You Ought to be on DVD: Vintage Mystery Movie Series

The era of DVDs has brought many great films and television shows to people’s home viewing. Yet there are many efforts that have not been given their due with a DVD release so they can be enjoyed by audiences. Instead they’re not shown at all or show only occasionally on certain TV channels.

The good news in recent years is that most studios have continued a slow roll out of material. Some material that’s been considered to be of commercially questionable value have been released on DVR through Archives collections which have given viewers access to such treasures as the George Sanders Saint Collection and Red Skelton’s Whistling Trilogy without committing studios to spending large amounts of money on a big run of DVDs.

However, there remain plenty of TV programs and movies that have not gotten their due with a DVD release and have thus remained obscure and hard to come by except from the sellers of bootleg DVDs.

So, in this series of posts we’ll be taking a look at some movies and television shows that deserve to be available on retail DVDs.  Our focus is on detectives and there are quite a few detective films from the golden era that are not available. The biggest contingent is the detective movie series. In the pre-Television era, these film detectives starred in “movies” that were usually between 60 and 75 minutes. The most famous of these are the Charlie Chan and the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlock Holmes films. In addition to this, Peter Lorre’s Mr. Moto films and Bonita Granville’s Nancy Drew films, have been released as well as the public domain adventures of Mr. Wong and Bulldog Drummond. The Michael Shayne films have scored partial releases have the Falcon and the Saint.  However, the mystery film series goes beyond that and there’s much missing that ought to be there.

5) Philo Vance

Series run: 1929-40, 1947

Stars: William Powell (5 films), Warren William (2 Films), Alan Curtis (2 Films), Basil Rathbone, Paul Lucas, Edmund Lowe, Grant Richards, Wilfrid Hyde-Wright, James Stephenson, William Wright

Total Films: 16

“Philo Vance needs a kick in the pants.” So concluded Ogden Nash. Many a literary critic has wondered why the arrogant and unlikable literary Vance become so popular. The answer may be that America loved the great British detectives and longed for one of stature they could call their own and Vance was the first American-based detective to be at that level.

The movies are another matter and ought to be a fun opportunity for fans, especially the Rathbone film as well as five featuring a pre-Thin Man William Powell. This series was a big step in Powell’s career, so much so that in the Thin Man Trailer, “Philo Vance” helps to introduce the new movie series.  Sadly, only one film from this series is readily available and that one escaped into the public domain.

5) Hildegard Withers

Series Run: 1932-37

Stars: Edna May Oliver (3 Films),  Zasu Pitts (2 Films), Helen Broderick

Total Films: 6

A classic series of Comedy mysteries, the first three films with Oliver are acclaimed as solid comedy mysteries featuring Boston-based spinster who finds herself involved in murder mysteries.

4) Ellery Queen

Series Run: 1940-42

Stars: Ralph Bellamy (4 films) and William Gargan (3 Films):

Total Films: 7

Ellery Queen remains one of the most recognized characters in detective fiction and the 1975 TV series is on DVD but this classic series featuring the master detective played by not one but two great actors is completely absent.

3) The Lone Wolf

Series Run: 1935, 1938-43, 1946-47, 1940

Stars: Warren William (9 films), Gerald Mohr (3 films), Melvyn Douglas, Francis Lederer, Ron Randelll

Total Films: 15

Michael Lanyard (aka The Lone Wolf), like Boston Blackie was a jewel thief turned detective. He was the lead character in several novels by Joseph Vance as well as a series of silent films.

Two isolated films in 1935 and ’38 were made before Warren William made The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt in 1939. The turn to espionage was timely and Williams would make 8 more Lone Wolf Films before 1943.  Also of interest are the three films starring Gerald Mohr (better known as the star of radio’s Philip Marlowe) released in 1946 and ’47.

In addition, I would also put a plug in here for giving a full DVD release to the 1954-55 TV series starring Louis Heyward. The 39-episode syndicated series was top notch with Heyward turning in an action-packed performance as Michael Lanyard.

2) Perry Mason

Series Run: 1934-37

Stars: Warren William (4 Films), Ricardo Cortez, Donald Woods

Before there was Raymond Burr, there was Warren William as Perry Mason hit theaters in the mid-30s. The release of these films would make a nice contrast to the more recent takes on Perry Mason.

1) Boston Blackie

Series Run: 1940-49

Star: Chester Morris (14 Films)

Morris played the character of reformed thief Boston Blackie in one of the more popular 1940s Detective film franchises that was a huge moneymaker for Columbia. Over the course of the films which ranged from 60-68 minutes in length, Boston Blackie became one of the more interesting golden era characters. We pick up the result of some of this evolution in the Boston Blackie series. That this most beloved series hasn’t been given its due on DVD is a shame and hopefully, it will be corrected.

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  10 comments for “You Ought to be on DVD: Vintage Mystery Movie Series”

  1. September 9, 2012 at 4:29 am

    DVDs have done the same thing for old movies and TV shows that CDs did for old songs and MP3 did for old radio shows. I remember reading Jim Harmon’s “The Great Radio Heroes” back about 1970 and thinking that I would never actually get a chance to hear any of those shows….

  2. September 4, 2015 at 9:43 am

    The movies related to these characters should be in the public domain. Instead, the octopus known as has wrapped it’s tentacles around theses films and selling them in box sets. They have have taken the written materials as well. In ebooks and in novels, Amazon gorges an unassuming public. The case of Hildegard Wither’s movies and books is typical. Although the author, Stuart Palmer has been dead for 47 years and the last Hilgard Wither’s movie was produced in 1935 premium prices are demanded by Amazon. Getting these products from anyone else violates copyright laws. And so the octopus is protected and the public is scammed.
    The public domain laws are outdated and offer scant protection.

  3. Yours Truly Johnny Blogger
    September 4, 2015 at 11:44 am

    Bill you’re right that our copyright laws are a mess. I wrote about this in December 2009.

    In some ways are public domain laws are becoming more up to date. The International Copyright standard is, “The Life of the Author plus 70 years.” We need better provision for orphaned works.

    However, I don’t think Amazon is the villain of the piece. First, they’re only selling the films and providing a marketplace for people to sell used version cheaper. It’s Warner Brothers who are releasing them at a high rate and Warner Brothers isn’t even the worst offender. I should watch a Boston Blackie film before I start doing the Boston Blackie radio show on the podcast, but I’m getting sticker shock at the idea of paying $20 for a single one hour movie, but needs must.

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