There was a time when mystery stories were not written for the screen exclusively but were meant to be published and read by an audience.
These texts, however, were the foundations for almost all the major mystery series listed in Backer’s book; as were some of the best film noir movies prior to Hollywood’s remodeling of the story. So the 1930s saw the introduction of the mystery film series, meaning also the producers would experiment a lot since there were no predecessors in the genre.
“By contrast, in the 1940s, the film detectives came from multiple sources, including radio and comic strips,” says Bracker in his introduction; and he should know, since in 2010, he already compiled the companion edition to this book Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood.
Another noticeable difference is the presence of female detectives. With the possible exception of Miss Marple, some decades later, there are none in the 1940s and 1950s; their businesses folded in the late 1930s, it seemed.
So here are some of the names that may ring a bell if you are interested in this kind of production that definitely had a charm of its own, taken into consideration the newness and the many inventions which were introduced to the mystery series genre only then. You will also learn a lot about Torchy Blane, Mr. Wong, Bill Crane, Thatcher Colt, Nancy Drew, Hildegard Withers and Sophie Lang, among others.
To give you an example of the detail of Mr. Backer’s writing, here is some information of how much text he devotes to the various fictional characters: Bulldog Drummond (44 pages), Mr. Moto (17 pages), Charlie Chan (74 pages) or Philo Vance with 34 pages. This is easily explained since over here we encounter very detailed reports not only of every single episode but also learn about production background, stars and stand-ins, and the respective effect this particular series had on other movies of its kind.
All the big studios soon found out that this genre guaranteed packed cinemas so the production became quite a necessity for the studio’s survival. Again, this was true chiefly for that decade, since the 1940s left just a few major studios carrying on with this genre. This also drastically showed in the choice of actors, since in the 30s many stars in their prime were used, a trend that faded some ten years later and basically lead to mere “B-Movies” featuring stars not much in demand anymore.
Another riveting aspect of those early tries at crime literature was the use of sound, then still a novelty that had to be fully unconcealed by both dialog and background music. So whatever your favorite mystery or detective series from that most interesting period is, your chances of finding it in the 167 movies discussed here are not too bad.
If you don’t, … well you may call Nick and Nora Charles or Barney Callahan, they may step in.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert (C) 2013
Ron Backer. Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood. McFarland, 2012, 383 p.