It’s a while since I’ve watched a ‘B’ picture from studio Hollywood so I’m not sure how representative this film is. Online research shows that there are American fans of ‘The Lone Wolf’ and that this film is for some fans one of the weakest in the series. It’s much easier to see these kinds of films on American cable channels and I can’t comment on those preferences, though I disagree with some of the comments about Ida Lupino in this film. (I’m referring to this interesting post on the film from a Warren William blog which I otherwise found very useful.)
This is the first of nine outings for the character ‘Michael Lanyard’ a.k.a. ‘The Lone Wolf’ played by Warren William, a leading man in ‘pre-code Hollywood’ who continued to be prolific in the later 1930s and 1940s but who died aged only 53 in 1948. He’d previously played in a Warner Bros. series as ‘Perry Mason’ but this Lone Wolf series came from Columbia with each film running for around 70-80 minutes. This first film has the distinction of two female leads still in the early stages of what would later become ‘A’ list careers – Ida Lupino and Rita Hayworth. Both young women were 20 at this point, but both had already appeared in several films. Lupino was second-billed to William as she had more experience in leading roles than Rita Hayworth. I don’t know much about the director, Peter Godfrey, who was British and a former actor directing only his second film. Later some directors took on more than one title in the series. Edward Dmytryk directed two of the later ones. My research suggests that there had already been other ‘Lone Wolf’ films from other studios and this story actually dates from 1914, one of the eight stories written by Louis Joseph Vance (1879-1933). IMDb suggests that there were some 20 films in all plus radio and TV series featuring ‘The Lone Wolf’. There is a suggestion that Columbia gave this a slightly higher budget to cover the salaries of Lupino and Hayworth but in the event it turned out to be one of the shortest films in the series. I wonder if there were cuts?
Michael Lanyard is an ex-saferobber who was once a kind of ‘gentleman thief’ in the mould of Raffles. He is now going straight and has been accepted in high society, so much so that he is dating the daughter of a Senator in Washington. This is Val Carson (Ida Lupino). Lanyard’s household includes a young daughter, Patricia (Virginia Weidler) and a butler Jameson (another British actor, Leonard Carey). The plot is a convoluted tale of crooks rather than ‘spies’, working for an oil millionaire who is attempting to steal the secret plans for an anti-aircraft gun. Lanyard is entrapped by a young woman, Karen (Rita Hayworth), and forced to open a safe where some of the plans are kept. The plot hinges on the plans being split into two parts, each of which is in a safe in a different location. Cue endless mini-chases as different envelopes are stolen and then taken back while The Lone Wolf is pursued by both the crooks and the police. I thought at first that it was going to work along the lines of The Thin Man and other comedy thrillers of the 1930s. The spy theme doesn’t appear to have any direct connection to the expectation of war in Europe which isn’t too surprising, though the British actors and director would presumably have been aware of events. It is certainly a ‘light’ and at times quite witty film. But Lupino is much younger than William who is twice her age. It is difficult for her character to match his sophistication (i.e. like Myrna Loy with William Powell in The Thin Man) and the script relegates her role to comic relief, much like the butler and the daughter. (The film was also released with the title The Lone Wolf’s Daughter.) I understand that the girl playing Patricia was a prolific and well-respected child actor who the next year appeared in both The Philadelphia Story and The Women, but here she is a brat for much of the film only becoming resourceful in the final sequence. Columbia must have come to the same conclusions about the casting because for the remaining eight films they cast different female leads, changed the butler and dropped the daughter.
My main concern with the film is Ida Lupino’s participation.The film came at the point when she had left Paramount and was working freelance. She must have been concerned about her income and responded to Columbia’s offer even though she was in the process of marrying Louis Hayward in November 1938 when the shoot began. In one sense it is odd in that she presumably thought of the film much as she did some of the other ‘B’ pictures that she had appeared in as a loanee from Paramount. On the other hand, the comedy element may have been attractive. The blog by Cliff Aliperti referenced above suggests that the comic elements were not there in the original stories and that Warren William brought them with him from the Perry Mason series – an intriguing suggestion as I don’t remember any comic elements (apart from a few smiles and nudges) in the books or the later Raymond Burr TV series. But then Aliperti argues that Ida Lupino can’t play comedy and he describes her performance as ‘cartoony’ and zany (while saying that he admired her performances in the early 1940s when she stepped up to ‘bigger pictures’). These are interesting comments, especially put against other commentaries on later Lupino films.
Ida Lupino was often described as ‘intense’, both in her performances and sometimes in her off-screen behaviour. At the same time she was a talented actor with an unparalleled range of performance skills learned within the Lupino family set-up. She could do comic timing and she had the skills for slapstick. Aliperti points to a piece of ‘comic business’ she does with a knife when interrogating a woman she thinks is a rival for Michael’s affections. Ida Lupino did appear in a full-blown Warner Bros. comedy, Pillow to Post (1945) in which she plays the daughter of a businessman, trying to make a contribution as a travelling salesperson and discovering how difficult it is to find accommodation in wartime – and having to share a room with a man. Several commentators attest to Lupino’s skills in pulling off this kind of farce/screwball comedy, expressing surprise that she wasn’t used more often in this kind of role. I haven’t seen Pillow to Post (her Warners films are difficult to find in the UK) but I enjoyed her performance in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt. In this mode Ida comes across as a ‘trouper’ (which I’m sure she was) willing and able to have a go. She handles a baseball bat as a weapon with as much skill as she wears a mink stole. This would be the last time Ida Lupino appeared in a B movie but the interesting trivia point is that Louis Hayward played The Lone Wolf on TV in the 1950s, by which time Ida Lupino was in her third marriage having divorced Hayward in 1945.