The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The-kennel-murder-case-1933It’s happened in some well-documented cases that the same actor has played two characters that feel nominally similar and based on this cursory level of comparison the general public has been forever befuddled. You could cite some notable examples being Bogart playing Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe the archetypal pulp private eye heroes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Even the fact that Fess Parker played Davy Crockett for Disney and then Daniel Boone on the small screen undoubtedly still has the less historically inclined folks to question if there is any difference between the two men.

A still earlier example would be William Powell who was famed as Nick Charles in The Thin Man Series pairing him with Myrna Loy but about that time he also did pretty well for himself as the eponymous Philo Vance in a handful of mystery serials. In truth, this installment would be his last time performing the role but he slid rather seamlessly into The Thin Man series that arguably allowed him more freedom for comedy.

Other actors took on the mantle as well including Basil Rathbone, Warren William, Paul Lukas, and even Alan Curtis. But it was The Kennel Murder Case directed by one of Warner Bros. top craftsman Michael Curtiz that remains the hallmark of this Pre-Code franchise.

Although Raymond Chandler called Philo Vance, “the most asinine character in detective fiction,” much of that quality was toned down in the feature adaptations and after all, with a charmer such as William Powell, how could he not be at least a bit compelling?

In this particular storyline, there’s initially no case at all only Vance missing out on the big prize at a prestigious dog show. But on his way to Italy riding an ocean liner for a much-needed vacation, he catches wind of the death of one of his kennel acquaintances Mr. Archer Coe. Although the authorities including the straight-laced District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade) and the lovable police detective Heath (Eugene Palette) assume it is suicide, Vance comes in on the proceedings with a hunch of his own.

It has murder written all over it but the circumstances are most peculiar and the extensive array of suspects makes it no small matter to pinpoint the culprit. But that’s the fun of the chase as our perceptive detective looks to derive the correct conclusion and the audience along with him (without much success I might add, at least in my case).

It’s very easily to surmise that nowadays we are so culturally well-versed in crime, mysteries, and whodunits that this film’s script feels clunky at times because the characters say all the things and hit all the marks that we might expect. It’s a rite of passage to have the police constantly dismiss our hero’s deductions as it is to hear the shots ring out in the house or the various suspects nervously fib and cover up for this reason and that person.

However, to its credit, the resolution gets so lost among the various characters with numerous motives and the like that when the killer is revealed it still provides a certain amount of satisfaction. So in some sense, you could say that The Kennel Murder is a successful mystery because it does hit all the marks.

Yes, a no-nonsense Powell isn’t quite as fun as a snarky slightly tipsy Powell, although he still makes for an enjoyable lead. But supporting spots for the always jovial Eugene Palette and noir icon Mary Astor add a dash of character across the rank and file of the cast. Meanwhile, James Lee plays a rather fascinating character for the time, a Chinese cook who nevertheless attended Columbia and is highly educated in Chinese porcelain.

And there is undoubtedly an efficiency to The Kennel Murder Case such that a great deal is able to unfold and be resolved without feeling tedious or overlong aided by Curtiz’s direction and plenty of screen wipes. It proves to be just about the right length to make the payoff worthwhile and the story’s mystery generally engaging. More character development is always a plus but with a whodunit that’s usually not your main concern.

3.5/5 Stars

My Man Godfrey (1936)

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There’s a key moment in My Man Godrey where the ditzy Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) giddily announces to her mother, “Godfrey loves me. He put me in the shower!” Her mother’s response could best be described as one of indignance but it’s a barrel of laughs for the audience. Because this film is full of off-the-wall remarks which taken out of context are so peculiar you don’t even want to attempt to understand.

That’s the beauty of this screwball comedy from the often underrated Gregory La Cava, best known for this picture and the following year’s Stage Door. Otherwise, the script is courtesy of Morrie Ryskind a veteran of some of the Marx Brothers’ comedies.

It opens as a biting satire of the affluent masses occupied by inane decadence and a multitude of frivolous diversions from scavenger hunts to parading livestock around in front of their friends. The screenwriter’s efforts were well worth it no doubt but the cast indubitably breaths incredible gales of life into the material with each battling for laugh after laugh.

