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.

william-powell-starring-in-after-the-thin-man
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.

Myrna Loy, William Powell star in After the Thin Man.png
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


 

 

 

 

 

 

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 to overcome in their pursuit of true love.

edward-arnold-lionel-barrymore-in-you-cant-take-it-with-you
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.”

lionel-barrymore-jean-arthur-in-you-cant-take-it-with-you
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.

 

The Shop Around the Corner

The Shop Around the Corner, 1940, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. B&W, 99 minutes.

One of the most charming and disarming romantic comedies ever made, The Shop Around the Corner is a story of two co-workers seeking both romance & security, neither knowing the other is the one to provide it. Both believe they’ve found love with their own mystery pen pal, unknown persons who possess all the desired qualities.

Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is constantly at odds with fellow sales clerk Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). They work at Matuschek and Company, a  Hungarian shop that sells such goods as suitcases and musical cigarette boxes.  Each has been corresponding with someone they gratefully say is nothing like the other, and they’re both anxious yet hesitant about meeting their pen pals.

In the meantime, shop owner Mr. Matuschek is heartbroken to learn his wife has been having an affair. He first suspects Alfred, going so far as to fire him on the evening of this once highly-favored employee’s first date with his secret correspondent.

the-shop-around-the-corner-margaret-sullavan-james-stewart
Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart

Alfred heads off to meet his date anyway, and that’s when he learns he and Klara have been in love with each other without knowing it. That same night, Mr. Matuschek’s despair leads him to take even more drastic, very nearly tragic, action.

Things come together on Christmas Eve at the Shop Around the Corner in a yes, predictable, but nonetheless appealing way.

The well-written script together with the fine direction result in a story told as much in the details as the broader scope of the plot. While often considered a holiday movie, it is an ideal story year-around with its feel-good nature, top-notch performances and timeless tale.

the-shop-around-the-corner-margaret-sullavan-ii
Margaret Sullavan

A good part of the charm is due to the genuine chemistry between real life friends Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. In fact, it was Sullavan who, early in Stewart’s career, predicted he’d be a star and advocated for larger roles for him. Rumor has it Stewart was in love with Sullavan, who was married, and his feelings for her kept him from marrying until he was 41.

Director Ernst Lubitsch later would call The Shop Around the Corner his favorite of all his films. One of the most popular directors of his time, he was known for his sophisticated style and use of innuendo, qualities seen even in this simple tale.

The movie has been remade several times, including You’ve Got Mail, a loose adaptation which pays homage to the original by naming a bookstore key to the plot “The Shop Around the Corner.”

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story, 1940, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 112 minutes.

Fiery, fiesty Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is ready to marry again, two years after her divorce from C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Much to her chagrin, Dexter, a former newspaperman, shows up the day before the wedding with two tabloid reporters he tries passing off as friends of Tracy’s brother: writer Macauley (Mike) Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrey (Ruth Hussey). Tracy isn’t fooled, but agrees to let them stay when Dexter tells her by covering the wedding he’s keeping the paper from a tell-all story about her father and his indiscretions.

Tracy quickly is becoming intrigued by Mike, and the two find themselves together perhaps a bit more often than a proper engaged woman should allow. That doesn’t stop Dexter from keeping a close watch for opportune moments to step in and take back Tracy’s heart.

The story line has taken a turn in that the rivalry is primarily between Dexter and Mike, with the fiancé virtually becoming a non-entity. Yet despite the battle for Tracy’s affection, the two remain gentlemanly toward each other. They are perhaps a little less kind to George, the fiancé, however.

Cary Grant, James Stewart The Philadelphia Story
Cary Grant. James Stewart

Katharine Hepburn first starred on Broadway in the stage version of The Philadelphia Story, and, as a gift from Howard Hughes, owned the film rights. She sold those rights to MGM for the paltry sum of $250,000 in exchange for decision-making power in the selection of producer, director, co-stars and screenwriter.

