(1906 - 1987)
The fascinating and entertaining Mary Astor Blogathon continues. Many thanks to our hosts, Dorian of Tales of the Easily Distracted and Ruth of Silver Screenings.
Mary Astor was born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke in Illinois. The attractive and imaginative only child of driven parents, she became the focus of their thwarted ambitions and the family breadwinner. The route to success lay in show business and while looks were the key to opportunities on the screen in time Mary discovered a skill to provide independence and a craft in which she ultimately took some pride. In a career that spanned silent films to live television Mary found few roles that she would acknowledge as worthy. Mired in "mother roles" at MGM or playing "decorative dolls" did not sit well with the strong-minded Ms. Astor.
One of my favourite of Mary's performances is of the duplicitous Brigid O'Shaughnessy in John Huston's darkly humorous thriller The Maltese Falcon based on Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel. In scene after scene, Mary is perfection as the adventuress. It is a performance that inspires me to want to rush the sound stage and thump Mary on the back, shout hooray and perhaps even do a little celebration dance. I think Ms. Astor would be less than impressed with such effusiveness from a stranger, but it's her own fault for being so good.
Many of us fans who live on the right side of the law enjoy nothing better than a good crime novel or mystery movie. Alongside The Maltese Falcon, Mary Astor features prominently in the two other literary/film treats we will look at today.
THE KENNEL MURDER CASE (1933)
S.S. Van Dine is the pen name of Williard Huntington Wright, the ne-er-do-well son of a wealthy family whose ambitions and education outstripped his means during most of his life. Illnesses and a drug habit added to his troubles. During a prolonged illness he followed the advice of a friend and worked on constructing a mystery novel which proved popular beyond imagination. The mysteries solved by wealthy amateur sleuth Philo Vance are chronicled in novel form by his attorney S.S. Vane Dine. The stories are set among the wealthy in New York City and are intricate puzzles to tantalize the reader. The first of the stories was The Benson Murder Case in 1926. The actor most associated with the role is William Powell who played Vance in 1929s The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case. In 1930 he starred in The Benson Murder Case and in 1933 The Kennel Murder Case. Basil Rathbone, Edmund Lowe, Warren William, Paul Lukas and James Stephenson are some of the other actors who had a crack at Vance. As befits a man who once edited a magazine called The Smart Set, Van Dine knew a lot of words and seems to use them all in his stories. While I might find a Vance story ultimately satisfying, I do find them quite a slog. However, the film The Kennel Murder Case is a dandy. Directed by Michael Curtiz with his usual flair for entertainment he keeps the pace brisk with a series of wipes and juggles the suspects with aplomb.
Our characters are introduced at the Long Island Kennel Club competition. Vance's adorable Scottie, Captain MacTavish is an entrant, but not a semi-finalist. There is bad blood between two of the finalists Archer Coe (Robert Barrett, Heroes for Sale) and Colonel Thomas MacDonald (Paul Cavanagh, The Scarlet Claw) and when MacDonald's pooch Ghillie is found killed suspicion falls on Coe. When Coe is killed suspicion falls on just about everybody else in the movie. He was not a well-liked man. For starters, there are about two million Chinese distilled into his Cambridge educated cook Liang (James Lee) who is disturbed by Coe's collecting of revered Chinese artifacts. There is Brisbane Coe (Frank Conroy, The Ox-Bow Incident). Brotherly love are just words between Brisbane and Archer. There is Archer's belittled secretary Raymond Wrede (Ralph Morgan, No Greater Glory). Edward Grassi (Jack LaRue, The Story of Temple Drake) has not only been cheated on a business deal with Coe, he's been seeing Coe's girl on the side Doris Delafield (Helen Vinson, Torrid Zone). Gamble, the butler (Arthur Hohl, Island of Lost Souls) is not all he seems. We can't leave out Hilda Lake played by Mary Astor. Hilda is Archer's niece and she resents not only his tight fist on the purse strings, but his jealous control over her personal life.
Archer Coe is found dead in his locked bedroom, an apparent suicide. When Philo Vance hears the news over the radio he suspects murder and cancels a planned ocean voyage to assist District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade, brother of Edward McWade) and Detective Heath (Eugene Pallette, The Adventures of Robin Hood). The coroner Dr. Doremus (Etienne Girardot, The Whole Town's Talking) is a scene stealer who must be the great-great-grandfather of "Bones" McCoy with lines such as "I'm a doctor, not a magician" and "I'm the city butcher, not a detective." The spin-off boys dropped the ball with this character.
