Harper

Gasser

Harper (1966)

Harper (1966)

Following up on the success of his other “H” movies, Paul Newman made Harper in 1966, having requested the name be changed from “The Moving Target” to draw on the box office luck he realized with Hud and The Hustler. The story harkens back to the private eye tales of the 40s, and producers scored Lauren Bacall in a supporting role to cinch that motif.

Newman is Lew Harper, a private eye living out of his office because his wife (Janet Leigh) is in the process of divorcing him. His friend and former DA Albert Graves (Arthur Hill) recommends him for a job with Bacall’s Mrs. Sampson, who wants him to investigate the disappearance of her philandering husband. The wealthy woman has an attractive step daughter –whom Graves wants to marry– also very keen on locating her father. This Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) joins Harper and the Sampson pilot/driver Alan Taggert (Robert Wagner) in scoping out the subject’s last known whereabouts –an airport and hotel where Mr. Sampson keeps a “bungalow.”

Harper meets washed up actress and sometimes companion to Mr. Sampson, Fay Estabrook, played by Shelley Winters. He gets her drunk and searches her apartment only to be interrupted at gunpoint by Estabrook’s husband. Harper plays Texan and manages to leave without the man being wise to his real reason for being there.

Harper manages to pick up one clue or one sliver of information at each stop in his investigation that leads him to another place and another clue. The plot becomes increasingly convoluted as Harper concludes Mr. Sampson has been kidnapped and ransom sought. Julie Harris plays nightclub singer and heroin addict Betty Fraley, who has a link to another player that we won’t see coming. In fact, when all is said and done, you’ll be wishing William Powell would materialize to give us the end-of-movie run down of who did what and why.

The story at times felt like a scavenger hunt and one that could be easily recreated as a party game. Although Harper is adept at blending into his surroundings, he has perhaps too easy of a time getting information from people and it always manages to be helpful information that never leads to a dead end. How many times have we seen the matchbook in a dead guy’s pocket lead us to the nightclub where all the unsavory sorts mingle? Is that always going to be a foolproof clue into cinematic eternity? Harper is very much a tribute to the old crime movies of decades earlier, but it could perhaps have tried to mix things up.

Where the movie does distinguish itself from its predecessors is in the violence and sex appeal the 1960s could afford. Newman’s character finds himself regularly brutalized while Tiffin shakes her hips and Winters requests Harper not try anything tonight. It’s certainly a grittier drama made all the more modern by being shot in color rather than in the stark black and white we have become accustomed to in this genre.

Harper certainly isn’t Newman’s finest work, and I often get annoyed by mysteries that have too much going on to actually follow the plot. Harper is not a bad flick, though. It’s just not one I’ll likely watch again.

2013 CAPA Summer Movie Series (Columbus, OH)

It’s my favorite time of year in central Ohio, or nearly. CAPA, our local arts organizing group, has announced its lineup for the 2013 Summer Movie Series held in Downtown Columbus’ historic Ohio Theatre. For those of you unfamiliar with this seasonal gem, the June 28 through Aug. 25 series features a plethora of classic movies shown in the theater that was originally built as a movie house and is now used for concerts, ballets, etc.

Among this year’s offerings are two Hitchcock movies, which you know delights me. The wonderfully amusing The Trouble with Harry, To Catch a Thief and the Jimmy Stewart rendition of The Man Who Knew Too Much will certainly be on my schedule.

Other prize showings include An American in Paris, Grand Hotel, Citizen Kane, Bonnie and Clyde, The Thin Man, 1974’s The Great Gatsby, and Touch of Evil.

I have been notoriously bad about achieving all the CAPA Summer Movie Attendance goals I have set in years past, and I won’t pretend this year will be any better. I do hope to at least catch the Hitchcock flicks, but I’ll admit The Man Who Knew Too Much won’t be at the top of my list.

Shadow of the Thin Man

Ring a Ding Ding

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)

The sleuthing team of Nick and Nora Charles were bound to find themselves in the midst of a gambling racket at some point in their on-screen careers. As movie history teaches us, gambling and bookies only lead to murder and further crimes, and in Shadow of the Thin Man our favorite detective comes out of retirement yet again to solve the convoluted case.

It is a wonder the writers at MGM could come up with a new and enthralling murder case for each of the six Thin Man movies, yet they do it again here using the same formula as the others. The key to the stories is the overabundance of characters, which in some cases are difficult to keep track of, and a mystery that gets further compounded with subsequent murders and crimes to the point that no viewer can deduce who the one culprit is. But that is why we have Nick Charles.

