The Song of The Thin Man (1947)

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The Song of The Thin Man is really and truly the swan song of the series and while I did enjoy most of the additions, there is a sense that it was time to end the franchise. The year is 1947. The war is over. Things have changed. It really has little to do with William Powell and Myrna Loy being older or past their prime, because they are still a joy to watch working in tandem and they’re hardly over the hill.

But in some respects, society didn’t need Nick and Nora anymore. They were more like a touch of nostalgia than an up-and-coming force because they were born out of the Depression years and though they grew and matured as characters well after that, it seemed like as good a time as any to let them be.

Their son, little Nick Charles Jr. (a young Dean Stockwell) is a precocious lad like his father.  His behavior is deserving a spanking though his father is averse to giving it out even on his wife’s behest. But this was never meant to be a family comedy. Even Asta was always a sidekick and not a focal point.

Most of the film is conceived on a luxury liner, the S.S. Fortune amid nightclub musicians and patrons who have come out for a charity benefit put on by the wealthy David Thayer. It’s the perfect locale for, you guessed it, murder.

The center point of it all is Tommy Drake, the band leader scrapped for cash and with plenty of bones to pick with any number of people. He wound up gunned down from behind. In introducing all the players, it’s safe to assume they’re potential suspects too. There’s songbird Fran Page (Gloria Grahame), the ship’s proprietor Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling), and the soused musician Buddy Hollis (Don Taylor). It’s Brant and his forbidden fiancee Janet Thayer (Jayne Meadows) who come to the Charleses’ so that Phil’s name might be cleared.

Bess Flowers turns up in a fairly visible role given her usual penchant for bit parts in hundreds of high profile films. Leon Ames returns to The Thin Man universe in an unsual circumstance of the same actor taking on a different role. Helen Vinson who played his wife previously was not available for the picture and so the exquisite Patricia Morrison (currently 102 years young at the time of this viewing) filled the part instead. Even noir regular Marie Windsor shows up as a gangster’s moll although I’m not sure if she even utters a word.

Anyway, back to the business at hand, Nick and Nora Charles and the mystery. One of the best parts of the film is watching the Charleses be introduced to the jazz beatnik culture craze and their guide is none other than Clinker (Keenan Wynn) a real hip cat on the reed who happened to be aboard the liner when the murder occurred.

It should be noted that when rock n’ roll came Beethoven could be found rolling in his grave. Currently, his bust simply looks begrudgingly from his perch, given the state of affairs with the contemporary music scene.

Interestingly enough, there aren’t many police authorities running around to get in the way. It’s all Nick Charles joined by his wife and, in this case, Clinker who has connections to really help them understand the scene.

Although the setup and the characters are interesting enough, the film probably has the least satisfying finale of any of the Thin Man films. It winds up back on the ocean liner but it somehow doesn’t come off like its predecessors. Even the fact that the picture is a good 20 minutes shorter than the earlier films seems to suggest the beginning of the end. But on the bright side, for once Nick was able to retire for good — to his bedroom that is. Its fitting, really. Mr. and Mrs. Charles gave us plenty of laughs. They deserve to rest in peace.

3.5/5 Stars

The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

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Sometimes it’s necessary to go back to the basics. We’ve been introduced to the social elite of New York and San Francisco, invited along to giant family estates, and frequented the race track and wrestling rings. It only makes sense that at some point we would finally be introduced to their roots.

What is the occasion, you ask? Nick has a birthday coming up and what better way to surprise his parents (Harry Davenport and Lucille Watson) then popping in on them in his hometown of Sycamore Springs? It’s not the most comfortable of trips, crammed together with other passengers; before resigning themselves to the luggage car, for Asta’s sake, where he gets accosted by the local livestock. But be it ever so humble, say it with me, there’s no place like home!

The premise is plainly given but this might just be the most enjoyable installment since After the Thin (1936).  That is not to say the other entries were not amusing. They most certainly were. But there’s something gratifying about getting to know Nicky’s community a little better. Due to the passing of W.S. Van Dyke, it is Richard Thorpe who takes up the reins without too many noticeable hiccups or maybe there are just enough.

