Sob Story: Margaret O’Brien Dishes on Her Famous Tears and More at TCMFF

stouisI’ve often wondered, can you ever be too happy? Well, apparently yes, you can. If you’re a child star who specializes in weeping like a pro.

On the set of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the young Margaret O’Brien was faced with just such a cheerful (yet tearful) dilemma.

As the actress recalled yesterday at the TCL Chinese Theater, “Judy Garland was so wonderful to work with, and she was the sweetest person in the world. See, I was an only child, so Judy to me was like a big sister…. She loved children. We used to play hopscotch or jump rope in those days. And I’d have a very hard time crying in the snowy scenes because I was so happy playing games with Judy.”

Classic film buffs might’ve read a cruel story about Minnelli lying to O’Brien—fabricating the death of her beloved dog—in order to get a response from her, but she insists that the anecdote is untrue: “My mother never would’ve stood for that.”

pInstead, O’Brien’s mother resorted to more creative and far kinder tactics to elicit a realistic performance in those tense Christmas scene. “The way they got me to cry was, June Allyson and I were in competition as the best criers on the M-G-M lot. We were called ‘the town criers.’ So, when I was having trouble crying, my mother would come over to me and say, ‘I’ll have the makeup man put the false tears down your face, but June is such a great, great actress that she always cries real tears.’ And then I’d start crying.”

So, the next time you’re watching Tootie’s third-act breakdown, remember that the decidedly fierce flood of tears are being shed by a seven-year-old star who already took her professionalism deadly serious.

As film critic Richard Corliss, who interviewed O’Brien, remarked, “What adult actors take spend years trying to learn… this person had at the age of five.” Indeed, Lionel Barrymore found O’Brien’s gifts so uncanny that he remarked, “If that child had been born in the Middle Ages, she’d have been burned as a witch.” In Corliss’s words, “Rather than performing, she seemed to live inside the characters that she played.”

The 1942 wartime drama Journey for Margaret brought the intense little girl overnight stardom and a new name: “My name was Angela O’Brien, but I loved the little girl in Journey for Margaret so much that I had it changed to Margaret.”

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Nevertheless, M-G-M hesitated to give the dynamo her due. As O’Brien said, “Mr. Mayer was a lovely person, but he was a little bit stingy. When people went in to ask for a raise, they’d have to sit in the little chair and he’d sit in a great big chair.” O’Brien’s mother, a professional dancer, wasn’t deterred, however, and asked for a top M-G-M salary of $5,000 per week for her daughter—or else she’d take Margaret off the screen and resume her own career in New York.

Thinking he had a perfect back-up plan, Mayer let the bankable child star leave. As O’Brien explained, “In those days, they had people on the lot who were lookalikes, in case a movie actor got difficult… This was a terrible thing that studios used to do.” M-G-M informed O’Brien’s lookalike that her day in the sun had come and that she’d star in Meet Me in St. Louis.

At the last minute, however, the studio bosses realized they’d need O’Brien’s presence to carry the integral role of Tootie, relented, and agreed to meet her mother’s terms.

Although this story has a happy ending for O’Brien, who won a special Oscar for the role, her lookalike—and her showbiz family—was crushed: “Her father was a lighting technician on the set. He had a nervous breakdown during the film and almost dropped a light on me. So her family was never, ever the same after losing Meet Me in St. Louis, and I felt terrible about that. But I think the studio stopped the [lookalike] process after that incident.”

Despite this initial bad blood, O’Brien remembers the film’s production as a golden period for the director and star, who were falling in love. Still, fans of Meet Me in St. Louis realize that, far from a blithe musical, the film probes some rather dark times for the Smith family—and reflected the real tragedies of millions of families torn apart by World War II. And the climactic snowmen sequence was almost even darker, if you can believe it.

The original lyrics to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—which, even in its current form, can induce serious dehydration—tended towards total devastation. Minnelli and the producers, hoping to move the audience, not depress them, decided that a rewrite was necessary. According to O’Brien, the final version that we know and love, with its message of togetherness in spite of adversity, came from both lyricist Hugh Martin and the film’s star: “Judy had a big hand in writing that song.”

redcarpetIt dawned on me while listening to O’Brien that any great film represents a thousand possible disasters that were miraculously averted. And Meet Me in St. Louis seemingly embraces the exquisite fragility of everything worthwhile, especially family.

On Thursday, I had the chance to ask O’Brien on the red carpet how she felt about the screening of Meet Me in St. Louis here at TCMFF. Her face lit up, like Tootie’s describing one of her moribund dolls: “I’m so glad that people still enjoy that movie and that it keeps going on for younger generations, and will keep on for many years to come.”

You also can watch O’Brien’s talk at Meet Me in St. Louis here.

Mel Brooks Gets Serious (Almost) at TCMFF

Mel Brooks at the Roosevelt Hotel. Photo credit: Mark Hill, courtesy Turner Entertainment Networks.

“Hi, I’m Robert Osborne…” seems like a pretty traditional opener for a discussion at TCM Classic Film Festival.

Unless, of course, it’s Mel Brooks saying it. And then following that up by blowing a raspberry into his microphone.

At the age of 87, Brooks shows no signs of mellowing; his madcap personality was in full salute yesterday in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel as he spoke to Robert Osborne about his career.

Although Brooks will introducing his hilarious parody Blazing Saddles at the festival tonight, the discussion took a somewhat different path. Rather than focusing solely on Brooks’s vocation as a funnyman, Osborne brought out some details about his more serious side. Brooks opened up about the surprising range of films that he produced, including the classic melancholy comedy My Favorite Year and the gruesome horror drama The Doctor and the Devils, about famous grave-robbers Burke and Hare.

I am the producer of very dark and important films, but I have always kept my name and my face away from them.” Brooks worried that his image as a comedian would skew audience expectations: “If you go to see Mel Brooks in The Elephant Man, you’d expect to see me with a trunk!”

elephantBrooks might’ve tried to keep his participation in The Elephant Man on the down-low, but he contributed to the film’s triumph with his fine-tuned story sense. The original screenplay offered a more cheerful ending, with Queen Victoria stepping in like a deus ex machina to assure Merrick’s medical treatment. It was Brooks who insisted on the cyclical structure of the plot and believed that the tragic title character had to die in the hospital to bring the film to an emotional conclusion. As he explains, “If movies don’t end right, they don’t work.” Brooks also recounted how, after seeing Eraserhead, he chose David Lynch as the right man to bring the macabre, but moving story to live.

(Note to self: write a book about thematic and narrative overlaps between The Elephant Man and Young Frankenstein.)

But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The comedian told a crowd-pleasing anecdote about  Cary Grant who happened to occupy the bungalow next to Brooks’s during the days of his early success. After watching the dapper Cary come and go in his Rolls Royce with yellow flowers in his buttonhole, Brooks couldn’t get up the courage to speak to the icon—let alone ask for an autograph. Well, who should come up to Brooks in the commissary a few days later, calling out, “Why, Mel Brooks! I’ve got your ’2000 Year Old Man’ Record!” but Cary himself.

At first, Brooks had to get over the impression that Grant must’ve been “a mirage”: “You can’t be real!” However, it sounds like the unlikely pair of Mel and Cary were on the way to becoming BFFs.  Alas, the comedian noticed that, at each of their costly breakfast chats, notoriously parsimonious Cary never paid his share. Finally, Brooks had no choice but to cut him loose: “‘—Cary Grant called…’ ‘—I’m not in!’”

And so we must weep for a bromance unfulfilled.

tbontbWhen Osborne asked what it was like for Brooks working with real-life wife, the astounding Anne Bancroft, in To Be or Not to Be, he elicited howls of laughter from the audience by exclaiming, “It was terrible!” Bancroft would constantly push Brooks to do another take, insisting that he could do better. Still, he admits that she was a perfect lifeline for his rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”—in Polish!—helping him memorize the words and leading him in the performance.

