Jean Arthur

Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks)

The first forty-five minutes of Only Angels Have Wings is mostly continual present action. Jean Arthur arrives in a South American port town, looking around–followed by two possible ne’er-do-wells (Allyn Joslyn and Noah Beery Jr.)–and the film tracks her experience. Great direction from Hawks, beautiful cinematography from Joseph Walker. Pretty soon she discovers they’re not ne’er-do-wells but ex-pat American fliers doing mail deliveries.

It actually takes a while to understand the mail outfit, with Jules Furthman’s ingenious script taking its sweet time to reveal everything. Arthur with Joslyn and Beery–then meeting adorable entreprenur Sig Ruman–seems like its doing character introduction on Arthur and maybe some setting setup, but it’s not. Arthur’s going to get character introduction and ground situation stuff done, but not in these opening moments. And while it’s establishing the physical setting, it’s only hinting at it. It’s moving the action to it without actually establishing it. Arthur’s only on layover, after all. Her boat leaves before dawn the next morning.

Instead, Hawks and Furthman are subtly using this time to acclimate the audience to the setting. All that stuff about the town and the boat, it’s not really important, what’s really important is the hotel slash bar slash airport. Ruman’s co-owner is Cary Grant, who shows up about eight minutes in. Hawks and Furthman have already done an extraordinary amount of work in those eight minutes. And there’s no time to establish Grant when he does arrive because it’s time for the mail to go out and so there’s an airplane action sequence. Hawks excels at the airplane action sequences. The miniatures are always spot on, the actual airplane footage is breathtaking (and terrifying).

It’s after the twenty-five minute mark–so twenty minutes left in the opening “prologue”–before real character work on Grant starts happening. There’s a lot of exposition and implied stuff. There’s the entirely functional introduction of Thomas Mitchell during that first action sequence; he’s one of the main characters, but he’s a stranger to Arthur and the audience for the first ten minutes he’s on screen. Because Hawks has got a tense action sequence to do and it comes first.

Once Arthur and Grant finally do start getting talking and flirting, Wings momentarily becomes almost a romantic dramedy. Furthman’s dialogue, Arthur and Grant’s chemistry, it’s a break from everything going on in this microcosm Hawks and Furthman have submerged the audience in.

But Only Angels Have Wings isn’t some short subject about Jean Arthur’s layover with some ex-pat fliers before she continues on her way. It’s not even about what happens when she decides to stay because, well, she just found Cary Grant in the jungle and he’s single. At the forty-six minute mark, the film shifts protagonists. Those first forty-five minutes were to transition to top-billed Grant taking over from second-billed Arthur. Hawks and Furthman have gotten the audience acclimated and it’s time to get into everything else, like Ruman and Grant’s business failing and the constant danger of the mail delivery.

The next section of the film, which really runs to the end as far as pacing goes, but the next big event in the film is the arrival of Richard Barthelmess. He’s got history with Grant and Mitchell, but Grant needs a new pilot, leading right away to some great action sequences. But Barthelmess isn’t alone it turns out, he’s got wife Rita Hayworth with him. And Hayworth’s got some history with Grant.

Furthman and Hawks are able to get away with the one-two punch of Barthelmess and Hayworth and all their baggage with the existing cast and it never comes off contrived. It’s even gently foreshadowed. So the whole thing then becomes about this group of people–Grant, Mitchell, Barthelmess, Hayworth (and the other pilots to some degree)–figuring out how they’re all going to exist in this place. Because even though everyone’s flying around, they’re all stranded. The passenger boat only comes every couple weeks, which means Arthur is still around, moving through the film–mostly removed from the subplots save for her now prickly relationship with Grant.

The film resolves the romance stuff by the end of the second act. Furthman’s script always takes the time to do the scenes right–there’s other stuff going on too, Wings gets away with bubbling up subplots whenever it wants, specifically ones involving Ruman and Mitchell.

