This post was originally intended for last weekend’s Snoopathon, a blogathon focusing on movie spies that was hosted by Movies Silently. While I’m far too late with my submission to be considered part of this blogathon, I do recommend you have a look at the more timely entries as they cover several eras both in film and subject matter. My selection isn’t very well known but it intrigued me as an early movie (1931) about a Civil War spy. I originally volunteered Secret Service for the Snoopathon because it stars the subject of several of my most recent posts, Richard Dix, but the best part of this story wound up coming well before Dix played in it.
Secret Service was an interesting experience. When I first watched it several months ago I did so ignorant of its origins and I came away unimpressed, despite the film starring one of my favorites, Richard Dix. It was only when I sat down to gather research for this piece that I learned that Secret Service had begun as a hit play first staged near the end of the nineteenth century. It had been performed all over America and Europe from the time of its debut in 1896 throughout the remainder of author and star William Gillette’s life.Though Gillette (1853-1937) became legendary through his follow-up hit, a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle approved Sherlock Holmes adaptation that Gillette both wrote and starred in, Secret Service secured its own reputation and he would perform as that play's Captain Thorne nearly 1,800 times! (Zecher 258). Despite being best remembered for bringing Holmes to the stage, it was Secret Service that was considered Gillette’s best and most important play. William Dean Howells praised it for its technique and Willa Cather called it clever. In its day--and that includes the numerous tours and revivals during Gillette’s lifetime—it seems almost universally praised.
As I became absorbed by this prehistory I soon realized that I may have missed something when I first watched the movie version starring Dix. Luckily, I had begun this digging into Secret Service’s background before viewing it again for this post and so I made the wise choice to read Gillette’s original play before watching the movie this time. As Secret Service was first published in 1896 it is in the public domain and easily accessed for online reading.
The first thing that jumped out about Gillette’s play was that it began much deeper into the action than the RKO film did. Gillette’s original opens inside the Varney household, one of just two sets used throughout the entire four-act play, after love interest Edith Varney has secured orders from Jefferson Davis naming Captain Thorne head of the Confederate telegraph office. We follow the characters of the 1931 movie for nearly thirty of its sixty-eight minutes before reaching that scene, Act I of Gillette’s play.
I was surprised that I found Secret Service enhanced on the whole by the early portion invented exclusively for the screen. It provided action and additional drama that the film would have lacked had it been more literally adapted from Gillette’s original.
The movie opens with the Dumont brothers receiving their orders from General Grant (Fred Warren). Captain Lewis Dumont’s (Richard Dix) assignment is to pose as Captain Thorne, an identity swiped by the Union from a Confederate soldier killed in action, and gain access to the Confederate telegraph office. His younger brother, Lieutenant Henry Dumont (William Post, Jr.), is to be captured by the enemy and imprisoned at Richmond from where he must somehow get a message to his brother explaining the Union point of attack. The elder Dumont, as Thorne, must then send false orders through the Confederate telegraph line in order to clear a path for the Union army to break though.
After capturing our attention with the famed personage of Grant, we then experience a bit of action dodging bullets with Dix’s Captain Thorne on his way to ingratiating himself into the Varney household. In the play Thorne begins settled in the Varney home; in the film he earns his way in by carrying injured Howard Varney (Harold Kinney) back from the battlefield.
After spending a half hour breathing life into what had been backstory in 1896, Secret Service then tosses us a curve by strictly adhering to Gillette’s original text during the remainder of the movie. Given the copious stage directions included by Gillette, this must have been quite the task. Most every word and every action seems to come from the page, including Secret Service’s most famous scene inside the telegraph office. The movie reunited many key figures from RKO’s The Public Defender, including screenwriter Bernard Schubert, director J. Walter Ruben and stars Dix and Shirley Grey, but that talent gelled better in the earlier contemporary piece than they do in this historical melodrama. For Secret Service the Schubert-Ruben team seem loathe to break away from the master’s original text and consequently the second half of Secret Service, including the climax, now feels to me as if it were actually directed by William Gillette, not J. Walter Ruben!
The famous scene comes when Thorne attempts to send through the false orders. Richard Dix and company perform their parts nearly exactly as Gillette had written them, right down to Captain Thorne’s cigar. A taste of Gillette’s writing follows, from the start of that most memorable scene of Secret Service, this action coming after (I kid you not) three-plus solid pages of stage direction without a line uttered to break Thorne’s movements:
ARRELSFORD. (L.C. covering THORNE) Drop it! (pause) Drop that gun or you’re a dead man! Drop it I say! (a moment’s pause. THORNE gradually recovers to erect position again, looking easily front, and puts revolver on the table, picking up cigar with same hand and putting it casually into his mouth as if he thought he’d have a smoke after all, instead of killing a man. He then gets handkerchief out of pocket with R. hand and gets hold of a corner of it not using his L. ARRELSFORD advances a step or two, lowering revolver, but holding it ready) Do you know why I didn’t kill you like a dog just now?
THORNE. (back of table R.C. as he twists handkerchief around his wounded hand) Because you’re such a damn bad shot.
Minus the expletive, this is how they play it. Watching the movie Gillette’s direction seems to explain why Dix stalks the set so deliberately, clinging awkwardly to his cigar and why many of his lines sound stilted, if not completely off. Now Secret Service didn’t seem so much a bad Richard Dix movie as it did an earnest attempt to stage a classic as its author had originally intended.
A key line uttered by Dix struck me as especially odd before I knew of Gillette's play. As Captain Thorne fully reveals himself to Edith Varney near the end of the movie, he explains some of the ramifications of his pursuit:
“Some of us have orders for a different kind of work. Desperate work. The hazardous schemes of a secret service. We fight our battles alone. Ten thousand to one against us. Death at every turn. If we win, we escape with our lives. If we lose, we’re dragged out and butchered. No soldiers grave. Alone. Despised. Forgotten."