A portion of the comedic enjoyment of Shadow of the Thin Man is that although Nick (William Powell) is again insisting on his retirement from the sleuthing business, he happens to keep finding himself at the scenes of the crimes. At the start, the Charles’ are at the racetrack where a jockey is found killed –a jockey who was asked to throw the race. The press jump to the conclusion that Nick is on the case because of his proximity, but he denies any involvement. Later, while at a boxing match, Nick is again just a floor below another shooting murder of an unscrupulous reporter and his assault on an honest journalist.

The Charles’ are friends with the honest newspaperman and Nick agrees to get involved in part to prove this Paul (Barry Nelson) is innocent of the shooting of reporter Whitey (Alan Baxter). As the case progresses, complete with untrustworthy women and hoodlums, Nick discovers the first murder was not what it seemed, but he won’t let the public know that. His shrewd technique leads to the familiar ending with the entire cast of characters in one room, waiting for the guilty man to reveal himself and to try to kill Nick.

I have noticed as progressing through the Thin Man movies that Nick has become and increasingly bad alcoholic. At the start of Shadow of the Thin Man, Nick is out with Jr. (Dickie Hall) in the park across the street –reading him the racing form. Looking to get her husband home, Nora (Myrna Loy) starts shaking a cocktail mixer. This causes the distant Nick to remark: “Nicky, something tells me that something important is happening somewhere and I think we should be there.” The maid also notes that Nicky is becoming more like his father everyday: “This morning he was playing with a corkscrew.”

Nick’s drunkenness is always inserted for comedic relief and usually peters out as the story goes on and the stakes become more serious. Nevertheless, I don’t think I am stretching the truth in saying our favorite crime solver was often the worse for wear and not in an admirable sense.

  • Shadow of the Thin Man is set for 1:30 p.m. ET Dec. 18 on TCM.

Weekend’s Best Bet Continued…

In running through TCM’s lineup for this weekend, I came across far too many good flicks to list in my regular viewing recommendations in the left column. Not only are there a number of gems showing this weekend, but I have already written about a few them. So click on the links below to learn more about the movies and consider checking them out yourself this weekend. P.S. All times are Eastern Standard Time and on the U.S. programming schedule.

The Public Enemy
6 am Saturday on TCM
James Cagney, Jean Harlow

The Saint Strikes Back
noon Saturday on TCM
George Sanders, Wendy Barrie

Dinner at Eight 
8 pm Saturday on TCM
John Barrymore, Marie Dressler

The Thin Man
10 pm Saturday on TCM
William Powell, Myrna Loy

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 
2 am Sunday on TCM
Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

 San Francisco
8 am Sunday on TCM
Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald

A Day at the Races
10 am Sunday on TCM
The Marx Brothers

Witness for the Prosecution
noon Sunday on TCM
Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power

After the Thin Man

Ring a Ding Ding

After the Thin Man (1936)

     Although movie audiences had to endure two years between the first and second films in the Thin Man series, the famed characters Nick and Nora Charles had no such luxury. With yet another murder mystery to solve, After the Thin Man paints an equally convoluted and humorous tale of the master, freelance sleuth and his family.

     The crimes of After the Thin Man hit particularly close to home for Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) Charles, whose train pulls into the station at their home town of San Francisco at the film’s opening and the characters are attacked by friends and reporters still reeling from Nick’s impressive work on the New York murder case featured in The Thin Man.

     Also making the latest case more personal is the fact it involves Nora’s extended family. Her cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi) invites the couple over to Aunt Katherine’s house because she is distraught over her missing, philandering husband. Nick and Nora manage to locate this Robert (Alan Marshall) at a night club where he is getting friendly with the floor show, a woman named Polly (Dorothy McNulty). Robert seems to be developing enemies from multiple places: Selma for the cheating, Polly who wants his money, Polly’s brother who wants his money, the night club owner who has some romantic claim to Polly, and the family friend, David, played by Jimmy Stewart, who is in love with Selma.

     With all those parties having some reason to want Robert dead, it is no surprise we find the man shot not long after the picture starts. Out of the fog and darkness walks Selma with a gun in her hand, a gun that David takes from her to throw in the river. Naturally the case is not that simple as Selma insists she is innocent. Both Nick and Nora –she has every right to be involved in this crime because it involves her family!– snoop into the murder that is subsequently followed by the killing of a janitor at an apartment building where Polly lives and where someone has been eavesdropping on her apartment.