The following interludes repeatedly exhibit perhaps the wackiest, most melodramatic family of comedy from most any decade. It comes from having too much time on their hands, too much money, and not enough sense. They’re a real screwy bunch. We meet the two Bullock daughters (Lombard and Gail Patrick) as they try and outdo each other in the middle of the previously mentioned scavenger hunt, searching out “a forgotten man.” They have no concern for who he is and how he lives. Only that he might win them the game.

Still, the said man plays along and somehow finds himself hired on by young Irene as the family’s latest butler to not only spite her older sister but also so that she might have a protege and maybe due to an inkling of a girlish crush. It makes little sense, only to say her mother’s protege is a musician named Carlo (Mischa Auer) who is good for very little except offering up the pretense of culture and eating them out of the house.

But Godfrey proves to be just about the best butler that the Bullock’s ever could muster, navigating their morning routines of hangovers and playing straight-man to the incessant chaos that constantly swarms around him. On their part, they are so self-absorbed and obliviousness, they never seem to question how perfectly he has transformed into a butler. Surely, he cannot actually have been “a forgotten man” from off a trash heap? But no, they don’t concern themselves with such things. It goes unnoticed.

It seems like each member of the family has their special calling card.  They are a bunch of bubbleheads and Carole Lombard is the queen of them all, though mother (Alice Brady) is equally effervescent and a tad asinine. That’s  a part of her charm. She also flatters very easily.

Meanwhile, the other daughter Cornelia (Patrick) is more acidic, purring like a feline ready to pounce and make her sister pay for whatever trivial affront she’s perpetrated. Because, truthfully, they’re just a whole clan of boorish rich people who have no idea what’s happening to the world on the outside — if that point has not already been asserted enough. They’ve probably never heard of The Great Depression much less felt its true effects.

Mr. Bullock (Eugene Pallette) probably has it the worst as the long-suffering father — the nearest thing to a sane individual in the entire family. Still, you can’t live in a house of such madness and not have a few unhinged moments of your own. He’s constantly finding himself piping up amid the bedlam his gravelly voice trying to secure even a moments peace. He rarely succeeds.

Again, Godfrey is the calming force that brings a modicum amount of stability to such a place. He along with the veteran maid Molly (Jean Dixon) navigate the choppy waters of melodrama every day as Irene becomes increasingly infatuated, her emotional outbursts becoming more frequent, and Cornelia looking for any way to possibly make his life miserable to get him fired. Still, he goes about his duties.

And that’s part of the joke at the core of this film. The “forgotten man,” this tramp coming up against their own upper-class sensibilities and coming out looking like the true human being with brains and class and culture. Except it’s really a joke within a joke because maybe Godfrey is more than we first perceived him to be. In fact, he’s a lot more.

Pair such a raucous cast with some top tier comic patter that sizzles with wit and you’ve just happened upon the most wonderful mess imaginable. There might be other screwball comedies I enjoy more, but few are as hairbrained as My Man Godfrey and that is a grand word of praise for this brand of comedy. If it’s not stark raving bonkers it can hardly claim the name screwball honestly. No such problem exists here.

William Powell is a natural in this role showcasing that typical dry wit of his that effortlessly pokes fun at these people but also seems to appreciate them for all their shortcomings even finding time to truly respect them in the sincerest of ways. As per usual, Carole Lombard is so over the top to the nth degree with her sniveling zaniness spilling over into every scene.

In the past, I mistook her performances as a sheer annoyance but now I see how perfect she is for such a part. There’s an overwhelming commitment to the craziness that pays heavy dividends and by the film’s end, she’s overrun everyone with her energy — even Godfrey. He has no rebuttal.

For a time she was no doubt the greatest screwball actress though over the subsequent years the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck no doubt gave her a run for her money. Still, there’s something undeniable about being the first and, in many ways, she was that woman.

If there were any residual ill feelings between Powell and Lombard now three years out from their divorce, there’s no visible animosity and together they succeed in forging My Man Godfrey into a classic screwball through and through.

4.5/5 Stars

 

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

Libeled Lady (1936)

Poster_-_Libeled_Lady_01Libeled Lady has screwball comedy written all over it and that’s perfectly alright with such a glorious cast. Myrna Loy and William Powell reunite once again (for one of their 13 pairings), but we also get Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy. Amazing!