The hazardous schemes of a secret service? This seemed a strange expression and the way Dix delivers the line I'm not even sure he knows what he's talking about. But returning to Gillette we see he was just trying to be faithful to the original:
“Some of us have orders for another kind of work—desperate—dare-devil work—the hazardous schemes of the Secret Service! We fight our battles alone—no comrades to cheer us on—ten thousand to one against us—death at every turn! If we win we escape with our lives—if we lose—dragged out and butchered like dogs—no soldier’s grave—not even a trench with the rest of the boys—alone—despised—forgotten!”
Dix's interpretation comes over as gentle yet certain. I used periods as punctuation in his dialogue where Gillette used dashes and exclamation points because Dix delivers his lines as if he's mourning his fellow agents who have been lost or exposed during their service. Gillette seems boastful and defiant by comparison, practically bragging of the dangers he faces. The speech works in the movie, yet it feels a bit forced or unnatural: probably because of the language, possibly because of Dix's delivery of it.
While tales of espionage and spy heroes became common during the twentieth century, that was not the case when Gillette wrote Secret Service. The history of the spy story predates Gillette, but what he accomplished with Secret Service in making his spy into the hero of his tale was then a rare feat. While Gillette had previously written and staged another Civil War play, Held by the Enemy, a Gillette biographer, Henry Zecher, remarks that it was not until the time of Secret Service, just over thirty years after the Civil War had ended, that audiences were willing to accept a character conflicted between love of country and love of a woman. Given that conflict Thorne took what I thought was the unexpected choice and did not complete his mission. The conflict then rests with the viewer, or at least it did with me. While I appreciate the difficulty of the choice Thorne had to make, the fact that our spy does not win on all counts made me somewhat uncomfortable with the resolution of the story.
The first movie adaptation of Secret Service was a silent film released just a little over eight months after the conclusion of the First World War. I’m curious as to its reception. I can’t imagine a strict adaptation playing any sooner, as an audience actually living through war and the accompanying fervor would probably have an even harder time than I did accepting Thorne's choice. That makes 1931, the time of RKO's film starring Richard Dix, seem a safer date to revive Gillette's story. Tucked between the two World Wars at a time any Civil War veteran would be well past eighty leaves me to wonder if it wasn't too safe. It’s a bit of an oddity as most war movies of the period looked back on World War I and battles not far from the memory of most viewers. Secret Service is also different in that it doesn’t choose sides or even attempt to explain what either side is fighting for beyond the details of the Dumonts specific mission. There is no instance of moralizing over slavery or even over the fracture of the Union itself. It is not a war movie.
For Gillette the entire story evolved out of the telegraph scene. Everything else was constructed around that situation and any deeper details or politics did not matter. You could trade uniforms on everyone in the cast and emerge with the same story. “I like dramatic situations and surroundings built my way best,” said Gillette, “and it spoils many a good accident of intention to bridle it with history” (Zecher 249).
Maybe that excuses any personal feelings over Thorne’s decision. He chose loyalty to Edith Varney over loyalty to nation because it made the best version of the story. All that mattered was the tension and drama surrounding the scene as it unfolded in the telegraph office and with that Gillette definitely scored. While the best executed scenes in the movie are those early scenes written specifically for the screen, there is no doubt that the most dramatic and suspenseful scene of Secret Service remains Gillette's original telegraph scene, no matter its flaws as enacted by Dix and company. In 1931 Ruben and Dix stick so close to the page that it feels old-fashioned and while Secret Service still had its fans, some critics—likely the younger ones—dubbed it old hat.After RKO’s 1931 release Secret Service disappeared for forty-five years, not to be revived until the Phoenix theater took it out of mothballs during America’s bicentennial celebration in 1976. That production, starring John Lithgow as Thorne and Meryl Streep as Edith Varney, was recorded for television and aired on PBS as part of their “Theatre in America” series in 1977. It survives on video.
As for our 1931 movie starring Richard Dix and Shirley Grey, it’s easily forgotten. I had to put a lot of effort into Secret Service to get out of it as much as I did. If I had never gone outside of the film itself I’d be left thinking this was a very strange performance from Richard Dix, who I now realize is trying to play Thorne as Thorne first appeared on the stage in 1896. Shirley Grey takes a step back from her previous work with Dix and Ruben in The Public Defender, standing out largely by virtue of her grating Southern accent. Gavin Gordon is strong during the telegraph scene, but the rest of the time I couldn’t figure out what his Arlesford was up to. It wasn’t until reading the play that I realized he was not intended as a rival romantic interest for Edith Varney, but this is somehow muddled in the movie where I wasn’t sure what his intentions towards Edith were. Clarence Muse’s part was small, but he sticks with you and is more memorable than anyone except Dix. In fact, as time passes I wouldn’t be surprised if I recalled Muse even more than the top-billed Dix.
For a film that isn’t based on any actual historical incident it sounds strange to say, but I can only recommend Secret Service for its historical value. And that value isn’t in the Civil War, it’s all in the original play, first performed just 31 years after the battles had ended.
Unlike the other Richard Dix movies I have covered the 1931 version of Secret Service has yet to have had a video release. I caught it during a recent marathon of J. Walter Ruben movies on Turner Classic Movies. All screen captures comes from my personal recording taken off of TCM.
The later version filmed in 1977 is available on DVD from Kultur video. As mentioned above William Gillette's play is public domain and can be read online for free. If you're looking for a physical copy of the book you have several choices, but as anyone can print this quality will vary.
- Zecher, Henry. William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes. Xlibris, 2011.