After the Thin Man

After the Thin Man, 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, James Stewart. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. B&W, 112 minutes

Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) Charles have returned to their San Francisco home, just in time for a New Year’s celebration thrown in part in their honor. They are summoned to the home of Nora’s Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph) for dinner, where Nora learns a favorite cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi) is worried sick over the disappearance of her husband, Robert.

Also in attendance is long-time family friend and admirer of Selma’s, David Graham (James Stewart). David convinces Selma to join him and the Charles’ for a night out on the town, including a trip to local nightclubs to search for Robert. They find the errant husband easily enough, but as the clock strikes midnight, he is shot to death, and Selma, who is seen shortly thereafter standing over his body, holding a gun, becomes the prime suspect.

Skippy as Asta, William Powell and Myrna Loy in After the Thin Man
Skippy as Asta, William Powell, Myrna Loy

The search for Robert becomes a search for the truth about his killer. Joining the Charles’ in their venture is their loyal dog, Asta, who, it appears, has some new — and adorable — additions to his canine family.

This was the second of six Thin Man movies, and is nearly as good, and certainly as enjoyable, as the first, The Thin Man. Like the original, it is based on a story by Dashiell Hammett (although not a published novel or short story), with the screenplay written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Screenplay.

The Nick & Nora Charles of the films were a bit audacious with their heavy drinking and for-the-era racy adoration of each other (there’s no doubt this couple has a healthy private life), but the pair portrayed in Hammett’s novel were “a couple living in a liquor-soaked open marriage” according to a PBS biography. Even pre-Code Hollywood considerably toned down that element in the original The Thin Man, and the Code, with its tighter moral standards, was in effect for After the Thin Man.

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William Powell

Still, the characters in the films aren’t stereotypical Hollywood. Delivering such lines as, “let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty,” Powell gives a dry, sardonic and sophisticated performance as the former detective called upon by the family who looks down on him to investigate the murder, and arrest, of their own. A fiercely determined Loy once again gets herself in trouble with her sincere efforts to help her husband, but he is always a step ahead of her. She’s no slouch or encumbrance, however, and delivers crucial evidence, despite her lack of investigative savvy.

James Stewart, still early in his career and limited to co-starring roles, is sympathetic as the man facing unrequited love, never willing to give up on the woman he believes would be happiest with him.

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Myrna Loy, William Powell

This is a clever story with any number of viable suspects who, one by one, are eliminated through Nick’s dogged detective work. It moves quickly and leaves few, if any, loose ends.

Perhaps the best of the “Thin Man” sequels, After the Thin Man is quintessential whodunit fare combined with wit and colorful characters, part of what makes this series an enduring element of pop culture.

Mrs Asta and family in After The Thin Man
Mrs. Asta and family


 

 

 

 

 

 

Stella Dallas (1937)

Stella Dallas, 1937, United Artists. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley. Directed by King Vidor. B&W, 106 minutes.

Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck) is brassy, brazen and audacious enough to step outside of class constraints and pull herself out of the hovel she grew up in to take her place in high society. She has set her sights on vulnerable Stephen Dallas (John Boles), who recently broke off his engagement with the refined Helen (Barabara O’Neil) when his father committed suicide after the family business failed. While waiting until he moves up enough in his new job to support the woman he loves, he discovers Helen has married another man. Heartbroken, Stephen is on the rebound, and falls for Stella’s efforts to charm him into wedlock.

A year after the two marry, they welcome their daughter, Laurel. Soon that child is the only bond between the couple. With his attempts to change his wife’s unrefined ways a marked failure, Stephen is increasingly put off by Stella. Add to that her friendship with the uncouth and loud Edward Munn (Alan Hale), a man of whom Stephen strongly and openly disapproves.

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John Boles, Barbara Stanwyck

Eventually Stephen accepts a job transfer to New York, and Stella stays behind in Massachusetts with Laurel (Anne Shirley), now a young girl on the verge of womanhood. Stella is a devoted and loving mother, and dotes on the growing girl to a surprising degree, given her otherwise self-absorbed nature.

Things take a dramatic change when Stephen has a chance meeting with Helen, now a widow with three boys. Their romance starts anew, with Helen welcoming Laurel into her life. Stella is faced with choosing between her own happiness and that of her daughter’s.

