Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…
Arsène Lupin (1932)
A detective is tasked to capture an elusive thief called Arsène Lupin. Starring John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Karen Morley, John Miljan, and Tully Marshall. Screenplay by Carey Wilson. Dialogue by Lenore Coffee and Bayard Veiller. Based on the play by Maurice Le Blanc and Francis de Croisset. Directed by Jack Conway. Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
“Arsène Lupin starts out with a robbery at the home of Parisian millionaire Gourney Martin. Lead policeman Guerchard (Lionel Barrymore) arrives on the scene with his men. When they stop a fleeing car, they discover the passenger tied up and claiming to have been robbed. Guerchard is suspicious, believing the man (John Barrymore) to be Arsène Lupin even though the man says he is the Duke of Charmerace. Guerchard handcuffs the passenger and is about to take him to jail when Gourney-Martin identifies the suspect as the real duke, just as he claims. Guerchard, forced to free the man, is humiliated. Luckily, the robbery was not a success because, as Gourney-Martin explains, none of his valuables was in his Paris home; they were actually at his country estate. Perhaps Gourney-Martin should not have been so quick to disclose that information in front of the Duke, who still seems to be acting suspiciously.
“The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game between [the Duke, a.k.a.] Lupin and Guerchard, with Lupin usually having the upper hand. Lupin notifies Guerchard that he will be at the duke’s ball that night, and, in fact, while there, steals jewels from under Guerchard’s nose. Later, Lupin steals valuables from Gourney-Martin’s estate and the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. Guerchard’s main tactical response is to force a beautiful young criminal, Sonia (Karen Morley), to go undercover and keep an eye on the duke. When Sonia falls in love with Lupin, that scheme of Guerchard’s goes haywire, as do most of his other plans. In the end, though, Guerchard finally has some success and arrests Lupin. But will Guerchard ever get him to jail?” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of Ron Backer’s Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood.)
There are spoilers in the above synopsis and there will be spoilers below in my commentary. For starters, you have to know that of the two Barrymore brothers — appearing in their first film together — it’s the top-billed leading man, John, who gets to be the eponymous Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief of 1900s French literature. Although the film would like to keep that truth in doubt by incriminating — at several points — the other Barrymore (playing a copper), it becomes clearer and clearer, like an image coming into focus, that our initial intuition is correct. (But of course the starriest attraction is going to be playing the classic character.) And indeed, by the end of the second act, it expects that we’ve pieced this all together, sans any big AHA! revelation, for in an apparent deviation from the source material, the setting shifts back to Paris where Lupin plans the biggest heist of his career — stealing the Mona Lisa — in exchange for the freedom of his criminal underlings. By then, the Duke is openly the crook, and after having sufficiently come to care for him, that delectable Pre-Code thing has happened: we’re rooting for the guy that, in any other era, would be the villain.
There are several reasons that the film makes us root for Lupin — the first of which is textual: he’s poor and he steals from the rich who’ve cheated and/or made money off the backs of the poor. Though he’s an outlaw committing crimes, he has a code and only goes after those who’ve profited unduly at the expense of people like him. Then there’s the star. In his first M-G-M film, Barrymore is perhaps at his most charming — even more than he is as the less gentlemanly, but similarly complex Baron in Grand Hotel (1932) — and his virile masculinity blends well with the upperclass airs that come both from character and actor. In other words, he’s definitely a man of the Pre-Code era. (Also, it helps that the screenplay doesn’t permit him the chance to chew scenery — he has to keep his figurative cards close to his vest, and this benefits his performance tremendously.) And when a man of the Pre-Code era meets a woman of the Pre-Code era, well, some electric and decidedly Pre-Code things occur.
Here, the lady in question is Karen Morley, an ingenue best known today for Scarface (1932). Her mannered sophistication as a con-woman masquerading as a Russian general’s daughter is cooly sexy, especially when in flirtatious rapport with the debonair John Barrymore, whom she’s been hired to catch. (And catch him she does.) Much has been written in Pre-Code literature about their first scene together, in which he discovers her naked in his bed, and it’s probably the highlight of the picture — the first time the cat-and-mouse game between the men comes to a halt and gives way to something more pleasurable, and about which films were being much more frank: sex… And yet, while there’s innuendo galore, there’s also a frothy European quality to their dynamic that keeps things light and bubbly — like champagne — and not salacious, as sex can sometimes be in this era’s dramas. The scene is indelible, but their banter extends beyond it, peppering the rest of the text. As a second-tier leading lady, Morley’s capable of surprising the audience, and with Barrymore at his most magnetic, calling their interplay the picture’s primo enticement, especially for Pre-Code fans, is an understatement.
However, the more historically interesting element is the same thing that gives the narrative its engine: the back-and-forth between the cop and the duke — the Barrymores. The brothers also share great chemistry and with the screenplay’s decision to cloud the obvious identity of Arsène Lupin — even though the picture isn’t really about which one is Lupin; it’s instead more concerned with how the cat will finally catch the mouse — there’s a certain sexuality to their scenes, too… No, nothing lewd like that, but an excitement born of ambiguity, and the fact that this pair obviously has a familiarity that extends beyond the screen. In some ways, the film capitalizes upon their bond and uses it knowingly — often for the sake of comedy — but because the script is rather plaintive in its plotting, with the ambiguity stemming more from how the film seeks to manipulate the viewers, rather than any real uncertainty within the narrative itself or what’s happening, I don’t think it fully commits to the moral relativity that’s otherwise suggested by Lupin and the source material’s premise. And with that Pre-Codian sensibility deferential to the story (and the stars), I’m not sure it’s a great example of the era itself. Yes, it’s a good movie from the era — with definitive Pre-Code moments — but there are better embodiments of the time. So, I recommend you see it… if only for the stars, for the fun.
Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more sitcom fun!