The set-up is easy and pretty self-explanatory. Warren Haggerty (Tracy) is the managing editor of the New York Evening Star, but while he is reluctantly getting ready to walk down the aisle, he gets the horrific news that the paper sent out a misinformed scoop by mistake. Now Haggerty is faced with a $5,000,000 libel suit from wealthy socialite Connie Allenbury (Loy), and it brings his weddings proceedings to a halt, much to the chagrin of his peeved fiancee (Harlow). This isn’t the first time that their big day has been postponed after all.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, he goes to one of his former reporters, Bill Chandler (Powell), who really rubs Haggerty the wrong way, but he also happens to be a whiz when it comes to libel. He’s the only man who can get the paper out of the major jam so he leverages his position. Things go down like this. Chandler will ingratiate himself to Ms. Allenby and soon afterward Gladys Benton (Harlow) posing as his wife, will rush in on them. Presto! The suit will be dropped. Simple, right?

It’s the consequences that get even dicier. At first, Gladys absolutely despises being cooped up in a hotel with Chandler and she’s still fed up with Warren. But over time, the close quarters cause Chandler to grow on her. Meanwhile, Chandler tries to learn everything he can about angling, to charm Allenby’s father (Walter Connolly), who is a fishing aficionado.

From the start, his daughter has Chandler pinned as a fake (which of course he is), but by some act of heaven his act actually works and he wins them both over. Worse, Connie is falling for him and he’s reciprocating, but Haggerty is still waiting for the plan to be executed. Gladys is waiting impatiently for her “husband” who she seems to genuinely miss. It’s all a big mess to be sure.

The finale involves the four leads together for one final climactic barrage of pandemonium and spouse swapping. As you would expect everyone ends up with the right partner, but it was sheer craziness to get there. It had been a while since I had seen a screwball, and Libeled Lady is a striking reminder why the genre is so fun. It had me laughing pretty hard whether it was the utter absurdity of the fishing sequence or any of the other madcap moments. It boasts quite the cast too. It’s crazy to think that in only a year Jean Harlow would be gone, a short but vibrant career behind her.

4/5 Stars

Mister Roberts (1955)

Starring an all star cast including Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon, this comedy-drama chronicles the happenings on an unimportant boat during World War II. Mr. Roberts (Fonda) is one of the officers on The Reluctant and he is good to his men but constantly at odds with the difficult captain (Cagney). The ship doctor (Powell) is a kind and sagely old fellow while Ensign Pulver (Lemmon) is spineless, lazy, and still somewhat likable. due to an agreement with the captain, Roberts loses the respect of his men. However, when they realize what he has done for them, they honor him and help him get transferred so he can see some action. Pulver who is happy for Roberts, had tried to impress him earlier. After some bad news Pulver finally does something and it is fearless. I enjoyed this film because of the cast and its good combination of drama and comedy.

4/5 Stars

The Thin Man (1934)

c6713-poster_-_thin_man_the_02Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy and adapted from a Dashiel Hammet novel, this comedy-mystery follows a former detective and his rich, loving wife. At first Nick Charles is reluctant to go on a case that revolves around a thin man who he knew and who has disappeared. The police believe he is the culprit behind the three subsequent murders. Other mysterious events and the many suspects, leave both the police and audience unsure. After the constant begging of Nora, Nick follows a hunch and joins the case. He seemingly makes a break through and he and Nora hold a dinner with all the suspects. There the truth is discovered and the culprit is found. This is like a screwball comedy that is further complicated by the mystery. Powell and Loy play off each other very well and the supporting cast is good.

4.5/5 Stars

My Man Godfrey (1936)

24635-my_man_godfreyStarring William Powell and Carole Lombard with a zany cast of others, the film follows a funny socialite daughter who takes a “Forgotten Man” as her family’s butler. Godfrey takes the job and soon learns how to cope with the scatterbrained girl, her stuck up sister, their ditsy mother, their long suffering father, and Carlo who is the man patronized by Mrs. Bullock. On accident Godfrey comes in contact with an old friend and his secret almost comes out. In the cover up Lombard’s character believes him to be married with children. Because she loves him, she goes away to Europe to try and forget him. However, upon hearing the truth, she is ecstatic and Godfrey finds himself being married all of the sudden. This is a good example of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and I will admit, it is a pretty good film.

4/5 Stars