Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hollywood Dreamland Goes Postal (Again)

Instead of a time-sensitive post reminding you to have a Happy New Year or getting on my knees like Al Jolson and begging you to watch the Thin Man Marathon on Turner Classic Movies this evening (8pm EST), I'm going to be fiercely independent in that stern, Bryn Mawr, New England way that was Katharine Hepburn and not do either of those things (oops, too late!). Kate, like Gary Cooper earlier this year, has a United States Postage Stamp with her lovely visage slapped on it, due in 2010. And did you notice how the stamp pictured above is cancelled out? If people were "basically good", they wouldn't have to do that. ;)

Getting word of Kate's postage stamp as well as seeing her this past week in one our favorite movies, Adam's Rib, has got the Kate mood flowing again, so perhaps I'll threaten you all with some Hepburn posts in the new year. I still have that 100th Anniversary DVD to watch I got for Christmas, 2008 and I'd like to do a few entries on her 1930s films, too. Hopefully, enough energy and enthusiasm can be mustered up in 2010 in order to do that.

So Happy New Year, and don't forget to watch the Nick and Nora marathon tonight, unless you have other plans, like sacking Rome with your Visigoth friends from the office.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Poll Results: Barbara Stanwyck

I never doubted this one, either. Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in 1944's Double Indemnity. So much brilliant dialogue, so many great Los Angeles locations, Fred MacMurray his usual brilliant self--baby boomers weaned on My Three Sons should symbolically kill their ill-kept image of MacMurray's wholesome TV persona after seeing Double Indemnity. I wouldn't want Steve Douglas' pipe-puffing, cardigan-wearing shroud hanging over my thoughts, either.

But above it all, there's Barbara Stanwyck. It's a Billy Wilder film, but it's *her* movie. Here's how the voting went, with a total of 75 votes:

Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity 32 (42%)
Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven 18 (24%)
Rita Hayworth in Lady From Shanghai 12 (16%)
Jane Greer in Out of the Past 10 (13%)
Lizabeth Scott in Dead Reckoning 3 (4%)

Some quick takes:

There was some serious competition here, but Babs crushed them all. Manupulative and desperate and just plain twisted, yet you still sympathize with her, despite how evil and remorseless she is. Stanwyck was robbed (as usual) at Oscar time; sorry, Ingrid. Gene Tierney's best-remembered for her role in Laura but she was never better and cast against type as she was in the color noir masterpiece, Leave Her to Heaven. Rita Hayworth's hair was dyed blonde and she utters some seriously disturbing dialogue at the end of Lady from Shanghai. My favorite role of hers and if the film had trimmed some of its excess, it may have been remembered as a masterpiece. Jane Greer in Out of the Past. I love how Greer's personality becomes mean and just plain rotten by movie's end. Lizabeth Scott in Dead Reckoning is fine, but she just wasn't the actress those other women were. It is among my favorite Bogart films, though. I think I'm alone in that claim.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Stop with the Death Montages

The Death Montage. We all know what they are: that year-end collection of clips of that year's movie industry people who have died--I'm sorry, too harsh a word--"passed away"--during the previous year. It's an entirely different thing than someone's own, heartfelt rememberances of a deceased movie person. But I've come to the point where I can't stand them and won't watch those Death Montages. Time was I loved torturing myself to a depressed stupor remembering all over again the cherished movie people who will no longer be with us. Plus, they often forget a beloved favorite of mine, so I'm angry and depressed afterwards. That's why I have Patrick McGoohan as the picture of this entry; he died back in January but didn't make AOL's annual death list. I probably should be happy for that; as McGoohan is more worthy of his battle cry "I am not a number, I am a Free Man!" for being exempt from that roll call.

The Academy Awards show started this practice and it was fine. Then around the mid-1990s it became a macabre popularity contest, with the loudest applause for the "biggest" legend who joined the Choir Invisible. As they said about a Hollywood mogul, whose funeral brought out thousands of mourners: "Give the people what they want and they'll come out in droves." It got to the point where people I knew looked forward to that part of the Oscar broadcast.

Perhaps I'm too cynical. And yes, I am. But behind every cynical man is a sentimental sap who's deeply affected by such things. Turner Classic Movies, in its ongoing move to "youthify" classic movies for my generation--the dreaded "Gen X"--it only serves to remind me how slick and pre-conceived (to quote Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters) it all is. It comes off as a mawkish, "Death as Nostalgia" production to me.

Ah, well. The year's almost done and I couldn't be happier. As much as I love the past, I'm not particularly enamored with my past. However, when it comes to the past of movie icons, I'm quite enamored with that. And to see their lives reduced to a three-and-a-half minute montage just casts a--pall--over me.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In 1997, I WAS J.J. Hunsecker

I knew I was destined to be a classic movie fanatic from a very early age. I was always in the habit of watching and rewatching favorite films. Memorizing the dialogue, then using said dialogue in my mundane, everyday life. I'd use the many clever lines from 1957's Sweet Smell of Success on my fellow unsuspecting music store drones. The lines would come out of nowhere. Usually they were in context but a lot of times they weren't, which made those in the know all the more amused.

Wait. Let me back up for a second.

In 1997, I became fascinated with New York City and how it looked in the 1950s. I was and am obsessed with jazz from that time and to get a sense of what things looked like circa 1957 is best exemplified in Alexander Mackendrink's Sweet Smell of Success. Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis became legends in my personal, worshipful pantheon of movie heroes. Lancaster played powerful NYC gossip columnist--and Walter Winchell surrogate--J.J. Hunsecker, a strange man with a swank apartment filled with objets d'arte that he knew nothing about ("Picasso-- one "S" or two?") and who was in love with his power as well as his virginal little sister, Susie. Curtis played the oily, hand-wringing press agent, Sidney Falco. Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire owes everything to Sidney Falco; the chump.

Every friday night for fifteen consecutive weeks, my pal and I would set up the steam-powered VCR (that's Video Cassette Recorder to youse kids born after 1990) and watch a different movie each week, but we would end the night with our corrupt noir masterpiece. It would be several years and one slow internet connection later when I would finally realize that Sweet Smell of Success was a cult classic. It was also adored by critics but largely unknown by the Great Unwashed. Still, I loved this movie.

Movies and junk food go together like Liz Taylor and divorce, so we armed ourselves and filled our burgeoning guts with sweet and salty crap. We live in South Florida, so we had to have something hispanic, and Inca Kola fit the bill. It's the national beverage of Peru. It tastes something like liquid bubblegum. It goes great with spicy and salty foods, not that that stopped us from downing a dozen doughnuts along with it. We sure punished our bodies.

Let's not forget to have a movie icon and personal hero's line of foods along for the ride: Newman's Own. We continued to put up speed bumps for our metabolism by gobbling anything and everything with Paul Newman's mug on the box/jar/carton/bottle. We loved his popcorn, salsa, spaghetti sauce, and lemonade: which I can no longer find; did it die with him???

"Movie Night", as we called it, was a great time of bonding and learning about classic film. Black and White became our friend, Elmer Bernstein's big, big, BIG score for "Sweet Smell", as we came to call it, was a call to arms. We worked on our Burt Lancaster accents and Tony Curtis mannerisms and quoted Emile Meyer ("I call him the boy with the ice cream face.") more than any twentysomething ever should. Hard to believe it was thirteen years ago.

