One of the many performances in THE LETTER (1940) which impressed me was that of English actor James Stephenson who played Bette Davis’s lawyer. His restrained and subtle performance earned him an Oscar nomination but didn’t make his studio, Warner Bros, find him roles worthy of his talent.
This was an actor who made about 20 Hollywood films in a 4 year period. He was 49 at the time of his first film in 1937 and he died suddenly less than a year after the release of The Letter in 1940.
The Letter was the only film I had seen this actor in, so when I saw he had the lead in Calling Philo Vance, I bought the Vance box set. Whilst the film didn’t do Stephenson any favours, it was fascinating to see the Philo Vance films , with 6 different actors playing Vance.
Based on the 12 novels about the Philo Vance detective , the books’ author S.S. Van Dyne somehow managed to sell his stories to four different studios, Paramount, Warner Bros , MGM and P.R.C.
One would have expected that the first studio (Paramount) to do a deal for the books would have wanted exclusivity, but no. It didn’t seem to bother the studios as long as their films came out separately. Quite an unusual situation.
As a result, in this box set of six films, there are 6 actors portraying the famous sleuth. William Powell , Warren William, Basil Rathbone, Edmund Lowe, Paul Lukas and James Stephenson.
(Outwith this box set, William Powell played Vance three times and Warren William played him twice.
In the 1940s, when PRC got the rights to use the Vance name, the final three films were not based on the books. Alan Curtis played Vance twice and William Wright once.)
In the books Vance is described as stylish, debonair, an aristocrat who was an all round expert in everything! He dressed impeccably- and had a butler for his large New York Town house.
Solving cases for the police seemed almost a side line.
William Powell was the first and ,for me, the best Vance. The role, similar to his later ‘Nick Charles’, fitted him perfectly. Next in line I would put Warren William who also conveyed that nonchalant outlook as Vance runs rings round the police. Both these actors had a charm which brought a warmth to the character.
The Dragon Murder Case included two actors I often get confused – Robert Barrat and Robert Warwick – watch this space, I’ll be researching these two!
Least successful was that fine actor Paul Lukas who just seemed miscast. Lukas is so obviously European and ill fitted to play the easy going Manhattan private eye. Though his film,The Casino Murder Case, is the only one that gives Vance the hint of a romance – with a young Rosalind Russell (and another film in which Ms. Russell puts on a faux English accent for no reason.)
Basil Rathbone, in The Bishop Murder Case from 1930, was let down by the static camerawork and slow pace in this early talkie.
Best performance in The Garden Murder Case came from Virginia Bruce. Very impressive. Must see more of Virginia.
Edmund Lowe had the right look but again was let down by a poor script.
By 1940, Warner Brothers weren’t spending much money on a B feature like Calling Philo Vance, so there were just a few sets and lots of dialogue with Vance explaining his theories of the murder as the rest of the cast listen. It was a pretty close remake of The Kennel Murder Case, so that saved money too.
Although the plots weren’t particularly good, it was a pleasure to see all the great character actors in the series.
The Philo Vance stories have three main supporting characters who appear in all the films – the district attorney, ‘Markham’, ‘Sergeant Heath ‘and the coroner ‘Dr Doremus’.
As with the Philo Vance character, you get to decide who you like best playing them as various actors take on the roles over the series.
Favorites for me were Eugene Pallette as Heath, Henry O’Neill as Markham and the wonderful Etienne Girardot who was Dr. Doremus in three of the films.
Ed Brophy, always good, was also likeable as Heath, but some of the others played Sergeant Heath as a buffoon, in particular, Ted Healy and not far behind, Nat Pendleton.
Etienne Girardot (1856-1939), the diminutive actor is memorable as the always harassed and hungry Dr Doremus in three of the Philo Vance films. He brings so much more life to the character than the others who played Doremus – Jimmy Conlan and Charles Sellon.
Born in London to a French father, Girardot came to America in 1893 and spent nearly forty years on Broadway. He was in silent films from 1911 to 1922 and came back in the 1930s. He and Donald Meek were in The Whole Town’s Talking. What a twosome!
Roland Young, in “The Bishop Murder Case”,
Special mention for Roland Young who was very good in The Bishop Murder Case. His acting style was so easy and confident, it showed up the stiffness of the other actors in the early talkie.
Also to be seen in the series were Isabel Jewell, Louise Fazenda, Lyle Talbot, Margaret Lindsay, Eric Blore (as the butler of course), William Demarest,Benita Hume,H.B.Warner, Freida Inescort, Jessie Ralph, Gene Lockhart.
THE SCARAB MURDER CASE (1936) was a quota-quickie made by Paramount in England . Wilfred Hyde-White was an unusual choice for Vance. This film is considered lost.
Philo Vance turned up on the radio in 1946, played by Jose Ferrer and then John Emery. Some of the broadcasts are available online and I will be listening soon.
I’d like to see The Gracie Allen Murder Case (with Warren William), made in 1939. There’s a funny sketch , ‘Murder Will Out’ from Paramount On Parade (1930) in which William Powell as Vance, Eugene Pallette as Heath team up with Sherlock Holmes (Clive Brook) to combat Fu Manchu (Warner Oland.)
So my thanks to James Stephenson for introducing me to this interesting set of films.