Philo Vance

Created by S.S. Van Dine
Pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright
(1888-1939)

“Philo Vance
Needs a kick in the pance.”
Ogden Nash

Yes, yes, yes. As several people have pointed out to me over the years, PHILO VANCE was a private eye, and it would be unfair for me to exclude him from this site.

Happy, now?

Granted, Vance was about as far from the commonly accepted vision of the private eye as you can get — he was an urbane, sophisticated and debonair member of New York’s upper crust totally lacking in the common touch who did not suffer fools — or anyone else below his station — gladly (or quietly). He was an avowed expert — just ask him —  in art, criminology, ancient Egypt, fencing, a talented polo player, classical music, show dogs, chess, winning horse racing and poker. He always wore his chamois gloves when he left his swank, book-lined downtown apartment, to tool around town in his beloved Hispano-Suiz. Hell, he even sported a monocle.

And — get this — he wasn’t being played for laughs.

We were meant to take this pretentious upper class doofus — and the dry, humourless books he appeared in — seriously. And he was taken seriously — for years he was America’s most popular homegrown detective, inspiring games, toys, films, radio and television series and even a daily newspaper comic strip.

He remains one of the most pivotal of fictional detectives, culturally and historically significant, and totally important in the development of the genre as a whole, and perhaps more importantly, seemed like a man of his time — an American man of his time.

Except…

Read today, Vance comes off as a pompous blowhard and know-it-all; an inexplicably popular character with his monocle and smug sense of moral, intellectual and class superiority whose very existence may have in fact spurred the demand for a tougher, more “realistic” American kind of detective (Vance, Race Williams and the Continental Op were all contemporaries).

But it’s not just me who has problems with the dude. Otto Penzler suggested in The Detectionary that the author himself was “much like Vance … a poseur and a dilettante, dabbling in art, music and criticism.”

And Chandler tagged him as “the most asinine character in detective fiction.”

Still, the books kept coming, starting in 1926 with The Benson Murder Case and continuing for eleven sequels.

Just three years after the first novel appeared, the second in the series, The Canary Murder Case (1927), was adapted for film, with future Thin Man star William Powell playing the monocoled one in a film that began as a silent film and switched to a talkie midway through production. Powell would go on to reprise the role several times, and other actors also took a crack at Vance over the years, including Warren William and Basil Rathbone. Paramount churned out a dozen of them between 1929 and 1939, and Warner Brothers gave it a crack with Calling Philo Vance (1940), while PRC attempted to revive the series in 1947 with three films which re-cast Vance as a hard-boiled (or at least slightly harder-boiled) dick. Most of the films are hit-or-miss, with Powell and Rathbone the most successful at adding just enough charm to give the character more palatable to appease the audience — many of the other films not even trying.

Far more enjoyable were the three radio shows that popped up in the forties. According to The Digital Deli Too, a web site that that “the Golden Age of Radio” very seriously, “The bottom line here is, there are no bad episodes of Philo Vance. The franchise seems to have maintained the highest standards of plot integrity and compelling mystery through all three incarnations of its production runs.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vance’s creator, S.S. Van Dine (real name Willard Huntington Wright), was at various times a respected art critic, a drug addict (opiates, apparently), a columnist, a Harvard dropout (he felt he was smarter than most of his professors), an author of a book on Nietzsche, the literary editor for the Los Angeles Times, a notorious man about town with a taste for women and booze, the editor of H.L. Mencken’s The Smart Set, a smoker of marijuana, and was accused of being a spying for the Germans after the U.S. had entered World War I, the result of a prank gone wrong. The resulting scandal, though, cost him his career in journalism, and he spent several years mooching off friends and doing drugs, before deciding to write mysteries. He signed a three-book contract with Maxwell Perkins at Scribners (Perkins as an old pal from Harvard acquaintance), and the rest was publishing history, with sales rivaling his day as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Naturally, none of this went to his head.

Unfortunately, after a good long run, sales of the Philo Vance books began to slip, and Vance, once a man of his time, seemed suddenly dated, as a newer, tougher breed of American detective  began to take hold, and the last few novels veered into formula. Van Dine died at the age of in 1939, only fifty or so, reportedly a “bitter and disillusioned” man, a victim of years of hard living and drinking, leaving less than $15,000 in his estate, still a considerable chunk at the time.

