The Thin Man (1934)

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“What were you doing on the night of October fifth, nineteen-hundred-and-two?” ~ William Powell as Nick Charles

“I was just a gleam in my father’s eye.” ~ Myrna Loy as Nora Charles

With The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammet successfully crafted several archetypes that go beyond the basic pulpy film noir standards that he also helped to define. Nick and Nora Charles were a cinematic power couple even before the word was in vogue and as their real life counterparts, William Powell and Myrna Loy were quite the pair in their own right being matched in a mind-boggling 14 films together.

The Thin Man became one of the most beloved pairings, helmed by W.S. Van Dyke and spawning a wildly popular series of sequels that continued throughout the 30s and 40s. At the very least it suggested that it was not so much the story lines but more so the characters that resonated with the general public.

It’s true that casting William Powell as Nick Charles was one of the hand in glove situations. He had a certain dashing even debonair quality with his pencil mustache perfectly thrown askew by the scenarios he gets himself into. Above all, he has a witticism or lithe quip handy for any given situation. He’s a real riot at dinner parties. One of those men who has a perpetual smirk on his face.

But Myrna Loy is just as impeccably cast as his fun-loving wife who is as game as he is to have a rip-roaring good time. She’s constantly keeping up with his droll wit while continually chiding him good-naturedly to get back into the amateur detective game.

For the time, with no children to speak of, their beloved wire terrier Asta (the famed Skippy who was also featured in other such classics as The Awful Truth and Bringing up Baby) rounds out their happy clan.

It really is a strategic depiction of marriage and family circa 1934. The Great Depression still had a fresh imprint on the nation and yet in Nick and Nora you see no indication of any such malaise.  Their days are spent drinking martinis and gallivanting around town while their nights are filled with fancy dinner parties and the occasional crime caper.

These forms have been so often parodied to this day but at the time it seems obvious that The Thin Man whether subconsciously or not was an escapist fantasy that indulged the desires of those less fortunate. Because if nothing else, they could at least spend some fun taking a load off and joining the Charles for an enjoyable evening. Everyone laughs. Cops and citizens have close knit connections. Excessive drinking is only a delightful diversion. The only ones who were in need were the slothful and the greedy.

Although The Thin Man employs admittedly incomprehensible plotting at times it’s hardly a knock. So many characters get thrown in and chatted about it becomes difficult to keep them all straight much less figure out what their bearing on the plot is. And it is the oddest cross section of individuals to be sure.

Much like The Third Man, this precursor, The Thin Man acts as a nifty MacGuffin in a pinch, driving the plot forward with his spectral presence. The fact he’s hardly on screen does not detract from his overall importance in this film. Meanwhile, his invested daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan), wife, mistress, and various other involved parties all get tossed around as culprits and accomplices including Porter Hall and Cesar Romero.

While not noir in the typical sense James Wong Howe’s photography does give the film certain dark sensibilities at times to contrast with the plethora of more comic moments in drawing rooms and the like. It also shares in the tradition of Agatha Christie and other such detective fiction narratives with bits of amateur sleuthing and all the subjects rounded up for a dinner party so the culprit might be revealed.

But what The Thin Man truly explored was the capabilities of crime when paired with comedy. In some sense here is a film where you have certain screwball aspects but I hesitate to call this film a true screwball just as I hesitate to call this a gangster picture though there are cops and thugs.

It’s that immaculate blending of comedy and crime that makes The Thin Man go down like a perfectly mixed martini. It was the charisma of Powell and Loy that allowed the series to exist well beyond the parameters of a one hit wonder.

4.5/5 Stars

Tarzan The Ape Man (1932)

tarzan the ape man 1Despite being dated and marred by the imprint of imperialism, this initial entry of the well-remembered Tarzan serial of the 1930s and 4os, based on the works of Edgar Rice Boroughs, is a surprisingly gripping pre-code tale of perilous adventure.

It feels a bit like a jungle cruise, a big game hunting African safari and a bit of Gunga Din all rolled into one. And it has many of those exotic adventure elements, set in the Jungles of Africa (though filmed in Florida, near Toluca Lake in Los Angeles, and on the MGM backlot). Perhaps it’s not Heart of Darkness, but buried in there somewhere is a great deal of commentary about that time and place. In fact, it doesn’t just bring to mind the work of Conrad but other Anglos like Rudyard Kipling, a staunch proponent of the prevailing philosophy of the White Man’s Burden. However, at least this film’s adventure makes no pretense as a mission of mercy. The expedition led by one James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) is interested in the procurement of ivory pure and simple.

Political undertones aside, Tarzan The Ape Man is stirring good fun in the same vein as King Kong and other thrilling adventure dramas of the 1930s. It boasts treacherous mountain cliffs, murky depths fulls of hippotamus and crocodiles and numerous tribes of natives residing in the dark recesses of the countryside.

But if that was those were the only draw of Tarzan it seems that this film too would have faded into oblivion for its rather antiquated portrayal of a bygone era. But then we hear the first notes of the unmistakable, piercing cry of the ape-man.  That iconic sound that introduces us to the famed jungle hero is the stuff of legend and rather like the famed Wilhelm Scream years later, it’s taken on a life of its own.

tarzan the ape man 2Furthermore, Johnny Weissmuller is not even the first Tarzan (purportedly the sixth incarnation) but he outshines all his predecessors who have been lost to history. It helped that he remains one of the most iconic Olympians and American swimmers of the 20th century, winning 5 Gold Medals. And he shows his prowess not only swinging from the treetops but in his true element,  gliding through the water.

Maureen O’Sullivan displays a certain amount of pluckiness while at the same time being feminine and fearful. Tarzan at first is a creature to be feared but she soon learns to trust him as he fights jaguars, lions,  and even apes to keep her safe. There’s the question of whether or not Jane Parker suffers from Stockholm Syndrome after spending so much with this savage jungle man. But over time it does become apparent that she truly does love this chiseled man who is still much more naive and innocent than anyone she has ever known.

Back projections always make me cringe, still, the complete lack of CGI always brings a smile to my face. The elephants, lions, and tigers more often than not are the real thing and the scenes benefit from that, despite other instances that do look decidedly fake. More often than not those small details become overshadowed by the more impressive ones, namely the scenes of the elephants rampaging through the village or Tarzan duking it out with a few lions, despite his injuries. There’s something almost unsettling yet thrilling about it all for the simple assurance we have that it is essentially “real.”

But the final question remains, What’s worse, the black face and portrayal of the colonist tendencies (which were still a present reality) in this film or the modern Disney adaptation’s complete removal of any African characters. Either way, both are important talking points and, in both cases, Tarzan remains a perennially enjoyable hero, no matter the problems that still swirl around him.

3.5/5 Stars

 

A Day at the Races (1937)

Starring The Marx Brothers, the film begins with a pretty young lady who owns a sanitarium near a racetrack. In danger of closing, she brings in a new doctor named Hackenbush (who specializes in horses) and at the same time her love buys a race horse. A powerful man wants the place closed down so he can build a casino and he is in cahoots with the financial adviser  a wily woman, and the police. However, wanting to help the two lovebirds out, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo lend a wild helping hand. It all culminates with an uproarious Day at the Races. This film is full of funny moments such as the code book sequence, the dinner and wall papering scene, the medical exam, and of course the final race. I felt that a lot of the music was an unnecessary added feature.

4/5 Stars