There’s the inevitable running into a plethora of old acquaintances of all sorts of ticks and demeanors. Most curious among them is the aptly named Crazy Mary (Anne Revere) or the starstruck young debutante Laurabelle Ronson (Gloria DeHaven). Nick takes each reunion in stride while also finding time to fix tables and fiddle with deadly hammocks all to the mild amusement of his better half.

The comedic range of gossip around town is astounding as the whole neighborhood drums up a story about how the town’s most famous citizen has returned to investigate a homegrown murder. It couldn’t be further from the truth, until it becomes true. What happens is the most ludicrous of murders yet, with a young man (Ralph Brooks) showing up on the Charles’ doorstep only to get the axe a minute later.

Mr. Brogan (Edward Brophy), a reformed greeting cards salesman, is always coming out of the bushes to give Nick a tip but of course, he didn’t see or hear the murder. Still, he provides his services to the amateur detective by pulling his wife away for an evening.  Myrna Loy in the humorous tailing sequence showcases her talents, making the scene into her own shining moment away from her husband. Though they are inseparable in one sense, the film benefits from these digressions as wayward as they might seem.

There are so many juicy tidbits to latch onto but one of the most crucial is a fateful painting of a windmill that Nora buys her husband as a birthday present,l due to some childhood significance. But there’s also a couple (Leon Ames and Helen Vinson) anxious about getting their hands on the piece for its perceived value. It’s no small coincidence the painting was attributed to the deceased victim.

At the Charity Bazar, the Charles make their appearance and Asta hops up on the counter to pay a visit to a house check girl in the periphery (I have no idea why this caught my eye). Meanwhile, Loy is forced into a jitterbug with an eager sailor serving as a convenient diversion. Nick doesn’t want her to be with him while he goes snooping around upstairs. And in these moments you see the allure of the Charles marriage.

The husband is the quintessential bachelor-type who nevertheless makes an affectionate husband and his beautiful Nora, a high-brow socialite, is ever the understanding wife. But beyond this archetypal pairing, you have the wryly comic tug-of-war between them as the smirking Nick always looks to throw his wife off the track and she always does her best to stay right there by his side.

In fact, the payoff looks different in the small town as everyone of possible motive is gathered into the drawing room but also it is Nora and not Nick who becomes the master of ceremonies, quelling their objections and keeping the audience under raps while her husband gets ready to make his appearance.

Given the crazy nature of the murder, it would be safe to reason the finale would be a little wild too and that assumption holds. But that cannot take away from what this film has to offer. Because what is The Thin Man without Nick and Nora Charles? It would be nothing and yet in this picture, they both continue to shine as they always did together. Even as the years progress, they don’t change all that much. The only thing that’s different is Nick has made strides with his drinking hobby which has been traded out for a flask of cider. One can only surmise the reason for this change was the wartime ration on liquor.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Shadow of The Thin Man (1941)

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Little Nick Charles Jr. is growing up and his loving daddy, in lieu of fairy tales, reads to his son about the horse races. Some things never change. Despite an unfortunate stereotyped-laden portrayal provided by Louise Beavers, the picture quickly settles into another enjoyable jaunt.

In fact, it’s a perfect day for the races until Nick gets pulled over for speeding. That’s only the beginning. Because the cop proves to be a big fan of Mr. Charles. After all, if we haven’t realized it already, he is a household name. Everybody seems to know him. Policemen, conmen, jockeys, and anyone else you can possibly pull out of a hat. It makes no difference. By now, his wife never shows an ounce of surprise. She only smiles, nods, trades pleasantries and never says another word about it.

The recurring gags keep coming with yet another former acquaintance with a grubby nickname like “Fingers” running into Nick and inquiring if the dame he has in tow is his new girlfriend. It seems like no one ever thought him one to get married.

It’s all good fun and there’s even the return of Nick’s old buddy, old pal, Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene reprising his role). This sense of world building and the introduction of characters was always The Thin Man series at its best, but there’s also business at hand — a jockey named Gomez has been whacked.

However, Nick tries to avoid getting pulled into yet another case by patronizing the arts, namely a wrestling match. It’s one of the film’s most delightful diversions but there’s also a sneaking suspicion it must tie into the case somehow. The forces lurking in the shadows hang over the racetrack murder like a stench and they’ve got there hands in all the places, including the press. Maybe even higher up too.

