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A’s and B’s

by Shawn Stone on October 6, 2011

The term “B picture” means something quite different today, but in the heyday of the studio system it meant a feature running less than 90 minutes, in a popular genre, made to fill the lower half of a double-bill with an “A” picture. “Bs” were economically produced, but these thrillers, comedies and melodramas and weren’t “cheap.” They were made with the same technical skill on the same soundstages—often the same sets—as the “major motion pictures” the studios were most invested in.

Sometimes “Bs” featured actors who spent most of their time in supporting roles in “As,” like Peter Lorre as Fox’s Mr. Moto. Sometimes they starred former “A” picture stars who had drifted down the Hollywood hierarchy, like 1929 Best Actor Oscar winner Warner Baxter in the 1940s Crime Doctor series, or Warren William as Michael Lanyard, a retired jewel thief who solved mysteries as the Lone Wolf in nine movies in the late ’30s and early ’40s.

William was a superstar for two and one-half years, from late 1931 through the end of 1934. (He’s been a cult hero since the’80s, when Ted Turner started his cable channels.) Whether a lawyer, captain of industry or con man, William was a badass with a patrician profile and perfect diction. He steamrolled anyone in his path, and had his way with plenty of “dames.” Audiences in the depths of the Depression loved him. He received the ultimate imprimatur of success, a lead in a Cecil B. DeMille epic as Caesar to Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra. Then the censorship returned in 1934, the Depression eased and William’s well-dressed buccaneer was suddenly out of bounds and style.

Warren William, destroyer of worlds, was relegated to supporting Jeanette MacDonald and Tyrone Power in “As.” More fruitful were his starring roles in two “B” series, first as Perry Mason for Warner Bros. and then as the Lone Wolf at Columbia Pictures. Sony’s manufactured-on-demand DVD-R service Screen Classics By Request (which distributes through Warner Archive) has just issued a couple of these Lone Wolf thrillers, and they’re very good.

Counter-Espionage and Passport to Suez were William’s last as the character, and outliers in the series in that they traded a high-society milieu for a wartime setting. (Everyone pitched in to defeat the Axis in World War II, especially slippery ex-crooks.) Counter-Espionage finds the Lone Wolf and his butler Jameson (Eric Blore, who specialized in comical servants) in London during the blitz, working for the British secret service. The mystery isn’t much, but the wartime atmosphere is convincing. Director Edward Dmytryk, at the start of his long career, dawdles with characters we like (silent-era comics Clyde Cook as a chestnut vendor and Billy Bevan as a Cockney fire warden) and dispenses quickly with those we don’t.

Passport to Suez is even better. It’s set in Egypt at the height of the African campaign, but the key reference point is Casablanca. Like the big-budget Oscar winner, Passport offers up a mélange of shifty characters, including a murderous trio of spies named for painters (Rembrandt, Cezanne, Whistler), a femme fatale, and a Bogart-styled club owner played by Sheldon Leonard with surprising nuance and emotion. William glides through it all, insulting the Brits and outthinking the Nazis. Director Andre De Toth is the real star, though; the opening shot, which sweeps us into a Casablanca-esque nightclub, dazzles; it isn’t until our second visit that we realize how underwhelming the nightclub set actually is. De Toth keeps the tension high while nicely distracting us from the (obvious) identity of the villain.

The transfers are crisp, and the source material generally well-preserved. My only gripe is the price: $19.99 each? I don’t think Columbia spent $19.99 on the wardrobe of any actor in either of these smart “Bs.”