Then the third act starts with a bang, only to keep intensifying to almost excruitatingly intolerable levels, both through action and drama. The drama then moves on to echo and resolve items introduced at the beginning and during the character setup. It’s a phenomenal script.

All the acting is great. Grant’s able to toggle between his nearly screwball romance with Arthur to the weight of being this flier in a constantly dangerous situation to being a manager. He’s got a slightly different relationship with every one of his pilots, something the film never stops acknowledging. Arthur gets this big stuff at the opening–in the forty-five minutes–and then has to share the rest of the film, only her story isn’t always the most interesting since she’s basically just waiting, so her scenes have to count. They do. Apparently Hawks hated her performance but she’s what makes Grant work the way he does. She unsettles him.

Barthelmess is awesome. He and Mitchell have the hardest parts in the film, but Mitchell gets to be both lovable and sympathetic. Barthelmess gets neither. Until Hayworth somehow makes him sympathetic. She and Grant have these complex, layered scenes together–basically all of their scenes together–and they give Grant some very different character development.

But never at the expense of Hayworth or Barthelmess. They get their character development too. Hayworth getting it a lot less dramatically than Barthelmess.

And then Ruman’s great. He’s louder than most of the characters in the film, but it makes him lovable. Also great is Victor Killian as the radio operator. He’s never loud; he steals scenes quietly. He and Arthur have this whispering scene and it’s stunning.

Only Angels Have Wings is this fast, complex, beautifully made–everything about the production is stellar, down to the costumes–wonderfully acted strange little big movie. Hawks has all sorts of ambitions, some he realizes on his own, some he needs the actors for. But damn if he doesn’t accomplish them all. Even if he didn’t like Arthur’s performance.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Hawks; written by Jules Furthman; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Viola Lawrence; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Cary Grant (Geoff Carter), Jean Arthur (Bonnie Lee), Richard Barthelmess (Bat MacPherson), Rita Hayworth (Judy MacPherson), Thomas Mitchell (Kid Dabb), Allyn Joslyn (Les Peters), Sig Ruman (Dutchy), Victor Kilian (Sparks), John Carroll (Gent Shelton), Don ‘Red’ Barry (Tex), Milisa Sierra (Lily), and Noah Beery Jr. (Joe).


You Can’t Take It with You (1938, Frank Capra)

You Can’t Take It with You has three major plot lines, all interconnected, but separate enough the film often feels stretched. There’s the rather lovely romance between stenographer Jean Arthur and her boss, bank vice president James Stewart. There’s Edward Arnold’s attempt to create a munitions monopoly to take advantage of the coming world war. He’s Stewart’s dad; the only thing standing in the way of his monopoly is acquiring a single piece of property (to build a factory to force his competitor to capitulate). Lionel Barrymore owns the property. He doesn’t want to sell, he’s also Arthur’s grandfather.

Everything intersects eventually, though when Arnold and wife Mary Forbes are disapproving of Arthur, Barrymore, and the rest of the family, they don’t know Barrymore’s also holding up the big deal.

Barrymore runs the house as sort of a hippie commune; albeit a late thirties, Depression-era commune. Arthur’s the normal one. Her mom, Spring Byington, is mildly eccentric, always finding one creative hobby or another. Samuel S. Hinds is Arthur’s dad; he makes fireworks in the basement with Halliwell Hobbes, who showed up delivering the ice one day and never left. Similarly, Dub Taylor came to dinner once and stayed, marrying Arthur’s sister, Ann Miller. Miller’s got a Russian dance instructor (displaced by the Revolution), Mischa Auer. The film introduces Barrymore’s eclectic brood via Donald Meek, who Barrymore recruits away from his awful office job. Also in the house are housekeeper Lillian Yarbo and her fiancé, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson. Going to have to talk about Yarbo and Anderson and the film’s treatment of them at some point. On one hand, they’re Black characters with decently sized parts. On the other, Anderson is the only person in the film who Robert Riskin’s script portrays as lazy.

