The on-screen chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell is well documented – a cinematic partnership that resulted in 14 films, including their famous recurring roles as the husband-and-wife detective team Nick and Nora in The Thin Man series. Something I have not seen discussed as much is the role director W. S. Van Dyke played in the couple’s success. Of the 14 films, Van Dyke directed six of them – Manhattan Melodrama, I Love You Again, and the first four installments of The Thin Man series (he very well might have done the final two installments as well, had it not been for his early death in 1943). These films are certainly among Myrna Loy and William Powell’s most notable collaborations.

While the wife and I are enthusiastic fans of Loy and Powell both separately and together, it was not until recently that we had the chance to view I Love You Again for the first time. This screwball comedy might not be as polished and entertaining as The Thin Man films, but it nonetheless is an enjoyable and comedic film. It’s plot (which has sizable and obvious holes that really annoyed the Mrs.) begins with the boring miser Larry Wilson (Powell) loym30.jpgon a cruise annoying the other guests with his insistence on clean living and sobriety. The thing is – Wilson isn’t Wilson. He’s actually George Carey, a crafty con-man and Wilson’s complete opposite, but a bout of amnesia several years ago wiped the slate clean and allowed this new persona to develop. When Wilson falls overboard and receives a blow to the head, Carey resurfaces. Carey’s discovery that in the nine intervening years since he was last conscious Wilson has seemingly amassed a great deal of wealth and also landed a beautiful wife (Loy) causes him to decide to continue the charade long enough to cash in. (If it seems confusing and nonsensical, that’s because it is.)

In lesser hands, this plot could have easily fallen flat on its face. But with Van Dyke, Powell, and Loy, it turns out to be quite a bit of fun. Unlike The Thin Man films, this film relies more heavily upon Powell’s individual talents rather than Powell and Loy’s chemistry. One obviously can’t go wrong with William Powell, so this isn’t a bad thing, but fans looking for more Nick-and-Nora magic might be disappointed. You don’t really hear a lot about this film (in fact, you can only find a DVD of the film in a 4-disc Myrna Loy/William Powell box set), and it’s by no means perfect. Yet this relatively quiet reputation only helps to make it one of those pleasant little surprise discoveries that all classic film fans are only too happy to make.

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I know it’s the usual disclaimer that seemingly opens any review of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but I’m going to say it anyway . . . This is not your typical Hitchcock film. smith.jpgMade in 1941 at the behest of his close friend Carole Lombard, this film represents Hitch’s one and only foray into screwball comedy (notice the qualifyer – he actually did make one other comedy in his career – the much darker The Trouble With Harry in 1955). The result is Mr. and Mrs. Smith, an underrated comedy from 1941 about a man named David Smith (Robert Montgomery) and his wife Ann (Lombard) who discover that a technicality has nullified their marriage from a few years previous. When David tries to have a little fun with this fact rather than immediately rectifying it, Ann becomes outraged and decides she’d be better off without him. David thus has to go to great and often humorous lengths to rewin her love.

Different as it is from his usual fare, Hitchcock devotees will still see traces of the director’s trademarks in this film. Even in Hitchcock’s most suspenseful films, humor usually has a prominent role in at least some of the scenes. One should not be surprised, then, to find that the same style of humor so often utilized in his suspense films is what shows up in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The comedy is at times full of suggestion and innuendo, much of it bordering on risque for the time. At other times, such as the scene in the Italian restaurant, Hitch relies on a more visceral, bodily sense of humor – the type that appears repeatedly in his films throughout his career. Not only that, but one will also find some of Hitchcock’s signature shots throughout the film – particularly those of the long fade-in and fade-out variety.

With that being said, there certainly is no guarantee that fans of Hitchcock will like this film. In fact, I have an old second-hand book on Hitchcock’s films at home – published sometime in the 80s, I believe – and it really just glosses over this film, saying Hitch did it as a favor to Lombard and was essentially just going through the motions. I think that’s a little harsh and is more a sign of the frustration of suspense fans in having to watch one of Hitchcock’s rare deviations from his usual genre.

Perhaps a better way to tell if you’re going to enjoy the film is to consider it less a Hitchcock film and more of a Lombard film. If you enjoy some of Carole Lombard’s other films – such as My Man Godfrey and To Be or Not to Be – then you will probably enjoy this one, although admittedly, this one is not nearly as original or zany as those two films. smith2.jpgBoth Lombard and Montgomery are great in it, as are some of the supporting cast like Jack Carson. The film is not one of the screwball masterpieces of the era, and the ending seemed a little forced to me (my wife – a sucker for anything screwball – probably disagrees with me here), but overall, it’s a fun little film with some really funny scenes (including the one where David is in the night club trying to make Ann jealous – that one was one of those so-funny-let’s-rewind-and-watch-again type scenes). Don’t discount this one just because it’s not the usual Hitchcock.

Libeled Lady (1936)

September 14, 2006

Wow. Our house has been on fire with the movie selections lately. Not only did we see one of the best film noirs I’d seen in a while, The Big Heat, but we followed that effort up last night with libeled.jpgone of the best screwballs I’ve seen in quite some time – Libeled Lady, starring Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, William Powell, and Spencer Tracy. Newspaper editor Warren Haggerty (Tracy) fears an erroneous article about Connie Allenbury (Loy) will have him sued for libel. Desperate, he hatches an elaborate plot where he makes his own fiancee Gladys (Harlow) marry Bill Chandler (Powell). He then sends Bill on an amorous hunt after Connie, hoping to get the young socialite caught up in a scandal with a married man.

