We are not usually given to creating our Quizzes around made up characters but this week marks, we hope, a welcome exception.

The reason: He was one of the most famous fictional detectives of the 1920s and 30s and naturally the famous novels became famous movies. What distinguishes Philo Vance from other detective series of the time is that these stories weren’t relegated to B status but where primarily A films.

The novels were big, and the pictures were as well. The Philo Vance character is variously described as a debonair, whimsical aristocrat with intellectual pretensions who also happened to be a problem solving amateur detective.

As writer Michael Mallory’s informative article in Mystery Scene Summer points out, Philo Vance mostly resembles his creator, a novelist who went by the pseudonym of S.S. Van Dine but who actually was Willard Huntington Wrighta man who was every bit as superior-minded as his creation.

Wright, who abused drugs, by the way, originally planned perhaps six novels featuring Philo Vance, but the tales of this cultivated sleuth become so popular that he reappeared in a dozen novels set in an impressive myriad of situations.


The film series started in 1929 at Paramount with The Canary Murder Case, a film shot as a silent with sound added in post production. In any case, the picture identified William Powell as the most famous among the many actors who subsequently played Philo. There he is (below) with Louise Brooks as a non-too-nice chorus girl known as “the Canary.”

Ok. Let’s get on with our Philo Vance Quiz. The books and the movies based on the books faded from public favor by the late Thirties, and Wright died in 1939. Let’s see how much you known about his seminal, crime-solving creation.

  1. Question: Which one of the following actors did NOT play Philo Vance on the big screen? a) Warren William; b) Grant Richards; c) Wilfred Hyde-White; or d) Buster Crabbe.

2) Question: Her maiden appearance in the initial Philo Vance feature did NOT enhance the career of actress Louise Brooks. Why not? a) Temper tantrums on the set made her all but unemployable; b) She resisted mightily in appearing in further taking pictures; c) Her contract money demands went through the roof; or d) None of the above.

3) Question: At one point, the Philo Vance series pandered to box office by casting radio comedienne Gracie Allen minus George Burns) as the super-sophisticated detective’s key assistant. a) True; or b) False.

4) Question: How many times did William Powell actually play Philo Vance in the movies? a) three; b) two; c) 14; or d) five.

5) Question: Was Jose Ferrer among the more distinguished actors to play Philo Vance onscreen? a) Yes; or b) No.

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