Watching a Detective: Tailing Lloyd Nolan

Mike Shayne, Private Detective

Some people you just know backwards. You know the last of them first and then, like a detective, you work backwards to piece together the life they lived, the life you missed. Such is the case for me with Lloyd Nolan.

Lloyd NolanGrowing up, I knew the San Francisco-born actor as Dianne Carroll's crusty but benign boss on the NBC series Julia, from the disturbing 1973 TV movie Isn’t It Shocking? (a geriatric murder mystery also featuring Edmund O’Brien, Will Geer and Ruth Gordon) and from various disaster movies – Airport (1969), Earthquake (1974), Fire! (1977) and Flight to Holocaust (1977) – in which he seemed to play the same engineer called in to help the heroes sort things out. He seemed ancient to me. On Julia, he was pushing 70, white haired, turkey necked. His voice quavered a bit. Back then, I hadn’t the slightest suspicion of how cool I’d find this actor twenty years after his death.

I’ve been brushing up on my Lloyd Nolan lately, after a chance viewing of a few minutes of Johnny Apollo (1940) on American Movie Classics. Nolan would have been 38 then. I only saw a couple of scenes but his performance was a revelation. Loose-limbed and amiable as gangster Mickey Dwyer, Nolan steals the show from the combined forces of Tyrone Power, Dorothy Lamour and Marc Lawrence (cast as a minor gunsel – go figure). Looking sharp in a black suit and keeping up a breathless line of patter, Nolan blithely uses a meat cleaver1 to hack the lock off of the icebox door to get a piece of steak for Power’s black eye. It’s a brilliant bit of business and all at once I felt a sense of mourning for an actor who has been dead since 1985. In that moment, Nolan’s last performance, as Mia Farrow’s actor father in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), became doubly poignant (his unsteady but heartfelt rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”) and triply funny (“Two drinks and she turns into Joan Collins” – I’m quoting from memory.)

Michael Shayne MusteriesNew out as a deluxe DVD box set from 20th Century Fox are some of the Michael Shayne mysteries Nolan did for the studio starting in 1940. On the side of law and order this time (as long as there’s a profit in it), Mike Shayne is a good fit for the actor. Michael Shayne, Private Detective (1940) is a fine introduction to the character (a helluva departure from the gumshoe as-written by Brett Halliday) but not the most satisfying as far as whodunits go. The series got better as it went along, with the fifth entry, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die (1942), being a highpoint: Nolan enters this singing an Irish ditty and involving himself in some haunted house shenanigans in the company of Owin Howland and a very young Jeff Corey. Not part of this box set is Dressed to Kill (1941 – not to be confused with the 1946 Sherlock Holmes mystery or 1980 Brian DePalma transvestite slasher film of the same name), a fun backstage whodunit with William Demerest, Henry Daniel and Mantan Moreland along for the bumpy ride.  The fourth entry in Warners Mike Shayne series is for some reason available as a  no-frills single disc from 20th Century Fox.

G Men

Also out on DVD is Nolan’s cinema debut, in “G” Men (1935), with James Cagney and Robert Armstrong. Nolan plays Hugh Farrell, an FBI agent so good natured and friendly that you just know he’s doomed. Still, he makes the most of his early scenes, teaching Cagney ju-jitsu and taking a team to capture dapper gangster Edward Pawley, whose bowler hat conceals a .45 snub-nosed. Nolan goes down in a hail of gunfire in a scene patterned after the Kansas City Massacre and his presence is missed through the rest of the movie, as intended.2

House on 92nd Street

My investigation of Lloyd Nolan has scarcely begun and you can bet I’ll be reporting back. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. While Johnny Apollo remains criminally unavailable on DVD at this time a number of Nolan’s 1940s crime pictures are on the market: The House on 92nd Street (1945), Somewhere in the Night (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), The Street With No Name (1948) and The Girl Hunters (1966), with Mickey Spillaine as Mike Hammer. I’m also looking forward to Bataan (1943), The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) and Island in the Sky (1953).

I’ve got my work cut out for me but I’m up to the job.

