John Barrymore lends his talents to this tale of a cricket player who has found a more lucrative occupation: cat burglary. Barrymore is supported by Frank “Oz” Morgan hut can the film survive all the changes that are made to the iconic character of A.J. Raffles? Looks like we are going to find out.
The Trouble with Raffles
E.W. Hornung’s A.J. Raffles was the favored antihero of late Victorian adventure. He is a gentleman crook that robs from the rich and gives to the poor. No too unusual? Well, you see, the “poor” in this case are Raffles himself and his hapless best friend, nicknamed Bunny.
In the original 1899 novel, Raffles and Bunny rob their way through fashionable English society for money and thrills. Raffles is the Sherlock Holmes of crime while Bunny is his bewildered Watson, chronicling his eccentric friend’s singular adventures. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that author E.W. Hornung was married to Arthur Conan Doyle’s sister. Hornung was not as polished an author as his famous brother-in-law but at least he knew how to twist a formula to create something new.
What’s really different about Raffles that at the end of the novel the hero/villain evades capture and lives to rob again. Obviously, such behavior was daring in a novel and it would be utterly unacceptable on the screen. Changes had to be made. Raffles had come to the screen in 1905, followed by assorted spin-offs and short films. For the first feature-length film in 1917, John Barrymore took over the role. The tale would be filmed three more times by 1939.
Anything worth saying is worth saying three times
Raffles is one of John Barrymore’s earliest extant performances and it’s difficult to imagine an actor better suited for the role. Barrymore always was at his best playing rascals and rogues and at only 35 he had the youthful vigor to make Raffles one of his best. His Raffles is much more of a Robin Hood figure. His ill-gotten gains are stolen from the corrupt and foolish and the proceeds donated to charity or used to bail out friends. Using his cover as a famous cricket player, he is about to lift a particularly delectable necklace when everything goes haywire.
A detective is on the trail of the Amateur Cracksman, a shady lady from Raffles’ past is blackmailing him and Raffles finds himself in love with his best friend’s girl. Oh and another crook is in the neighborhood trying to get that necklace.
What’s an amateur crook to do? Why, go through with the burglary, of course!
The addiction to adrenaline was one of the trademarks of the Raffles of the novels. This aspect of his character has been toned down considerably for the screen. It’s just unseemly! Robbery for the thrill of it? And for monetary gain? That would never do. Barrymore plays Raffles as a mischievous vigilante, punishing crooks that the law cannot. It may have satisfied the censors but it makes Raffles more of a cliché and much less interesting as a result.
Barrymore does what he can with the material. Raffles may be watered down but he is still an anarchic figure turning social norms on their head and having a splendid time at it. Barrymore plays his role more broadly than usual (which is pretty broad), letting the audience in on the joke.
The supporting cast is unremarkable with the exception of Frank Morgan. You probably know him as Oz, great and powerful. As Raffles’s hapless school chum, Bunny, Morgan is a charming weakling: waffling, nervous but ultimately good hearted. He holds his own against the famed Barrymore hamminess. Unfortunately, the character’s role is considerably reduced from the novels.
The film itself is set-bound and the direction is humdrum. These disadvantages may have been outweighed by the presence Barrymore and Morgan but the film has one more unfortunate problem: the intertitles. Silent movies live and die by the quality of writing in their intertitles. Unfortunately, the titles in Raffles are long, redundant, and occur entirely too frequently. No subtly is left unexplained. All conversations deserve a recap. Anything worth saying once is worth saying twice or three times more. Ten seconds without a title card? Heavens, they must be slipping.
In the end, what we have is a frustrating picture. Two very good actors doing battle against a sea of extravagant intertitles and wooden co-stars. Raffles is worth a look but it represents a wasted opportunity. But Raffles was too good a character to waste and eight years later, Hollywood was ready to try again. But that is another story. (You can read the review of the Raffles remake here.)
Where can I see it?
Grapevine Video has released a DVD double feature of both the 1917 and 1925 versions of Raffles.