Finally, when asked which films had made the greatest impact on him, Brooks mentioned the elegant escapism of the Astaire-Rogers movies. “They took me to a different world… I wanted to live in that place!” he explained with uncharacteristic reverence. That’s right, folks: at TCMFF, we’re all classic movie geeks—especially the movie stars themselves.

The discussion yielded some good news for hardcore Brooks fans, so start filling out your wish lists. Later this year, a limited edition boxed set of his films—only about 1000 of them—will be released, each signed by Brooks himself.

Off to see the… Lodger? My Picks for TCMFF 2014

howgreenYou know what’s the best thing about classic movie geeks?

They come in so many flavors. In my book, the important thing isn’t so much which movies you care about—it’s simply the fact that you care passionately. Last time I checked, you don’t have to be an omnivorous movie lover to ‘qualify’ or anything thing like that.

Anyway, my point is, as I broke out my unreasonable amount of colored highlighters and tried to work out my viewing priorities for the TCM Classic Film Festival, the diversity of selections started to impress me more and more. Before I list my personal choices, I want to give TCM major respect for programming a festival that can satisfy a wide spectrum of interests even within the niche fandom of classic movie geeks.

So, without further ado, here are my program picks—from the oddball to the canonical—including a few toss-ups and back-ups.

Disclaimer: I may be forced to depart from this itinerary when I get there, depending on seating availability, a collapse from hunger and lack of sleep, potentially being kicked out of the theater for wolf-whistling at Errol Flynn or Warren William, or my own confounded whimsy.

Thursday, April 10

2:00 p.m. – Meet TCM: Special Edition at the Egyptian Theatre

For 20 years, TCM has broadcast the best of classic cinema. That’s a delightfully long run to meditate on, and I look forward to listening to staff as they reflect on the milestone and reveal their plans for the future.

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3:30 p.m. – Sons of Gods and Monsters

Pardon me while I gush for a moment here. The 1930s Universal horror cycle is probably the single most important aesthetic influence in my life. No, really—don’t run away. I mean that in terms of taste. I don’t reanimate dead people. Wait, that sounded even worse…

Anyway, those movies plugged me into the beauty of film at a tender age and, as soon as I got the first DVD sets of these masterpieces, since I’d long since worn out my VHS cassettes, I was a busy little bee watching all the marvelous featurettes. Much of what I know about the behind-the-scenes business of monster-making came from listening to Rick Baker and Joe Dante—who also grew up as precocious horror geeks—talk about James Whale, Tod Browning, Jack Pierce, and the whole scream team.

So, the chance to hear these guys, moderated by TCM’s own Scott McGee, discussing my favorite films in real life will be, needless to say, spooktacular.

7:00 p.m. – 5th Avenue Girl

I’m hoping that the elegant light comedy helmed by Gregory La Cava will soothe my jet-lagged constitution, like a fizzy cinematic Alka-setlzer for the spirit. (Okay, weird metaphor, I know, but stay with me.)

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10:00 p.m. – Johnny Guitar or Bachelor Mother

Nicolas Ray’s vibrant revisionist Western fairly begs for a big screen to attain maximum campy eloquence. The majesty of mature Trucolor Joan Crawford on a big screen tempts me. However, if I can’t handle the intensity, I might opt for another charming comedy starring Ginger Rogers.

Friday, April 11

9:45 a.m. – On Approval

As much as I cherish The Thin Man and Stagecoach, which are playing in conflicting slots, I have to follow my predilection for the unusual, which leads me to On Approval. The only film directed by swoon-worthy leading man Clive Brook (who also stars), the cheeky, relatively obscure British comedy of manners sounds like just my cup of tea.

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12:00 p.m. – Touch of Evil or A Conversation with Carl Davis

Touch of Evil continues to fascinate me with its byzantine, edgy cinematography and its downright muddy moral takeaway. That said, I might end up attending the Carl Davis event over at Club TCM. I’m a huge fan of his scores (my Harold Lloyd boxed set is never far from me), and I would love to know more about the process behind his compositions. His thoughts about making silent film accessible in this day and age will also prove fascinating, I have no doubt. So, the jury’s still out on this one…

4:00 p.m. – A Matter of Life and Death

This time block is a total collision of awesomeness. I’m really cursing that silly law of physics that says a body can’t be in more than one place at a time. If I could clone myself I would. Because, more or less simultaneously at different venues we have…

  • Margaret O’Brien introducing Meet Me in St. Louis
  • Thelma Schoonmaker introducing A Matter of Life and Death
  • William Friedkin discussing his life and works

This choice hurts. Bad. I suspect that seeing Powell and Pressburger’s color and black-and-white masterpiece on a big screen will be nothing short of a spiritual experience, so I’m currently tending towards A Matter of Life and Death with Thelma the Great.

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7:30 p.m. – Why Worry?

No ambiguity here! For me, it’s all about Harold Lloyd and Why Worry? at the Egyptian. Not only will Carl Davis conduct his original score live, but the silent clown’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd (who has done an amazing job of keeping his work alive and available) will also introduce the gut-busting comedy. And if you’re going to TCMFF, I’d highly recommend this hilarious film.

9:15 p.m. – Employees’ Entrance

You know how a lot of pre-Code movies cop out and leave the audience feeling betrayed and annoyed? Yeah, Employees’ Entrance isn’t one of them. My homeboy Warren William turns in perhaps his greatest performance as a sleazy tycoon who demands a very intimate interview from Loretta Young before giving her a much-needed job at his department store.

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12:00 – Eraserhead

You might think that going to a midnight screening of Eraserhead while emotionally drained and jet-lagged is a bad idea, but I say, “Who knows? The movie might actually make sense to me in that frame of mind, right?” That sh*t’s gonna get real. If I can stay awake, that is.

Saturday, April 12

10:00 a.m. – City Lights

I first saw Chaplin’s three-hankie comedy in abominably pixilated form on YouTube many years ago. Heaven knows, I cried then. I might flood the theater seeing a pristine print of a new restoration on a big screen.

11:45 a.m. –  Godzilla

My cult movie hankering will once again be sated with a screening of the original Japanese Godzilla. However, from what I’m hearing around the blogosphere, I might have to skip this to camp out for the next item on the list…

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3:00 p.m. – How Green Was My Valley

Maureen O’Hara is going to be there. In person. I’ll get back to you when I’ve fully processed that fact.

In her memoir ‘Tis Herself, O’Hara remembered that when the Welsh Singers arrived on the astonishingly authentic film set, “the whole choir fell to their knees and wept.” I get the feeling that the crowds of faithful that show up to see the radiant Ms. O’Hara will have a similar reaction.

Here we come to another difficult fork in the road. If I still have a lot of tolerance for waiting in lines, I might queue up for Kim Novak and Bell, Book, and Candle. If not, I’ve got a pre-Code double bill lined up.

5:30 p.m. – The Stranger’s Return

Miriam Hopkins + Franchot Tone + Lionel Barrymore + King Vidor = How the hell haven’t I seen this movie? This little-known pre-Code family drama apparently hasn’t circulated much, despite its stellar cast and direction. Fortunately, that’s about to change.

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8:00 p.m. – Hat Check Girl

Bootleggers and blackmailers and call girls, oh my! Another rare pre-Code basks in the limelight at TCMFF.

10:00 p.m. – Her Sister’s Secret 

Poverty Row auteur Edgar G. Ulmer’s movies thrill the eye with gorgeous shadows and moody mise-en-scene, so I’ll revel in the chance to see one of his more prestigious PRC movies on a big screen. Plus, Ulmer’s insightful daughter, Arianne Ulmer Cipes, will introduce this showing of the director’s ambitious women’s drama.

12:00 a.m. – Freaks

How could I resist a midnight screening of Tod Brownings’ topsy-turvy horror melodrama?

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Sunday, April 13 

A fair portion of the schedule for the festival’s final day remains TBA. From what I understand, the festival often re-screens movies from previous days. So, I’ll probably end up attending at least one of the not-yet-decided showing, especially if they rerun a movie I wanted to see but missed.

