Here’s a Warren William title that I liked a lot more than I had remembered. I had previously written kindly about it but for some reason Arsene Lupin Returns (1938) had more recently brought a negative reaction from me. I had been wrong. The movie really is quite entertaining and a nice showcase for Warren William all at once!
Warren isn’t playing Arsene Lupin of the title. He’s actually not even top billed in this MGM sequel to their earlier Arsene Lupin (1932). I say sequel, but it’s a very loose sequel at best. Beyond the name all that ties the two films together is the fact that this one specifically recalls the legend of Lupin’s final appearance as played out in the earlier movie.
In that first Arsene Lupin Detective Guerchard (Lionel Barrymore) allowed the Lupin character (John Barrymore) to escape at the very end of the movie. Bound by handcuffs Lupin rushes out of Guerchard’s car and leaps off the side of a bridge to the river below. Guerchard gives chase but fires four shots into the air to allow Lupin to escape. In the final scene Lupin is shown buying a wedding ring for the woman he fell in love with (Karen Morley) and who is conveniently discarded for Arsene Lupin Returns.
So had Warren William been cast as Arsene Lupin in this movie he would have directly been taking over a part for the man he had been compared to for so long, John Barrymore. Instead, the duties of Lupin fall to top billed Melvyn Douglas while Warren, in his third film under contract to MGM, more or less takes Perry Mason out of mothballs to play American G-man turned insurance company P.I. Steve Emerson.
Warren and Melvyn Douglas may as well have been billed side by side in Arsene Lupin Returns. Cordial adversaries throughout most of the film each character seems to be given equal consideration the entire time. Virginia Bruce plays Lorraine De Grissac, Lupin’s girl though she knows the retired master thief as everyone else now does: As independently wealthy farmer Rene Farrand. Warren’s Emerson playfully flirts with Lorraine throughout Arsene Lupin Returns, but everybody, including Emerson, realizes that Lorraine is attached to Ferrand.
Arsene Lupin Returns opens as a showcase for Warren William. A montage of his crime heroics pass before Warren’s Emerson enters the Department of Criminal Investigation where he’s flocked by reporters. “Here we go, eight columns of nothing to say,” says one of the reporters to another after Emerson initially declines the opportunity to deliver a scoop. Emerson easily relents and breaks the story that he’s chosen to resign to take a sweet $20,000 per year offer with an insurance underwriters company. He confidently heads into his Chief’s office to break the news.
When Steve enters the Chief (Jonathan Hale) greets him by cutting him off and telling him how much everyone has appreciated all of his fine work over the years. “Right back at ya,” says our man Warren.
Before he is able to resign the Chief bursts Emerson’s optimism–just a bit–by requesting his resignation.
Steve’s work is fine, but his penchant for press coverage is not. Every crook knows what he looks like because he’s a regular in the papers and he has managed to show up in more newsreels than even the President. Steve takes this medicine but quickly recovers his confidence once he is back with the men of the press. “Boys, my motto is, opportunity knocks once, your friends knock all of the time.” He yucks it up as he leaves them behind.
“Reticent sort of guy,” one of the journalists says.
“Yeah, he’s got a lot of Sphinx in him,” replies another.
Off to his job for the insurance underwriters Steve pays a visit to the De Grissacs, who are visiting New York with hopes of selling their De Grissac Emerald.
He finds the three visitors bound, gagged and squirming on the floor of their hotel room. Gentleman that he is Steve first unties Lorraine (Virginia Bruce) and then her uncle (John Halladay) and cousin (Monty Woolley). It turns out the the emeralds that were stolen were fakes. Lorraine has the real ones safe and sound. This is not the only time that the crook will be confused over the authenticity of the valuable De Grissac Emerald.
As Emerson unties Georges Bouchet (Woolley) he notices a card on the floor. He picks it and pockets it quickly after reading the signature upon it: Arsene Lupin.
Emerson ships back to Europe with the De Grissacs and the emerald, his services theirs for the final eight days of insurance coverage remaining on the $250,000 necklace. Upon arriving they are met at their boat by Farrand (Douglas), who greets Lorraine with an armload of puppies that are soon loaded up into Warren’s arms.
Throughout Arsene Lupin Returns the De Grissac emerald winds up moving around quite a bit, with Arsene Lupin’s signature left behind every time it is illegally lifted.