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Anne Shirley,  Barbara Stanwyck

Stella Dallas was based on the book of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty, who also wrote the novel Now, Voyager, on which the film starring Bette Davis was based. Prouty also became a mentor to Sylvia Plath and is believed to be the inspiration for the character Philomena Guinea in Plath’s 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. Prouty, who herself suffered from psychological issues, had a strong interest in the internal motivations of the characters in her books.

The book had been made into a silent film in 1925, starring Ronald Colman and Belle Bennett, and was also re-made as the movie Stella in 1990, starring Bette Midler and Stephen Collins. The story has been analyzed numerous times for its perception of a woman’s role in society, the ideals of motherhood and the perils of sacrifice.

Melodramas of this sort were popular during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and to an extent we still see them today, albeit on the small screen. They are presented on cable channels such as Lifetime, notorious for somewhat overblown stories of human pathos. However, that is not what is delivered here. In the time Stella Dallas was made, production values for films of this calibre were much higher than the made-for-TV movies of today, and it shows in the final product.

The film received two Academy Award nominations, Best Actress for Stanwyck and Best Supporting Actress for Shirley.

This is a tale of woman who first wants more for herself, than dreams those dreams for her daughter, who is actually in a position to obtain them. It is both warm and tragic, with a character who is on the one hand appealing, and on the other, a bit appalling. In the end, whatever you may say about the decisions she made, her final motivation was from a mother’s heart.

Bachelor Mother

Bachelor Mother, 1939, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Charles Coburn. Directed by Garson Kanin. B&W, 82 minutes.

Polly Parrish (Ginger Rogers) has just been laid off of her seasonal job at Merlin and Son’s Department Store. It’s Christmastime, and she is in need of income, any income.

While at lunch on what appears to be her last day of work, she passes a foundling home and sees an older woman drop off an infant. Afraid the child may fall off the steps, Polly reaches out to pick him up, just as one of the home’s matrons opens the door. Inside, she’s unable to convince the home’s director the baby isn’t hers, but escapes the situation without a bundle of joy.

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Ginger Rogers

The foundling home tracks down her employer and convinces David Merlin (David Niven), the son in “Merlin and Son’s,” to give her back her job so she can care for “her” son. He does, but ends up paying an unexpected price for his generosity. Through a series of mishaps, the elder Mr. Merlin (Charles Coburn) comes to believe his son is the father of the baby, and expects him to do right by the child and his mother.

Bachelor Mother is an engaging comedy, predictable in some ways, yet clever in the details and twists that raise it above the level of bland storytelling. Nivens, Rogers, and Coburn each bring his or her own particular charm, with Rogers in particular showing an edgy, droll side. It doesn’t hurt that the baby is delightful, performing, it seems, on cue, although of course that likely wasn’t the case.

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David Niven, Ginger Rogers

Rogers initially expressed “deep reservations” about the script, stating the story line was thin and the characters “had no life.” However, her concerns proved unfounded, and in her autobiography she wrote, “I loved working with David Niven and the precious baby…(Garson Kanin) was imaginative and spontaneous and his good humor and lively sense of comedy smoothed out any problems along the way.”

The script was by prolific screenwriter Norman Krasna, who also wrote the screenplays for such movies as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and White Christmas.  It was based on a story by Felix Jackson, who received the film’s one Academy Award nomination, Best Writing, Original Story.

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David Niven

The film critic for The New York Times wrote “through smart writing, direction and performance, the theme is developed hilariously, with sudden and unexpected twists which never are permitted to affect the insane logic of the yarn’s progression.”

Perfectly enjoyable, Bachelor Mother is a comedy all classic movie fans should see. While the plot line of child abandonment hardly seems comic material, it’s handled in such a way that the improbable is easy to believe and the unbefitting is downright funny.

 

Anna Karénina (1935)

Anna Karénina, 1935, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Basil Rathbone. Directed by Clarence Brown. B&W, 93 minutes.

Anna Karénina (Greta Garbo) is bound in a financially and socially comfortable, yet deeply unsatisfying, life at home with her husband of ten years, Karénin (Basil Rathbone), and the son she adores, Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew). She wistfully, if somewhat indirectly, relates her feelings of malaise and longing to young Kitty (Maureen O’Sullivan) moments before she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (Fredric March). From there her life is changed forever.

Time and again, Anna and Vronsky defy society with their clandestine and illicit meetings. Gradually they are less discreet, and she is warned by her husband to stay away from the Count. Captivated by the intensity of her feelings, Anna makes a decision that has consequences she had been cautioned were inevitable, yet chose not to believe.

