You Never Can Tell, Lou Breslow

Detective Fantasy ‘You Never Can Tell’ Spoofs Film Noir

Fantasy, comedy, romance, reincarnation, animals and murder are ingredients for You Never Can Tell, a whimsical story with spoofs of film noir.

You Never Can Tell
Lou Breslow
Kino Lorber
9 April 2024

Lou Breslow’s You Never Can Tell (1951) is making its Blu-ray debut. It’s a modest fantasy that’s not very well known, although the plot gimmick has legs—at least four of them.

The opening scene announces the death of a millionaire who made a fortune in making crackers for parrots (the reason for which will be revealed) and who has left his entire fortune to King, his German shepherd. King’s guardian is the dead man’s secretary, Ellen Hathaway (Peggy Dow), who’s next in line to inherit after King’s death.

In the mansion, Ellen is visited, charmed, and wooed by Perry Collins (Charles Drake), who claims to be an old army buddy of King’s from the K-9 Corps. One day, he flies off to attend to oil wells in Tulsa, and the next day, King dies of poisoning.

Then comes a wiggy segment in photographic negative presenting hundreds of animals arriving, newly deceased, to the animal heaven presided over by a majestic lion. He’s voiced, in an interesting choice, by African-American actor Roy Glenn, decades before James Earl Jones voiced Mufasa in Disney’s The Lion King (1994).

The poisoned King speaks up, and this is the first time we’ve heard him speak; his voice is that of Dick Powell. He asks for a brief respite to return to Earth and clear up his murder. His wish is granted, accompanied by a prize-winning horse, Golden Harvest.

The next thing we know, Rex Shepherd (Powell) is a private detective with an uncanny resemblance to Philip Marlowe, the famous detective played by Powell in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder My Sweet (1944). The difference is that he only eats dog treats and has a bad habit of scratching his ears. Goldie is his snappy secretary, and Joyce Holden steals her scenes with horsey talk and comedy bits.

You Never Can Tell doesn’t count as a whodunit since Rex bluntly tells us that his hateful old human “pal” Perry is the poisoner after Ellen’s money. The question is how to prove it to Ellen while following strict secrecy rules about spilling his true identity.

As Rex recalls his gullible poisoning, Goldie says, “You talk about horse sense. I’d never have eaten that meat.” Rex can only growl, “Listen, to a dog, meat is meat.”

This bizarre whimsy wouldn’t work if writer-director Lou Breslow weren’t an old pro as a comedy writer. He worked with many greats, such as Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and the Three Stooges. You Never Can Tell is his only full feature as a director, and it was in the same year he wrote an animal comedy for Ronald Reagan, 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo.

Breslow takes the premise of You Never Can Tell just seriously enough to move the plot along without too many whimsical digressions. When Rex and Goldie begin talking trash between themselves about how hopeless humans are and how people don’t even know the meaning of happiness, the script almost crosses into pointed satire.

Breslow’s co-writer, David Chandler, mainly wrote television scripts and novels, apparently none of a fantasy nature; he probably provided structure for the comedy. The script’s only flaw is that King should have been hostile to Perry instead of merely glum, but then Ellen would have been tipped off too early.

Producer Leonard Goldstein was an incredibly busy Universal producer in the first half of the ’50s, churning out midline bread-and-butter items such as the films about Ma and Pa Kettle, Francis the Talking Mule, and lots of westerns. There were always animals somewhere.

The idea of a dog who returns to Earth to solve his own murder has been recycled, or rather inverted, in a few movies about murdered men who reincarnate as dogs; the most famous is probably Joe Camp’s Oh! In Heavenly Dog (1980), where Chevy Chase’s private detective comes back as Benji.

You Never Can Tell is no masterpiece, but it gets its job done amusingly for 80 minutes. Powell’s comic timing and whimsy are charming, and we’ve already observed that Holden is golden. Her Goldie is refreshingly smart and confident (and quite the clothes horse, ahem), and we can’t help wishing she’d starred in her own series. She’d have left many competitors at the gate.

The only previous incarnation of You Never Can Tell on home video was a Universal Vault DVD in 2014. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray uses a new 2K scan from the 35mm Fine Grain print and comes with friendly gossipy commentary by film historians Michael Schlesinger and Darlene Ramirez.