Before getting to that aspect… the better aspects of the script, which are many. The movie opens with Arnold’s prospective business deal (and introduces Stewart as the disinterested boss’s son), then goes to Barrymore who meets up with Meek, then brings him home. The family gets introduced. Then, twenty minutes into the film, top-billed Arthur finally appears. And begins she and Stewart’s possibly star-crossed, rich boy, middle class girl (not to mention the commune) romance. The first ninety minutes are about the romance and its possibilities and realities. Stewart’s mom, Forbes, is opposed. Her thin characterization will also have to be discussed in a bit. But Stewart and Arthur are in love and, based on their courting scenes, love might be able to conquer all. Joseph Walker’s photography is never better than during Stewart and Arthur’s date night. The actors radiate chemistry, with Arthur beaming at Stewart’s wooing in the two shots (then getting to beaming in her close-ups). It’s also some of Capra’s best direction, particularly when the action then moves to a slightly slapstick posh restaurant scene (from Central Park where Stewart shows he’s not a snob by palling around with some street urchins).

Capra always keeps You Can’t Take It with You moving, he always moves between the various subplots (everyone in the house has something going on, usually with crossover, even if it’s a throwaway C plot), but his best direction is when it’s Arthur and Stewart or Arthur and Barrymore. There’s this devastating quiet scene where Barrymore and Arthur talk about love. Barrymore’s got some phenomenal moments in the film, but that scene has his best acting. He gets to reflect, not act. Usually he’s acting. Or if he’s reflecting, Capra isn’t showcasing it because there’s a lot of other stuff going on. The scene also establishes Barrymore’s reflection, so it only needs check-ins in the bigger scenes. The film’s beautifully constructed; Capra and Riskin excel at it.

Turns out, however, those scenes aren’t actually Capra’s best directed in the film because the third act reveals the protagonist of the film isn’t Barrymore, or Arthur, or Stewart, it’s Arnold. You Can’t Take It with You, somewhere in the second act, becomes about Arnold and Barrymore, then Arnold. Arnold’s conundrum sequence in the third act is Capra’s best direction in the picture. Arnold gets this long sequence to himself and is fantastic. He goes from being a hideous capitalist to someone you can believe Stewart likes having–or liked having before the film started, in the distant past–as a dad. Unfortunately, the film can’t organically tie all the threads together at the end, skipping over Barrymore and the family’s storyline, mega-contriving a finish for Arthur and Stewart, mostly so Arnold gets a satisfactory one. It’s sort of a good full circle since he started the film, but it’s also unfortunate. All of Riskin’s inventive plotting throughout the film and nothing for the finish.

Still, thanks to the acting (and the previous material) the finale is still quite effective. So effective you can almost forget about the plotting problems. Almost.

All of the acting in the film is good, some of it is superior. Stewart and Arthur are great as the romantic leads; they both get some rather dramatic moments as well. Arthur’s better than Stewart in them (but her writing is better). Byington and Hinds are lovable, Taylor and Miller are cute, Auer’s awesome. Meek’s adorable. Harry Davenport is great as the judge who presides over the end of second act night court where everyone’s in trouble (including the narrative because that point’s where things could naturally finish).

Arnold’s fantastic. Barrymore’s fantastic. Arnold gets more of the dramatic acting, Barrymore has to do his dramatic acting (for the most part) amid slapstick absurdity. It’s their movie in the end.

Now the more obvious problems. Riskin tries to avoid getting into Barrymore’s political philosophy too much, but what’s left in the film is some nonsensical jingoistic anti-organized capitalism thing. There’s a funny sequence with an IRS investigator (Charles Lane) where Barrymore’s raving against the government and the film never clarifies whether it’s just federal he hates or local too. Barrymore’s a de facto progressive, but it’s not like Yarbo or Anderson ever get to dine with the family. And as dismissive as the film gets about Yarbo, it’s nothing compared to how it characterizes Anderson solely as a relief defrauder.