The script for this film is great – it keeps you interested and laughing throughout. But as you might expect from a cast like this, it’s the acting that really carries this film. Looking over the filmographies for the stars, I was shocked by how good a year 1936 was, particularly for Powell and Loy. Not only did they both also co-star in The Great Ziegfeld and After the Thin Man that year, but Loy also starred in Wife Versus Secretary (which also featured Harlow) and Powell starred in My Man Godfrey. Tracy, too, was in some quality films that year, including Fury and San Francisco. Clearly, this film is one of those classics of the mid-30s, when studios were simply cranking out one quality production on top of another. But what’s really great about it is that it brings together so many top-flight actors at the top of their games. Furthermore, even though MGM clearly focused its advertising for the film on the stars themselves, this isn’t a case where the studio just blindly put together as many recognizable names as possible. Rather, the chemistry among all four of the stars really works. As a result, one can come to this single film and find a sampling of fine acting by four of the 30s biggest box-office draws.

With all its role reversing, mistaken identity, and reluctant romance, this film has many of the classic screwball elements and would make an entertaining introduction for somebody new to the genre. It was made at a time when screwball comedy was really beginning to find its form, as were the stars, directors, and studios charged with bringing the films to life.

wifevs.jpgFor date night this past weekend, me and the Mrs. decided to check out Wife Versus Secretary, a smart, stylish classic that seemed appropriate for the occasion. The film has three of the 1930s’ biggest stars in their heyday – Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow – and also features a young Jimmy Stewart in one of his first roles. The plot basically revolves around Van Stanhope (Gable), a successful businessman who is happily married to Linda (Loy). In business, Van relies heavily upon his beautiful secretary Whitey Wilson (Harlow), who happens to be engaged to Dave (Stewart). When a proposed purchase of a rival company necessitates Van and Whitey to start working long hours in private, their significant others begin to get suspicious, and jealousy runs rampant.

This was one of those nice little surprises where we really hadn’t heard much about it beforehand, but it turned out to be a rather good film. The sets are some of those great, lavish affairs of the 30s that make you feel nostalgic. The script is good, as is the directing. It’s the acting, though, that steals the show. The cast is as good as advertised, and the chemistry between the stars works well. After so long associating Myrna Loy with William Powell, I was surprised by how well the Gable/Loy combination worked (which probably explains why they made eight movies together). Of course, there was also the noted great chemistry between Gable and Harlow, who collaborated on six movies together before her death at 26. You can also recognize the talent of Jimmy Stewart, and it’s easy to see why he wasn’t given such small roles for long. It really is the acting, in my opinion, that makes this film work. (On a side note, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’m slowly ridding my wife of her anti-Gable bias by convincing her he’s so much more than just Rhett Butler.)

Although technically, this film fits the general definition of a screwball comedy, it deviates significantly from the quintessential examples of the genre (much like the screwball comedy that supposedly marks the starting point of the genre – It Happened One Night, also starring Gable). It is much more serious in nature than most screwballs, and it lacks some of that zaniness that tends to make the genre so fun.  In fact, despite the overall brevity of the film, there are one or two stretches where the film moves slowly and is not overly engaging. For that reason, I would be somewhat reluctant to recommend this film to someone who is new to classics (I’ve found the pacing of these old films to be the most common turn-off to contemporary sensibilities). To those lucky ones already indoctrinated into the world of black and white, however, this showcase of some legendary 30s talents is one of those often overlooked films that you might be happy to discover. It’s not perfect, but it’s still very good.

arsenic.jpgThe biggest Cary Grant fan I know, my wife, has never been a big fan of Arsenic and Old Lace. Thus, this is the only instance that I am aware of where I actually like one of his films more than she does. Before last night, I had seen it only once and that was several years ago, so I was happy to get a chance to watch it again and to see if it was as good as I remembered. I was not disappointed.

Directed by the legendary Frank Capra and based on a hit Broadway play, Arsenic and Old Lace is a classic screwball comedy where Mortimer Brewster (Grant) discovers his kindly aunts are actually poisoning elderly men (not out of spite, mind you, but out of charity) and burying their corpses in the cellar. Before he can run away with his new bride, Mortimer must try to sort out this mess, while also dealing with his crazy Uncle “Teddy” (who believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt) and the return of his convict brother, Jonathon (Raymond Massey), who resembles Boris Karloff and would like nothing more than to murder his sibling. Superbly written, these subplots intertwine into a farcical masterpiece full of surprises and some truly funny moments.

Grant’s the only real big-time star, but the rest of the cast is full of recognizable faces from classic Hollywood (Peter Lorre, Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson). The film seems perfectly cast, with each actor playing his or her role just right. The versatility of Cary Grant never ceases to amaze me. That a person who can brings such depth and emotion to his serious roles (in films like Notorious) can also excel at physical comedy to the degree displayed in this film is just mind-boggling. One can say something similar about the directing of Capra, who not only can bring to life such touching films as It’s a Wonderful Life, but in the case of Arsenic, he shows a remarkable understanding of the comedic timing and energy needed to make such a topsy-turvy plot work.

While I still enjoyed it, I must admit that I liked the film more the first time I saw it. I think first-time viewers of this film are more taken aback and amused by the whole ridiculousness of the plot. This time through, I knew what was coming and, with so many subplots being introduced into the story, the film seemed to drag a bit long as it tried to resolve all the loose ends (this is somewhat characteristic of Capra – though he’s one of my favorite directors, he does tend to run his films a little longer than they need be). Nonetheless, there’s no denying this film’s status as a classic, and I will laugh at many of these scenes no matter how many times I see them. It’s also worth noting that while I may have liked the film slightly less this time around, my wife liked it somewhat more. Thus we seem to be overcoming our stubborn, contrarian viewpoints in order to find some unlikely, but endearing, middle ground that will ultimately promote our domestic harmony. This oddly seems an appropriate way to end a discussion about a screwball comedy.