Wife vs. Secretary

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Wife vs. Secretary, 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow. Directed by Clarence Brown. B&W, 87 minutes.

It’s the Stanhope’s third anniversary, and husband Jake (Clark Gable), known to his colleagues as Van, has given his loving wife Linda (Myrna Loy) a diamond bracelet. Jake has just returned from vacation, and everyone in his life, it seems, is glad to see him again.

It’s quite clear the saucy Linda is the happiest, especially after a night of romance with her loving husband.

Other women in his life are glad to see him as well, including his secretary, Helen (Jean Harlow), who goes by Whitey. The two seemingly have a chaste, professional relationship, and Whitey has a serious boyfriend, Dave, (James Stewart), who works hard to keep her happy. Despite the clear lack of any danger signals, Linda’s mother Mimi (May Robson) sees trouble — and the experience and instincts of age may be working in her favor.

When Jake is faced with a sensitive business dealing, he’s forced to keep everyone except Whitey in the dark about his plans. The stage is set for one misunderstanding after another, and of course, that’s exactly what happens.

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Clark Gable, Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy had a great deal of affection for her female co-star, Jean Harlow, who was looking to change her image. “She wanted to darken her hair a shade, in hopes of toning down that brash image. It worked. She’s really wonderful in that picture and her popularity wasn’t diminished one bit. We did kind of a reversal in that picture. Jean stayed very proper, while I had one foot in bed throughout.”

Loy also spoke to Clark Gable’s sex symbol status. “Clark suffered so much from the macho thing that love scenes were difficult. He kept very reserved, afraid to be sensitive for fear it would counteract his image.”

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Jean Harlow, James Stewart

The New York Times critic generally praised the film, with some hand-slapping about placing Loy against Harlow in a battle for a man, saying Loy “enters the ring with glazed eyes, a crutch and one hand strapped behind her back—metaphorically of course.” As brazenly sexy as Harlow was, that imagery may not hold up today, when Loy’s appeal is perhaps more fully appreciated. Overall, the Times critic wrote,”the film has been richly produced, directed competently by Clarence Brown and is well played—within the handicaps of their roles—by Miss Harlow, Miss Loy and by Mr. Gable.”

This pre-code film showcases some of the top talent of the day in a pleasant comedy filled with innuendo and yes, a predictable ending, but one that’s entertaining in the path to that end. The value is in the cast and their strength on the screen, as well as a decent script and solid direction.

 

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Manhattan Melodrama

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Manhattan Melodrama, 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Clark Gable, William Powell, Myrna Loy. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. B&W, 90 minutes.

Boyhood friends Blackie Gallagher (Clark Gable) and Jim Wade (William Powell) survive a disaster as children when the ship they are on catches on fire and sinks, killing many on board, including their parents. They are adopted by another survivor, but their life with him is short-lived as he is trampled to death by a policeman’s horse during a protest. A life-long bond between the two boys appears to be firmly set.

As adults, Blackie and Jim have gone down divergent paths, albeit paths destined to cross each other. Jim has taken the high road as an assistant district attorney on the fast-track. Blackie, on the other hand, has turned to a life of gambling, mostly in an illegal casino that’s allowed to stay in business with regular payoffs to the police department.

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Clark Gable, Myrna Loy

Blackie is dating Eleanor (Myrna Loy), but she objects to his lifestyle, and leaves him on the evening Jim is elected district attorney. By New Year’s Eve, she is brave enough to seek Jim out, despite Blackie’s predictions she would never be good enough for him. It turns out he was wrong, and Eleanor and Jim are soon engaged.

That same New Year’s Eve, Blackie shoots and kills a man who double-crossed him. Jim doesn’t know who committed the murder, but has the task of seeking out the killer, and his search leads him to Blackie, something Eleanor cannot abide.

Manhattan Melodrama marked the first pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy, who would go on to make a total of fourteen films together, including the six in the Thin Man series. The Thin Man, in fact, was released only three weeks after Manhattan Melodrama; it was also directed by W. S. Van Dyke.

Loy later recalled her first connection with Powell, “I don’t remember much about my scenes with Clark. The picture doesn’t get going until Bill comes in. From the very first scene, a curious thing passed between us, a feeling of rhythm, complete understanding, an instinct for how one could bring out the best in each other. In all our work you can see this strange kind of rapport. It wasn’t conscious. Whatever caused it, though, it was magical.”

Her belief that the “picture doesn’t get going until Bill comes in” is debatable, as Gable gives an engaging performance as the likeable ne’er-do-well.

