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George Sanders solved many mysteries in his four films as suave adventurer The Falcon. In the 1941 entry and second in the series, A Date with the Falcon, he found a kidnapped scientist and kept industrial diamonds from falling into the hands of enemy agents. The one thing he never could explain, because nobody could, was how his character got the nickname "The Falcon".
It wasn't an issue in the 1940 Michael Arlen story, "The Gay Falcon," published in Town and Country magazine. As Arlen wrote it, the rough-hewn character living just inside the law was actually named Gay Falcon. When RKO Studios bought the rights to his story, looking for a less expensive way to continue Sanders' detective series "The Saint," they changed the name to Gay Lawrence and gave the character more sophistication. In 17 films, under three different names (one for each of the three actors who played him), the character fought criminals and secret agents, almost all of whom knew his nickname, but none of whom ever explained what it meant.
Arlen had made his name with a more serious -- and scandalous -- novel called The Green Hat, that, in bowdlerized form, became a vehicle for Greta Garbo as A Woman of Affairs (1928). He never wrote any other Falcon stories, even though the studio would later advertise the films as being based on the Falcon novels. That may have been a reference to books RKO generated as a promotional tie-in with the film, including two credited to Sanders.
RKO had introduced Sanders in the role in The Gay Falcon earlier in 1941. They also had given him a wisecracking assistant (Allen Jenkins) to help with the leg work and a girlfriend (Wendy Barrie) to chase Sanders while he chased lawmakers and a series of beautiful and almost always available female witnesses, accomplices and red herrings. It was supposed to be a new series, but Leslie Charteris, author of the Saint novels on which Sanders' earlier detective series had been based, saw a few too many similarities to his work and sued (details of the actual suit have never been revealed).
For A Date with the Falcon, RKO kept the same basic team, including producer Howard Benedict, director Irving Reis and writers Lynn Root and Frank Fenton. With no more Arlen stories to draw on, they added a suspicious police inspector played by James Gleason. The personnel would change frequently in The Falcon series. Lawrence would go through a number of comic sidekicks and meddling police inspectors as actors became unavailable and the writers approached individual films differently. Wanting to get out of B movies, Sanders would give up the role after four films (he had also done five films as The Saint). His replacement in The Falcon's Brother (1942) was his off-screen brother, Tom Conway, now playing Tom Lawrence.
Although A Date with the Falcon ends with Sanders engaged to leading lady Wendy Barrie and on the way to meet her parents, she would never turn up again. After two attempts at giving Gay Lawrence a steady girlfriend, RKO would abandon the idea. Barrie, a British actress often more interested in partying than acting, left RKO after A Date with the Falcon. She had spent most of her time there in B movies, with the studio trading in on her prominent social life (at the time she was dating high profile gangster Bugsy Siegel). After floundering as a freelance actress, she would finally resurface as one of the first television talk-show stars, displaying a carefree personality that rarely had come through in her film work.
But though the Falcon films were far from the most prominent productions at RKO, they have an important place in Hollywood history. Besides serving, as most series films did, as a testing ground for young talent (including director Edward Dmytryk and actors Barbara Hale and Jane Greer) the increasingly cynical films provided a testing ground for a new genre - film noir. As Gay and Tom Lawrence's cases grew increasingly twisted, they began to reflect the paranoid attitudes to come in the post-war era. One Falcon film, 1942's The Falcon Takes Over, was even based on Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, with Gay Lawrence standing in for Philip Marlowe in what would be re-made as the seminal film noir Murder, My Sweet (1944).
Producer: Howard Benedict
Director: Irving Reis
Screenplay: Frank Fenton, Lynn Root
Based on characters created by Michael Arlen
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Alfred Herman
Music: Paul Sawtell
Cast: George Sanders (Gay Lawrence), Wendy Barrie (Helen Reed), James Gleason (Inspector Michael 'Mike' O'Hara), Allen Jenkins (Jonathan 'Goldy' Lock), Mona Maris (Rita Mara), Hans Conried (Federal Hotel Desk Clerk), Victor Kilian (Max Carlson), Elizabeth Russell (Girl on Plane).
by Frank Miller