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

Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_cropThe opening credits roll and recognition comes with each name that pops on the screen. Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Palette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Harry Carey, Porter Hall, Charles Lane, William Demarest, Jack Carson, and of course, Frank Capra himself.

We are met with the ubiquitous visage of Charles Lane calling in a big scoop on the telephone. A senator has died suddenly. The likes of Porter Hall and H.B. Warner fill the Senate Chamber presided over by a wryly comic VP, Harry Carey. Corruption is personified by the flabby pair of Edward Arnold and Eugene Palette while Claude Rains embodies the tortured political journeyman. The eminent members of the press include not only Lane but the often swacked Thomas Mitchell and a particularly cheeky Jack Carson.

To some people, these are just names much like any other but to others of us, linked together and placed in one film, these figures elicit immense significance and simultaneously help to make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one of the most satisfying creations of Hollywood’s Golden Age from arguably “The Greatest Year in Cinematic History.”  The acting from the biggest to the smallest role is a sheer joy to observe as is Capra’s candid approach to the material.

As someone with a deep affection for film’s continued impact, it gives me great pleasure that stories such as Mr. Smith exist on the silver screen if only for the simple fact that they continually renew my belief in humanity, whatever that means. Because it’s an admittedly broad, sweeping statement to make but then again that’s what Frank Capra was always phenomenally skilled at doing. He could take feelings, emotions, beliefs, and ideals synthesizing them into the perfect cultural concoctions commonly known as moving pictures.

But his pictures always maintained an unfaltering optimism notably in the face of all sorts of trials and tribulations. He never disregarded the corruption dwelling in his stories–it was always there–in this case personified by the stifling political machine of Jim Taylor gorging itself off the lives of the weak and stupid.

The key is that his narratives always rise above the graft and corruption. They latch onto the common everyday decency, looking out for the other guy, and in some small way uphold the great commandment to love thy neighbor.

Politics have never been my forte. Like many others, I’m easily disillusioned by “politics” as this becomes a dirty word full of arrogance, partisanship, and scandal among other issues. It seems like the founding principals that laid the groundwork for this entire democracy often get buried under pomp & circumstance or even worse personal ambitions.

Although this film was shot over 75 years ago everyone who’s been around the block lives as if that’s the case then too and so they’re not all that different from today at least where it matters. Cynicism is a hard thing to crack when it runs through the fabric of society from the politicians, to the newspapers, all the way down to the general public. It’s not hard to understand why. Still, the genuine qualities of a man like Jefferson Smith can act as a bit of an antidote. He as a character himself might be a bit of an ideal, yes, but I’d like to have enough faith to believe that people with a little bit of Jefferson Smith might still live today.

Common, everyday people who nevertheless are capable of extraordinary things like standing up for what’s right when they know that no one else will or when they know all that waits for them at the end of the tunnel is disgrace. But the promise of what is beyond the tunnel is enough. That is true integrity to be able to do that and those are the causes worth cheering for when David must fight Goliath and still he somehow manages to overcome. That’s the chord Mr. Smith strikes with me. thanks in part to Capra’s vision but also Stewart’s impassioned embodiment of those same ideals.  He has a knack for compelling performances to be sure.

Time and time again James Stewart pulls me in. His career is one of the most iconic in any decade, any era no questions asked. There are so many extraordinary films within that context perhaps many that are technically or artistically superior to Mr. Smith by some  estimations, but he was never more candid or disarming than those final moments in the senate chambers as he fights for his life — clinging to the ideals that he’s been such a stalwart proponent for even as his naivete has been mercilessly stripped away from him.

In the opening moments, his eyes carried that glow of honest to goodness optimism, his posture gangly and unsure represented all that is genuine in man. Now watching those same ideals and heroes come back to perniciously attack him, he presides with almost reckless abandon. Is he out of his mind? At times, it seems so, but as he wearies, his hair becomes more disheveled, and his vocal chords have only a few rasps left he still fights the good fight. There’s an earnest zeal to him that’s positively palpable.

As our stand-in, Saunders (Jean Arthur) first writes him off as a first class phony or at the very least a political stooge ready to do another man’s bidding but she does not know Jefferson Smith though she does grow to love him. And Arthur’s performance truly is a masterful one because without her Smith would hardly be the same figure. She brings out his naivete by sheer juxtaposition but she also puts the fight back into him because he brought a change over her that in turn rallies him to keep on pushing. They’ve got a bit of a mutually symbiotic relationship going on in the best way possible. You might call it love.