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Myrna Loy, William Powell

The ship sinking portrayed early in the movie was that of the General Slocum on June 15, 1904, when the excursion steamer, carrying more than 1300 passengers, among them 300 children, caught fire below deck. Ship hands, who had never taken part in a fire drill, discovered the hoses were rotten, as were the 2,500 life preservers they tried handing out to the doomed passengers. The final death toll was 1,021, the greatest disaster in New York City until 9/11.

This film is historically famous for being the movie John Dillinger was watching just before being gunned down by federal agents outside of the theater. It won one Academy Award, for Best Original Story (Arthur Caesar).

Manhattan Melodrama is a story that has been told numerous times since the making of this movie, making the tale seem a bit clichéd. It is, however, a notable film for a number of reasons, including the horrifyingly realistic depiction of the burning of the General Slocum, the assured performances of three stars, and a decent script. It is a movie classic film fans will want to see, if for no other reason than to watch the dynamics between Powell and Loy. Magical, indeed.

 

After the Thin Man

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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


 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

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Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, 1948, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Melvyn Douglas. Directed by H. C. Potter. B&W, 93 minutes.

Tired of life in their crowded Manhattan apartment, Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) and his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) have decided to move to the country. Their tour of properties leads them to a dilapidated home the realtor convinces them is a gem in the making, and their troubles begin.

The home, it turns out, needs to be torn down, and the Blandings set out to build their new dream house. It isn’t long before the first setback occurs, and trouble after trouble follows, slowly but surely increasing the cost of their humble — but increasingly customized — home to astronomical proportions.

Steadily advising them, with sardonic wit and a skeptical view, is their closest friend, Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas).

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Melvyn Douglas, Myrna Loy, Cary Grant

Produced at a time of prosperity, when millions of Americans were building homes, this movie remains funny and relevant today. The foils and fobbles of new construction are familiar to anyone who’s faced the drama surrounding the bringing of that particular dream to life.

Grant and Loy are perfectly cast as the upwardly mobile couple seeking a tranquil life in the country. This was the third of three films they made together, the other two being The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Wings in the Dark. They worked well together, so well it’s regrettable they didn’t star together in more movies.

Douglas brings a dry wit to the story, both in his character and in the narration of the story. It was his notable brand of humor, and it served this movie well.

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Cary Grant, Myrna Loy

The studio built an actual home for the set, and later that building served as an office for Malibu Creek State Park. In addition to this home, 73 homes were built across the United States as part of a promotion for the film. Some of these homes were raffled off, and several still stand today.

The movie was based on the popular book of the same name by Eric Hodgins. In real life, the budgeted cost of his home of $11,000 was overtaken by final costs of $56,000. Hodgins was forced to sell the house two years later, but ultimately his sorrows paid off by the money made from his tale.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is fun fare, particularly for fans of Grant and Loy. It is light viewing with sharp humor that has stood the test of time.

 

The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer

cary-grant-shirley-temple in the bachelor and the bobby soxer

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, 1947, RKO Radio Pictures.  Starring Myrna Loy, Cary Grant, Shirley Temple.  Directed by Irving Reis.  B&W, 95 minutes

A delightful movie with an all-star cast, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer charms from beginning to end. It’s the story of a precocious teenager who easily gets lost in her dreams of romance; her older sister & guardian, who happens to be a judge; and an artist with (excuse the pun) a sketchy reputation with women.

Margaret Turner (Myrna Loy) has her hands full at home with her teenage sister, Susan (Shirley Temple), who pictures herself to be a bit more sophisticated than she really is. Margaret’s work in the courtroom produces a daily barrage of challenges, including, one morning, artist Richard Nugent (Cary Grant). With some trepidation, the judge releases Nugent after determining he was not the sole factor in a fight between two women in a nightclub.

Shirley Temple and Cary Grant
Shirley Temple, Cary Grant

Nugent is scheduled to lecture on American art at the local high school, and it’s there Susan falls in love at first sight. That evening she sneaks into the artist’s apartment while he’s out to dinner. Just as he discovers her, Margaret and her asst. district attorney boyfriend (Rudy Vallee) appear, leaving Nugent at a loss as to how to explain his dilemma.

The ADA agrees he’ll drop charges if Nugent dates Susan until she loses her schoolgirl interest in the older man. The antics ensue, and they don’t stop until the final credits roll.

