Shadow of the Thin Man

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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.

Penthouse

Gasser

Penthouse (1933)

Myrna Loy‘s Hollywood title of “the perfect wife” reflects the reality that her most memorable roles were those that domesticated her to family life. The Thin Man movies, The Best Years of Our Lives and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House are such examples. But she was not always so type cast. She played the exotic early in her career and brought a certain sex appeal that was restrained in her later parts. On the fence between those two worlds is Penthouse. It was directed by W.S. Van Dyke a year before he made The Thin Man and the important decision to cast Loy as Nora Charles, a part that to a large degree makes those movies what they are.

In Penthouse, Loy plays a dame who hangs around with seedy underworld types and who ends up taking up residence at the home of a lawyer. Try as she might, Loy’s charming personality surmounts the suggestive dialogue that would paint her as a floozy. But her wit and comedic delivery of lines here would convince Van Dyke of his find and propel her to stardom the next year.

Warner Baxter plays Jackson Durant, a well-to-do attorney who tarnishes his career by successfully defending mobster Tony Gazotti (Nat Pendleton) from a murder conviction. He also loses the affection of his girl, Sue (Martha Sleeper),  because of the new company he keeps. Sue quickly finds a new love, however, in the arms of pal Tom (Phillips Holmes) and the two get engaged.

Tom must break off his affair with low-life Mimi (Mae Clark) who in turn looks to rekindle a romance with gangster Jim Crelliman (C. Henry Gordon). To satisfy the racketeer, however, Mimi must publicly break things off with Tom. At a nightclub, Mimi takes Tom onto a roof balcony for that conversation but Crelliman and others in the club are surprised by a gunshot. Mimi is dead and Tom is holding the gun.

Jackson comes soon to conclude his friend Tom is innocent when he receives a phone call advising him to stay away from the case. He therefore gets involved. As part of his investigation, Gazotti hooks him up with Loy’s Gertie Waxted. Meeting at a club, Gertie confesses she’d be more comfortable at home cooking “a pot of eggs” but also does not wish to return to her apartment where a photo of friend Mimi will depress her. The solution is Jackson’s flat.

Nothing untoward occurs between the duo and Gertie even says she will get rusty at defending her honor after a month of residence at the home. Jackson wants to keep her safe at his place while he continues the investigation. He’s hoping to get unexpected information from her just by talking about Mimi. In doing so, she reveals several clues, such as that her apartment overlooks the murder scene and that building is owned by Crelliman. The racketeer also knows the pawn broker who IDed Tom as having bought the gun in question.

When Jackson leaves the apartment to investigate Gertie’s home, the woman is unable to stay put as she is fearing for the man’s safety. Later seeing Gertie with Crelliman’s “finger man”, Jackson suspects she has betrayed him. With the help of mobster Gazotti, Jackson unravels the mystery and saves his new girl.

Loy, although one must be patient for her first appearance, steals a decent portion of attention given her relatively small role in Penthouse. The gal is smart, kind and tough and exudes too much class for us to actually believe she was of Mimi’s sort. Gertie is the sort of role you would expect Jean Harlow to play, but by using Loy, we get a much more likeable character and one that seems to be classy enough for the once-revered attorney.

Pendleton is very enjoyable and memorable as Gazotti. The character actor often played gangster sidekicks or detective partners, but this is the first I have seen him in a role of power. He is no less congenial nor any smarter than his other parts, but he makes the criminal who is backing our protagonist easy to like.

After the Thin Man

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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.

Love on the Run

Love on the Run (1936)

Gasser

     If one were to pit Franchot Tone against Clark Gable in vying for a woman’s affections on screen who would win? One might say the answer depends on the woman. In the case of Love on the Run, Joan Crawford is our leading lady, but although she was married to Tone offscreen at the time of the film, that man does not get the slightest chance to woo her in this picture.

     Tone and Gable are dueling reporters of sorts as Barney Pells and Mike Anthony, respectively. They are London roommates and foreign correspondents for rival New York newspapers. Mike is consistently vowing to share any scoops with his pal, but always leaves him in the lurch. On the first day of our story, the two flip a coin to see who will cover the wedding of a socialite to a prince and who will attend the takeoff of a baron and baroness who are pilots. When Mike arrives at the church, he finds Crawford as socialite Sally Parker fleeing from the premises and tracks her down.

     The reporter wins over the girl’s trust and conceals his profession. To sneak her out of her hotel, however, he borrows the aviation outfits of the baron and his wife, and the two take off in that couple’s plane using Mike’s moderate flying skills. To get away with this, however, Mike tied up the baron, baroness and his pal Barney who was interviewing them at the time. The two crash land in France and begin an adventure of hiding from the public, secretly reporting news stories back home and avoiding the baron and baroness, who turn out to be frauds/spies.