Capra repeatedly underlines Smith’s honesty and genuine nature not only through numerous rather simplistic montages of Capitol Hill and the surrounding national monuments but in the very way his character carries himself around others. He never assumes a position of superiority. He’s always humble. He sees the inherent need to raise up young people well so that they might progress to become the leaders of tomorrow with a great deal to offer our world. He fumbles with his hat in the presence of pretty girls and holds his idols in the highest esteem. It’s all there on Stewart’s face and in his actions. We too comprehend the solemnity and the gravity that he senses in the office of the Senate.

While this was not Jimmy Stewart’s debut and it was only at the beginning of a shining career as has already been noted, it was in these moments that the cinematic world fell in love with him. He can’t be licked and for good reason. He was never one to give up on lost causes just like his father before him.

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them: Because of one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor. ~ James Stewart as Jefferson Smith

5/5 Stars

Review: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Veronica_Lake_and_Joel_McCrea_in_Sullivan's_TravelsIf Preston Sturges was a comic wordsmith then Sullivan’s Travels was his magnum opus. It has so many pieces worth talking about, despite it only running a meager 90 minutes. It is the kind of comedy that director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) would want to make, and it’s a message movie against message movies. It’s a film about filmmaking (including mentions of Capra and Lubitsch). There’s even a scene where an ecstatic actress goes racing around the studio lot, completely disregarding the period piece she is acting in. The script has the undeniable frenetic poetry of Sturges and even takes time to wax philosophical at times. Sullivan opens the film with some very grandiose vision of what film can mean for the everyday filmgoer (I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!).

Sturges’ film is scatterbrained and insane in its pacing at times. Take the opening speeding sequence as a newly bedraggled Sullivan tries to shake his caravan so he can really get a feel for the common man’s plight. It almost gives you a heart attack as they blitz down the road, people and everything imaginable flying every which way. It’s faster than most modern action sequences could achieve.

However, although Sturges is undoubtedly known for the strength of his scripts, it’s important to note that Sullivan’s Travels has some wonderful visual sequences. Many of them lack his typical lightning dialogue and instead rely on music and images to develop scenes. Sometimes it’s the plight of the homeless on the road as Sullivan and his companion make their way across country. I would have never thought of this comparison before, but sometimes his heroes elicit the same type of empathy that would be given to Charlie Chaplin or the Gamine (Paulette Goddard) in Modern Times. In that same way, this film so beautifully fluctuates between comedy and heartfelt drama.

Another beautiful thing about Sullivan’s Travels is the cast. Our star is Joel McCrea, who is sometimes known as the poor man’s Gary Cooper, but that is rather unfair because he’s a compelling actor in his own right. Just look at this film to prove his case. Also, he and Veronica Lake (Ms. Peekaboo Haircut herself) have a fun relationship going from the beginning when they first meet in a diner. You might say the shoe’s on the other foot since she thinks she’s doing a good deed for this down on his luck nobody. She has no idea that her “big boy” is actually a big shot movie director. However, it makes no difference, because in some ways she feels responsible for him, and so she takes part in his noble experiment even afterward. That’s where we build respect for them, and she, in turn, falls for him. It’s what we want as an audience. And we finally get it when Sullivan beats his death and a chain gain to return to civilization. His nagging wife has married some other boob, so Sullivan gets his girl.

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but it definitely seems like they don’t make character actors like they used to. It helps that Sturges has a stock company of sorts and the studio system probably helped in propagating certain actors. However, there’s no doubt that players like William Demarest and Porter Hall are so memorable. Their voices. Their look. There’s no escaping them and there are numerous other faces that you get deja vu with. We’ve seen them before somewhere and just cannot place it.

Within this whole story of comedy, romance, and a heroes journey, there is, of course, a moral. However, I don’t mind Sturges and his simple didacticism. Because he ditches high rhetoric or sickening idealism for a simple conclusion (There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh). A Pluto cartoon short that brings a few giggles can be just as impactful in this world of ours compared to the next big Oscar drama. That’s what Sullivan’s Travels led to. A change in perspective through a hilarious itinerary.

