Margaret O'Dell (Louise Brooks) is known as The Canary for her night club act where she dresses as said bird and swings high over the audience as if she were in a birdcage. This has made her quite famous, though what her fans do not know is the extent of her scheming, as she is engaged to millionaire's son Jimmy Spottswoode (James Hall) and though he wants to break off the arrangement and marry his actual sweetheart, Alice LaFosse (Jean Arthur), Margaret refuses and is demanding he wed her so she can get her hands on his father's fortune. Enter amateur detective Philo Vance (William Powell)...
Quite what he was hoping to do for the Spottswoodes is not entirely clear, so it's just as well a murder occurs and that gives him something to occupy his time as he employs his sleuthing methods as befitting the protagonist of S.S. Van Dyne's bestselling series of mystery novels. There was a time in cinema when a murder would be just the thing to pack the audiences in, especially when there was a detective character to set about finding the culprit, though as the years went by the form migrated to television, where it pretty much stayed. Now a murder mystery is regarded as largely a medium for the small screeen or the page.
But Philo Vance was so popular anything with his name included would have been a hit for audiences of 1929, and The Canary Murder Case had the benefit of being in sound, Paramount realising that it would not be half as effective without being able to hear the characters speaking. Ironically, if it had stayed a silent as filmed it would have been more popular with modern audiences, because in its talkie format it brought new meaning to the word "stilted", an affliction affecting far too many of the early sound films where the studios appeared to think simply hearing conversations was enough to keep the viewing public entranced. For that reason, this doesn't play anywhere near as well as it did back in the late twenties.
On the other hand, there is that historical interest to be taken into account, for this was one of the works which made William Powell one of the most famous movie stars of the thirties, his brand of urbane and suave performing just the tonic for Depression-era audiences, and not only in the Vance role (though a later entry in the series, The Kennel Murder Case, was acknowledged for a long while as a classic of the art). Adding to that interest for cult flick fans was the brief appearance of Louise Brooks, whose inclusion in the cast came at an unfortunate time in her career. Not seeming so at that point in time, as she was starring in the double whammy of German expressionism of Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl.
But after she refused to return to Hollywood to reshoot her role with sound, telling the studio bosses she wasn't interested in no uncertain terms, when she eventually did come back to Tinseltown she found her roles in some high-falutin' European silents curried no favour with those she had slighted, and B movies beckoned before she bailed out of the business come the end of the thirties. Here it's interesting to watch her, but she's hardly in it really and dubbed with a cartoonish accent better suited to a gangster's moll, which leaves additional intrigue of watching another big star in Jean Arthur appear in an early part, but again not for long. Alas, with a complete lack of urgency even when people are being bumped off, The Canary Murder Case is a relic which only the hardiest of movie buffs will retain any patience with, and that seemingly endless chit-chat in place of thrills would be better if the dialogue had been in any way sparkling. Raymond Chandler famously hated Philo Vance - did he ever see this movie, we wonder?