A youthful Donna Reed makes an early appearance as a naive secretary and while still growing as an actress, there’s no doubting her sincerity that always shined through in all her work. With writers Albert Hacket & Frances Goodrich, then James Stewart and Sheldon Leonard also involved in earlier installments, and Reed being featured here, it does seem The Thin Man was a bit of a training ground for It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

But back to the current business at hand. Molly’s beau Paul (Barry Nelson) is a prime suspect when murder strikes again. With the young couple right at the center of the mess, compassionate Nora wants her Nicky to get them out of it and that he does.

Also, tied up in the case are stuttering Rainbow Benny, famed acting instructor Stella Adler in one of her actual roles as Claire Porter, Frank Faylen as a nervous ticket booth operator, and you guessed it, a whole host of others.

Still, Nick finds time to get accosted by kids while taking Nick Jr. around on the carousel. While Asta’s best gag is getting trapped in a revolving door chasing after a fugitive. Myrna Loy doesn’t get as much screentime as she should but as usual she provides a calming and still slyly comic presence. The continuity provided by W.S. Van Dyke is there as well though this is the first script not penned by the screenwriting duo Hackett & Goodrich.

By now it’s all but inevitable. Everyone gets rounded up to the police precinct. Nick Charles takes center stage bringing wifey along and Lt. Abrams is in the middle of it all for good measure. But he’s really only the white noise and perfect stooge as Nick deduces his way to the finale as he always has. It’s true that the formula feels a tad overspent but seeing as Hollywood is used to beating dead horses to a pulp recently, this one doesn’t feel that bad. At least it’s a good time and we still have Powell and Loy as amiable as ever with a continous spritzing of humor.

3.5/5 Stars

Another Thin Man (1939)

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Parenthood hasn’t slackened the good-natured give and take between Mr. and Mrs. Charles or Mr. Charles drinking habit either. The only difference now is that Nick affectionately calls his other half “mommy” and they have a little more work getting their nurse to watch over the baby — Asta’s new younger brother.

For the most part, they have a hands-off parenting approach with the infant Nick Jr. which is a bit of necessity given they need time to solve a mystery. Sure, it starts out innocent enough. They plan to take a trip out to the country to pay a visit to an old friend Colonel McFay (C. Aubrey Smith) who is desperate for Nick’s counsel on an issue of utmost importance.

So they head out to the country to an old family mansion that just so happens to be the perfect space for an “And Then There Were None” scenario. Except this one has Nick and Nora Charles at the center of it all and the cast of characters fits into their world.

After the Colonel is found dead in his study following a piercing gunshot, the police swarm the grounds looking for clues, but Asta winds up tampering evidence again. Meanwhile, their flighty nurse (Ruth Hussey) takes off without leaving a forwarding address. The dead man’s daughter is beside herself with grief compounded by fear when someone kills her prized dog and takes a shot at her. It doesn’t help that she’s caught between two men who love her (Patric Knowles) and her father’s secretary (Tom Neal).

The most obvious suspect is a threatening thug named Church (Sheldon Leonard) who’s been having dreams about the Colonel’s impending death. He’s in cahoots with a deadly dame and the ever faithful Dum-Dum (Abner Biberman). A big man with specs (Don Costello is somehow tied up in this business too. Yet Nick is never one to show his hand too early and he lets things play out.

Having enough of the country life, our heroes get back to the big city to do some sleuthing at the West Indies Night Club while still finding time for made-up meet-cutes and the usual playfulness. One particularly visually uproarious sequence involves Nick Jr.’s first birthday party complete with a playpen for of babies and kindly ex-cons just out of the real pen.

There’s the tell-all finale and it’s as befuddling as any mystery drama. That hardly stops Nick Charles though. It must be admitted that the final stretch outside of the haunted mansion loses a little bit of its traction because the story is stacking moment after moment on top of each other. By the sheer number of characters, it pulls the wool over the eyes once more. And yet again the Charles’ quiet weekend away became the biggest newspaper headline.