     Nick invites all suspects and involved parties to the vacant room above Polly’s to put together the final pieces of the puzzle. He walks us through the crimes and the motives until the culprit slips up and Nick proves himself the hero detective once again.

     As with the other Thin Man movies, the audience derives its enjoyment in After the Thin Man not from the actual mystery but from all that surrounds it. Nick and Nora’s relationship is always laced with humor as Loy plays up to feminist ideals by putting herself in danger and relinquishing no ownership of the relationship to her husband. Nora even lands herself in jail in this episode, another scene marked with comedy.

     I have said it before and I’ll repeat myself: Powell and Loy had a remarkably perfect onscreen relationship. The two are so dryly witty and play off each other in both dialogue and movement so ideally. When film buffs title Loy as the perfect wife, it is the Thin Man movies to which they are referring. The harmony between Nick’s love and protection of his wife and Nora’s unwillingness to sit at home and knit translate into wonderfully caring moments and instances of anger that are too mild to be lasting.

     The story is too difficult to follow or determine who has the best motive and opportunity for the murder, so it is best to merely enjoy the ride and leave the driving to William Powell. In this movie, however, the actual murderer is perhaps the least likely suspect. To avoid giving away the end, I’ll merely say I am surprised MGM was willing to paint this actor/actress as a murderer, as studios often cast their payers in a certain way to maintain a relationship with their audience.

Rendezvous

Gasser

Rendezvous (1935)

It seems no matter what role he plays, William Powell has a hard time avoiding crime-solving. He played a detective in a variety of movies and film series and apparently just had the cool, suited sleuth thing pegged. In Rendezvous, Powell’s character is a want-to-be front-line soldier who instead is ordered to work in code cracking. Although this sounds like a miserable desk job to the character, it will nevertheless have Powell collecting evidence in the field, just not the field he wanted to be on.

Two days before boarding a train from England to France to fight in WWII, Powell’s Lt. Gordon meets the lovely Joel Carter (Rosalind Russell) and tricks her into kissing him goodbye. Joel has an uncle in the cryptology sect of the military, but Gordon does not know that when he reveals that he wrote a very popular code-cracking book under a pseudonym and has been sought by the military ever since. Just as he is about to board the train, he is given orders to report to this Assistant Secretary of War John Carter (Samuel S. Hinds).

Gordon is miserable spending his days and nights trying to solve complex codes intercepted from the Germans and knows Joel is the one who put him there. Once he breaks a code, however, he is promoted to a fancier desk. By this point, Major Brennan (Lionel Atwill) has been murdered by his mistress (a spy), and Gordon casually interrogates this Olivia, played by Binnie Barnes. His work leads him to have dinner with the young woman, making Joel frivolously jealous. During his dinner, another American soldier and Joel’s ex-beau, Col. Nieterstein (Cesar Romero), is “given up” by the gang of spies to which Olivia belongs.

Gordon will eventually nail all the spies to the wall and save a U.S. battleship from enemy destruction, but not before Joel is kidnapped and he fends off flying bullets. He might also get a chance to finally go the battlefield, but not if his love interest can help it.

Rendezvous was an amusing flick that at least diversified Powell’s detective character from others he has played. He naturally, however, plays the same man we always see in these movies: too cool to admit he loves the woman, too cool to really let that villainous lady get the best of him, and too cool to let “being nabbed” by the enemy take him off guard.

Russell, however, brings all sorts of zany fun to the story. She makes an utter fool of herself once she has fallen for Powell’s character, but it is always fun to see her comedic side. This was her first star billing in a film in a part that was originally intended for Powell’s often partner Myrna Loy. The ending of the film was also tinkered with during production to come up with a satisfying end, and Russell’s great work led to one that more prominently featured her part. I cannot imagine Loy in this role as her performance could not have been as goofy as Russell’s. It was certainly a great cast in the end.

Source: TCM.com

Ziegfeld Follies

Gasser

Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

     This post will be short because how much can one really say about a movie without a plot? Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. was world-known for his lavish stage shows that lacked a plot but entertained spectators with one song, dance or comedy vignette after another. The movie Ziegfeld Follies does the same.

     The film was originally completed in 1944, 12 years after Ziegfeld’s death. Some audiences found offensive the opening that features William Powell reprising his role as the showman –previously having played him in The Great Ziegfeld– in heaven devising a new revue. Not having been around to be a fan of Ziegfeld when he was alive, I could not care less as the scene endures for a few minutes before we never see him again.

