Monday, May 18, 2009

Replacing The Thin Man

A Man in Demand: Melvyn Douglas was chosen to play a Nick Charles-style detective in two potential film franchises in 1938.


I've written a few entries on what I refer to as the Husband and Wife Detective Team , so I was fortunate to find a book, Jon Tuska’s The Detective in Hollywood (1978) which covers the many movie series detectives popular in the 1930s and 40s. The book is noteworthy, despite its often cynical tone, for providing the interesting backstory on The Thin Man series and MGM’s desire to strike gold once again by pairing another onscreen couple in the hopes of replicating the William Powell-Myrna Loy electricity.

William Powell had a tremendous career year in 1936 (the best year any actor ever had), but 1937 found the actor dealing with life and death situations. In June, his fiancée Jean Harlow, 26, died of uremic poisoning. Shortly afterwards, Powell was diagnosed with colon cancer, which required surgery and radium treatments. He would not make a movie for the next two years. MGM, looking to keep the money rolling in, began searching for substitutes for another husband and wife detective team series. The move was seen by Metro as “insurance”, and as the author cynically notes:


"Metro announced to the trades that in view of Powell’s difficulties the next Thin Man picture would star a new team consisting of Virginia Bruce and Melvyn Douglas…Metro had been taking out insurance, looking for a new team that clicked like Powell and Loy. Not only were they concerned about Powell’s living long enough to make another picture, but Loy herself, who was quite difficult to get along with and anything but the perfect wife off-screen, was constantly after the studio to give her major star buildup like that of Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo."

So Suave: Melvyn Douglas looks characteristically dapper in 1938's "Arsene Lusin."

The first of these Thin Man substitutes featured Melvyn Douglas. In The previously-mentioned mystery-comedy, Fast Company (1938), Douglas and Florence Rice are rare-book dealers Joel and Garda Sloane, who become involved in a murder mystery after a rival book dealer is killed. Strangely enough, MGM recast the next two Fast movies, Fast and Loose (1939) with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell and then that same year, Fast and Furious, with Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern as Joel and Garda.

Columbia pictures tried its own hand at grabbing some of that Thin Man action and tapped--you guessed it-- Melvyn Douglas as detective-turned-lawyer in 1938’s There’s Always a Woman, in which he and Joan Blondell played sleuthing couple Bill and Sally Reardon. Bill wants to give up detecting and return to his job at the district attorney’s office, but Sally is hired by a friend to determine if her fiancée is having an affair. Of course, a murder is committed, and both Bill and Sally are both on the case. An interesting aspect of the film is that Sally is the heart of the detective agency, and an equal partner in the firm. Heady stuff in 1938! An actress like Joan Blondell was just the sort of personality who could pull that off, too. However, the studios didn’t think so, because the sequel, 1939’s There’s That Woman Again, had Sally being played by Virginia Bruce. Melvyn Douglas was back as Bill Reardon, though. Apparently both MGM and Columbia believed that Douglas, who bore a passing resemblance to William Powell, was the man to be the “next” Nick Charles. I believe that while Douglas was a fantastic actor, the sometimes-broad comedy that Powell could do with ease was not Douglas’ forte. Douglas’ humor was dry, subtle, and sophisticated, whereas Powell, while all of those things, also brought a physical presence to his comedy that Douglas lacked.


Both the “Fast” and “Woman” series were scrapped. MGM and Columbia probably realized that William Powell could not be replaced. In the non-tormented, non-Noir detective racket, there’s Nick Charles and then there’s everyone else. No wonder the studios were scrambling like panicked schoolgirls when Powell was diagnosed with cancer. The Thin Man series was a huge moneymaking franchise and an unexpected success, to boot. The studio suits believed that they could replicate the Sleuthing Couple formula with some combination of their stable of stars and contract players, but it didn't happen. However, from the tragedy that was Jean Harlow’s death and the serious health problem that was colon cancer, The Dapper One would return to movies in 1939’s Another Thin Man, the trailer of which includes a “Welcome Back, Bill Powell!” banner written below Powell’s visage at ad’s end while accompanied by the strains of “Happy Days are Here Again.” There would be three more Thin Man movies: in 1941, 1944, and 1947. William Powell would live another forty-five years, happily married to his wife Diana Lewis (twenty-three years his junior) and live in blissful retirement in their Palm Springs home for nearly thirty years after walking away from films in 1955. Powell reportedly loved reading and watching TV in his mammoth bed, wearing his silk robe, and with an ever-present cocktail in hand; sounds like a happy ending worthy of Nick and Nora Charles.


As for those would-be Thin Man knock offs, they're best viewed today as amusing entries in the sleuthing couples sweepstakes, but when seen in the context of the 1930s, when desperate movie studios attempted to replace their biggest moneymaker in the detective genre, one can see that they're pale substitiutes compared to the superior films--and actor-- they were supposed to replace.


The Template: No one played suave, smooth, and silly like William Powell.

7 comments:

  1. Wonderful, interesting, well written post! Really amusing. It's always fun to put the heavy film studios in the ridiculous light they often find themselves in.

    ReplyDelete
  2. They couldn't replace Powell in the Philo Vance series either. William Warren just doesn't cut it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. There's nobody quite like Powell. He's the man.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sweet! My library actually has this book.

    ReplyDelete
  5. They couldn't replace Powell in the Philo Vance series either. William Warren just doesn't cut it.Uh, you mean Warren William.But Melvyn Douglas did get a part originally designed for Powell -- the male lead in "Ninotchka," which Powell couldn't do due to his illness. Unfortunate, because Powell and Greta Garbo probably would have had fine cinematic chemistry, and it's our loss that Powell never appeared in an Ernst Lubitsch film.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This bit "Loy...was constantly after the studio to give her major star buildup like that of Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo." when in her autobiography, Myrna stated emphatically that she didn't care to carry a movie on her own. I've watched Man-Proof, Whipsaw, Stamboul Quest & Third Finger, Left Hand, within the past two months and as much as I love her, she never exerted enough presence to push beyond her co-stars the way Joan and Greta did.

    Also while she was languishing in vamp and "Asian" roles, Joan and Greta (and her contemporaries like Irene Dunne and Norma Shearer, and even Jean Harlow) were playing the sparkling lead roles she struggled to break into--her leading lady films were in the late 30s, just as her MGM rivals' careers were winding down at the studio (and now that I think about it, Myrna being typecast as the perfect wife in the last half of the 1930s kind of saved her career from going into the dumps as it did other actresses when they moved into their mid to late 30s and their 40s). However, whether it was the result of Myrna's own inability or insecurity, or whether it was just the fact that MGM made her the lead in sub-par movies I can't guess, but that comment gives me a big What If?

    ReplyDelete
  7. "But Melvyn Douglas did get a part originally designed for Powell -- the male lead in "Ninotchka," which Powell couldn't do due to his illness. Unfortunate, because Powell and Greta Garbo probably would have had fine cinematic chemistry, and it's our loss that Powell never appeared in an Ernst Lubitsch film."


    I'm a big fan of Bill Powell's, but I didn't miss him in "NINOTCHKA". I thought that Melvyn Douglas was excellent. And I believe that he also had a strong chemistry with Garbo.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.