Oh well, onward with new memories.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jennifer Jones

I always regretted not being more into Jennifer Jones. Not because she died this past week at age 90, but because she was one of those performers that I was quite familiar with yet never embraced. To me, Jones was the actress that people's mothers, aunts, and grandmothers liked. She often played the good girl, dutiful wife, and even the occasional martyr, but she appeared against type in enough films that she got my attention. She certainly grabbed and yanked me to the TV screen when I saw her as the tempestuous Pearl in 1946's Duel in the Sun. Jones was hotter than a Texas Summer in that movie. She got top billing over the likes of Gregory Peck--then a rising star--and Joseph Cotten--an established second lead. I didn't know about Jones' connection to David O. Selznick, big shot studio boss. When I did learn of her marriage to him, I dismissed her Oscar win as politics in action and moved on. Why I did this, even though Jones had received five Oscar nominations in less than ten years, shows what I knew.

Years later, when I became interested in post-war America and specifically, Sloan Wilson's novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit ("That sounds warm" said the young female book clerk when I called my local bookstore inquiring as to their having a copy). Of course it was long out of print, but I would run into Jennifer Jones again as she played the long-suffering wife to Peck's preoccupied corporate career climber in the film version. This is when Jones' talent made an impression on me. Her performance alone was the sympathetic role that I clung to when watching this rather depressing movie--with a typically moody score from Bernard Herrmann--and then I no longer dismissed Jennifer Jones as a studio mogul's wife with the right connections.

Jennifer Jones had endured much personal tragedy. Her husband, the actor Robert Walker (Strangers on a Train) died prematurely, and was overwhelmed by devastating emotional problems after he and Jones' divorce in 1945. Jones' daughter, Mary Jennifer Selznick, committed suicide by jumping from the 20th floor of a building, age 22 in 1976.

Perhaps Jones' refusal to give interviews and maintaining an intensely private life hurt her chances of being remembered by the general public. Or maybe the shrill feminism of subsequent decades cast a scornful eye on Jones' roles and "inconvenient" screen persona. If Jones had led a public life and tended to her own legacy like some stars have, it may have kept her in the minds of film lovers. But Jones saw her life with her family and work with mental health issues as more important than her screen career. I respect her all the more for it. It takes a selfless person to turn their back on fame, and Jones no doubt had her fill of it, for better or worse. I was surprised to learn of her death because I mistakenly believed that she had died back in the mid-90s. Chalk up another victory for the privacy-loving actress, who would no doubt find that amusing.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Soundtrack Rundown

I rarely write about film scores here anymore. They're a niche market, even more than jazz and classical music. Most movie lovers don't even pay attention to a film's score unless it's intrusive, too loud, or just plain bad. I don't know why that is, but that's how film music stands among even the most die hard of film buffs. Seeing as the demand for film music releases is slight band only wanted by a hardcore few, the specialty labels that release these long sought-after titles put them out in limited editions of 3000 copies or less and once they're gone, these soundtracks fetch huge prices on the secondary market.

My taste in film scores runs mostly towards 1950s-1970s recordings as I prefer the jazzy, modernistic sounds that came into being as the studio system was in its decline. The Golden Age sound doesn't really appeal to me, though I love those early-1930s scores that sound like a swanky jazz band is playing from a tinny radio in a deco apartment; go figure.

This past year was a great year for soundtrack fans. Two of the scores covered here have a tenuous Golden Age connection, so perhaps someone that will hold someone's interest...

In Harm's Way (1965) (Jerry Goldsmith) This Otto Preminger Pearl Harbor/Pacific Theater epic had a stellar cast and boasts a fine orchestral score from Goldsmith, who has a cameo in the film. John Wayne's character gets a tremendous theme in "The Rock" which is as sturdy as the character himself. Plus there's a fun Les Baxter-like exotica flavor in "Native Quarter" and "native" sounds in "Hawaiian Mood." The tense, edgy combat music is exemplified in "Attack", one of the best tracks on this. Goldsmith always scored the human element and a tender but playful example is "The Rock and His Lady", where Duke and his love interest (Patricia Neal) get to know one another. There are also a few big band source music cues that give off some 1940s period vibe. Intrada's release is of the original LP, so the anachronistic "echoplex" combat music is not present here. Shame.

The Big Sleep (1978) (Jerry Fielding) I reviewed the movie itself in the Philip Marlowe on Film series back in March, and I've come to the realization that I prefer this Robert Mitchum remake (set in London!) to the Bogart/Bacall original! That said, Jerry Fielding's modernistic score has a propulsive main title and some funky tracks and edgy suspense music which are atmospheric like a Noir should be. This was a release I dreamed of for years, and now it's here. Fielding is not to many people's taste, as he eschewed catchy melodies for sound textures and explorations that got into a character's psyche. I still find some of his compositions subversively catchy, though. He's become a favorite composer of mine. Fielding should've worked prodigiously in the 1950s but was blacklisted. He would emerge thanks to...Otto Preminger and make a triumphant return with his score for the director's film, Advise and Consent (1962).

Bullitt (1968) (Lalo Schifrin) Okay, so this is miles away from the Golden Age, but seeing as I have this life-long admiration for Steve McQueen, I was thrilled beyond belief that this CD got made. The Film Score Monthly edition contains both the original 1968 soundtrack--never before released--as well as the well-known and much loved re-record Schifrin did three months after the original sessions were done. "Shifting Gears" is the famous music that serves as a hip prelude to the (unscored) car chase you keep hearing about.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

How Many of Your Requests Made It?

Did anyone fare any better with their desired DVD titles, or did you just dub them off of TCM?

Last December I posted an entry about my Unreleased DVD Wishlist. And only one, Johnny Eager (1942), was released, and even that was through the Warner Archives, the burn-to-order DVD syndicate that has offered some truly interesting titles, but not as many from the Golden Age as I would've liked. They're also a bit expensive ($19.95 a shot) for something with varying quality. Warner Archives only ships to US locations, so international movie-lovers have to find alternate means to getting these. Oh, there's also a disclaimer for Warner Archives titles:

"Important Note: This film has been manufactured from the best-quality video master currently available and has not been remastered or restored specifically for this DVD and Digital Download release. Click here to preview this film's video quality."

My hat's off to WB for providing a few minutes of video footage--most of which looks fine--but the whole concept just leads me to believe that the DVD "revolution" as far as pre-1950s films go, is essentially over. I still hold out hope that Warner Brothers will issue a DVD box of the "Fast" films and that someone will have the moxy to treat us to William Powell's Thin Man knockoffs made for RKO and Columbia (reviews are here and here).

Since the major companies aren't interested in DVDs much anymore, I guess I'd better quit complaining and buy a DVD recorder and start the revoultion on my own.

Here's My Money, where are the DVDs?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Shelf Life of a Post

Like many other classic movie blogs, Hollywood Dreamland has the LinkWithin feature below each entry because it brings attention to similarly-themed posts that someone might enjoy. I love reading people's comments, both the critical and constructive, but I can't help but notice how often an entry gets comments initially and then nothing at all. Most blogs are like this; I'm sure this is the case in your corner of the bloggosphere. So I'm pleasantly surprised when someone surfing the 'net finds something I scratched out six months ago and comments on it, whether it be correcting a mistake, praising my "insight", or directing me to "Beautiful Russian Women." It's especially pleasing when someone posts a comment on an entry of which I'm particularly proud. But overrall the shelf life of a blog post--be it a long-winded Thin Man article or short Gene Tierney blurb--is rather brief, but I'm grateful for those who read and above all--comment on what's written.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Thin Man (1934)

May 25, 1934. MGM released another quickly-produced mystery film starring two of its stars, William Powell and Myrna Loy. That film was based on a Dashiell Hammett novel. It began as just another quickie mystery, but ended up becoming a huge critical and commercial success, as well as being William Powell and Myrna Loy’s defining career roles. Which movie was that again?

The Thin Man. Surprised?

