How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

One Million Dollars!

How To Marry a Millionaire was the first movie filmed in Cinemascope (second to be released) and thus is a bit like the Avatar of 1953; a technological showcase but provides little in the way of interesting story or characters. The first five minutes of the film is comprised of composer Alfred Newman and his orchestra showcasing the visual and stereophonic capabilities of the new technology and trying to get audiences away from their televisions and into the movie theatre. TV is square and in black & white, movies are in colour and on a big wide screen. I can imagine this being quite a spectacle for audiences back in 1953 but why is it part of the movie and not a separate short? As for the visuals in the film itself, they do take advantage of the frame showing New York in full cinemascope although the use of a fish eye like lens in many shots is a little bothersome.

How to Marry a Millionaire was the first film I saw William Powell in and he didn’t leave any impression on me despite me later becoming a huge fan of his. As Roger Ebert put it, “William Powell is to words as Fred Astaire is to dance”, but he has not killer material to work off here. The three leading ladies do have their own personalities but there is not much in the way of playing off each other nor is there any fast and witty dialogue. Overall the screwball comedy type plot isn’t hugely fleshed out and there’s no real sense of urgency although there are a few laughs to be had. I do particular like Betty Grable’s grouchy, grumpy date played by Fred Clark. I find Marilyn Monroe however gets the most interesting dynamic in the film playing a woman who is afraid to wear glasses which feels like a statement on conformity in the 1950’s.

How To Marry a Millionaire is a prime example of what you would call an ‘ok’ film; a time passer, not terrible but not great either. Most enjoyment I do get from it is largely superficial as I do love me some 50’s fluff with the colourful aesthetic and the high fashion. Plus three beauties in cinemascope, as a heterosexual male I’m not complaining.

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Libeled Lady (1936)

The Front Page

The opening credits of Libeled Lady are not your typical list of screen names, instead we get footage of the four main stars walking arm in arm very happily as their names come on screen one by one. Four heavy weights in roles which play to their strengths, giving some of the best dialogue the screwball comedy has to offer. Libeled Lady is my favourite newspaper comedy, a world in which journalistic ethics are nonexistent and people struggle to make relationships and careers in journalism mix. Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) is so preoccupied with his job as the managing editor of a paper he has missed his own wedding several times, so no surprise Jean Harlow gives a very comically angry performance throughout most of the film.

William Powell’s Bill Chandler has such cool and confidence, he even draws his own contract which will bring him back to the paper he was sacked from as he knows Warren Haggerty will come looking for him following a scandal. Powell gets the chance to show the full range of his comic abilities, not only as a master of words but also gets showcase slapstick comedy similar in vain to Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin during the film’s fishing scene. The subplot of Bill Chandler learning to fish would be the basis of Howard Hawk’s comedy Mans’ Favorite Sport?. Despite how incredibly fast he picks up the ability to fish like an expert it doesn’t feel contrived.

A portion of the story is spent trying to find William Powell with telephone, telegraph and radio as their means of communication. Outdated aspects like in old movies always intrigues me and makes me ponder if stories like this could be told today. With the internet and other modern communication devices they could have been able to recall those newspapers at the start of the film. Likewise publications today are no less obsessed with covering the escapades of socialites and people famous for being famous; but Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) is not a typical socialite. She is down to Earth, has an image distorted by the media and can even outwit the paper. It’s appropriate this role would be played by Myrna Loy; the so called only good girl in Hollywood.

The Thin Man (1934)

Meddling Adults

William Powell and Myrna Loy, will I ever get bored of watching these two? I wish I could possess the wit and charm of William Powell, someone who can still remain classy and have a way with words even when inebriated (which is often). I wish I could be married to a woman like Myrna Loy. For Nick and Nora Charles being married is just one crazy murder mystery solving adventure after another! With so many movies in which marriage is a hindrance, here are two people who reveal in being married without the worry of children (for now anyway).  I find myself jealous at these two for their existence of seemingly never-ending fun. It’s no wonder audiences of the 1930’s where attracted to these escapist fantasies in their droves.  Sometimes a man and a woman with impeccable chemistry is all you need for cinematic greatness.

