My month of Warner Archive is coming to a close and we are wrapping things up with a double feature! First up we have ARSENE LUPIN from 1932, starring Lionel and John Barrymore, followed by ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS from 1938 which stars Melvyn Douglas, Warren William, and Virginia Bruce.
In ARSENE LUPIN, Lionel Barrymore is police detective Guerchard who is called out to a robbery in progress. Once there the police chase a fleeing car only to find the passenger tied up in the backseat. The man (John Barrymore) claims to have just been robbed by the notorious Arsene Lupin, saying he is the Duke of Charmerace. Guerchard doesn’t believe this for a second and suspects that this man is in fact Arsene Lupin. However another man named Gourney-Martin (Tully Marshall) returns to the house and confirms the identity of the passenger as the Duke of Charmerace. Strangely enough the next day Guerchard finds that the shoe impressions taken from the outside of the scene of the crime are an exact match for his own shoes! Perplexed he goes to see the chief of police where he is told that if he wants to retire quietly to the country with his daughter he needs to do one last thing, and that is to catch Arsene Lupin! The police have just received a note from Lupin telling them that he will be at the Duke of Charmerace’s ball that night to take whatever he wants. Geurchard decides to go to the ball himself just to make sure that nothing goes wrong.
The Duke of Charmerace is having some issues of his own. Two bailiffs have arrived asking to collect past due bills. He manages to fob them off with drinks and food, while he returns to his ball. He sees Geurchard enter and begin talking to another male guest, who is an undercover policeman. It turns out that there are hidden police officers throughout the ball in an effort to trap Arsene Lupin should he try anything. At this point, the Duke is up in his bedroom where he has found a naked woman in his bed. The Countess Sonia Krichnoff (Karen Morley) claims that her evening gown is being mended in the other room and since she was cold, she took refuge under the covers of the Duke’s bed. After some risqué flirtation the Duke and Sonia rejoin the party and just in time for some cake. Unfortunately, as the lights are down for the cake’s arrival several ladies find that they are missing various pieces of jewelry. Sonia has lost a bracelet and she hurries to find the Duke. At this moment Guerchard’s men spring into action but Geurchard is nowhere to be found. He is a little preoccupied at the moment, being held at gunpoint by the two bailiffs upstairs who have mistaken him for Arsene Lupin. Once released by the two men, Geurchard begins the send all the guests downstairs to be questioned. However, he has a private word alone with the Countess Sonia before sending her on with the others.
Later the Duke and the Countess find themselves invited to Gourney-Martin’s home for the weekend. While there the Duke and Sonia continue their flirtations and Gourney-Martin demonstrates his new electrified safe. One morning Sonia awakes to find a real bracelet in place of her fake one from none other than Arsene Lupin. Tourney-Martin has also had a visit from Lupin, though his is far less pleasant. Lupin has left a note saying that he will come back and steal everything Tourney-Martin has because he is a war profiteer. Geurchard is called to the house at once to be there when Lupin makes his entrance. But who Arsene Lupin really? Is everyone who they appear to be?
In ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS, F.B.I. agent Steve Emerson (Warren William) is the hottest ticket item since Arsene Lupin. And that is just the problem. Every newspaper in the country has his face plastered all over it and so every criminal knows just what he looks like. His boss requests that Steve hands in his resignation and Steve does so with little hesitation. Taking on the job of private detective he goes to meet his first client and finds a room of people bound and gagged. It turns out that the Count de Grissac (John Halliday), his niece Lorraine (Virginia Bruce), and cousin George Bouchet (Monty Woolley) have been robbed. Luckily it turns out that the thief made off with a paste imitation of the famous de Grissac emerald. Steve notices a card with the signature Arsene Lupin on it, along with a bullet left behind in a wall. He hurriedly takes both pieces of evidence and then offers to return to France with the de Grissac family in an effort to help them protect the emerald. He also has become taken with Lorraine and is anxious to find more time to spend with her.
Disembarking in Paris, Lorraine and Steve are met at the dock by Lorraine’s fiancee Rene Farrand. Rene comes bearing gifts and Steve, whether from jealousy over Lorraine’s affections or actual police instinct, is immediately suspicious of the gentleman farmer. It turns out that he has reason to be suspicious as we will soon see. Two men show up at Rene’s home later that week. They are Joe Doyle (Nat Pendleton) and Alf (E.E. Clive), and they are looking for Arsene Lupin. They find him in the back taking in some target practice, because as it turns out Rene is Arsene Lupin. Joe and Alf present Rene with the day’s newspaper which is splashed with the headline ARSENE LUPIN ALIVE? They wonder if Rene is getting back in the game but they are to be disappointed. Rene is retired and he had nothing to do with the emerald or any of the other crimes being attributed to Lupin. Obviously there is a copycat at large.
Arsene Lupin is a gentleman thief and master of disguise created by Maurice LeBlanc, and featured in twenty novels and twenty-eight short stories. Lupin first appeared in Je sais tout issue number six in 1905, and has been inspiring adaptations ever since. The first Arsene Lupin movie was made in 1908 and even as recently as 2011. These two films are not the only Arsene Lupin films but they are definitely among the best. Both are well written and enjoyable caper films, each having a great cast of actors to bring the stories to life. But how do they compare to each other?
The 1938 film is often dismissed as being not as good as the 1932 film, and is usually not rated very well. I am guessing that this is because it is being compared directly to the 1932 film and not by itself. I found this film quite enjoyable and well done. The dialogue is witty and fun, the story is well plotted and moves quickly. The cast is terrific with Melvyn Douglas doing a great job as a suave ne’er do-well and Warren William is perfectly cool as the American G-Man on the hunt for Lupin, as well as love. And any time that I see Monty Wooley on-screen makes me very happy. My only quibble would be that Virginia Bruce’s character is very under-utilized, to the point that the entire “love triangle” subplot could probably be cut out without changing much of the film. However, this film is a very good example of a 1938 romantic comedy/romp and should not be so easily dismissed. I think that this is an example of a film suffering because it is considered a sort-of sequel to the 1932 version and that is a shame because it really is quite a fun movie.
That having been said there is a definite magic in the 1932 ARSENE LUPIN. Both Barrymore brothers are hitting on all cylinders, and John Barrymore especially seems to be having a ball. This film really has you guessing for a little while, wondering who is Arsene Lupin really and how will he get away with everything? The story is engaging and surprising, and the entire cast is fantastic. The character of Sonia especially deserves to be mentioned because she might just be the entire reason why this movie is in some ways superior to the 1938 version. Where the Virginia Bruce character is relegated to window dressing between Warren William and Melvyn Douglas, Karen Morley is given a much meatier role with far more impact on the film. You simply could not have this film without her character or her story. Sonia is a complex, clever, and interesting woman, and is more than capable of handling Arsene Lupin and his ruses.
I thoroughly enjoyed both of these films which are part of a double-feature from the Warner Archive. Even though I have a preference for the 1932 film, both are well worth seeing and I can recommend both. You can also see ARSENE LUPIN on Warner Archive Instant so you have no excuse not to!