Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Canary Murder Case (1929)

First of the "Philo Vance" screen adaptations, starring William Powell as S.S. Van Dine's suave, urbane sleuth as he uncovers the murderer of a blackmailing showgirl known as "The Canary". Originally made as a silent film and directed by Malcolm St. Clair, it was re-tooled as a talkie by Paramount, with some of the silent footage dubbed, and new scenes shot with synchronized sound by director Frank Tuttle. The result is a sometimes awkward and static hybrid that is nonetheless a solid and entertaining whodunit.

Powell's remarkably assured and comfortable performance in this early talkie demonstrates the qualities that would soon make him a major star, and he would go on to play Vance again in three more films. The supporting cast includes James Hall as a young man blackmailed by the scheming showgirl, Jean Arthur as his girlfriend, Ned Sparks as the showgirl's gangster husband, Eugene Pallette as sputtering Sgt. Heath, and silent screen icon Louise Brooks in a brief but memorable role as "The Canary" of the title.

Though Brooks filmed her scenes for the silent version, disagreements with Paramount caused her to refuse to come back to dub her lines, so her dialogue is instead spoken by Margaret Livingston. This was Brooks' final film before leaving for a brief but celebrated career in Germany, where she famously made two films with director G.W. Pabst. Though she would return shortly afterward, her career in Hollywood never recovered and she retired in 1938.

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