Philo Vance Collection

by Charlie Largent May 28, 2024

Philo Vance Collection
Kino Lorber
1928 – 1930
Starring William Powell, Eugene Pallette, Jean Arthur
Written by S. S. Van Dine, Bartlett Cormack
Photographed by Harry Fischbeck, Archie Stout
Directed by Malcolm St. Clair, Frank Tuttle

Between 1928 and 1930, Paramount fast-tracked three films about a high society sleuth known as Philo Vance. The movies were based on a series of whodunnits by S. S. Van Dine, the pen name of an art critic turned crime novelist named Willard Huntington Wright.

First published in 1926, the books were immediately popular, suggesting that the aristocratic detective would most likely succeed in the cinema as well as the drawing room—but star William Powell didn’t enjoy the experience; “The opportunities of a detective on the screen are too limited. What is his main function? To solve the crime. And how does he do it? By thinking. So we have him standing up and thinking, sitting down and thinking… he doesn’t have a chance to act!”

So Powell felt like a clotheshorse rather than an actor. Not the first time that happened in Hollywood but Paramount’s adaptations were produced under conditions that only seemed to emphasize Powell’s discomfort. Though featuring the most primitive of movie-making techniques, the films do have their own peculiar fascination; they reveal much about the nature of depression-era films, assembly line entertainments that served notice that the movie industry could stand shoulder to shoulder with Ford Motors and General Mills.

The Canary Murder Case was part of that wave, thanks in part to a revolution in the film industry—sound. It would play a part in Powell’s first appearance as the detective and alter the life of his co-star, Louise Brooks. With Malcolm St. Clair in the director’s chair, the film was produced in the fall of 1928 as a silent picture—but Paramount decided to take advantage of the new technology.

The cast was brought back in late December to dub the picture with director Frank Tuttle called in to oversee the extra footage to be shot with sound. The revisions were deftly handled, including a body double replacement for Brooks who had refused to return from Europe for the added scenes. The actress had good instincts, her rebellion lead to a star-making turn in Germany working for G. W. Pabst.

Brooks plays the ill fated “Canary”, a beautiful bit of bad news who supplements her income with blackmail. She’s called the Canary thanks to a glitzy trapeze act that features her swinging out from the stage and high above the audience—no singing, no dancing, just swinging. Fortunately Brooks is a very fetching swinger and this evening three of her marks are waiting in the audience, each of them savoring the sight of their high-flying paramour. When the Canary winds up dead, those three are at the top of Philo Vance’s list of suspects, though a jealous chorus girl played by Jean Arthur seems suspiciously innocent.

Tuttle assumed complete control of the next entry, The Greene Murder Case, heralded by Paramount as an “all-talking” picture. It’s a standard old dark house murder mystery showcasing a most disagreeable clan, the Greene family, a back-stabbing mob of malcontents waiting for the matriarch to die so they might reap the benefits.

When one family member is shot in his bedroom and another takes a bullet in the back, Vance is called in to unravel the mystery. Jean Arthur was back, this time even more suspiciously innocent—her sister is played by Florence Eldridge, an intriguing actress with a strong Bette Davis vibe who would find lasting success on stage (she played Mary Tyrone alongside her husband Fredric March in the 1956 production of Long Day’s Journey into Night).

Tuttle himself was the definition of a journeyman director, churning out programmers with Hollywood up and comers like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Mary Astor, but his technique on the The Greene Murder Case is exceptionally odd, and oddly compelling; just about every frame in the film is a wide shot. And not just wide, Tuttle included as much of the set that he and the cameraman Henry Gerrard (The Most Dangerous Game) could show. There were just a few medium shots and no close-ups—the technique had the unfortunate effect of turning the cast into Incredible Shrinking Actors, dwarfed by the high ceilings and lofty walls. No wonder Powell felt powerless. 

Tuttle was back for The Benson Murder Case but his style is far more conventional, to the point of having no style at all—though the movie has an interesting plot as far as it goes. If depression era moviegoers were looking to escape news about the stock market, The Benson Murder Case was not for them. The plot revolves around Anthony Benson, a greedy broker who has a crowd of suddenly penniless people looking for revenge.

The murder plays out in the stockbroker’s hunting lodge where his enemies have convened for a weekend of insults and groveling. Vance and his cronies arrive in the nick of time to experience the murder and then solve it. During the standard wrap-up of the murder, Powell deserved some kind of award for describing the killer’s Rube Goldberg methods without laughing.

Powell wasn’t through with Philo Vance and Philo wasn’t through with him. In 1933 Powell reluctantly agreed to star in The Kennel Murder Case with a supporting cast that included Mary Astor. Directed by Michael Curtiz, it was hailed as a “masterpiece” by film historian William K. Everson. Except for the Curtiz “masterpiece”, Kino Lorber has restored the first three of Powell’s Philo Vance adventures and put them on one Blu ray disc—and they look terrific (the public domain prints floating around cable for the last thirty years may now be set out to pasture—their work here is done).

Kino has also included audio commentaries from the experts including Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw on The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case, and Jason A. Ney on The Benson Murder Case. A series of trailers (mostly movies directed by Frank Tuttle) round out the package.

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