Endless, rambling bio-pic about a theater producer who always planned bigger shows than he could afford, with enthusiasm that proved contagious to financial backers. Semi-falsely billed as a William Powell/Myrna Loy movie, since she plays his second wife, appearing in the last half hour of the three-hour movie. Good scenes (especially the lavish musical numbers) and acting, but the story is bloated with details from Ziegfeld’s life that just aren’t necessary to the plot or character, starting with an opening scene with his father and a little girl (who returns hours/years later to dance in one of his shows, but so what).
Powell was between The Thin Man and its first sequel. He runs a circus act with strongman Sandow (Nat Pendleton of two Thin Man movies), then marries his star Anna Held (Luise Rainer, winning back-to-back oscars with this and The Good Earth) after moving to Broadway shows. Anna carries her whole show, but Ziegfeld wants to do something bigger (he gives the impression of having a short attention span), so he starts the Follies, a musical comedy variety show that changes every year. Some ups, some downs, he seems washed up then opens four Broadway hits at the same time, then falls broke/sick/dead when the market crashes.
Myrna Loy’s character is Billie Burke, the good witch of The Wizard of Oz, and Frank Morgan (Ziegfeld’s main friend/rival) played The Wizard himself. Surprisingly, Will Rogers was dead and that was a Will Rogers impersonator in his scene.
Written by one of Ziegfeld’s main show writers. Won best picture and actress (Luise Rainer). Frank Capra, The Story of Louis Pasteur and Dodsworth took the rest. Got a semi-sequel in Ziegfeld Girl, also by Robert “Ziegfeld” Leonard with Busby Berkeley (it’s shorter, with Judy Garland = probably a better movie), and the music and comedy revue Ziegfeld Follies, featuring Powell as the dead Ziegfeld.
William Powell is a free-spirited screenwriter. Myrna Loy is a stuffy rich fashion mogul whose little sister Florence Rice has long been engaged to passive Waldo. Powell ends up with Loy, and helps Waldo get a backbone and marry Rice, with the help of Powell’s rich ex-wife, Loy’s spying employee Sidney “Charlie Chan” Toler, and a screwball ending.
Written by Jo Swerling (Man’s Castle) from a play by Ferenc Molnar (Liliom).
It’s been a month since I watched this amnesiac comedy so I’ve forgotten most of it, but IMDB says “Boring businessman recovers from amnesia and discovers he’s really a con man… and loves his soon-to-be-ex wife.” Starring Myrna Loy (with never enough screen time) and William Powell (better at playing amnesia/gangster than he was at playing nuts in Love Crazy).
Besides the love plot, Powell has to keep up appearances in town, running a pottery business and other organizations. It turns into a big swindle with he and his new buddy Frank McHugh (part of Cagney’s company in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) getting the local rich folk to bid against each other for some worthless land on which they’ve planted an oil spill.
I spotted Preston Sturges regular Harry Hayden at the bar in the first scene, then nobody else for the whole rest of the movie, though the children included future Lost Highway creep Robert Blake.
Apparently Myrna Loy and William Powell made a bunch more movies together besides the Thin Man series. This one came between Another Thin Man (3) and Shadow of the Thin Man (4). A miscommunication comedy full of contrived obstacles to Loy & Powell’s marriage. He spends an evening at a bar with ex-girlfriend Gail Patrick (Lombard’s bad sister in My Man Godfrey, Irene Dunne’s rival in My Favorite Wife) and wifey Loy schemes to get even by kissing on hunky neighbor Jack Carson (Red Garters, Arsenic and Old Lace). But then Loy thinks Powell has lied about some detail and leaves with the hunk, starting divorce proceedings. Powell finds that he can delay the divorce if he’s declared insane, so now it’s a fine line between staying convincingly crazy and winning his wife back.
Some unusual sights: Powell acting wide-eyed nuts instead of cool/collected/drunk. Florence Bates as Loy’s mother crosses an important line. She’s supposed to be a comic character who’s a constant annoyance to the leads, but she overplays and becomes a constant annoyance to the viewer. I remember her playing a similarly unbearable role in The Tall Target, but fortunately with far less screen time. Didn’t recognize Elisha Cook Jr. (sex-crazed drummer in Phantom Lady) as the elevator boy. From the writers of Blackmail with help from Charles Lederer, just off His Girl Friday.
The Thin Man Challenge: I like to watch these movies with Katy, not think too hard about them, then see if I can remember a single plot detail a week later. Piecing it together as it comes back to me. Firstly, the series is now saddled with a kid and a celebrity dog, and they each get to waste fifteen minutes before the mystery can get started, then they’re essentially out of the picture.