9:30 a.m. – Academy Conversations: The Adventures of Robin Hood

Even if this screening weren’t preceded by a talk about the production of Warner Brothers’ epic storybook classic, I’d still show up for the theater-sized Technicolor close-ups of Errol Flynn. Note to self: bring smelling salts.

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7:30 p.m. – The Lodger 

It just bloody figures that TCMFF would schedule two of my favorite films ever at the same time. (And if you think I mean The Wizard of Oz as one of them, you clearly don’t understand the twisted inner-workings of my mind.)

Well, everyone else can go skip down the yellow brick road, but I’ll be torn between The Lady from Shanghai and The Lodger. Orson Welles’s exotic head-trip masterpiece and Alfred Hitchcock’s moody serial killer thriller both occupy special places in my heart. In the end, I’ll probably attend The Lodger, which edges out the spectacular Lady only because the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will be accompanying the silent film.

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9:00 p.m. – Official Closing Night Party

Throughout my life, I’ve typically dreaded parties. But a live-action #TCMParty? Well, that might unleash even my inner Scarlett.

Man of Mystery: Why I Love the Falcon Series

the-falcon-and-the-co-eds-movie-poster-1943-1020548505I like to think of the Falcon movies as film noir lite.

When I can’t stomach the amoral bitterness and grisly endings of true noir, this mystery series still satisfies my craving for seductive low-key lighting, cynical dialogue, and underworld intrigue. With his Bond-like resilience and devil-may-care banter, the debonair amateur sleuth known as the Falcon makes the viewer feel reassured and protected as he leads us down those mean streets in search of answers—and gorgeous dames.

Between 1941 to 1946, RKO’s B-movie unit churned out thirteen Falcon programmers. Amazingly, the quantity did not undermine the quality of the thoroughly enjoyable films. Distinguished up-and-coming directors like Edward Dmytryk and Joseph H. Lewis helmed individual movies, and more workmanlike directors still served up polished, competently made films that clock in at a little over an hour. On a broader level, I suspect that Val Lewton’s successful RKO horror cycle strongly influenced the sleek, shadowy look of the Falcon movies. In any case, one can only assume that the studio—which managed to produce The Stranger on the Third Floor (widely considered the first film noir), Citizen Kane, Cat People, and Out of the Past within a span of a few years—must’ve been an environment conducive to good ideas and an eye-catching, moody style.

vlcsnap-2014-03-18-12h40m28s223Although the wry, purring George Sanders created the role of the Falcon, after just a few movies he moved on to more prestigious gigs and bequeathed the title to his equally wry and purring real-life brother Tom Conway. Years before, in 1937, when starting out on acting careers, the Russian-born, British-raised brothers had flipped a coin over who’d get to keep the family name. (The self-destructive genes in the family had already been split between them.) Well, George won the Sanders name, but Tom comes out the clear winner in the Falcon series.

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Sanders might ooze deadly charm when playing bad guys, but he makes a less convincing ladies’ man on the right side of the law. By contrast, when Conway’s Falcon flirts with ladies, they stay flirted. (Warning: buckle up for fangirling, folks. This is a Tom-centric article and I feel no shame for it.)

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Probably best known for his turn as the spectacularly unethical Dr. Judd in Cat People and The Seventh Victim, Conway delivered some fine performances, but didn’t possess the ample dramatic gifts of his younger brother. However, he proved much more adept at sustaining the Falcon series. As Kim Newman observes in The BFI Companion to Crime, “Conway was less sullen with material his brother clearly believed beneath him.”

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Whereas much of Sanders’s star image depends on his disdainful aura of boredom, Conway’s less caustic brand of sprezzatura gave the Falcon persona a much-needed infusion of curiosity and energy. Over the years I’ve acquired a great deal of respect for actors who can play the same static character over and over while still making him amusing and engaging. Conway bore this onus brilliantly.

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Conway’s work in the Falcon deserves the Errol Flynn Prize for Formulaic But Consistently Awesome Performances. I’d also award him the Ronald Colman Cup for Fine Moustaches. If anybody ever looked more badass holding a teacup, I’ve never seen it. It’s not difficult to understand how the Falcon series—which RKO initially planned on cancelling soon after Sanders left—actually grew more popular once Conway took it over.

vlcsnap-2014-03-18-11h22m04s30Sanders and Conway appeared together in just one film, The Falcon’s Brother, and their collective swoon-worthiness might cause temporary blindness in certain scenes. Gay Lawrence (Sanders) begins the investigation when his brother, Tom, is falsely reported dead. In an interesting reversal, by the end of the movie, Nazi spies have killed off Gay, leaving Tom to inherit the mantle and seek out further adventures as the Falcon.

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If taken out of context, audiences’ first glimpse of the future-Falcon Tom Lawrence wouldn’t seem out of place from any purebred noir. As policemen load into a car in pursuit of Gay Lawrence, a cut shows a presumably nearby alleyway—in almost total darkness. An indistinct movement, the sound of a match striking a wall, a spurt of flame, and there he is: coolly lighting his cigarette, the contours of his face flickering in the smoky glow. In the initial installment of the series, The Gay Falcon, the other Lawrence brother was introduced to us as a mischievous, easily distracted white-collar socialite who works in an office but shirks his duties to go off hunting killers. From the first, however, Tom Lawrence strikes the viewer as a less frivolous sleuth, a slightly shadowy gentleman slummer with one foot in the noirverse.

vlcsnap-2014-03-17-19h01m10s34 Adding to the more hard-boiled qualities of the series, a number of actors better remembered for their work in iconic films noirs—including Jane Greer, Elisha Cook Jr., Martha Vickers, and Sheldon Leonard—bring a darker acting style to individual movies. However, to take the edge off of that intensity, RKO drafted in a number of recognizable comic character actors, like Don Barclay, Edward Brophy, and Cliff Edwards, to play the Falcon’s sidekick.

The Falcon movies feature many classical noir plot tropes, such as psychotically jealous spouses, mercenary femmes fatales, and gangsters living under assumed identities. The better installments mesh noir elements more or less seamlessly with their high quotient of comic relief. For instance, in The Falcon and the Co-Eds, my favorite of the series, an idyllic school for girls offers plenty of opportunity for giggly hijinks, but the façade drops to reveal a roiling undercurrent of repressed passion and neuroticism.

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The Falcon in San Francisco, with its urban environment and preponderance of thugs and baddies, channels the noir atmosphere the most distinctly, but even The Falcon in Mexico and The Falcon Out West manage to cull a noirish aesthetic out of atypical settings. The Falcon in Hollywood wins my personal recommendation as the series installment that most elegantly fuses incongruous elements of dark visual textures with pervasive light comedy.

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Speaking of comedy, the main running gag of the Falcon series consists of bookending almost every film with glamorous ladies begging the sleuth for help with some conundrum or other. As the detective quips in The Falcon in Danger, cornered by a distraught stunner with a ransom demand for her father, “Why is it every beautiful girl I meet is in distress and has a note?” A Falcon movie usually finishes by opening the door for the next movie; just as the Falcon has cracked the case, a woman runs up to him and pleads for his help. Although these teasers seldom relate to the plot of the following film, they end the films on a high note of, “Here we go again!”

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It’s a miracle that the Falcon can get any detecting done at all, what with the sundry dames clamoring for his attention. In one typical scene, also from The Falcon Strikes Back, the sleuth tries to deter the perky, but meddlesome reporter Jean Brooks (Jane Randolph) with a generous smooch. The ploy works a little too well, because he then has to revive her from the resultant reverie with a snap, like a hypnotist!

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I always used to wonder why men carried handkerchiefs in their pockets. After watching a few Falcon movies, I finally understood the reason: to wipe away bright traces of lipstick left on their faces by amorous ladies—or that was the hope, at any rate. Yet, as the films make clear, the Falcon is at heart a gentleman, not a playboy. For instance, when trapped amongst a coatrack of costumes in a dressing room of chorus girls during The Falcon in Hollywood, he surreptitiously reaches from his hiding place to put in place a sagging shoulder strap and thus protect the young lady’s modesty.