While not quite on snuff with its two predecessors, this picture is still carried by the insouciant charm of its impeccable leads and yet another host of quality character players. You’ll notice among them Tom Neal (Detour), C. Aubrey Smith, Ruth Hussey, Sheldon Leonard (It’s a Wonderful Life), Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle), Abner Biberman (His Girl Friday), Virginia Grey, and many, many more. Those were the days of great supporting stars and phenomenal studio stars for that matter. This would be William Powell and Myrna Loy’s 8th film together out of a mindboggling 14. That in itself is a remarkable feat.

3.5/5 Stars

After The Thin Man (1936)

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The reason to watch The Thin Man series was never murder. Sure, like its predecessor, this follow-up has the pretense of a mystery plot but that’s merely a trifle in comparison to the return of Nick and Nora Charles.

The novelty of this picture is no longer that it once more brings crime and comedy together because that’s what the original film did. We already have the formula, the groundwork set before us, and certain expectations. But what it does even in its opening vignettes is further develop its leads by transplanting the New York socialites to the world of San Francisco which brings with it different colorations and really an extension to this fanciful world that they live in.

William Powell and Myrna Loy are just delightful with teasing ever whip-smart interplay but we also see the class dimensions being played up too. All of a sudden, their marriage of such stark opposites comes into clearer focus and we love them even more.

Nick seems to know someone on every street corner most of them being hoods and shifty conmen begging the question just what he did in his previous life (I can’t ever remember being told)? Meanwhile, Nora comes from money and runs in a certain society that’s slightly averse to the constant verbal barbs and nose-thumbing of her husband. You see, he seems to have no respect for respectable folks. Her family can’t stand Nikolai as he’s called. But he loves his wife and she loves him.

The fact that the action is set over The New Year blesses the film with jovial gaiety and champagne bubbles that add a little pizzazz to your run-of-the-mill murder of passion. Meanwhile, the dubious Lychee Club takes its place front and center because a couple implicated persons are tied up with the establishment. One of them, named Dancer, runs the joint while his star performer Polly and her brother Phil also seem caught up in something shady. If you had to put a name to it you might call it extortion.

Then a slimy playboy (and unfaithful husband) is found murdered after a night carousing at the club with the chorus girl. That effectively gets his devastated wife accused of murder with her longtime beau (James Stewart) going to great lengths to defend her.

We could keep running off the list of suspects but to no avail, and it has the typically gung-ho cop Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene) understandably suspicious as he tries to make head or tails of the whole mess. Of course, he has Nick Charles on his side and a good thing too.

Asta is up to his old tricks running off with a vital clue and Nick’s up to his old tricks having his wife locked up in prison so that he can bail her out. Despite her longsuffering lot in life, she gets in some comic retribution of her own while maintaining a dazzling marriage full of mutual understanding.

Because, in one sense, Nick Charles is a complete imbecile, a habitual jokester, and yet he’s just serious enough to warrant some respect in the crime-solving trade and just sincere enough to hold onto his wife for posterity. Again, that’s all part of his charm. If he wasn’t so good at solving crimes, it’s doubtful people would give him the time of day. Though his wife does continuously and that’s what really counts. That’s the heartbeat of this entire franchise.

The Charles also realize humanity’s aspirations of sleeping the day away and it’s true they can get away with settling down for breakfast just as everyone else is finishing up dinner. That’s their lifestyle. I’m sure most of us hold a deep-seated desire for it in some cockeyed way. But most of us can’t solve murders on a whim either. So they get to be our surrogates on both accounts.

I won’t say he’s the epoch of amateur sleuthing, as the company includes the Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marples, and Jessica Fletchers of the world, but Nick Charles is one of the wittiest individuals to hold the mantle.

It must be noted that he was a creation of the Depression, a needed respite from the day-to-day, but you get the sense that today he comes off as a bit callous. Surely a man who knows so many undesirable characters was aware that there was a Depression on. And yet you see, that’s precisely the trick. In this world, such an event does not exist.

There’s no need to worry about it and this alternate reality instead gets to occupy itself with murder and excess, jokes and romantic patter. It truly is escapism and a gift to the masses. No wonder people loved Nick and Nora so much because it really does seem like they filled a need at the time.