Once again, Nick is some kind of celebrity detective, attracting much attention wherever he goes, allowed to wander drunkenly onto crime scenes and tamper with evidence. Nora gets involved in the case, but only as much as seems necessary to maintain the formula set up by previous movies. And speaking of the formula, Nick again rounds up the suspects in a single room at the end, reveals the killer’s identity, a struggle ensues, good guys win.
Nick’s friend Paul was what, a reporter? a cop? He’s accused of killing a bookie (and somehow his girlfriend Donna Reed gets arrested too), so Nick starts his own investigation, figures out some horse jockey shot himself by dropping a gun down a shower drain – so an apparent murder was a suicide – and some gambler named Benny found hanging in his apartment was actually set up – the apparent suicide was a murder. Turns out the killer was a police major, the corrupt police force collaborating with gangsters and gamblers – a weird message for rah-rah 1941 Hollywood. I guessed Donna Reed as the killer, only because by the end she’d only had about six lines despite being fourth-billed.
After seeing his name in the IMDB credits, I spent more effort trying to get a screenshot of Tor Johnson than in the rest of this write-up. Almost certain that he’s the one on top here:
Writer Harry Kurnitz had made a name for himself a couple years earlier, writing three movies in under two years (each with a different cast) about a husband and wife detective team (Joel and Garda Sloane), which earned comparisons to the Thin Man series and won him a couple of Nick & Nora sequels.
Another splendid Sternberg movie with an Alloy Orchestra score – how Criterion spoils us. It’s hard to fully embrace a movie with the dialogue “From now on you are my prisoner of war… and my prisoner of love.” But once I accepted the melodramatic story elements, this was almost the equal of Sternberg’s great Underworld.
Supposedly based on a real person, Emil Jannings is a powerful Russian general who escapes the country during the 1917 revolution (between this, Potemkin and Mother, Russian revolutions have been coming up often) and scrapes by in the U.S. as a Hollywood extra. This is not portrayed as a glamorous career path – note that The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra was made in the same year. We’re also shown a bunch of resentful bastards at the studio costuming department, as if Sternberg and his writer were out to de-glamorize the movie-making process.
Michael William Powell:
Back in Russia, General Jannings (after his three great movies with Murnau, so already a star) clashes with young idealist revolutionary William Powell (with perhaps a thicker, less refined mustache than he sports in the Thin Man films). I was glad to see Evelyn Brent (Feathers in Underworld) again, and Sternberg and his photographer light her as ecstatically as before. She’s attached to Powell until taken prisoner by Jannings, eventually warming to him and helping him escape once the tables are turned. Later in Hollywood, Powell plans to shame the former general by casting him in a film that re-enacts his defeat, but the general gets too caught up in his nostalgic fervor and dies of a heart attack. Powell seems to forgive him after that, seeing that they both loved their country, just in different ways – which helps explain Evelyn’s split loyalties as well.
Evelyn Brent, revolutionary:
A. Kaes for Criterion:
Von Sternberg seems to have been fascinated by Jannings’s acting style and persona and did not restrain them in The Last Command. Instead, he used the actor’s histrionic theatricality to explore the power of performance and filmic illusion themselves—a subject he would continue to mine for the rest of his career.
I’d heard that the first four or five Thin Man movies were almost equally good, but to me they seem to be getting weaker. This one wisely lets up on the drunk jokes and doesn’t give Asta any solo scenes. One would think from the poster (and the finale of part two) they’d be making a big deal over Nick & Nora’s new baby, but not really – Nick Jr. factors into the first few scenes and the last one, but not much in between. There’s more detective work going on, Nick solving the crime rather than gathering all the suspects and waiting for one to slip up. And of course the film is just cluttered with characters. It’s a very watchable 90 minutes, I’ll give it that.
Katy & I figured out how to spot the killer in a Thin Man movie, anyway – it’s whoever is least likely to have done it, on whom there’s no suspicion whatsoever. That means here it’s the innocent young girl Lois (Virginia Grey, later of The Naked Kiss and All That Heaven Allows) whose dad the Colonel (blustery cowboy C. Aubrey Smith of The Scarlet Empress – he’s Nora’s lawyer, I think?) was killed, presumably by revenge-seeking neighbor Phil Church (Sheldon Leonard of Guys & Dolls).
There are a hundred more red-herring characters including a creep named Creeps, large-faced Nat Pendleton as a cop, Ruth Hussey (Jimmy Stewart’s photographer friend in Philadelphia Story), a love interest, a secretary (Tom Neal of The Brute Man!), an overly suspicious nanny, Abner Biberman as “The Cuban” (Katy points out it’s not a very Cuban-sounding name), and apparently Shemp Howard. Otto Kruger (bad guy in Power of the Press) plays lead cop Van Slack. I didn’t get a good bead on this guy because our disc skipped during his entire scene in the middle of the movie. Convoluted murder scheme involves laying a gun on the ground and covering it with a wet newspaper. Lois has a secret identity, kills Phil Church, and would’ve gotten away with it if not for those two meddling society detectives.
