In his heyday – from 1926 to 1938 – Philo Vance, the sleuth hero of S.S. Van Dine’s dozen crime novels, was more popular in America than Sherlock Holmes. Quickly adapted to film, his gentleman-detective was played on screen by such dapper leading men as Basil Rathbone, Warren William, Edmund Lowe and Paul Lukas. The very first Vance film, The Canary Murder Case (Malcolm St. Clair & Frank Tuttle, 1929), is an interesting hybrid that not-so-neatly straddles the silent and sound eras. It is most notable for both jump-starting William Powell’s career as a leading man and ending Louise Brooks’ film career in the US.
S.S. Van Dine was the pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright, a prominent, erudite and respected New York literary critic and arts writer who had a terrible time making ends meet, as well as a severe addiction to opium. In 1923, he suffered a nervous collapse and was sent by his mother to a Paris clinic. Over the course of two years in recovery, he compulsively read more than 2000 detective stories and analysed the genre exhaustively. He determined to write his own murder mysteries, hoping to strike it rich – and he did.
Vance was Wright’s fantasy projection of himself, “an urbane intellectual with unlimited knowledge about every conceivable subject,” as biographer Jon Tuska puts it,1 also blessed with unlimited financial resources and no job to speak of. (In fact, Wright seems to have borrowed some of Vance’s traits from Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective Lord Peter Wimsey, who debuted in print in 1923, smack-dab during Wright’s two-year research period. Vance is Wimsey-esque, without that character’s compassion and charm.)
The “Canary” Murder Case, published in 1927, was the second in the Vance series but the first to be a bestseller, going rapidly through eight printings of more than 200,000 copies. Wright based the plot on a real-life, unsolved crime – the 15 March 1923 murder of Manhattan celebrity model and hostess Dot King, aka Dorothy Keenan, the “Broadway Butterfly.” In the novel, the incident is wrought into a clever puzzle that conforms to Wright’s renowned “twenty rules for writing detective stories”.2
Many of the detective-film conventions are already full-blown in the film adaptation of The Canary Murder Case: the insouciant, clever hero; the wisecracking comic-relief police sergeant; an assortment of tough-talking mugs. In the book, the flippant and cynical Vance seemingly exists solely to irritate and show up the ham-handed New York City Police Department. In the film, the protagonist’s edges are smoothed and transformed by William Powell’s suave solidity; in fact, this is where the long-lived and consistent Powell film persona was forged. Powell’s silent-era career had typecast him as a villain, most memorably in The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg, 1928), and he was eager to switch to leading-man roles. His gentlemanly approach – observant, amused and chipper, but still tough –would serve him in three more outings as Vance, six as the beloved Nick Charles in the Thin Man film series, and in any number of other starring roles. Also welcome is the sight (and sound) of Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath. Pallette had been an action hero in silent-film days, but a gain in weight led him to refashion himself as a comic character actor. His distinctive girth and gravelly voice would typecast him as Sergeant Heath even after Powell left the series. (Meanwhile, blink and you’ll miss a very young Jean Arthur in an ingenue role.)
The movie’s style is unavoidably schizophrenic, due to it being shot twice – once as a silent, and again as a talkie. The original director, St. Clair, provided about 20 per cent of the film’s visuals as they exist today; for the sound remake, reliable Paramount contract director Tuttle was brought in. St. Clair’s work contains pans, matte shots, tracking shots and artful composition. The constrictions of sound filming at the time means that, during the other 80 per cent of the film, Tuttle’s static camera is nailed to the floor and the actors are forced to stand still in front of it and speak distinctly. Nothing intrinsically filmic occurs; the sound portion of Canary reads much as an early live-television kinescope does.
Most importantly, the movie had to shoot around the disappearance of its second lead, Brooks. The volatile and headstrong actress had recently divorced director Eddie Sutherland and taken up with a controlling lover, industrial magnate George Marshall. It was Marshall who encouraged her to quit Paramount after it denied her a raise. She completed the silent Canary and left Hollywood for New York on 1 October 1928, onto a new project in Europe. There, she found herself the end result of German director G.W. Pabst’s two-year search for the right woman to play Frank Wedekind’s erotic incubus Lulu in his upcoming Pandora’s Box (1929). Brooks sailed to Berlin, making her career-apex films there.
Meanwhile, everyone else was reporting back to the studio to reshoot Canary. Brooks refused, repeatedly. “When I was the only one of the cast who refused to return to make the talkie version of The Canary Murder Case […] the studio doused me with bad publicity and made my doubts a certainty. I was blacklisted. No major studio would hire me to make a film,” Brooks wrote.3 A long period of self-destructive isolation was to follow, until she rose again in critical estimation and made a second name for herself as a brilliant essayist.
In the end, the studio brought on Margaret Livingston, the actress best known as the Woman from the City in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), to double Brooks in voice and body where needed. It’s cinema’s first example of “looping”, or supplying a vocal track in post-production. It’s awkward in spots, and in some cases Livingston is shot from behind; her figure is a bit more zaftig than Brooks’, and her nasal tones don’t match what would have been the sound of Brooks’ natural contralto.
Fortunately, the conventions of dialogue aid a mystery narrative far more than the conventions of pantomime. Yes, there were silent Sherlock Holmes films. Can you name any? Me neither. The detective movie needed the nuances of questioning, the back and forth of sass, the cryptic street slang, the patter and the bluffing, the lies and the untangling of lies. In the verbal, the crime drama found its life’s breath.
• • •
The Canary Murder Case (1929 USA 82 mins)
Prod. Co: Paramount Prod: Louis D. Lighton Dir: Malcom St. Clair, Frank Tuttle (uncredited) Scr: Albert S. Le Vino, Florence Ryerson Phot: Harry Fischbeck, Cliff Blackstone (uncredited) Ed: William Shea Mus: Karl Hajos
Cast: William Powell, Jean Arthur, James Hall, Louise Brooks, Charles Lane, Lawrence Grant, Eugene Pallette
- Jon Tuska, In Manors and Alleys: A Casebook on the American Detective Film (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988), p. 58. ↩
- “The detective story is a game. It is more – it is a sporting event,” he begins; S.S. Van Dine, “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”, American Magazine, September 1928. ↩
- Louise Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood, p. 58. ↩