Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Mary Astor Blogathon: Mary Goes to the Dogs

Mary Astor
(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 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.










37 comments:

  1. Nice work Patricia! I've seen THE KENNEL MURDER CASE and as you mention the film is entertaining. Powell is a joy. I am going to have to keep any eye out for your second feature. I am always up for a good mystery.

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  2. After "The Case of the Howling Dog" the Mason movies are a mixed bag. The studio kept monkeying with the character. They didn't know how good they had it. However, there's something entertaining in most of them and the first one is tops.

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  3. Thanks for solving a riddle for me. What ever happened to Helen Trenholme? She's probably my favorite Della Street in the movie series and I wondered what became of her. For me, she has terrific screen presence and she really seems to be listening to the other characters in the movie. It's hard to describe, but she seems so alive when just standing there listening.

    I guess I shouldn't be going on and on about Helen Trenholme during a Mary Astor blogathon. Yes, Mary is terrific too.

    I like both of these, with special nods to KENNEL. Not a wasted scene and man, does that thing move. And the solution...It could be my favorite locked room mysteries.

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  4. I can certainly understand your fascination with Ms. Trenholme. She played Della perfectly. I guess she was a woman who knew what she wanted, and she didn't want what Hollywood had to offer.

    My husband once said of Curtiz that he probably doesn't know how to make a bad movie. He's my desert island director. It's interesting that in two long careers "Kennel" is the only time Curtiz and Astor worked together.

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  5. As far as murder mystery films go, THE KENNEL MURDER CASE, just doesn't get any better with it's many twists and turns that make this film a fast-moving, fun mystery.


    Warren Williams, is my favorite Perry Mason, I loved his humor. Mary Astor, with her small, but very important part was great as the woman with the shady past. In the classic film, THE HOWLING DOG.

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  6. I'd get in trouble just to have Warren William take care of me!

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  7. Love this: "Perry sticks to his tactics and after turning the courtroom into a circus there is a shocking revelation 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." Well, now I just have to go get this movie, don't I?

    Smashing double-header, my dear.

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  8. There's nothing else for you to do, JTL. I rest my case.

    Thanks. I had fun with Mary and the movies.

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  9. CW, what a brilliant for a double-feature post! THE KENNEL MURDER CASE is lively, satisfying mystery. However, having read the novels, too--I thought William Powell was too nice for Philo. My choice for best Vance is Warren William!

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  10. Rick, I think you're unto something. Warren gave Vance that touch of aloofness that characterized him in the books.

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  11. Great title for your post! I love that you paired these two "canine" movies.

    "The Kennel Murder Case" is a fave of mine, and will keep an eye out for "The Case of the Howling Dog".

    Thanks for participating in our blogathon.

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  12. Thank you and Dorian for coming up with the concept of the Astor blogathon. It's been a privilege to participate. I've learned a great deal about the enigmatic Mary as seen through the eyes of her many fans.

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  13. Caftan Woman, I've been looking forward to your Philo Vance/Perry Mason double-feature, and I'm loving it! I may be a little biased toward our beloved William Powell after he won me over as Nick Charles in THE THIN MAN, but Warren William's version of Perry Mason is fun to watch, with his smart-aleck tactics! :-) Either way, both films always have me glued to my seat -- even more so, with not only these two iconic detectives, but also our gal Mary as a lovely and sympathetic leading lady!

    But holy cats, how the heck did I miss hearing that one of my favorite mystery authors, Dorothy B. Hughes, wrote a nonfiction book about Erle Stanley Gardner, THE CASE OF THE REAL PERRY MASON Thanks for the tip, and furthermore, thanks ever so much for joining our Mary Astor Blogathon double-feature fun and frolic! :-D

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  14. I own both of these films. (I got the whole Perry Mason set for Christmas.) You are so right, Mary used these "programmers" to learn the mystery genre. Plus, she always brought a certain class to any movie she was in.

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  15. Wonderful choices, CW! You know, whenever I see those Thin Man series I always think "yeah, Myrna Loy is tops, but what if they had picked Mary Astor?"

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  16. Thanks, Dorian. I'm having a great time reading all of the articles for the blogathon and it was especially fun to participate. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and I know you'll like Dorothy's book on Erle Stanley Gardner.

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  17. Hey, Gilby, you received a swell Christmas present. Did you have to leave a large hint? I'll have to see if I can work Santa for next year.

