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Philo Vance, man of a thousand faces...


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Or at least a half dozen. Tomorrow morning starting at 8am est TCM is airing 6 Philo Vance murder mystery films, all made in the 1930s and each film has a different actor in the lead role. Doesn't that seem strange, making all of those films and not having one or maybe two actors repeating the role. William Powell was the only actor to play the part with any regularity (4 films) and maybe if he never done *The Thin Man* and become associated with "Nick Charles" Powell may have done another "Philo Vance" film later on. So its the battle of the "Philos" tomorrow morning. . I am way too prejudiced, its William Powell hands down although I think Basil Rathbone has the potential to be portraying another famous detective in the future (wonder who that might be?)

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I agree. His opening scene featured Paul Lukas trying to act "light hearted" with a sword in his hand. William Powell could have done it and made the scene seem funny, I'm sure.

 

Lukas was a good enough actor, I suppose, but hardly one that seemed appropriate for a scene that required a light comic touch, assuming that was what that scene was striving for. Lukas' comic touch had the lightness of an anvil.

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And Roz Russell as the love interest. (And Leo G. Carroll as a butler.)

 

Young Kent Smith and his pencil moustache showed up in the next one, a decade before he fell for Nora Prentiss.

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These are all great films of their kind. I love to watch and listen to these, even though they are fairly "simple".

 

I wonder why they didn't change the name of the detective, when they changed actors? Maybe because the Philo Vance books were so popular.

 

Hey! Maybe it's the same guy, in different disguises!! :P

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Here's a little something I once posted on another forum in answer to the same question (as to why there were so many different Philo Vances):

 

The answer to your question about why so many different actors portrayed Philo Vance lies, among other things, in the fact that the movies were produced at differing studios.

 

The first Vance pictures to be produced were 1929's THE CANARY MURDER CASE, 1930's THE GREENE MURDER CASE, and THE BENSON MURDER CASE, all by Paramount and starring William Powell (and Eugene Pallette as Sgt. Heath).

 

Between GREENE and BENSON, MGM, which had acquired from S.S. Van Dine, the author (actually Willard Wright) the rights to THE BISHOP MURDER CASE, rushed it into production to compete with and to cash in on the successful and popular Paramount efforts with Powell. Their picture starred Basil Rathbone, who was known at that point in his career primarily for playing heavies. Although he was adequate in the part, he did little to make it "his own" as he would with Sherlock Holmes some nine years later.

 

In the meantime, Warners conducted a raid on some Paramount personnel, luring many of their top players, including William Powell, into their fold. As a result, when they acquired from Wright the rights to THE KENNEL MURDER CASE in 1933, it was a foregone conclusion that Powell would repeat the role.

 

Unfortunately, although a very good film, Warners felt that the picture did not do well enough at the box office to justify Powell's salary demands, so when MGM expressed an interest in hiring him away from them, they let him go. This left Warners with the rights to THE DRAGON MURDER CASE in 1934 and no lead actor to play the part, so they determined on Warren William, who acquitted himself quite well in the role.

 

Unfortunately for Warners, MGM acquired the rights to the next two available Vance novels, THE CASINO MURDER CASE (1935) and THE GARDEN MURDER CASE (1936). Because the studio wanted to keep William Powell identified with the Thin Man, they were not interested in having him continue as Philo Vance, so they called on Paul Lukas for CASINO (who's not bad if you can get past his accent) and Edmund Lowe for GARDEN (who's also not bad, but lacks the sophistication that Powell and William brought to the part).

 

In 1937, Paramount chose to remake THE GREENE MURDER CASE as a B-mystery with Grant Richards and called it NIGHT OF MYSTERY. The picture did little for anyone connected with it and remains unseen today.

 

In 1938, Paramount expressed interest to Wright in a new Vance picture in which he would be co-starred with Gracie Allen. Wright published a novelization based on the screenplay, but did not live to see the picture, which was called THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE and was released in 1939. Warren William, who was freelancing at the time, was signed to return to the part of Vance. The level of humor in this film can be judged from the fact that Allen continually refers to him as "Fido." I enjoy the Burns & Allen TV show, but solo, a little of Allen goes a long way for me. In addition, the character of Vance does not even appear until 30 minutes into the 76 minute film!