And Riskin (and Capra) have nothing but ire for Forbes, who’s really the second biggest female part in the film–Byington’s omnipresent but as support–and Forbes is a thinly sketched society harpy. The filmmakers go so far as to pay her heartlessness off Arnold; as he starts to see the humanity in the poors and reflect on his ways, Forbes doubles down and gets even more shallow. Or at least maintains the shallow.

Makes for a handful of queasy scenes where Riskin and Capra go for the cheapest jokes possible.

Nice enough Dimitri Tiomkin score. Okay editing from Gene Havlick; the actors do so well in their two shots and group shots, you almost never want it to go to close-up. It feels empty.

Look fast for an uncredited Ward Bond.

You Can’t Take It with You has some great dialogue, some fine direction, some exceptional performances; Capra and Riskin are willing to go long with the things they care about (Arthur and Stewart’s chemistry, Arnold’s character arc, the whole pre-court jail sequence), but they don’t know how to make it fit in the narrative. The result is an often glorious, very busy mess of a motion picture.

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jean Arthur (Alice Sycamore), James Stewart (Tony Kirby), Lionel Barrymore (Martin Vanderhof), Edward Arnold (Anthony P. Kirby), Mary Forbes (Mrs. Anthony Kirby), Spring Byington (Penny Sycamore), Samuel S. Hinds (Paul Sycamore), Dub Taylor (Ed Carmichael), Ann Miller (Essie Carmichael), Donald Meek (Poppins), Mischa Auer (Kolenkhov), Halliwell Hobbes (DePinna), Lillian Yarbo (Rheba), Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Donald), Clarence Wilson (Blakely), Charles Lane (Henderson), and Harry Davenport (Judge).


Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936, Frank Capra)

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is astoundingly (and rightfully) confident. Director Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin don’t shy away from anything in the film–Capra’s more than willing to go with sentimentality, but the film isn’t often sentimental. Even when Jean Arthur’s world-weary reporter breaks down, she doesn’t get sentimental.

Most of the film involves Arthur deceiving Gary Cooper’s titular Mr. Deeds–he’s a small town guy who’s just inherited twenty million dollars–for her story. He becomes infatuated, she starts to regrow her heart. Riskin’s script runs these two subplots parallel to one another, but somehow not concurrent. Deeds maintains three perspectives throughout–Cooper’s, Arthur’s and, in the beginning, Lionel Stander’s.

Stander is sort of Cooper’s sidekick (a rich man’s press agent) but he’s also the first one to come around to Cooper’s way of doing things. Capra and Riskin take the Hollywood norm–the New York newspaper picture–and mix in the social commentary of the Depression, while bringing in a big question of town vs. country values. It’s a very tricky combination and they always do it perfectly; Deeds is a marvel of filmmaking construction. The way Capra uses sound–Cooper and Arthur are romancing in a picturesque New York landmark, the hustle and bustle around them, but the sound just has them. The lovely Joseph Walker photography just adds to it. Lots of quiet moments for Cooper and Arthur, who both give marvelous performances.

Everything about Mr. Deeds is fantastic. It’s an exceptional motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on a story by Clarence Budington Kelland; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Gene Havlick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Cooper (Longfellow Deeds), Jean Arthur (Babe Bennett), Lionel Stander (Cornelius Cobb), Douglass Dumbrille (John Cedar), Raymond Walburn (Walter), Ruth Donnelly (Mabel Dawson), George Bancroft (MacWade), Walter Catlett (Morrow), John Wray (Farmer) and H.B. Warner (Judge May).


The More the Merrier (1943, George Stevens)

The More the Merrier is a wondrous mix of comedy (both slapstick and screwball) and dramatic, war-time romance. Director Stevens is expert at both–that war-time romance angle is as gentle as can be, with Stevens relying heavily on leads Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea to be able to toggle between both. And they do, ably. Arthur and McCrea have spellbinding chemistry in the film.

But the film doesn’t open with either of them. It opens with–and stays with–Charles Coburn’s character. He’s in town on business (Merrier’s set in Washington DC during the WWII housing shortage) and his series of misadventures, fueled by that fantastic Coburn superiority, gets him a room with Arthur. And, subsequently, McCrea (bunking with Coburn).