Notes:

  1. Nolan would be replaced as Mike Shayne when the series shifted to PRC by Hugh Beaumont, whose claim to fame is playing Leave It to Beaver’s Ward Cleaver. A coincidence?
  2. An early scene in Michael Shayne, Private Detective copies the opening of "G" Men by having Mike punch a shady client straight out the door of his office into the hallway, as Cagney's Brick Davis had done in the earlier film.
22 Responses Watching a Detective: Tailing Lloyd Nolan
Posted By Medusa : August 3, 2007 5:33 pm

Recently I watched A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Lloyd Nolan has a wonderful part as a kind and concerned police officer who quietly looks out for poverty-stricken Dorothy McGuire as she raises her kids and copes with her marriage to a sweet but hard-drinking man.  When the husband, played (magnificently) by James Dunn, dies, guess who's there to step in as the man of the family?  It's a lovely performance, gentle and restrained; he's the perfect Irish cop. I will certainly be keeping my eye out for Lloyd Nolan.  He's also in a great episode of The Outer Limits, with Michael Ansara, called "Soldier". Wonderful tribute!

Posted By Medusa : August 3, 2007 5:33 pm

Recently I watched A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Lloyd Nolan has a wonderful part as a kind and concerned police officer who quietly looks out for poverty-stricken Dorothy McGuire as she raises her kids and copes with her marriage to a sweet but hard-drinking man.  When the husband, played (magnificently) by James Dunn, dies, guess who's there to step in as the man of the family?  It's a lovely performance, gentle and restrained; he's the perfect Irish cop. I will certainly be keeping my eye out for Lloyd Nolan.  He's also in a great episode of The Outer Limits, with Michael Ansara, called "Soldier". Wonderful tribute!

Posted By yancyskancy : August 3, 2007 9:13 pm

Like RHS, I think I probably first saw Nolan in Julia, though it's possible I saw the movie version of Peyton Place first.  He's always great (definitely agree with Medusa re A Tree Grows in Brooklyn).  One performance not mentioned here so far is his shady gangster in that noir-ish musical, Blues in the Night (1941).  He totally steals the film from the somewhat tepid leading man, Richard Whorf.

Posted By yancyskancy : August 3, 2007 9:13 pm

Like RHS, I think I probably first saw Nolan in Julia, though it's possible I saw the movie version of Peyton Place first.  He's always great (definitely agree with Medusa re A Tree Grows in Brooklyn).  One performance not mentioned here so far is his shady gangster in that noir-ish musical, Blues in the Night (1941).  He totally steals the film from the somewhat tepid leading man, Richard Whorf.

Posted By Victoria : August 3, 2007 10:19 pm

not only a great actor but also a great spokesperson for Autism back before it became as known as it is today.  I believe his son was(is) autistic

Posted By Victoria : August 3, 2007 10:19 pm

not only a great actor but also a great spokesperson for Autism back before it became as known as it is today.  I believe his son was(is) autistic

Posted By jim : August 5, 2007 6:03 pm

one of the true great's of the silver screen.

Posted By jim : August 5, 2007 6:03 pm

one of the true great's of the silver screen.

Posted By MDR : August 6, 2007 10:13 am

Don't overlook Peyton Place (1957) in your Lloyd Nolan education; the film itself is better than it may sound, and Nolan's performance as the town's conscience is not to be missed.  He also appears quite frequently in many of the B movies that TCM airs.

Posted By MDR : August 6, 2007 10:13 am

Don't overlook Peyton Place (1957) in your Lloyd Nolan education; the film itself is better than it may sound, and Nolan's performance as the town's conscience is not to be missed.  He also appears quite frequently in many of the B movies that TCM airs.

Posted By kenlip : August 7, 2007 11:42 pm

My favorite memory of Lloyd Nolan was a role he played in my all-time favorite show, Bonanza. Nolan played a New Orleans detective who came to the Ponderosa to extradite Ben Cartwright for murder. Noaln was magnificent, but Ben was innocent of all charges, of course.

Posted By kenlip : August 7, 2007 11:42 pm

My favorite memory of Lloyd Nolan was a role he played in my all-time favorite show, Bonanza. Nolan played a New Orleans detective who came to the Ponderosa to extradite Ben Cartwright for murder. Noaln was magnificent, but Ben was innocent of all charges, of course.

