The Leavenworth Case (1936)

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The Leavenworth Case (1936) Poster

A remarkable monkey may hold the key to the mysterious murder of a wealthy philanthropist.


5.3/10
9

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12 August 2014 | eschetic-2
6
| Plot elements cherry picked from original, still an interesting curio
Tastes have changed significantly since 1891 to 1893, when Broadway star Joseph Haworth (QUO VADIS, JULIUS CAESAR and dozens of others) tried out a stage version of Anna Katharine Green's then wildly popular 1878 first novel, THE LEAVENWORTH CASE, about the murder of the wealthy Horatio Leavenworth who so objects to one of his niece's marrying an Englishman that he is on the verge of disinheriting her. The play did not make it to Broadway (programs survive from the engagements in London, Ontario and Columbus, Ohio, but critics seemed to feel that Haworth was "lowering himself" from playing the classics!), but other plays premiering on the Broadway of 1893 (Oscar Wilde's LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN and A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, Brandon Thomas' CHARLEY'S AUNT or Pinero's THE SECOND MRS. TANQUERAY!) are still regularly done to this day, so it is not just the somewhat stilted language (one of the major factors in relegating the author's once enormously popular mysteries - 22 major mystery novels and countless short stories from 1878 to her death at 88 in 1935 - to modern obscurity) which may have denied us one of the potentially important "Ur" theatrical mysteries. Given Green's still strong, if somewhat "over packed" plotting however, perhaps it could be an interesting rediscovery.

Hollywood took a halting step in that direction with a 1923 silent version of the novel, and Green's name still meant enough nine months after her death that the ads for this second film version in 1936 touted "Most famous of American Mystery Novels . . . the mystery that led the parade of all modern mystery movies!" ("The Leavenworth Case" may have followed the three Edgar Allen Poe short stories generally credited with founding the modern mystery genre - "Murders In The Rue Morgue" was written five years before Anna Katharine Green was born - but it predated the first Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story by nine years!). So was it as advertised in 1936? Well, perhaps not in this version.

This LEAVENWORTH CASE really isn't a bad mystery movie taken on its own by the standards of its day (the casting and direction are a step above what one normally got from second tier Republic Pictures), but the plot elements are very much cherry picked from a bare bones synopsis of the original novel and mixed with other contemporary elements. One cannot object to the omission of a major clue in the original novel that no one "could conceive of a woman dirtying her hands by oiling and cleaning a gun" (the original murder was by gunshot - only the omitted secondary murder was by poison!) but then neither the chief "red herring" suspect nor the eventually revealed - and fairly satisfying if slightly stereotypical - killer are even IN the original and there was no MONKEY! Between the first film of MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) and KING KONG (1933), monkeys - OK, gorillas (upgraded from an orangutan for Hollywood's ...RUE MORGUE) - were big in Hollywood at the start of the Great Depression - the 7th billed little spider monkey, Jojo, in this remake of THE LEAVENWORTH CASE must have seemed a real step down for Republic!

Bottom line: not really a fair representation of the source, but a fairly entertaining programmer and worth seeking out for its back story as much as its actual surviving and acceptably entertaining plot. Students of the mystery genre should at least KNOW about THE LEAVENWORTH CASE.

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