The beauty of Coburn’s character is how he too toggles, but between being a slightly absentminded buffoon (he and McCrea’s goof-off scenes together are great) and a really serious businessman.

Meanwhile, Arthur’s got the distraction of McCrea while she deals with her politicking fiancé (and boss) Richard Gaines. Once the flirtation between McCrea and Arthur kicks in, which takes until the second half of the film, Merrier has this glorious new depth to it. Arthur and McCrea are just amazing, which I already said, but it needs to be said again.

Great direction from Stevens–he’s got a number of sublime shots–and photography from Ted Tetzlaff.

Stevens, Arthur, McCrea and Coburn make the film’s dramatic elements superior thanks to the absurdist comedy. It’s brilliant.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Stevens; screenplay by Robert Russell, Frank Ross, Richard Flournoy and Lewis R. Foster, based on a story by Russell and Ross; director of photography, Ted Tetzlaff; edited by Otto Meyer; music by Leigh Harline; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jean Arthur (Connie Milligan), Joel McCrea (Joe Carter), Charles Coburn (Benjamin Dingle), Richard Gaines (Charles J. Pendergast), Bruce Bennett (FBI Agent Evans), Frank Sully (FBI Agent Pike), Donald Douglas (FBI Agent Harding), Clyde Fillmore (Senator Noonan) and Stanley Clements (Morton Rodakiewicz).


The Whole Town’s Talking (1935, John Ford)

The Whole Town’s Talking has some peculiar third act problems, but it also has this extraordinary first act set over three scenes and twenty-some minutes, which evens things out.

Some of the problem might stem from Town’s plot–mild-mannered office clerk Edward G. Robinson just happens to look like a famous gangster and is falsely arrested. The actual gangster shows up and Robinson gets to act off Robinson. The second half of the picture is often just Robinson. He can carry it–and cinematographer Joseph H. August excels at the process photography (though not the projection shots)–it’s just odd.

Also, the gangster doesn’t come into the film until the second act; he’s not a predicted permanent fixture. Not like Jean Arthur, the omnipresent love interest whose vanishes signals the awkward finish. She and Robinson are great together; director Ford introduces most of the main cast quickly and then uses repetition to establish them. No one has a deep back story but they’re all fully drawn.

As for Ford’s directing of a gangster spoof–he does really well with the actors. Robinson, Arthur, Arthur Byron, Donald Meek–Edward Brophy is good in a small part. Ford does okay with the backlot shooting, but he’s a little unsure with the mellow scenes. Lots of people standing.

Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin’s script is strong, though they do forget a joke.

The finale also redeems itself with Ford letting Robinson eschew the comedy for moral complexity.

Town’s unique and good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Ford; screenplay by Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin, based on a story by W.R. Burnett; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Viola Lawrence; produced by Ford and Lester Cowan; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Edward G. Robinson (Arthur Ferguson Jones), Jean Arthur (Miss Clark), Arthur Hohl (Detective Sergeant Boyle), James Donlan (Detective Sergeant Howe), Arthur Byron (Spencer), Wallace Ford (Healy), Donald Meek (Hoyt), Etienne Girardot (Seaver), Edward Brophy (‘Slugs’ Martin) and Paul Harvey (‘J.G.’ Carpenter).


The Devil and Miss Jones (1941, Sam Wood)

The Devil and Miss Jones has three or four stages in the narrative, but director Sam Wood basically has three. The first phase–covering the first two narrative stages–feature this singular composition technique. For close-ups, Wood either gives his actors a lot of headroom (fifty percent of the frame) or almost none. Harry Stradling Sr. shoots Jones and the photography’s magnificent, so both type of shot looks great, but with the department store setting, the extra headroom shots are always very full. It makes the film extremely visually distinctive.

In the second two phases of Wood’s direction, he changes it up a little, but retains the deliberate close-ups. Jean Arthur (who gets top billing) doesn’t even become the protagonist until about the halfway point; the close-ups make the handoff–from Charles Coburn to her–work beautifully.

