Movie Review: The Canary Murder Case


Original Book and Cocktail Review

Well now we’re really getting down to the dregs of early Hollywood. If you’ve stuck it out with me so far, today will be the real test of your dedication to midcentury ephemera.

Released in 1929, The Canary Murder Case was the second of the first three of the popular Philo Vance mystery series, in this case produced by Paramount (Both MGM and Warner Brothers would get their claws in the lucrative series eventually as well.).

The first thing you need to know about the The Canary Murder Case is it looks like crap. Ok, so the film reels for Laughing Boy and Anthony Adverse didn’t exactly survive the last 80-some-odd years unscathed, but Canary looks as if it was poorly shot even at the time. There’s something off about the lighting; everything is either under or over lit.


This shot of Vance looking at clues in the dark (?) goes on for a full minute.

This shot of Vance looking at clues in the dark (?) goes on for a full minute.

Of course, you have to make some accommodation for the limits of the time period, but compare the above shots to the cinematography of The Broadway Melody, released the same year.


In addition, it seems the directors strove to make each shot as boring as they possibly could, which I guess was done to align with the incredibly boring script. The vast majority of the movie consists of people sitting and talking about the crime, with no camera movement and very little acting going on.


Pictured: climax of the movie

The second thing you need to know about The Canary Murder Case is it sounds like crap. There’s a well-documented reason for that one, though. This film was produced just two short years after The Jazz Singer changed cinema forever. Canary was originally shot as a silent movie and then recut as a talkie, and, uh, you can tell.

See, this film actually has kind of a notorious place in cinematic history. The eponymous Canary was played by Louise Brooks, who is apparently still revered as a goddess by silent movie fans to this day. Caught up in the budding German film industry, Brooks refused to return to Hollywood to dub Canary. Consequently, Paramount threatened to and succeeded in destroying her Hollywood career. Several years later, the Nazis would do the same for her German one.


For The Canary itself, this resulted in all of Brooks’ parts being very obviously dubbed by another actress using an incredibly grating Brooklyn accent. To cover up the voice/lip movement mismatch, we also get many lovely shots of the back of her head or of another actor not reacting to her speech.

There is actual dialogue happening in this scene.

There is actual dialogue happening in this scene.

Brooks’ part isn’t the only one in the movie to be embarrassingly dubbed, but it is the most painful one.

The Canary Murder Case isn’t especially faithful to the book, but since I didn’t like the book either, that’s fine by me. I guess they didn’t broadcast the actual culprit quite as hard as they did in the book, but since none of the other suspects were interesting in any way, I don’t know how much that matters.

Our star detective Philo Vance was also slightly less obnoxious than he was in the books, although actor William Powell still does that stupid pseudo-British accent. It’s even more pretentious when you actually have to listen to it.


So in conclusion, I do not recommend The Canary Murder Case, not in book form, not in film form, not in any way, shape, or form. No, not even if you’re a Louise Brooks fan; go watch Pandora’s Box again. The rest of you, go read about the Broadway Butterfly — the real case that allegedly inspired Canary — to get your 1920’s New York showgirl murder fix.

The Canary Murder Case is available in the Internet Archive


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