Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Overlooked Films: THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE (1939)

I read and reviewed the S.S. Van Dine novel The Gracie Allen Murder Case a couple of years ago, but I had never seen the film - until it turned up recently on YouTube.

As I noted way back when, the  book came about when, near the end of S.S. Van Dine’s writing career, Paramount asked him for a screen treatment pairing Philo Vance with Gracie Allen. Van Dine delivered a story involving Gracie, her mother, her brother and George Burns and collected his dough. Then everything went sideways. Burns opted out of the movie project and Paramount decided to do their own thing with Vance and Gracie.

Van Dine wrote the novel anyway, based on his screen story, resulting in an interesting but ultimately disappointing book. As you'd expect, Vance was the lead character, and Gracie only a minor guest star. But the main problem was that Van Dine simply did not get Gracie Allen's humor. It should have been easy to make her sparkle on the page, but Van Dine failed miserably. I searched the book for a line of Gracie dialogue funny enough to quote - and couldn't find a single one!

Thankfully, the film producers took only passing note of Vance's story. There's no question who the star is here. Philo Vance doesn't even appear until the 28th minute, a third of the way into the film, and his presence is spotty after that. And when he is onscreen, he's Warren William - who always plays Warren William, regardless of the role, and is always fun to watch. The result is no great shakes as a mystery film, but it's a great vehicle for Gracie Allen. If you like Gracie, you're sure to like "The Gracie Allen Murder Case."

Not surprisingly, Gracie got plenty of good lines. A few examples:

Detective: The Chief wants to see you.
Gracie: The Chief? Oh, certainly! I just love Indians.

Maître d': I'll get you a waiter right away.
Gracie: Make it two. I'm starved.

Vance: The question is, then, why would the killer have brought the body here?
Gracie: Well, they've got a wonderful floor show.

Vance: How about some pansies?
Flower shop owner: Well, frankly, my pansies are drooping.
Gracie: Oh, well then, you should wear suspenders.

So here's the whole movie. See for yourself. For some reason, this one won't play here on the Almanack, but after you click the PLAY button below, it will give you a link to watch the film on YouTube.


Rittster said...

Me loves me some Gracie Allen! You're right, Evan, Gracie is the hardest character in the world to write for: she appears dumb, but with her own twisted logic she's actually quite brilliant, only she doesn't know it. (Or does she? Hmm...) You pretty much have to be a genius-level writer to make it work. Even in their television show, it comes across as strained to me. So, the question then becomes: where can a Gracie-seeker come across some prime Gracie? Have no fear! The Burns and Allen radio show is really the best showcase for her talent, in my opinion. So seek out any of those shows, from the 1930s and 40s, to find her at her best. The ten-minute short films that she and George made during the 1930s are also mini-classics. They made about 10 or 11 of them, beginning with "Lambchops", in 1929. I would also give her appearances in the movies "International House" and "College Swing" to be decent showcases for her talent. But a number of the other movies I've seen with her are quite mediocre, as you've found "The Gracie Allen Murder Case" to be. And there you have it, sir: Ritt's thesis on the wit and wisdom of Gracie Allen.

Rittster said...

Oops, I almost forgot: Say Goodnight, Rittster!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember crying when she died. She was such an original creation--at least to me. Too bad she wasn't better served by the movies. Loved the TV show with George spying on her antics.