     There is nothing particularly appealing to me about a movie that strings together unrelated songs, dances and visual effects. Ziegfeld Folliesis not without its gems, however. The movie featured the only time outside of That’s Entertainment II that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dance together. The two were masters in their own way, but their styles are very different, so it is nice to compare and contrast them here. Where Astaire is lanky and fit, Kelly is muscular and nimble. I will always choose Kelly over Astaire for multiple reasons –voice, dance style, looks– but the two are well matched when dancing together.

     Really the one reason I sought to watch Ziegfeld Follies was for Judy Garland‘s appearance in it. She acts and sings in a comedy sketch as “The Great Lady”, a character very different for her. The scene was originally planned for Greer Garson to mock herself, but the actress had turned it down. Garland, therefore, plays a snooty, self-loving super actress with a refined, Garson-esque voice that shows yet another facet of her acting talent. She welcomes a group of reporters and puts on a dramatic show of flitting about her apartment and posing for any photos that might want to be snapped. The scene is fun, absurd and makes Garland look absolutely stunning. We can probably thank Director Vincente Minnelli for that.

     The movie is packed with a long list of other stars, some more entertaining than others. If you enjoy just watching a bunch of talent paraded about for two hours, then Ziegfeld Follies is for you, but as far as I am concerned, a plot is necessary to keep me from getting distracted.

Source: TCM.com

The Road to Singapore

Dullsville

Road to Singapore (1931)

     Before you get ahead of yourself I must warn that this is not a post about the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope road movie. This unsavory William Powell romance has nothing to do with the string of movies that all but trademarked the title “Road to …” . This flick came nine years prior to the comedic film of the same name that was the first in the duo’s series. If you find yourself inadvertently watching this movie, you’re sure to be displeased as not only does this Road to Singapore lack laughs, but it might be the least desirable character Powell has played.

     On the boat to British-occupied Khota, a drunken Powell as Hugh Dawltry has been attempting to court Phillipa (Doris Kenyon) not knowing her travels are driven by a pending marriage to a doctor at the tropical locale, George March, played by a young Louis Calhern. Upon departure from the vessel, Dawltry escorts the young woman to what she thinks is her fiancée’s home only to discover she has actually been lured to the man’s own home. She resists his advances at this point and never tells her husband of it.

     As the story goes along, Phillipa and George are married and live with George’s younger sister Rene (Marian Marsh). George hates Dawltry because gossip continues about how he broke up another woman’s marriage and the man is a notorious philanderer. Rene is openly fascinated by the man but Phillipa hides her growing interest. When both George and Rene are scheduled to leave town to deliver a patient, Phillipa accepts an invitation to Dawltry’s home where the two seemingly copulate. The patient, however, dies before the ship leaves, so George returns home to find his wife missing and a note from her lover on the dresser.

     We are meant to feel pity for Phillipa and her unhappy marriage to a man who is far more interested in his career than his wife. The trouble is, Powell does not come off as the dashing answer to the woman’s woes. He is dishonest and offers no indication he will supply the love Phillipa’s life lacks, merely the passion. The ending gets a bit confusing as Dawltry is both confessing and denying his involvement in the notorious case of the other woman’s divorce. We cannot determine from either character’s emotions if they will flee together or if one or the other is not that interested. This therefore makes the ending not terribly satisfying as we think neither person is really that into the relationship.

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford

Gasser

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)

     My favorite women are those beautiful stars who make me laugh. These actresses seemed to be drawn to co-starring with the enduringly funny William Powell just as much as I am drawn to them. Myrna Loy made an endless number of features opposite Powell and Carole Lombard starred with and married the man. The Ex-Mrs. Bradford is my latest find in humorous Powell pairings, this time with the fantastic comedienne Jean Arthur.

 
     Powell falls back into his reluctant detective role for The Ex-Mrs. Bradford in playing doctor/surgeon Lawrence Bradford. Arthur is his ex-wife Paula who is a murder mystery novelist and often got her husband mixed into real-life murders. Despite being divorced, she again ropes him into an adventure to solve the case of a dead jockey.
 
     This jockey died during a race and was thought to have been killed from the throw from his horse, yet he suffered no broken bones suggesting he was dead when he hit the ground. Bradford performs an autopsy and finds only a strange substance that Paula later has identified as gelatin. After discussions with horse trainer Mike North (Frank M. Thomas) and some strange phone calls and a villain in his apartment, Lawrence finds himself in deeper than he intended. Things get worse when a dead Mike North rings his doorbell just before the police arrive.
 
