Mr. A.J. Raffles is a champion cricket player who does the odd burglary on the side. Just for sport, don’t you know, old thing? House Peters takes the lead and is supported by Hedda Hopper, among others, in an inferior remake of the 1917 Barrymore version, which itself was not perfect.
John Barrymore had tackled the oft-filmed character of “Raffles, the amateur cracksman,” in 1917. Now, it’s time to see how the cast and crew of 1925 handled the tale (home comparison is easy, since one DVD features both films). Motion pictures had changed considerably between 1917 and 1925, but you wouldn’t know it watching the later version of Raffles. The camera remains stubbornly nailed to the same spot; the sets and lighting are unimaginative; and the acting is strictly of the “woe is me” category. Director King Baggot reveals his roots in the Nickelodeon era of filmmaking.
First, a little Raffles refresher. Created by writer E.W. Hornung (brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), A.J. Raffles is a champion cricket player who fights boredom and supplements his income by robbing from the rich and giving to himself. He is assisted by his posh bestie, Bunny, who also serves as the narrator for the books.
In an earlier review of the Barrymore film, I noted that our literary antihero’s anti-social behavior was toned down for the screen. Well, this time, Raffles is even further sanitized. He is less of a burglar and more of an extremely enthusiastic supporter of charities. He steals valuables and then returns them anonymously, donating the reward to the soldier’s fund. His “victims” are so happy to get their trinkets back that they don’t even bother to press charges.
Haven’t you heard the latest fad? Robbery! Good fun for all, really. And it’s all for charity. (Which leads to all sorts of questions: Are these donations tax deductible? If so, for whom? But I digress.) The scenario takes more liberties with the source material by making Bunny into a libertine and a police informant who eventually betrays his generous friend. This is on par having Dr. Watson turn out to be the Hound of the Baskervilles. Bunny, played by Freeman Wood, is a wastrel with a gambling addiction who sponges off of the generous Raffles in order to pay off his gaming debts.
Wood’s histrionic-riddled performance is pretty bad but the infamous Hedda Hopper wins the prize for worst in show. She plays Mrs. Vidal, the dangerously jealous woman from Raffles’ past. Hopper’s acting is straight out of an Edison melodrama: mugging to the camera, eye-rolling, dramatic gestures… It’s probably a good thing for all concerned that she changed careers.
House Peters takes over the role of Raffles and while not bad, he is given little to do except smile. And even he can’t rescue the film from the painfully contrived ending. Miss Dupont as Gwendolyn also fails to impress. The rest of the cast is underwhelming.
Raffles is not a terrible movie, it’s just tedious and repetitive. Without the charisma of John Barrymore and Frank Morgan, all we are left with is a second-rate Robin Hood in a tuxedo. The overripe acting of Hedda Hopper offer some unintentional amusement but a little goes a very long way.
Raffles returned to the big screen several times more, most notably played by Ronald Colman in a 1930 film (the first sound Raffles feature) and nine years later by David Niven, and was the star of several TV efforts, the most recent being Nigel Havers in 2001’s The Gentleman Thief, but has been absent for a while now. But good antiheroes are hard to come by, and here’s hoping that Mr. Raffles will be resurrected for a new age.
Fritzi Kramer lives in California and blogs about silent movies at MoviesSilently.com. She specializes in detailed film discussions, silent movie myth-busting, video reviews and zany GIFs.