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I find the incessant flirtatiousness in the series somewhat refreshing because, just as much as the Falcon eyes women up, they eye him up right back. Cigarette girls, hotel maids, and random broads sitting around bars look him up and down and express their approval with an enthusiastic “mmm!” of delight.  When a mysterious lady bails Lawrence out of jail in The Falcon in San Francisco, she immediately pulls him into a liplock with nary a word of introduction. In The Falcon and the Co-Eds, Lawrence has to contend with classrooms full of googly-eyed maidens who instantly crush on him as hard as I do.

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All the pretty girls that populate the Falcon’s universe are clearly furnished to satisfy the gentlemen in the audience, but you can’t mistake a robust female gaze implied in the series. I mean, how else can you explain the scene in The Falcon’s Alibi where Tom Conway is shirtless for about five minutes—freshly oiled from having a massage and wearing nothing but pajama bottoms? Sleuth that I am, I can detect no narrative rationale for this shirtlessness, apart from unabashed eye candy. (Then again, I lose consciousness whenever I watch that scene. Smelling salts must be sent for.) At the risk of rationalizing my guilty pleasure, I would argue that there’s something healthy about the equal-opportunity checking-out that the Falcon movies heartily encourage.

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Like many programmer mystery series, the Falcon movies ride high on a breezy stock company ambiance. You can discern the sense of camaraderie and ease between performers who worked with each other practically every week. Keep your eyes peeled for repeating players, including Jean Brooks, Jane Randolph, Rita Corday, Barbara Hale, and, most frequently, Cliff Clark and Edward Gargan as the flatfooted policemen consistently flummoxed by the Falcon.

Raymond Chandler once wrote, “The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.” I believe this statement applies equally to movies. Now, I’m pretty damn sure that Chandler wouldn’t have expected that statement to relate to the Falcon movies. Especially since the first film adaptation of a Chandler work was the mutilation of Farewell, My Lovely into The Falcon Takes Over. Needless to say, the already cranky author felt trivialized. I admit that the Falcon movies lack the dramatic architecture and emotional tension that supports a great screen or literary thriller, regardless of the conclusion.

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But there’s a very different quality at work that would make me tune into a Falcon film even if the ending had been spliced away. It’s the cozy charm of the situations and the rapport of the characters that brings me back to these movies. The series invites you into its world and make you feel right at home with a cluster of familiar tropes that grow more amusing with each Falcon movie you watch. You get in on the in-jokes and experience the vague feeling, when each film is over, that you’re expected at the cast party. In the end, try as I might to analyze why I find the series so appealing, I can’t get much further than to conclude, well, they’re darn fun to watch.

conwayAnd apparently they were fun to make. Conway, often typecast as villains or tortured souls, relished his chance to play a witty detective and found the series cathartic. As he told Hollywood magazine in 1943, “every now and then I get a breather like one of the Falcon series, which acts as a purifying agent. Then I’m ready for a fresh dish of dastardly doings.”

I guess that when I need a break from noirdom, the Falcon movies are my “purifying agent,” too.

This post is part of the Sleuthathon, hosted by Movies Silently. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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And for those of you who are interested, I’ll be hosting a tweetalong to two Falcon movies on March 19 in partnership with #Bond_Age. Click here for details!

Announcement: I’m Covering TCM Classic Film Festival 2014

egyptianI am very honored to report that I will be officially covering the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. I swear, I won’t start acting all Hildy Johnson or Torchy Blane on you… much.

Less than a month from now, from April 10 to 13, I’ll soak up as many classic movie screenings, special panels, and celebrity question-and-answer sessions as humanly possible. Plus I’ll be defying the siren lure of sweet slumber to compulsively chronicle the rush of emotions accompanying this pilgrimage to Hollywood’s historic spots.

And I expect that the journey will be especially poignant for this little movie blogger from Vermont, because…. well… I mean… um… I’ve never been to Hollywood. Or California. Or that whole coast over there. Yep, that’s right. This will be my first visit to the place I’ve been obsessing over for most of my life.

Needless to say, if anyone can recommend a brand of truly waterproof mascara, I’d be very grateful.

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Enhancing the misty-eye factor, the theme for this year’s TCMFF celebrates “Family in the Movies: The Ties that Bind.” [Cue my Don Corleone impression here.] The choice seems fitting, as Turner Classic Movies’ extended family of fans celebrates the network’s 20th wizardanniversary. The selections announced so far range from no-brainers, like The Wizard of Oz and The Best Years of Our Lives, to a few wonderful head-scratchers, like the original Godzilla and Sorcerer.

You can bet on my viewing preferences leaning towards the latter—the more cult the better! I’m also interested to take in the wide variety of musicals, from Meet Me in St. Louis to Stormy Weather to A Hard Day’s Night, in a short span of time and ponder their similarities and differences.

Although press credentials don’t guarantee me admission into the events and screenings of my choice, the program showcases new restorations of several of my all-time favorite movies, including The Lodger, City Lights, Double Indemnity, and Touch of Evil. I’m also psyched for a screening my favorite Harold Lloyd feature, Why Worry?, in which spoiled hypochondriac millionaire Harold and his feisty nurse get caught up in a revolution on a remote banana republic island. This comedy masterpiece is getting the Carl Davis treatment with a new score performed by an orchestra at the festival. (Note: I will be carrying cigarettes and silk stockings as bribes to get into this screening, if necessary.)

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As for the festival’s roster of special guests, screen legends, such as Maureen O’Hara and Kim Novak, as well as innovators from the other side of the camera, like Thelma Schoomaker and William Friedkin, are slated to make appearances. UPDATE: TCMFF has announced a star-studded line-up for Club TCM events. Read more.

Finally, I’m excited to put faces and voices to many of the lovely people I’ve had the privilege to get to know online, primarily through that hub of old movie conviviality that is #TCMParty. I look forward to meeting those of you who plan on attending the festival! 

So, stay tuned. Look for updates on this blog, as well as on my Twitter account and on Tumblr. And read more about TCMFF on the festival’s official website.

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The ABCs of The Thin Man (1934)

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Bad movies tell you outright what they’re about. Great movies keep you guessing long after the last reel. And this, in my opinion, is why The Thin Man is a great movie, as well as one of the most beloved of all time. I usually tune in for Nick and Nora’s repartee, but every time I do I find myself bowled over by the abundance of signifiers, some important, some peripheral, that fill the movie with endless interest and meaning.

So rather than try to make some screwy attempt at a coherent argument (as usual), I thought I’d borrow a playful method from the film scholar Robert B. Ray, author of The ABCs of Classic Hollywood. Here’s my ABC of The Thin Man, probing just 26 facets, factoids, and anecdotes, some expounded at length, some barely scratched, pertaining to this continual treasure of a blockbuster.

Now, this is a really long post and I don’t expect anyone to read the whole thing. Think of it as more of a “choose your own adventure” proposition. Pick a letter and investigate!

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A is for Asta

The most anthropomorphic dog in live action since Rin-Tin-Tin, Asta acts as a kind of parallel audience. He reacts to the action in ways that are funny because they mirror the viewer’s intended reactions: cringing at the drunk sing-a-long, discreetly turning away from Nick and Nora’s lovin’, et caetera. However, that is only one of Asta’s functions within the story. He sniffs out a major plot point (Wynant’s body) and reveals important information about the protagonists (slightly frivolous but loving couple with no children—just the dog).

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The shifted gender of Asta from female in the book to male in the movie also invites a comparison between the dog and Nick Charles. After all, doesn’t Nora have both of them somewhat on a leash? I always remember her complacently admonishing expression as Nick shoots balloons off the Christmas tree, the same look one might flash a wayward pet. Reading about the temperament of the wire fox terrier (Asta’s breed), I came across this description, “This is a relatively dominant, very high-energy dog that can become stressed and frustrated without the proper type and amount of exercise, both mental and physical.” As for Nora’s insistence that Nick tackle the case, perhaps she came to the same conclusion about him.

