Book Review – “The Amateur Cracksman” by E. W. Hornung

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The figure of the gentleman thief has become so much a part of our psyche in the western world that it’s easy to take such a character for granted.  Generally dashing, good looking, sly, stealthy and charming with the ladies, such figures are sympathetic despite their capers or perhaps even because of them.   We admire their cunning and ability to swindle those we don’t particularly like anyway, the idle rich. In E. W. (Ernest William) Hornung’s The Amateur Cracksman, we have such a gentleman swindler in A. J. Raffles.

Raffles has seen numerous incarnations in film and several on television.  There were two silent versions, one starring John Barrymore and two other better known representations in the thirties.  Breathtakingly, Ronald Colman played him in a 1930 early talking version opposite the luminous and striking Kay Francis.  Between her slinking and his lurking the screen was awash in luxurious charm.  A later version in 1939 suffers some from the long arm of the Production Code, sanitizing the interplay between the two principals, yet it has its considerable charms, the elegance of David Niven and Olivia de Havilland being primary.  Both versions appear to be based upon a 1903 stage play crafted by Hornung after he had achieved considerable success with his books featuring the devious scoundrel.

The first story to feature Raffles was published in a magazine in 1898 and introduces the present compilation.  Consisting of a series of short stories, tied together by its engaging central character embarking upon underhanded capers, this book was so popular that the author continued to write tales featuring the cunning bandit, with even further excursions into burglaries, mistaken identities, forgeries and other rarefied crimes.  Raffles shares a bit of Robin Hoods’ spirit.  The victims of his crimes are usually more than due their misfortune, yet there is one primary difference:  While the latter brings justice and spoils to those suffering oppression, the former luxuriates in the gains that provide him with the outwardly decent, respectable lifestyle of a true gentleman.  By some measures, he has an enviable life indeed.

Interestingly, Hornung was the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and wrote these short stories of an anti-hero as almost an homage and this first book is indeed dedicated to the Sherlock Holmes creator.  Certainly the central relationship of a mastermind supported by a willing admiring assistant is replicated here.  Yet as the popularity of Hornung’s creation grew, Conan Doyle expressed misgivings regarding the impact of such a warm and generous portrayal of one essentially trolling about in the underworld.  Foreshadowing the feelings of those who later instituted the Code, he expressed concern that Hornung had perhaps made “the criminal a hero”.  Yet it was too late.  The gentleman thief had already been born.  We would later see him appear time and again in cinematic history.

Raffles reluctant accomplice in his escapades is his former school chum Bunny who, as he does in the films, presents as a young man desperately in need of money.  That curse of the upper-crust, gambling debts, has brought him to the point of self-destructive despair.  The similarity ends there as Bunny on the page slowly becomes a greater accomplice to these recurring escapades, a status he never achieves in the films, especially the 1939 vehicle which of course requires Raffles pay for his crimes.

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Bunny is an interesting narrator.  He admires Raffles cunning and ingenuity with appalling awe.  Bunny is seemingly seduced, beyond the initial episode, by the cracksman’s charisma and charms. (And I have to say that for me Raffles charm was only enhanced by hearing his words in the voice of the melodiously gifted Colman). This collection is filled with deliciously detailed descriptions of Raffles mannerisms, facial expressions and moods.  We are treated to a recounting by a man wholly captivated by his seductor to the sinister, in a Victorian age. This lingering accounting lends an immediacy to the proceedings.  We see Raffles through the eyes of this disconcerted admirer as Bunny is reluctantly drawn into the world of sophisticated, yet amateur criminal behavior. The money and easy living seduce him even further.  Bunny’s moral misgivings and subsequent slide into a seamy acceptance of devious deeds, with their secretive glamor, becomes our own as we too are charmed by this gentlemen thief.