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Greta Garbo, Basil Rathbone

The restraints of bringing Tolstoy’s tome to the screen in little more than 90 minutes are offset by fine performances, stylish set decoration and costuming, and deft direction from Clarence Brown. The result, while not epic, is opulant and moving.

The movie was well-received critically, and did well in the box office, although it was met with mixed feelings by the general public. The London Observer‘s film critic wrote, “it is handsome and dashing, with enough social sense to present divorce as a problem to an age which has come to regard it as a commonplace.”

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Greta Garbo, Fredric March

A superb actress, Garbo’s experience in silent films served her well in Anna Karénina. Her final scenes in particular are subtly nuanced yet fully expressive, with all that is in her heart seen in her eyes, and barely a word said. She is the strength of this film. As the aggrieved husband, Basil Rathbone’s performance is taut and precise. While you may not have sympathy for the man, you understand his point of view. In contrast, Fredric March is perhaps not as compelling, but does not take away from the power of the story.

Dissatisfied with the way the adaption of Tolstoy’s classic had been handled in 1927 in a silent version of the tale titled Love, Garbo had long campaigned for another opportunity to bring Anna Karénina to the screen. She was met with resistance from her studio, yet remained undeterred until they gave in.

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Greta Garbo

Anna Karénina has been remade several times, and each version is a reflection of the era in which it is produced. The story, however, is timeless, and was brought to the screen in 1935 in a powerful manner, making this classic film one of the better movies of the early period of filmmaking.

 

You Can’t Take It With You

You Can’t Take It With You, 1938, Columbia Pictures. Starring Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Edward Arnold. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 126 minutes.

Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) once was a highly successful businessman, but some 35 years before gave it up for his current carefree lifestyle. He lives in a madcap environment, with his would-be writer daughter (Spring Byington), inventor son-in-law (Samuel S. Hinds), dancer-in-training granddaughter (Ann  Miller), some odds and ends of friends, and perhaps the most stable of the bunch, another granddaughter, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur).

Alice is the only one of the clan who has an actual job, working for the Kirby conglomerate as secretary for no less than the heir to the fortune, Tony Kirby (James Stewart), the one decent employee in the organization’s executive management.

Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), head of all Kirby enterprises and father of Tony, has received the go-ahead from Congress for a munitions monopoly, and in an effort to put the competition out of business has bought up nearly all the property surrounding its factory. The only holdout is Vanderhof, who has no intention of selling the family home.

In the meantime, Tony and Alice have fallen in love and plan to get married. Unaware of his father’s intentions for his fiancée’s home, Tony schemes to have his parents meet her offbeat family in an everyday situation of complete chaos, and not the nicely planned “normal” scenario Alice would put together.

Things start to fall apart at that impromptu dinner, but as they say, sometimes that has to happen before all can be made right. Vanderhof has a valuable lesson to teach the elder Kirby, and Tony and Alice have roadblocks overcome in their pursuit of true love.

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Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and won two, for Best Picture and Best Director. Other nominations included Best Supporting Actress for Spring Byington and Best Writing (Screenplay) for Robert Riskin, who adapted the immensely popular play of the same name by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. The play is said to have been more satirical in nature about the ideals of the Vanderhof clan than the Capra adaptation, and some critics called it superior to the movie, nonetheless, the film was a box-office hit.

Frank Capra looked for a particular type of leading man for the role of Tony Kirby, one who, like Gary Cooper had done in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, portrayed an idealized American with impeccable values and character. He’d seen James Stewart in Navy Blue and Gold and felt he had those qualities, as well as intellect and an “Ivy League idealism.”

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Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur

Jean Arthur was another favorite of director Capra’s, who tolerated her stage fright and nervousness because the end result was well worth it. Arthur and Stewart shared a great chemistry, as seen clearly in a scene Capra later said he used to draw the audience in to the intimacy of their romance. In it, Tony reveals his great regret at losing sight of a dream of scientific pursuit he had as a young man.

You Can’t Take It With You is a fun film with a typical Capra-esque idealism and search for higher values. It runs a little long and at times is a bit over-the-top, but the performances of this stellar cast make it worth the watch.

 

Top Hat

Top Hat, 1935, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Music by Irving Berlin. B&W, 100 minutes.