 

In 1940, Warners chose to remake and update THE KENNEL MURDER CASE as CALLING PHILO VANCE, starring James Stephenson as a somewhat sinister Vance. The film was, in some instances, almost a scene-for-scene remake and wasn't bad, but it was the end of Vance as the character was conceived and written.

 

In 1947, poverty row studio PRC turned out three not bad low-budget Vance films: PHILO VANCE RETURNS with William Wright, and PHILO VANCE'S GAMBLE and PHILO VANCE'S SECRET MISSION, both starring Alan Curtis as Vance. Although enjoyable little B pictures, Vance no longer resembled Wright's creation. Instead, he was a wise-cracking private detective.

 

And that ended Philo Vance's big screen career.

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Nice post. There was another Vance adaptation, THE SCARAB MURDER CASE, made in Britain in 1936 and starring Wilfrid Hyde-White as Vance. It's lost to the ages apparently, not even William K. Everson in his book "The Detective in Film" could comment other than to say it was produced on the cheap.

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Nightwalker, your post was a little more than "a little something", you explained the whole Philo Vance situation quite nicely. Philo, and maybe Nick Charles, would have applauded your explanation. Its a wonder that the public would have so readily accepted all of these different actors playing the same character. Kind of like James Bond, although those films were spread out over a longer period of time and several actors played that part over several years in multiple films. With "Philo" working at so many different studios one could say he set a precedent for future baseball players free agency.

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Very nice post, nightwalker. It was a very interesting day (thank you TCM) of programming - it's nice when TCM remembers why it is on the air - but you are very generous indeed to Lukas (poor Lukas) and Lowe. They were simply awful in the part. Even poor Rathbone and my perennial favorite actor William couldn't touch Powell, as historically interesting as their films were.

 

Powell *was* Vance, period.

 

Stephenson's version was laughable, since the studio decided to interject WWII into The Kennel Murder Case, as Rathbone did with one of the Holmes pictures. However, it _was_ nice to see Toto. According to wikipedia, I missed George Reeves and the son of the woman who no doubt had pictures of the executives, William Hopper.

 

Thank you for the history. Even a bad day of Vance pictures is better than a day of very bad post-1960 films on TCM.

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Even though I am a BIG William Powell fan (he's my number one actor ) I must say this in defense of the other actors; Powell played the character first and did several films so he got to define the character, and he did a very good job. So what does the other actor do? Try to mimic Powell's character or set out to do a different take on Philo Vance? Either way, its a real tough job. And any actor who gets to play a character several times gets to refine his work and establish that character as his own . It also appears that William Powell redefined the character from the books somewhat just as Basil Rathbone would later do with Sherlock Holmes.

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Gambit (1966) and Get Carter (1971) shown this past Tuesday evening were two very good post-1960 films shown on TCM. Michael Caine is and continues to be a marvelous actor. I appreciate TCM showing these two very good films. As long as TCM shows post-1960 films like these interspersed with Golden Age films I have no problem.

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I'm just glad TCM put them all on the streaming site so I can actually watch them at my leisure. Because I just wasn't available that day.

 

That streaming is so convenient. I was able to watch a film just today while waiting around the hospital. Made time really go by quickly.

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Echoing the sentiments of others: wonderful write-up nightwalker!

 

Recently, I was looking at information about SUN VALLEY SERENADE. I read that Van Dine had been approached to write a Philo Vance story for Sonja Henie at Fox, the way he had done for Gracie Allen at Paramount. Supposedly, before he died, he did start the story...but it evolved considerably and wound up as SUN VALLEY SERENADE, with the Vance character eliminated and specialty acts inserted. Is there any truth to this rumor?

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Thanks, TopBilled. My understanding is that when Wright died, he left behind a novella that was indeed intended as a vehicle for Sonja Henie, however, that novella was The Winter Murder Case, which, while available, I haven't read. I'm not aware, though, of any connection between it and Sun Valley Serenade, and IMDB, while listing seven writers in connection with SVS, does not include Wright among them. Still, stranger things have happened...

 

Edited by: nightwalker on Feb 1, 2014 11:53 AM to correct the number of writers involved with Sun Valley Serenade!

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