The Solitaire Man
Cast & Crew
Determined to "go straight" and marry his attractive helpmate, Helen Heming, English jewel thief Oliver Lane, who is known in Europe as the "Solitaire Man," is dismayed when Robert Bascom, his drug-addicted cohort, presents him with a necklace stolen from the British embassy in Paris. After he convinces Robert, who also loves Helen, to give up the necklace, Oliver goes to the embassy late one night and, breaking into a safe, places the jewels inside. As soon as Oliver sneaks away, however, another man sneaks in and steals the necklace from the safe. Before the man escapes, Inspector Kenyon from Scotland Yard bursts into the room and is shot and killed by the robber. In the chaos, Oliver retrives the necklace and part of the killer's watch chain. With Helen and her mother, Mrs. Vail, who poses as a poor British aristocrat in order to sell Oliver's stolen jewels to unsuspecting Americans, Oliver heads for the Paris airport. Oliver, Helen, Mrs. Vail and Robert are joined on the Paris-to-London airplane by another man and Mrs. Hopkins, a garrulous, wealthy American on vacation with her husband Elmer. As the airplane is taking off, Mrs. Hopkins demands that the pilot stop to pick up her husband, who has arrived late at the airport. Although Oliver also is anxious to stop, the pilot is reluctant, and the other man insists that they continue. Once airborne, the man, who identifies himself as Inspector Wallace of Scotland Yard, accuses Oliver of being the Solitaire Man and demands, at gunpoint, to inspect his luggage. While Oliver calmly denies Wallace's charges, Helen and the others overpower Wallace, take his gun and handcuff him. After the group becomes aware that another plane, which Wallace claims is an official French army transport, is following them, they debate how to handle the inspector. Convinced that Wallace has the upper hand, Oliver offers to give himself up and turn over the necklace in exchange for Helen, Robert and Mrs. Vail's freedom. Although Wallace shows interest in the offer, Oliver turns off the plane's interior lights to throw off the pursuing French plane. When Oliver then questions Wallace about his presence on the flight, Wallace reveals that Robert had tipped him off about his identity. While Robert admits that he had talked with Wallace and contemplated informing on Oliver to collect a 10,000 pound reward, he denies carrying out his plan. After Robert unsuccessfully accuses Mrs. Vail of the betrayal, Wallace reminds Oliver of the evidence against him, including Robert's confession. Overwhelmed with guilt, Robert jumps from the plane to his death rather than testify against his friend. Helen then notices that Wallace is carrying a pocket watch with a broken chain, and Oliver accuses Wallace of being both a police informant and Kenyon's killer. Unable to land the plane prematurely because of fog, Oliver gives Wallace the necklace and his now empty gun with the understanding that Helen and Mrs. Vail are to be left alone. When the group finally lands in England, Inspector Harris and other policemen greet them, and a confusion of identities ensues. After Oliver insists that he is Wallace, and that Wallace is the Solitaire Man, he reveals to Harris that it was he who had signalled to the French plane by turning out the other plane's lights. Oliver then tricks Wallace into revealing himself to Harris as the jewel thief and Kenyon's killer. While trying to escape, Wallace is shot by Harris, who then accepts Mrs. Hopkins' story that Oliver is a legitimate jewelry dealer who was appraising the necklace that Wallace had tried to sell her on the plane. Thus cleared, Oliver and Helen head off to their new lives as a quiet, happily married Devonshire couple.
The Solitaire Man
In The Solitaire Man (1933), she's understandably billed second to Herbert Marshall, the British marquee idol whose buttoned-down baritone deliveries, stoicism, and overall unflappability landed him in the top rank of '30s actors. With many another actor, Marshall's understatement might have come off as blandness. With Marshall it somehow registered as gentlemanly nobility, even when he plays an international jewel thief, as he does here. His minimalist style also included little movement. This was his way of concealing the fact that he lost his right leg in combat during World War I, replacing it with an artificial limb. Few throughout his career realized this. With his slicked-back hair and bottomless poise, he was the decade's Mr. Suave.
To see him at his best and most assured, one must turn to Ernst Lubitsch's sophisticated gem, Trouble in Paradise (1932). The Solitaire Man (referring to diamonds, not the card game) is in every way, to put it softly, a minor effort. It begins promisingly, with a stolen necklace, a room in shadow, an open safe and a murdered Scotland Yard inspector. It's a case of no good deed going unpunished. Marshall's jewel thief and his accomplices (May Robson, Elizabeth Allan, Ralph Forbes) are about to retire to a Kentish manor house he just bought with their profits. But old habits die hard, and Marshall makes one more successful haul, only to be told by Allan that she won't marry him and begin a new life on a larcenous note. He must replace the necklace he stole, or their deal is off. So he does. His reward? Facing theft and murder charges.
Most of the rest takes place in the cabin of a small passenger plane flying from Paris's Le Bourget to Croydon Airport, south of London. The plane is so small that it's the co-pilot who offers the passengers refreshments. Aboard it are the jewel heist gang, Boland's rich American tourist, and a retribution-minded, gun-wielding cop (Lionel Atwill). Although the plane does not literally crash, the film nosedives, undone by the fact that the cheap-looking cabin set is claustrophobia-inducing, and the forced confinement underlines the static, talky nature of the film's source, Sam and Bella Spewack's play. For a film that promises flight and propulsion, it stalls dramatically. When one of the characters speaks of parachuting out, you long to join him.
Nor is the mystery of who killed the Scotland Yard man at all mystifying. There is one death aboard the plane and after it there can be only one candidate for guilt. What follows is not exactly a case of Boland eclipsing Marshall. Given little to do but talk at greater and greater length, Marshall seems to fade into invisibility and Boland's liveliness and gusty comic interjections rush in to fill the vacuum. So emphatically does she rescue the film that you wonder she didn't have to join the Red Cross as well as Actors' Equity to participate. While the others wring their hands or, in Marshall's case, try to exercise such wits as he can muster to wriggle out of a very tight spot, Boland tees off on the social myopia of the woman who thinks she's an empress, based on the fact that her husband is the head of the biggest bank in Peoria.
In a role that had become a stock figure ever since Mark Twain published The Innocents Abroad (1869), Boland doesn't so much work her character's indignation as register amazement that the rest of the world doesn't share her sense of entitlement. It radiates outward from her cowed husband, who desperately follows her in another plane he hired, hoping to outrun her righteous wrath. Boland played her share of snobs, but here she benefits from the fact that her character is surrounded by snobs, and she's completely oblivious to the fact that they find her boorish and provincial. A very practiced and accomplished turn from a skilled pro!
As for the rest of the largely British cast, Marshall came from and continued on to bigger and better things - Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), The Razor's Edge (1946), Duel in the Sun (1946). Atwill, the gun-wielding stranger, subsequently played a string of cops and doctors (mostly mad ones), before ending his career in Poverty Row horror quickies. Allan moved back to England in 1938 after suing MGM when Rosalind Russell got the lead role in The Citadel (1938) and Allan didn't. Australia's Robson became an even more prominent character actress than Boland, specializing in tough, feisty matrons from all levels of society. Still, Boland seems to be the only one enjoying her work in The Solitaire Man.
by Jay Carr
The Solitaire Man
The original play opened in Boston, Massachusetts, USA on 6 June 1927.
According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Philip Merivale was considered for the male lead in this film, and actress Irene Brown was replaced prior to production because the studio was unable to intercept her on a boat trip to New York. It is not known which part Irene Brown was supposed to have played. Maude Eburne was announced in Hollywood Reporter as a cast member, but the actress did not appear in the final film.