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B is for Box Office

Ah, the holy and inscrutable power of that industry shrine, the box office, which can transform a B movie into a surprise Best Picture Nominee. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine that the astronomical success of such an appealing future franchise would come as a shock. But it certainly did. Given a budget of only $231,000—not much at the lavish top-of-the-heap studio M-G-M—the film returned the investment by more than 600%, raking in over a million dollars. An ad in Variety tempted theater owners hit by the Depression with instant success, “Is your cash register on a diet? Get ready for FAT box office for Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man.”

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The bottom line was so amazing that The Thin Man, along with two of M-G-M’s more prestigious projects (Viva Villa! and The Barretts of Wimpole Street), got the nod for Best Picture in 1934. Although it didn’t win, another surprise hit, It Happened One Night, took the gold. 1934 was a good year for dark horses and underdogs.

C is for Christmas

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Hammett’s original novel was set during the holiday season, but if the studio didn’t like this, didn’t discern value in it, believe me, it would’ve been altered. The Thin Man was released in late spring, so it wasn’t intended as a Christmas film. Well, I would argue that the association between Christmas and comfort is so strong that the studio hoped such an ambiance would lure audiences back to the theater multiple times. Christmas = good feelings = better box office returns.

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And yet, am I the only one who finds The Thin Man’s holiday décor a trifle unsettling, especially the slickly minimalist and slightly impersonal seasonal trappings in Nick and Nora’s hotel room? The meaning of Christmas, like that of all family-oriented holidays, forks into two directions: the ideal of togetherness and joy and the potential reality of discord and dysfunction. Within a film that deals extensively with family problems (see also F), the Yuletide backdrop takes on a darkly ironic tone, not entirely unlike the counterpoint of Christmas cheer and despair in It’s a Wonderful Life. For instance, I sense something aggressive in Nick’s little game of shooting up the Christmas tree, effectively taking out his frustrations and excess energy on a quasi-religious symbol of well-being and eternal life.

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Now, I relish his impish target practice as much as the next person, but, like much of what makes us laugh, this routine also hints at something more disturbing, at a regressive urge to destroy things that still beats in the heart of this most civilized and charming of men.  In The Thin Man’s world, merriment and murder coexist even during the hap-happiest season of all.

D is for Darkness

Film noir would officially arrive in Hollywood five years after The Thin Man with The Man on the Third Floor, but W.S. Van Dyke’s movie foreshadowed much of the genre’s style—literally! The first post-credits shot of the movie reveals Wynant’s noir-ish shadow, holding a mechanical apparatus but looking in silhouette like some man-machine hybrid. Low-key lighting prevails through the film’s more suspenseful scenes, contrasting with the high-key sheen we tend to associate with M-G-M movies. In fact, during the scene where Nick discovers Wynant’s body, the screen is entirely dark for a few frames, and this total blackness must’ve proved quite disconcerting for moviegoers.

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Director of photography James Wong Howe, perhaps remembering Joseph von Sternberg’s edict, “The sun casts only one shadow,” objected to W.S. Van Dyke’s and Cedric Gibbons’s request for a movie overcome by shadows. And he was right to do so; if every scene in the film were as tenebrous as the spookier ones, the impact of those scenes would be greatly reduced. Wong Howe keeps those shadows on the fringes of The Thin Man’s world, as though they’re threatening to creep forward and take over the lives of the characters. In film noir, those shades have taken over. But in a comedy-thriller, such darkness would dampen the comedy and take the snap out of the thrills. Thankfully Wong Howe recognized this and, being a master of his profession, he choreographed a delicate dance between darkness and light.

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E is for Eponymous

The eponymous “Thin Man” is not William Powell, of course, (despite his oft-quoted confession that his fitness derived from worrying his pounds away). It’s Wynant, the lanky inventor. Although this fact has elicited its share of chuckles from classic film fans over the years and is fairly well-known as far as movie trivia goes, I mention it more as a testament to  the astonishing power of titles to implant themselves in audience members’ heads. Although images may be universally understood, text asserts a kind of priority over our minds. I find it immensely interesting that viewers’ brains took the straight line of deduction, marrying that title to the lead character’s identity.

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F is for Family

Whether it meant to or not, The Thin Man betrays considerable anxiety about the fragility of family. From the bit-part drunk at Nick and Nora’s party, wailing “Ma!” long distance into the telephone, to the more central questions of the plot, less-than-ideal relationships prove to be the norm, rather than the exception. The Wynant clan, fractured by a messy divorce and an uncomfortable remarriage, makes the Munsters look like the Cleavers. Dorothy’s speech about giving birth to a bunch of little murders who will hopefully “kill each other and keep it in the family” may be the most genuinely creepy line of dialogue ever spoken at M-G-M. We witness Nunheim’s ugly domestic quarrel and ultimately find out that Jorgeson is a bigamist.

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In fact, the movie borders on commedia dell’arte, with one couple in love at stake, being tried and challenged by lots of unhappy or whacky people in dysfunctional relationships. Pairs of grotesques (Julia Wolf and Morelli, Mr. and the ex-Mrs. Wynant, Mr. and Mrs. Jorgeson, and Nunheim and his moll) threaten the future of the lovers, Dorothy and Tommy. Within this mess, Nick and Nora stand out as the Harlequin and Columbine whose magical union somehow holds the key to our continued hope for love.

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G is for Cedric Gibbons

Although credited as art director on hundreds of movies, Gibbons really served as a supervisor for most of them. Nevertheless, his chic, modern trappings deserve the credit for etching the M-G-M look—elegant, striking, and rarely ornate—upon the public consciousness. Unlike another brilliant celebrity art director, William Cameron Menzies, who tended to give characters large, visually fascinating arenas to play within, Gibbons had a knack for creating glamorized, stylized spaces that still feel surprisingly real. Yeah, okay, that’s a glittering generality, but one that harbors a kernel of truth, I think. Would Grand Hotel or Dinner at Eight be as poignant if the décor didn’t seem somehow personal and revealing, full of spaces that happen to be just the right size to express the emotions of the characters—in spite of the cool M-G-M look telling us we’re watching a movie?

vlcsnap-2014-03-02-14h31m05s185Similarly, the layout of Nick and Nora’s hotel room, with its kitchen/cocktail mixing room, sitting room, and bedroom adjoining a large central room, contributes significantly to our understanding of them. Those slightly more intimate spaces give Nick and Nora “wings” in comparison to the “center stage” of that main party room. Not only do the off-shoot spaces facilitate plot development (Dorothy couldn’t talk to Nick privately in the middle of a party!), but they also give us a spectrum of Nick and Nora’s personalities. If the couple were always “on” all the time, we’d soon grow tired of their parlor tricks. They’re still witty with each other, but the back-and-forth exchanges acquire an intimacy in those peripheral spaces that provides the key to the audience’s bond with them.

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H is for Hays Code

As I’ve discussed before, 1934 was a key transitional year in Hollywood history, as the industry fell in line with a set of staunch moral standards known as the Production Code, or sometimes the Hays Code, that had existed, largely unheeded, for years. The retooling of the motion picture industry into something much more normative and family-friendly motivated clever screenwriters, directors, and actors to find increasingly subtle ways to smuggle sex and moral transgression past the censors.

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And The Thin Man is a prime example. The fact that Nick and Nora are married lets them get away with all manner of naughtiness. Who can complain about him sitting on her lap or their constant flirting or Nora’s endless parade of voluptuous loungewear designs? Who would want to? Even censorial honcho Joseph Breen himself wouldn’t dare impugn the sanctity of Nick and Nora’s right to be attracted to each other—and to present a positive onscreen version of marriage.

Within that union, however, a subversive equality kept the spirit of the pre-Code era alive. Nora’s money put Nick in the clear position of a kept man, and one with enough brains to know it.

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I is for Indigestion

During the climactic dinner party scene, the guests are eating oysters. Those oysters were real. Unfortunately. As Myrna Loy recalled, “They wouldn’t bring fresh ones, and under the lights, as shooting wore on, they began to putrefy. By the time we finished that scene, nobody ever wanted to see another oyster.”

