Thursday, February 16, 2023

The Canary Murder Case, starring Louise Brooks, was released on this day in 1929

The Canary Murder Case, starring Louise Brooks, was released on this day in 1929. 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. More about the film can be found on the Louise Brooks Society filmography page.

Production of the film took place between September 11 and October 12, 1928 at Paramount’s studio in Hollywood. Sound retakes took place on and around December 19, 1928. 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.

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.”

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.”

All were not fooled. The Oakland Post-Enquirer and other publications eventually caught 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.”

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.” It was an assertion that would haunt Brooks for years.

Under its American title, documented screenings of the film took place in Australia (including Tasmania), Bermuda, British Malaysia (Singapore), Canada, China, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), India, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, New Zealand, Trinidad, and the United Kingdom (England, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales).

Elsewhere, The Canary Murder Case was shown under the title Die Stimme aus dem Jenseits (Austria); O drama de uma noite (Brazil); El Crimen de la Canaria (Cuba); Die Stimme aus dem Jenseits and Kanárkový vražedný prípad (Czechoslovakia) and Hlas Ze Záhrobí (Slovakia); Die Stimme Aus Dem Jensits (Danzig); Hvem dræbte Margaret O’Dell? (Denmark); De Kanarie Moordzaak (Dutch East Indies – Indonesia); Hääl teisest maailmast and Hääl teisest ilmast (Estonia); Salaperainen Rikos and Ett hemlighetsfullt brott and Det hemlighetsfulla brottet (Finland); Le meurtre du Canari (France); Die Stimme Aus Dem Jensits (Germany); Kandari Gyilkosság and Gyilkossag a szailoban (Hungary); La canarina assassinata and Il caso della canarina assassinata (Italy); カナリヤ殺人事件 (Japan); 카나리아 머더 케이스 (Korea); De Kanarie Moordzaak (The Netherlands); I Kanarifuglens Garn and I fristerinnens garn (Norway); Kryyk z za Swlatow (Poland); Die stimme aus dem Jenseits (Poland, German language publication); O Drama duma Noite (Portugal); Kdo je morilec? (Slovenia); ¿Quién la mató? (Spain, including The Canary Islands); Midnattsmysteriet (Sweden); and Дело об убийстве канарейки (U.S.S.R.).


 —S. S. van Dine is the pseudonym used by art critic Willard Huntington Wright (1888 – 1939) when he wrote detective novels. Wright was an important figure in avant-garde cultural circles in pre-WWI New York, and under the pseudonym (which he originally used to conceal his identity) he created the once immensely popular fictional detective Philo Vance, a sleuth and aesthete who first appeared in books in the 1920s, then in movies and on the radio in the following decades.

Wright was one of the best-selling authors in the United States. The Canary Murder Case was the second book in a popular series featuring Vance — though the film made from it was the first in the series to feature the character. William Powell revived his role as Vance in four additional films, including The Greene Murder Case, released later in 1929. Other actors who played Vance include Basil Rathbone and Edmund Lowe.

— S.S. van Dine’s novel was loosely based on the real-life murder of showgirlDot King, which was never solved. King was among those nicknamed “Broadway Butterflies.”

— Glenn Wilson, a Federal investigator attached to the bureau of criminal investigation for Los Angeles county, reportedly served as an adviser on the film.

— In a 1931 article on the cinema in Singapore, the New York Times notes that “Asiatics love the gangster film, but very few are shown, owing to the censorship regulations which bar gun battles and will not tolerate an actual ‘kill’ on the screen. The first cuts made before they decide to ban all films of this type were very clumsy and made a mystery story a bigger mystery than ever. For instance, in the Canary Murder Case.”

— An Italian TV version of the story, directed by Marco Leto and featuring Giorgio Albertazzi as Philo Vance and Virna Lisi as the Canary, was broadcast in 1974.

Some day, I would like to see a proper DVD release of The Canary Murder Case which includes both the sound and (reportedly superior) silent versions.

THE LEGAL STUFF: The Louise Brooks Society™ blog is authored by Thomas Gladysz, Director of the Louise Brooks Society  ( Original contents copyright © 2023. Further unauthorized use prohibited.

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