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  18. FlickChick, you raise an interesting and slightly disturbing thought. Mary as Nora. H'm. I'll get no rest tonight.

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  19. Amazing commentary as always, CW! Shamefully, I've seen neither of these films and now intend to as a double-feature with this post by my side.

    Aurora

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  20. Thanks, Aurora. When you find yourself in a mood for detecting, these two movies will make a fun double bill.

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  21. These two detective films sound like great fun from your review, Patricia. I've been wanting to see William Powell as Vance ever since seeing the trailer for 'The Thin Man' where Powell-as-Vance discusses life as a detective with Powell-as-Nick! Will hope to see both of these before too long - this blogathon has led to my list of films to watch growing longer than ever. Judy

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  22. I haven't watched any of these, but I'm now interest in The Kennel Murder Case, since I can't let go a Bill Powell movie.
    Thanks ofr the informations!
    Kisses!

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  23. Judy, isn't that trailer with Powell as his two famous characters terrific? Great idea by somebody at the studio and Bill pulled if off beautifully. Have fun playing detective.

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  24. Leticia, "The Kennel Murder Case" should be easy to find. They even have the full movie on the IMDb. William Powell is waiting for you!

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  25. Enjoyed your post a lot! TCM has shown The Kennel Murder Case before and I've never watched it. Hoping the next time they air it, I dvr it.

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  26. I do love "The Kennel Murder Case" despite in small flaws, and I am sorry to say that I haven't seen "The Case of the Howling Dog"... yet anyways. I might just have to go over to Imdb and watch this great film again. Thanks again for a wonderfully entertaining post.

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  27. CW,
    I was thrilled that you chose Astor in her fun little mysteries. (My favorite genre during this era and I know you do love them as well. Seen any Chan lately? *wink)

    I thought Powell and Astor worked well together. I enjoyed their chemistry. I mentioned on another review that I wish Astor had been offered more opportunities to work with Powell and others like him as well as spreading her wings in more comedies and snarkier roles like Lombard and Loy.

    A really enjoyable read on Astor as her most entertaining for me.

    The perfect contribution to the Blogathon.

    Happy Mothers Day to you, CW!
    Page

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  28. Two movies I thought I'd seen, but turns out I probably didn't. Loved reading your reviews, Pat. But the plots don't ring any bells in my feeble old brain. Not much bell ringing going on up there these days, at any rate. Ha.

    I love Warren William, but the Perry Mason movies aren't available on youtube anymore. They used to be until someone got wise.

    I'm going to have to bite the bullet and plunk down some cash for the DVDs.

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  29. Paul, for that time when you're in the mood for a nicely-paced B&W mystery you can't go wrong with these guys.

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  30. Page, you know time doesn't pass for me without a Chan filling in the wee hours.

    You are so right about Mary. She really needed to be paired with an equally talented and charismatic leading man, and often, to cement her reputation. Ah, what could have been!

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  31. Any bell ringing around here seems to be calling me a ding-a-ling. When it comes to the charms of old mysteries, like Perry Mason TV episodes, I'm pretty sure I've seen it, but can't recall who did it so it's just like I've never seen it before. I guess it's the answer to a question no one asks: when is a re-watch not a re-watch.

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  32. Portraits by Jenni, I'll bet your DVR is pretty full up with TCM faves.

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  33. It's been many years since I've seen "The Kennel Murder Case" but I remember it as being a fine film. Nice contribution to the Mary Astor blogathon!

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  34. Caftan Woman, if it's any help to you, I've recently been seeing the 1930s PERRY MASON movies on TCM on Saturday mornings. I hope that helps!

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  35. Thanks, Classic Film Boy. Curtiz knew his stuff.

    Dorian, do you sometimes get the feeling that TCM programs their Saturdays just for us?

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  36. CW, yes, sometimes I do indeed suspect TCM programs these particular films for us! Shouldn't they be sending residuals our way? :-)

    Here's something that gave me a chuckle during our Mary Astor Blogathon: in my teens, just for fun, I wrote fan fiction about the stars I liked as a teenager. Well, the idea of teaming up Mary Astor and Myrna Loy as amateur detectives came to mind! Wouldn't that be a hoot? Ah well, maybe if/when I can finally get my novel published, I can pitch that next when I have both inspiration and free time at the same time! Just a thought! :-D

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  37. Dorian, I am in love with your story idea. Get cracking, girl!

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