I don’t dislike The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939), but it’s by no means a favorite. In fact, I’d just about prefer any of the other Warren William as Lone Wolf entries over Spy Hunt, which seems a bit odd since Columbia was supposed to have had put more into this, William’s debut effort as Michael Lanyard, a.k.a. The Lone Wolf, than it did any of his 8 subsequent appearances in the part over the next 4 years.
I’ve mentioned before my preference for the later regulars, specifically the Thurston Hall-Fred Kelsey Inspector-Detective combo over Spy Hunt’s Don Beddoe-Tom Dugan copper pairing, and especially the fantastic Eric Blore’s Jamison over Spy Hunt’s Leonard Carey who has the unenviable task of being Virginia Weidler’s playmate rather than Lanyard’s sidekick as Blore would be. Weidler’s mention raises another point, that of the extra characters in Spy Hunt, who seem poised to be series regulars yet thankfully disappear as soon as William’s next outing in The Lone Wolf Strikes (1940). Mercifully smothered to memory after Spy Hunt are Weidler as Lanyard’s mysterious daughter, Pat, and, dare I say, Ida Lupino as Val Carson, Lanyard’s youthful girlfriend, far more immature than even her sparse lifetime would lead you to expect. Lupino would almost immediately embark on a great run of dramatic roles and thankfully leave attempts at zaniness behind.
The Lone Wolf was born with publication of the book by the same name by Louis Joseph Vance in 1914. The character would be adapted to the screen as soon as 1917 when Bert Lytell played Michael Lanyard for the first of five times, a tally that places him second to only Warren William’s nine appearances as the Wolf. Henry B. Walthall, Bertram Grassby and Jack Holt would play Lanyard for the silent screen, while Thomas Meighan, Melvyn Douglas and Francis Lederer would precede William as Lanyard throughout the 1930’s. The Lone Wolf character is typically described as suave and debonair until Warren William takes him over. William injected many of the comedic elements of his Perry Mason into the character making his Lone Wolf seem more of a continuation of his earlier Mason series than it does any other actor’s version of Lanyard.
The plot of The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt revolves around plans for the Palmer Anti-Aircraft Gun which a spy ring led by Ralph Morgan and unlikely sidekick Rita Hayworth have taken great trouble to acquire at the expense of Lanyard’s framing. The picture opens with William’s character being cornered by a couple of bad guys and being shuffled off to a dark room where a shadowy figure sitting behind a desk asks Lanyard if he’d be willing to steal the Palmer plans. Lanyard declines the offer and explains that he’s not a fan of the shady fellow’s style before he’s shown out as though that were the end of the matter. The lights turn on to reveal Ralph Morgan as Gregory, the man under the shadow, which is good because if you’re familiar with Ralph Morgan then you already knew it was him when we were in the dark anyway.
With the Lone Wolf out of the way, but a few of his trademark Regis cigarettes left behind, Gregory announces his plan for framing Lanyard by way of these rare smokes. Top goon Jenks (Ben Welden) is very impressed with the plan. So Jenks and some other boys head off to steal the Palmer plans from the War Department, executing Gregory’s plans to a T; in other words, making sure to leave one of Lanyard’s cigarette butts behind at the scene.
Back at Lanyard’s place we meet trusty butler Jameson (Carey), daughter Pat (Weidler), who’s upset that Jameson won’t die properly when she’s playing with him, and soon Val, who according to Lanyard “is much too young for us. We’re an old man, Jameson.” “We’re only 35,” says Pat, which shaved ten years off William’s own age and is an inoffensive enough age difference to Lupino’s 21 that I’m left wondering if this is another incident where William demanded his character be a bit younger for vanity’s sake. The door buzzes and Inspector Thomas (Beddoe) and Sergeant Devan (Dugan) arrive to question Lanyard about his whereabouts at the time that the plans were stolen, informing him that the rare cigarette left at the crime scene has sunk him. The lawmen ask Lanyard of those Regis cigarettes are made especially for him, to which Lanyard deadpans, “for me and Carole Lombard. Have you been to see her?”