Having been raised on varying portrayals of these upper crust scoundrels, I fully expected there to be a significant love interest.  I turned page after page awaiting an alluring feminine presence infused with the spirit of Kay Francis, Grace Kelly or Olivia de Havilland.  But no such woman appeared.  In fact there are very few women at all in these stories which are in fact somewhat sexy precursors to what first started as road trips, morphed into buddy movies and then became simply bromances.  The admiration, seduction and conspiratorial nature of the relationship between Bunny and our hero has a definite homoerotic air.  In fact the willing accomplice becomes quite petulant in the final story when Raffles (finally!) becomes seemingly smitten with a young female shipboard passenger.  At last, I thought, a woman!  But we barely get a real glimpse of her before our protagonist makes a necessary hasty get away.  I almost got the sense that she was thrown in, just at the very end, to dispel any notions that might be occurring on the part of the reader.

In order to enjoy these stories, it’s necessary to enter into this world within its context. The Amateur Cracksman as both character and book expresses the sense of entitlement that fueled the rise and fall of the British Empire.  The stories take place during its unraveling yet there is none of that here.  These are quickly told tales designed to amuse in an afternoon or evenings read, suffused with the English ambiance, language and sentiments of the time.

I’d say that this was a fairly satisfying read however I’ve a fondness for British literature of the period.  The short stories do require a certain setting aside of the accepted norms of the era, an understanding that as presented and in context, this is indeed a white male centered universe, where the spoils go to those most able to navigate its niceties and sometimes not so nice underbelly.  And while there are hints of the basis for the films in here you won’t find the actual plot or alas even Lady Gwendolyn.  But you will find the beginnings of a crafty sort of enigma who persisted as a film specimen on through the Sixties.  He continues to show his suave self and dazzle us from time to time today.

This post is a part of the 2017 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge Blogathon hosted by the lovely Raquel Stecher.  She can be found reading and blogging at Out of the Past.  Check her blog for periodic updates from other blogging readers that will run from June 1 – September 15th.  The goal is to read six classic film related books; we’ll see if I make it through six.  I hope to discover some good books in the meantime. Thanks Raquel for hosting 🙂

Summer Reading Challenge 2017

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Notes and Extras

  • This book is now in the public domain and is available for Kindle due to a community of volunteers.  I would like to thank those patient people for allowing me to snuggle up with this one.
  • It was first published in 1899.
  • For my review of Raffles (1930) the movie,  please see here. It’s one I would highly recommend due to its charm.  I think it’s a pretty successful early talking film.

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The Barrymore Triumvirate: Rasputin and the Empress (1932)

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Photo courtesy of doctormacro.com

An MGM Production ~ Director: Richard Boleslawski , Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons and Alexander Toluboff, Costume Design: Adrian

Some years back I picked up a cocktail table book, The Romanov Family Album.  Filled with photographs, many of them taken by Czar Nicholas himself, it captured his wife and children in every day moments, engaging in simple family pursuits.  Hazy and seemingly touched by gossamer, these photos show signs of age and the newness of a budding technology, embraced by an enthusiastic photographer.  It is amazing that these photos survive and give us this glimpse into the royal realm.  It is this lost empire that is similarly glimpsed in Rasputin and the Empress.

It is fascinating to see this world depicted on the screen.  There is a generosity towards the Romanov family that knowingly understands that extended family members and friends of the royal family were still living at the time of the making of this film (although MGM probably should’ve appreciated this more fully, but more on that later).  Perhaps this accounts for this sympathetic portrait of an extremely privileged family, living an insulated, secluded life, aware only too late of the encroaching dangers. This depiction blurs the historical accuracy, to put it mildly.  Here they are shown befuddled as to what could drive the Russian people to such anger and revolt, even as thousands gather in protest. While the attention to detail is evident in costume and design, it is far less a factor in the screenplay, which could definitely be truer to actual events.

