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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Pre-Code A to Z: 26 Favorites

joanThere are three stages to a love affair with pre-Code movies:

Stage One: “What’s a pre-Code movie?”

Stage Two: “Hot damn! She’s really taking those off!”

Stage Three: “Why the hell haven’t more people heard of these?”

In case you’re still in stage one, you should know that pre-Code cinema refers to the body of movies produced in Hollywood between roughly 1929 and 1934, a period when the film industry was supposed to be censoring all risqué content. To say the least, it wasn’t.

So, if you associate old movies with plodding black-and-white boredom or family-safe entertainment, chances are you just haven’t seen the right pre-Code flick. You haven’t seen Barbara Stanwyck seducing a skyscraper full of businessmen. Or Jean Harlow flirtatiously baring her garters. Or Ann Dvorak screaming in a cocaine-fueled panic. When you start watching pre-Codes, the sheer amounts of sex, drugs, alcohol, and violence will shock and surprise you. (Stage two!) You’ll chuckle, you’ll do a few double takes, and you’ll understand that people in the 1930s were really no different from people today. Only better dressed.

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However, as your addiction to pre-Code movies grows (Cue stage three!), you’ll realize that these films deserve profound respect. More than mere titillating relics of Hollywood gone wild, many of them rank among the boldest and best movies ever made.

I decided to do a pre-Code A to Z, with a different title for each letter in the alphabet, cbbecause I wanted to feature a weird, slightly arbitrary collection of pre-Codes instead of a traditional top ten. Make no mistake: I am not presenting this post as a definitive catalogue of the most important movies made during those years of innovation and excess.

Instead, consider this post a (hopefully) fun way to discover or rediscover one of the richest periods in American cinema. To that end, I’ve tried to mix old standbys with a few obscure gems. Please excuse me if your favorite doesn’t get a mention. By all means, though, feel free to mention it in a comment!

IMPORTANT NOTE: On each Friday of this month, September 2014, Turner Classic Movies is screening pre-Code movies. They’re showing most of the films on this list, the ones with asterisks by the titles. So there’s never been a better time to tune in and learn your ABCs…

Now, pick a letter and go to town.

i

A is for I’m No Angel* (Wesley Ruggles, 1933)

The Story: A canny circus dancer gains notoriety for taming lions—and rich society men.

Why You Should Watch It: Too many people remember Mae West solely as a curvaceous sex symbol, beckoning men into her boudoir. Too few realize that she wrote her own dialogue, outfoxed censors, and singlehandedly saved Paramount from financial collapse. In I’m No Angel, West rattles off enough quotable lines to put on every throw pillow in your house.

Pre-Code Content: Unrepentant gold-digging and premarital sex

b

B is for Baby Face* (Alfred E. Green, 1933)

The Story: Versed in Nietzsche as well as hard knocks, Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) literally sleeps her way to the top of an affluent bank, leaving wrecked lives in her wake.

Why You Should Watch It: Stanwyck delivered what might be the greatest performance of her career as the shrewd, sizzling Lily, fueled by rage and ambition. Her barely-concealed contempt for the lecherous men who see her body as their de facto property makes Baby Face something of a revenge fantasy. As she exploits the leering executives who think they’re exploiting her, every man’s dream turns into every man’s nightmare: a sex object with a brain.

Pre-Code Content: Lingerie (a given), implications of prostitution, interracial friendship, and enough implied sex to make a censor faint.

c

C is for Call Her Savage* (John Francis Dillon, 1932)

The Story: The willful daughter of a Texas rancher, Nasa Springer (Clara Bow) races from one catastrophe to another, plunging into catfights, barroom brawls, an abusive marriage, and prostitution.

Why You Should Watch It: The enormously popular ‘It Girl’ of the silent screen, Bow proved her acting chops for the sound era by transcending this melodrama’s overwhelming tawdriness. Interestingly enough, the film suggests that Nasa’s misfortunes stem from the corruption of the big city and of civilization in general. Only by returning to the serenity of nature can she be redeemed. Call her savage? Well, she’s not half as savage as the culture that makes her suffer.

Pre-Code Content: Erotic wrestling with a Great Dane, Clara Bow sans brassiere, a speakeasy, illicit sex, miscegenation—almost every pre-Code no-no, really.

d

D is for Design for Living* (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)

The Story: Torn between the two gorgeous men in her life, Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) chooses both. And the threesome’s “gentleman’s agreement” to shun sex doesn’t stand a chance.

Why You Should Watch It: If I had to explain to someone what wit is—not to mention double entendre—I’d show them this movie. The Lubitsch touch will tickle you from beginning to end.

Pre-Code Content: Uh, it’s about a ménage à trois!

Loretta Young (left) and Warren William (right) in Roy Del Ruth

E is for Employees’ Entrance* (Roy Del Ruth, 1933)

The Story: Ruthless executive Kurt Anderson (Warren Wiliam) squeezes profit out of a vast department store during the Great Depression and treats the lady employees as his personal harem.

