Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Chester Morris as Boston Blackie
This week GREAT OLD MOVIES looks at those venerable B movie series from the golden age of Hollywood (and elsewhere). I define a "B" movie as one that generally has a running time of between fifty to eighty minutes, and a B movie series as a group of films featuring the same character. Most of these films played on the bottom half of a double-bill, or two were lumped together for an afternoon at the movies. There have been a lot of movie series from different studios -- MGM, 20th Century-Fox and Columbia down to the "poverty row" studios like Monogram and PRC. Among the more famous series were *Andy Hardy, Henry Aldrich, The Jones Family, and on the thriller side of the spectrum, Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, The Falcon, Mr. Wong, Inner Sanctum, Michael Shayne (with Lloyd Nolan and then Hugh Beaumont), and others. (All of the classic Chan and Holmes movies -- the very best of the mystery movie series -- have been reviewed on this blog and you can find them by using the search bar on the top left corner.)

Among the series we're looking at this week are Boston Blackie; the similar Lone Wolf series; Jungle Jim/Johnny Weissmuller; Philo Vance; Mr. Moto; and the Whistler, not to mention Dr. Mabuse from Germany. Philo Vance started out as a top-drawer series starring William Powell, but degenerated into a cheaper series for PRC. The Whistler movies all starred Richard Dix in a variety of roles and were based on the old radio program. Boston Blackie and the Lone Wolf starred, respectively, Chester Morris and Warren William, but later entries, not really a part of the main series, starred other actors. Dr. Mabuse began life in a series of films by Fritz Lang, dating back to the silent period, but these, too, degenerated into ersatz spy movies by the sixties. Johnny Weissmuller played Jungle Jim in a slew of features (and later a TV series) until the studio temporarily lost the rights to the character and he simply played himself in the last four films in the series.

Many of these movies employed the same elements: gun-toting femme fatales; hoods with grudges; and most ubiquitous, police detectives who were always at odds with the (anti) heroes, thinking they were really crooks underneath no matter how many genuine bad guys they helped put away. As well, the cops were always much dumber than the heroes. A lot of directors who became famous later on, such as William Castle, cut their teeth on these "B" movies. Sometimes the choice of sidekick was key in making an entertaining series. For instance, for my money Eric Blore as the Lone Wolf's "Jamison" is far superior to George E. Stone's "Runt" in the Boston Blackie series.

* Of course the Andy Hardy movies were "A" movies aside from the very last.


angelman66 said...

I remember these were all on TV on Sunday mornings when I was growing up on Long Island...they used to call these types of serials "programmers," didn't they, as they were paired with A pictures to give customers many hours of fun for one thin dime back in the day!

William said...

Exactly! These short movies filled out the bill and (hopefully) brought patrons back because they liked the Lone Wolf, Or Philo Vance, or whoever.