14 May 2007 | eschetic
A missed opportunity, but still great fun for what's there
In the 1930's, when the motion picture mystery was having a golden age and studios were sending the latest best sellers straight to film as fast as the top mystery writers could come up with new characters and scenarios, Columbia looked at the success of S.S. van Dine's Philo Vances (First National, Warner Brothers), Dashiel Hammett's Nick & Nora Charles (MGM), Earl Derr Biggers' Charlie Chans (20th Century Fox) and others building on the oft filmed legacy of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and thought they had a winning entry in Rex Stout's soon to be classic detective Nero Wolfe.
A combination of the irascible brilliance of a Holmes (even author Rex Stout speculated on the intellectual debt if not direct lineage of Wolfe to Holmes' brother Mycroft) and the hard boiled practicality of a Sam Spade with the narrative charm of a Doctor Watson in Wolfe's side-kick/assistant, Archie Goodman, how could a series based on the new characters fail? It probably shouldn't have, but in producing a relatively faithful adaptation of Stout's first Nero Wolfe novel, "Fer de Lance" (the name of a poisonous snake that figures late in the plot), they just missed the challenging tone that won Wolfe fans on the page.
The casting of character actor Edward Arnold, famed for playing outrageous incarnations of the Devil and devilish industrialists was probably a master stroke, but fearing that such an acerbic character might not win viewers, they softened the character and made him too given to "fat man jollity" and too light on the irritated "phoeys." Legman (in more ways than one) Archie followed the unfortunate studio pattern of consigning "Dr. Watson" side-kick characters to comic relief with the miscasting of fine (all too soon to be blacklisted) character actor Lionel Stander. As conceived in both the Nero Wolfe films Columbia managed, Stander's "Archie" was eager but not the skilled detective Stout had created whose own capability made Wolfe all the more brilliant in comparison.
Failings in tone which ultimately doomed the series notwithstanding (along with the failure to find a definitive Nero - Walter Connolly essayed the role in the second and final Columbia film, the 1937 LEAGUE OF FREIGHTENED MEN, based on Stout's second Wolfe novel), MEET NERO WOLFE is a highly entertaining film in its own right.
The murder on the golf course is beautifully filmed with clues clearly enough laid out the sharp viewer can have the fun of guessing ahead of Archie and Nero "whodunnit" and why. Even with too many self conscious laughs from his character, it's a pleasure to see the lighter side of Edward Arnold for a change, and while wrong for a true "Archie Goodman," Lionel Stander gives one of his best performances, and isn't quite as befuddled as Nigel Bruce's classic (but decidedly non-Sherlockian) Dr. Watson.
1936's MEET NERO WOLFE isn't the great Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodman we would eventually get from Maury Chaykin and Timmothy Hutton on TV's A&E Network, but it's solid entertainment and an interesting "might-have-been" look at what should have been one of the classic 30's mystery series in the hands of a studio more sensitive to the demands of producing a classic mystery series.