While he’s not the center of attention nor is his role all that meaty until the final moments, James Stewart is nevertheless entertaining in this early part with a slam-bang finish that gives a glimpse of the passionate intensity he offered as an actor. It was full steam ahead for both him and The Thin Man series though you might say his future was a little more promising.

4/5 Stars

Love Crazy (1941)

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Love Crazy puts William Powell and Myrna Loy in their wheelhouse as the lithe and sprightly romantic partners placed at the center of this screwball comedy.  Steve Ireland (Powell) is in a terribly good mood getting home in his taxi singing ditties as he makes his way up to surprise his wife Susan on their wedding anniversary.

All of which is an encouraging change of pace because Hollywood often made the nagging of marriage look like a real ball and chain. For once that’s not the case. They want a romantic second honeymoon full of dancing, escapades, and a dinner served backward. It’s the fact that he can never get enough time with his wife to suit either of them. Well, there you have the film in a nutshell anyway.

Except storytelling 101 tips us off that the film will have to begin swinging like a pendulum in such a way that both our lovebirds in this connubial comedy will no longer be so inseparable. The main instigators prove to be his overbearing mother-in-law who inserts herself into all their plans. The other is a former flame, Gail Patrick at the most delightful I’ve never known her to be, who playfully cajoles him to have some fun. She’s married but acts as if she’s still single and ready to mingle.

You would think he already had more excitement than he could take getting trapped in the elevator shaft with this frisky female and the elevator boy (Elisha Cook Jr.). Proving I’m no comic snob, I heartily enjoyed watching Powell’s head get clunked around. It’s a resoundingly hilarious image.

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However, he forgot about who was waiting for him back home. It’s the lesser of two evils to sneak out for a drink with Isobel and while his wife has to step out he uses his worst possible lifeline to get away from his aggravating mother-in-law. It doesn’t take too much for the root of doubt to sneak up and it only gets worse when Ward Willoughby (Jack Carson) is introduced as a studly archer in an undershirt. What else? Now both spouses have someone to be jealous of.

It hearkens back to the days where the sitcom hadn’t been invented yet because we didn’t have TV so instead, there were films like this which function around all the most cringe-worthy bits of comedic irony, namely mistaken identity and all sorts of misunderstandings. But like its predecessor from the year prior, I Love You Again, the steam slowly begins to evaporate off about midway through.

Because the main subplot becomes the whole plot in a way that provides some gags but on the whole feels tired and worn out. I want to see Powell and Loy together or at least more of Patrick and Carson who actually bring a lot of comedic chops to the picture. In fact, one of the more hilarious wrinkles involves Powell getting the other man interned at the sanitarium only to have him escape later. But it means very little to the integrity of the story. That’s part of what makes it so enjoyable.

Otherwise, Powell plays up his insanity to string along his wife so she can’t divorce him. His main showcase is at a party where he emancipates a fleet of hats trying to play up his looney side, followed thereafter by a string of other coincidental mishaps. His wife knows it’s a game but the man he’s christened “General Electric Whiskers,” who he met at the party, is actually a doctor who thinks he’s very sick indeed.

This all feels like fairly uninteresting fluff. Meanwhile, the film’s finale relies on another bout of concealed identity but to its credit, it circles back on the things that made it laudable before, entering back into the apartment complex. There the chaos of all those individuals from earlier is heightened in close proximity with a supposed crazy man on the loose and the police after him. They are aided by Willoughby and Steve is helped first by Isobel and then his wife.

But the crowning piece of comedy has to do with Powell’s ultimate masquerade as he even sacrifices his beloved pencil-thin mustache for the sake of it all. While not particularly inspired by today’s standards, Love Crazy boasts Powell and Loy in as fine a form as ever. That is enough to enjoy the picture even in its middling moments.

3.5/5 Stars

I Love You Again (1940)

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The film’s plotline can be summed up by amnesia. A no-fun businessman named Larry Wilson who drinks nothing harder than grape juice is conked on the head while saving a drunk who went overboard. Poof! Just like that Larry is no longer and he becomes his presumed former self — the suave alter ego — George Carey. If you’re willing to buy into the premise and not ask too many clarifying questions, it’s quite easy to enjoy the inevitable wacky ride ahead of us.