The chronicle of the entire series is best left to better writers, so we direct you to Rich Drees’ essential piece on the subject, whereas Hollywood Dreamland will continue to provide its oddball view of the series for the fan who knows many of the Thin Man basics. And we’re spoiler free, as always.

Nick’s introduction is iconic. The camera moves along as a jazzy dance number fills the hotel bar and we see the back of our hero while he’s giving an impromptu clinic to bartenders on the proper way to mix a Martini:

“The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.”

And thus the magic begins. After the ten-minute set up which covers the mystery part of the film, we get the brilliant opening to one of the greatest-ever movie characters. The setting is sophisticated, the joint itself is wonderful, and the character is holding forth on the subject he knows more about than anyone in this old brown world: Drinking. Nick’s intro is mind blowing when I think about it, because it’s easy to take this perfect entry for granted to a character many of us would love to be. There are very few introductions to characters that measure up to that of William Powell’s tippling super sleuth. And as is often the case in things likes this, the shot was the first used and Powell didn’t even know it until after director Van Dyke said “Print”! Such was the ease and expertise of “One Take Woody” who always got a film done under budget and on time.

“Oh, it's all right, Joe. It's all right. It's my dog; and, uh, my wife.”

“Well you might have mentioned me first on the billing.”

Both Powell and Loy’s introductory scenes were devised by Woody Van Dyke. It’s no small wonder that he would receive a Best Director nomination for The Thin Man. Van Dyke was just as important to the Thin Man’s success as Powell and Loy were. It was he who asked Louis B. Mayer to cast the two as the leads and it was Van Dyke who wanted to direct the property in the first place, as the director was an admirer of Hammett’s work and hardboiled mysteries in general.

“Well, can't you tell us anything about the case?”

“Yes, it's putting me way behind in my drinking.”

Even the trailer for The Thin Man is fresh and amusing because it stars William Powell in character as both of his iconic detective roles. Philo Vance is walking down the street and spots a billboard for the new MGM movie, and Nick Charles, who’s pictured on the billboard, begins a conversation with his former incarnation! It’s brilliant! Imagine if the outgoing James Bond actor had a similar set up with the incoming 007? It’d never happen.

“How'd you like Grant's tomb?”

“It's lovely. I'm having a copy made for you.”

Nora gets the best lines in this movie, though most everything said by Nick is also highly and dangerously quotable. The more I see this movie—and I’ve seen it a lot—and it keeps getting better. Lines I know by heart invoke a smile and knowing laughter, but then more dialogue sprouts up that I hadn’t taken notice of previously! This film is stacked with wonderfully witty dialogue and it never stops! The immediate sequel, After the Thin Man, may have more laughs, but the original is a better film in every respect. It’s still fresh and vital the thirtieth time around as it is the first. I actually didn’t like the movie the first time around! The second and fourth films received several viewings from me before I had seen this one, so I was accustomed to the sequels’ comedic fireworks. I was initially put off by the first ten minutes of mystery-in-the-making. We don’t even see, hear, or know about Nick and Nora until after the mystery has been established.

“Say, how did you people happen to pop in here?”

“We hear this is getting to be sort of a meeting place for the Wynant family, so we figured we'll stick around just in case the old boy himself should show up. Then we see this bird sneak in, we decide to come up. And lucky for you we did!”

“Yes, I might not have been shot.”

William Powell snagged an Oscar nod for his first turn as Nick Charles, and boy did he deserve it. The sum of Powell’s total charm, elegance, and wit as Nick can be seen in the Christmas party where he works the room spouting off multiple witticisms and banter while distributing a tray of cocktails. He gives Nora a peck on the cheek and Loy’s smile makes me think that it was an improvisation on Powell’s part. Either that, or Myrna Loy was such a good actress that she can make us believe she was surprised. Whatever the case, she’s great and so is he. Effortless charm! And the scene definitely gives off a “Christmas party” feeling, as there’s much merriment in this scene. And Nora is wearing an absolutely gorgeous (red and white?) striped dress for the occasion; I often wonder why it doesn’t get more attention from style mavens.

Best scene in the entire film: Christmas morning at the Charles’ hotel room. Nora is bemusedly watching Nick shoot the Christmas tree bulbs off of the tree with the new “zip gun” she got him for Christmas. This is the kind of device that the Student School Handbook “warned” us about.

Nick: [to Nora in fur coat] “Aren’t you hot in that?”

Nora: “Yes, I’m stifling; but it’s so pretty


Nick: "I'm a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.

Nora: “I read you were shot five times in the tabloids.”

Nick: “That’s a lie. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids!”

The Thin Man was filmed in sixteen days in April 1934. The evil, puritanical Production Code amendment was issued on June 13, 1934 which required films to receive a certificate of approval. The Thin Man was released in May of that year, so it would appear that they got their "naughty" content in under the wire. Otherwise, how would that look-fast-or-you’ll-miss-it lingerie ad make it past the censors? Or what about the Nunheim and Marion characters, who live together yet don’t appear to be married?

The Supporting Cast

Maureen O’Sullivan: (Dorothy Wynant) Young and lovely O’Sullivan was just twenty-three when she appeared made this movie and she’s a delight. Innocent, beautiful, and she’s one of the few three-dimensional characters in all of Thin Man land. She evinces much sympathy and is a delight to watch. It’s interesting to see O’Sullivan here and then flashing forward to 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters to see her as a show-biz mother, all boozy and temperamental. All those drinks with Nick must’ve done it.

William Henry: (Gilbert) Hard to believe that the actor who played the odd, bookish, twenty-year-old boy with the carefully measured speaking tones would later become a rugged character actor who showed up in countless movie and TV Westerns! I know him from his brief role as “Dodd Draper” in the 1967 John Wayne film, El Dorado. It’s a splendid reinvention.

Nat Pendleton: (Lt. Guild) He’s there with Nick, trying to solve this case. He shoots off a couple good lines, especially one at Gilbert’s expense. Pendleton had already appeared with Powell in Manhattan Melodrama, where he played Clark Gable’s lackey. He wa suitably dopey in that but he’s not as dim here.

Porter Hall: (MacCaulay) Wynant’s attorney. You may also know him as one of the reporters in 1940’s His Girl Friday. Or any number of assorted attorneys and judges in major motion pictures of the 30s and 40s. Hall was a non-nonsense character actor, the kind they can’t/don’t/won’t make anymore. Hall has the great ability to blend into the background and become the character. It’s what great acting is all about.

Harold Huber: (Nunheim) This guy’s name gets said more than any other! I found myself saying the name “Nunheim” like an absent-minded obsessive-compulsive! Nunheim is real trash, the kind they still make, unfortunately. But he manages to elicit sympathy because he’s such a pathetic sap.

Gertrude Short: (Marion) Nunheim’s shacked up with this tootsie, and she’s brilliant! Short has more charisma than most leading ladies today. In The Thin Man, Marion and Nunheim have, shall we say, a less than ideal relationship. She really lets poor Nunheim have it, too.

Edward Brophy: (Morelli) Another “repeat offender” in the Thin Man series. He also appeared as the shrub-loving postcard salesman, Brophy, in The Thin Man Goes Home. Here he’s the dangerous and ill-tempered Morelli, who holds Nick and Nora at gunpoint in their bedroom. Morelli was carrying on with Wynant’s mistress and is a key suspect in the latter’s death.

Cesar Romero: (Chris) He looks suitably menacing and is a deadbeat all at once. The always-enjoyable Romero would enjoy a sixty-year career as a variety of amusing roles. This is the earliest role I’ve seen him in.