UNDER OATH

  • “Let’s be fair. Philo Vance’s creator’s ‘less than $15,000′ estate was about nine times the mean annual wage in 1939. How many of the current crop of mystery writers would cash out at $450,000? And would that be relevant to their work?
    More importantly, let’s talk Vance. Yes, he can be irritating. Pretty much everyone resembling a real human being is, sometimes. Which is part of the point. For all the carping—’He’s white! He’s male! He’s educated! He’s straight! (well, maybe)’ —he’s a more credible character than most, sharp as they come, and sometimes shows signs of a conscience. And his cases are legitimate fair-play mysteries. That’s more than I can say for a lot of his contemporaries, and a LOT more than I can say for some of the current flavors of the month.
    Before you beat up on him too badly, try to imagine what will be said in seventy years about the detectives you now praise.”
    — Robert Piepenbrink
  • “S.S. Van Dine is silly to spend six months writing a novel when you can buy one for two dollars and ninety-eight cents.”
    — Gracie Allen
  • “… (Philo Vance’s) conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that anyone that talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory: he manages always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong.”
    — Dashiell Hammett on The Benson Murder Case (January 15, 1927, The Saturday Review of Literature)

NOVELS

  • The Benson Murder Case (1926)
  • The Canary Murder Case (1927)
  • The Greene Murder Case (1928)
  • The Bishop Murder Case (1929)
  • The Scarab Murder Case (1930)
  • The Dragon Murder Case (1933)
  • The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
  • The Casino Murder Case (1934)
  • The Garden Murder Case (1935)
  • The Kidnap Murder Case (1936)
  • The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)
  • The Winter Murder Case (1939)

ALSO OF INTEREST

  • “The John Riddell Murder Case: A Philo Vance Parody” (1930; by Corey Ford) Buy the book
    Lampoons S. S. Van Dine and various other popular writers and public figures from the 1920s.
  • “The Circle Murder Case” (October 1972, EQMM; by Jon L. Breen)
    Another parody. Predictably, perhaps, Breen nails it.

FILMS

  • THE CANARY MURDER CASE
    (1929, Paramount)
    82 minutes, black & white
    Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring William Powell as PHILO VANCE
    Also starring Jean Arthur, Jasmes Hall, Louise Brooks
    The first Vance film, it started out as a silent film but switched to a talkie midway through production.
  • THE GREENE MURDER CASE
    (1929)
    Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring William Powell as PHILO VANCE
  • THE BISHOP MURDER CASE | Buy the DVD
    (1930)
    Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring Basil Rathbone as PHILO VANCE
  • THE BENSON MURDER CASE
    (1930)
    Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring William Powell as PHILO VANCE
  • THE KENNEL MURDER CASE | Buy the DVD
    (1933)
    Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring William Powell as PHILO VANCE
  • THE DRAGON MURDER CASE | Buy the DVD
    (1934)
    Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring Warren William as PHILO VANCE
  • THE CASINO MURDER CASE | Buy the DVD
    (1935)
    Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring Paul Lukas as PHILO VANCE
  • THE GARDEN MURDER CASE | Buy the DVD
    (1936)
    Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring Edmund Lowe as PHILO VANCE
    Also starring Virginia Bruce, Benita Hume, Douglas Walton, Nat Pendleton
    A decent enough entry. Lowe’s no aristocrat, but he gives the character with enough wit and verve — and there’s enough clever banter — to make this one of the more enjoyable entries in the series. 
  • THE SCARAB MURDER CASE
    (1936)
    Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring Wilfrid Hyde-White as PHILO VANCE
  • NIGHT OF MYSTERY
    (1937, Paramount)
    Based on The Greene Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring Grant Richards as PHILO VANCE
  • THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE
    (1939, Paramount)
    78 minutes
    Based on the novel by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring Warren William as PHILO VANCE
    Also starring Gracie Allen, Ellen Drew
  • CALLING PHILO VANCE | Buy the DVD
    (1940, Warner Brothers)
    Based on The Kennel Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring James Stephenson as PHILO VANCE
    Also starring Margot Stevenson, Henry O’Neill, Edward Brophy, Sheila Bromley, Ralph Forbes
    A rather bizarre war-time entry, with a prologue that has Vance working as an American agent in Vienna, trying to steal some aircraft plans, before he returns home to New York City and ends up investigating the murder of the man he stole the plans from.
  • PHILO VANCE’S GAMBLE
    (1947, PRC)
    62 minutes
    Based on characters created by S.S. Van Dine
    and a story by Lawrence Edmund Taylor
    Screenplay by Eugene Conrad and Arthur St. Clair
    Starring Alan Curtis as PHILO VANCE
    Also starring Vivian Austin, Frank Jenks
    Supposedly a surprisingly tough little film noir; totally uncharacteristic of the rest of the series or the books.
  • PHILO VANCE RETURNS
    (aka “Infamous Crimes”)
    (1947, PRC)
    Based on The Kennel Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
    Screenplay by Tom Reed
    Directed by Williams Clemens
    Starring William Wright as PHILO VANCE
  • PHILO VANCE’S SECRET MISSION
    (aka “Philo Vance, Detective”)
    (1947, PRC)
    Based on characters created by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring Alan Curtis as PHILO VANCE
  • NOTE: Supposedly Warner Brothers also produced a highly entertaining series of six “S. S. Van Dine” shorts starring Donald Meek and John Hamilton, one of which was The Herringbone Murder Mystery.

