Watching 1939: Raffles (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
Raffles (1939)

Release date: 
Dec. 29, 1939

David Niven, Olivia de Havilland, Dame May Whitty, Dudley Digges, Douglas Walton, E.E. Clive, Lionel Pape, Peter Godfrey, Margaret Seddon

Samuel Goldwyn Productions

Sam Wood

Charming cricket player A. J. Raffles (Niven) leads a double life. One of an athlete who is invited into high society circles, and another as a jewel thief. Raffles steals jewels and priceless art and gives it to those who are financially in need and could benefit from the reward offered for the item. Raffles’s illegal activities complicate his relationship with his girlfriend Gwen (de Havilland), especially when her brother Bunny (Walton) runs into financial issues, and Raffles plans to steal a priceless necklace to help him out.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– David Niven was in five films released in 1939.
– Olivia de Havilland was in five films released in 1939.
– Dame May Whitty was in one film released in 1939 and three television plays, which aired on the BBC and are now considered lost.
– Dudley Digges was in one film released in 1939.
– E.E. Clive was in 11 films released in 1939.
– Douglas Walton was in five films released in 1939.
• This was Niven’s last film until 1942 due to his military service. His next film was “Spitfire,” filmed in England. “Raffles” was his last American film until 1946.
• The film was to be shot in England, but due to the outbreak of World War II, it was filmed in Hollywood instead. David Niven was enlisted in the British Army and received a 21 day grace period to complete his role before reporting for duty.

Other trivia: 
• Based on short stories about “The Amateur Cracksman” by E. W. Hornung.
• One of six films about Raffles. The other five include:
– Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1905) (Short)
– Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917)
– Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman (1925)
– Raffles (1930) starring Ronald Colman and Kay Francis
– Raffles (1958), made in Mexico
– Raffles (1975), a TV movie starring Anthony Valentine
• David Niven really did play cricket and was in the Hollywood Cricket Club.
• Working title was “Colonel Rowan of Scotland Yard
• David Niven was unhappy with his contract with Samuel Goldwyn, and Goldwyn used this film to get Niven to sign another contract. He also conspicuously had newcomer Dana Andrews photographed as Raffles to worry Niven into signing, according to “Goldwyn: A Biography” by A. Scott Berg.
• Cinematography by Gregg Toland.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
The charming society jewel thief with Robin Hood-like tendencies was nothing new to film audiences.

Simon Templar “The Saint” had been read about in Leslie Charteris’s books since 1928 and appeared on the screen in 1938. And the cricket playing jewel thief, A.J. Raffles had been in films dating back to 1905.

However, the 1939 version of E. W. Hornung’s 1889 “The Amateur Cracksman” short story collection holds some distinction – not because of the film itself, but because of the events surrounding its two leads: David Niven and Olivia de Havilland.

Both actors had been in Hollywood since 1935 and until 1939, neither felt they were being given roles that showcased their talents. Often de Havilland played a secondary, romantic role to Errol Flynn, and Niven was in bit parts.

In 1939, their careers both were on the upswing. That year, Niven received his first romantic leading role in “Bachelor Mother” and then starred in “Raffles.” While de Havilland unhappily starred in films like “Dodge City” that year, she played the role she coveted – Melanie Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind,” a role she was fighting for while making this film. de Havilland continued fighting Warner Bros. for better roles throughout the early 1940s until suing the studio in 1943.

This film also was Niven’s last Hollywood film until 1946. Germany invaded Poland during the filming of this film, setting much of the cast ill at east, particularly Niven who felt he needed to go home to England to serve his country. Niven enlisted while filming “Raffles.” He made two films during the war: 1942 and 1943, but both for the war effort and filmed in England.

“Raffles” isn’t the best film of 1939. During it’s filming, producer Samuel Goldwyn felt it was flat and lacked the spark it needed. He blamed it on the actor’s nerves due to the war.

However, it is still an extremely charming, romantic and extremely British film.

Niven plays cricket in all white, looking exceedingly handsome, and he’s even more dashing as he’s fleeing the police and takes the time to kiss de Havilland.

The role could be seen as thankless for de Havilland, as she again plays second fiddle. But I don’t think that Olivia is as much the standard girlfriend, as say, the damsel in a “Bulldog Drummond” film. Rather than just window dressing (which she certainly is in gorgeous Travis Banton costumes), de Havilland’s Gwen does have some intelligence. She figures out that Raffles is the amateur crackman that dominates the headlines.

As an added bonus to the film, it features cinematography by Gregg Toland and gorgeous costumes by Travis Banton.

Remaking a 1930 version with Ronald Colman and Kay Francis, this version of “Raffles” was the last time a Hollywood version of the story was released. In 1958, a version in Mexico was released and a British made-for-TV version aired in 1975.

Overall, “Raffles” is entertaining and runs at a brisk 72 minutes. It’s dashing, romantic and exciting – though the behind the scenes stories of Niven enlisting in the war may be more exciting.

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