Wednesday, December 31, 2003

REVIEW(s): My Favorite Brunette and The Kennel Murder Case

Brunette: * * ¾ (out of four)
Kennel: * * ½ (out of four)

Seen 22 December 2003 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

I'm pairing these movies not just because I watched them back to back, cleaning out the ReplayTV, which recorded them in the wee hours of a morning earlier this month. I was doing some thinking and realized that both were the type of movie that was made somewhat obsolete by television. That's not a bad thing; there are some things that television just does better than films, especially once studio contracts went the way of the dodo. I don't have much to say about these particluar movies themselves, but how they illustrate the relationship between film and television is interesting.

In My Favorite Brunette, for instance, it's easy to see Bob Hope as a TV star waiting for the invention of TV. He's playing Ronnie Jackson, baby photographer, but there's not much to distinguish Ronnie from Bob Hope. His jokes are of the one-liner variety, and though Hope did a lot of movies, he still performs as if he's used to working with an audience, leaving plenty of room between lines for the laugh track and occasionally addressing the audience directly. The movie breaks up into four or five seperate pieces, each of which might work as a sketch or the basis for a sitcom episode. His leading lady is Dorothy Lamour, with whom he'd co-starred in many (all?) of the Road To... movies. Bing Crosby has a cameo. These actors were doing two or three movies a year together, for the same studio; in many ways, you could look at Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr. as "guest stars"

It's an enjoyable, if mannered, comedy. The writing is about on a par of what I'd expect from a sitcom nowadays, and the performances are adequate, with Lorre engaging in a nice bit of self-parody. One or two jokes even took me by surprise.

The Kennel Murder Case, on the other hand, is of a genre that not only fled the movies for television, but now seems to only even exist as a niche there - the mystery series. William Powell played Philo Vance five times between 1929 and 1933. Different studios seemed to acquire different books in the series, so Vance was played by a number of different actors, though Powell appears to have played the part most often. Judging from this movie, he doesn't seem to have made the character as distinctive as he later would Nick Charles in the Thin Man mysteries.

Time was, adaptations of a series of mysteries could make for a valuable franchise. However, with actors no longer under contract to studios, maintaining a consistent cast is more difficult; it became more suited to television. Then American television wound up becoming attached to the 22-plus-episode season, and few series of stories can sustain such a TV series very long. Now, this species seems to have been "banished" to PBS and A&E, where new Poirot and Inspector Lynley mysteries can be imported from England as they become available. Indeed, even this type of mystery seems to have vanished from mainstream television; "cozy" mysteries (which I've heard defined as one where at least one person is killed ever week but no-one is ever hurt) used to be a network staple - think Matlock, Murder She Wrote, or Diagnosis Murder - but probably the closest thing to them on American TV now is Crossing Jordan, which is certainly on the gritty side.

Film-wise, the last attempt at a mystery series I can recall is Devil In A Blue Dress, with Denzel Washington signed on for sequels that never materialized; Morgan Freeman did play the same role in both Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider, but four years apart and as seperate projects.

But, at the time The Kennel Murder Case was made, actors were under contract and television didn't exist; the movies were how stories like this got told. And Kennel is told meticulously; it's a locked-room murder, which plays scrupulously fair with the audience, requiring a great deal of exposition and detail so that the audience can see just exactly how everything could or could not happen. As a result, it comes off rather dry, with the characters of the suspects and victims barely more fleshed out than the detective, who comes off as sort of a generic wealthy amateur sleuth. It's interesting to watch as an anachronism, as police allow this amateur who knew the victims to participate in the investigation, crime scene evidence is discovered an almost random way, as opposed to the systematic forensics we have today (put some gloves on!), and, of course, it's years until the Miranda Warning is in place.

The history of the character on film is interesting - Vance was clearly a popular character in his day, though the character didn't have the staying power of Agatha Christie's creations - the IMDB shows a 55 year gap between 1947's Philo Vance Returns and a 2002 Czech TV adapation of The Greene Murder Case, but the character appeared on film 27 times between 1929 and 1947. Somehow, he never made the jump to television before '02. And though Powell is the definitive Philo Vance by default, playing the character 5 times, he's better known for other roles, making Vance something of a footnote in movie history.

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