My List of 12 Classic Mystery Film Series
It has become a tradition with my family to watch a classic mystery every Saturday morning while eating a larger-than-weekdays-breakfast of scrambled eggs, homemade muffins, coffee, and sometimes baked apples.
Like any normal American family we watch a little too much TV, though we still watch less than most. But what sets us apart from the majority is what we watch: a steady diet of oldies. It’s a favorite pastime of mine, answering trivia on old movies. It comes all too easy for me, which means I probably have an unhealthy interest.
Since we have started our classic mystery tradition some years ago (definitely too many to count) we have seen a good many of what old Hollywood has to offer in the way of mysteries and film noirs. I have done one of my favorite things and created a list for you. Here are 12 classic mysteries with my personal opinion. There is so much more that I could add to this list when it comes to mysteries but I want to stick to the shorter ones (almost or a little over an hour long) featuring a specific mystery solving character. I have listed my favorites first, from 1 being my favorite to 12 being my least favorite, but in each category I give them a separate rating when suitable based on four aspects, humor, action, story, and logic.
My List of 12 Classic Mystery Film Series
1. Charlie Chan (1931 – 1949)
I first heard of Charlie Chan when I saw a boxed set at Costco or Sams many years ago. Since then I have managed to get ahold of 33 out of 44 total Charlie Chan films. These films feature three different actors playing the part of the famous Chinese detective, Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters. Some of the supporting characters are Chan’s sons and daughters, as well as his driver played by Mantan Moreland, always looking to help solve the mystery but often getting into more trouble themselves. The Sidney Toler films would probably have to be my favorites since they seem to have more humorous supporting roles than the other two.
Each mystery is pretty typical of the era, what some may consider simple compared to the elaborate plots of today, but very enjoyable nonetheless. Charlie Chan’s manner is patient and full of wise old Chinese sayings. Action in these films is probably about average, I would say, nothing to startle the typical mystery format but satisfying just the same. The humor in these are usually pretty witty, especially when you have Chan’s entourage following along.
2. Sherlock Holmes (1939 – 1946)
For years I have watched Basil Rathbone as Sherlock deduct his way through one mind-boggling crime after another. I am personally proud to say that I have found all 14 films. Since I have not read the original works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I cannot say how true to character Rathbone’s version really is, though my brother, who has read Doyle’s works says he is a little more serious, I believe, than originally. This is not to say that he is liked any less in this house. I may have put him second on my list but he is probably first to many others. The mysteries are intriguing and take a mind like Sherlock’s to figure them out. However, the pompousness of Nigel Bruce in all his British character is rarely a help to Sherlock, which is, I am told, not according to the book. Granted, there are a few times when he surprises us.
I think if I had to choose a favorite film it would probably be a toss up between The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Voice of Terror. Though I really need to watch them all again before coming to a conclusion.
Action wise, these Sherlock’s would most likely rate about the same as the Charlie Chan’s, about average with a few unexpected moments of action. The humor is about average as well, just enough but not as much as some I will mention later.
3. Nancy Drew (1938 – 1939)
Bonita Granville as Nancy Drew is superb. Compared to the books, there are a few notable differences, but the four films are so good I can’t say a bad word about them. I just don’t know why they didn’t make more! With the same devious, nose-for-mystery attitude, Granville as Nancy Drew manages to find trouble in every situation and drags her boyfriend, Ted, along whether he likes it or not. To read what else I have written about this famous female sleuth, check out my post, Nancy Drew, Legendary Sleuth.
4. Bulldog Drummond (1935 – 1939)
After discovering one of these played by Ray Milland in a set of old mysteries, I set out to see if there were more. And there were! Going as far back as the early 20’s, there are a total of 23 Bulldog Drummond films. We have seen 9, the one I mentioned, 7 with John Howard as Drummond, and a spin-off called Bulldog Jack, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you want to laugh at awkward Britishness. There are others with Ron Randall and George Mohr, as well as some earlier ones with Ronald Coleman. Sadly, I can’t easily get ahold of any more but I am still on the lookout.
Bulldog Drummond is a former British officer turned detective. In the films he is referred to as ‘Captain’ and can get confused as a member of the police himself. But as usual (I say in fondness of the stereotypical tendency of movie making) though police often prefer he stay out of it, he has little difficulty in solving the case before the authorities.
I would say my rating on action would have to go up a point with Bulldog Drummond. The original novels consider him quite the “bulldog” in form and action, though the movies still have their restrictions. Humor reaches its peak however upon the entrance of his old wartime friend, Algy, played often by Reginald Denny.
5. Torchy Blane (1937 – 1939)
My mother recorded these and only later did we discover how good they are. Cheers to mom! Out of 9 we have 5, missing the first 3 with Glenda Farrell. Lola Lane plays one film as Torchy but she can’t beat Farrell, I’m sorry to say.
Torchy Blane is a hardnosed, newspaper woman with police detective for a boyfriend. The ingredients for many roucous, and devious, stories. Frankly, there are times when, in my opinion, she is too hard. For instance, the time when she and Steve, or Skipper, are about to get married but she lets a story take precendence over their relationship. Of course it always works out in the end. Gahagan, a heavy flatfoot played by Tom Kennedy in all 9 films presents the lumbering comedy while Torchy’s constantly getting the upper hand on Steve grants a generous amount of wit.
My favorite film, of those I have seen so far obviously, would probably have to be Torchy Blane in Chinatown. I always like Patrick Knowles so he is a definite plus to this film, but the mystery is a little more intriguing than the rest.