Lanyard proceeds to have an extremely civil conversation with the Inspector and Devan where he explains his alibi, a sensitive issue since it was lunch with another woman and Val is creeping around attempting to hear what Lanyard’s been up to. Lanyard explains in a whisper that he had lunch with one Marie Templeton (Helen Lynd), a meeting based on their mutual interest in antiques because Lanyard was thinking of selling some of his collection. A bizarre 18th century portrait hangs behind him as proof of his hobby. Later we’ll meet Templeton in a scene where Lupino’s Val enters full cartoon mode, spitting in her hands and rubbing them together before approaching the door with a baseball bat cocked over her shoulder in anticipation of Lanyard. Actually that meeting with Templeton might be Lupino’s funniest scene in Spy Hunt, watch the way she handles that knife!
Back to earlier shenanigans, Val creeps into Lanyard’s bathroom hoping to listen in on his conversation, but Lanyard, standing behind a dressing screen with the Inspector and Devan, discourages her advance by throwing a pair of pants over the screen as though he’s undressing to shower. Spy Hunt attempts to cash in on this set-up later when in a scene with Senator Carson (Brandon Tyson), who incidentally is also Val’s father, Lanyard undresses to take a real shower and Val springs in upon them only to scream and make a quick exit, horrified by Lanyard’s shoulder-up nudity. The Senator asks Val what she would have expected to find in a “gentleman’s bath,” to which she replies “Well, the last time he took a shower he wore his clothes. I wish he’d be more consistent.” While my description likely doesn’t help much, trust me, the joke flops.
Meanwhile the crooks discover that there are three key pages missing from the plans they lifted from the War Department so Gregory sets Karen (Hayworth) on Lanyard’s tail to try and reel him back into their clutches. She tracks Lanyard and Val to a bar where she winks her way to their table and spins a tale of a past meeting with Lanyard that he knows has never actually occurred. He’s happily kidnapped by Karen and Gregory’s thugs and this time taken physically to Palmer’s Laboratory where he’s to crack the safe and retrieve the missing portion of the plans. Not only will the cigarette butts nail him to the scene this time, but fingerprints too! Lanyard pulls a little trick on the gang which winds up with his taking possession of the missing pages while a fake set is handed off to the crooks that actually includes only a note signed “Kindest Regards, Lone Wolf.” Foiled again Gregory just takes Palmer as hostage instead.
This leads to the best, and most bizarre, scene of The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, Lanyard’s impromptu attendance at Gregory’s surrealist party. Lanyard rips some branches off a bush, stuffs a few around his shirt collar, some around his waist, and holds several more in front of him to obscure his face. He bumps into a drunk wearing a large clock who proclaims himself “Midnight” and asks what Lanyard’s supposed to be. “I’m the forest primeval,” Lanyard replies before proceeding to steal the drunk’s invitation to the party as well as his identity which helps to get him easily inside the door of Gregory’s home.
Inside the strange costumes seem more fitting to the Art Deco surroundings of a William pre-code film with one of the oddest of the bunch being the woman dressed as a bouquet of flowers. Her entire head engulfed by the bulbous floral covering, she reaches up to spread her costume apart and reveal herself to the audience as Val. She then plays a trick on Lanyard dropping a monogrammed handkerchief Lanyard had previously taken from Karen and then posing as the Rita Hayworth character herself in order to catch Lanyard misbehaving. After managing to get Lanyard to talk badly about herself, Val hits him over the head with a flower pot and pulls off her mask. Lanyard is genuinely surprised.
The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt follows the series’ pattern of Lanyard digging himself into deeper trouble with the Inspector while working to clear his name which he eventually does, typically with the police on the scene to take away the real criminals and clear Lanyard all at once. In The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt he must also overcome the meddling of Val and Pat.
