“The Kennel Murder Case” (1933) starring William Powell and Mary Astor. As the character PHILO VANCE some say is is a “preview” to his later career as “The Thin Man” which debuted later in the decade and into the 1940’s as audiences could not get enough of his crime solving skills and debonair manner. The THIN MAN series gained much acclaim and success. It’s a favorite series on many TCM lists of Detective genres but this early mystery is considered one of the best. It’s a short skip and jump to the “Film Noir” genre that is related though not the same. My obsession with these films is the look and feel of the atmosphere, and especially the costumes. The 1930’s was the era of the depression when the movies provided the a lifestyle that audiences could only dream of. The perfect suit worn by William Powell is in stark contrast to his cohorts down at the police station as he is a cut above in social class. The big stars of the film would have had their clothes especially tailored and designed and Mary Aster’s clothes would have been created by a studio costume designer to reflect her high social class and taken from the pages of a fashion magazine.
ORRY KELLY was a well known costume designer known for his elegance for both women costumes and his filmography is long and contains some of Hollywood’s most famous films. This film was one of his works and you can easily see Mary Astor and a few of the female main characters wearing his elegant designs. The looks of the film were contemporary, and not fantastical. A wardrobe mistress would have dressed the remaining cast members and extras. Bill Powell most likely has a tailor who made his suits (at least 3 for the shoot) and costume stock from studio wardrobe would have dressed the cops, extras, and smaller characters in the film. Before there were huge costume houses in Hollywood, there were huge wardrobe departments and stock that provided the costumes.
The black and white film is a challenge that is unique to the art of costume and scenic design. Exploring the tones, textures and lines of the clothes is an important aspect to telling the story of the characters. When captured in black and white, the story becomes even more stark as the lights and shadows become as important as the fashions depicted.
What makes the genre of the detective story so fun, is the rooms are often bathed in shadows, characters emerge into the light, their clothes sometimes blending into the background until they are revealed and often with critical plot points. Satins and fur trim are important fabrics of the period as are silk crepes lending the look and feel for the bias cut dresses, coats and gowns; they lend specific textures and play with light which was the second most important aspect of the clothes next to the depiction of character. Murder mysteries and ‘who-dunnets’ are peculiar in their aspects of “conceal and reveal” of each character in a story line; characters experience a progression as plots unfold and giving things away too soon can ruin the best plotlines. The art of making sure the characters can both tell their stories and also emerge from the shadows at the right moment is a key aspect of a design. Orry Kelly was a unique designer in his relationships with female stars as well as his unique ability to design both an ‘everyday’ look that also rises to the heights of movie star style.
The familiar faces of the often repeated cast of actors in this film are like old comfortable sweaters; you are happy to see them as they appear in yet another role perfectly cast for their personalities. The marvelous characters of the film seem to have been lifted right out of the pages of the original novel in their dusty and rumpled clothes; the stars pop off the screen in their beautifully tailored clothes that are a testament to both the designers and craftsmen who created them.
Editor’s Note: Film historians such as William K. Everson, who pronounced The Kennel Murder Case a “masterpiece” (in the August 1984 issue of Films in Review) consider it one of the greatest screen adaptations of a Golden Age mystery novel; ranking it with the 1946 film Green for Danger.
Mary Astor and Her Dirty Diary https://www.dametown.com/mary-astor-and-her-dirty-diary/ via @DixieLaite
“The Kennel Murder Case” is available to Amazon Prime Members and a fun mystery to watch for the early career for William Powell.
Related Costume Research: http://americancinematheque.blogspot.com/2015/07/fashion-expert-kimberly-truhler.html
TCM.com for more information on the genre of the Murder Mystery in Hollywood’s Golden Age.