Monday, November 7, 2022

Movies are Murder CMBA Blogathon - The Canary Murder Case (1929) part 1

As the theme of this year's CMBA (Classic Movie Blog Association) blogathon is "Movies are Murder," the Louise Brooks Society join's in with a post devoted to the celebrated 1929 film,
The Canary Murder Case.

The Canary Murder Case is a detective story involving an amateur sleuth, a blackmailing showgirl, and the “swells” that surround her. The film was initially shot as a silent, and shortly thereafter reworked for sound. Louise Brooks, who plays the canary, would not dub her lines for the sound version. Her refusal and perceived “difficulty” harmed her career, effectively ending her stardom in the United States.

Based on a bestselling book of the same name, The Canary Murder Case was released to great anticipation. In February, 1929 Motion Picture named the film one of the best for the month, declaring “William Powell is superb. The rest of the players, including Louise Brooks, Jean Arthur, James Hall, Charles Lane, Gustav Von Seyffertitz and many others, win credit.” That opinion, however, was not shared by most. More typical of the reviews the film received was that of the New York World, who declared the film “an example of a good movie plot gone wrong as the result of spoken dialogue.”

Mordaunt Hall, writing in the New York Times, was more generous, “It is on the whole the best talking-mystery production that has been seen, which does not imply that it is without failings. It is quite obvious that Louise Brooks, who impersonates Margaret Odell, alias the Canary, does not speak her lines. Why the producers should have permitted them to be uttered as they are is a mystery far deeper than the story of this picture.” Billboard added “Louise Brooks is mediocre as the Canary, but this does not detract from the production, as she appears in but a few scenes.”

Malcolm St. Clair directed The Canary Murder Case, with Frank Tuttle taking over the sound retakes. The film was released as an 80 minute talkie in most markets, and as a shorter silent in theater’s not yet “wired for sound.” A few publications, such as The Film Daily, reviewed both formats.

Louella Parsons, writing in the Los Angeles Examiner, stated St. Clair “was handicapped by no less a person than Louise Brooks, who plays the Canary. You are conscious that the words spoken do not actually emanate from the mouth of Miss Brooks and you feel that as much of her part as possible has been cut. She is unbelievably bad in a role that should have been well suited to her. Only long shots are permitted of her and even these are far from convincing when she speaks.” Parson’s comments were echoed by Margaret L. Coyne of the Syracuse Post-Standard, who observed, “The only flaw is the substitution of another voice for that of Louise Brooks — the Canary — making necessary a number of subterfuges to disguise the fact.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer quipped “The role of the murdered girl is played by Louise Brooks, who is much more satisfying optically than auditorily.” Writing in Life magazine, Harry Evans went further, suggesting Brooks’ didn’t speak well. “Louise Brooks, who furnishes the sex-appeal, is evidently a poorer conversationalist than Miss Arthur, because all of her articulation is obviously supplied by a voice double.” 

The Oakland Post-Enquirer and other publications began to catch on. “It is generally known by this time that Margaret Livingston doubled for Louise Brooks in the dialogue sequences. Hence the not quite perfect synchronization in close-ups and the variety of back views and dimly photographed profiles of the Canary.”

However, the assertion that Brooks didn't speak well would haunt the actress for years, and effectively end her career.

 What the critics said about Louise Brooks and The Canary Murder Case:

“Louise Brooks plays the brief role of the Canary, the musical-comedy star whose personality is such that she is given deafening applause for merely swinging over an audience’s head on a trapeze.” — Ken Taylor, Los Angeles Evening Express

“Louise Brooks is brilliant as the murdered girl.” — Star-News Critic, Pasadena Star-News

“Louise Brooks is the hard-boiled ‘Canary,’ and Louise can be excessively evil when she tries – on the screen. She disappears early from the scene because of the little matter of murdering her, but while she is there she shows quite a considerable advance in finesse, and she uses her voice nicely.” — George C. Warren, San Francisco Chronicle

“Louise Brooks plays the harsh-souled but physically magnetic dancer who counts her wealthy dupes by the score and stops at nothing to win a husband whose name will give her the entree to New York’s most fashionable circles.” — Everhardt Armstrong, Seattle Post Intelligencer

“Louise Brooks, an ‘It’ gal with intelligence aplenty, plays the canary. She’s a bird in a gilded cage, to be sure, but wotta bird and wotta cage!” — Regina Cannon, New York American

“Louise Brooks’ magnificent legs ornament the screen for half the picture before she [is] murdered. But Louise is such a wicked little blackmailer, even the legs don’t get your sympathy.” — Bland Johaneson, New York Daily Mirror

“Louise Brooks, who plays the Canary, is very bad and it appears from the dialogue that she is not actually doing the talking. Apparently a substitution was made here.” — Boyd Martin, Louisville Courier-Journal

“Mechanically, too, The Canary Murder Case has been well handled. The voices are well modulated and free of static. It is evident that Miss Brooks’ voice test was a flop for a double is used in sequences requiring speech from her.” — Harold Heffernan, Detroit News

“Louise Brooks as the fascinating light-o-love who comes to a mysterious and not undeserved end is at once alluring and crystal-hard in her evil determination of collecting blackmail from her many wealthy admirers.” — Ella H. McCormick, Detroit Free Press

“The Canary is Louise Brooks, cast as a gay Broadway Circe, something after the pattern of ‘Dot’ King – and quite as lucky.” — Nelson B. Bell, Washington Post

“Louise Brooks, ‘The Canary,’ acts the part of this hardboiled wench in pretty good style.” — J. W. B., Washington Times

“As an all-talk murder mystery melodrama, The Canary Murder Case will occupy the front rank, for its plot has been constructed so intelligently that it is logical almost in every one of the situations.” — Bige, Variety

Another post, Movies are Murder CMBA Blogathon - The Canary Murder Case (1929) part 2, will appear on November 9 at  9:29 am.

The Louise Brooks Society blog is authored by Thomas Gladysz, Director of the Louise Brooks Society. ( Original contents copyright © 2022. Further unauthorized use prohibited.


  1. What an interesting and wide-ranging collection of views on this film! I'd like to check it out for the great cast alone. Thank you for kicking of our blogathon with this one!

  2. This is one Brooks film that has eluded me. Thanks for an entertaining article.

  3. I read Brooks' memoir not long ago, and have always been curious about this film and her decision not to dub. The contrast in the reviews is intriguing, making me wonder how it would have turned out if she'd caved in to the demands.

  4. Excellent post and well researched. I like to read the review snippets.

  5. Really interesting to read all the different reviews. Must see this film!


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