     Tone intercepts the couple repeatedly throughout their journey and is rewarded by being tossed from a train and tied up again and again to allow Mike to continue getting the scoop. When Mike’s profession is uncovered, it creates turmoil in the romance blossoming between he and Sally, but nothing that a movie plot cannot overcome.

     Love on the Run is not the love triangle I expected it to be. If anything Sally and Mike band together to thwart Barney. It was Mike’s treatment of his roommate that particularly turned me off to the protagonist. He is so brutal in his treatment of the man –at one point forcing Barney, who is rescuing Mike, to switch places with him and become a hostage to the spies– that I found it difficult to laugh at.

     The romantic plot is not particularly enthralling. It is a slow-growing love between Sally and Mike as the two initially annoy each other, as is often the case in movies, but it is nothing if not predictable. Crawford, as you might have gathered from my lack of mention of her thus far, offers nothing novel to the story. Any woman could have played this part and the picture would have remained the same.

San Francisco

Ring a Ding Ding

San Francisco (1936)

All I really remembered from my past viewing of San Francisco years ago was that it had to do with the San Fran earthquake of 1906, but as I began watching it this week, I started to question that conclusion. Although this Clark Gable movie concludes with the quake and its aftermath as a sort-of climax that will cleanse all the ills between he and his romantic interest in Jeanette MacDonald, the majority of the movie is virtually written to stand alone.

Gable is Blackie Norton, a somewhat notorious owner of the Paradise Cafe, a bar and dance hall. Just after the somewhat inexplicable time of after midnight at the turn of the New Year 1906, MacDonald’s Mary Blake arrives at the joint to ask for a singing job. The man obliges and allows her to sleep on his couch despite her initial preacher’s daughter convictions. Mary desires to be an opera singer and her style has to be brought down to the Paradise’s level, yet she manages to make an impression on the owner of the Tivoli opera house and the theater’s maestro. They want to have her audition for the big time but Blackie holds a newly signed two-year contract over their heads and forces the woman to stay at his bar.

Mary finally starts to sweeten to Blackie when that opera house owner Jack Burley (Jack Holt) comes calling yet again. Blackie tells the man he will give him the girl’s contract if she wants to go, but Mary stays loyal to the brute when he says he does not desire for her to leave. The two finally kiss but Mary cannot be with this sinful man and leaves to join the opera company. Blackie attempts to obstruct her debut but is blown away by her talent and the woman “harpoons” him into an engagement not realizing the businessman’s conditions require she chose the opera or he. She chooses the opera and an engagement to Burley.

Mixed into all of this is Blackie’s childhood friend Father Tim (Spencer Tracy) who sides with Mary in her endeavors because he knows Blackie’s ways will not make her happy. Circumstances also come to prove, however, that Burley is not as squeaky clean as Mary thought as the man takes revenge against Blackie despite having already won the prize bride. When the earthquake hits, Blackie is forced to face what truly matters in his life, which is Mary, naturally.

Gable puts on a great performance especially in the last 15 minutes or so when he must scour the rubble of San Francisco in search of his love. Not only his facial expressions but the performances of the distraught around him are incredibly gut wrenching and completely turn the mood of the picture into one of great sorrow.The special effects are also fantastic and horrifying. Curiously, the Mary character is not searching for the man she allegedly loves despite his evil ways but is instead singing to the masses in a refugee camp. True, we are more interested in Blackie confronting what is most important (now that his cafe is gone) than the pure woman, but it makes their resulting reunion not as rewarding for the viewer.

As the audience, we know Mary will choose Blackie in the end, but because of Blackie’s poor decisions along the way he is not quite as desirable match for her as we would like. MacDonald herself if also too innocent for those viewers who might side with Gable as the protagonist as we would rather see him with a more suitable mate. Overall, however, San Francisco is a great picture and worth checking out if only for the last 20 minutes.

Forsaking All Others

Gasser

Forsaking All Others (1934)

     I think we all remember Joan Crawford for the roles in which she played commanding women, perhaps because she was one off screen, but when she was still fiddling about with basic romantic comedies, she was not foreign to the lovesick-gal-chasing-after-a-lover-type roles, as was her part in a well cast Forsaking All Others. Here we also find Clark Gable in a role we will not remember him for because he takes the part of a man regimented to best friend status as he pines for the girl set to marry the third member of the trio. In that third role, Robert Montgomery does shine forth in his standard a-cad-that-one-can’t-help-but-love character.

     Crawford as Mary is readying herself for tomorrow’s wedding ceremony with childhood friend Dillon (Montgomery). Making the occasion complete is the return of Jeff (Gable) –another childhood friend– from Spain who arrives ready to propose to the young woman until he learns the “joyous” news of the impending marriage. During what should have been a bachelor dinner, Dill instead gets held up by his last girlfriend Connie (Frances Drake) and the man never shows. Dill also fails to show at the church the next day, and Jeff eventually receives a cable indicating the groom has instead married his ex.