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There is much to love about Rasputin and the Empress. Most importantly for classic film fans, it is the only movie that features all three of the legendary Barrymore siblings, John, Ethel and Lionel. It is thrilling to see this trio together. Secondly, there is no doubt this is an MGM production. Perhaps due to the nearness of events, a wonderful attention to detail has been shown.  The set design is beautiful, rich and layered. The gowns are sumptuous, beaded and laced. The uniforms* are impeccable and beautifully made. There is drama and romance, action and intrigue, star wattage and larger than life performances.  Rasputin has the MGM touch and it shows.

Yet one wonders if Rasputin’s curse wasn’t upon the entire affair. There was a change of directors midway, a half-written script that was delivered to the actors in the mornings, and lawsuits post-production that ultimately amounted to pay offs of approximately $1 million dollars to extended family members, who objected to the creative license engaged in by the film makers.**

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Reportedly Ethel was apprehensive and nervous regarding her involvement.  Having appeared in silent films from 1914-1919 (and setting aside a 1926 home movie), she had spent the intervening years in the theater, returning for this, her first talking picture, following much persuasion and with the promise the film would be shot according to schedule.  As is so frequently the case it was not, and following her contracted eight week shoot Ethel departed for the East Coast and theatrical commitments.  But no matter.  Much of the tension and action occurs between the brothers as they duke it out on screen with dueling dramatics and sibling stunts designed to scene steal and each over-act the other, first one, then the other and back again.  They succeed beautifully.

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Surprisingly, John did not end up in the role of Rasputin, luckily avoiding a resurrection of his performance in Svengali (1931).  Rather he ends up as the romantic lead and rightfully so. It is certainly difficult to imagine Lionel, who despised playing romantic roles, as the aristocratic Prince Chegodieff, (a thinly disguised portrayal of an actual living Prince by the name of Yusupov), fiancé to Natasha, a Romanov niece depicted by lovely British theater actress Diana Wynyard in her film debut. Chegodieff not only shows depth of feeling towards his beloved but also towards the entire Imperial family.  He is warm and protective, providing respectful, well-intended guidance.  When that proves ineffective however, he turns to more drastic direct methods.  Refreshingly, John plays this part with greater dignity and reflection than many of his other roles of this period.  Still marvelously handsome, and remarkably so, we are afforded many glimpses of his famously perfect left profile, (probably far too many actually) and even at the age of fifty he is able to convincingly woo the young Natasha, throwing in just a hint of luscious naughtiness in a sweet early scene.

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Ethel’s portrayal of the Czarina is filled with a great deal of emotion, her maternal love mingled with self-possession. Much of her performance is conveyed through her deep, dark eyes, whose warmth and sensitivity soften her regal poise. Her delivery is slow and measured, yet sometimes so much so she seems rooted to the floor. As she was known to base her portrayal upon her personal acquaintance with the Empress, it is difficult to know how much of this reserve is a royal visage or Ethel’s own trepidation regarding her return to film. Despite John’s reassurances that the cinematographer could work wonders, she was no doubt concerned that her five year absence would be evident upon a silver screen that so adored the luminous perfection of youth.  Rasputin was her first encounter with the stylistic changes required for talking pictures, and the subsequent softening of her stage voice worked well to convey a loving, concerned and dignified presence.

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Lionel in contrast seems to have had great fun with the evil machinations and malevolence of Rasputin.  Playing with his beard (so ever present!) and engaged in wild-eyed manipulations, he becomes emboldened as his influence upon the Romanov’s, in particular the young heir apparent, the Czarevitch Alexei, (Tad Alexander), grows stronger.  It’s riveting to watch Lionel throw himself into this role, relishing the opportunity to act his heart out and doing so in friendly competition with his brother and sister. I loved seeing Lionel’s lively, intelligent eyes behind all that make up and a beard, seeming to have a life of its own, floating in mid-air as he menacingly masticates his lines. His attempted seduction of royal daughter Maria is unbelievably creepy and the subsequent ravishing of Natasha even more so (though much has been left on the cutting room floor).  Of course, this being a pre-Code film, he slaps Natasha as he cruelly diminishes her. Lionel could do kindly well, as he did in You Can’t Take It With You, but if you think of ‘Ol Mr. Potter (It’s a Wonderful Life), he could do evil even better.  Add crazy and he could definitely steal a scene.

