Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review - "The Garden Murder Case" (1936)

What do you get when you cross a nearly incomprehensible plot with an actor who has the personality of a  block of wood? If you answered "The Garden Murder Case" than you are correct. Without a doubt the weakest of the Philo Vance movies, "The Garden Murder Case" is quite a feat to review.

S.S. Van Dine, the author of the Philo Vance novels, was a very interesting character. He had many attributes in common with his literary creation, including extreme pompousness and aloofness. By the end of his writing career, Van Dine had also lost the ability to plot. There is heavy criticism of Van Dine's last few Philo Vance novels due to the fact that they were jumbled affairs with out-of-this world plots and that could apply directly to this film. The basic outline of the thing is that after a jokey breaks his neck while in a horse race, tensions are high among the owner's family. That night there's shots heard from inside the man's study and soon everyone is wading through a murder mystery. Luckily, Philo Vance (Edmund Lowe) is on hand to help.

Aside from the fact that the plot of this movie is nearly impossible to follow, the biggest problem with the movie is Edmund Lowe as Vance. No offence to him, but Lowe was probably the most uncharismatic actor ever to appear on the silver screen. His performance as Vance is one-dimensional and dull and his efforts to make himself suave fall flat. Quite simply - Lowe is a bore and the character he's playing is not Philo Vance. 

Once again, M-G-M was behind this production and at least it looks nice. The main setting of the movie looks beautiful. Also the opening scenes at the horse races look great. According to TCM's website, the movie was shot at the Sanita Anita race track. However the movie was not totally made up for the problems of the plot and acting. Virginia Bruce plays the leading lady in this picture and she's not bad, but her performance in this movie not exactly Oscar-winning. The same must be said for Gene Lockhart, who I never would have thought I'd see in a cheap mystery movie. The less said about Nat Pendleton as Sergeant Heath, the better. Pendleton could on occasion be an okay actor. He was quite funny as the tyrannical driver sergeant opposite Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in 1941's "Buck Privates." But here, Pendleton is cringeworthy. He hams it up as an incredibly idiotic Heath and he leaves little scenery unchewed.

Now don't go thinking that this movie is the equivalent of "Plan 9 from Outer Space." It's a fairly entertaining mystery, and the production looks great. Nevertheless, I give "The Garden Murder Case" 2 out of 5 stars. It's the weakest film in the "Philo Vance Murder Case Collection."

Notes: The print available on the DVD is okay. The sound seems a bit distant at times, but the picture quality isn't bad. Overall, it's a nice DVD transfer and beyond that I have nothing more here to say.

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