     Bradford goes somewhat on the lam as he tries to track down the necessary clues to solve both murders and absolve himself. What he finds are half a dozen suspects, another corpse and a complex plot involving horse gambling.
 
     The Ex-Mrs. Bradford is one of those mysteries that is nearly impossible to follow because there are far too many names being flung about and too few faces to go with them. Bradford himself does not even know the actual murderer until we do as he uses a typical device of inviting all the suspects to an exclusive party at his home. And like many mysteries, it does not matter so much who the murderer is as we are more interested in how the crime was committed and why.
 
     Like Loy before her, Arthur makes a great companion for a sleuth because she is not frightened by the grizzly details that accompany murder cases. As her husband twice struggles on the ground with a culprit, she lends her support by hurling a vase at the bad guy’s head only to miss and take out her beloved instead. The blonde is full of pep and smarts in addition to being delightful arm candy for the hero. The actual ex-wife aspect of the plot is essentially unnecessary in the grand scheme of things as we see from the start how well suited the duo are for one another and assume they will reunite. Perhaps this device works well as a title for the film and differentiated it from the Thin Man  movies Powell had already popularized, one of which was also released in 1936.
 
     Arthur was only at the start of her rise to grand stardom having appeared in her smash hit Mr. Deeds Goes to Town earlier that year. She had appeared in supporting roles alongside Powell and he was impressed with her, leading to his agreement to be loaned out for this collaboration. The film was highly successful as is no surprise given the great chemistry between the couple.

Above Suspicion

Gasser

Above Suspicion (1943)

     At first blush, Above Suspicion seems to be a spy comedy of sorts, given its star of Fred MacMurray and original casting of William Powell and Myrna Loy. As the plot progresses, however, the audience finds itself steeped in the treacherous landscape of Nazi espionage. 

     The picture starts out on a light-hearted note as MacMurray, nearly always a funny guy, walks out of an Oxford chapel with Joan Crawford on his arm. The newly married couple have their honeymoon interrupted almost immediately by an assignment to essentially act as spies during their Germany honeymoon and track down a missing agent. Crawford’s character’s response to the proposition is one of sheer delight at the prospect of spy life, but that jolly approach will not last too long.

     MacMurray is Oxford professor Richard Myles and Crawford is his bride Frances. Their first honeymoon stop is France where the two attend a cafe –with Frances in a rose-adorned hat– and spill their drink. They next utter a code line to signal their contact to meet them later. The next stop is a restaurant where their contact does not speak to the couple but leaves a map of Southern Germany filled with clues in Richard’s coat pocket. The young couple revel at translating the dots and holes into an indication of their next step.

     The first top in Germany is a book store where a man tells them where to find their next contact. Instead, the suspicious hotel staff point the Myles toward a concert where a German officer is shot by their hotelmate Thornley (Bruce Lester), who was also once engaged in similar spy work and had is fiancée tortured to death in the process. The couple next move on to a remote mountain village where they track down a chess collector who happens to be the man they are looking for. Unfortunately, another man is masquerading as the professor they seek and has the spy tied up. The Myles’ manage to escape, return for the Professor Mespullbrun (Reginald Owen) and make another clean escape. Their work is far from finished, however, and the most difficult tasks have yet to come with Conrad Veidt‘s Seidel to help them along.

     Never before have I seen Crawford so cheery as in Above Suspicion. She is in the height of her career and yet her character’s persona has a young energy to it that makes her highly appealing as a wife character and protagonist. It is worth noting, however, that in a scene where Frances is meant to have been beaten about the face, a close up of the actress provides favorable lighting that makes her appear more beautiful than at other moments in the film. Crawford was good at getting her way on aspects like this. Even when her characters were meant to appear worn down, she made efforts to look beautiful (see Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the makeup and false breasts she uses to amp up her appeal).

     As mentioned, this picture was originally meant for a Powell-Loy repairing to get them out of the Thin Man setting that had become their mainstay together. It was Loy’s departure from MGM, however, that resulted in the recasting of the Above Suspicion. Speaking of cast members, Veidt makes his final screen performance here before dying from a heart attack later in 1943. The German film star, who like many of his contemporaries fled the country upon Hitler’s rise to power only to be cast as Nazis in American films, nicely rounds out his career by playing a German working for the good guys. His character begins rather ambiguously, and like many other aspects of this movie, one has trouble discerning whether he is sinister or an ally. Veidt made fewer than 30 films during the 50 years of his life, but left an indelible mark on cinema history.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine, TCM.com

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