splash  The Canary Murder Case is a detective story involving an amateur sleuth, a blackmailing showgirl, and the “swells” that surround her. The film was initially shot as a silent, and shortly thereafter reworked for sound. Louise Brooks, who plays the canary, would not dub her lines for the sound version. Her refusal and perceived “difficulty” harmed her career, effectively ending her stardom in the United States.

Based on a bestselling book of the same name, The Canary Murder Case was released to great anticipation. In February, 1929 Motion Picture named the film one of the best for the month, declaring “William Powell is superb. The rest of the players, including Louise Brooks, Jean Arthur, James Hall, Charles Lane, Gustav Von Seyffertitz and many others, win credit.” That opinion, however, was not shared by most. More typical of the reviews the film received was that of the New York World, who declared the film “an example of a good movie plot gone wrong as the result of spoken dialogue.”

Mordaunt Hall, writing in the New York Times, was more generous, “It is on the whole the best talking-mystery production that has been seen, which does not imply that it is without failings. It is quite obvious that Louise Brooks, who impersonates Margaret Odell, alias the Canary, does not speak her lines. Why the producers should have permitted them to be uttered as they are is a mystery far deeper than the story of this picture.” Billboard added “Louise Brooks is mediocre as the Canary, but this does not detract from the production, as she appears in but a few scenes.”

Malcolm St. Clair directed The Canary Murder Case, with Frank Tuttle taking over the sound retakes. The film was released as an 80 minute talkie in most markets, and as a shorter silent in theater’s not yet “wired for sound.” A few publications, such as The Film Daily, reviewed both formats.

Louella Parsons, writing in the Los Angeles Examiner, stated St. Clair “was handicapped by no less a person than Louise Brooks, who plays the Canary. You are conscious that the words spoken do not actually emanate from the mouth of Miss Brooks and you feel that as much of her part as possible has been cut. She is unbelievably bad in a role that should have been well suited to her. Only long shots are permitted of her and even these are far from convincing when she speaks.” Parson’s comments were echoed by Margaret L. Coyne of the Syracuse Post-Standard, who observed, “The only flaw is the substitution of another voice for that of Louise Brooks — the Canary — making necessary a number of subterfuges to disguise the fact.”

All were not fooled. The Oakland Post-Enquirer and other publications eventually caught on. “It is generally known by this time that Margaret Livingston doubled for Louise Brooks in the dialogue sequences. Hence the not quite perfect synchronization in close-ups and the variety of back views and dimly photographed profiles of the Canary.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer quipped “The role of the murdered girl is played by Louise Brooks, who is much more satisfying optically than auditorily.” Writing in Life magazine, Harry Evans went further, suggesting Brooks’ didn’t speak well. “Louise Brooks, who furnishes the sex-appeal, is evidently a poorer conversationalist than Miss Arthur, because all of her articulation is obviously supplied by a voice double.” It was an assertion that would haunt Brooks for years.


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Margaret O’Dell, a blackmailing musical comedy star, is found strangled in her apartment, and four men come under suspicion: Lindquist, a half-mad doctor in love with Margaret; Cleaver, a politician whose career she threatened; Mannix, a fat broker with a jealous wife; and Jimmy Spotswoode, a young society boy Margaret was attempting to blackmail into marriage. Jimmy is arrested, and Philo Vance, a whimsical society man and amateur detective who is a close friend of Jimmy’s father, is called in on the case. Vance proves the murderer to have been the elder Spotswoode.”

Production on the film took place between September 11 and October 12, 1928 at Paramount’s studio in Hollywood. Sound retakes took place on December 19, 1928.


William Powell
Philo Vance
Jean Arthur
Alys LaFosse
James Hall
Jimmy Spotswoode
Louise Brooks
The “Canary” (Margaret O’Dell)
Charles Lane
Charless Spotswoode
Lawrence Grant
John Cleaver
Gustav von Seyffertitz
Dr. Ambrose Lindquist
E.H. Calvert
District Attorney John F.X. Markham
Eugene Pallette
Sergeant Ernest Heath
Ned Sparks
Tony Sheel
Louis John Bartels
Louis Mannix
Oscar Smith
Stuttering hallboy (uncredited)
Tim Adair
George Y. Harvey (uncredited)
Margaret Livingston
(uncredited body double and voice double for Louise Brooks in sound version)