5/5 Stars

Review: Miracle of 34th Street (1947)

703c5-miracleon34thChristmas movies do not get much better than this. What a concept! Here’s a film about a man who really is Kris Kringle aka Santa Claus. He gets picked up by Macy’s department store to be their Santa Claus, and he winds up facing a hearing to decide whether he is legitimate or not. His pet project is to make an unsentimental little girl (Natalie Wood), and her practical mother (Maureen O’Hara) believe in him. He finds an ally in a young lawyer (John Payne) who believes in his holiday cheer and is also smitten with the girl’s mother.

Some people would undoubtedly say it’s a bunch a hogwash to make a movie about such a topic. Maybe it is only holiday tripe, but I find it is very hard to refute this “Miracle” of a Christmas classic. The characters portrayed are so spot on and heartfelt it is so easy to get pulled into their story. At the same time, it’s difficult not to like a film where department stores help each other, the hustle and bustle is toned down, and for once mankind has faith in each other for awhile.

As an audience, we gravitate towards Edmund Gwen because he represents the Santa we all wish to know. He is kind, thoughtful, generous, and above all a magical gift giver. Maureen O’Hara goes through a character progression that mirrors that of her daughter, except it is perhaps a little more poignant in her case due to her maturity. It would seemingly be easy to dislike her and yet thanks to O’Hara we cannot help but feel for her. She is also extremely beautiful, even in black and white. Although young, Wood proves to be a memorable little girl in this one, and she was just getting started. Payne is a good addition in his own right — a highly underrated actor.

The film is rounded out by a wonderful array of characters in the Macy’s store like magnate R.H. Macy (Harry Atrim), well-meaning Mr. Shellhammer (Philip Tonge) and friendly young janitor Alfred (Alvin Greeman). Shoppers such as the one and only Thelma Ritter in an early role, and civil servants like Judge Harper  (Gene Lockhart) round out New York’s population with generally decent people who we can relate to. The one exception is Dr. Sawyer (Porter Hall), the company psychologist, and greatest villain of the film, who is the antithesis of Kris and his Christmas spirit.

My hope is that this one never pales, never loses its cheer, and maintains its timelessness for many Christmases to come. Until the next Macy’s Thanksgiving parade comes along have yourself a merry little Christmas and remember all psychologists are not evil jerks looking to ruin the holidays!

5/5 Stars

Review: His Girl Friday (1940)

25148-hisgirl1It all happened in the “Dark Ages” of the newspaper game — When to a reporter “Getting that story” justified anything short of murder. Incidentally you will see in this picture no resemblance to the men and women of the press of today.”

Hildy Johnson (aka His Girl Friday) is making her return to the Morning Post but not to get her old job back. She came to pay a visit to her former husband (and paper editor) who she divorced because she is newly engaged and wants to break everything off for good. It means she can go off into the sunset with her new beau, but it also means no more paper. She drops the news and it turns out the wedding is set for the next day so Walter has very little time to go to work. He soon begins a sly barrage of subtle and not so subtle jabs, ridicules, and put downs aimed at the easy target Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Walter cuts him off, plays dumb, and is in general condescending and conniving. Hildy sees it all unfolding and half watches with bemusement, while also trying to stop Walter from causing any major trouble.

You see he’s a wonderful fellow in a loathsome sort of way, but you cannot help but like him. Because as Hildy notes he comes by charm naturally since “his grandfather was a snake.” These are the kinds of barbs and witty put downs we deal with the entire film. Besides being good fun, it also is quite extraordinary, since they never stop coming. It’s also fascinating to simply watch the many expressions of Cary Grant, whether it is a smirk or straight face, it always has a tinge of mischief which suits his character just fine. He seems more like a little boy at times, trying to win back his girl, and in many ways, that’s what he’s trying to do. But back to the action.

Hildy unwittingly falls into Walter’s trap, and from that point on there’s no stopping her, or Walter’s scheme for that matter. When the wheels of journalism start turning there’s no stopping someone like Hildy with newsprint in her blood. Walter lets her catch wind of a man who pleads innocence though he is to be hung for shooting a black policeman. Hildy puts up a fight, but she doesn’t last very long.

Soon she’s gotten into talk to the nervous prisoner Earl and gets his point of view on the whole messy ordeal. The other newsboys are callous to the world, and as the gallows goes up outside their window, all they can do is play cards and think about the best scoop. Hildy is a little different but she’s still leaving…or is she?

