“How are you going to reconcile Mother Goose rhymes with a super sane mind?”
Professor Bertrand Dillard (Alec B. Francis) steps out onto his balcony and sees the body of a family friend on the ground. The man is Joseph Robin and he has an arrow sticking out of his chest. He calls for his servant and then calls the district attorney. Arriving on the scene is District Attorney John F. X. Markham (Clarence Geldart) and Private Detective Philo Vance (Basil Rathbone). On scene already is Sergeant Ernest Heath (James Donlan).
The dead man’s nickname was “Cock Robin”. In the mailbox is a note that has the Mother Goose rhyme on it and is signed “The Bishop”. Vance and the police question the people in the house. Aside from Dillard is his niece Belle (Leila Hyams) and Dillard's adopted son, Sigurd (Erik) Arnesson (Roland Young), who also happens to be Belle’s boyfriend.
Arnesson is away at college and returns home when he hears of the murder. Next door to the Dillards are Adolph Drukker (George F. Marion) and his sister Mrs. Otto Drukker (Zelda Sears). Another neighbor is a chess enthusiast John Pardee (Charles Quartermaine). Also at the house that day was Raymond Sperling (Delmer Daves) but at the time of the murder he has an alibi.
While trying to put the pieces together and alibi everyone another murder happens. A friend of Arnesson’s named John Sprigg (Carroll Nye) was found in the park, shot in the top of the head. A note with a reference to the nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill” is found. The murders are starting to pile up. Notes containing nursery rhymes signed by the mysterious Bishop are found as well as chess pieces that represent the bishop in a chess game. Philo Vance has his work cut out for him.
“The Bishop Murder Case” was released in 1930 and was directed by Nick Grinde and David Burton. The movie is based on the story by S. S. Van Dine. It is a pre-code film. S.S. Van Dine is a pseudonym. His real name was Willard Huntington Wright.
I have mixed feelings about the movie. Being a Basil Rathbone fan I had high hopes for the film, but I’m not sure if it’s the story or the Philo Vance character but I couldn’t figure out why the movie had to be almost an hour and a half long. Most films in the late 20’s and early thirties are pushing it if they are more than an hour and fifteen minutes long. Even Philo Vance. The film seemed to drag for quite some time before it got really interesting. By then there were four murders. When it takes four murders for a murder mystery to get going, there is something not exactly intriguing about a film.
I’m also not real crazy about the Philo Vance character. I understand the character is sort of a cultivated, stylish, know-it-all, pompous ass and almost a snob, but Sherlock Holmes had some of those qualities, although not as intense, and I liked him. And I liked Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. I’m not an expert on Philo Vance but at least the way Rathbone plays him he is not quite so patronizing. I liked him better than William Powell.
The sound is not bad but a little muted. There are some night scenes where the film is so dark it’s difficult if not impossible to see. Still there is much to be said for it being an early talkie. Perhaps it’s a little creaky but it is 90 years old so the fact that it’s still kicking gives it historical value.
There are a couple differences between the book and the movie. In the book there is a character named Van Dine who narrates the story and is Philo Vance's closest friend. He is not a character in the book, just the narrator. Also the characters of the Drukkers in the book have a different relationship. In the book "Lady Mae" Drukker and Adolph are mother and son; in the film they are sister and brother. A third thing is Arnesson's first name was changed from Sigurd (in the book) to Erik (in the film). His name appears as Sigurd in the credits, but none of the characters called him by that name. Belle Dillard and her father both called him "Erik."