I even got the inkling that it was going to be a funnier version of Random Harvest (1942). Really it’s part of that esteemed screwball subset — the comedy of remarriage. Carey heads back home with his newfound pal and fellow grifter Doc (Frank McHugh) to scope out his past life and do his best to be the man he is supposed to be with humorous complications. You see they don’t realize he’s a married man until his wife comes to meet them at the gangplank. Well, actually he’s a soon to be a divorced man. Hence the marital conflict perfectly positioned for ensuing comedic fodder.

The main wrinkle and ultimately what makes it so different is that Powell and Loy are at separate poles in this film by necessity. All throughout The Thin Man pictures, they’re in perfect cadence and that’s what makes their chemistry and the onscreen marriage work.

Here Powell is a charming man with a twinkle in his eye like always — but his wife is expecting the same boring schmuck she married all those years before. She’s coming at this man from a different point of view and boy is she surprised with what she gets. In one way, annoyed because he makes it infinitely more difficult for her to let him go but then thankful because he is the precise man she always dreamed was right in front of her.

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In this way, I Love You Again is actually a fairly personable romance beyond its simple roots in screwball comedy. There’s almost a bit of depth there if we dare admit it but of course, that doesn’t take away from the underlining laughs most especially offered up by Powell.

He’s not opposed to making a fool of himself by dancing all by his lonesome until his wife saves his self-respect. And he plants a kiss on her that all but broke the world record in the sleepy town of Haversville. But she’s not going to go down without a fight and in one particular squabble he gets scrambled eggs all over his face (and on top of his head). Her current beau is an idiotically annoying bloke in his own right who is made for antagonizing. They always are.

If William Powell fly fishing in Libeled Lady (1936) was one of the defining comic images of his career than perhaps its equal is found in the confines of this film where he dons a boy scout uniform from his past life. Because he’s a woodsman of some repute who has quite the following with newspaper articles being penned about him and little tykes (AKA Alfalfa) being discouraged by how difficult he is to track. I feel that I saw some of these images years later in another intrepid yet bumbling outdoorsman, Barney Fife.

The moments exuding entertainment appeal outpace the rest including Powell’s constant cooing impression of a lovebird but nevertheless, it does drag in segments after a fairly interesting setup. Extended boy scouting sequences and spying out the old stomping grounds aren’t all bad though.

One could say that it’s even necessary as we watch the malleable relationship between Powell and Loy morph into something new. Everything else serves this singular purpose. It’s really what you wait for in a comedy of remarriage as the wistful regrets and longings seep in only to get replaced by happy expectancy of what is yet to come. The future is made sweet and those truths remain in I Love You Again.

3.5/5 Stars

Test Pilot (1938)

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Test Pilot is a fine piece of time capsule filmmaking and there’s little doubt that the film showcases a dizzying array of airplanes that we very rarely see today. In that sense, it’s an aerial picture with some truly dazzling footage.

By 1930s standards, this is also an action picture, a sprawling exhibition that simultaneously has a pretty thin story in some patches. In fact, it’s too long for its own good. But it’s a character drama as much as an aerial show, which takes precedence over anything else, narrative included.

The screenplay was forged by Howard Hawks (who worked on several other flight films) and a whole host of others. Its overall success is not necessarily in any amount of tension that is created or a certain brand of visceral storytelling though there are undoubtedly some emotional moments, the brunt of the heavy lifting comes from the cast as they articulate the beats of the script.

It’s true that under veteran director Victor Fleming and a cast including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Myrna Loy, it’s difficult to find a more prestigious partnership out of MGM in the 1930s. This was pretty close to tops. Still, even in this dynamic, there were foreseeable problems. Spencer Tracy has a bit of a thankless job playing the faithful mechanic Gunner Morris, the character who is there to support his friend and he conveniently never gets the girl.

You can understand why Tracy could get a little tired of such roles because there’s no doubt that Gable is in one sense the main attraction as the eponymous “Test Pilot” Jim Lane. He was the great movie star of the age.

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However, Tracy was the acting powerhouse of the two and that’s the chafing at work once again in this picture. The stellar personality and the quality talent seesawing back and forth. Except Tracy’s stock had been rising year after year and by now he was a solid draw in his own right. It’s evident that he’s a formidable third wheel in the picture though he had his sights set on something slightly more gratifying.

