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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.

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The Best Years of Our Lives

Wowza!

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the best movies I have ever seen. I thought it might be prudent to get that out front because this post will be nothing but praise for the masterpiece. But I’m not alone in my assertion as the flick won eight of the nine Oscars for which it was nominated.

The picture, which came out a year after World War II ended, was about just that: the end. It follows three soldiers who return to the same hometown and try to re-enter their past lives. The Best Actor award went to Dana Andrews who plays pilot Fred Derry and steals away the majority of our attention during the movie. The Best Supporting Actor Academy Award went to first-time actor and real-life soldier Harold Russell, who lost his hands and forearms in a training accident and had them replaced by hooks.

Joining both Fred and Homer (Russell) on a flight home to Boone City is Army Sgt. Al Stephenson, played by Fredric March. The three bond over their short trip home and share the same reluctance to leave their taxicab when it pulls up to each house. Al comes home to a surprised and overwhelmed wife in Myrna Loy, whose emotions overwhelm us as much as she in reuniting with her husband. The couple have a teenage son (Michael Hall)and a slightly older daughter who has been working as a nurse.

Homer, meanwhile, comes home to loving parents and a young sister. His mother cannot help but cry at the sight of his disability, frustrating the soldier who has become accustomed to it. He was set to marry the girl next door, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), before he left for the war. Although Wilma shows no hesitation around her beau, he is too self conscious about the hooks to believe in their future and so avoids contact with her.

Fred, lastly, stops at his parents run-down home to say hello and to reunite with the wife he married 80-some days before deployment. She no longer lives with the folks, however, and has taken a job at a night club and an apartment in town as well.

Unable to handle the home surroundings that are no longer familiar to him, Al takes his wife and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) out on the town, ending their late night at Butch’s Place. Homer too finds his way there after spilling a glass of lemonade he was unable to manage with his prosthetics. Fred, unsuccessful in locating his wife at any of the clubs, joins the gang. A very drunk Fred is forward but polite with Peggy and ultimately spends the night in her bed –although she is on the couch.

The next day, Fred finally reunites with his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), who is thrilled to see him. The couple soon spend down the $1,000 in cash the man has, and the revelation that nightly outings are nixed from their lives frustrates Marie. The two are growing distant as Fred and Peggy are falling in love, a love of which Al does not approve.

Director William Wellman sets up from Peggy and Fred’s first encounter their destiny together. Seating them beside one another in a crowded booth at Butch’s, we naturally pair them. We also see a great degree of interaction between the two before ever meeting Marie, so we make up our minds early about the winning woman.

The two able-bodied men are finding employment to be a challenge but in disparate ways. Al has not only been offered back his job at the bank, but has been promoted to a post where he will consider GI loans. His idea of a safe bet is different from that of the execs, however, stirring some tension. Fred, meanwhile, returns to a job at what used to be a drug store and works beneath the man he used to oversee. He had sworn never to return to such a low position, but has no skills outside of flying a plane. Poverty challenges his home life.

Both men illustrate for the audience the frustration of returning to the mundane experiences of regular employment. Work is not chief among soldiers’ thoughts when imagining their return home, but it nevertheless remains a requirement to maintain a livelihood. Fred, who was a captain in the Air Force and a pro flyer, is disheartened to be placed in such a menial position where he has no control.

My favorite scene in The Best Years of Our Lives is the last. Fred and Peggy are among the guests in a crowded house awaiting the bride’s appearance. Seeing that Al has arrived, Fred goes on the hunt for Peggy, whom he has weeks before romantially rejected as a way to keep her father happy. When he spots the woman, he stops, standing arms at his side facing her across the room, unmoving. The camera’s high-angle shot does not seem to be focusing on anything in particular, but our eyes are drawn to him. Peggy, who has been in conversation, seems to sense his gaze and turns towards him and approaches. They exchange pleasantries but make not gestures of love. Later, as the bride and groom read their vows, Fred is standing as best man but is looking across the room to Peggy, who seems to glow in her light-colored dress, who is also watching him. The cinematography is subtle as the bride and groom take up half the screen and their speaking can distract us from the shot’s true meaning. The recitation of the vows and pronouncement of man and wife seems as much meant for the bride and groom as for Peggy and Fred. When the ceremony is over, Fred walks directly to Peggy and kisses her as though they are alone in the room.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a masterpiece in its gentle conveyance of the harsh realities of returning soldiers who are damaged goods to certain degrees in physical and mental ways. The prolonged friendship among the men is also a testament to how they could feel more at home with each other than with their own families because of the semi-shared experiences they had overseas. Both the men and their loved ones suffer under the circumstances with Peggy being one neutral and healing figure for Fred. This movie is apt to make you cry, sigh and smile and is one of the most touching pictures I’ve ever seen.

  • The Best Years of Our Lives is set for 8 p.m. ET Aug. 2 and 2:15 a.m. ET Oct. 10 on TCM.

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

Wife vs. Secretary

Ring a Ding Ding

Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

     Based on the title, I was expecting a very different movie starring Clark Gable, a man whose characters are not particularly known for fidelity. I also expected a different battle in Wife vs. Secretary between such disparate actresses as Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow.

     I am sure you can guess who plays wife to Gable’s Van Stanhope: Myrna Loy as Linda. Van is a bigshot magazine executive who is super devoted and in love with his wife but has an awfully handy and attractive secretary in “Whitey” (Harlow). The latter relationship appears to be plutonic, although Whitey is certainly more devoted to her boss than her weasly boyfriend, played by Jimmy Stewart

     Linda does not think anything of her husband’s working relationship until she is warned by Van’s mother (May Robson) and a business visit by the secretary during a party sparks whispers among the guests. Now everything her husband does seems suspicious, especially a convention trip to Havana at which Whitey arrives the next day and answers Van’s phone at 2 a.m. 

     As toward as this might seem, everything between Van and Whitey is on the level. He had summoned her south to help write up a contract for a last-minute deal to buy a competing magazine. The two stayed up all one night finalizing the papers and partied the next after the sale. Both worse for the wear, we see a moment when the dull-faced boss and subordinate sit on the bed and potentially contemplate something more, but Whitey declares their drunkenness is reason enough for her to leave. Before she can exit, however, the phone rings. Being a secretary, White answers it and all parties soon know what Linda must think.

     Linda pursues a divorce and Whitey tells the woman she has every intention of landing Van once it is finalized. Her motives are not terribly sinister, however, as she essentially encourages a reconciliation.

     Gable was fantastic in Wife vs. Secretary. He displays such passion with Loy, scooping her into his arms and smootching her to death on numerous occasions. That was something I was not expecting from this movie, as the title seemed to suggest a cold wife and a more appealing secretary who perhaps truly battle for the man. Gable’s relationship with Harlow can be described as nothing but cute. He treats her with the respect of a man but does not deny her femininity.

     Harlow is also quite different in this picture compared to the others she made with Gable. Her hair is a duller blonde, which serves to tame her sex appeal/vixen tendencies. She plays the role as a totally fun-loving gal, leaving us no reason to hate her. Loy also is charming and only becomes unsavory after she leaves Van on incorrect presumptions.  Wife vs. Secretary was loads of fun, full of humor and good intentions.

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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