Second in the series, with Van Dyke returning. Whereas the first one had Brenon & Borzage cinematographer James Wong Howe, the sequel has Lubitsch & Wellman cinematographer Oliver Marsh. I am guessing nobody noticed. Only Jimmy Stewart’s second year in the movies. He obviously didn’t have his Capra persona down yet if he’s playing a murderer. Oh yeah, Jimmy Stewart is the murderer – that’s the twist ending in this one! If he’d have been played by anyone else, I might’ve seen it coming.
Wait, getting ahead of myself… so Nick and Nora are in the movie from the beginning this time, which is nice. They’re going to visit her rich family, who disapprove of her drunken detective husband. The movie reeeally plays up what a drunk he is this time. It’s intended for comic effect, but gets increasingly disturbing. There will have to be an intervention by movie four… if those had been invented yet. Nick is still retired but gets convinced to do one more job, Nora once again wants to get involved in the detective work but “ohhh no you don’t,” Nick won’t let her. It’d be tired and repetitive if it wasn’t so light and charming. One bit of weirdness that didn’t work for me: their dog Asta gets his own solo scenes. He visits “Lady Asta” from behind a fence and chases another dog who has been visiting her, and apparently getting her pregnant. The dog scenes correlate nicely with all the other couple-infidelity in the human world of the film, but there’s no real resolution to these scenes, and they kinda made me sad for Asta.
Just as many characters as in the first one (and again, they’re all invited to a dinner party in order to determine guilt). I quote an IMDB review: “My favorite is Aunt Katherine, the battle ax to end all battles axes, played by Jessie Ralph (The Bank Dick); and Henry, the rickety old butler played by, would you believe, Tom Ricketts.” Nora’s cousin Selma (Elissa Landi, Count of Monte Cristo) is upset when her lying, cheating husband (Alan Marshal of Hunchback of Notre Dame, House on Haunted Hill) goes missing, then even more upset when he’s found and says he’s leaving her for showgirl Polly (Penny Singleton: Blondie Bumstead and the voice of Jane Jetson). Also involved: club owner Joseph Calleia (Touch of Evil), an asian thug who seems to be a hat-throwing prototype for Oddjob, Selma’s psychiatrist (George Zucco of The Pirate, House of Frankenstein) and a cop (Sam Levene of The Killers, Brute Force, a cop-assisting beardy cultist in God Told Me To).
Cute movie with no apparent quality drop from part one (except for the overdone dog scenes). Judging from the booties-knitting ending, there will be babies in part three.
This must be my fourth time watching, and I still can’t remember who’s the killer (it’s the dead scientist’s lawyer!). Don’t think this counts as screwball comedy despite the fast-paced, often racy, comedic dialogue – it’s a detective comedy with screwball tendencies. Came out the same year as Twentieth Century and The Gay Divorcee – I think I like this one best of the three.
The titular thin man wasn’t meant to refer to detective William Powell (retired since marrying rich socialite Myrna Loy), but the missing, turns-out-to-be-murdered old scientist Wynant (Edward Ellis, sheriff in Fury). Nobody mentions this in the dialogue, hence all the Looney Tunes caricatures of Powell as a paper-thin man, and the carrying of the Thin Man title across the sequels.
Movie is a light joy to watch, so I won’t weigh it down by fussing over plot for three pages – there’s certainly enough of it. Powell (recently in Double Harness, not yet in My Man Godfrey) and Loy (post-Love Me Tonight, pre-Great Ziegfeld) don’t appear for a while but make up for lost time. Wynant’s death and the lawyer’s guilt aren’t revealed until the last minute at a grand suspects’ dinner party with cops as waiters (Katy thought the lawyer-as-killer was unjustified). Two older blonde women seem interchangeable until one is killed (the dead man’s girlfriend, Natalie Moorhead, no relation to Agnes). Dead man’s daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan of Devil Doll, The Big Clock, Song o’My Heart) and ex-wife Mimi (Minna Gombell, the law-breaking aunt in Wild Boys of the Road) and some other fools (including Cesar Romero, The Joker in TV’s Batman, and Porter Hall, a newsman in both Ace in the Hole and His Girl Friday) run around lying to each other for ninety minutes. All those actors, and the only one I recognize from other films is the dog, Asta, a main character in The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby.
Van Dyke directed three of the five sequels before dying of cancer. Prior to this, he made MGM’s first sound picture, White Shadows in the South Seas, which somehow involved Robert Flaherty.