Friday, February 1, 2013

The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939)

movie poster
As a friend of mine, Michael Schlesinger, wrote: "It was an irresistible idea." But it should never have been made. Perhaps it could have been better. Either way, The Gracie Allen Murder Case, a 1939 Paramount motion-picture, should include a suicide hotline number.
About seven years ago I saw the movie for the first time. It had been unavailable on the television markets since the 1970s, but when The Gracie Allen Murder Case finally made it to home video in 2006 through Video Attic (and then on DVD in 2008 through Nostalgia Family), I took advantage of the opportunity and spent the evening watching the movie friends recommended. I enjoy the George Burns and Gracie Allen radio show, so why not a movie starring Gracie Allen? After all, she gets top billing over Warren William.

Seventy-eight minutes later, I was not laughing. Only one chuckle. My opinion was etched in stone. The film wasn't very funny. I thought my friends were going to shoot me when I delivered my opinion but, over the years, I later came to the conclusion that others felt the same way as I do. One of the flaws is that Warren William, star of The Mind Reader (1933) and four of the six Perry Mason movies (which I enjoyed, by the way), never shows up for a half-hour and when he does, he's the straight man. When Gracie cracks a joke, William pauses momentarily (obviously so the audience can have a few seconds to laugh). He's great as a straight man, but he was much better as Perry Mason.

Title screen for The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939).
William Powell was the first Philo Vance, having starred in three Vance movies including The Canary Murder Case (1929) and The Benson Murder Case (1930). Powell was great as Vance. But when he went to MGM and starred in The Thin Man movies, his character shined and dominated the Paramount mysteries. The Philo Vance movies were financially successful for the studio, Paramount, which housed Gracie Allen in a number of motion pictures. So it seemed only fitting that the studio team them up for a big production.

Just after Christmas of 1937, Van Dine agreed for $25,000 to supply Paramount Pictures a 3,000 word outline of a Philo Vance mystery to star Gracie Allen and, it was assumed, her husband and straight man, George Burns. Reportedly Burns would bow out after seeing the first draft of the screenplay. Under contract, Paramount could do anything they liked with Van Dine's outline while he went his own way and published his novel based on the original outline.
The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939) did not became one of the studio's more profitable pictures that year and it's probably because Gracie tries too hard to be more dumb than she depicted on her weekly radio program. And yes, publicity for the movie was inserted by the announcer's closing comments at the end of each radio broadcast at the time the picture came to theaters. And yes, there can be a bit too much Gracie. The only cute part of the picture is Gracie repeatedly referring to the detective as "Fido."

The Gracie Allen Murder Case
In any case, the film was made and Van Dine made his "novelization" (retaining the George Burns character from the original outline). Both movie - opening in New York June 8, 1939 - and book flopped, but Van Dine went on that year to do one more Philo Vance mystery (this time prompted by an offer from Fox Films for him to build a Philo Vance novel around their latest star, Olympic champion skater Sonja Henie, to be filmed later). The mystery was called The Winter Murder Case and was in its final stages of pre-publication when Van Dine succumbed to a heart attack on April 11, 1940. Some have theorized that Gracie Allen's starring vehicle meant the decline of the Philo Vance mysteries but, in all fairness, that decline began a couple years prior.

There would be one more posthumous Philo Vance movie from Warner Brothers, Calling Philo Vance, a remake of The Kennel Murder Case, and three more from a poverty row studio in 1947. The Gracie Allen Murder Case was the last during Van Dine's lifetime and with his direct participation. Fox later reworked Van Dine's last story, omitting the character of Philo Vance entirely, to make "The Sonja Henie Murder Case," which was ultimately released as Sun Valley Serenade!

In March of 2012, I had the opportunity to watch the movie a second time, thanks to the selection of movies at the Cinefest Convention held annually in Syracuse, New York. Now with an audience that (I hoped) would add a sense of laughter to the sound track, I had hoped the film would be funnier the second time around. After all, Laurel and Hardy shorts are funny when you watch them by yourself. They are hilarious when you watch them in a theater filled with people laughing. The projectionists set up both reels, the lights dimmed down, the sound of popcorn crunching diminished with the soundtrack during the Paramount Pictures logo.... and away we go!

Two projectors cued and ready to screen the movie.

The projectionist sets up for the late-night showing at Cinefest.

Close-up of one of the projectors.


Noted trivia to keep an eye out for. Gracie sings "Snug as a Bug in a Rug," co-written by Matty Malneck, who composed and conducted music for many radio comedies including Duffy's Tavern. Gracie makes a reference that "cigarettes never hurt anyone." Gracie makes a reference that she heard "Fido Vance" on the radio. And there's an indirect reference to former Vance cases including The Canary Murder Case, The Benson Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case.

Seventy-eight minutes later I was still not laughing. How much you enjoy The Gracie Allen Murder Case will entirely depend on how much you like Gracie Allen as a comedian.

S.S. Van Dine wrote The Gracie Allen Murder Case in 1938 to introduce his real life friend, Gracie Allen, into a Philo Vance Murder Mystery. George Burns made a appearance in the novel as the head perfume-smeller at the In-O-Scent Perfume Corporation, but is not in the movie version of the novel. In classic Gracie style, when Van Dine was working on the novel, Gracie quipped, "S.S. Van Dine is silly to spend six months writing a novel when you can buy one for two dollars and ninety-eight cents." The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938) (also published as The Scent of Murder) was the eleventh of twelve detective novels by S.S. Van Dine. Can anyone tell me if I will enjoy the novel more than the movie? Because I fear in doing so, I'll waste five hours of my life I will never get back.

Closing comment: Cinefest is held annually in March in Syracuse, New York. Their web-site is and if you are withing driving distance of the event, I recommend you take a day and check it out. Vendors sell everything from magazines, comics, books, DVDs, posters, lobby cards and much more. The selection of movies ranges from silents to 1940s star-studded musicals. Almost all of the films they screen are not available commercially which means the films they screen are rare. Even Leonard Maltin attends and raves about the event in his blog. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Photo of old movie, screen and old-time radio magazines.

Books available for sale at Cinefest in the vendor room.

78 records available for sale at Cinefest in the vendor room.

1 comment:

Steve Winer said...

By all means, if you don't like the movie, avoid the book. At least the film had Gracie-style jokes. In the book she just rambles on in "wacky" fashion without ever landing on a gag. In fact, the book would work as an excellent teaching tool to illustrate the difference between professional comedy writers and people who just think they're funny.

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