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Calling Philo Vance

Calling Philo Vance(1940)

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teaser Calling Philo Vance (1940)

After making his belated film debut at age 48, British stage actor James Stephenson was offered a Warner Brothers contract and prominent roles as an urbane rotter undone by small town sleuth Bonita Granville in Nancy Drew, Detective (1938) and as an itinerate novelist (patterned a little baldly after Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest, 1936) who tangles with Humphrey Bogart's King of the Underworld (1939). The actor had his best year in 1940, costarring with Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk and with Bette Davis in The Letter -the latter netting him an Academy Award nomination. That same year, Stephenson was the star of Calling Philo Vance, Warners' bid to reboot their franchise of whodunits based on the novels of S. S. Van Dine. A remake of The Kennel Murder Case (1933) retooled for a world on the cusp of war, Calling Philo Vance finds the character pressed into service by the United States government to look into the dealings of an airplane manufacturer suspected of being in league with foreign powers and, when the man is found murdered, to sniff out his killer. The charismatic Stephenson might have breathed new life into the series but with his sudden death by heart attack in 1941 Warners never again made another Philo Vance film. (The series migrated after World War II to the Poverty Row outfit Producers Releasing Corporation.) Look fast for future TV stars George Reeves (The Adventures of Superman) and William Hopper (Perry Mason) in minor roles.

By Richard Harland Smith

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