Posted By Harold J. Gaugler : August 8, 2007 10:53 pm

I have to agree with those who recommend A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945).  Nolan stands out quietly in a film that includes superb performances by Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell and the stunningly talented child actress Peggy Ann Garner.I also like his work in two films with the beautiful Joan Bennett; THE HOUSE ACROSS THE BAY and THE MAN I MARRIED (both 1940).I'm gonna check out those Michael Shayne mysteries.  I've never seen any of them, but always admired Nolan's work, right up to HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986).

Posted By Harold J. Gaugler : August 8, 2007 10:53 pm

I have to agree with those who recommend A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945).  Nolan stands out quietly in a film that includes superb performances by Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell and the stunningly talented child actress Peggy Ann Garner.I also like his work in two films with the beautiful Joan Bennett; THE HOUSE ACROSS THE BAY and THE MAN I MARRIED (both 1940).I'm gonna check out those Michael Shayne mysteries.  I've never seen any of them, but always admired Nolan's work, right up to HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986).

Posted By John Luckas : November 16, 2007 4:04 pm

Lloyd is a relative of mine. He was my Grandfather's cousin. My paternal Grandfather's name was William Hamilton Nolan. My mother is William's daughter. Genealogically I don't know what that makes me! Second or third cousin? Who knows… The Nolan facial features are strong and were passed down to me. I look nothing like my father's side of the family. Looking at some pictures of Lloyd when he was my age is like looking in the mirrror. Mostly it's the eyes and nose. That nose was passed down to many in my family! It's hard to mistake! The brown eyes have disappeared though, genetically. Some of the Nolans had blue and some brown but I guess through marriage and simple genetics they were lost. We're all blue-eyed now. My mother is the family historian. She has many stories about Lloyd and her father and the things they did together. My grandfather played golf with Walt Disney, Fred MacMurray, and "Fred" from I Love Lucy. Sorry… I can't remember his name. But the Nolans go way back in terms of American History and geneology. I've got a lot of information if anyone's interested.

Posted By John Luckas : November 16, 2007 4:04 pm

Lloyd is a relative of mine. He was my Grandfather's cousin. My paternal Grandfather's name was William Hamilton Nolan. My mother is William's daughter. Genealogically I don't know what that makes me! Second or third cousin? Who knows… The Nolan facial features are strong and were passed down to me. I look nothing like my father's side of the family. Looking at some pictures of Lloyd when he was my age is like looking in the mirrror. Mostly it's the eyes and nose. That nose was passed down to many in my family! It's hard to mistake! The brown eyes have disappeared though, genetically. Some of the Nolans had blue and some brown but I guess through marriage and simple genetics they were lost. We're all blue-eyed now. My mother is the family historian. She has many stories about Lloyd and her father and the things they did together. My grandfather played golf with Walt Disney, Fred MacMurray, and "Fred" from I Love Lucy. Sorry… I can't remember his name. But the Nolans go way back in terms of American History and geneology. I've got a lot of information if anyone's interested.

Posted By RHS : November 16, 2007 4:17 pm

John, we're always interested in personal stories of the personalities we love and even of their family histories.  We recently had some family letters shared by a relative of Lock Martin, aka Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still.  We live for stuff like that!

Posted By RHS : November 16, 2007 4:17 pm

John, we're always interested in personal stories of the personalities we love and even of their family histories.  We recently had some family letters shared by a relative of Lock Martin, aka Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still.  We live for stuff like that!

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : January 7, 2009 8:48 pm

[...] Fox in the early forties, has been justly celebrated by my fellow Morlock Richard Harding Smith here. While not a truly handsome man, Lloyd Nolan had a nice face, (though one movie loving pal has [...]

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : January 7, 2009 8:48 pm

[...] Fox in the early forties, has been justly celebrated by my fellow Morlock Richard Harding Smith here. While not a truly handsome man, Lloyd Nolan had a nice face, (though one movie loving pal has [...]

Posted By Samantha : July 22, 2011 9:14 am

I adore the Michael Shayne movies and think Lloyd Nolan is terribly underrated. I wish the series had gone on longer, and that they’d release vol. 2 of that DVD set.

Posted By Samantha : July 22, 2011 9:14 am

I adore the Michael Shayne movies and think Lloyd Nolan is terribly underrated. I wish the series had gone on longer, and that they’d release vol. 2 of that DVD set.

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