The Thin Man gave birth to Myrna Loy receiving the label “the perfect wife”. Loy disliked this label but it’s not hard to see why see got such a reputation. She seems too perfect to exist like she was conjured out of the mindsets of what heavenly actress should be. It’s not all just Nick and Nora though, there is an entertaining supporting cast including the Wynet family, the classic screwball comedy troupe of the odd ball family. It’s not My Man Godfrey levels but they are a bunch of nuts, with my favourite being the wannabe criminologist who is the polar opposite of the suave Nick Charles.

The Thin Man is a fairly inexpensive feature but shows how you can do so much with so little. The sequels had larger budgets and never captured the feeling or the intimacy of the first film. The scene in which Nick and his dog Asta go sleuthing by themselves in an inventor’s laboratory is almost entirely silent, features gorgeous noir cinematography and has me breathless watching the whole thing; setting the stage for the shady noir world of the 1940’s. I’ve seen The Thin Man several times and I still don’t understand the plot yet that doesn’t make the movie any less engaging. Rather is makes me want to watch the film again in hopes that I eventually will understand the plot.

My Man Godfrey (1936)

She’s Electric, she’s in a family full of eccentrics.

Does a comedy film actually have to make you laugh? Can you have a comedy without any laughs in it? This was once a question posed by film critic Mark Kermode. When thinking of this question, the first movie which comes to my mind if My Man Godfrey, a comedy which I love but there are only a few moments during it which make me laugh and even those few aren’t big laughs, despite the movie’s crazy screwball, gorilla imitating antics in which the straight man William Powell enters a cartoon world. But I would still call it a comedy as it’s a movie which leaves you feeling melancholic watching it.

William Powell’s role as Godfrey exemplifies why he is the master of words. He can take any regular sounding lines and turn them into something memorable and when he speaks any unique piece of script writing, it’s like poetry. It’s easy to fall in love with Carole Lombard watching My Man Godfrey; she succeeds in playing a ditsy scatterbrain in an endearing manner but I feel the real unsung cast member of the film is Gail Patrick, one of the most underrated actresses of the 30’s; it’s a shame she never became an A-list leading lady. She became typecast playing (for lack of a better term) bitches, but could do so with a dose of humanity.

I love those moments which describe a ridiculous situation which are never caught on camera. The mental image of Carole Lombard riding into a mansion on a horse, going up the stairs and leaving it in the library is an image better left to my imagination. Let’s play grumpy old man and assume, oh say a Hangover sequel would not allow such a scene to be left to the viewer’s imagination and thus be unfunny as all hell.

Screwball comedy was all about making fun of the rich as retribution for the great depression; My Man Godfrey is probably the most harsh attack on the rich which the genre ever made, partially because of just how sombre the film is. The opening scene in which men are living in a shanty town by a dump or the scavenger hunt for bums or so called ‘forgotten men’ are shocking sights for any era. Likewise the Bullock family may be wealthy but they sure aren’t happy and don’t get along with each other.

My Man Godfrey wasn’t based on a stage play but watching it you might think otherwise as long stretches of the film take place in real time. Plus you get one thing almost unheard of in film’s prior to the 1950’s, an intricate title sequence. I consider My Man Godfrey along with You Can’t Take It With You as the two quintessential “kooky family” movies although “kooky” may be an understatement.

Mister Roberts (1955)

No One Can Succeed Like Mister Roberts

Fonda, Cagney, Powell, Lemon. What more do you want? Being a huge fan of all four actors, for me personally this may be the greatest accumulation of actors ever; thus I will try my best to contain my inner fan boy. Not only do all four play interesting characters but they all share interesting relationships between each other. Fonda and Cagney share a Bugs Bunny/ Yosemite Sam dynamic with Cagney being a frustrated old captain in a position of power but with no control and Fonda stepping over everything he does.

