11 September 2005 | eschetic
Are you a Fan of Gracie's or of S.S. Van Dine?
Willard Huntington Wright, the goateed, urbane former editor of "The Smart Set" had carved himself a successful cottage industry with his nom-de-plume, S.S. VanDine and THEIR urbane creation, detective Philo Vance in the 1920's and 30's both on the page and the screen. Wright/VanDine shopped Vance through a variety of studios and actors, with two actors becoming particularly identified with the creation - William Powell, before deserting Vance for Dashiel Hammett's even better crafted light comic detective, Nick Charles (did Hammett take the hint from VanDine's wildly popular KENNEL MURDER CASE to give Nick and Nora Charles their clue sniffing wire haired terrier, Asta?), and the screen's original Perry Mason, William Warren who tried to hold his own opposite Gracie Allen in this effort.
Wright was nearer the end of a fairly illustrious career than he probably realized when, just after Christmas of 1937 according to John Loughery's 1992 biography ("Alias S.S. Van Dine - The man Who Created Philo Vance"), he agreed for $25,000 (in 1937 dollars) 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. Burns would bow out after seeing the first draft of the screenplay. Paramount (Nat Perrin would be credited with the disastrous screenplay) could do anything they liked with Van Dine's outline (and indeed they did) while he went his own way and published his novel based on the original outline.
To Van Dine's chagrin, Paramount felt HIS version had too much Philo and not enough Gracie, though there's little to prove that in this film with Gracie Allen (being hilariously "Gracie" for her many fans) blindly incriminating every innocent person she cares about, and nearly destroying Philo's determined investigation (she insists on calling him Fido, no matter how often corrected).
Perhaps the FUNNIEST thing in the film is William Warren's ever higher arched eyebrows as Gracie butts in over and over - very nearly getting both of them killed in the process.
In any case, the film was made and Van Dine made his "novelization" (retaining his 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.
There would be one more posthumous Philo Vance movie from Warner Brothers (CALLING PHILO VANCE - a lesser remake of THE KENNEL MURDER CASE), and three from a poverty row studio in 1947, but THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE would be the last during Van Dine's lifetime and with his direct participation. Fox reworked Van Dine's last story - omitting Vance entirely(!) - to make the "Sonja Henie Murder Case" (the name they had originally wanted for "The Winter Murder Case") as SUN VALLEY SERENADE!
How much you enjoy THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE will entirely depend on how much you like the wacky charms of Gracie Allen. Set yourself up with a couple Burns and Allen shorts before hand and it is certainly wacky fun for fans - but for solid 30's mystery fans, it borders on the painful. Paramount's Perrin threw motivations and clues - anything that couldn't be mangled by Gracie's unique sensibility - out the window.
The peripheral pleasures are VERY peripheral but undeniable. Gracie gets to sing most pleasantly a Frank Loesser song ("Snug As A Bug In A Rug" - it was published with all "Gracie's" confused lyrics intact) which you WILL have trouble getting out of your mind, and there's a good deal of wonderful Loesser ("Two Sleepy People" especially) in the background. Some lines - like Gracie's flat insistence that "cigarettes never hurt anyone" - meant with specific plot related comic irony in the film - play with decidedly macabre overtones today!
The film which taught Gracie NEVER to appear on screen without George (and she never did after this semi-fiasco) is still fun for fans, but if you want to see comic stars in unexpected settings, better you should track down a copy of the similarly flawed, but on the whole more satisfying LOVE THY NEIGHBOR - also from Paramount, a year later - in which their promising starlet Mary Martin joins established stars Jack Benny and Fred Allen in a film extension of their famous radio "feud."
Martin's entirely delightful Paramount films are now entirely overshadowed by her later Broadway triumphs . . . the stunning success Burns & Allen had on radio and (from 1950 to 1958) on television situation comedy has largely overshadowed their brief film career (George and Gracie with Fred Astaire and Gershwin music were delightful in the DAMSEL IN DISTRESS two years earlier) and especially THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE, but an occasional exhumation of the corpse may be worth it for true fans and the curious.