The identity of this mystery man is made clear to the viewer as soon as his old underlings arrive, Joe Doyle (Nat Pendleton) and Alf Landon (E.E. Clive). Yet while we are sure that Melvyn Douglas is Lupin we are also aware that he is not the thief. Somebody is posing as Arsene Lupin which is threatening to expose Douglas’ Farrand who swears to his old friends that he has remained honest since the day he left them for retirement.
On the case is the Prefect of Police (George Zucco) who suspects everybody. Including Steve Emerson. “In some countries when the police have an unsolved crime, they blame a foreigner.”
The more I dwell on Arsene Lupin Returns the more I’m impressed by the deep cast. Douglas, Bruce and Warren are the leads but the long list of familiar faces also includes Halliday, Woolley, Pendleton and Clive, Zucco, and briefly Hale. Plus Vladimir Sokoloff and Tully Marshall in small but important parts. The mystery is very well done, especially since we’re convinced of Douglas’ innocence throughout, but upon a second viewing it may become more obvious that one of those names mentioned above disappears for a rather long stretch of the movie. As though we’re supposed to forget about the person in question.
The three main characters, played by Melvyn Douglas, Virginia Bruce and Warren William, have magnificent chemistry together. Warren flirts with Bruce throughout while Douglas offers light resistance to his presence. It what will likely be either your favorite or least favorite scene of the movie, Warren’s Emerson serves the couple drinks, a third glass on the tray reserved for himself. He isn’t going anywhere. He asks Farrand if he knows any tricks. In return Farrand asks, “Could you put a handkerchief over your head and make yourself disappear?”
Thus begins the manly competition for Lorraine’s affection, though with more going on below the surface.
Warren does a handstand against the wall to which Douglas responds to with a card trick. “Any, uh, telephone books about?” Warren asks and proceeds to tear a thick book in half with his bare hands. Not to be outdone Douglas shows off his sleight of hand with a disappearing coin trick that is pretty obviously engineered by a set of experienced hands not belonging to Melvyn Douglas. As ridiculous as this brand of sparring over the beautiful Virginia Bruce may seem, that sleight of hand is recalled to mind later in the movie. The men were showing off their skill sets to each other as much as to Bruce.
As this is going on Warren is all at once charming and childish as he says, “Anything he can do, I can do.” Douglas responds, “But hardly with my finesse.”
That would seem to be the difference between the Warren William and Melvyn Douglas characters of Arsene Lupin Returns, but as the film plays out we find that most of Warren’s brashness is a cover that helps him go about his master detective work with less suspicion. He’s all business as the movie winds down, surprising even the Douglas character who says, “You haven’t exactly been idle, have you Mr. Emerson?” The compliment is returned as the case is solved.
Arsene Lupin Returns, like its predecessor starring the Barrymores, was based upon the Lupin character as originally created by Maurice Leblanc in his 1907 book Arsene Lupin. According to the Hollywood Reporter MGM planned on this sequel as early as 1936 with William Powell playing the Douglas role and Spencer Tracy in Warren’s part. Later they added Myrna Loy to the planned cast, presumably as Lorraine De Grissac, but then replaced Powell with Robert Montgomery.
It sounds like MGM originally had big plans for Arsene Lupin Returns!
Paris born George Fitzmaurice directed (mostly) French-set Arsene Lupin Returns. Filmed at Culver City, of course.
Fitzmaurice had been at it a long time by 1937, his career having begun with silent films in the mid-1910’s and in more recent times included work on titles such as early crime-talkie Raffles (1930) and even more recently Suzy (1936) with Jean Harlow and The Emperor’s Candlesticks with William Powell and Luise Rainer. He would only work on two additional films after Arsene Lupin Returns before his death in 1940.
Fitzmaurice had also worked on Nana (1934), notorious for its failure to make another Garbo out of Anna Sten, but more relevant here for its having originally included Warren William in the cast. Sam Goldwyn had borrowed Warren from Warner Brothers at the time but Warner’s demanded his return after Goldwyn kept Warren for too long. According to the Hollywood Reporter the incident caused a rather nasty rift between Goldwyn and Warner Brothers. Fitzmaurice was soon fired from that troubled project which was then taken over by Dorothy Arzner and begun again from scratch with Lionel Atwill recast in Warren’s former role.
While Arsene Lupin Returns doesn’t rank with Warren William’s earlier pre-code era work it is equal to his better remembered Perry Mason and Lone Wolf movies. It is also his most enjoyable appearance in an MGM movie from his brief time under contract to them in 1937-38. Up next for Warren at that same studio would be another teaming with Virginia Bruce, this time with their almost co-star of Lupin Returns, Robert Montgomery, in The First Hundred Years (1938).