The Academy-award winning screenplay, by prolific writer Sidney Sheldon, is frequently noted for its sharp one-liners and overall deft use of dialogue. Those words would mean nothing if not delivered by this exceptional cast. Grant, of course, never failed in his comedic roles, nor did Loy. That’s a given.

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Shirley Temple, Myrna Loy, Ray Collins

The surprise for some may be Temple, who turned out to be just as delightful a performer as a young adult as she was when a child. (However, audiences at the time didn’t see it that way, and she began a new chapter in her life shortly after this film was released.)

The supporting roles were held by equally accomplished actors, including Rudy Vallee, Ray Collins and Johnny Sands. With this high-power talent bringing out the best of the fine script, what could have been a frothy throw-away film instead became a classic treasure.

Cary Grant, Myrna Loy the Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer
Cary Grant, Myrna Loy

 

 

 

 

The Best Years of Our Lives

Harold Russell, Dana Andrews, Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives

The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946.   Samuel Goldwyn Productions, released by RKO Radio Pictures.   Starring Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Myrna Loy.   Directed by William Wyler.   B&W, 172 minutes.

A wonderfully crafted film that explores the plight of servicemen returning from war, “The Best Years of Our Lives” tells the poignant story of three men and their adjustment to civilian life immediately after World War II. From the first scene with its unapologetic contrast of the world at home to the realities facing a soldier, this movie captivates.

Dana Andrews Virginia Mayo Best Years of Our Lives
Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo

The three servicemen, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), first meet when they’re flying back to their hometown of Boone City, a fictional town somewhere in the Midwest. Their return is a surprise for all three families: Fred’s beautiful & selfish bride Marie (Virginia Mayo), to whom he’d been married only three weeks before shipping overseas; Al’s ever-patient wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and their two children, one grown, one nearly grown; Homer’s loving parents, little sister and the girl next door, his fiancée, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell).

Each man faces his own burden. Fred has returned from the high-paying and prestigious job of captain and bombadier, which has left him with no marketable skills and nighttime flashbacks. Al, an infantry platoon sergeant and already a bit of a drinker, finds war has changed his priorities at work, leaving his employer unsympathetic. Homer is left with the most visible challenge, having lost both his arms just below the elbows, and he and his family struggle to come to terms with his loss.

Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Parrish
Hoagy Carmicheal, Harold Parrish

Mixed into all of this is the steady presence of Homer’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael), who owns the local tavern, which becomes a favorite meeting place of the three men. Their stories become even more closely woven together when Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) falls in love with Fred, and is determined to break up his already floundering marriage to Marie.

The details in the script and set, the sharp cinematography, the attention to the reality of the serviceman’s predicament, make this nearly three-hour film go by quickly. Whether or not you have any involvement in the military, you can relate to the very human elements of change, frustration and fear in an unsettling time.

In real life, Harold Parrish had suffered the same loss his character did and was discovered by the movie’s director, William Wyler, in a training film about his rehabilitation. Wyler changed his mind about including a character with “shell shock” (what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder) so he could cast Parrish.

The movie, released just one year after the end of World War II, won seven of the eight Academy Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Writing (Screenplay). Harold Russell was also given an honorary Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.” When later in the evening he won for Best Supporting Actor, he became the only person to win two Academy Awards for the same performance.

Teresa Wright Dana Andrews Best Years of Our Lives
Dana Andrews

While it was Fredric March who won the Best Actor award, both he and Dana Andrews gave award-worthy performances true to their characters and their story. These are two actors not well known today, but at the time both were major stars at the peak of their careers. Myrna Loy, another top box-office draw, graciously had accepted what was essentially a co-starring role and delivered a memorable and heartwarming performance.

The strong female supporting cast showed depth of talent in their portrayals of the women in love — or not — with men returning from war, and Hoagy Carmichael is impressive as the compassionate and wise uncle.

This film is about the aftermath of war, of soldiers returning home to a country whose land was untouched by battle, and so much more. It reaches deep inside the souls of all involved and shows the heartbreak of being human, set in a time of uncertainty and pain.

Harold Parrish, Fredric March, Dana Andrews
Harold Parrish, Fredric March, Dana Andrews

 

Libeled Lady

Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, William Powell in Libeled Lady

Libeled Lady, 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Spencer Tracy. Directed by Jack Conway. B&W, 98 minutes.

When a reporter’s mistake leads to a calamitous lawsuit, the newspaper’s editor has no qualms about marrying off his jilted bride to an unscrupulous ladies’ man so he, in turn, can entrap a snooty heiress.