Her first choices for the male stars were Clark Gable as C.K. Dexter Haven and Spencer Tracy as Mike Connor, but neither were available. Hepburn had not met either man at that point; of course a few short years later she and Tracy would meet on the set of Woman of the Year and begin a life-long affair.

Reviews of the film were overwhelmingly positive. “Terribly funny, terribly upper class,” was how the Time magazine movie critic described it. The New York Times critic wrote: “this (film)… has just about everything that a blue-chip comedy should have—a witty, romantic script; ….the flavor of high-society elegance, in which the patrons invariably luxuriate, and a splendid cast of performers.” Audiences loved it as well, and flocked to see it, breaking a box-office record at Radio City Music Hall.

The Philadelphia Story was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two: Best Actor for James Stewart and Best Adapted Screenplay (based on the 1939 play of same name). Stewart was not expecting to win, admitting in his acceptance speech he’d voted for Henry Fonda. Many believed the award was given to him as compensation for not receiving it a year earlier for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Stewart, Grant, Hepburn
James Stewart, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn

Ruth Hussey gives a compelling performance as the patient, level-headed photographer in love with Mike Connor, despite his apparent oblivion to her affection. Both female characters in this film are strong and independent, qualities not undermined by their love for their men.

Two years after being declared “box office poison” by the Independent Theater Owners of America, Katharine Hepburn proved she was as powerful a leading lady as ever in her role in The Philadelphia Story. Never one to doubt her own worth, she set out to make a movie that proved her star power, and she succeeded.

Harvey (1950)

Harvey, 1950, Universal Pictures. Starring James Stewart; co-starring Josephine Hull. Directed by Henry Koster. B&W, 105 minutes.

Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a naïve, yet oddly sage, man who would do anything for the family that wants nothing more than to hide him away from the world. Chiefly, they want him to keep his discussions about and with his best friend, Harvey, to himself. Harvey, you see, is a 6′ 3 -1/2″ invisible rabbit, or a “pooka,” a mischievous mythological creature .

His sister, Veta (Josephine Hull), among other things, is worried for her daughter’s prospects what with friends and neighbors hearing Elwood’s benevolent but strange talk about life…and a pooka. She arranges to have him committed to a local mental hospital, but in the process confesses to seeing Harvey herself at times. The admitting doctor (Charles Drake) takes note, and Veta is involuntarily placed in the hospital instead.

Josephine Hull in Harvey
Josephine Hull

Ultimately, it’s Elwood who sees to her release, but not before more confusion blurs the lines between doctor and patient, the sane and presumed insane.

Harvey won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Josephine Hull, and Stewart was also nominated for Best Actor. Both had played the same roles on Broadway, although Stewart was one of several actors to portray Elwood P. Dowd in the original run of the Pulitzer award-winning play by Mary Chase.

By contract, production on the film couldn’t begin until the play had closed that initial run. Once it did, director Henry Koster wanted to keep the movie as true to the play as possible, and to that end he hired Mary Chase to write the screenplay with Oscar Brodney. He also hired several other actors and actresses from the long-running (1,775 shows) play to reprise their roles in the film.

That was a wise decision. These may not be the best-known performers to filmgoers, but their work was seamless and the magic of Harvey was maintained on screen. This movie is light and funny on the one hand, gently thought-provoking on the other.

Charles Drake, Peggy Dow, James Stewart
Charles Drake, Peggy Dow, James Stewart

The play, which took two years for Mary Chase to write, received the fourth Pulitzer Prize for Drama to go to a woman (of the 86 such awards given to date, 15 have now been given to women). Chase reportedly was inspired to write the play to cheer a friend who lost her son in WWII, and it was said to be a difficult process for the experienced journalist and author.

Harvey has been remade multiple times, including a 1972 Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation again starring James Stewart. That version was a bit darker with Stewart playing his character with more edge, and the movie was not as well-received by audiences.

However, the original remains an enchanting, whimsical tale of a man able to see and speak his simple truth, and how, despite themselves, those in the world around him are drawn in by his utter conviction and pure belief.