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J is for Book Jacket

M-G-M clearly valued the movie’s source material enough to make Hammett’s picture, on a book jacket, the first image of the film, during the credits sequence. This was by no means an uncommon practice for literary adaptations throughout the 1930s and 1940s (and indeed beyond), partially as a means of building up the prestige of the film industry by leaning on the novel. In this case, banking on a celebrity author also raises expectations and sends the audience a signal about how to react: “Dashiell Hammett wrote this. You will be excited and entertained.”

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K is for Robert Kern

As far as I’m concerned, film editors cannot be given too much respect. Robert Kern, who cut The Thin Man, After the Thin Man, and The Shadow of the Thin Man, isn’t very well known as far as Golden Age editors go. However, he did work on some distinguished films, including Anna Karenina and The Women, and quite a few big-name prestige movies at M-G-M where he was under contract. The editing in The Thin Man does occasionally call attention to itself, especially during smash cut transitions between scenes that keep the viewer alert, more so than the average 1930s film, I’d say. But Kern’s expert timing proves most valuable during the famous dinner party scene, which lasts over ten minutes, thus posing a considerable threat to the film’s brisk pace up to that point. Now, I realize that Woody Van Dyke did a lot of the editing in the camera; that is, he was a big exponent of only shooting what would end up in the film.

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Nevertheless, even if Van Dyke had a clear idea of the order of shots, a few frames of dead air and the scene would sag. Cut too soon, though, and you alienate an audience already overloaded with information. So, I applaud Kern’s accelerating editing, starting with shots that last a little longer than they needed to (you almost expect someone to yell CUT! at some point) and proceeding to snappily suspicious exchanged glances. It’s a masterpiece of pacing, of knowing the value of each and every foot of film.

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I’d also note that Kern had recently edited two of Myrna Loy’s biggest pictures before The Thin Man: Penthouse and The Prizefighter and the Lady. Just from making GIFs, I know that if you spend enough time working with footage of one person, you become intimately, almost unconsciously aware of how they move, what their mannerisms are, when they’re going to blink. So, although I would never dispute Loy’s natural gifts, I’d also credit Kerns with enhancing her punch as comedienne. Her close-ups, especially, never feel contemplative or drawn-out, but rather hit you with their straightforward vivacity.

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So, let’s all take a moment of silence for a silent partner in the dream team that was the Thin Man franchise.

L is for Liquor

What’s with all the drinking? Modern viewers might find themselves slightly shocked by the sheer alcohol consumption in The Thin Man—bordering on caricature. Now, I recognize that widespread heavy drinking was a much more hardwired cultural practice in the early to mid-20th century, but still. Heck, a few Thin Man movies later and by the 1940s, writers realized it was time for Nick Charles to curb his intake and get on the wagon, albeit briefly. Drinking is a major source of conversation and one of Nick’s defining characteristics. Notice that Nora’s drinking is more casual, less pervasive than her glass-draining hubby.

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Last time I watched the movie, I was struck by the fact that Nick, making the rounds of his Christmas party with a tray of cocktails, calls out, “Ammunition!” At the risk of inferring too much (always), I find this rallying cry more than a little revealing. Nick’s about the right age to have served in WWI, worked in law enforcement like many veterans, and wears a trench coat. Maybe drinking is his ammunition, against some of the things he’d like to forget.

M is for Montage Sequences

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I love 1930s headline montage sequences, but they sometimes make me glaze over. I mean, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all, right? Not necessarily. The Thin Man offers some beautiful examples of how to keep your audience awake during these plot shorthand passages of rapid editing and stock footage. The sinister, elongated silhouette of Wynant that appears over the headlines proclaiming his guilt. Extreme close-ups of a policeman add a little expressionistic disorientation for a change. In one visually stunning touch, a net, representing the network of police looking for Wynant, sprouts from New York City to cover the whole USA. A film is only as good as its most boring scene, and even the headline montages in The Thin Man display a dynamic flair characteristic of the movie as a whole.

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N is for Nora

Nora is a name that I happen to know a bit about, because it’s also my own. (Yes, really.) Originally a diminutive of Honora or Eleanora, Nora may, for all we know, not be her full name. Both she and Nick have short, catchy names; the punchy, slightly teasing alliteration (as in na-na-na-na-NA-NA!) of the N’s tells us that it’s true love. They’re made for each other. However, her name is two syllables and is thus more musical and complex—and more balanced, given the even combinations of consonants and vowels. Indeed, Nora presents the less volatile of the pair; Nick moves in fits and starts whereas Nora, her energetic entrance notwithstanding, generally maintains a state of languid readiness throughout the film.

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Nora means ‘honor,’ and thus proves the perfect moniker for straight-shooting, self-possessed Mrs. Charles. Though considered a sophisticated name nowadays, it’s actually one that would’ve held more working class connotations in the 1930s, I suspect. It’s also a somewhat ethnically coded name—“Nora” is Hollywood’s go-to name for Irish maids. Indeed, my touchy Irish grandmother, born in the early 1920s, objected to my parents naming me Nora because she claimed it was a “maid’s name.” Would that mean that Nora is nouveau riche? It seems more likely that the daughter of a parvenu family, rather than an old money house, would be allowed to marry whomever she chose, even a “Greek louse,” as she describes Nick in Hammett’s novel.

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O is for Oedipus complex

Gilbertt Wynant, the bespectacled, Freud-thumping, pseudo-intellectual, accuses his sister of suffering from an Oedipus complex. The young pedant is mistaken, of course. He means Electra complex, a woman’s excessive psychosexual fixation on her father. I’m not sure whether the screenwriters made this error intentionally, but it would make sense—an Oedipus complex would’ve been more readily recognized by audiences as part of Freudian jargon.

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Plus, this mistake suggests young Wynant’s dilettantism; he applies psychoanalytic terminology without grasping even the fundamentals. More than pure comic relief, young Gilbertt presents a humorous parody of detectives who rely on psychologizing to catch crooks, as he insists that the murderer might be a psychopath or a sadist, and ignores the more important motives all around. Staring intently at anyone who comes within range, thethinmanlargeGilbertt is just another cue for audiences to read The Thin Man not only as a murder mystery, but also as a deconstruction of murder mystery tropes, already clichés back in 1934.

P is for Poster

The posters that originally promoted The Thin Man betray some of the studio’s initial ambivalence towards the project, especially towards Myrna Loy as its star. One version of the poster art features Nick Charles and Dorothy Wynant locked in an intimate toast while Nora Charles, a disembodied head, floats in a lower corner, looking rather grumpy. I don’t blame her.

semicercleA more well-known poster (the cover of the DVD I own) shows Nick and Nora trying to lift a panic-stricken Dorothy from the ground, her shapely legs fetchingly exposed. Apart from the graphically interesting curve formed by the font, the most interesting thing about this poster design resides in its sensationalism. Dorothy is made to look like the victim of a violent attack—or perhaps the instigator of one, judging from the gun she clutches—whereas Nick and Nora appear to be restraining/helping her. The ambiguous, looming postures of Nick and Nora—Are they detectives? Samaritans? Kidnappers?—plays into a marketing concept for the film as a pulpy crime story. In other words, The Thin Man is presented less as a blithe comedy-thriller than as a hardboiled Hammett yarn, like something you might read in Black Mask.

yellowOn probably the most accurate poster for the domestic market, Nick and Nora dominate, locked in an embrace at the bottom edge of the yellow sheet. The fact that their shoulders fill the full width of the frame gives them a larger-than-life aura. The artist must’ve seen the film, or at least stills from it, because the embrace closely resembles the pair’s kiss as Nora coos, “I love you because you know such lovely people.” The artist even caught the little pout of sarcasm around Loy’s mouth. Now, this is the couple we know and love.

Q is for Quotation

At the very end of the film, as Nick Charles leaves Dorothy and her husband on their wedding night, he calls out, ironically, “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Nick Charles quoting Hamlet firstly provides another illustration of his topsy-turvy wit. After all, he’s blessing a classic comedy denouement—two celebrating couples—with the ending of a tragedy. However, the allusion also suggests his underlying cultural refinement. This sassy gumshoe was a gentleman long before he married Nora and became a man of leisure.

