This film was in production when most of the films of the period were being shot in sound, but Fox did not secure the sound rights for the film and allowed it to be shot as a silent picture. Director Howard Hawks claimed that Fox decided this film was going to be a dud and gave him a shoestring budget, so he decided to "have a little fun" with the production. See more »
"Trent's Last Case" by Eric Clerihew Bentley is considered one of the all-time great mystery novels, although it has badly dated. Philip Trent is one of those know-all amateur sleuths who seem to be so frequent in detective fiction but so rare in real life: like Philo Vance, he's a bon vivant with expensive tastes but no discernible job, who often gets called in to solve all the mysteries which baffle the police. In the novel, Trent is a snob who tells racist jokes; he also bullies a teetotaller into drinking booze and paying for Trent's dinner.
Howard Hawks's film version of the novel was made in 1929, when silents were clearly on the way out and usually did poorly at the box office. Watching this film, I got the impression it went into pre-production as a talkie picture but was filmed silent at the last minute. Perhaps this decision had something to do with the curious choice of Raymond Griffith to play the lead role. (Griffith was a popular silent-film comedian who literally had no voice, due to a throat ailment: his stardom didn't last into talking pictures.) For some reason, Griffith played the lead role in "Trent's Last Case" for comic effect, even though the original novel was clearly not meant to be funny. Griffith's performance here is nearly a parody of his performance in "You'd Be Surprised", in which he played a coroner investigating a murder ... the difference being that "You'd Be Surprised" was intentionally a comedy.
Apart from Griffith's performance, the film's story adheres very closely to the original novel. Sigsbee Manderson is an immensely powerful tycoon, until he's found shot dead near a golf course. Lying nearby is the murder weapon: a handgun easily traced to Jack Marlowe, who visited Manderson shortly before the latter's death. Manderson had a loveless marriage with his much younger wife: in the novel, she was known only as "Mrs Manderson" but here she has the forename Evelyn (played by Marceline Day). She's been having an affair with Jack Marlowe. All circumstances point clearly to Jack Marlowe as the killer ... and yet poor dumb old Scotland Yard Inspector Murch (Edgar Kennedy in his best befuddled mode) can't put the clues together.
SPOILER COMING: The solution is the same as in the novel. Manderson, aware of his wife's infidelity, lured Marlowe to his house with the intention of framing him for robbery and **attempted** murder ... then sent him away on a false errand to deprive him of an alibi. Evelyn Manderson's uncle, Joshua Cupples (well-played by Raymond Hatton) arrives at the Manderson estate just in time to see Manderson raising Marlowe's pistol to his own head, intending only to wound himself and then claim that Marlowe attacked him. Cupples mistakes Manderson's act for a suicide attempt; he rushes forward, intending to save Manderson's life. The two men struggle for the gun and it goes off, killing Manderson. Cupples then dragged Manderson's body to a putting green and tampered with the evidence, to conceal the fact that he has **unintentionally** shot Manderson.
All of the characters are English, except for the Mandersons' French maid (played by Anita Garvin). The decision to film "Trent's" as a silent may have been so as to spare this mostly American cast the need for foreign accents. (Imagine Edgar Kennedy as a Scotland Yard inspector!) Marceline Day is very pretty in this film, but her talking-picture career reveals that she had extremely peculiar diction. Given this cast, Howard Hawks was wise to film the movie as a silent. Regrettably, the distinctive touches of other Hawks films are mostly absent here. But why did Raymond Griffith play it for comedy? Did he doubt his own ability for dramatic roles?
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