This prequel to the author’s Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood (2010), reviewed in MS #116, meets the high standard of that informative and entertaining volume. Twenty-two film series are covered, ranging from the famous (Philo Vance, Bulldog Drummond, Charlie Chan [75 pages!], Nick and Nora Charles, Perry Mason, Mr. Moto, Nancy Drew) to the forgotten (Alan O’Connor and Bobbie Reynolds, Joel and Gerda Sloane, Barney Callahan), with biographical notes on principal actors and writers, plot summaries with comparisons to print sources, and refreshingly demanding critical assessments. Full credits are not provided but are easily available elsewhere. Ron Backer is sometimes wrong: he finds the Hildegarde Withers novels inferior to the movies and misses an important plotting flaw in the justly celebrated The Kennel Murder Case. But he is more often right, championing The Case of the Howling Dog and The Case of the Stuttering Bishop as the best of the 1930s Masons, celebrating the quality of Charlie Chan at the Racetrack, and discouraging fans of the 1930s Chans from moving on to the poverty-row Monogram productions of the 1940s. In his discussion of the Thin Man series, he doesn’t have the advantage of comparing the second and third films with Hammett’s screen treatments, unpublished until late this year in Return of the Thin Man (Mysterious Press).
Some rare factual errors: Eugene Pallette’s year of birth was 1889, not 1899; Archer Coe’s brother in Kennel was named Brisbane, not Sebastian (thanks for a fine Olympics, Lord Coe); and a reference to author Ben Ames should be Ben Ames Williams. Some oddities: Backer repeatedly uses an annoying grammatical redundancy represented in the phrase “a number of excellent performances in addition to that of Lowe’s” (either “Lowe’s” or “that of Lowe” will do), and his incessant references to the pulchritude of female cast members may irritate some readers.