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R is for Rhythm

For a rather uncommon word, “rhythm” makes two interesting appearances in The Thin Man: the first when Nick Charles lectures on cocktail-shaking tempi, the second when a musical director urges lines of chorus girls “Rhythm! Rhythm!” Perhaps the preoccupation with rhythm was just in the air during the shooting of a movie that depends so much on pacing and split-second timing to set it apart from similar formulaic mysteries. Indeed, attempting to explain his chemistry with Myrna Loy, William Powell recalled that, from their first scene together in Manhattan Melodrama, “a curious thing passed between us, a feeling of rhythm, complete understanding, an instinct for how one could bring out the best in the other.”

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S is for Smash Cut

The Thin Man Drinking Game:

Rule 1: Take a shot every time there’s a smash cut (that is, an abrupt cut from one scene to another, intentional discontinuity)

Rule 2: Try not to get plastered.

Rule 3: Keep an icebag on hand for tomorrow.

T is for Trailer

The trailer for The Thin Man is an exceedingly unusual one. Most 1930s trailers weren’t so different from the ones you see in theatres today, albeit with less dramatic music. Sure, 1930s trailers made greater use of title cards and onscreen text, but they usually offered a few sample scenes that spoke for the film. I’ve seen a few trailers from the 1930s in which a character, or the actor who portrays him, addresses the spectator and urges him to see the film. But the trailer for The Thin Man is singularly creative in its odd introduction of the film’s plot and its mash-ups of fictional characters and reality.

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At the beginning of the trailer, a split screen enables a doubled William Powell to talk to himself—or rather to let Philo Vance, whom Powell had previously played at Warner Brothers, to hold a conversation with Nick Charles, on a book jacket for The Thin Man. At one point, Powell-as-Nick even steps out of the book jacket to converse more easily with his detective doppelganger. After a few scenes from the movie, the trailer returns to Philo and Nick, whereupon Nick climbs back into the book, claiming that the answer to the mystery is there.

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Like the film’s credits sequence (see also J), the trailer appropriates the book jacket as an emblem of artistic worth and legitimacy. This trailer not only serves to remind the viewer of Powell’s past successes in detective roles, but also carves out a modified, sexier persona for him. Whereas Philo Vance seems straightforward and dapper, Nick Charles immediately impresses us as sarcastic and engaging. He even tickles the audience with some meta-jokes, like allusions to Clark Gable, with whom Powell had made Manhattan Melodrama, and to M-G-M. More interesting, the trailer equates the “book,” represented by the man-sized book jacket, with the film, the moving likeness of William Powell. But clearly, no book could hold a life-sized detective! In a way, this piece of promotion seems to pay tribute to the novel, while it subtly asserts film as the superior medium.

U is for Urban

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The Thin Man offers a masterful example of M-G-M’s ability to create a streamlined version of almost any location on its backlot. Though a soundstage is no substitute for New York, the sparse, but redolent street scenes, the swanky interiors, and the glittering city lights seen through windows demonstrate how good the studios had gotten at evoking the ambiance of the city. For people all across America, in a time before easy transit, this was their mental image of NYC, of the world’s most celebrated urban environment.

V is for Villain

In retrospect, MacCauley stands out as a rather obvious villain. Why? Because he’s pretty much the only character with no obvious motive and such an omission, in the mystery cosmos, practically screams, “J’accuse!” And the fact that plump-faced Porter Hall, one of the most enduringly unlikeable character actors onscreen, though a sweetheart in real life, plays MacCauley should be a dead giveaway.  The squabbling Wynant family thus sends up a great big smoke screen, obscuring MacCauley’s motives.

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The film also employs some adroit visual misdirection to deter the audience from giving the lawyer any thought at all. For instance, our last glimpse of Wynant, as he rises into the shadows on an elevator, encourages us to look at the inventor as he slowly disappears—not at the lowly lawyer asking him for information about his plans. We peer at the moving object, Wynant, and fail to observe the suspicious manner of the lawyer. Later, while MacCauley makes a phone call at the Charles’s, we’re so taken in by Nick and Nora poking each other that we barely get a word of what MacCauley says.

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MacCauley also offers a kind of escape valve for the plot. If any of the Wynant family really were guilty, it would mean curtains for Dorothy and Tommy’s hopes of a contented life. MacCauley, a professional man gone wrong, represents an acceptable sacrifice, one that goes unmourned by the other characters.  Nevertheless, not unlike many film noir protagonists to come, MacCauley remains a somewhat disturbing choice of villain because, amongst the whole pack of crooks and loonies, he appears the most outwardly mundane.

W is for Woodbridge Strong ‘Woody’ Van Dyke

Without W.S. Van Dyke, popularly known as One-Take Woody, this movie would not exist. Today, I admire its artistry and deft construction, but I can practically hear master craftsman Woody heckling me from the other side. After all, this was a man who unequivocally refused the title of artist: “I resent simpering idiots who babble about the Artistic Urge in a director’s job.” For him, the highest praise came in commercial profitability.

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Yet, Van Dyke betrayed uncommon sensitivity to performers’ strengths and weaknesses. Noticing Myrna Loy and William Powell’s breezy banter on the set of Manhattan Melodrama, he perceived what no one else at M-G-M seemed to recognize: the makings of a peerless comedy team.

Pitching the Thin Man project to a skeptical Louis B. Mayer, Van Dyke ultimately convinced the formidable executive. How? Well, I suspect that it had a lot to do with the director’s track record of no-fuss shooting and reliable production. The reserves of respect that Van Dyke built up in Mayer’s fiefdom earned posterity the treat we still have. When a terminally ill Van Dyke committed suicide a few years later, Mayer was devastated.

X is for X-Ray

A literal X-ray provides one of the most vital clues in the whodunit—revealing the telltale bit of shrapnel that Nick recognizes as an old war wound of Wynant’s—but it’s not the only instance of X-ray vision in the film. As Morelli loiters in Julia Wolf’s apartment, he holds a special “art study” to the light and reveals the risqué lingerie worn by the models. Other than exposing Morelli’s sleazy nature, this detail holds no narrative significance.

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Yet it foreshadows that later, much more important X-ray, balancing it out, turning what could’ve been a one-off into a proper motif. In a film full of confusion and misdirection, X-ray vision is what everyone wants and nobody—not even Nick Charles—possesses. These parallel X-rays, one racy, one morbid, hint at the underlying realities all around us to which we remain blind, realities often linked to sexuality, like the lingerie beneath the clothes, and death, like the bones under all of our skins.

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Y is for Year of Birth

Joking around the night before the climactic dinner party scene, Nick asks Nora, “What were you doing on the night of October fifth, nineteen-hundred-and-two?” She looks away—positioned above Nick in a tight, intimate framing, cutting off part of Nick’s head—and coos, “I was just a gleam in my father’s eye.” There’s a reverse shot to Nick who does a double take, suddenly brought back to the awareness of how much younger his wife is than him.

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Indeed, Loy was born in 1905. William Powell was born more than ten years earlier, in 1892. Given that Hollywood continues to peddle relationships between older men and much younger women without batting a false eyelash, I appreciate the candor inherent in this moment of age comparison shock.

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Z is for Zingers

Oh, it’s all right, Joe. It’s all right. It’s my dog. And, uh, my wife.

Well you might have mentioned me first on the billing.

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Like this exchange, most of the zingers that we remember from The Thin Man don’t come from Dashiell Hammett, who penned the original novel that, as you might expect, is noticeably more cynical than its bubbly screen adaptation. While Nick and Nora’s baiting relationship in the book, famously based on Hammett’s turbulent affair with writer Lillian Hellman, provides a blueprint for the onscreen couple, something is definitely missing.  The film froths with a joie-de-vivre that doesn’t derive from the novel, in my opinion. So where did it come from?

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Well, a good place to start looking is the screenplay, written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the supremely witty team who also collaborated on two more Thin Man movies, plus It’s a Wonderful Life, and Father of the Bride, among many others.