Jack Lemon’s Ensign Pulver on the other hand hates the captain but out of total shock the captain likes Ensign. I find this dynamic particular funny as I can relate to that situation of being admired by someone you dislike. However I also relate to the character of Mister Roberts himself in his predicament of being stuck in a rut of which he is desperate to escape from; wanting to leave the navy cargo boat and be right in the action of the Second World War. The entire film effortlessly combines tragedy and comedy with the final scene being one of my favourite movie endings ever. The claustrophobic intimacy of the ship as well as the simply superb dialogue and performances makes the dialogue heavy scenes so engaging. Even with two directors on the project which could have spelled disaster the film manages to come out perfectly fine. The other scene which always stuck out to me was at the beginning of the film when the men are attempting to get a glimpse of women in a shower and going crazy as hell over it. Would men have the same reaction today because of the internet? Was the prospect of seeing a naked woman more thrilling back then?

Mister Roberts would be William Powell’s final film although one of Jack Lemon’s first, so I see the film as a passing of the torch between two generations of comedic actors. Originally Powell retired after appearing in How to Marry a Millionaire but decided to appear in Mister Roberts after reading the script. A much, much better choice of final film.

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

Melodrama’s so much fun, in black and white for everyone to see.

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

A gangster movie starring Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy, thankfully I was not disappointed. Watching these three titans of classic Hollywood in action (and sadly the only picture in which Gable and Powell appeared together), Manhattan Melodrama not only had me enthralled from beginning to end, its hypnotizingly good. Gangsters, dames, urbanites, class and sophistication, this movie encompasses elements of 1930’s cinema which I’m a sucker for – and yes, the film has the word melodrama in the title, something that would never happen in contemporary cinema.

The Angels With Dirty Faces style plot allows for poignant social commentary, with Powell as a district attorney trying to avoid corruption and not allowing his personal feelings affect his decisions. William Powell’s performance as Jim Wade is the best I’ve seen him deliver; just listen to the emotional plea he gives during the movie’s courtroom scene. His character is essentially a fantasy, an elected member of government who’s entirely honest. When Wade goes against his ethics he tells the truth to the public and resigns from office rather than trying to desperately cling onto power. There’s doubt Powell had a real knack for playing lawyers and elected members of office.

Not to undo Gable as Blackie Gallagher, the manner in which he acts during the film’s final third is simply heartbreaking as he constantly jokes around despite being sentenced to the electric chair in the film’s finale. The ending of this movie just kills me as Wade’s friend since childhood is sentenced to death; it’s near the top of my list of all time tear jerking scenes, pure cinematic tragedy. The lights of prison even dim as the switch is pulled, the ever classic cliché. In real life that doesn’t actually happen but in the film it is the final tug of the heart strings. Also it seems hard to believe now that Mickey Rooney would play a child version of Clark Gable but in 1934 audiences couldn’t have seen what he would turn out to be as an adult.

Does there exist an actress who doesn’t have great chemistry with Clark Gable, or even any actor for that matter? Manhattan Melodrama is the first of fourteen screen pairings of Powell and Loy, and their first scene together couldn’t be more perfect, in which she falls into his lap in the back seat of a car as she starts to deliver exposition in the most adorable manner.

MGM is not generally associated with the gangster genre. Manhattan Melodrama doesn’t have the grit of Warner Gangster films but works in its own style of MGM’s glossy high production values and ranks as one of the best gangster films I’ve seen from the 1930’s. The movie seems to be more famous for being the last movie seen by gangster John Dillinger, who was shot by federal agents as he exited a Chicago movie theater. His reason for going to see the movie, apparently he was a Myrna Loy fan. The love of Loy killed John Dillinger, I guess I can’t blame him.

Love Crazy (1941)

Serving the Nuts

I believe every great actor should have at least one movie in which they get to go completely over the top and out of character (Barrymore in Twentieth Century, Howard in Its Love I’m After, Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Stewart in Vertigo). For William Powell, Love Crazy provided him with his opportunity, in easily the most slapstick oriented comedy ether Powell or Myrna Loy ever done; from heads being stuck in elevator doors to characters slipping on the same mat several times throughout the film. It’s not John Barrymore levels of over the top, but compared to William Powell’s usual soft spoken persona, it’s pretty over the top.