Edward Ellis: (Wynant) As most aficionados know, Wynant is the title character. The tag was so catchy that it came to mean any movie in this series. The character’s a curmudgeon and a philanderer, too. I’ve only seen Edward Ellis in a Garson Kanin-directed called A Man to Remember (1938). Ellis plays a small-town doctor and he’s vastly different from the jerk he plays here. The film would appear to be rare because the print TCM showed had Swedish subtitles on it. Perhaps that was all that could be found.

The film’s lovely is again Myrna Loy, who simply radiates with intelligence, beauty, poise, and cool—long before that word’s meaning was killed through misuse. This is Loy before that “Ideal Wife” nonsense killed her original appeal. In her maiden voyage as Nora Charles, she’s just amazing and we’ve never had anyone like her. Loy’s an original, that’s for sure. It's a crime that she was overlooked at Oscar time. A crime.

The finale is done in typical mystery fashion, the assembly of the suspects. Nick and Nora do this with style also, as it’s at a swank dinner party with Nora wearing an amazingly sexy black evening gown. I’m told its black satin, but it looks more like leather! Yowza! Of course Nick solves the mystery of Wynant’s death and while it may take a few viewings to entirely remember the large cast and their motivations and connections, the wit and undeniable chemistry between Powell and Loy will bring you back time and again. There’s nothing more comforting than a cherished classic movie to lift one’s spirits again. The Thin Man does it for me every time.

If I had to live my life in a movie, it would be as Nick Charles in a never-ending Thin Man mystery. I’d crack wise, banter back and forth with my lovely wife, have the best dog ever, and hold a perpetual cocktail in my hand. The Thin Man is well-loved by classic movie lovers, but I still feel—despite the strong sales of the Complete Thin Man Collection DVD set—that it is a film, and series, largely unknown by the general public. It’s known mostly through word-of-mouth and via regular runs on Turner Classic Movies, which is probably the only channel that airs these films. I think of the series as a well-kept, but open, secret.

What are you waiting for? Get this now!

Friday, December 4, 2009

After the Thin Man (1936)

The Plot: Nick and Nora track down Nora’s cousin’s lecherous, waywardly husband, who ends up murdered on New Year’s Eve; many laughs (and plot twists) follow.

The Thin Man was a surprise smash hit, so a sequel was quickly planned in order to capitalize on the tremendous on-screen chemistry between stars William Powell and Myrna Loy. That cinematic lightning-in-a-bottle was enough to convince screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett that the second film should include even more witty repartee for Powell and Loy. The one-liners come from everyone, not just the stars, and it’s staggeringly good stuff. This is the kind of dialogue we could never come up with ourselves, so we’ll just have to borrow the material that Goodrich and Hackett gave us. There are dozens of lines in the film that could be quoted in one’s day-to-day drudgery. We’ll refrain from quoting all the delicious dialogue because even those can act as spoilers to those who haven’t “imbibed” a Thin Man movie. But it’s too good not to mention a few great lines along the way.

“Come on, let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty.”

After the Thin Man is not just an immensely enjoyable mystery-comedy (better make that comedy-mystery, as the yuks are more plentiful this time around), but rather one of the greatest sequels ever made. It’s rare that a sequel comes close to equaling its classic predecessor, but After the Thin Man can be counted on that short list of great sequels. Credit must go to the aforementioned screenwriters, but also to perennial Thin Man director Woody Van Dyke for coordinating this cinematic endeavor. After all, film is the most collaborative of arts.

“Are you packing, dear?”

“Yes, darling. I’m just putting away this liquor.”

After the Thin Man (1936) takes place right after the events in the first film. Nick and Nora Charles, fresh off their triumph of the Wynant case are headed back to San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. Nick wants nothing more than to get some well-needed rest and to enjoy all the money he married Nora for. Upon their return to San Francisco, Nick and Nora are besieged in their own hilltop mansion—Telegraph Hill no less-- by a gaggle of partygoers, none of whom Nick and Nora even know! A wild, drunken swing-era party is in full…swing! There’s a small band, a singer performing “Sing Sing Sing” (which was the second half of the decade’s anthem), some dopey drunks lifting up one another to prove their manliness, and some silly dame with severe self-esteem issues who has to be “rescued” from a “burning” building! Nick and Nora escape to the kitchen, where the staff is hard at work with their harsh, working-class tones in full evidence. Then Aunt Katherine phones the Charles home and Nick is guaranteed no peace on New Year’s Eve!

That opening scene is but a sample of how fast and furious things get. It’s as though the filmmakers were stuffing everything they could for maximum entertainment value and it shows, too. Every aspect of After the Thin Man is pure gold. The “Swing Era” spirit is all over this film; 1936 was indeed something special. The 1934 movie opened with ten minutes of set up for the murder mystery and only afterwards did we receive our introduction to the suave, debonair hero. This entry opens with our glamorous couple westward bound for some much-needed rest after that strenuous Wynant murder case.

And will you get a load of the Charles’ San Francisco home? It’s an art deco masterpiece! MGM was the best studio for a reason, and Cedric Gibbons’ art direction is spectacular! This is my 1930s movie dream home! In the scene where Nick and Nora are chasing the clue-chewing Asta around the place, but I spend the time that scene takes absorbing the beauty of the house! The Cinema Style blog has pictures of this house.

As impressive as the Charles’ Deco home is, the Lichee (pronounced “Lye-Chee”) Club, the swankest Chinese restaurant in all history. It’s the premiere set piece in the film; the joint is jumpin’! The Lichee is certainly a far cry from the Chinese restaurants I’ve ever been to, where sullen workers speak in harsh, clipped tones and answer every question in one word or less. The Lichee Club has the patina of class, like a gilded lily, but there’s dirty double-dealings going on behind the scenes. The patrons are crazy drunk and play miniature novelty instruments. It looks like everyone is having a ball. The Great Depression is an unknown event at this swanky den of bawdy celebration! An interesting pop culture reference of the time is when Nick has commandeered a miniature saxophone and he quotes a hugely popular song of 1936, The Music Goes Round and Round, (Tommy Dorsey had a stellar version of this) a tune that is quoted by Curly Howard in a Three Stooges short, 1936’s Half-Shot Shooters.

"Have you made any New Year's resolutions?"

"Not yet; any complaints or suggestions?"

"A few."



"All right, shoot."

"Well, you don't scold, you don't nag, and you look far too pretty in the mornings."

"All right, I'll remember: must scold, must nag; mustn’t be too pretty in the mornings."

The sequence leading up to Robert’s murder is well handled and beautifully atmospheric. I don’t think they filmed this on location in San Francisco but the art direction is a world unto itself: foggy, cold, dark, and foreboding. Black and White photography excels at chronicling the darkness of the moment. There’s effective editing which cuts back and forth between the numerous suspects until the final moment of rotten Robert’s short-happy life.

After the Thin Man boasts a wonderful extended, wordless sequence, which takes place when Nick is snooping around a suspect’s apartment. This goes on for about six and a half minutes. I seriously doubt any filmmaker would do that today, given the attention span of the average viewer. The wordless sequence is punctuated by an excellent use of sound effects, culminating in the sharp crack of gunfire as Dancer takes aim at Nick Charles. Tell whomever you’re with to pipe down during that scene because it casts quite a spell on the attentive viewer, or rather, listener.

The Supporting Cast: It’s a large one this time around. The supporting players are a fine blend of character actor stalwarts, obscure bit players, veteran character actors, and one bona fide movie legend. Every single actor in this film gives terrific support. Some of the notables:

James Stewart: Yes, it’s that James Stewart. He plays David; a former boyfriend of Selma’s who sticks around out of loyalty to her, even after her marriage to Robert. You can hear those Jimmyisms in several of his lines and in a short time, Stewart would emerge as the biggest star of anyone in this film. He’s his usual, enjoyable self here although he himself apparently didn’t think much of this early performance.