The film has six essentials–Wood, Arthur, Coburn, Robert Cummings as Arthur’s beau, Spring Byington as her friend, and–possibly most importantly–writer Norman Krasna. Krasna’s script for Jones is a masterpiece, in plotting, in pacing, in every possible way. He even pulls off a relatively awkward finish.

It’s a pro-worker social comedy, with Coburn a fat cat who decides to spy on his employees to sabotage their union organizing. Arthur, Cummings and Byington are the employees he dupes. Great interactions with all the principals, obviously with Arthur and Coburn, but there’s a lot of nice moments with Arthur and Cummings and Coburn and Byington too.

Jones’s pure magic.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Wood; written by Norman Krasna; director of photography, Harry Stradling Sr.; edited by Sherman Todd; production designer, William Cameron Menzies; produced by Frank Ross; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Charles Coburn (Merrick), Jean Arthur (Mary), Robert Cummings (Joe), Spring Byington (Elizabeth), S.Z. Sakall (George), Edmund Gwenn (Hooper), Walter Kingsford (Allison), Montagu Love (Harrison), Richard Carle (Oliver), Charles Waldron (Needles), Edwin Maxwell (Withers), William Demarest (First Detective), Regis Toomey (1st Policeman) and Edward McNamara (Police Sergeant).


The Greene Murder Case (1929, Frank Tuttle)

If it weren’t so predictable, The Greene Murder Case would be a little better. Not much better–part of the film’s charm is the obvious foreshadowing, since director Tuttle’s obviously on a limited budget and he couldn’t do much anyway.

There are no natural exteriors, which is fine; the one artificial exterior–Tuttle’s establishing shots tend to be of people in offices or rooms–is fantastic. The majority of the film takes place in a large house and the roof plays into the film for a few scenes. At first, it appears to be a model with special effects putting people on the roof. But then the people start interacting with the rest of the house. It’s unclear how they accomplished the effect, but it looks fantastic.

With these Philo Vance films, I’m always curious why William Powell gets top billing… he barely has a presence. Tuttle often shoots over his shoulder to the suspects even. He’s fine; Greene doesn’t ask a lot from him. Eugene Pallette’s mildly amusing as his sidekick. Pallette’s the comedy relief, but not over the top.

The suspects are also the potential victims in Greene. Jean Arthur is okay. Her role’s a little broad. The script really does none of the actors any favors but Ullrich Haupt is worth a mention. First, he’s terrible. Second, he’s supposed to be a devastatingly handsome stud but he’s this wormy German guy. It’s funny.

Greene isn’t not much of a mystery, but it’s not a bad seventy minutes.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Louise Long, adaptation and dialogue by Bartlett Cormack, based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Verna Willis; music by Karl Hajos; produced by B.P. Schulberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Philo Vance), Florence Eldridge (Sibella Greene), Ullrich Haupt (Dr. Arthur Von Blon), Jean Arthur (Ada Greene), Eugene Pallette (Sgt. Ernest Heath), E.H. Calvert (Dist. Atty. John F.X. Markham), Gertrude Norman (Mrs. Tobias Greene), Lowell Drew (Chester Greene), Morgan Farley (Rex Greene), Brandon Hurst (Sproot), Augusta Burmeister (Mrs. Gertrude Mannheim) and Marcia Harris (Hemming).


The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936, Stephen Roberts)

With a better director, a competent editor and a slightly stronger screenplay, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford might be more than an amusing diversion. While William Powell and Jean Arthur are great together, the film underuses them in general and her in particular. There’s this great dinner scene where she’s seeing if they’re going to get poisoned by jello (something she neglects to tell him). It’s a long and wonderful scene and apparently director Roberts didn’t realize he needed to use it as the standard, not the exception.

Roberts’s weak composition and lack of coverage combined with Arthur Roberts’s hideous editing (it’s unclear if they’re related) do a lot of damage to the film. Anthony Veiller’s script has some great dialogue but the plotting is rushed, especially for a murder mystery. Also unfortunate is Veiller’s inept finish. He modifies the Thin Man dinner party revelation to include unlikely technology gimmicks.