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So steal away he does and while enjoyable, it does tend to give the movie a bit of an uneven pace. Between Ethel’s refined restraint, John’s debonair devotion and Lionel’s wild-eyed Rasputin, I sometimes felt as if I were watching this trio in several different movies.  Each performs beautifully but the whole is somewhat less than its parts.  This would appear to be not the fault of the Barrymores, who truly seem to devote their significant talents to this production, but rather to a sense of disconnect, not just between actors but between scenes.  I was left with a vague suspicion that these talented thespians in large part directed themselves. Not quite true, but with the Barrymores you never know.

Given this unevenness, it’s hardly surprising to discover that shooting began with daily rewrites and an unfinished script. It was only at Ethel’s emphatic insistence that Charles MacArthur, later known for Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights and His Girl Friday, was finally brought in to pull together a messy screenplay already touched by at least twelve other screenwriters. The unevenness remains however and much of the plot moves through expository dialogues and sometimes monologues, delivered by Rasputin.  His hold over the family is portrayed as mostly through the children, less through the Empress, furthering the historical inaccuracy.  How I would’ve loved to have seen Lionel attempt to work his maniacal charms over Ethel!

(Spoiler Alert)

Yet despite these caveats, this is an entertaining film.  There’s a fantastic scene between the Prince and Rasputin, who finally come to blows, the fighting going from table, to fireplace, to window, to wall, further wrestling and then out to the snow and ice.  Whether this traversing about was planned or improvised it’s hard to tell but it’s a knock-down drag-out.  John tries about six different ways to kill his brother in this scene, finally yelling in extreme exasperation “Why don’t you die?!?” and as Rasputin rises again, “Get back in hell!!” This is the stuff of high melodrama and tragicomedy and I enjoyed every minute of it; it’s the high point in a relatively somber film.

In one of the final scenes we hear an exchange between the Czar (Frank Morgan) and the Prince:

“Your majesty, I never believed that madman before. But one thing he said is roaring in my brain. He said when he died, Russia died. I’m afraid the cancer has been removed too late. We’re already destroyed”.

“No Paul. Russia is too great to be destroyed by any one man…… We have never injured our people … They will never injure us”.

These words frame the mindset of the royal family in perhaps the truest moment of the film. The Romanovs from all accounts, did not believe the love of the people would be entirely lost and yet, more untrue words were never spoken. It was not any one man, it was many.

 

Many of us know the end of this sad story and it’s certainly a cautionary tale, one of miscalculation by those who should know better, and yet are so insulated they are blind to the dangers encircling them.  Secluded and cocooned in their wealth and privilege, they seem uncertain and unknowing, oblivious to the struggles of the people and confused as to how they might help.  Every time we see these characters view their subjects, it’s from high above, too far removed, until the final moments.

 

This movie ends with a radiantly back-lit Russian Orthodox cross. The Romanovs were in fact, canonized and given saintly status by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1981. Recognized as martyrs who died for their strong and unceasing faith, it is yet this very faith that contributed to their compulsion to believe in the false teachings and guidance of Rasputin. There is no doubt that this movie attempts to portray the family favorably, in keeping with these Russian Orthodox views. While many in the western world might view this monarchy at best as antiquated and at worst as oppressive, there were others that viewed the annihilation of the last Imperial family of Russia with great alarm and despair. Certainly it was the end of royal reign as it had traditionally been known. The assassination of the House of Romanov realized the modernization of monarchy and the end of an era.