“When he gives you the sack, let me know, will ya?”

“I certainly will!”

Jessie Ralph: Aunt Katherine is, in Nick’s words, “an old battleaxe.” She lets anyone and everyone have it with both barrels blazing. Nora’s family is certainly eccentric bunch still back in the Victorian Era. Jessie Ralph has played a variety of roles and she’s so convincing as the crotchety Aunt Katherine that it’s amusing whenever I see her playing a nice character in other films like Double Wedding. She’s a hoot in After the Thin Man.

Sam Levene: Lt. Abrams’ first appearance. He’s over-the-top and I love it! He desperately needs Nick’s expertise and relies on whatever Nick gives him. The idea to have a colorful cop Nick helps is a valued element in the first four films. The last two lack this rapport, which Powell and either Levene or Nat Pendleton (Lt. Guild in the first and third movies) providing a fun interaction during the mystery. A running gag with Lt. Abrams is that Asta doesn’t like him; Abrams is the only character who can claim this dubious honor.

Penny Singleton aka Dorothy McNulty: She plays nightclub singer Polly and is quite a character! She’s best known as the voice of Jane Jetson in that futuristic cartoon show, but she’ll always be Polly to me. She warbles a ditty called “Smoke Dreams”, a crappy but catchy song she performs in her Lichee Club act. She’s also part of a blackmail scheme and maybe even…murder! Polly fires off some great one-liners and she steals every scene she’s in.

Paul Fix: Plays Phil, who is Polly’s…just watch the movie and find out. Fix is quite young here and he would go on to become one of John Wayne’s crusty cronies in many of The Duke’s movies from the 1940s to the 1960s. He also played the worthless sheriff in The Rifleman TV show.

Joseph Calleia: Calleia is Dancer, the shady owner of the Lichee Club. He has a passing resemblance to William Powell. His character’s supposed to be Irish, but his accent comes and goes like a deadbeat dad. However, Dancer is as mean as a rattlesnake and one of the nastiest people Nick Charles ever dealt with. Good performance by Calleia.

Elissa Landi: Landi is Selma, Nora’s tormented and emotional cousin. She’s being two-timed by her rotten husband and Aunt Katherine is always on her back like a bad boss. Is it any wonder that the poor thing is on the verge of a complete mental collapse? Notice how she’s about the same age as Nora but she’s dressed in stodgy Victorian clothes, whereas Nora is the picture of 1930s modernism. Actress Elissa Landi was a tragic figure in real life, dying of cancer in 1948, age 44. According to Charles Tranberg in Murder over Cocktails, Landi was only told that she had a “chronic condition.” Perhaps that was the medical industry’s modus operandi.

Mrs. Asta: We don’t get Nick, Jr. in this one, but we do get a sub plot about Asta’s “wife” who’s taken up with a Tom Jones-like Scottish terrier. One of Mrs. Asta’s pups looks just like the scoundrel and don’t you doubt for a second that Asta doesn’t notice this.

*Sighs Wearily*

This is the kind of material that would bog down future Thin Man efforts. The scene is understandable given the pooch’s enormous popularity, but his thespian brilliance is put to better use in the amusing clue-chewing sequence.

The movie's lovely is none other than Myrna Loy. She's at the peak of her beauty, brilliant line delivery, on-screen magnetism, and career peak. I've gone on and on about how William Powell had such a great year in 1936, but Myrna matches him every step of the way. She even got voted "Queen of Hollywood" in a nationwide poll of moviegoers.

“I don’t care whose wife she is! I don’t like a dame that gets noisy after she’s had a few snifters!”

After the Thin Man concludes with the gathering of suspects in a room which gives the viewer one last chance to guess whodunit. But that’s even handled brilliantly here, as each character gets a choice piece of dialogue to throw out there for our benefit. It’s been mentioned that Goodrich and Hackett believed this to be the final Thin Man movie and perhaps they wanted to pack it full of great dialogue. The plan to emphasize William Powell and Myrna Loy’s crackling chemistry can be typified in this film, too. I can’t quite say that this is their finest collaboration, but it’s probably the best dialogue they’d ever have to speak in any movie they did together. Another hint that this was perceived as the last Thin Man film would be the final scene, where Nora is knitting baby booties.

“And you call yourself a detective.”

The Thin Man novice could do a lot worse having After the Thin Man as their initial foray into Nick and Nora’s world as it’s the most comedy-oriented and a fun way to get into this most entertaining of series from a studio that knew--note past tense--how to make ‘em.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Take a Thin Man Walking Tour

Teri Tynes, author of the refreshingly sophisticated blog, Walking Off the Big Apple, has posted a fun article, The Thin Man Walk: A New York Holiday Adventure with Nick and Nora Charles which shows how to approximate a walking tour of Thin Man locations! It seems like the holidays and Nick and Nora go hand in hand. Teri's blog is an immediate hit with yours truly and it is enthusiastically recommended that you visit her swellegant (cyber) digs.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

TCM's Thin Man Marathon

Turner Classic Movies (USA) will have a New Year's Eve Thin Man Marathon beginning @ 8pm (EST) on Thursday, December 31! I'm always happy to spend some time with the Charles family, and since Hollywood Dreamland is approaching the shocking conclusion to its own series of "reviews", it's a happy coincidence that TCM is airing all of the films. For those of you who haven't seen all--or any--of these wonderful movies, New Year's Eve would be a fine time to kick back amid your own personal boozery and enjoy Nick and Nora's alcohol-fueled adventures. The Thin Man series is an appropriate choice since Nick and Nora are the premiere tipplers in all of movieland. Even if you're out and about, you can always record the marathon and later use it to nurse your own hangover.

Meanwhile, I hope to have the post completed for After the Thin Man later this week; there's more to chatter about with the first two Thin Mans...

UPDATE: currently has the Complete Thin Man Collection DVD set for a measly $23.39!!! (12/31/09: Price is back to $47)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Poll Results: The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music 27 (57%)
The King and I 8 (17%)
Oklahoma! 5 (10%)
Flower Drum Song 3 (6%)
South Pacific 2 (4%)
Carousel 1 (2%)
State Fair 1 (2%)

Was anyone really surprised? I wasn't. Julie Andrews treated the competition to a real rear-end kicking as her The Sound of Music thrashed the other Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptations. Yul and Deborah tried to muscle in on the nun and her kids, but had to settle for a distant second place. I was disappointed that South Pacific didn't fare better because it has so many great songs in it. Carousel must've been hampered by there being two versions of the film made at the same time! The next poll is already up and it's one many of you will like to mull over.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Another Thin Man (1939)

Another Thin Man was Big Bill Powell’s return to films after a lengthy absence. In March, 1938 Powell had surgery for colon cancer and a second operation in January, 1939. Powell had already been grieving over the death of fiancée Jean Harlow in June, 1937. MGM even had business concerns regarding William Powell’s mortality, so they attempted to quickly fabricate another hit sleuthing couple series. Melvyn Douglas was cast as a dapper, Nick Charles-like character in two potential franchises (That bit of intrigue is covered at length in Replacing the Thin Man). Another Thin Man began filming began in July, 1939 with a weakened Powell determined to tough it out and get back to work. He had already “settled” for an $8,000 a week (for 40 weeks) contract with MGM after the studio rejected Powell’s demand to be paid $200,000 a picture. Remember, this is late-1930s dollars we’re talking about here.

Powell's Thin Man co-stars kept busy in the years after the second film's completion. Myrna Loy made five films in-between Thin Man assignments, including the crowd-pleasing Test Pilot (co-starring Clark Gable) and Double Wedding with Powell.