One of the top screwball comedies of the era, Libeled Lady takes the standard war of the sexes and doubles it with two couples facing farcical situations on the road to true love.

Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) is set to marry Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) when he discovers his tell-all front page story about a socialite, Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy), is false and she’s set to sue the newspaper for the astronomical amount of $5 million dollars (remember, this is 1936).

Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy Libeled Lady
Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy

Figuring the best way out of the situation is to turn the heiress into the homewrecker the paper reported her to be, Haggerty hires Bill Chandler (William Powell) to lure her into a compromising situation with a married man.

First, however, he has to marry Chandler off to his bride-to-be to make him the married man in question. Of course, nothing goes as it’s supposed to (how could it?), and there’s a smart and sassy ending that isn’t really an ending at all.

This film was a return to the brassier, outlandish characters Harlow was known and loved for in her earlier roles. Her most recent work had taken a different direction, one she’s said to have wanted, but it wasn’t as well received by audiences. Luckily, they loved her in Libeled Lady, as did critics, and the studio took note, planning more similar roles for the future.

In real life, William Powell and Jean Harlow were dating, and many expected them to be married. That never happened, in part, it was rumored, because Powell was reluctant, perhaps because Harlow had already been married three times at such a young age, or perhaps because of the failure of his own marriage to another young blonde comedienne, Carole Lombard. Sadly, Harlow died of kidney failure just eight months after the release of Libeled Lady. She was 26.

Loy, Powell, Harlow, Tracy Libeled Lady
Myrna Loy, William Powell, Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy

The availability of all four stars for this film was a result of the studio system, a benefit of that controversial and convoluted method of managing actors and actresses. The studio in particular had been looking for yet another successful Powell/Loy pairing; by this time the two were well-established as onscreen gold.

Libeled Lady was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost to another Powell/Loy vehicle, The Great Ziegfield. Powell was also nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role that year for My Man Godfrey.

This is a movie any fan of screwball comedies will enjoy, with a top-notch cast playing at the height of their careers. Well worth the watch.

Myrna Loy, William Powell in Libeled Lady
Myrna Loy, William Powell

The Thin Man

The Thin Man Myrna Loy, Asta, William Powell

The Thin Man, 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. B&W, 93 minutes.

Nick Charles (William Powell), a retired detective with a droll wit, is a man who’s happy to now live on his wife’s fortune and, well, drink a lot. Nora (Myrna Loy), for her part, is a classy, sassy woman capable of keeping up with her husband in both drinks and saucy banter. Joining the two in their convivial life is Asta the dog.

(It’s important to note this movie was made two years after the end of Prohibition, so the Charles’ drinking was looked upon, and portrayed, in a different light.)

Despite his contentment in retirement, Nick is drawn into a case by the daughter of a long-time friend of his, Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis). Wynant has abruptly disappeared, and the appealing Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) pleads with Nick to look into it. Nick can’t resist helping Dorothy — after all, he’s known her since she was an infant — and ultimately, it’s his expertise that leads the police to the truth.

Myrna Loy, William Powell
Myrna Loy, William Powell

Simple case? Not a chance.

This plot goes down a winding path and brings in a long list of viable suspects. Nick, in his dry, observational manner, notes key elements the detective misses, ultimately leading them to what turns out to be the skeletal remains of the murder victim.

The group of suspects is brought together at a dinner party in the Charles’ home, where Nick skillfully pares down the list until the guilty individual is revealed.

This was the second of 14 films Powell & Loy would make together, including the six in the Thin Man series. Their chemistry was immediate and never failed, and they were a match in the pace and timing of their repartee and delivery.

Their performances are key to the success of the film, but the numerous Damon Runyon-esque characters play an important part in the overall feel of a fine & fun mystery.

William Powell, Myrna Loy
William Powell, Myrna Loy

The screenplay was based on the immensely popular novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, one of the most highly-regarded mystery writers of all time. The adaptation was written by the husband/wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who were also responsible for the screenplays of numerous other notable films, including It’s A Wonderful Life and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

The Thin Man was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Best Adapted Screenplay. These nominations were a somewhat remarkable feat and a tribute to all involved in the production, as the movie was given a “B” movie budget (read: small) and a short time frame for completion. Studio executives had low expectations.

Well, always easier to deliver when no one’s looking for success.

A little piece of trivia: contrary to popular belief, “The Thin Man” refers to the murder victim, not Nick Charles. However, that name caught on and was also used in the title of every other film in the series.