The website Harry’s Stuff describes 1929’s The Canary Murder Case as “the film that destroyed the career of Louise Brooks.” The author goes on to note: “Depending on which view you take, it is either a manifestation of a ruthless Hollywood money machine crushing a great talent that it was too ignorant to recognize, or the self-destruction of an actress who was too arrogant to commit herself to the necessity of hard work. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between.”
Though her character’s name is Margaret O’Dell, the entertainer played by Lulu in the film is generally referred to as “The Canary” throughout (she’s even billed as such in the opening cast credits). O’Dell is the star of a successful nightclub act, in which she performs on a trapeze in the manner of a bird in a gilded cage. Her “canary” persona belies the fact that in reality, Margaret is a scheming little conniver; she’s dug her razor-sharp claws into young Jimmy Spottswoode (James Hall)—who doesn’t have much money, but O’Dell is marrying him purely for the social prominence his name will provide.
Jimmy is engaged to the demure Alyce LaFosse (Jean Arthur), so you can see where his entanglement with Margaret would create problems. His father Charles (Charles Lane) has even asked for private detective Philo Vance’s (William Powell) help in discouraging the wicked Margaret from her relentless pursuit of his son. But Maggie wants what she wants: she telephones three other men she has enjoyed the company of the past—Dr. Ambrose Lindquist (Gustav von Seyffertitz), Charles Cleaver (Lawrence Grant), and Louis Mannix (Louis John Bartels)—to announce she’ll soon be Mrs. James Spottswoode (and in case of Cleaver and Mannix, she asks that their wedding gift be in the form of a large check).
Sadly, the O’Dell-Spottswoode nuptials never even rate a mention on the society page of every newspaper in New York…but the notice of Margaret’s murder no doubt made a front page or two. “The Canary” is strangled in her apartment, and the list of suspects include both the senior and junior Spottswoodes, Alyce, and the three men O’Dell was blackmailing. And what of the mysterious Tony Skeel (Ned Sparks), who was in Margaret’s apartment the night her lovely bird song was silenced?
Author S.S. Van Dine’s popular literary sleuth Philo Vance made his silver screen debut with the second novel in the Vance series (published in 1927); the first (1926’s The Benson Murder Case) and third (The Greene Murder Case ) were purchased along with Canary by Paramount in 1928…it’s just that Canary was released first. There’s a bit of mystery as to whether Canary was scheduled to be the premiere Vance film; in the movie, the character of Sgt. Ernest Heath (played by character veteran Eugene Pallette) tells Philo he hasn’t seen him since “The Greene Murder Case.” But in Greene, a character references reading about “The Canary Murder Case.” Paramount may not have been certain at the time the dialogue for both movies was composed. The Canary Murder Case was co-scripted by Van Dine (the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright) with Albert S. Le Vino and Florence Ryerson—who provided dialogue for what was scheduled to be a silent film (with titles by Herman J. Mankiewicz).
The background that The Canary Murder Case had originally been filmed as a silent (directed by Malcolm St. Clair; an uncredited Frank Tuttle directed the talkie sequences) goes a long way toward explaining why the movie is a sure-fire cure for insomnia…and why it’s considered to be the final nail in the cinematic coffin of star Louise Brooks. (I believe the material would have worked a little better in its original intended form.) Brooksie had completed the silent version of Canary and had headed off to Germany to make the two films for G.W. Pabst that made her a silent movie icon: Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. (Paramount had nixed giving Brooks a raise once her option with the studio was up, so the actress saw no reason to remain in Hollywood.) When Paramount demanded that Brooks return to the studio to record lines for a talking version of Canary, Louise said nuh-huh—explaining she no longer had any obligation to the studio. She was given the old “you’ll-never-work-in-this-town-again” ultimatum. (Lulu’s reply: “Who wants to work in Hollywood?”)
The Paramount threat was an empty one: Brooks did work in a handful of studio films after her act of open defiance, but as far her movie career was concerned it was all over but the shouting. To do her shouting on the “all-talking” Canary, the studio hired Margaret Livingston (the “Woman from the City” in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise) to dub Louise’s lines and re-shoot some scenes where Livingston is either seen either in profile or from behind. Leonard Maltin notes in his Classic Movie Guide entry on the movie that the doubling is “fairly obvious in some scenes” but the print I purchased from Finders Keepers was so murky it could have been Kate Smith and I wouldn’t have been able to tell.
Maltin also describes The Canary Murder Case as “stilted but interesting” …which suggests that if he was still committed to publishing the Classic Movie Guide he should entertain the notion of revisiting the ratings he’s bestowed upon these films (he gives Canary **½ stars). He’s spot-on as to the “stilted” part…but there’s nothing “interesting” about this movie (despite the presence of future film legends like Powell and Arthur); it’s a poky little puppy, typical of those films having to experience the awkward growing pains transitioning between silent and sound. Len says Canary runs 81 minutes; the Finders Keepers print is two minutes shorter…and let’s just say I was grateful for that.
I’ve been trying my best not to spoil the endings of the movies reviewed here on the blog out of courtesy to those members of the TDOY faithful who are interested in seeking them out (I’ll save you from having to purchase this movie by mentioning there are several versions on YouTube) but I’m sorely tempted to violate this policy in the case of Canary Murder…only because I think you could better spend the time finishing your Christmas shopping or other related tasks. I will say this: the identity of the murderer is glaringly obvious despite the red herrings…though the explanation offered by sleuth Philo for one clue, a phonograph record, will induce an eyeroll that would tax Eddie Cantor. There’s also a prolonged sequence in which Vance has the suspects play poker so that he might give each person of interest the psychological once-over. (Dude, if I wanted to watch a card game I’d put on The Cincinnati Kid.)
William Powell would portray Philo Vance in the Paramount follow-ups The Greene Murder Case (released that same year) and The Benson Murder Case (1930), and stepped into Philo’s shoes one final time with the vehicle that’s considered the best in the Vance series, The Kennel Murder Case (1933). Philo Vance was played by a variety of movie thesps: Basil Rathbone tackled the part in 1930’s The Bishop Murder Case (MGM outbid Paramount for the rights to this fourth Van Dine novel) and legendary screen cad Warren William had a go in both The Dragon Murder Case (1934) and my personal favorite, The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939). If you’re expecting the suave Powell from the Thin Man films in Canary…you’re doomed to disappointment; the actor has no Myrna Loy counterpart with which to engage in witty banter—even TDOY crush Jean Arthur has scant screen time. I’m not sorry that I watched this one to fill in the missing gaps of my Louise Brooks infatuation…but I will say caveat emptor.