Canine superstar Asta was just as active during Powell’s absence, as the pooch had scene-stealing roles in The Awful Truth (nailing the role of “Mr. Smith”) and Bringing up Baby (charming moviegoers as “George”). Asta was a bona fide movie star in the 1930s and he made sure his handlers got him plum parts in all the big movies.

The Plot: Nick and Nora Charles are called to Nora’s (late) father’s business associate, the crotchety and in-need-of-killing Colonel Burr MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith). The Colonel is convinced that someone is trying to kill him, so the old grouch calls Nick and Nora—with infant Nick, Jr. in tow-- out to his secluded New York estate to help him.

What could have been a huge misstep in the series turns out to be one of the darkest--and strongest--entries in this franchise. The labyrinth plot is the most engaging of all the films. There’s a somewhat serious tone throughout the film—minus a ridiculous sight gag in the film’s opening--and Powell’s performance has a subdued vibe to it that is absent from the other entries. Perhaps his state of mind was such after having endured two terribly difficult years of his life after having risen to such great career heights in 1936. Whatever the case, Powell gives an assured performance here but with a streak of seriousness that makes me wonder what he could have done with the kind of dark material that Cary Grant took on in his Hitchcock films Suspicion and Notorious. Many chalk up Powell’s on screen demeanor as a man weakened by serious illness. He doesn’t look frail, but I’m sure he felt like Hell.

The plot is probably the most engaging of the entire Thin Man franchise. I was more interested in whodunit as well as “howdunit” because the latter was handled in a clever manner. I never used to hold Another Thin Man in as high regard as the first, second, and fourth films but having watched it in preparation for this post has made it a much more worthwhile movie.

The set used for Col. MacFay’s estate is impressive; dark, ominous, and full of foreboding. It’s isolated enough so that a killer could move about without fear of detection. Of course someone’s going to die here! Set Decorator Edwin B. Ellis and cinematographers William Daniels and Oliver T. Marsh succeed in immersing the viewer in a vividly detailed environment.

It’s uncertain whether the event of Powell’s return to the series inspired MGM to craft a more serious mystery or whether they were attempting to recapture the 1934 film’s atmosphere. The black and white cinematography is the best of all the films and that’s saying something since James Wong Howe, who was on the first film, is a legend of the craft. Maybe the film elements were in better shape; Another Thin Man looks gorgeous.

Even if one discounts the off-screen misery that William Powell went through in the months just prior to this film, we can still see that this proud new papa is protective of his family. Nick Charles’ personality has changed. When gangster and all-around bad guy Phil Church (Sheldon Leonard) threatens the Charles brood via his “dreaming” when something always bad happens to those he dreams about, Nick quietly stands up and decks the guy.

But Another Thin Man isn’t without the comedic touch we’ve come to expect from this series. After a suspect is gunned down by police, there’s a hilarious exchange between Nick and a dopey cop:

Cop: “What were you shootin’ at him for?”

Nick: “I wasn’t shooting at him; he was shooting at me.[pauses] Why were you shooting at him?”

Cop: “Well, everybody else was!”

The most notable set piece in Another Thin Man is set at the (fictional) West Indies Club, where Nick gains some vital information about the murder and Nora attracts a dozen dashing men! I love nightclubs as seen in the movies. There’s nothing like the world they create and the glamour they perpetuate. The West Indies Club is infinitely superior to the crappy Mario’s Grotto eatery from Shadow of the Thin Man (who could forget that dirt floor?) There’s a fine dance number in this sequence. Renee and Stella, who were real-life headliners at New York's Havana-Madrid Club, do their mesmerizing act here.

The Supporting Cast: Great job as usual as one might expect from MGM. Nick deals with two different policemen:

Otto Kruger (Murder, My Sweet; High Noon) is the assistant D.A. Van Slack, who casts a wary eye on Nick and goes so far as to hint that Nick could be a suspect. When the action shifts to New York City in the second half of the movie, we are treated to Nat Pendleton (Lt. Guild), who made a great second banana to Powell in the first movie. Pendleton’s screen time isn’t as long as before, but he makes the most of his scenes with Powell, including a bit when Guild thinks Nick is “stepping out” with other dames.

C. Aubrey Smith does his usual routine, retaining the persona which made generations of Americans believe that that was how all old British men behaved. The old jerk even ordered the liquor cabinet locked so Nick would be clearheaded enough to think. Thankfully, Nora circumvents that ill-advised move with some trickery of her own. Yes, Colonel MacFay is annoying as heck and a large part of me didn’t mourn his character’s murder.

Tom Neal (Freddie) is MacFay’s secretary and Neal does his best Clark Gable characterization. I found myself impersonating his impersonation long after the film had ended. In 1945 Neal would appear in his career-defining role in the film noir Detour, one of the bleakest in the classic noir era. Neal’s life was a real-life film noir and I know I wouldn’t want to get on his bad side. Neal, an ex-boxer, walloped Franchot Tone in a 1951 fight over actress Barbara Payton. Tone would end up with a fractured cheekbone, broken nose, and a concussion. Years later, in 1965, Tom Neal would later be sentenced to fifteen years prison for involuntary manslaughter for the shooting death of his third wife, Gail Bennett. Neal blamed his troubles with the law on women. No kidding.

Marjorie Main has a small but memorable role as land lady “Miss Dolley.” She gets physical with Nick during an amusing but important plot development. You know her voice and you’ll love her character. Main was one of the great character actresses of all time.

William A. Poulsen (Nick, Jr.) Sure, he’s just an infant and this was his one and only known screen appearance. He doesn't annoy or anything. Mainly, he just lies in a dresser drawer and gets stolen. Poulsen would die in 1973, aged 34. I’ve been unable to find out how.

Virginia Grey (Lois MacFay) has film and TV credits are as long as Nick Charles’ bar bill. I was unfamiliar with her until I saw her here, but she worked in countless films and TV shows for decades; I’ll be on the lookout for her in other films. She plays Col. Macfay’s adopted daughter.

Sheldon Leonard as ex-engineer Phil Church is suitably menacing. This no doubt aided him tremendously during his subsequent career as a big-shot television producer (The Andy Griffith Show; The Dick Van Dyke Show; Bewitched; I Spy, etc.). Leonard plays his part with equal parts menace and even some vulnerability, as he comes off as a tough guy who’s also a real sap for a dame.

Ruth Hussey is is the criminally underused character here. She plays Nick, Jr’s nanny, Dorothy Waters. Hussey was one year away from her Oscar-nominated role in The Philadelphia Story yet I wonder if MGM ever knew what to do with her. She should’ve done more substantial films. Incidentally, Hussey was fresh off her appearance in a Thin Man wannabe movie, Fast and Furious, starring…that’s right, Franchot Tone, the gent who got his face pushed in by Tom Neal. And seeing as Miss Hussey worked with both men, perhaps she should’ve warned Franchot about Tom’s furious temper and ability to knock a guy out.

