Saturday, May 25, 2024



Kino Lorber has released on a single Blu-ray disc all three of the Philo Vance movies William Powell starred in for Paramount during the early sound era of Hollywood. Today I'll be discussing the first film made and released of the group, 1929's THE CANARY MURDER CASE. 

THE CANARY MURDER CASE was the first Philo Vance film, but it was actually the second Philo Vance novel written by S.S. Van Dine, the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright. The Vance novels were major sellers in America during the 1920s and 30s, despite the fact that the title character is an elitist snob (more about the literary Vance later). 

I assume Paramount chose THE CANARY MURDER CASE as the debut Vance film because the murder victim is a glamorous stage entertainer named Margaret O'Dell, also referred to as "The Canary". This conniving young woman is blackmailing a number of jealous suitors, and she winds up strangled. The upper-class fashionable Philo Vance (William Powell) takes an interest in the case, due to being a friend of one of the suspects. Vance takes the unusual step of having all of the suspects take part in a poker game with him, the better to figure out which one had the psychology to commit the deed. Even this doesn't seem to solve the case, until the wily Vance makes a major discovery. 

THE CANARY MURDER CASE was originally produced as a silent feature, directed by Malcolm St. Clair. The film was mostly re-shot as a sound picture, under the supervision of an uncredited Frank Tuttle. The result is that the movie is disjointed at times, with some clunky and creaky elements. The legendary Louise Brooks played the Canary, but after her scenes were filmed she took off to Europe, and refused to go back and redo her part for sound. Margaret Livingstone wound up dubbing Brooks, and even replacing her as a body double for some scenes (when one watches this film it's obvious Paramount went to a lot of trouble to make Brooks' time on screen come out efficiently). For years the most famous thing about THE CANARY MURDER CASE was the promotional photos that Louise Brooks posed for it. 

Louise Brooks as The Canary

Brooks only appears at the very beginning of the feature. The rest of the film deals with the investigation of her character's death. William Powell is, as one expects, a dapper and urbane Vance, although here he seems to be trying to get used to being in a talkie. Powell's Vance is much more personable and less egotistical than the literary one. The movie is enlivened by a number of fine supporting actors, such as Lawrence Grant, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Ned Sparks, and Eugene Pallette, who plays Sergeant Heath (this character would in the later Vance films be a sort of Lestrade to Vance's Holmes). Jean Arthur is also in this film, but she has little to do, and she doesn't even get to share a scene with Louise Brooks. 

After I pre-ordered Kino's Philo Vance Collection, I bought the first two of the Vance novels at a very low price. This means that I have actually read THE CANARY MURDER CASE. The movie keeps close to the book for the most part, but it enlarges the Canary's role--in the novel she first appears as a corpse. The movie also changes the identity of the murderer, which must have been a major surprise to viewers who had read the book, which according to internet sources was a best-seller. (I have a theory about why the movie has a different murderer, but if I share it I'll give away the climax of both movie and book.) One thing I realized reading the first two Vance novels is how unlikable the main character is. He's snotty and intellectual, and he knows it. He's a rich guy who has never worked a day in his life, and the reason he involves himself in murder cases is that he can prove how brilliant he is (he doesn't have any real interest in justice, or the personal problems of the victims or suspects). There's nothing all that dynamic or intriguing about Vance's eccentricities, and it's no wonder that the character as a literary figure is all but forgotten today. 

The picture quality of THE CANARY MURDER CASE on this Blu-ray is very good. The sound quality is decent enough, but there are times the dialogue is not easy to make out. One does have to realize that this was an early talkie, and the audio technology was still being mastered. The aspect ratio is the original 1.20:1. This is a Region A disc. 

The film has a brand new audio commentary featuring Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw. It's a good one, with the duo covering a wide variety of topics including the history of American crime fiction, the background and personal life of S.S. Van Dine, and the movie's unusual production history. 

THE CANARY MURDER CASE has been notable due to Louise Brooks' involvement in it, but now film & murder mystery genre geeks get a chance to actually see it. It's important as the first Philo Vance film, and it's great that Kino put all of the first Vance features onto a Blu-ray disc. I'll be writing blog posts on the other two films in the collection soon. 


  1. My Philo Vance package still hasn't arrived, but I'm looking forward to it. The film is kind of unremarkable, but it's another chapter in the Legend of Louise Brooks, so it's important. I wouldn't mind reading one of the novels just to see what the literary Vance is like.