As the only gals in the proceedings Ms. Astor and Ms. Vinson get to wear Orry-Kelly gowns. Ms. Vinson, as a shady lady, enjoys off the shoulder negligees and day dresses with a bit of spangle. Ms. Astor is always perfectly tailored and accessorized. Both ladies have a fiery nature. They had legitimate reasons to hate Archer Coe which make them suspects. They both place themselves in conflict with the investigators when they suspect their lovers may be involved in the killing. Philo Vance, in his usual methodical manner unravels the locked room puzzle, but Hilda Lake is paramount in bringing the criminal to justice. The movie is very entertaining thanks in large part to William Powell who makes Philo Vance a more appealing fellow than he appears in print.
THE CASE OF THE HOWLING DOG (1934)
Erle Stanley Gardner was a rambunctious youngster who became an energetic and successful lawyer, author of mystery fiction as well as books on travel and conservation. Along with other legal professionals he started the so-called Court of Last Resort to assist the wrongly convicted. I highly recommend Dorothy B. Hughes' The Case of the Real Perry Mason for Gardner's fascinating life story. Gardner's most famous protagonist and greatest gift to popular fiction is Perry Mason. I love kicking back with one of the Mason page turners. Perry Mason goes beyond the extra mile for his clients and it echoes much of Gardner's thinking that the "law" has everything on its side in terms of power and resources and anything a lawyer has to do to assist his client is only right. The first Mason novel was published in 1933, The Case of the Velvet Claws followed by The Case of the Sulky Girl and in 1934 by The Case of the Lucky Legs and The Case of the Howling Dog. If I had to choose only one favourite Gardner story (please, don't make me!) it would be The Case of the Howling Dog as it packed a real emotional punch upon my first reading. It was this story that Warner Brothers wanted to kick off a series of films based on the popular character. The studio's first thought for the role of Mason was Edward G. Robinson. I would have liked to have seen that. Warren William, whose first screen triumph was as The Mouthpiece and who had just played Philo Vance in The Dragon Murder Case was tapped to be the screen's first Perry Mason and he's wonderful in a first-class production directed by Alan Crosland (The Jazz Singer). Canadian born Helen Trenholme plays a most winning Della Street in one of two movies she made for Warner Brothers before returning to a stage career.
Arthur Cartwright (Gordon Westcott) is a very nervous client. He wants his neighbor's dog to cease its nighttime howling. Is a noisy dog the only thing keeping Cartwright up at night? He seems very interested in that neighbor, Clinton Foley (Russell Hicks, Charlie Chan in Shanghai) and everyone in that household. He seems particularly concerned for Mrs. Clinton Foley. Intrigued by what may be the secret motive behind this client's actions Perry takes on the case which expands to include a Will designed to protect said Mrs. Clinton Foley. When Arthur Cartwright mysteriously disappears Perry finds that he may have a client in someone he has never met and sets about trying to locate Mrs. Clinton Foley beginning by staking out the Foley home. On a dark night a beautiful woman enters the home, voices are raised, a dog barks, shots ring out. The dog and its owner lay dead.
Perry immediately begins working for his client even without her knowledge. Bessie Foley is played by Mary Astor and, again gowned by Orry-Kelly, she looks marvelous. Both cool and hot as a woman in desperate trouble she immediately draws you to her side and you want to protect her. Perry uses all the means at his disposal, especially his favourite of testing the recall of eye witnesses. This was something Gardner used early in his career, not just for the courtroom effect, but because he truly felt that police skewered the process by planting ideas with witnesses prior to line-ups or photo identification.
Suspicious characters abound including Foley's secretary Lucy Benton (Dorothy Tree, The Asphalt Jungle) and her chauffeur boyfriend Joe Sawyer (TVs The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin). Luckily, the police a predisposed to being more helpful than not in the forms of Captain Kelly (Joseph Crehan, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball) and Sgt. Holcomb (Allen Jenkins, Destry Rides Again).
The trial is a testing ground for Perry who becomes a whipping boy for the press when he keeps his client silent. The court of the popular press is willing to give the beautiful Ms. Astor as Bessie Foley every break and Della is sure that once she tells her side of the story everything will fall into place. Perry sticks to his tactics and after turning the courtroom into a circus there is a shocking revelation and his client is freed in an ending which probably wouldn't make the screen in only a few months time. Thank you very much, Mr. Hays.
Run-of-the-mill roles forgotten by their creator immediately the job was done, Mary Astor nonetheless laid the groundwork for one of her most famous characters in these early mysteries from the Golden Age of print detectives.