I’ve come to enjoy Another Thin Man more than in past viewings because the plot is consistently interesting and not nearly as convoluted as other Thin Man murder mysteries. I was initially put off by the darker material (a dog dies, for cryin’ out loud; thankfully, not Asta) and Nick Charles is not as happy-go-lucky as he was in the first two entries. This is the first time I was more involved with the actual storyline than with the witty Nick and Nora interaction. Now that I see the film with that mindset, I can place Another Thin Man in the upper echelon of the Thin Man series. I should mention that “upper echelon” means the first four movies…

American Royalty: The Thin Man Family, 1939.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)

1941 brings the fourth film in the Thin Man movie series, Shadow of the Thin Man. This one has the occasional attack of the cutes, but Nick and Nora Charles are still crackling with their wit, charm, and nonpareil chemistry. There’s a ton of great dialogue—none of which I’ll quote here, ironically enough-- and things do go by fast and furious in terms of funny banter. Shadow of the Thin Man is the last great Thin Man film. I don’t honestly remember, but this may have been the first one I saw. It seems like Nick and Nora have been a part of my movie watching life forever instead of just eight years. But will you get a load of that poster! They do no favors for Myrna Loy on it; she looks like a gassy frat girl looking for her next beer keg and funnel. C’mon, MGM, this is one of your top moneymakers and most popular female star! And to think that some people actually have this poster hanging in their bedroom!

In keeping with the east coast/west coast back-and-forth theme, Nick and Nora are presently in their San Francisco digs, not the same one that was their splendorous art deco abode of the second movie, but the nicely situated St. Cloud Hotel, located in a scenic area of the MGM lot.

I mean, “Scenic area of San Francisco.”

The plot in this one is the most complex, or if you’re not into plots, then it’s the most convoluted. I’ve seen this one twenty times or more and am only now just getting a handle on what’s going on. That’s why Nick Charles is the world’s greatest detective—he figures these things out immediately.

Briefly: a horse jockey is murdered at Nick’s favorite racetrack and he happens to be there just after the murder is committed. Then there are a few more murders and things get really interesting.

The Charles family is quite happy and domesticated here, as Nick, Jr., (Dickie Hall) is about four and dressed in military uniform—you could tell that Nick and Nora aimed to keep the unwelcome lad away from further interruptions of their ongoing booze binge. In fact, director W.S. Van Dyke II was also in uniform, as he’s credited here as “Major W.S. Van Dyke II.” Something that’s always interested me is the timing of the movie’s release. I’ve never been able to confirm if Van Dyke joined the service before the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941 or if he signed up afterwards and subsequent prints of the film were altered to reflect the patriotic atmosphere of that time. Shadow of the Thin Man was filmed in August, 1941 and had its New York opening on November 21, 1941. Just over two weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack. Considering the quick filmmaking style and no-nonsense approach that Van Dyke had, I wouldn’t be surprised if he changed the credits to make note of his new title of Major.

This would be the last hurrah for director W.S. Van Dyke, who would be diagnosed with terminal cancer and commit suicide in 1943. Van Dyke was a Christian Scientist and refused medical treatment for his condition. Coincidentally, the Thin Man series took a nosedive when he was no longer in the director’s chair.

The film opens with Nick Charles, Asta, and Nick, Jr. having a stroll in the park. Nick, Jr. has Asta on a leash and Nick has sonny boy on a leash. And the Boomers thought that they invented this over-protective concept! Nick is “hard at work” trying to figure out which horses he’s going to bet on later that afternoon. It’s sort of a secret, though, since the “racing foam”—to use Nick, Jr’s vocal styling—is wedged between the pages of the kid’s fairy tale book. You see, Nick doesn’t really want to spend time with his screenwriter-imposed child, so he’s taking his mind off that ill-advised concept by focusing on his gambling. I joke, because Nick, Jr. really isn’t that horrible. He is a terrible idea, though. Thankfully, Nick Jr. is limited to three scenes not related to the plot. One of which is actually amusing: when Nick Charles, Tippler Extraordinaire, is made to drink…milk!

Nora can summon Nick no matter where he is by merely throttling a cocktail shaker. As she’s doing this, Nick suddenly knows that booze is being prepared for him. These psionic powers of his are just one more reason why Nick Charles is the world’s greatest detective. It’s also another example of the broader comic style the series was taking. The sophisticated couple of the first film would become even sillier, as evidenced in the final two films. In looking at the publicity stills for the 1940s-era Thin Man movies, it’s difficult to find evidence of the sumptuously sophisticated sleuthing couple of the first two entries. In fact, I’m of the view that the 1940s were a lot more “square” than the 1930s ever were.

Those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Thin Man series or may confuse the films may remember Shadow of the Thin Man as the one with Nora’s “screwy-looking hat.” The hat is pasted to the side of her head and cocked at such a strange angle. I’m not big on 1940s styles, but even then this thing got negative attention back then! This is also the film when Nick takes Nora to see a wrestling match. The funny thing about that is how unchanged the “sport” is, even back then. It was phony in 1941 and it attracted the same kind of brutish, intellectually-vacant dopes it does today. And I’m sure it made money then, too! But as H.L. Mencken wrote: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

"Mario’s Grotto" is a theme seafood restaurant with an interior like the HMS Bounty and a dirt floor. Yes…a dirt floor. I’ll bet the dames loved going there and having their feet sink up to their ankles in dirt. Plus, there’s that overbearing waiter who strong arms everyone into ordering Sea Bass. Even when Nick holds fast and wants broiled lobster, the waiter tricks him into saying the words "Sea Bass", which at Mario’s (dirt floor) Grotto, is apparently the same as ordering it. And also like in the first film, Asta is allowed into this exclusive eatery and to roam at will. The pooch even starts a free-for-all brawl when he gets underfoot, causing a waiter to spill a tray full of drinks on a pug’s head. Luckily, the sixty-year-old cops who populate all 1940s films show up to mop up the riff raff. Later on Nick, Nora and friends have turtle races at the bar.

Now, on to the notable supporting cast!

Sam Levene returns as Lt. Abrams and he’s a welcome presence here, because he was a comic delight in the second film in the same role. The fact that continuity was maintained is another plus in this movie. He gets some great one liners and his rapport with William Powell is impressive. I first saw Sam Levene in 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success, where he played the manager of Martin Milner’s jazz guitarist character; believe me, that doesn’t sound nearly as bad as it reads.

Donna Reed is her usual beautiful self and she’s playing the “Good Girl” again, even if she is the secretary to a man with more than shady dealings. Donna gets to be the girlfriend of reporter Barry Nelson, who gets framed for a murder by the real killer of this film. However, Donna Reed isn’t the beauty of Shadow, that honor belongs to…

Stella Adler. The legendary acting teacher in one of her rare on screen roles plays Claire Porter, a suspect in the case. Adler is subtle and mysterious at first but reveals more of her character as the movie goes on. She has some great scenes with William Powell and two absolutely hilarious one liners in the usual gathering of suspects. Adler’s performance may not immediately get your attention but it’s an excellent one that you’ll find rewarding through repeat viewings. She has wonderful comedic flair.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the Thin Man series in order and may catch this one running on Turner Classic Movies, Shadow of the Thin Man wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It’s got enough of the series’ fun banter and amusing characters to hook newbies and despite the domestication of the Charles family, there’s still enough of what made the series so much fun for veteran Nick and Noraphiles to count Shadow of the Thin Man as one of the better entries in this memorable movie series.

The American Family, Circa 1941.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Thin Man Goes Home (1944)

1944: World War II rages on. Sugar, butter, rubber, and gasoline are all rationed and “Is this trip really necessary?” becomes a well-worn phrase in World War II-era America. With that as the backdrop, the Thin Man series rolls on.

The Thin Man Goes Home finds the nationally famous, loved-by-the-press detective Nick Charles along with his droll, wisecracking heiress wife Nora, and their wire-haired terrier Asta on their way to visit Nick’s parents--via excruciating train trip--to Nick’s hometown of Sycamore Springs. It’s located just south of “Anytown” and “Your Town, USA”; this is the movies and that’s how we know this. Of course, there just happens to be a murder while Nick is there, so we get ourselves another mystery and it’s one related to the war effort, as there’s a defense plant in town. The mystery in The Thin Man Goes Home is actually well-handled and relatively easy to follow. But as usual, I’m not too concerned with the plot of a Thin Man film. It’s more interesting to observe the characters and how they interact with one another. Call it continuity, or the lack thereof. If the writers make Nick and Nora speak or behave in a manner inconsistent with the original film—aka The Template—I take notice.