While the film actually doesn’t share a lot in details or tone with Powell’s Thin Man series; he’s not just sober, he’s also a responsible adult. Arthur is tenacious, but she’s an aspiring murder mystery novelist, so there’s some context. They’re both wealthy, which means Powell’s got a sidekick in butler Eric Blore.

A tired James Gleason shows up as the requisite cop (he gets the film’s worst dialogue). Robert Armstrong is the best in the supporting cast as a bookie. Erin O’Brien-Moore is shockingly bad as a suspect.

The film’s amiable enough, but it should’ve been a lot better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Roberts; screenplay by Anthony Veiller, based on a story by James Edward Grant; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Arthur Roberts; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Dr. Lawrence Bradford), Jean Arthur (Paula Bradford), James Gleason (Inspector Corrigan), Eric Blore (Stokes), Robert Armstrong (Nick Martel), Lila Lee (Miss Prentiss), Grant Mitchell (John Summers), Erin O’Brien-Moore (Mrs. Summers), Ralph Morgan (Leroy Hutchins) and Lucile Gleason (Mrs. Hutchins).


The Canary Murder Case (1929, Malcolm St. Clair and Frank Tuttle)

As an example of a transitional sound film–Canary Murder Case was filmed as a silent, then reconfigured as a talkie–the film’s very interesting. It’s an early talkie (1929) so there’s no sound design–there’s rarely any noise besides the talking and few sound effects, the actors aren’t ready for talking (for the most part), and the direction, even of the talkie-specific scenes, is awkward and paced for a silent film. People say their line, wait a few seconds, either for a title card or a cut, then someone else says his or her line. It’s disjointed, which surprised me, since I figured I’d just get used to it.

William Powell’s fine in the “lead,” except, while the film’s a “Philo Vance mystery,” Powell has very little to do in the film. He’s an accessory to the police and his single solo scene is a summary sequence of him up all night figuring out the solution. I too figured out the solution and had Philo Vance read more, specifically Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, he wouldn’t have had to stay up all night. The only other amusing actor is Eugene Pallette, who was in the other Powell Vance film I’ve seen too, and even he’s having trouble finding his footing in the talkie atmosphere. He does have some funny moments, which is an achievement, since all the other attempts in the film fall completely flat.

As the titular canary, Louise Brooks leaves little impression. I wasn’t paying attention during the opening titles or something and, since I’ve never actually seen any of her other films, it took me a second to realize who she was when she showed up (I thought the female lead was going to be Jean Arthur, who’s a brunette in the film and barely in it). The greatest impression Brooks’s character does leave, however, is she’s a crook… and when the film’s conclusion is her murder’s justified (agreeing with what the audience already thinks), it makes the whole thing a somewhat pointless experience.

The direction, compositionally, is boring, so there’s little driving the film. Past the long set-up, which I suppose is supposed to be interesting because of Brooks’s presence, there’s almost nothing going on. It’s a very long eighty minutes, though the section where the detective decides a poker game is the best way to discover a murderer is nice and there is one excellent plot development, which in a different film (a better one) would give the characters some real angst. But not so in this one.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Malcolm St. Clair and Frank Tuttle; screenplay by Albert S. Le Vino, Florence Ryerson and S.S. Van Dine, based on Van Dine’s novel; directors of photography, Cliff Blackstone and Harry Fischbeck; edited by William Shea; music by Karl Hajos; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Philo Vance), Louise Brooks (Margaret Odell), Jean Arthur (Alys LaFosse), James Hall (Jimmy Spotswoode), Charles Lane (Charles Spotswoode), Eugene Pallete (Sgt. Heath), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Dr. Ambrose Lindquist), Lawrence Grant (Charles Cleaver), Ned Sparks (Tony Sheel), Louis John Bartels (Louis Mannix) and E.H. Calvert (District Attorney Markham).


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