Sunday, May 15, 2011

Classic Movies of 1939 Blogathon: Another Thin Man

Today we remember 1939 as an extraordinarily action-packed year for a number of reasons. War was breaking out in Europe as Hitler made his mad dash for total domination, the American economy continued to totter on the brink of internal decay, and Hollywood was cranking out classics like tomorrow would never come. As I wrote on the subject in college, 
"1939 was a time of trouble and threat, danger and doubtfulness; the cinema, by contrast, was a place of safety and ease, security and confidence. It was an escape for the masses, a factory of dreams in which the cares and woes of the real world were sponged away by the faces of fictional characters played by real-time heroes. The actors were people to be esteemed; their movie conduct was to be emulated, their magnificently crafted dreams to be pursued."
This blogathon celebrates only a small fraction of those great films, which continue to delight today whenever and wherever audiences find them out. 
An original poster
advertising the film.
Another Thin Man was made as part of the enormously successful Thin Man Series, which spanned 13 years with 6 movies. It capitalized on the delectable pairing of William Powell with Myrna Loy, an on-screen couple who had set American movie-going hearts on fire. 

The combination was truly perfect. Powell's debonairness, distinguished good looks, incomparable voice, and jolly personality with Loy's sophisticated beauty, gut-instinct comedic timing, and quick wit gave audiences a pair who appeared to be the most genuinely in love, sincerely married, and perfectly matched couple in the history of the world. Under the direction of W.S. Van Dyke (mostly) with a fantastic screen play based on top rate literature, the Thin Man Series was a masterpiece waiting to happen.

Cropped screenshot of William Powell and Myrna...Image via Wikipedia
This particular entry, the third in the series, is one of the best, though it would be hard to say which entry isn't one of the best. Another Thin Man is essentially an exercise in misdirection, expertly done. The film opens with retired-from-detecting Nick and Nora (we know how long that will last) taking an apartment in New York with new baby, Nicky Jr. As usual, it isn't long before Nick has run into both some ex-con buddies of his and another murder. In this case the murder occurs on the remote country estate to which Nora has taken Nick for a quiet weekend of business. The murdered man is Colonel MacFay, the old business partner of Nora's deceased father, and manager of her millions.

Shemp Howard: what a face.
Marjorie Main: always animated.

                      A really delightfully solid supporting cast, including Marjorie Main and Shemp Howard, makes up a cloud of suspects and misdirectors: blackmailers, thugs, thieves, Cuban gangsters, dangerous women, double-timers, disgruntled employees, and opportunistic family members. Just try to guess who-dunnit in this tangled mess where evidence, testimonies, and even the camera are trying to point you in the wrong direction. 

I'm not going to give the solution away. That's just no fun. But I do want to discuss some noteworthy elements of the film's composition. One of those is the lighting. This is an element of filmmaking that we don't often pay much attention to because we're looking at the actors, sets, and wardrobes. There is something about the way this film looks, however, that belies its excellence in set lighting. When Nick, Nora, Asta, and the baby are en route to the Colonel's country estate, the dampness and coldness of the setting is palpable, even though it's not raining on set. This is the result of clever lighting and film editing which, when combined with the suggestive dialogue of the characters, produces a convincing effect. Lighting is everything in black and white, much more important than it is for Technicolor. In Another Thin Man it is done noticeably well. 

Thematically, the film is somewhat sordid. At least three people die unnatural deaths, and even the family pet meets a gruesome end. More than one throat is slit. Yet the film retains its charm because we are spared the blood and gore and graphic conversations that "entertain" us in modern television and cinema. 

Nick looks at a bit of evidence.
His hands often held a glass
of some sort. 
Nora steals the liquor cabinet keys for Nick.

The constant reference to Nick's drinking habit is continued from the previous films, but less of his drinking is shown on-camera or made an issue of, in spite of Nora's pick-pocket theft of the liquor cabinet keys from the Colonel. Picking up the slack from the lack of alcohol content in the film, however, is casual conversation about adultery. Nick is the kind of ingratiating character who wins your trust immediately, so even though he is unfailingly popular with the ladies we have no doubt that he remains faithful to Nora - not for lack of opportunity but out of preference. The other characters, however, (Nora not included) not only expect but encourage Nick to pursue adulterous relationships, laughingly. This is expressed on more than one occasion and, as it adds nothing to the film, becomes tedious. It is probably the movie's sole weak point. 

The loving couple.
The emphasis on marital infidelity is contrasted by Nora's unwavering support of and loyalty to her husband, particularly when police investigators attempt to turn her against her husband by trumping up stories of his previous girlfriends. Nora is steadfast, as is Nick. The films leave you in doubt that it could ever not be that way. 

Loy and Powell made such a perfect couple on-screen, in fact, that it never occurred to the public that they might not be married in real life. On one notable occasion, the booking agent at a hotel reserved a single room for the stars to share, assuming that they were indeed a happily married couple. Needless to say, other arrangements had to be made when the two stars, never married, arrived for their stay. 

I wish they had been married. It would have been truly a triumph of wit and laughter and legend. Hollywood made a number of teams famous: Hudson and Day, Olivier and Leigh, Burton and Taylor, Bogie and Baby, Hepburn and Tracy. But none were as believable, natural, and right a combination as Powell and Loy. God bless them for the masterful performances they gave. 

Please visit the Classic Movie Blog Association homepage for links to more reviews of films made in 1939.
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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Starting this Sunday - The Classic Movies of 1939 Blogathon

Starting this Sunday and running through Tuesday 36 Classic Movie Association Bloggers will present 41 reviews of some of the best films ever made, which all happen to have premiered in 1939. 

My review of Another Thin Man will debut on Sunday, along with reviews of these well and lesser known films:

Another Thin ManImage via Wikipedia
It’s A Wonderful World
The Women
The Wizard of Oz
The Cat and the Canary
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island
Dark Victory
Destry Rides Again
Dodge City
Five Came Back
Gone With the Wind
On Your Toes
The Return of Dr. X

Visit the Classic Movie Blog Association homepage for the full schedule and links to participating blogs.

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