In Hollywood detective serials of the 1930s and 1940s, it was downright dangerous to be an industrialist, socialite, European baronet, heiress or well-heeled widow: You had precious little chance of surviving until the end credits. On the other hand, appropriate to your upper class status, a suave, well-dressed sleuth who moved in your circles would be on hand to crack the case. The Saint, The Falcon and Philo Vance are among the above-average movie series that plowed this fertile ground, and one of the very best of the type is this week’s film recommendation: The Kennel Murder Case.
It’s from the Philo Vance series (not that it matters, they were fairly interchangeable) and was made in 1933. Along with the usual solid character actors characteristic of the series, it had A-List stars (William Powell and Mary Astor) and the magnificent Michael Curtiz as the Director. And for dog lovers, there is the further appeal of it being the only film to derive as much entertainment value from a dog show as did Best in Show.
The plot: While his own pooch is competing in a high-class canine show, Vance (William Powell) is called in to solve a murder involving a number of the other dog owners. The nasty, much-hated Arthur Coe (Richard Barrat) has been discovered dead in a locked room, with a bullet hole in his head and a gun in his hand. The police think it’s a clear case of suicide. Vance isn’t convinced, and he becomes even less so when another murder victim is discovered. Suspects are everywhere, including the Chinese servant (James Lee) who didn’t want Coe to sell his prized Oriental artifacts, the butler with the shady past (Arthur Hohl), the long-suffering private secretary (Ralph Morgan), the saucy mistress next door (Helen Vinson) and her new lover (Jack La Rue), the niece (Astor) who resented his control of her inheritance and the bankrupt, titled man who wants to marry her (Paul Cavanagh). Also on hand is the always appealing mountain of an actor Eugene Pallette as Police Sergeant Heath, who always seems one step behind Vance but is at least smart enough to listen to him.
The solution to the mystery is more than a little rococo, and your odds of guessing it are as close to nothing as makes no odds. So copy Sergeant Heath’s approach by just sitting back and watching William Powell, as Philo Vance, work his investigative magic. Continue Reading…