By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.ALLOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – This fall, the forgotten detective will come home.
“We’re setting up a Philo Vance film series,” said Rev. Kenneth Hunter, rector, St. James Episcopal Church, who found many Philo Vance films are available on amazon.com.
A three-film series, each with a speaker and a talk-back following the film are planned Tuesday evenings, Oct. 15, 22 and 29.
It’s an extension of a movie group, “Tea and Murder,” he hosts every Wednesday at the church, where viewers have an English tea and watch a classic detective film. “They’re nice, polite murders,” he said. “Miss Marple, Poirot, Nero Wolfe – and then someone mentioned S.S. Van Dyne. I didn’t know the name, but when I looked him up, I said, ‘That’s Philo Vance’!”
As S.S. Van Dyne, Willard Huntington Wright – one of Oneonta’s Huntingtons – may have written the first Philo Vance novel, “The Benson Murder Case,” in the home of his maiden aunts, Bertha and Julia Wright, at 31 River St., while on a two-year recovery from a cocaine addiction.
His previous novel, “A Man of Promise” (1916), was also written, in part, at the home, and the town, Greenwood, is modeled on Oneonta.
“The Benson Murder Case” was a best-seller, and he wrote 11 more Philo Vance novels, culminating in “The Winter Murder Case” in 1939, published shortly after his death at age 50.
After reading the articles on Van Dyne in Hometown Oneonta & The Freeman’s Journal, Hunter approached Bob Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director, about screening some of the dozen Philo Vance movies, several with screenplays written by Van Dyne.
“The Kennel Murder Case” “Philo Vance’s Gamble” and “Philo Vance Returns” are all streaming on Amazon Prime, and several others are available on DVD.
“What’s interesting about these movies is that they’re very short” – the “shorts” shown before the featured movie, said Hunter. “They’re only about 30 minutes long, but they’re based on full-length novels!”
Well-known actors of the day, including Basil Rathbone and William Powell, played Philo Vance. “They were notable celebrities at the time, but they went on to be huge,” said Hunter.
Powell, who would later find success playing detective Nick Charles in the “Thin Man” series, based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel, played Vance in “The Canary Murder Case” (1929), “The Greene Murder Case” (1929), “The Benson Murder Case” (1930) and “The Kennel Murder Case” (1933).
And Rathbone, best known as Sherlock Holmes, stepped into Vance’s role in “The Bishop Murder Case” (1930).
In all, 15 Philo Vance movies were made.
In addition to screening the films, Hunter will also have speakers to introduce each film. “It will be similar to the ‘Jesus at the Movies’ film series we hosted a few years ago,” he said. “The speaker will talk a little about what was going on in the world at the time the movie was made, and what was going on in Oneonta.”
The connection to Wright was discovered in May, after the Salvation Army purchased 31 River St. with the intent of demolishing it for a parking lot.
At present, there are no immediate demolition plans in place, and Brzozowski said developers have approached him about saving the building.
“These movies are light, but they’re not dumb,” he said. “They reflect a lot of what was going on at the time, but they’re not heavy-handed about it.”