ALSO OF INTEREST

  • PARAMOUNT ON PARADE
    (1930)
    A musical revue, with Paramount stars letting their hair down. William Powell as Philo Vance, Warner Oland as Fu Manchu, Eugene Pallette as Sergeant Heath and Clive Brooks as Sherlock Holmes, perform “Murder Will Out.”

COMIC STRIPS

  • PHILO VANCE
    (1930s)
    Drawn (and possibly written) by R.B.S. Davis

RADIO

  • PHILO VANCE
    (1943, NBC)
    Based on characters created by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring John Emery as PHILO VANCE

    • “The Case of the Cellini Cup” (April 29, 1943)
    • “The Mystery of the Singing Cat” (May 6, 1943)
  • PHILO VANCE
    (1945, NBC)
    13 episodes
    Based on characters created by S.S. Van Dine
    Writers: Bob ShawStarring José Ferrer as PHILO VANCE
    Also starring Frances Robinson as Lane Randall
    A summer replacement series for The Bob Burns Show

    • “Title Unknown” (July 5, 1945)
    • “Title Unknown” (July 12, 1945)
    • “The Case of the Happy Yank” (July 19, 1945)
    • “The Case of the Girl Who Came Back” (July 26, 1945)
      Also aired on AFRS Mystery Playhouse, an AFRS thriller/horror program which rebroadcast popular shows overseasfor American soldiers during WWII, hosted by Peter Lorre.
    • “The Case of Double Trouble” (August 2, 1945)
    • “The Case of Strange Music” (August 9, 1945)
    • “Title Unknown” (August 16, 1945)
    • “Title Unknown” (August 23, 1945)
    • “Title Unknown” (August 30, 1945)
    • “Title Unknown” (September 6, 1945)
    • “Title Unknown” (September 13, 1945)
    • “Title Unknown” (September 20, 1945)
    • “Title Unknown” (September 27, 1945)
  • PHILO VANCE
    (1946-50, ZIV Syndication)
    Based on characters created by S.S. Van Dine
    Starring Jackson Beck as PHILO VANCE
    and Joan Alexander as Ellen Deering
    Also starring Bud Collyer, George Petrie, Ed Jerome, Mandel Kramer, Ian Martin, Humphrey Davis, Bryna Raeburn
    Philo loses some of the attitude and gains a secretary, Ellen, in this syndicated version. Being syndicated, of course, means that the broadcast dates shown are merely the earliest verified broadcast dates. Being syndicated, the episodes would air when and in what order the subscribers felt like doing.

