Sunday, October 20, 2019

From the Kick in the Pance Files, Part One

Philo Vance
Needs a kick in the pance
--Ogden Nash

the future of the Philo Vance franchise was looking grim
William Powell and Louise Brooks in a still for
The Canary Murder Case (1929)
By 1938 it was S. S. Van Dine's mystery writing career which needed a kick...somewhere, as he could no longer afford to maintain his swanky lifestyle on the declining revenues from his mystery serializations, book sales and film rights.  His Kidnap Murder Case (1936) had been a commercial and critical disappointment (critically no film offers came for it), and what was to be his Powwow Murder Case, which sounds like an attempt at recalling his early baroque style, was abandoned by him in 1937 after only a few pages. 

Instead, what Philo Vance fans got (there were still some left) was The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938), written with a movie tie-in in mind, which was to star husband and wife comedy team Gracie Allen and George Burns, with Philo very much the third wheel on the old mystery machine.

This is the one Philo Vance book I have never been able to finish, in part I'm sure because of the incongruity of pairing Philo Vance with zany Gracie Allen, whose persona, in my view, just doesn't belong anywhere near a Philo Vance novel.  Some critics at the time seemed to think so as well.  In the Miami News, for example, the reviewer acidly observed that The Gracie Allen Murder Case "seems to have been written with the movies in mind.  It will probably be much better on screen that it appears in print." 

But then there's also writing like this, which doesn't belong, it seems to me, anywhere near any novel:

"No--oh, no, Van; it wasn't my case at all, don't y' know," Vance drawled, as we sat before his grate fire one wintry evening, long after the events.  "Really, y' know, I deserve none of the credit.  I would have been utterly baffled and helpless had it not been for the charming Gracie Allen who always popped up at just the crucial moment to save me from disaster....If ever you should embalm the case in print, please place the credit where it rightfully belongs....My word, what an astonishing girl!  The goddesses of Zeus' Olympian menage never harassed old Priam and Agamemnon with the eclat exhibited by Gracie Allen in harassing the recidivists of that highly scented affair.  Amazin'!

Amazin' isn't the word for it, my good man.  No, no, a thousand time no.  And this is just the second page of the story.  Even the flat, posthumously published Winter Murder Case (1939), intended as the basis for a Sonja Henie film was better than this.  Sonja Henie was to pay a character, not herself, which was probably just as well.

I'll be taking another, longer look at a Philo Vance novel I actually like, very soon.

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