More Pre-Code Valentines for All You Swell Sinners

Back by popular demand! Last year I followed up my tragically hip noir valentines with a pack of naughty, bawdy pre-Code valentines.

For Valentine’s Day 2017, I cooked up a totally new batch of pre-Code love letters to keep the spark of censor-defying romance alive. 100% guaranteed to add oodles of whoopee, sizzle, “it,” hot-cha-cha to your day.

Why Be Good? (1929) – Colleen Moore gets her man—and teaches him a lesson or two—in this delightful feminist flapper romance.why_be_good_valentine

The Divorcee (1930) – Norma Shearer is looking for a revenge fling. And Robert Montgomery is very willing to be flung.

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Morocco (1930) – Sure, Dietrich ends up with Gary Cooper. But the real heat in the movie comes from that tuxedo kiss.

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Frankenstein (1931) – You had me at “experiments in the reanimation of dead tissue.” Colin Clive doesn’t need a lightning bolt to give me life.

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The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) – Miriam Hopkins goes from drab to fab to impress Maurice Chevalier.

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Horse Feathers (1932) – If you need me, I’ll be writing some Groucho-Thelma Todd fan fiction. The line comes from Monkey Business (1931).

Movie Crazy (1932) – Harold Lloyd gets himself into an adorable mess—all for his lady love.

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No Man of Her Own (1932) – Years before Lombard and Gable became a real-life item, they played an unlikely couple in this steamy romantic drama.

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One Way Passage (1932) – We all know what those dreamy dissolves mean… William Powell and Kay Francis make the most of their time together (especially the bits we don’t see) in this intoxicatingly beautiful film.

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Rain (1932) – “Who’s gonna destruct me?” Joan Crawford is a force of nature as Sadie Thompson.

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Scarface (1932) – Tony Camonte likes Poppy’s class and sass. What does Poppy like about Tony? The fact that he’s not making it out of this movie alive.

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Footlight Parade (1933) – It’s a silly caption, I admit. But I honestly just can’t with these two.

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I’m No Angel (1933) – The perks of being an auteur of box office gold comedy? You get to write your own happy endings, like Mae West did.

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The Thin Man (1934) – Nick and Nora Charles remind us that excitement is the key to a long-lasting marriage. (Booze and money don’t hurt either.)

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Wings in the Dark and Amelia Earhart: 31 Days of Cary Grant, Day 9

Amelia Earhart visits Cary Grant and Myrna Loy on the set of Wings in the Dark (1935). Unfortunately, this well-acted but clunky aviation drama didn’t exactly take off, prompting a New York Times reviewer to guffaw, “High altitudes have a tendency to make scenarists a little giddy.” At least Cary and Myrna would go on to make two side-splitting comedies in the 1940s.

Cary Grant, Amelia Earhart, and Myrna Loy, 1935

Image scanned from the Spanish-language fan magazine Cine-Mundial (April 1935). You should know that I’m cheating a bit today because I didn’t scan this image myself—the fine team behind the Media History Digital Library did it for me! However, I couldn’t resist sharing this historic image, so I edited and enhanced it.

For added Cary Grant fun, though, here’s a GIF of the real star of Wings in the Dark—Cary’s impossibly luxurious hair.

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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 anticipated 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 murderers 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 represents 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, as Wynant explains his departure plans to MacCauley, the inventor rises into the shadows on an elevator and the movement 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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Thirteen Women (1932): Tempting the Fates

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“They were schoolgirls together and their lives form one chain of destiny, women who believe!”

—Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy)

Peg Entwistle came to Hollywood because she wanted to be a star.

She didn’t make it.

It’s an old story and a sad one—a tale that really belongs to all of Tinseltown’s lost souls, although none can equal the cinematic coup-de-théâtre with which Entwistle ended her life.

The Welsh-born beauty acted in just one movie before she hurled herself off the H of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, two days after the film premiered. They say that her ghost still haunts the spot. And Thirteen Women happens to be her first and last movie.

Even without its connection to one of Hollywood’s most famous tragedies, Thirteen Women would stand out as one of the most eldritch concoctions of the trippy pre-Code era. In this horror-melodrama, the power of suggestion drives a group of wealthy young women to madness, suicide, and murder.

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Entwistle gave a nuanced, if brief, performance as Hazel Cousins who watches an acquaintance plummet to her death during a trapeze act. Deranged by the experience and maddened by a horoscope predicting violence and disaster, Hazel stabs her husband to death. We see her clutching a bloody dagger and screaming, under superimposed headlines announcing her crime.

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One has to wonder if the film exerted an insidious real-life influence on Peg Entwistle, perhaps even planting the seed of a dramatic death by falling in her mind. Just as her character seems imprisoned by headlines, Entwistle herself has gone down in history as a shocking episode in movie-land folklore. The fame that eluded her in life was ironically bestowed upon her in death. Did the dark plot of Thirteen Women, in addition to all of her other worries and woes, work some kind of malign spell on her? Did she relate too closely to the film’s theme of self-fulfilling prophecies? In any case, it’s a hell of a coincidence—and only one reason to tune in to this magnificently warped movie.

I consider Thirteen Women one of the most concise, effective nail-biters I have ever encountered. If you’re looking for the antidote to summer blockbuster bloat, look no further than this frightening pre-Code gem.

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Produced by David O. Selznick at RKO and directed by the rather obscure George Archainbault, Thirteen Women admirably truncated a popular novel by Tiffany Thayer. Clocking in at an incredible 59 minutes, the movie manages to sketch a blueprint for every revenge thriller that would follow. The one-by-one elimination of enemies, the grotesquely devised set-piece deaths, the gaggle of mean girls being menaced by their former target, and the ambiguous villain-protagonist will all look remarkably similar to modern audiences.