Virginia Weidler, otherwise one of the best brats of the period, is terribly annoying throughout Spy Hunt seemingly adding nothing but time to the story. She does play a key role at the climax, but Ida Lupino’s character was irritating enough for me to believe she could have caused Lanyard the same troubles all by herself. One benefit to Weidler’s Pat is that she’s so wild she makes her regular babysitter, Leonard Carey’s Jameson, if not likable, at least bearable, as you’ve got to feel for the guy. You’d think the Lone Wolf kept Jameson under contract simply to keep Pat out of his hair; thankfully the series is far less domestic going forward!
Carey’s own best scene comes as he exacts revenge for a beating on Gregory’s top henchman, Jenks, with a stomp to the top of his foot. Val’s father, by this time sporting a matching bandage on his own head thanks to Jenks, admires Jameson’s tactic and repeats the treatment to Jenks on his own, much to Jameson’s great delight. It’s actually a pretty amusing scene though I can’t help but to think could have risen to completely hilarious had Eric Blore been on hand to perform it!
Rita Hayworth isn’t entirely the Rita Hayworth we know here yet, but her presence is one of the more intriguing elements of The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt. She’s so very close to becoming the huge pin-up favorite and just a few more years beyond that from reaching iconic sex symbol status that it is pretty funny in retrospect to see her paired, I’m guessing romantically, with 55-year-old Ralph Morgan here in Spy Hunt. Hayworth as Karen is not quite completely transformed, leaving you with a taste of Rita Cansino but a hint of the Hayworth that’s to come.
Warren William’s Michael Lanyard is basically Perry Mason with a rap sheet and minus the alcoholism. Despite so many familiar faces dashing across the screen it is only William and Ralph Morgan who manage to stand out in any way in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, likely because they’re each on very familiar ground with their characters.
The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt was the first American film directed by former British stage actor and director Peter Godfrey and I can’t say that it looked as though he managed to get much of anything special out of any of the performers. In fact it’s pretty obvious that I wish he’d managed to restrain a few of the key performances.
As to Warren William’s familiar turn, the Lone Wolf series had stopped and started so many times over the preceding years that if I had to guess I’d imagine that when Columbia called William, recently off his extremely disappointing deal with MGM, they simply said, we want you to come play Perry Mason for us. We can’t call it Mason, but we have a similar product you can put the Mason stamp on. We’ll even give you a Della (Val) that you can spend some time evading marriage proposals from before settling down.
Columbia’s previous Lone Wolf release, The Lone Wolf in Paris (1938), with Francis Lederer starring as the Lanyard character, was more than a recent memory when the studio signed William to play the part–in fact it was still playing in small U.S. theaters as late as February 1939 when The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt was opening across America.
The casting for the series reboot seems to have come together quickly with Columbia signing Warren William to the long term deal calling for two Lone Wolf pictures per year being reported in newspapers by November 5, 1938 and news of Ida Lupino’s being attached to the project just a few days later. In fact Louella Parsons’ November 10 column is headlined “Picture Upsets Film Marriage Plans” by one newspaper with reports that Lupino’s plans to marry Louis Hayward that Monday have been interrupted by Columbia head Harry Cohn’s calls to offer the part. Lupino would marry Hayward on November 16, but what I find more interesting is that many years later Hayward would give the long-lived character of The Lone Wolf his last bit of American exposure to date in a television series that would run for just a single season beginning in 1954. While some early reports made the mistake of claiming Lupino would play William’s daughter (sure that thrilled him!), Virginia Weidler, recently finished on Out West with the Hardys, was announced for that part by Christmas Day, 1938 in a report that also named Rita Hayworth and Ralph Morgan as cast members.
Despite the sarcasm and my dislike of many of Spy Hunt’s elements it does kick off what’s to be a successful union between William and Columbia for a few years, notably the World War II years. Each of the nine Warren William led Lone Wolf pictures provide some fun, even this one, but the latter formula proves the more entertaining mix, even if some elements didn’t remain entirely consistent over the series’ run. These nine films along with four earlier performances as Perry Mason plus two turns as Philo Vance help cement a minor legacy for Warren William as one of the classic film detectives, ironic in that this legacy seems to eclipse the superior portion of his career which took place during the pre-code era, though that trend slowly seems to be reversing itself.