A simple story told with wit and charm, a top-notch score by Irving Berlin, and of course, the superb dance numbers with Astaire and Rogers make this musical a lovely escape, just as it was fully intended to be.

The plot is a familiar one to fans of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films: a mistaken identity, an unsought attraction between a man and a woman already entangled with someone else, a love that grows through one dance number after another. It isn’t the storyline that keeps you captivated. It’s the dancing, the music, the Art Deco sets, the one-liners, and the glimpse at a world that probably never existed.

Dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is practicing his latest routine, a tap number, in his hotel room one night, much to the chagrin of Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), who is in the room below. She forcefully complains; he falls in love. For her part, Dale could fall in love, but for one thing: she believes Jerry is actually Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), husband of her good friend, Madge (Helen Broderick).

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Fred Astaire

All five songs of the classic Irving Berlin score went on to become big hits, and several are frequently-heard standards today, particularly “Cheek to Cheek.” Also notable is one of Astaire’s best-known tap numbers, “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” in which he famously “shoots down” a chorus line of like-dressed men with his cane. Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan worked closely together to create each routine.

The dress Rogers wore in “Cheek to Cheek” is known as the “feather dress,” an outfit she loved but was burdensome to many others, in part because of its tendency to shed while the couple was dancing. Much of that problem was fixed prior to shooting, but if you look closely, you can see feathers flying and a few scattered on the floor.

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Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire

The film was made shortly after the production code went into effect, and a few changes had to be made to make it acceptable to censors. In one scene, Astaire states, “he didn’t give a dam” when referring to a horse’s lineage, and the censors required the word “dam” be struck, so a door is heard slamming shut as it is uttered. Censors also warned the director to take care not to make the character of dress designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) “too effeminate,” and while he is decidely all that, apparently director Sandrich curtailed enough of what would be offensive to make it past the censor’s strict eye.

Top Hat is one of the best Astaire-Rogers films, and one that showcases all these films were capable of bringing to an audience that delighted in them.

 

Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel, 1932, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford. Directed by Edmund Goulding. B&W, 112 minutes.

Five diverse individuals, each battling his or her own demons, are staying at the Grand Hotel where their lives and stories intersect. All lives are changed during that stay, some improve, some are left with nothing.

Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a retired assistant bookkeeper with only a short time to live. He’s decided to play out his last days in luxury, and despite his meek nature, demands an elite room. Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore) is an aristocrat without a penny to his name, forcing him to resort to thievery to maintain his standard of living. His latest victim is to be ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), whose declining career has led her to despair.

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Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore

There’s also Kringelein’s former employer, General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), whose business is depending on a merger that has fallen through, and ladder-climbing Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), the stenographer he hires for a business meeting with potential investors.

The Baron, despite his tawdry livelihood, is a gentleman and the one pivotal to moving all lives forward, whether to disaster or triumph. His fate seals that of the others.

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John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore

This pre-code film was the first to use an all-star ensemble cast, a tradition studios carried out for years to come. It also is known for its deft storytelling. The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was not nominated in any other category, the only film in the Award’s history to hold that dubious distinction.

Garbo’s famous line “I want to be alone” is uttered by her character in Grand Hotel, and is credited with solidly establishing her reputation as a recluse and loner. Later she clarified the real-life meaning of the phrase for herself when she said, “I just want to left alone.” In addition to that famous line, this film, along with Anna Karenina, is often credited as the movie that proved her star power was not just in silent films, but was also found in the new “talkies.”

She was initially reluctant to be in Grand Hotel, in part because she felt that, at the age of 27, she was too old to play a diva ballerina. Studio head Irving Thalberg convinced her otherwise, and promised she could select the actor who would play Baron von Geigern, her love interest in the story. Initially she wanted her former fiancé John Gilbert, but his career was in a decline, and she accepted Thalberg’s suggestion of John Barrymore instead.

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Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery

Thalberg had to convince Beery and Crawford to star in the movie as well, but lucky they did, given its success. Crawford in particular was credited for rising to the level of the performances of her well-established co-stars and gaining credibility as an actress in talking pictures.

The movie had a huge budget for the time, a good portion of which was spent on the phenomenal Art Deco set.

Grand Hotel established a new style of film, one of many characters whose lives may or may not be entwined, that Neil Simon, among others, later copied in some of his productions. It also was the direct inspiration for the production of Dinner at Eight a year later. It is a credit to the then still-young movie industry that it holds up so well today.