6. Perry Mason (1934 – 1937)
The only one I have seen is The Case of the Curious Bride, but that’s enough to sell me on the story. Let me advise you, Warren William is no Raymond Burr. This one has constant witty comedy, with William heading the show and his fellow colleagues — a reporter, a coroner, and you name it — add their own quips. I have seen a collection on Amazon of the rest of the early Perry Mason and am itching to get my hands on them. Although I have heard that they didn’t measure up to this one. We’ll see.
I would put action at about average and humor at the top. A definite must see!
7. Mr. Moto (1937 – 1939)
Peter Lorre as the Japanese detective is a new one for us. We only recently discovered these and I took no time in attempting to acquire the rest. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find the last film to finish off the series but I am not resigned. Having seen Peter Lorre in Arsenic and Old Lace, among other things, as a small and insignificant man, though humorous, his role as Mr. Moto was surprising. With the same measured thinking as his Chinese forerunner Charlie Chan, Moto steps up the stories with his action and disguises. You know the action films where there is no end to the falls the hero takes? Not so in Mr. Moto. He can dish it out and rarely ever has to take it.
8. Mr. Wong (1938 – 1940)
Also a fairly new addition to our mystery repertoire, Mr. Wong has been equally interesting. Seeing Boris Karloff, whom I knew best from his narrative of the Grinch, as a tall Chinese-American with the intellect of an old professor was delightful to say the least. There are 5 films where Mr. Wong is played by Boris Karloff. However, when he died, the creators tried something new with The Phantom of Chinatown by casting Keye Luke, a former Charlie Chan son, as the new detective. It would have been interesting to see where this went since Luke was an amusing character from the Chan’s but apparently the public was done with Mr. Wong.
Like the Torchy’s, supporting roles played by Grant Withers and Marjorie Reynolds as police captain, Street, and female newshound, Bobbie, add a special touch to the otherwise organized Mr. Wong stories.
While watching these we discovered that the third film, Mr. Wong in Chinatown, was remade 8 years later as a Charlie Chan with Roland Winters called The Chinese Ring. Hardly anything was changed, even the roles of Captain Street and Bobbie. Granted, the characters of Tommy Chan and Birmingham Brown added their typical amusing touch.
9. The Lone Wolf (1939 – 1943)
The Lone Wolf is a bit of change from the detective stories I’ve mentioned before in that he is a former jewel thief. The police are constantly trying to pin a new rap on him, even though he has been clean for quite a while. Because of his past, however, he is often thrown into compromising situations and must solve the mystery to prove himself innocent.
Warren William plays 9 Lone Wolf films, only 5 of which we have seen, while various other actors play the role making a total of 24 Lone Wolf films. William as the Lone Wolf is kind of like William as Perry Mason, quick with the quips, the girls, and the mysteries. I’d rate it about average in action and story, but give it, like the Perry Mason’s, an added point for humor.
10. The Shadow (1937 – 1946)
Our latest discovery is the Shadow films. The first one we watched featured Rod La Rocque as the Shadow and I wasn’t impressed. We watched the second with him as well and my opinion hadn’t improved. I decided to give the next one a chance however since the Shadow was played by another actor, Kane Richmond. I’m glad I did because Richmond changed up the story generously.
The Shadow is an early day super hero by the name of Lamont Cranston. He’s the nephew of the commissioner who (surprise, surprise) aggravates the police captain by his interest in crime solving. Little does the commissioner and police captain know that he is the masked hero that has revealed the answer to many a difficult mystery. Cranston is followed around by his secretary/fiance and his hired man who for a change know all about his secret. I really like the fact that he doesn’t have to hide his identity with his fiance like so many other stories would have it. It makes things a little less complicated. Well, in some ways. The interaction between the main characters is full of sly jokes and witty quips as well making these on par with Warren William’s portrayals of Perry Mason and the Lone Wolf.
11. Ellery Queen (1935 – 1942)
Queen is a mystery writer who solves crimes with the help of his secretary, Nikki Porter. I was surprised when I first discovered Ralph Bellamy playing the role of detective. In the early films, Bellamy is usually anything but smart. For instance, his role in That Awful Truth with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant was one of a naive cattle rancher. His intellect is a bit sharper as Ellery Queen but honestly, I don’t think he could have done it without Margaret Lindsay as Nikki Porter.
These were amusing and I would definitely watch them again, only I feel Bellamy’s character was a little harsh at times, and even sometimes reminiscent of his former flightiness. In my opinion, Nikki Porter was the real detective, even if she got herself into a few messes now and then.
On the other hand, the first one we watched was with Donald Cook called The Spanish Cape Mystery and it deserves an entirely different rating. Cook is intelligent as well as patient with the dunder-headed police force, while wasting no time in flirting with the pretty, prime suspect. He is quick-witted and casually smart, a definite good watch.
12. Michael Shayne (1940 – 1946)
I am not sure I should comment on this one yet. I have only seen one Michael Shayne, Dressed to Kill, and although the mystery was compelling and the supporting characters amusing, Shayne himself was hard. I especially didn’t like the slur against marriage. He’s all set to marry a girl that seems nice, but she ends up running off with someone else for a trivial reason and he claims in the end he’s happier single. Kind of demoralizing for the time. There are 12 films in all, with Lloyd Nolan playing as the private detective in 7 of them. I will definitely give the rest a try as soon as I can get my hands on them, but until then, I’m afraid Shayne will remain at the bottom of my long list of classic mysteries.
And that does it. If you read all of that then you have my hearty thanks. If you have watched and are familiar with all that I spoke of, you have my admiration. I know a lot of people don’t cherish the old films anymore, which is really sad, and thus I have written a lengthy post on a topic that interests a growing minority. But you know me! I can spend forever talking about old movies and making lists of my favorites.
I’m thinking of doing a list of the best classic TV shows next. What do you think?
Thanks for reading! Please feel free to ask questions and don’t hesitate to recommend any I missed!