Arsène Lupin -The Gentleman Thief of French Literature
The gentleman thief is a much beloved character in both literature and film. Arsène Lupin is one such character, first birthed by the pen of French writer Maurice Leblanc in the early 1900’s. Over the course of the next two decades Leblanc published many novellas, novels and even plays featuring his popular creation. These stories were contemporary with another, perhaps more famous, thief and master of disguise, that of the English gentleman Raffles. Without the underrated gift of classic film, I might never have heard of or been introduced to either.
The Arsène Lupin character also made appearances in television, stage and over twenty films. It is the pre-code 1932 version starring the Barrymore brothers, Lionel and John that I fell in love with. According to an introduction given by Dave Karger for this film on TCM, the Barrymore brothers were highly regarded by the two most important men at MGM during the early Thirties. Louis B Mayer believed Lionel to be one of the best actors of his time, while Irving Thalberg felt the same about John. When John’s contract with Warner Bros. expired, MGM snapped him up. He was cast with Lionel in Arsène Lupin, the first of five films in which the brothers would appear together in the years 1932-1933. Of those five only one would also star their equally famous sister Ethel. Sadly, after 1933 there would be no more films co-starring Lionel and John.
I agree with both Mayer and Thalberg as to the skill of John and Lionel. In their individual pictures they are both capable of commanding the screen, even to the point of stealing scenes. But together…they are magic!
This version of Arsène Lupin pits the two brothers against one another with John in the titular role. Lionel is Guerchard, the head of a police investigative unit. With one exception, he has been very successful in his career. But now he is very close to retirement and is haunted by the one thief who has always eluded him, Arsène Lupin.
In a an apparent robbery at the Paris home of the wealthy industrialist, Gaston Gourney-Martin, Guerchard detains a man he believes is Arsène Lupin . But Gourney-Martin vouches that the man is instead the Duke of Charmerace. Feeling foolish Guerchard releases Charmerace. But then the duke engages in a conversation about some valuables at Gourney-Martin’s country home. Charmerace finagles an invitation to his friend’s home for the weekend. Inspector Guerchard begins to suspect that the Duke of Charmerace may be his illusive nemesis.
In a conversation with his boss back at headquarters, Guerchard is charged with finally capturing the famous criminal mastermind. His retirement is threatened if he does not. So Guerchard works out a detailed plan to trap Arsène Lupin. This includes the use of the beautiful blonde Russian countess Sonia (Karen Morley), who is tasked with gaining Charmerace’ confidence. Thus, a battle of wits between two brilliant men begins. Who will win? I wouldn’t dare spoil the surprise!
Jack Conway, a stalwart of MGM, directed Arsène Lupin. A look at Conway’s filmography shows his success at directing many popular and entertaining films at MGM, including my personal favorites, Red-Headed Woman, Libeled Lady, Honky Tonk and Love Crazy among others. So, it’s no surprise that he keeps Arsène Lupin moving along at a brisk pace without sacrificing plot development or excitement.
Of the five films in which the Barrymore brothers appear together, I have not seen Rasputin and the Empress with their sister Ethel. So, I can’t speak for it. However, I believe Arsène Lupin allows for the most joint screen time. In their three other pictures, they rarely appear together onscreen in the same scene.
Just as Guerchard and Charmerace engage in a game of besting each other, so too do Lionel and John. If you want to see a battle of talent, then this is perhaps your best choice for doing so. The brothers appear in numerous scenes together and are often shown facing each other in profile. I must admit it gives me a little thrill to see two film legends acting against one another in such a way. Some critics have stated that Lionel’s performance was a bit bombastic and over the top. But almost all have praised John’s characterization. Whatever the prevailing opinion, no one can deny how much fun it is to watch these two together.
Though there are other film adaptations of Arsène Lupin (including a sequel starring Melvyn Douglas made six years later), it saddens me that this is the only one with the two Barrymore men. I can only imagine this would have been a very successful film series, if they had been able to continue in their roles. The adventure, the humor, the plot with its’ twists combined with their talent would have been a major draw in any further films. Thankfully, we have this one and made before the pre-code era which would have ruined the surprise twist at the end. But oh! what a loss to the world that they were never able to share the screen in quite the same way again.
This has been my contribution to the Fourth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by Crystal over at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to check out other entries on films featuring the various Barrymores (including Drew).