The Thin Man Goes Home was made three years after the fourth film in the series, The Shadow of the Thin Man, and while that previous entry was a continuation of the successful formula, the irritating addition of Nick, Jr. must have rubbed moviegoers the wrong way, because this time around Nick and Nora don’t take him out of kindergarten because he loves it so much. Oh, sure! Nick and Nora would’ve kept the boy there for life if they had their way! Nick was largely indifferent to the boy outside of a weird bonding scene in the third film and Nora was in no sense of the word a doting mother (neither was Myrna Loy, who never had children). The Nora I choose to remember is the one in her 1930s prime, before a screenwriter-imposed pregnancy and subsequent motherhood sapped her joi de vivre and ability to out drink anyone. This is not the same Nora Charles who had the barkeep line up five Martinis so that she could catch up with Nick’s binge drinking.

The advent of Nick, Jr. was a painful reminder that the 1930s with its hardboiled sensibilities and glamorous sets was the long-gone apex of the Thin Man series. Now Nick and Nora are stopping off in Sycamore Springs, a Louis B. Mayer-approved facsimile of Andy Hardy’s Carvel, with its perpetually chipper view of an America that never existed except in our darkest moments of wishful thinking.

I get a laugh out of Nick and Nora neglecting to bring Nick, Jr. to see his grandparents, yet they still bring Asta, who’s the couple’s real “child.” I like to think that Nick, Jr.'s blatant absence was a slap at the idiotic idea of making Nick and Nora parents. I still gag at the thought of that scene in Shadow of the Thin Man when Nick, Jr. utters the immortal line: "Nick, why don't you put da book down an weed da racing folm?" in the most absurd dialect of cutese I've ever heard.

I view this film depiction of Nick's hometown as a "perfect" representation because it's such a puritanical hellhole! Seeing it in this film let me know right away just why Nick never goes back home all that much; Sycamore Springs stinks! Even Nick's childhood memory of the windmill gives him the willies.

Other changes: Nick has quit drinking liquor and now guzzles cider out of a Texas-sized flask he keeps in his coat pocket. Ostensibly Nick’s stopped nipping at the hooch because his puritanical and emotionally constipated father—Dr. Bertram Charles (Henry Davenport)—disapproves of his son’s drinking. The good doctor also frowns on Nick’s career path of world-famous detective. I guess ol’ doc Charles would rather his son be a crotchety and judgmental small-town drip like him. Can you tell I don’t like Nick’s father? Nick’s mother (Lucile Watson), however, is a genuine sweetheart. She’s well aware of the father-son friction but her disposition is so wonderfully charming that it’s easy to see where Nick gets his personality. Anyway, back to the drinking: I think that the reason Nick becomes a teetotaler here is because of the war years; with its rationing of most goods; it wouldn’t look like those same restrictions applied to movie characters and as we know, the propaganda machine was going full tilt in support of the war effort (the total opposite of today’s Hollywood). So if Nick Charles “sacrificed” his need to keep a buzz on, then John Q. Public should follow suit.

By gosh, that Nick Charles is a patriot!

Another continuing gag is that despite being alarmingly stone-cold sober, everyone attributes Nick’s pratfalls and injuries—including getting his head bashed in with a metal, stand-up ashtray—to his usual boozing! If he was going to suffer those indignities, he should’ve kept the stopper off the liquor bottle!

An element of the series that is awkwardly kept alive in Goes Home is the inclusion of Brogan (Edward Brophy; who had a role in the first film) who was “sent up the river” by Nick but is now out of stir and a traveling postcard salesman. He sticks around in this film, being found by Nick in the bushes—twice--doing God-knows-what. I’m not sure if there was a crude joke intended or whether standing in the bushes was a short-lived national fad, but it’s bizarre.

The scene in Goes Home that will get your eyes rolling is when Nick spanks Nora in front of his parents. This occurs after a local reporter asks Nora if Nick is in Sycamore Springs on a case. When Nora tells the reporter to draw his own conclusions, he takes that as a “yes” and the story becomes big news. As Nick is popping her fanny with a rolled-up newspaper, he says “That’ll show you the power of the press!” Dr. Charles laughs at the entire humiliating scene and Nora is embarrassed beyond belief. This scene is something that never would’ve happened in the 1930s Thin Man films. Nick and Nora’s wonderful marriage is rendered idiotic in this scene and I can’t tolerate jokes made at the expense of a Nick and Nora’s character. They’d kid and joke with one another, but would never ever humiliate one another in such a grotesque way.

Nick and Nora do get a couple of nice scenes together, like when Nick is reclining in a hammock in his parents’ front lawn, wearing his Sycamore Springs High School shirt and reading Nick Carter: Detective. The couple also shares some of that trademark banter we’ve come to expect, such as this exchange:

Nick: "A couple of weeks on this cider and I'll be a new man."

Nora: "I sort of like the old one."

Nick: "Why, darling, that's the nicest thing you've said to me since the time I got my head caught in that cuspidor at the Waldorf."

There's another bit that is reminiscent of earlier Thin Man efforts, like when Nick maroons Nora at the local dance with an overzealous sailor, who proceeds to dance with her and flipping her around like she were a pair of nunchakus! It looks to be a Myrna Loy stunt double in most of it, but William Powell's facial expression when he sees his poor wife whirling like a top is quite amusing.

The supporting cast is dependable, and there are several familiar faces, though they—particularly the men--get little more to do than act guilty or stupid. The art dealer, Willie Crump (Donald Meek), is a slow-witted dope; his inability to comprehend even the most basic of expressions makes me wonder how manages to wake up on his own every morning. Too bad there wasn’t enough murder to go around to include him! He plays his role to perfection, I’ll give him that.

Gloria DeHaven is this movie’s lovely. She plays melodramatic drama student and ingénue Laura Ronson who amuses with her artsy pretensions and airy voice. She’s quite the beauty and was a mere teenager when Goes Home was made. DeHaven plays her part with such aplomb that when I first saw this movie, I hoped that she wasn’t the killer! She’s likable, funny, and all-too underused here; I’d like to see more of her movies. DeHaven is also quite the fashion plate, a most-welcome sight because Nora dresses in some truly horrific outfits. What was the deal with the overabundance of fabric in the 1940s, anyway? Was it a reaction to the streamlined look of the 1930s? Whatever the reason may be, Joan Crawford and her eyebrows would thrive a few years longer because of it.

Anne Revere as “Crazy Mary” Revere was nearing the peak of her career when she appeared here. She would continue to build on this, appearing in a fantastic run of roles: National Velvet (1944); Fallen Angel (1945), Dragonwyck (1946); Body & Soul; Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Revere’s film career was stomped out after she was blacklisted in 1951. She would not appear in any film for the next twenty years; I’m sure not a day went by that she didn’t mention HUAC in her nightly prayers.

Believe it or not, The Thin Man Goes Home is the sequel that wins my personal “Most Improved” award! It used to be my least favorite of the series, but there’s enough of Nick and Nora’s still-great rapport (minus the spanking scene) coupled with the welcome absence of Nick, Jr. that acquits the film of any previous charges I leveled against it. Seeing Nick’s hometown reminds me of what a poor fit he was for the place but the glimpse into Nick’s long-ago drives the point home about how much more suited he is in his usual New York City and San Francisco stomping grounds.

There's No Place Like Sycamore Springs: I doubt Nick would ever call it "Home."