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As you may know, before transitioning to the tame post-Code era with her “perfect wife” image, Myrna Loy played an awful lot of vamps, tramps, and temptresses, often with an exotic flair. The parts usually fell beneath her talents as an actress. However, Thirteen Women gave Loy the most psychologically rich variation on her Oriental villainess typecasting. Mixed-race anti-heroine Ursula Georgi has survived things that most of us get the chills just thinking about—and ostracism at the hands of her peers put her over the edge. Jaded, manipulative, and captivating, she’s out to exact retribution on the coven of white society snobs who shut her out of their privileged world at boarding school.

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Once a victim of fate, she takes fate into her own hands. Using her seductive charms and wits to destroy her enemies, Ursula is sort of like a shadowy echo of Lily from Baby Face. Whereas Lily, that other pre-Code female mastermind, destroyed others to elevate herself, Ursula sees that destruction as an end in itself. Maybe she was reading Schopenhauer instead of Nietzsche.

Most interestingly, Ursula doesn’t merely set out to destroy these women—she sends phony prophecies about their imminent doom and effectively pushes them to destroy themselves. By using the name of a famous swami in her warning messages, Loy’s character reveals the strength of Eastern mysticism upon the snotty Caucasian women who had once dismissed Ursula and her culture.

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Ursula’s victims play right into her hands. As one of them wonders aloud, “But the moon does control the tides! And nothing can live without the sun. Why shouldn’t we be controlled?”

Rather than intervening directly, for most of the film, our femme fatale lets the power of suggestion gnaw away at her victims. The hoity-toity finishing school graduates succumb to their own demons—butchering their husbands, causing calamitous deaths, and shooting themselves.

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Thus, Thirteen Women intimates that your average 1930s society belle was concealing some kind of major anguish, rage, or mental imbalance. Perhaps the most disturbing subtext of the film lies in the thought that it doesn’t really take the powers of the occult to make us do awful things to ourselves and to the ones we love; we might do them all by ourselves.

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(Question of the day: would it be worth it to live in the shadow of an ugly death if you got to wear such beautiful 1930s outfits?)

Myrna Loy’s experience as a dancer serves her well in the part of Ursula. The slinky, serpentine physicality that she injected into her role adds to the ominous ambiance of the film. Her sinuous gait and her ability to stand perfectly dead still (to the point where I thought I’d accidentally paused the movie) reminded me of such uncanny villains as Jaffar in The Thief of Baghdad and Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood. We understand that Ursula’s intense hate had transformed her into a being so implacable, so focused that she practically is supernatural.

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Like the return of the repressed, Ursula shows up to expose the cruelty, hypocrisy, and vulnerability of her enemies. Her wickedness, after all, is really just the maliciousness of others reflected back to them. As much as the audience would like to completely sympathize with Ursula’s primary rival, the strongest of the former mean girls—astutely underplayed by a steely but nurturing Irene Dunne—we still have to recognize that she brought it on herself. Who’s to blame: the monster or the bullies who created her? I’m particularly enamored with this mirror confrontation shot that seems to visually translate all of this conflict and ambiguity.

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Probing the open wounds of female aggression and racial tension, the plot also sustains a briskly paced series of death scenes and suspenseful set pieces. The film opens with a white-knuckler of a sequence during a death-defying circus act, quickly proceeds to a domestic murder, and witnesses someone being pushed in front of a subway train.

You can also expect a car chase, a woman leaping from a moving train, and an off-screen suicide—I’ve scrambled the order, so don’t worry about spoilers. I would also argue that this film contains one of the greatest, and simplest, suspense scenes of the 1930s, as an adorable little boy tries to reach for a toy ball that’s been filled with explosives. Not for the faint of heart, this movie!

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If we can sense that the adaptation lacks probably the depth of the original, the movie compensates with a major sense of style and a bizarre, magical expressionism. Leo Tover’s cinematography shapes a nightmarish pre-noir world, awash with mystery and imminence.

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Glowing astronomical orbs, glistening fabrics, and inky, low-key shadows all contribute to a feeling that the veil of illusion has been pulled back from reality. We can perceive the cosmic dread that hangs over the comings and goings of the characters, as they meet their destinies… or the end results of their own desires, perhaps.

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When each character dies, a gleaming star suddenly bursts onto the screen and transitions to the next scene. So, are we to assume that humans are indeed the puppets, prone to the indifferent vagaries of celestial bodies? Well, not really, since Ursula can knead destiny to serve her own purposes, pushing people down different trajectories than the stars actually foresaw for them.  Besides, Ursula’s victims actually sealed their fates through their nasty actions many years ago, which we can only assume that they committed of their own volition.

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However, if you pay close attention to the opening shot of the film, a seemingly unrelated image of a train speeding along in the night, you’ll notice it may actually represent the ending of the film from a different angle. In other words, Thirteen Women is carefully constructed for repeat viewing. From the first, the movie foreshadows Ursula’s own apparently predestined death and comes full-circle to this beginning at the very end of the film.

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Thirteen Women thus suggests that what we tend to consider a quirk of fate actually points to a more complex design, a tapestry of free will, unconscious longings, and, yes, some uncontrollable accidents of time and chance.

The fault is neither in our stars, nor in ourselves alone—but it doesn’t help that, all too often, we want to blame the stars.

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