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Saturday Night Cinema: The Kennel Murder Case

Tonight’s Saturday Night Classic feature is a pre-code little gem, The Kennel Murder Case, starring the sophisticated and clever, snappy and always stylishly turned out William Powell and the delicate beauty, “extraordinary grace and a compelling acting style” of Mary Astor.

The Kennel Murder Case is “far and away the best of the Philo Vance pictures and perhaps the finest example of this particular kind of mystery ever made.”

I love pre-code films. Not because they tend to be racier than the Hayes code era films (which of course they are), but they are sharper, more complex, and the dialogue infinitely more interesting. Pre- code refers to the era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound in the late 1920s and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) censorship guidelines.

TCM: The freedom and daring of the period provided opportunities for performers who embraced the racy pre-Code themes. Barbara Stanwyck boldly carved out a career as an independent, sensuous woman of the times in many films including Illicit (1931), Night Nurse (1931), Ladies They Talk About (1933) and, especially, Baby Face (1933), in which she plays a ruthless young beauty who uses sex to get ahead, literally sleeping her way to the top – the highest floor of the bank where she works!

Mae West’s naughtiest double-entendres in such movies as I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong (both 1933, and both featuring Cary Grant) could only have survived in the pre-Code era. Jean Harlow, she of the platinum-blonde hair and revealing costumes, also took advantage of the open sexuality to become a sensation in such vehicles as Red Dust (1932), Red-Headed Woman (1932), Three Wise Girls (1932) and Bombshell (1933).

Although not closely associated with the sensuousness of the period, Bette Davis made her share of hard-hitting pre-Code Warner Bros. dramas that reflected Pre-Code frankness; among these were Ex-Lady (1933), Parachute Jumper (1933) and The Big Shakedown (1934). Another Warners player, Joan Blondell, specialized in playing loose-living “floozies” and was kept busy in such films as Three on a Match (1932), Union Depot (1932), Blonde Crazy (1931) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Another down-to-earth type, Mae Clarke, starred in Waterloo Bridge (1931), Parole Girl (1933), Lady Killer (1933) and Penthouse (1933).

Meanwhile, Norma Shearer held forth at MGM in such racy stories as The Divorcee (1930), for which she won an Academy Award as Best Actress, and A Free Soul (1931), which brought an Oscar to costar Lionel Barrymore. Miriam Hopkins starred in such sophisticated and risqué vehicles as Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933, based on the Noel Coward play), along with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, with Oscar-winning Fredric March in the title roles) and The Story of Temple Drake (1933). Ruth Chatterton appeared in Frisco Jenny (1932) and Female (1933), while clotheshorse Kay Francis was the star of For the Defense (1930), Jewel Robbery (1932) and Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933). Ann Harding was featured in When Ladies Meet and Double Harness (both 1933).

The-kennel-murder-case-1933

 

Often (and accurately) described as a model of the whodunit genre, The Kennel Murder Case stars William Powell, making his fourth screen appearance as S. S. Van Dine’s dilettante detective Philo Vance. This time the story involves intrigue at the Long Island kennel club.

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
William Powell, Eugene Pallette and Mary Astor in the Film of ‘The Kennel Murder Case.’
By MORDAUNT HALL, NY Times
Published: October 30, 1933

William Powell, whose experience as a screen criminologist is second to none, is once again to be seen as S. S. Van Dine’s eminently successful hero, Philo Vance. This time he fathoms the mystery of “The Kennel Murder Case” at the Rialto. The sudden demise of the unpopular Archer Coe may be a case of suicide to those sleuths whose chief boast is their flat feet, but after casting an eye over the body, Mr. Vance is so satisfied that death was due to foul play that it is really surprising to him that even Sergeant Heath should have persisted in declaring that Coe ended his own life.

It is an ingenious and always interesting story. No sooner has Vance actually gone to work on solving the crime than he discovers that Coe’s brother Brisbane also has been slain. Vance is well pleased with himself therefore that be disembarked from a steamship about to leave for Italy to ascertain whether or not Archer Coe had been murdered.

Sergeant Heath is of the same dubious assistance to the modern Sherlock Holmes he has been in other cases, and, as usual, he leaves the screen undaunted by his inability. Heath fumbles for his handcuffs at the end, and even these are found by the hawk-eyed Vance.

Without disclosing any important angle of the story, it can be said that a Dobelman Pinscher, a prize dog which has won several blues, is instrumental in the actual detection of the guilty party. Vance’s Scotty, Captain, also contributes a bit of sleuthing by means of his nose. Hence this tale has every right to be known as “The Kennel Murder Case.”

During the unwinding of the film, a suspicious looking Chinese named Liang puts in an appearance. He talks as if he might have killed Archer Coe. There are several other persons who were not precisely friends of the dead man. Vance, after delivering his ideas concerning the crime, admits that it would be almost impossible to point to the slayer. He believes, however, that the Dobelman Pinscher will be able to settle the question, and the animal supplies the missing link without the least hesitation. In fact, Vance has to save the murderer from the dog’s attack.

William Powell gives his customary clever, sauve personation of Vance. Sergeant Heath returns again in the form of Eugene Pallette, whose performance is excellent. Another splendid portrayal is that delivered by Etienne Girardot, who appears as the coroner’s physician. Arthur Hohl adds to the general interest of this offering by his interpretation of a sinister-looking butler. Mary Astor is charming as Archer Coe’s niece.

THE KENNELL MURDER CASE, based on S. S. Van Dine’s story; directed by Michael Curtiz; a Warner Brothers production. At the Rialto.
Philo Vance . . . . . William Powell
Hilda Lake . . . . . Mary Astor
Sergeant Heath . . . . . Eugene Pallette
Raymond Wrede . . . . . Ralph Morgan
Doctor Doremus . . . . . Etienne Girardot
Sir Bruce MacDonald . . . . . Paul Cavanagh
Doris Delefield . . . . . Helen Vinson
Gamble . . . . . Arthur Hohl
Dubois . . . . . Henry O’Neill
Brisbane Coe . . . . . Frank Conroy
District Attorney Markham . . . . . Robert McWade
Eduardo Grassi . . . . . Jack LaRue
Quackenbush . . . . . Don Brody
Snitkin . . . . . Spencer Charters
Hennessey . . . . . Charles Wilson
Liang . . . . . James Lee
Archer Coe . . . . . Robert Barrat

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