It’s happened in some well-documented cases that the same actor has played two characters that feel nominally similar and based on this cursory level of comparison the general public has been forever befuddled. You could cite some notable examples being Bogart playing Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe the archetypal pulp private eye heroes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
Even the fact that Fess Parker played Davy Crockett for Disney and then Daniel Boone on the small screen undoubtedly still has the less historically inclined folks to question if there is any difference between the two men.
A still earlier example would be William Powell who was famed as Nick Charles in The Thin Man Series pairing him with Myrna Loy but about that time he also did pretty well for himself as the eponymous Philo Vance in a handful of mystery serials. In truth, this installment would be his last time performing the role but he slid rather seamlessly into The Thin Man series that arguably allowed him more freedom for comedy.
Other actors took on the mantle as well including Basil Rathbone, Warren William, Paul Lukas, and even Alan Curtis. But it was The Kennel Murder Case directed by one of Warner Bros. top craftsman Michael Curtiz that remains the hallmark of this Pre-Code franchise.
Although Raymond Chandler called Philo Vance, “the most asinine character in detective fiction,” much of that quality was toned down in the feature adaptations and after all, with a charmer such as William Powell, how could he not be at least a bit compelling?
In this particular storyline, there’s initially no case at all only Vance missing out on the big prize at a prestigious dog show. But on his way to Italy riding an ocean liner for a much-needed vacation, he catches wind of the death of one of his kennel acquaintances Mr. Archer Coe. Although the authorities including the straight-laced District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade) and the lovable police detective Heath (Eugene Palette) assume it is suicide, Vance comes in on the proceedings with a hunch of his own.
It has murder written all over it but the circumstances are most peculiar and the extensive array of suspects makes it no small matter to pinpoint the culprit. But that’s the fun of the chase as our perceptive detective looks to derive the correct conclusion and the audience along with him (without much success I might add, at least in my case).
It’s very easily to surmise that nowadays we are so culturally well-versed in crime, mysteries, and whodunits that this film’s script feels clunky at times because the characters say all the things and hit all the marks that we might expect. It’s a rite of passage to have the police constantly dismiss our hero’s deductions as it is to hear the shots ring out in the house or the various suspects nervously fib and cover up for this reason and that person.
However, to its credit, the resolution gets so lost among the various characters with numerous motives and the like that when the killer is revealed it still provides a certain amount of satisfaction. So in some sense, you could say that The Kennel Murder is a successful mystery because it does hit all the marks.
Yes, a no-nonsense Powell isn’t quite as fun as a snarky slightly tipsy Powell, although he still makes for an enjoyable lead. But supporting spots for the always jovial Eugene Palette and noir icon Mary Astor add a dash of character across the rank and file of the cast. Meanwhile, James Lee plays a rather fascinating character for the time, a Chinese cook who nevertheless attended Columbia and is highly educated in Chinese porcelain.
And there is undoubtedly an efficiency to The Kennel Murder Case such that a great deal is able to unfold and be resolved without feeling tedious or overlong aided by Curtiz’s direction and plenty of screen wipes. It proves to be just about the right length to make the payoff worthwhile and the story’s mystery generally engaging. More character development is always a plus but with a whodunit that’s usually not your main concern.