In fact, he’s nearly invincible. Gable famously implored “Spence” to go ahead and die already because the actor milked his last words for all they were worth. However, even if this jousting match between the two male stars is most visible, out of the three I think Myrna Loy comes away having the most fun and getting the most out of the picture. It’s completely understandable why she cherished her work here.

She is the Kansas girl who has her head in the clouds like a ditzy farmer’s daughter watching as a man brings his plane down on her family’s land. He’s simultaneously an ungrateful lug and her shining knight. There’s something whimsical and wholly uninhibited about her that lets her meet a grouchy pilot out in the pasture with a wit of her own and yell her head off at ballgames like a seasoned fanatic.

Her performance runs the entire gamut from near screwball antics to deep heartfelt emotion. The dimensions there are at times difficult to read — even enigmatic. I think that’s why Jim falls for her. She’s in some ways just as tantalizing and fascinating to him as the air above.

Test Pilot also examines tragedy of such a pioneering and devil may care lifestyle — themes that Douglas Sirk would streamline in a picture such as Tarnished Angels (1956). Here we get the alluring frolicking fun of going where no man has gone before it is tapered by the stark reality at hand. Icarus had the thrill of his life but it’s possible to fly too high or for your engines to blow out or for your instruments to fail. It’s a part of the lifestyle that pilots come to accept. They take the risk because the skies call out to them so earnestly. It’s their obsession.

Jim is one of those who has always followed that call. His story is really about his romance with two women. His wife waiting for him on the ground and the blue heavens which call out to him from above. It takes a reality check ripping something so dear away for him to realize he doesn’t mind being grounded. It was the one thing he swore he would never do and yet, in the end, he gladly does it.

3.5/5 Stars

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

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The stars are out for Manhattan Melodrama, at least three of the biggest from the 1930s, in Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy. Except the latter two had yet to start their star-making run with director W.S. Van Dyke in The Thin Man until later in the year. This picture would prove to be a boost and a portent of good things to come.

The opening scene captures the bedlam during a fire aboard a riverboat with an alarmingly raw energy. One might even stoop to call it pure melodrama but to the film’s credit, it’s not faulty advertising since right from the beginning it goes for the jugular.

In fact, it continues to stack the tragic setpieces one on top of another. The next is a politically charged riot between capitalist and Soviet sympathizers. That brings with it yet another bitter tragedy already upon us in only a matter of minutes.

Because the aftermath of such events means many kids are left without parents (including Mickey Rooney’s character Blackie) and many parents are left without kids. One man resolves to fill in the hole in his heart. Of course, it doesn’t last for long when he is run over by a horsecart. Two boys are made orphans yet again.

So no time is wasted whatsoever suggesting that this is their story. The stage has been set. Our two divergent heroes head their separate ways while nevertheless remaining lifelong friends.

Blackie’s (Gable) adult life is really an outcropping of his childhood pursuits. Namely, gambling and getting other people’s money. He’s a smart character who has the police paid off and his slightly suspect establishment is running on all cylinders. But he’s hardly a bad fellow, mind you.

That’s what allows Jim (Powell) who has pursued a law degree to still be fast friends with his old chum. What they do for a living never impedes on the affection they have for one another. And for a long time that works fine. Blackie’s girl Eleanor (Loy) tries to coax him away from the life he leads — to something close to a marriage — but that was never quite him.

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One evening when she is supposed to hold onto Jim before Blackie gets there so they can all celebrate Jim’s ambitious rise, she finds herself taken with a man who is what Blackie can never be for her. She goes for Jim since he is the man who can make her a happy wife. Again, there’s no ill-will. Blackie only wants the best for his friends.

The ominous sounding tune “The Bad in Every Man” plays quite prominently in this film and many audience members will undoubtedly recognize it under a different name it would have later in life,   “Blue Moon.” For now, it’s a nightclub number that adds a palpable atmosphere to the world and especially our impression of the male protagonists.

