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