A.J. Raffles, created by E.W. Hornung in 1898, was sort of like Batman in reverse – an amateur who used his skills for bad instead of good. By day, he’s a suave English gentleman and a skilled cricket player. At night, he’s the best jewel thief in London.
The most famous Raffles story, which was the plot for the 1906 play, starts with him deciding to put the life of crime behind him. However, when his friend Bunny tells him that he’s gambled away £1,000 he doesn’t have, Raffles decides to steal a necklace owned by one of the wealthy lady socialites he knows. Someone else is planning on stealing the same necklace on the same night, though and that forces Raffles to improvise.
Universal actually filmed the play twice during the silent days, including one film that featured John Barrymore in the title role. Samuel Goldwyn acquired the rights and made the first sound version in 1930, with Ronald Colman as Raffles. Nine years later, he made it again, with David Niven starring. The Goldwyn sound versions both run barely over 70 minutes and were released by Warner Archive in 2014 on one DVD.
The Colman version is much more enjoyable. In this one, his romantic interest is played by Kay Francis and she’s the daughter of the rich woman he plans to rob. It was made before the production code was enforced and, while it doesn’t have some of the overly risque tones that most pre-code movies are famous for, it does have an obviously pre-code finale.
The Niven version feels a bit pointless, even if it does have Sam Wood (Kitty Foyle, The Pride of the Yankees) at the helm. Sadly, it uses the same Sidney Howard script as its basis, so the plot is exactly the same, save for a few minor details. Here, his lady love is actually Bunny’s sister. Olivia De Havilland does make it worth sitting through, since she’s very good in her few scenes.
But seeing Niven repeat the same dialog Colman gave nine years earlier makes you wonder what the point was. Why not give Niven a new Raffles story to play with? Didn’t Hornung write other stories? On top of that, a post-code ending had to be tagged on, with Raffles agreeing to turn himself in. Ugh…way to spoil the fun!
Sadly, both films have seen better days. They look like they were ripped from a VHS tape, although the 1930 version looks better than the ’39 one strangely. Since the two films are a combined 143 minutes, there’s no room for trailers on the disc.