Canary Murder Case, The (1929)

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Pre Code Hollywood Season: FD Cinematheque

The Canary Murder Case (1929)

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Director: Malcolm St Claire, Frank Tuttle (scenes for talkie version)

Cast: William Powell, Jean Arthur, James Hall, Louise Brooks, Charles Lane, Lawrence Grant, Gustav Von Seyfertitz, E H Calvert, Eugene Pallette, Ned Sparks, Margaret Livingston

82 min

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The Canary Murder Case is a 1929 American Pre-Code crimemystery film made by Paramount Pictures, directed by Malcolm St. Clair and Frank Tuttle.

The screenplay was written by Willard Huntington Wright (as S.S. Van Dine), Albert S. Le Vino, and Florence Ryerson, based on novel The Canary Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine.

It was the first film in the series of Philo Vance films adapted from the novels, starring William Powell as Philo Vance, Jean Arthur, James Hall and Louise Brooks as “the Canary”.

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Charles Spotswoode’s son Jimmy became involved with “the Canary”, a conniving star showgirl. Fortunately, Jimmy has regained his senses and reconciled with Alyce LaFosse. However, the Canary is determined to force Jimmy to marry her so she can join the social elite, threatening to reveal that Jimmy was embezzling from his father.

She turns down the elder Spotswoode’s offer of money to leave Jimmy alone. She also telephones two men she has been blackmailing, Cleaver and Mannix, and demands one final generous gift from each of them by the next day.

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She also informs “creepy” admirer Dr. Lindquist. Her ex-husband Tony Sheel eavesdrops and wants half, but she refuses to give him anything, even after he hits her. Cleaver, Mannix and Lindquist are all shown lurking about her apartment building late that night.

Spotswoode visits her at her apartment around midnight, but cannot get her to change her mind. After he reaches the lobby of her building, he and another person hear screams from her place. They knock on the door, but she assures them that she is fine.

The next day, she is found strangled to death. The coroner places the time of death around midnight. District Attorney Markham investigates, aided by Philo Vance (a close friend of Charles Spotswoode) and Police Sergeant Heath. After all the prime suspects are questioned, Vance asks Markham to keep them waiting for a few hours.

William Powell and Louise Brooks

Markham agrees, as Vance has helped solve another case. Vance subtly maneuvers Cleaver, Mannix, Lindquist and the two Spotswoodes into playing poker to pass the time so he can observe their personality traits.

Only one shows the daring, imagination and discipline required for the crime; that man bluffs Vance, betting everything with just a pair of deuces. The suspects are then released.

Only one shows the daring, imagination and discipline required for the crime; that man bluffs Vance, betting everything with just a pair of deuces. The suspects are then released.

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Sheel, who was hiding the closet and witnessed the murder, sends the killer several blackmail letters. For his trouble, he too is strangled. A pen found at the scene has Jimmy’s name on it, so Heath arrests him for the murder. Jimmy then confesses to both murders, but Vance knows better.

He telephones Charles Spotswoode with the news and suggests they meet in an hour. Spotswoode speeds to the city from his country estate to confess, but his chauffeur makes a fatal mistake by trying to beat a train to a crossing, and Spotswoode is killed.

Now Vance has to show how he murdered the Canary in order to free Jimmy. Fortunately, he is able to figure out that the Canary was dead before Spotswoode left her apartment that night. Spotswoode had made a recording (Vance speculates it was Spotswoode himself pretending to be the woman) to fool a stuttering witness into believing she was alive and well. The record is still in the apartment, so Jimmy is released.

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This film was initially made as a silent picture, then reworked as a sound film. Louise Brooks’ refusal to cooperate in the sound version had a major impact on her career.

After filming the silent version, Brooks left for Germany to make two films for director G. W. Pabst. Her option with Paramount Pictures was up, and since the studio would not give her a raise, she saw no reason to remain in Hollywood.

the canary murder case

Months later, Paramount decided to re-shoot some scenes of Canary with recorded dialogue. The studio cabled Brooks in Berlin, demanding that she return to record her lines. She refused, taking the position that she no longer had an obligation to Paramount. Under the purported threat that she would never work in Hollywood again after such open defiance, she bluntly replied, “Who wants to work in Hollywood?”

Paramount spent considerable money to hire actress Margaret Livingston (the “Woman from the City” in F.W. Murnau‘s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) to dub the dialogue for Brooks where possible, as well as to re-shoot some scenes, with Livingston seen only in profile or from behind. The golden age of German cinema soon ended with the rise of Nazism, and Brooks found herself back in Hollywood. She was never able to get good roles there again and soon retired. Though her time as a star was over, her battle with studio moguls helped add to her eventual legend.

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The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


  1. Jump up^ “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains Nominees” (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-05.

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Film Collectors Corner

Watch The Canary Murder Case Now – Amazon Instant Video

Blu Ray

Not released on Blu Ray


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