing the kidnapping and beating of her business manager. Despite maintaining her innocence, she ended up in Tehachapi for two years. Her case was reviewed and eventually California Governor Earl Warren commuted her sentence. She retired from acting and spent the rest of her life helping people who had been victims of injustices like hers. She lived out her days with her family in Volcano, Hawaii and she died in 2017. She was 96. And how about Steve Brodie? You can see his mug in many films noir but much later he got punched out by Elvis in not one but two movies; Blue Hawaii (1960) and Roustabout (1964). Seeing as the former is my favourite movie ever, Steve Brodie – of all people – is somehow in two of my favourite movies!
Poor Tom Conway ended up worse off than his brother. After the Falcon, he never could break out of the B movie detective-type box. While he did appear – like many discussed earlier – in films by Val Lewton, he never acted in anything of real note. And alcoholism played a part in his downfall, costing him his relationship with his brother. To make matters worse, Conway began to lose his eyesight. Divorced, drunk and losing his vision, he was discovered in 1965 to be living in a $2-a-day flophouse. His last years were spent in and out of hospital where he was visited by Zsa Zsa Gabor who gave him $200. Gabor was called by the hospital the next day to say Conway had left with the $200 and had gone to his girlfriend’s house where he died in her bed. He was 62.
The Falcon series wrapped with The Falcon’s Adventure but the character did live on. Kind of. In 1948 and ’49, bargain basement “studio” Film Classics put out three films starring magician and actor John Calvert. In Devil’s Cargo, Appointment With Murder and Search for Danger, Calvert played Michael Watling/Waring, alias the Falcon. These curiosities don’t really count. Calvert, though, is interesting. More a magician, his was one of the longest illusionist careers on record. He performed at the London Palladium on his 100th birthday and lived to be 102.
As I’ve said, the Falcon goes back to the very origins of my discovery and exploration of classic film. Indeed, The Falcon in Hollywood was one of the very first old movies I ever saw. But two of the first movies I ever bought on VHS were Casablanca and Citizen Kane. From the beginning then I’ve understood that there was a big difference in the type of film that was made in the 1940’s. While I may have been too young to actually understand “A and B movies”, exactly, I could perceive that some movies reached to achieve a certain grandeur and others seemed more concerned with simple entertainment.
So, I’ve come to love the B movie for it’s aim to provide escape and respite from a hard day at work, the challenges of navigating young adulthood, a companion to the big exhale after the kids finally get to sleep. And through history they have even given solace to people dealing with financial hardships, war and social unrest.
When it comes to the Falcon, I’ve spent the bulk of my life with him. I’ve revelled in the simplicity of the stories, the dash of the Sanders brothers, the beautiful girls they encountered, their devoted and goofy sidekicks. And that’s not to minimize the glory of the apartments, the night clubs, the trains, the cars, the suits and even the furniture. As opposed to trying to understand how Orson got that shot, I have been able to just abandon myself to the glory of the late show, the black and white adventures of Gay and Tom Lawrence. It’s been a good life, my life with the Falcon, and it’s not over yet.
RKO’s Falcon Pictures
- The Gay Falcon (1941)
- A Date with the Falcon (1942)
- The Falcon Takes Over (1942)
- The Falcon’s Brother (1942)
- The Falcon Strikes Back (1943)
- The Falcon in Danger (1943)
- The Falcon and the Co-Eds (1943)
- The Falcon Out West (1944)
- The Falcon in Mexico (1944)
- The Falcon in Hollywood (1944)
- The Falcon in San Francisco (1945)
- The Falcon’s Alibi (1946)
- The Falcon’s Adventure (1946)
- Derato, Frank. On the Trail of Drexel Drake’s Falcon. The New Thrilling Detective Website. (2019)
- Sanders, George. Memoirs if a Professional Cad. Hamish Hamilton. (1960)