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"Call me Gay," purrs George Sanders in The Gay Falcon (1941) as he flirts with a pretty young woman. Times - and language - have surely changed, for the line which now creates an unintentional laugh was certainly innocent enough in 1941: the character's name is "Gay Laurence" and he's actually quite the ladies' man.
The Gay Falcon is the first of sixteen films based on the debonair sleuth created by Michael Arlen in his 1940 short story Gay Falcon, which is also the full name Arlen gave to his character. For the movie, RKO renamed him "Gay Laurence" but kept "The Falcon" as his crime-solving moniker, even though the nickname is never explained on screen in any of the films.
The reason isn't so mysterious, however: the studio needed a nickname similar to "The Saint." Though this was the first Falcon movie, audiences had already seen Sanders play The Saint in five B films, also for RKO. Leslie Charteris, author of the Saint books, was unhappy with the way the studio had been adapting his stories - especially with Sanders' take on the character - and was making loud protests. To rid themselves of Charteris, RKO simply bought the rights to Arlen's Gay Falcon and started a new series with Sanders. There was really nothing inherently different between the Saint and the Falcon movies except the name. (Even Wendy Barrie, Sanders' co-star in The Gay Falcon, had previously appeared in three Saint films.)
RKO filmed The Gay Falcon under the working title Meet the Viking, probably to keep the project's existence secret from Charteris. When he did find out, however, he was furious. "[RKO's] promotion of The Falcon was so shamelessly liable as to allow many dull-witted audiences to think they were still getting The Saint," Charteris later told author Jon Tuska. "I brought a suit against them for unfair competition." RKO settled with Charteris out of court but managed to come out even in the end by temporarily selling distribution rights to a new Saint film, The Saint Meets the Tiger (1943), to another studio. (That film starred Hugh Sinclair as The Saint.)
Like the Saint films, the Falcons are short, satisfying diversions. Curiously, this first Falcon picture begins with The Falcon trying to leave his crime-solving ways. He has taken a job as stockbroker because his girlfriend doesn't want any more of his sleuthing nonsense, and he's bored out of his mind. Quickly enough, however, he finds himself puzzling over a scheme in which jewel thieves are operating in cahoots with society ladies to defraud insurance companies. With his goofy sidekick Goldie (Allen Jenkins), The Falcon is back in action, investigating the crime, romancing the ladies (Anne Hunter and Wendy Barrie), and in a weirdly funny quirk, ordering spinach juice wherever he goes.
As written in Arlen's original short story, The Falcon was more hard-boiled than the way he is portrayed on screen. That said, Arlen himself was a lot more like the screen version of his character: debonair and high-society. Armenian by birth, Arlen grew up in London and eventually married a countess. When he died in 1956, he was living on New York's Park Avenue. In addition to a career as a novelist, he worked for a time in the MGM story department and was credited with one produced screenplay, The Heavenly Body (1944) starring Hedy Lamarr. Arlen's novel The Green Hat was also made into two features, the first a famous Greta Garbo vehicle called A Woman of Affairs (1928).
As good as he was as The Saint and The Falcon, George Sanders did not enjoy playing these detective characters, considering them beneath his dignity. RKO let him escape after the fourth Falcon movie, The Falcon's Brother (1942), in which The Falcon is killed off only to be replaced by his brother, played by Sanders' real-life brother Tom Conway. Conway would play The Falcon in nine more pictures. (John Calvert then took on the role in three final low-budgeters produced by the poverty-row company Film Classics.)
Character actor Allen Jenkins steals the show whenever he's on screen in The Gay Falcon as a wisecracking sidekick, a role he played in movie after movie. Jenkins later said, "I was in 178 movies in which I was a stumblebum hood, but lovable. Always lovable. I was the stupid, engaging one."
Also in the cast is 53-year-old Gladys Cooper, who had long ago achieved celebrity as England's top WWI pinup girl and major stage actress of the 1920s and 30s. (She'd even published a memoir ten years earlier.) In 1940, she moved to Hollywood and started playing dignified character roles in a slew of top-drawer movies. She would quickly receive her first of three Best Supporting Actress Oscar® nominations for Now, Voyager (1942), in which she was unforgettable as Bette Davis' mother.
Variety was respectful of this film, declaring, "Director Irving Reis has made the most of the suspenseful moments and comedy situations, and the scripters' job is skillful." Of young Turhan Bey, who plays a villain in one of his earliest roles, the trade paper said he "is sadly in need of a hair trim."
Look for Hans Conried in a brief but comic turn as a police sketch artist.
Producer: Howard Benedict
Director: Irving Reis
Screenplay: Lynn Root, Frank Fenton, Michael Arlen (story)
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Film Editing: George Crone
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Paul Sawtell
Cast: George Sanders (Gay Laurence), Wendy Barrie (Helen Reed), Allen Jenkins (Jonathan G. Locke), Nina Vale (Elinor Benford), Gladys Cooper (Maxine Wood), Edward Brophy (Detective Bates).
BW-67m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold
Jon Tuska, The Detective in Hollywood
Michael R. Pitts, Famous Movie Detectives