Love Crazy is the William Powell show all the way, showcasing the complete range of his abilities as a comedic actor in a plot which is like a tabloid newspaper story turned into a screwball comedy; a jokey representation  of mental illness which wouldn’t be politically correct by today’s standards. All the more fun then! One of the scenes from any film Powell has appeared which I feel best demonstrates his comedic timing, is when he is tasked with convincing a lunacy commission of his sanity by placing shaped blocks into their corresponding holes. It’s such a basic task yet his overzealous confidence he still manages to convincingly screw it up; it works on so many levels. Yet as the film progresses, I end up feeling particularly sorry for his character.

But not to undo Myrna Loy, with her stand out moment being a surprisingly erotic scene with Jack Carson in which both of them are bare shouldered. On top of that I find myself in awe that there is a straight up dick joke in this movie (“He has to have his torso free when he shoots his bow and arrow”). Of all the sneaky jokes they got past the censors I’ve heard in screwball comedies, this is one of the most unsubtle. Likewise Gail Patrick who plays Powell’s former girlfriend appears to be a bit of a nymphomaniac; badly wanting him shortly after meeting for the first time in years despite both of them now being married, and it’s his anniversary night! Just listen as the seductively tells Powell, “Stevie I’m bored!”. There’s quite a bit of setting up in Love Crazy, but the payoffs are worth it. Love Crazy also gets a big boost from the apartment sets designed by Cedric Gibbons. The painted backdrops of skyscrapers high in the sky and the art deco shading, it’s beautiful.

I managed to go into Love Crazy unaware of the screwball hijinks which occur during the third act. If it’s not too late for you, I recommend doing the same. You’ll be left in a state of disbelief that what occurs on screen is really happening.

Jewel Robbery (1932)

Pre-Code Jewel

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I remember people criticizing The Wolf of Wall Street as immoral, then I’d love to see their reaction to this 83 year old gem.

Kay Francis has one of my favourite character introductions ever, as an army of servants march to pamper her after getting up in the afternoon, lying in a bath tub, briefing showing of one leg shot up in the air then being pampered like a goddess ahead of her day of leisure. Jewel Robbery’s display of wealth would be explicit for any era, never mind the great depression. Francis’ reaction to being handed a box of jewels from Powell makes Lorelei Lee of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes look like less of a gold digger. Yes these are shallow, superficial characters who never get punished for their actions, but that’s ok, only classic Hollywood actors could pull this off, making us enjoy rooting for characters like this. Although Francis’ character is at least self aware of this, in one pivotal scene stating that she is shallow and weak as she leads a shallow and weak life and with a little courage she could run away from it.

William Powell is the coolest criminal ever; you would enjoy being held in a stick up by this guy. This being pre-code, a criminal is the hero of the story who deceives dim witted guards. His methods of robbery, differentiating from what he calls “the stick ‘em up and shoot ‘em down school, no mess, no confusion” is so fascinating. Would his methods work in real life or is this just movie fantasy? He even gives his victims marijuana to calm them down. This movie waves to whole gauntlet of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Ok there’s no rock ‘n’ roll but there’s sex and drugs. The jewel robbery itself is so snappy and fast paced. It takes up a large portion of the film (which at one point made me wonder if the film would be a sort of high class version of Dog Day Afternoon) and its over in a jiffy.

Jewel Robbery is one of the most erotic and sexiest films I’ve ever seen. Many of the scenes and dialogues are provoking in some way from Kay Francis wearing dress looks like it’s about to fall of her and exposes her back side to William Powell wrapping his arms around Francis to grab a ring of her finger; this is what you call a titillating movie. I also love Kay Francis and her girlfriend’s excited reaction to discovering a man infiltrated their house. Plus has there ever existed an actual dwelling that has an interior similar to that of William Powell’s hideout. If I ever win the lottery I am going to hand a copy of this movie to be interior decorator. Also the newspaper which appears near the beginning of the movie is called “Weiner Journal”.

