“It was so bad, and I was so bad in it, that it gave my maid Hazel ammunition for seasons to come,” writes Rosalind Russell about the 1935 film The Casino Murder Case and her role in it. “’If you don’t behave,’ she’d say, ‘I’m going to tell people about that Casino Murder Case.’” This film was Russell’s first chance at a romantic lead, but it was forced upon her. She didn’t feel ready for leads, but she had to do it.
The film stars Paul Lukas, who has a heavy Hungarian accent, and plays Philo Vance, previously played with great success by William Powell and once by Basil Rathbone. There were many film adaptations of the “murder cases” of Philo Vance, but it is difficult to say why they would cast someone like Paul Lukas in the role in 1935. He did not have the grace and charm that William Powell had, and because the character of Philo Vance was a New York city crime buster, it seems odd they would cast someone from Hungary.
The film revolves around an eccentric, dysfunctional family and the strange things that keep happening to them. We first see the matriarch of the family at an auction, bidding on worthless junk with the aid of her secretary/companion Doris (Rosalind Russell).
Mrs. Llewellyn (Alison Skipworth) is outbid by Philo on an awful statue of Cupid, which he proceeds to break into pieces right outside the auction house. He had earlier received a letter that said in part that Lynn Llewellyn, Mrs. Llewellyn’s son, would experience an “awful tragedy” if he doesn’t act quickly. He is immediately intrigued by Doris and even offers to carry the purchases for her, but she tells him she doesn’t trust him (after seeing him break the Cupid) and leaves. Philo shows up at the Llewellyn house and this is when we first meet the rest of the family. First, there is Virginia (Louise Henry), who is married to Lynn (Donald Cook), but wants to leave the stuffy old house and go back to show business, which the elder Mrs. Llewellyn forbids. Next we have Amelia (Isabel Jewell), who is a sad young woman who feels she’ll never leave the big house, although she is engaged to a doctor who also lives there; she usually has a drink in her hand and drinks her sorrows and troubles away. Also there is Mr. Kinkaid (Arthur Byron), Mrs. Llewellyn’s brother who is completely uninterested in the goings-on most of the time. Besides a few other servants, there is Becky (Louise Fazenda), a funny, snooping maid who seems to have an opinion about everything.
After Philo Vance leaves the house after meeting everyone, Doris is leaving for some errands and he offers to give her a lift.
As they cheerfully drive down the road, Doris informs him that she knows he isn’t taking her to the library like she asked. He tells her it’s true, that he wants to take her back to his apartment to meet the district attorney about some trouble involving the Llewellyn family. One important thing to note about this scene is the wacky and wonderful way Rosalind opens her eyes wide, looks at him out of the corner of her eye, or rolls her eyes in reaction to something he has said. It is clear that even at this early point in her career, she was destined for comedy. She was already a master of funny facial expressions.
In a later scene, Doris accompanies Philo to the casino, and Lynn asks her to please go back to the house to quiet things between Virginia and his mother, as they were usually bickering. When she goes back to the house, it is looming with creepy shadows and while she gets Philo on the phone, something extraordinary happens. Virginia has been poisoned there at the house, and at the same time, so has her husband back at the casino. Although Lynn survives the murder attempt, Virginia does not. Later, Mrs. Llewellyn is found dead by a gunshot wound with a note by her side, admitting that she killed her daughter-in-law, Virginia. It is at this point that I glimpse a bit of bad acting on Rosalind’s part. She stands at the top of the stairs, puts her hand dramatically to her head, and screams out hysterically before fainting.
Although that is technically a dramatic part of the story, I laugh because it is ridiculous the way she does it. But it is likely Rosalind would not defend herself on this point because she thought she was rather bad in the movie.
Rosalind Russell provides a rather youthful female partner for Paul Lukas, who, at almost 44 years old, was 16 years older than her. Truthfully, I do not see the two as a plausible couple and do not see the chemistry radiating off of them in any of the (few) romantic scenes. And on another truthful note, it is revealed that the murder attempts on the Llewellyn family had something to do with something called “heavy water” and it appears Mr. Kinkaid is behind it. If heavy water, which has a larger than normal amount of the hydrogen isotope “deuterium”, is consumed in large quantities, it can result in death. Mostly, this film’s story is rather boring. Without the charm and charisma of a William Powell-type actor, the main character comes off bland, and the chemistry between the two romantic leads is almost nonexistent, which doesn’t help matters. I do not highly recommend this film. I would rather recommend one of the earlier film adaptations of the Philo Vance cases, especially the William Powell versions. However, if you are as big a fan of Rosalind Russell as I am and you must see it, then definitely do so!