Your Shopping Cart | Your Account Information | Catalog Quick Order | Customer Service | Order Status | Contact Us


AboutBlogOur Radio Show SEARCH   KEYWORD

“Somewhere along the line a murderer makes a mistake—it’s my job to find that mistake.”

“Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pance” Ogden Nash once rhymed in a memorable couplet.  Nash’s editorial comment was addressing the one-time popularity of author S.S. Van Dine’s famed sleuth. After generating quite a following with the 1926 publication of the first Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case,  the character soon took a back seat to the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 1930s. (Raymond Chandler purportedly called Philo Vance “the most asinine character in detective fiction.”)  The aristocratic Vance may have noticed a decline in the number of his books disappearing from bookstore shelves, but he kept busy in movies and on radio. In fact, the first of three Philo Vance series premiered over NBC Radio on this date in 1945.

S.S. Van Dine was a pseudonym for author-art critic Willard Huntington Wright, who enjoyed a most respectful journalism/literary career beginning at age 21, when he was made literary editor of The Los Angeles Times.  By the 1920s, Wright had become a freelancer…and due to a combination of exhaustion/overwork and a cocaine addiction (not known to family and associates at the time), he adopted a regimen of bed rest to recuperate.  Willard also developed a voracious appetite for crime fiction, and after reading hundreds of volumes on crime and detection, decided to try his hand at the genre.  He sold Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins on an idea that eventually took wing as The Benson Murder Case.  Successful Philo Vance novels like The Canary Murder Case (1927) and The Greene Murder Case (1928) followed.

Both Canary and Greene were given the silver screen treatment (in 1929), with William Powell cast in the role of Philo.  (Canary is of interest to silent film fans as being the final American film made by the legendary Louise Brooks before making both Pandora’s Box [1929] and Diary of a Lost Girl [1929] for G.W. Pabst.)  Powell would make the most movie appearances as Vance, also appearing as the sleuth in The Benson Murder Case (which was finally adapted for film in 1930) and The Kennel Murder Case (1933), one of the best entries in the Philo Vance franchise.  In fact, when Powell’s The Thin Man was released in 1934, the trailer for the movie had his Nick Charles meeting Philo Vance (both played by Powell).  Other actors offering their interpretation of Vance include Basil Rathbone (The Bishop Murder Case), Warren William (The Dragon Murder Case), Paul Lukas (The Casino Murder Case), and Edmund Lowe (The Garden Murder Case).

Warren William encored as Philo Vance in a movie entry that will certainly be of interest to old-time radio fans: 1939’s The Gracie Allen Murder Case.  Based on the novel published in 1938, it features the two people who live in the Burns house—George and Gracie—as well as Gracie’s mother and brother.  The motion picture, however, only makes room for Gracie; the comedienne steals the show (calling the detective “Fido”) and relegates Vance to a secondary role, but it’s most entertaining.

The first attempt to bring Philo Vance to radio was as a summer replacement for The Bob Burns Show (sponsored by Lifebuoy-Lever Brothers), which ran on NBC from July 5 to September 27, 1945.  Future Academy Award winner Jose Ferrer portrayed Philo, with Let George Do It’s Frances Robinson as his Gal Friday Ellen Deering.  Documentation of a second Philo series that apparently aired a year later on ABC’s West Coast is a bit slippery to track down, while others document that this version may have aired earlier than the Jose Ferrer version, in 1943 with John Emery.

The third Philo Vance incarnation is not hard to track down, however, as most of the surviving shows are from this syndicated version from Frederic Ziv and his syndication factory.  It began in the fall of 1946, airing on some Mutual stations, before wrapping things up four years later.  In the role of Philo was Jackson Beck, already becoming a known radio name with appearances as the announcer on The Adventures of Superman and the star of The Cisco Kid.  Beck’s fellow Superman player, Joan Alexander, worked on Vance as his secretary Ellen Deering, and the cast was rounded out with George Petrie as District Attorney Frank Markham, and Humphrey Davis as Vance’s police force adversary, Sgt. Ernest Heath.

By the time Philo Vance settled in for his third crack at radio he had ceased to be a “detective dandy” and instead became what critic John Crosby described as “just another smoothie with an eye for the ladies and a collection of wisecracks that would make the late author spin in his grave.”  Surviving episodes of Vance show that it’s not necessarily a bad series, but one that seemed to just be going through the motions.  You get the feeling the only person that had fun on the show was the organist.  One cannot deny, however, the stamp of professionalism from veterans like Beck and Alexander, who brought conviction to their performances until Ziv shut down the syndicated version in 1950.

Radio Spirits offers up some of Jackson Beck’s memorable excursions as Philo Vance in the Philo Vance: Archives Collection, available as a digital download.  Eighteen broadcasts from the syndicated Ziv series await your downloading convenience!

Leave a Reply