 

Evelyn Prentice (1934)

The Thin Woman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Movies like Evelyn Prentice give me one of the greatest satisfactions I get from watching films; discovering an obscurity from an actor’s filmography which I end up considering to be one of their finest films. Myrna Loy superbly carries Evelyn Prentice , dominating majority of the screen time, with William Powell delivering one of his finest dramatic turns, while seeing Rosalind Russell in her screen debut is just a mere bonus. Russell doesn’t have a whole lot to do but she still comes off as a memorable screen presence despite this, although it is a little odd hearing her speak in an English accent and not at a machine gun rate. Loy and Una Merkel make for a fun duo, with Merkel having a very memorable comic sounding voice. Just the deco of Evelyn Prentice itself makes me love this film more, whether it’s a smoke filled night club, the lavish interior of Powell and Loy’s home to even the clothes worn in the film (the costume department really knocks this one out of the park), sucking me into the world of the 1930’s.

Scenes such as the family exercising or the father and daughter playing piano together helps humanize them, making me more fearful that a character played by the sweetheart Myrna Loy could be going to prison, or maybe get the electric chair! The tension builds as the film progresses. The scene in which a witness arrives at the Prentice household while Evelyn is present to describe the women she witnessed leaving the murder scene, this women of course being Evelyn buy nobody else knows that, feels like the type of moment you would get from a Hitchcock movie. In fact the entire premise of the movie could be given the Hitchcock treatment.

I often feel like Hollywood make being a lawyer look like the coolest job ever. Even if John Prentice (William Powell) is missing time from his family, his turn during the film’s courtroom climax makes the profession look like a constant flow of hair raising excitement. The film’s final twenty minute courtroom sequence had my heart pounding, eating up every minute of its melodramatic glory while screaming in anticipation to how the characters are going to get themselves out of this situation.  At the same time however I was tense that the movie would pull the characters out of their intense dilemma in a contrived manner, I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed. The outcome of the case is movie fantasy but it didn’t feel like a cop out. Throughout this sequence Powell and Loy do some of the finest acting work of their careers. Myrna Loy is generally not highly regarded as a dramatic actress but I would defy anyone say otherwise as she lays on the tears and the passionate pleas. I must also give credit to Judith Wilson, whole also left an impression during these proceedings. As a fan of Powell & Loy partnership and courtroom dramas, their third film together satisfied more than I could ask for. Manhattan Melodrama, The Thin Man and Evelyn Prentice all in one year, ain’t too stingy.

After the Thin Man (1936)

All In The Family

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

After the Thin Man clearly has a much higher budget than the first film so it does loose the grittier, low budget charm of the original but it still works in its own glossier way. I don’t think any of The Thin Man sequels reached the standard of the first film but this was the best of them.

After the Thin Man gives William Powell some of the best comedic moments of his career; the scene in which he has a conversation with the snoring gentlemen I could watch over and over; he manages to maintain composure and still act sarcastic no matter how frustrated he gets. Although my favourite part of the film is just watching Nick and Nora trying to get an important clue from Asta by chasing him through their giant manner of a house. Just how does a retired detective and a woman who doesn’t work manage to afford to live in a palace like this during the great depression anyway? Every movie in the series had a long sequence in which Nick would go sleuthing on his own in the dark with no dialogue or music, and rightfully so, it’s so captivating. The plot is even the easiest in the series and I was actually just barely able to keep up with it.

The film’s most notable contribution to cinema is having James Stewart’s first really notable screen role.This would be the only time in his career in which he would play a villain as the suspiciously motivated David Graham. At the end of film when he’s revelled to be the murder culprit, he has a breakdown and threatens everyone at gunpoint before being thwarted and then arrested. Jimmy Stewart as a heartless murder who is sent to prison, what kind of crazy movie is this? It’s disheartening in a way to see this but of course this was before he became forever enshrined as the everyman. He does pull of the role and displays he was a natural acting talent from the start of his career and shows he could have potentially portrayed convincing villains. Also look out for the asian bodyguard who throws his hat to get a gun from Jimmy Stewart’s hand, Oddjob anyone?