    • “The Eagle Murder Case” (September 26, 1946)
    • “The Merry Murder Case” (October 3, 1946)
    • ‘The Model Murder Case” (October 10, 1946)
    • “The Orchid Murder Case” (October 17, 1946)
    • “The Restless Murder Case” (October 24, 1946)
    • “The Poverty Murder Case” (October 31, 1946)
    • “The Poetic Murder Case” (November 7, 1946)
    • “The Coachman Murder Case” (November 14, 1946)
    • “The Midget Murder Case” (November 21, 1946)
    • “The Blue Lady Murder Case” (November 28, 1946)
    • “The Backstage Murder Case” (December 5, 1946)
    • “The Argus Murder Case” (December 12, 1946)
    • “The Bulletin Murder” (December 19, 1946)
    • “The Cover Girl Murder Case” (December 26, 1946)
    • “Title Unknown” (January 2, 1947)
    • “The Angel Murder Case” (January 9, 1947)
    • “Title Unknown” (January 16, 1947)
    • “The President Murder Case” (January 23, 1947)
    • “The Heavyweight Murder Case” (January 30, 1947)
    • “The Tree Trunk Murder Case” (February 6, 1947)
    • “The Blackjack Murder Case” (February 13, 1947)
    • “The Star-Studded Murder Case” (February 20, 1947)
    • “The Murdock Murder Case” (February 27, 1947)
    • “The Vanilla Murder Case” (March 6, 1947)
    • “The Rhumba Murder Case” (March 13, 1947)
    • “The Magic Murder Case” (March 20, 1947)
    • “Title Unknown” (September 30, 1938)
    • “The Idol Murder Case” (October 7, 1938)
    • “The Golden Murder Case” (October 14, 1948)
    • “The Flying Murder Case” (October 21, 1948)
    • “The Butler Murder Case” (October 28, 1948)
    • “The Herringbone Murder Case” (November 4, 1948)
    • “The Listless Murder Case” (March 1, 1949)
    • “The Curtain Call Murder Case” (March 8, 1949)
    • “The Million Dollar Murder Case” (March 15, 1949)
    • “The White Willow Murder Case” (March 22, 1949)
    • “The High Hat Murder Case” (March 29, 1949)
    • “The Movie Murder Case” (April 5, 1949)
    • “The Green Girls Murder Case” (April 12, 1949)
    • “The Cardinal Murder Case” (April 19, 1949)
    • “The Cipher Murder Case” (April 26, 1949)
    • “The Masters Murder Case” (May 3, 1949)
    • “The Meanest Man Murder Case” (May 10, 1949)
    • “The Butterfly Murder Case” (May 17, 1949)
    • “The Hurdy-Gurdy Murder” (May 24, 1949)
    • “The Red Duck Murder” (May 31, 1949)
    • “The Mistletoe Murder” (June 7, 1949)
    • “The Combination Murder Case” (June 14, 1949)
    • “The Peacock Murder Case” (June 21, 1949)
    • “The Motor Murder Case” (June 28, 1949)
    • “The White Murder Case” (July 5, 1949)
    • “The One-Cent Murder Case” (July 12, 1949)
    • “The Racket Murder Case” (July 19, 1949)
    • “The Cheesecake Murder Case” (July 26, 1949)
    • “The Tick-Tock Murder Case” (August 2, 1949)
    • “The Deep Sea Murder Case” (August 9, 1949)
    • “The Johnny ‘A’ Murder Case” (August 16, 1949)
    • “The Blue Penny Murder Case” (August 23, 1949)
    • “The Brotherly Murder Case” (August 30, 1949)
    • “The Oxford Murder Case” (September 6, 1949)
    • “The Checkerboard Murder Case” (September 13, 1949)
    • “The Penny-Ante Murder Case” (September 20, 1949)
    • “The Shoeless Murder Case” (September 27, 1949)
    • “The Black Gold Murder Case” (October 4, 1949)
    • “The Tea Cup Murder Case” (October 10, 1949)
    • “The Meeker Murder Case” (October 17, 1949)
    • “The Deathless Murder Case” (October 24, 1949)
    • “Title Unknown” (November 1, 1949)
    • “Title Unknown” (November 8, 1949)
    • “The Little Murder Case” (November 15, 1949)
    • “The Nightmare Murder Case” (November 22, 1949)
    • “The Thundering Murder Case” (November 29, 1949)
    • “The Birdcage Murder Case” (December 6, 1949)
    • “The Grey Glove Murder Case” (December 13, 1949)
    • “The Chop Suey Murder Case” (December 20, 1949)
    • “The Identical Murder Case” (December 27, 1949)
    • “The Tip-Top Murder Case” (January 3, 1949)
    • “The Left-Handed Murder Case” (January 10, 1949)
    • “The Talking Corpse Murder Case” (January 17, 1949)
    • “The Music Box Murder Case” (January 24, 1949)
    • “The Sterling Murder Case” (January 31, 1949)
    • “The Chicken Murder Case” (February 7, 1949)
    • “The Scarface Murder Case” (February 14, 1949)
    • “The Psychic Murder Case” (February 21, 1949)
    • “The Big Nick Murder Case” (February 21, 1949)
    • “The Church Murder Case” (March 7, 1949)
    • “The Mathematical Murder Case” (March 14, 1949)
    • “The Jackpot Murder Case” (March 21, 1949)
    • “The Ivory Murder Case” (April 28, 1949)
    • “The Mimic Murder Case” (March 4, 1949)
    • “The Nylon Murder Case” (April 11, 1949)
    • “The Golden Key Murder Case” (April 18, 1949)
    • “The Shower Bath Murder Case” (April 25, 1949)
    • “The Rooftop Murder Case” (May 2, 1949)
    • “The Whistling Murder Case” (May 9, 1949)
    • “The Manicure Murder Case” (May 16, 1949)
    • “The Money Machine Murder Case” (May 23, 1949)
    • “The Whirlaround Murder Case” (May 30, 1949)
    • “The Alibi Murder Case” (June 6, 1949)
    • “The Full-Dress Murder Case” (June 13, 1949)
    • “The Prize Ring Murder Case” (June 20, 1949)
    • “The Argyle Murder Case” (June 27, 1949)
    • “The Muddy Murder Case” (July 4, 1949)

RELATED LINKS

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks, as always, to Janice Long for the heads up, and to The Digital Deli Too, for the radio logs.

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