Blackie proves to be so deeply invested that he does everything in his power to keep his friend on the path of the straight and narrow without any hindrance from a no-good degenerate like himself. He would never jeopardize Jim in his rise from district attorney to governor and so on. In fact, he would even take a hit for him. Because the film ends with Jim tossing Blackie on the funeral pyre. He’s gotten tough on crime and that means not backing down on murder raps — even involving a friend. Little does he know what Blackie has done for him. But his wife knows.

This is, of course, the picture that has the notoriety of being the last one John Dillinger viewed before being shot by Federal Agents outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. He purportedly came out of hiding just to see Myrna Loy.

The picture itself begs the question if there was more to Dillinger. Did he have a troubled past or someone else on the other side of the train tracks who made good? More likely than anything else he was a little insignificant man and his violence was met with violence in an equal and opposite direction. His death helped sell tickets no doubt. It was probably even made into a couple of movies. But it couldn’t be a movie. Life never is.

In that sense, this film hardly seems authentic or real even when we juxtapose it with reality. It’s a nice thought, Clark Gable going off to the electric chair grinning — no good but at least a man of principle. If you want arguably a similar look with a slightly different outcome Angel With Dirty Faces (1938) provides it. John Dillinger never got around to seeing that picture though. For him, real life happened with real consequences. There was nothing idealized about it.

3.5/5 Stars

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

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Here is a Cary Grant and Myrna Loy vehicle that makes a comedy out of the morning drudgery and cramped quarters of domesticated life in that pearl of a city, New York. It’s a satire of the All-American Dream with the wry commentary of Melvyn Douglas guiding us through the raucous adventure.

He positions the story as such, the main confidante and best friend of advertising executive James Blandings (Grant) and his wife Muriel (Loy). Any given morning in their apartment involves early morning duels over shutting off the alarm clock for a few last seconds of slumber. Then, there’s the fighting over mirror space and closet space and drawer space.

But they’re true Americans singing “Home on the Range” in the shower. Singing in the shower seems to generally be a hobby of Cary Grant as he would do it again in at least one other picture. Meanwhile, their prim daughters are attending a progressive school and filling Mr. Blandings breakfast conversation with unwanted social significance.

All he wants is to drink his coffee and read his paper in peace and intact. He’s granted neither luxury. But these are only symptoms of the problem. They have a lovely home in a lovely city with two lovely daughters and a terribly lovely marriage. They’re just hemmed in on every side. And at work, he’s been slammed with the advertising campaign for “Wham Ham” which seems a living nightmare.

It’s Mrs. Blandings’ idea to consider a renovation while Mr. Blandings isn’t too keen on bankrolling interior designing and home redecorating courtesy of one Bunny Funkhouser. Instead, they mutually agree to purchase a quaint Connecticut home with real “character” that coincidentally no one has had the courage (or the naivety) to even try and buy.

But attracted by the “convenient” commute of 50 minutes, a little Revolutionary War History about General Gates’ horse, and their own dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, they commence the biggest undertaking of their lives.

The Hackett Place could very easily be the prototype of the Haney Place years later in Green Acres. In fact, this film made me yearn for the rustic folks from Hootersville and the construction craziness of Extreme Home Makeover from year’s past because it evokes both.

Rather than deal with it as is, the Blandings knock it to the ground and sink their first wad of cash in the mammoth project. The first of many. But they are hardly attuned with what remodeling entails and the complications never seem to end nor do the bills which come one after another.

While I was secretly hoping that Dreamhouse would be an update on Buster Keaton’s One Week (1920) with Grant showcasing his usually brilliant physical antics, what we got instead is a household comedy full of incessant complications.

While I probably would have enjoyed the former even more, there’s no doubt that this film is worth it for the Cary Grant and Myrna Loy dynamic. It’s that ability to bicker and joust and fight and still have the innate capability to make up and have the audience enjoy every minute. If the film had been made years later it would have been called Mr. and Mrs. Blandings Build Their Dream House. This is without question a joint effort of marital madness and reconstruction.

For those who cherish glimpses of the past available in the present, the Blandings home can still be seen on the property of Malibu Creek State Park in California. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Blandings still live there. Sadly, they vacated the premises some time ago. The commute from Malibu to New York City was probably too much for them.

3.5/5 Stars