Paramount Famous Lasky Corp.
Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky
Associate Producer:
Louis D. Lighton
General Manager:
B.P. Shulberg
Malcolm St. Clair – retakes for the sound version were directed by Frank Tuttle
Writing Credits:
S.S. van Dine (story and dialogue), Albert Shelby LeVino (adaption); Florence Ryerson (screenplay), Herman J. Mankiewicz (titles, silent version)
Harry Fischbeck, and Cliff Blackstone (uncredited)
Film Editor:
William Shea
Karl Hajos
Costume Design:
Travis Banton (uncredited)
Set Design:
Hans Dreier (uncredited — Night Club stage setting, Interior)
Silent version – black & white & sound version – black & white (Western Electric Movietone sound-on-film)
Running Time:
sound version 7 reels (7,171 feet) 80 minutes – silent version 7 reels (reported as 5,843 feet)
February 15, 1929 by Paramount Famous Lasky Corp. (LP126)
Release Date:
February 16, 1929

Country of Origin:
United States

Under its American title, The Canary Murder Case, documented screenings of the film took place in Australia, British Malaysia (Singapore), Canada, China, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), India, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, New Zealand, and the British Isles (England and Scotland). Elsewhere, this motion picture was known to have been shown under other-language titles including Die Stimme aus dem Jenseits (Austria); O drama de uma noite (Brazil); Die Stimme aus dem Jenseits (Czechoslovakia); Kanárkový vražedný prípad (Czechoslovakia); Hvem dræbte Margaret O’Dell? (Denmark); Salaperainen Rikos (Finland); Le meurtre du Canari (France); Die Stimme Aus Dem Jensits (Germany); La canarina assassinata (Italy); Il caso della canarina assassinata (Italy); カナリヤ殺人事件 (Japan); De Kanarie Moordzaak (The Netherlands); I Kanarifuglens Garn (Norway); Kryyk z za Swlatow (Poland); O drama duma noite (Portugal); Kdo je morilec? (Slovenia); 카나리아 머더 케이스  (South Korea); Дело об убийстве канарейки (U.S.S.R.); ¿Quién la mató? (Spain); and Midnattsmysteriet (Sweden). Based on unsourced clippings, it is also likely the film was shown in Egypt.

The sound version of the film is extant, and lesser quality dupes have been released on VHS and DVD. A 35mm print is held at the International Museum of Photography and Film at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The silent version is also extant, but has not been released on any home video format.

— “Here’s Talkie About Canary Murder Caseby Mae Tinee (Chicago Tribune, Feb. 16, 1929)

TRIVIA: about the film

S. S. Van Dine is the pseudonym used by art critic Willard Huntington Wright (1888 – 1939) when he wrote detective novels. Wright was an important figure in avant-garde cultural circles in pre-WWI New York, and under the pseudonym (which he originally used to conceal his identity) he created the once immensely popular fictional detective Philo Vance, a sleuth and aesthete who first appeared in books in the 1920s, then in movies and on the radio in the following decades.

— Willard Huntington Wright’s brother was the American avant-garde painter Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Willard’s portrait, painted by his brother in 1914, hangs in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Wright was one of the best-selling authors in the United States. The Canary Murder Case was the second book a popular series featuring Vance — though the film made from it was the first in a series to feature the character. William Powell revived his role as Vance in four additional films, including The Greene Murder Case, released later in 1929. Other actors who played Vance include Basil Rathbone and Edmund Lowe.

— S.S. van Dine’s novel was loosely based on the real-life murder of showgirl Dot King, which was never solved. King was among those nicknamed “Broadway Butterflies.”

— Glenn Wilson, a Federal investigator attached to the bureau of criminal investigation for Los Angeles county, reportedly served as an adviser on the film.

— In a 1931 article on the cinema in Singapore, the New York Times notes that “Asiatics love the gangster film, but very few are shown, owing to the censorship regulations which bar gun battles and will not tolerate an actual ‘kill’ on the screen. The first cuts made before they decide to ban all films of this type were very clumsy and made a mystery story a bigger mystery than ever. For instance, in the Canary Murder Case.”

— an Italian TV version of the story, directed by Marco Leto and featuring Giorgio Albertazzi as Philo Vance and Virna Lisi as the Canary, was broadcast in 1974.