And—here’s the kicker—Goodrich and Hackett were man and wife when they wrote it. In fact, they were married from 1931 to 1984, a whopping, golden 53 years. I always suspected that zingers are the key to a long and successful marriage. This real-life Nick and Nora prove it.

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Final note: this is a slightly tardy entry to the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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Songs to Remember: Celebrating the Soundie

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They’re short, snappy, and will have you humming to yourself all day long. They don’t usually have much of a plot, only an excuse for a good tune and some swingin’ choreography. Featuring top musicians, they also helped to launch the careers of future superstars. Seldom watched in single servings, they were usually enjoyed on a self-contained device that looped them in a playlist.

It really sounds like I’m describing modern music videos, doesn’t it?

Well, guess what? Long before the MTV generation, soundies—short musical interludes on film—entertained viewers with infectious tunes, often set off by stylized dramatic scenarios panoramand dance routines. Between 1941 and 1947, over 2,000 soundies circulated through nightclubs, bars, restaurants, or other public spots. Patrons could view a reel of eight of these brief 16mm videos on a kind of audiovisual jukebox or “movie machine,” called a Panoram.

So, while the soundie harkened back to the early motion pictures seen through the peep hole of a Kinetograph, the form also foreshadowed YouTube and today’s era of brief, stimulating clips, savored by an individual or two rather than a crowd. Although cheaply produced, these shorts “required a new kind of image, one not dictated by narrative but by the affectivity of song,” as historian Amy Herzog writes in Medium Cool.

More important, this genre of short film also provided a vibrant showcase for facets of American culture too often excluded from mainstream motion pictures. Within the eight-film formula of the soundie reel, a number featuring African American musicians was typically the finale. So, to honor Black History Month, I though I’d celebrate this key form of African American culture on film, since soundies gave performers of color their chance to shine far more frequently than did feature films of the 1940s. Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Nat ‘King’ Cole, the Mills Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie, and ‘Fats’ Waller—to name just a few—all reached audiences through this new form.

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Although soundies were no match in budget or viewership for the Hollywood musical, they still remain intriguing, and often delightful documents of voices seldom heard in classic movies.

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Consider one of my favorite soundies, “The Outskirts of Town.” This marvelously witty and unusually well-made short packs a concise marital farce in under three minutes and gives two of Hollywood’s most sadly underused talents, Theresa Harris and Dudley Dickerson, a chance to play comparatively subtle—as opposed to stereotyped—comedy. Shambling in the door after a presumably hard day at work, Dickerson plunks down at the kitchen table and sings a dry lament about his wife’s roving eye. Meanwhile, his aforementioned better half, Harris, as breathtaking as usual, flirts hilariously with a series of deliverymen… literally behind her husband’s back!

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This soundie exemplifies the clever use of the cinematic language that the form, at its best, was capable of. The video opens with a lingering tilt upwards from a melting block of ice, lying on the floor, next to two sets of feet, as the camera reveals the charmingly coquettish wife cuddling with the ice man. The use of multiple planes of action later adds to the sophisticated humor of the piece, as Dickerson mournfully croons to the audience while his wife’s escapades take place in the background.

Although admittedly a less than ideal depiction of a couple’s home life, this soundie still portrays the lives of its characters as a subject worthy of the audience’s attention and interest. Which is still an improvement on classical Hollywood’s banishment of African American characters to the corners of its universe.

Interestingly enough, the Production Code—which banned risqué content and enforced a racially regressive worldview—didn’t apply to soundies, since they weren’t distributed for theatrical release. Indeed, with the Soundies Distribution Corporation of America delivering the reels, content might range from maudlin and pure patriotic songs to a striptease. Consequently, “The Outskirts of Town” and other soundies not only turned the spotlight on actors usually confined to the sidelines, but also relied on a slightly more mature and morally ambiguous comedic style that you’d see in many post-1934 features. The result reminds me of what would have happened had Ernst Lubitsch directed a soundie.

Although far from an equitable vehicle for expression—since the producers, distributers, and directors were often white—soundies offered a comparatively positive image of African Americans in an era of segregation. I’m not trying to claim that they’re innocent of stereotyping or demeaning content, but more often that not, the exuberance of these videos encourages identification and admiration rather than distance and mistrust.

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For instance, “A Zoot Suit,” probably one of the more famous soundies due to the presence of a young, luminous Dorothy Dandridge, presents its lead singers as a chic young couple. The soundie defines them primarily by their peppy knowledge of fashion terminology. As the boy and the girl, Paul White and Dandridge, prepare for their Sunday date, they describe their choice of à la mode attire with zingy lyrics to their tailor and seamstress, respectively. Now, the zoot suit (and possibly other sartorial slang in the short) does connote race, since the style was especially popular among minorities, but the racial dimension isn’t coded negatively.

Rather, the soundie’s enthusiasm for White’s zoot suit reinforces the right of minority communities and individuals to develop and delight in their own identity and flair—and to influence mainstream culture with their style. The couple’s fashion vocabulary shows them to be on the cutting edge of fashions that were by no means exclusive to African American sub-culture in the 1940s. Attractive and likeable in appearance and graceful and eager in their stylized movements, the boy and the girl demonstrate their status as modern young Americans who would’ve probably been relatable for viewers of any background.

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Plenty of soundies subordinated narrative in favor of a more presentational mode of performance. The shorts might feature a big band or musical ensemble giving their rendition of a popular song, perhaps punctuated by a dance number or a brief vignette. For instance, in “Your Feet’s Too Big,” attention shifts back and forth between Fats Waller’s wry rendition of the lyrics and a disastrous dancer dominating the floor of a nightclub. Just as modern music videos might include actors playing out a scenario but really focus on the main artist, it’s Waller—not the awkward dancer—who gets the last laugh. Looking into the camera, he drolly talk-sings, “In fact your pedal extremities are quite obnoxious!”

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Similarly, in “Take Me Back Baby,” which features Count Basie and his orchestra, leisurely paced, well-framed shots of different musical sections emphasize the professionalism and the polished teamwork of the ensemble. However, the saxophonist, given a rest in the tune, nods off, dreams about his girl, and begs her to forgive him. By the end of the song, however, we’re back with the band, in the same atmosphere of creative coordination that’s noticeable at the beginning. The dream sequence creates an interesting A:B:A structure, a hybrid between a filmed performance and a dramatic musical number that, again, foreshadows the tropes of the modern music video.

harpEven without semi-narrative content, soundies balanced the duel goals of highlighting the performer’s talents while working with the potential of film as a medium. Kaleidoscope effects sometimes accentuated the dexterity of soloists like pianist Maurice Roco and jazz harpist LaVilla Tulos. It would be eye-catching to watch their fingers at work in a single close-up, but refracted into simultaneous images, the energy multiples amazingly. Since shadows were cheap, dancing silhouettes cast on to walls might enhance the noirish ambiance of a song, as in this soundie of “Minnie the Moocher”—with Cab Calloway, who else?

Most pervasively, soundies would grab the viewer’s attention by singling out performers with expressive close-ups or closer shots. Now, we’ve all come to accept the intimacy that forms between the illuminated faces on our computer screens and our experiences as solitary viewers. But try to imagine how electrifying it would’ve been to have Cab Calloway or Louis Armstrong performing seemingly just for you—not for a nightclub or for a theater full of moviegoers—in the 1940s. Soundies brought the beauty and joy of these artists and their music to viewers in a way that, in my opinion, wouldn’t be really experienced again until the birth of YouTube. In an age of enforced separation, the soundie was a medium of incomparable closeness.

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A largely forgotten time capsule from a rich moment in American music, soundies deserve to be enjoyed and remembered for the rare glimpses they offer of gifted African American personalities and performers.

Here are a few other entertaining soundies or soundie compilations that you can watch on that great digital Panoram, YouTube:

A wonderful half-hour of soundies

Louis Armstrong – “Swingin’ on Nothing”

The Mills Brothers – “Lazy River”

Dorothy Dandridge – “Cow Cow Boogie”

Cab Calloway – “The Skunk Song”

Dizzy Gillespie – “Salt Peanuts”