Next, Williams escapes and the mad search for the fugitive is on as the newsroom goes into an uproar. The mayor and sheriff are in a tizzy and then a reprieve for Williams comes, but they ignore it because they need this hanging in order to get re-elected. By a stroke of luck, Hildy finds Williams and stashes him away in a desk. Now she is hooked, and when Walter hears about her stroke of luck, everything begins again like old times. Bruce and his mother are soon disregarded as Hildy types feverishly, and Walter wheels and deals on the telephone. Then, the sheriff and mayor burst in with the rest of the boys. Williams’ hiding place is uncovered and the two reconciled lovebirds look like they might wind up with a jail sentence. But the honorable air-head Mr. Pettibone saves the day. All that’s left to do is depart on a two-week honeymoon to Niagara Falls or maybe a workers riot in Albany. All is right with the world again. Walter’s got His Girl Friday, and she’s got her lovable wiseguy husband back.

I’m not quite sure why I am so often drawn to this movie because it is more than it being readily available in the public domain. The dynamic of Grant and Russell is certainly superb. Walter can be an absolute cad, but Grant’s charm makes him bearable to the end. Russell is the true star of this film and she deals the punches with the rest of the boys. It really is the perfect role for her. The film is blessed with the great supporting cast including Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, Gene Lockhart, Billy Gilbert and a host of others who populate the film with colorful faces and voices.

After seeing Nothing Sacred (1937) it was also interesting to see another script from Ben Hecht about journalism. Again, it might be a screwball comedy but there are also political undertones. Most blatantly about journalism itself, but also about corrupt leaders (like the mayor and sheriff), the Red Scare, gender roles, capital punishment, and even WWII.

Of course, it must also be noted that this is a film directed by the great Howard Hawks. I have always had difficulty pinpointing his trademarks, because the reality is, he was so versatile, trying his hand at so many different genres. All I know is that I more often than not enjoy his work behind the camera because it is seamless and it feels quintessentially American. His Girl Friday is no different. Although, this one is just a tad faster than most. It’s sure to raise your blood pressure so be warned.

5/5 Stars

 

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Starring Edmund Gwen, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, and Natalie Wood, the film tells the heartwarming story of an old man who acts as Santa Claus for the Macy department store in New York. However, Kris who is a very warm person (Gwen), truly does believe he is Santa and he is constantly being kind to others. Despite his popularity, a sour psychologist claims Kris is crazy and the case goes to court to decide once and for all if he is Santa. Although the case seems bleak, Kris is enlightened by the fact that his test case family (O’Hara and Wood) finally believe in him. Through a series of extraordinary events his lawyer friend (Payne) is able to win the case right before Christmas. Pretty soon Kris seems to prove that he really is who he said he was. This is one of the great cheering Christmas classics of cinema.

5/5 Stars

Merry Christmas everyone!

 

His Girl Friday (1940)

30c9f-his_girl_friday_posterStarring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell with direction by Howard Hawks, this film’s rapid and overlapping dialogue helps make it a witty comedy romance. Walter Burns (Grant) is a newspaper editor who was formally married to Hildy Johnson (Russell). However, now they are no longer together and she is on the verge of marrying another man (Ralph Bellamy). Grant still loves her and tries all the tricks he knows in order to get her back. Soon the two of them are deeply involved in a story having to do with a man who is soon to be hung. As they work to get the scoop, the two of them slowly begin to realize they still love each other despite their differences. Finally, Russell rejects a normal life with her new fiancee and she and Grant unite once again. A directing legend, Hawks has another success with the screwball comedy. Grant and Russell play well off each other and they have a good supporting cast behind them.

This film is a sensory overload with words whizzing by so fast that you hardly have time to catch them. But what you do pick up is great and the overlapping, rapid fire dialogue is delivered so effectively by the entire cast, including Grant and Russell. Russell takes on the persona of the independent career woman prevalent in the late 30s and early 40s. As such she knows how to trade blows with the boys in the newsroom and she delivers a spirited performance to counter Grant’s constant conniving and tricks in his sly attempt to win her back. Aside from the main stars, the film has a brilliant set of stock characters and the dialogue is such that it seems like it would be a joy to read the script. There is the self-referential humor to Ralph Bellamy, then to a Mock Turtle as well as Archie Leach. The first is Grant’s role in Alice in Wonderland and the second is his real name. The film even has time to deal a few jabs to Hitler, Communists, and most especially the newspaper industry. All in all His Girl Friday is a comedic whirlwind but it is a pretty good piece of mayhem.

4.5/5 Stars