     To get away from the embarrassment, Mary heads off to a cabin in the New York wilderness. When Jeff visits with her mail, she finds she is invited to a party hosted by Dill and Connie –an attempt by the latter to upset the jilted bride. To prove her recovery from her last relationship, Mary attends, with Jeff on her arm. It is at the party that Dill discovers ashamedly his wife’s evil plot and confesses his enduring love for Mary. The two attempt to take up an affair and head out on a fun-filled adventure into the country to what would have been their honeymoon house. The trip is marked by comedic disasters and the couple are rained into the house for the night, but Mary refuses to go to bed with the man. Connie seeks a divorce because of the seeming infidelity and the story comes full circle to the wedding of Mary and Dill, at least momentarily.

     All characters in Forsaking All Others are likeable, even Montgomery whose Dill cannot seem to synch his physical and emotional impulses with his own logic. The story does a great job of convincing us that Mary wants no one but Dill and so should we root for their reunion even if Jeff has stood by as the more sympathetic male lead. Gable wears his emotions on his face for the camera while concealing them from the other characters, which is not something we often see with him. The Jeff character is also joined by comedic sidekick Shep (Charles Butterworth) who lends much of the comic relief and witty dialogue. Billie Burke is also on hand as a woman who considers Mary her daughter and is intertwined in all the rumblings.

     Forsaking All Others is nothing special in the realm of romantic comedies, nor in the careers of its players, but it is a delightfully enchanting love story that will give one the warm fuzzies, if that’s what is sought in a movie.

Manhattan Melodrama

Gasser

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

     Somewhat surprisingly, William Powell and Myrna Loy‘s performances together were not always in the comedic genre that suited them so well. Both were quite competent dramatic actors and Manhattan Melodrama is a great example of that. It also happened to be their first pairing, although you cannot tell because they seem so comfortable together.

     The film opens on one tragedy after another for young boys Blackie (played by Mickey Rooney) and Jim. A boat catches fire resulting in the death of both their mothers and a friend. When the friend’s father takes the boys in, he is shortly thereafter trampled in a riot. The boys are raised by Father Joe and while Blackie perfects his gambling and grifting talents, Jim studies to become a lawyer. Jump to 1930s New York as Jim is elected District Attorney and Blackie is running a successful illegal gambling joint with the police tucked neatly in his pocket. It was pretty easy to predict between Clark Gable and Powell which would play the racketeer and which the upstanding politician. No casting against type here, except maybe initially for Loy. Her Eleanor character begins as the gal on Blackie’s arm, but after meeting Jim on election night, she decides she would prefer a legitimate life and relationship and later hooks up with the DA, quickly becoming his wife. Frankly, it was obvious she was better suited for Powell’s type of man anyway. Loy has never really given the hoodlum’s dame sort of impression.

     The boyhood friendship between Jim and Blackie persists but the two do not see each other often and both are fully aware of the other’s morals. Unfortunately, the breakup with Eleanor has led Blackie to take up murder and Jim must take the case as his first as DA. Although “everyone” knows Blackie is the culprit, the hood provides his lawyer friend with a false piece of evidence that convinces Jim his pal could not be the killer. Matters are further complicated when Jim’s colleague threatens to let loose some “scandalous” information about the now gubernatorial candidate just before yet another Election Day. Blackie involves himself and kills the man but leaves a witness. Still-DA Jim prosecutes the case and sends his best friend toward the electric chair. Once he becomes mayor, he is given the opportunity to commute Blackie’s sentence to life’s imprisonment and so begins an overwhelming struggle.

     I love the premise of Manhattan Melodrama. The concept of two friends growing up in different directions is not a new one, but the set-up between the good and evil roles allows for complicated circumstances. This easily could have been a story about the corruption of a once-honest politician in an effort to protect his shady friend, but instead Jim is presented as possibly the most honest individual that ever lived. He takes his duty as prosecutor and governor above his personal feelings. Even when Eleanor tells him she will leave if he does not offer Blackie clemency, he does not immediately resign to that course. In fact once he learns why Blackie killed the blackmailer, he is even more convinced his pal must die because “the state now has the motive” for the murder, further proving the man’s guilt. Jim’s morals go to extremes at the very conclusion of the film that I do not think would ever be seen in politics today, but I won’t give away the story.

     I gave Manhattan Melodrama the middle-of-the-road rating because although the story is an interesting one, the performances did not overwhelm me and I would not go running to see it again. Powell’s character says at the end of the movie that he will try a new career. Perhaps he meant the couple should change their names to Nick and Nora Charles and pursue some detective work…but I’m just supposing.

  • Manhattan Melodrama is set for 9:30 a.m. ET Feb. 1 on TCM.
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