The children of a rich man are forced to live together in the family mansion or be disinherited. The police bring in Philo Vance when one of them is murdered…
The books about gentleman detective Philo Vance were such an instant hit with the public that Paramount bought the rights to the first three novels in one swoop and went into production almost immediately with ‘The Canary Murder Case’ (1929) as a silent film. However, after it was completed, studio executives got cold feet and ordered it re-shot as a ‘talkie’. Unfortunately, not all the actors were immediately available (the wonderful Louise Brooks refused to return at all) so the studio ploughed ahead with ‘The Greene Murder Case’ (1929) as the next in the series. Reference to the ‘Canary’ case is made in the film, which wasn’t a problem obviously, but when re-shoots on ‘Canary’ were completed, that film referenced the Greene case as happening first! Oops.
So how is the film? Well, it’s certainly not as awkward and stilted as many other early sound films (‘Canary’ included) but everyone still delivers their dialogue a little too slowly to be natural. The exception to this is leading man William Powell, whose career reached another level with his appearances as Vance, and paved the way to another role as a famous detective — Nick Charles in the wonderful ‘Thin Man’ series. His performance here certainly displays a much quicker adaptation to the new media than the majority of his contemporaries. Jean Arthur also has a leading role, but gets little opportunity to display the comedic and dramatic chops that made her a star later on in ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’ (1935) and ‘Mr. Smith Goes To Washington’ (1939). The lack of a score does drag things down a little, but studios were still not sure that audiences would accept music from an ‘off screen’ source.
The solution to the mystery is not that hard to fathom, but it probably would have surprised audiences of the time, and might not have been allowed once the restrictive ‘production code’ came into force in the early part of the next decade. However, there is some tiresome old guff about criminal tendencies being hereditary, which does betray a very dated attitude and is almost used as an excuse to pardon the actions of the criminal.
Murder mysteries were ten a penny back in the early days of sound, but this one delivers efficiently enough with an unusual climax on a snow-covered roof. But it’s still hard to see exactly why the Vance character was so popular. He doesn’t really do any detecting here; although his methods seem a little more believable than those he employed in ‘The Canary Murder Case’ (1929).
Worth watching if you’re interested in early sound cinema, or if you’re a William Powell fan.