Philo Vance assists the police investigating the murder of a popular showgirl known as ‘The Canary’. There’s plenty of suspects as she was blackmailing several prominent businessmen.
Philo Vance was the hero of a series of novels credited to S S Van Dine. In the manner of Ellery Queen, Vance was apparently a real person, and Van Dine was the Watson to his Holmes. In reality, of course, Vance and Van Dine were fictional; the latter being the pen name of art critic Willard Huntington Wright. There was a series of 12 novels and they were initially very popular, although it’s generally agreed that the quality declined alarmingly in the later entries. As a character, he wasn’t popular with some, being a foppish dandy with an affected ‘English’ way of speaking. Raymond Chandler certainly didn’t like him, and there are disparaging and sarcastic remarks about Vance in several of his novels.
When it came to film adaptations, Paramount Studios got there first; securing the rights to the first 3 novels and going into production with this one as a silent in 1928. William Powell (later famous as Nick Charles in the ‘Thin Man’ series) took the starring role, along with Jean Arthur, James Hall and Louise Brooks. When the film was completed, Brooks left to work in Germany on two films for P. W. Pabst which, although not particularly well received at the time, in later years have secured her place as a cinema icon. While she was away, the popularity of the new ‘talking pictures’ took Hollywood by storm and Paramount got cold feet about releasing the Vance film as a silent.
The studio decided to re-shoot with sound and told Brooks to report for work. Accounts vary a little here; in an article written in later years Brooks alleged that the studio offered her all sorts of financial incentives to return, but she simply wasn’t interested. Other accounts suggest that the studio reneged on a promise to pay her a previously agreed increase in salary. Others suggest that she was already out of contract at the time. Whatever the reason, she would not comply with the studio’s demands and, in retaliation, they spread a rumour that effectively ruined her career; that her voice was ‘unsuitable for talkies’ (it wasn’t). Some performers did legitimately fail to make the transition to sound, but it appears that studios took the opportunity to rid themselves of stars that were too popular, or too demanding, by telling such lies. After all, the public were fickle, and new faces were arriving at the bus terminal every day to try and break into pictures.
So how did that leave the finished picture? Well, Brooks’ role as ‘The Canary’ is pivotal, but not that large. The studio could have re-shot al her scenes with a different actress, of course, but instead chose just to do some long shots with a stand-in and have her lines dubbed in a shrill, Brooklyn accent. Lip-synching not being a developed technique, what we get instead is close-ups of Brooks when she isn’t speaking and then shots of either the back of ‘her’ head, or another actor, when ‘she’ is! It does lend the early scenes an odd, unrealistic appearance.
All those issues aside, the rest of the film is a middling murder mystery, with some pretty ridiculous elements. Instead of doing something silly, like examining actual evidence, Vance forms his theories by taking on all the main suspects in a poker game in the back room of the police station! A late twist in the tale does make for a more interesting climax, but the killer’s mechanism for establishing his alibi is badly contrived.
On meeting Vance at the original crime scene, one detective mentions their last meeting on ‘The Greene Murder Case’ (1929). Unfortunately, that was actually the sequel to this film, indicating that the studio had probably completed the new film prior to the re-shoots on this one!