 

 

So perhaps, after all, it is this sense of distant rumblings that Ethel is trying to convey most of all in her tender portrayal of the Czarina. The Romanovs enjoyed life, neglectful of the needs of the countrymen over which they ruled. They danced, they played, they swam, they sang, they took photographs of it all and they were beautiful. We are presented here with not still photographs but moving images of a misguided family, filled with unfailing religious fervor and blind trust, insensible not only to the dangers without but to the dangers within, trusting those who might intend to manipulate and possess. Their faith in Rasputin, a false visionary with his own brand of mysticism, a fantastical belief in the Russian people and an aged, ancient system, ultimately led to their downfall.  The insularity of privilege and elitism is a dangerous perch upon which to build one’s nest. Here, the people in the street prevailed, if only for a time.

Rasputin and the Empress gives us a small glimpse, despite its historical inaccuracies, into a lost time. For that and for the view it gives us of the extraordinary Barrymore triumvirate, it is well-worth a view.

Definitely Recommended

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* If you’ve ever wondered about the inspiration for the uniforms in the Land of Oz look no further than the winter uniforms of  Czarevitch Alexei and the Royal Guard as depicted here.  Obviously MGM’s Wizard of Oz borrowed a little from this royal dynasty.

** Interestingly, the obligatory disclaimer disavowing “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”  that we now  see at the start of most releases is a result of these lawsuits with extended family.

harlow peeking red dustNotes and Extras

In her autobiography Memories, Ethel Barrymore recalled an evening out during the filming of Rasputin:

 I remember going to the “premiere” of a picture, the first one I had ever seen. This one  in the middle of the depression was very different from those that I had heard and read about when the bystanders applauded the people who drive by them in big cars. This time there was no applause.  The onlookers on the sidewalks were silent and sullen as people wearing furs and jewels rode by them in the big cars.  It was a very uncomfortable experience. 

Rasputin did not do well as the box-office. It lost more than one million dollars, and had cost more than two million to make. MGM general counsel J. Robert Rubin remarked “The damn thing stinks.  Audiences won’t go near it”.  Perhaps it was difficult for depression era audiences to feel sympathetic towards a wealthy privileged ruling family that was so obviously out of touch with the needs of the common people. Producing this film during  the depths of the great depression may not have been the best timing. I can only imagine the audience confusion as to where their sympathies should lie.

The history and background drama surrounding the Romanovs, the making of the film and the Barrymore family are actually more interesting than the movie.  If you would like to explore further:

  •  Pre-Code.com does a great job of providing some historical background and further thoughts about the movie and its comedic undertones. He takes a look at the imbalances in the film, while acknowledging the fun of seeing these three chew the scenery.
  • Meanwhile Aurora at Once Upon a Screen beautifully describes Ethel’s relationship with her brothers, family dynamics and more about her impressions of the film. Her lovely words inspired me to promptly get my hands on a copy of Memories.
  • If you are a Royalphile or just fascinated by those romantic Romanovs, The Romanov Family Album by Marilyn Pfeiffer Swezey is filled  with vintage photographs of a lost time and place.  Reminiscent of seeing vestiges of the Titanic or remains from Pompeii, it’s a book I have treasured for years for its glimpse into a world that is gone forever.
  • Prince Yusupov actually had a hand in the killing of Rasputin.  While he didn’t seem to mind that detail in the film he did apparently object to the inference that his wife had been raped by Rasputin (apparently she had never even met him), resulting in much editing and more hinting at shame than anything else.  Ethel had intimidated that the extended royal family, now living primarily in France, might object to this plot development but once she returned to New York, MGM proceeded with the story-line that would ultimately lead to lawsuits and a very expensive out of court settlement.
  • MGM’s fantastic in-house Art Director Cedric Gibbons was beautifully assisted by the Russian-born Alexander Toluboff, who had studied Russian architecture in St. Petersburg. Toluboff went on to three nominations for Art Direction, all in the latter 1930’s.
  • This film marks not only Diana Wynard’s film debut but the first in her newly signed contract with MGM.