Why You Should Watch It: No pre-Code movie represented the harsh conditions facing working men and especially women with more conviction and honesty than Employees’ Entrance. Ironically, though, the hard-hitting drama showcases Warren William’s despicable charms at their zenith. William had an improbable knack for making audience members savor the misdeeds of the egotistical shysters they hated in real life. Because both the employees and their harsh bosses strike us as intriguing individuals with flaws and virtues, this portrait of a business coping with a bad economy crackles with realistic conflict.

Pre-Code Content: Levels of sexual harassment that even today’s creepiest senators would wince at; dialogue like, “Oh, it’s you. I didn’t know you with your clothes on.”; suicide

f

F is for Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

The Story: Aw, come on. You gotta know this. It’s alive! It’s escaped! It’s running amok!

Why You Should Watch It: Sure, there’s no nudity, but Whale’s Frankenstein capitalized on pre-Code permissiveness by condensing Shelley’s novel down to a morbid meditation on unholy ambition. Dr. Frankenstein’s obsession with creating new life culminates in a line of dialogue so controversial that was cut from the film for years: “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!”

Pre-Code Content: Heaping helpings of blasphemy, explicit drowning of a little girl, and graphic violence

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G is for Gold Diggers of 1933* (Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley)

The Story: During the production of a big musical show, naive chorine Polly (Ruby Keeler) falls in love with a young songwriter (Dick Powell), but his wealthy brother (Warren William) objects to the match. Polly’s wisecracking roommates (Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon) set out to hustle the millionaire.

Why You Should Watch It: Pure cinema. Like pornography, it’s something difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it. And if you don’t see it in Busby Berkeley’s dazzling sequences of audiovisual ecstasy, maybe you need to have your eyes examined. Harnessing the power of the film medium, Berkeley imagined musical numbers that never could’ve existed on a stage and arranged mind-boggling geometric pattens with human bodies. From the upbeat “We’re in the Money” opening to the heartbreaking “Remember My Forgotten Man” finale, Gold Diggers choreographs both the fantasies and the realities of the Depression.

Pre-Code Content: Characters who run around in their lingerie most of the time, a steady stream of innuendo, and an entire musical number devoted to the delight of getting frisky in public spaces.

h

H is for Hot Saturday* (William A. Seiter, 1933)

The Story: A well-behaved bank clerk (Nancy Carroll), forced by circumstances to spend an innocent night in the local Casanova’s house, faces ostracism from her town’s pack of busybodies.

Why You Should Watch It: Because it totally nails small-town hypocrisy and, in so doing, thumbs its nose at the narrow morals imposed by the Production Code. Rather than stoning the “sinner” and rewarding the self-righteous, Hot Saturday gives a happy ending to its wronged protagonist and mercilessly mocks the so-called guardians of decency. Plus, super-young Cary Grant as the town bad boy gives us all a reason to lose our reputations with a smile.

Pre-Code Content: A nearly nude Carroll, two sisters fighting over their underwear, attempted rape, non-stop gossip about sex

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I is for I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

The Story: Wrongly arrested for petty theft, a Depression-era bum (Paul Muni) endures years of hard labor on a chain gang.

Why You Should Watch It: During the pre-Code years, the energizing anarchy of popular gangster movies was balanced out by bleak, often claustrophobic prison movies. In this biting example, the justice system so comprehensively fails our innocent protagonist that he has no choice but to resort to crime. How’s that for irony?

Pre-Code Content: Extensive depictions of prison beatings, some illicit sex, sympathetic portrayal of theft and escaped convicts

j

J is for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde* (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)

The Story: There’s good and evil in every man, and when Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March) concocts a potion to separate the two he unleashes his brutish alter ego upon the world.

Why You Should Watch It: The most unsettling adaptation of Stevenson’s horror classic, this version emphasizes Hyde’s animalistic brutality while clearly suggesting that such ugliness lurks within all humanity. The transformation scene—done in a single take using special colored makeup and camera filters—remains just as amazing 80 years later. And the scenes of Hyde’s gleeful abuse inflicted on the prostitute Ivy remain just as chilling.

Pre-Code Content: Prostitution, Hopkins naked in bed, gruesome scenes of violence

k

K is for Kongo (William J. Cowen, 1932)

The Story: In a hellish region of jungle, paraplegic tyrant ‘Deadlegs’ Flint (Walter Huston) wreaks revenge on the rival who stole his wife by subjecting the man’s daughter to every imaginable form of degradation.

Why You Should Watch It: Grimy, sweaty, and generally repellent, Kongo gets my nod for the most disturbing film of the pre-Code era. However, under its layers of shock value, Kongo reveals a streak of heartbreaking tragedy, supported by a ferocious performance from Huston.

Pre-Code Content: Incest, prostitution, drug abuse, torture… you name it.

l

L is for Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932)

The Story: Going to collect a debt at a chateau, a Parisian tailor (Maurice Chevalier) decides to pawn himself off as an aristocrat and woo an ethereal princess (Jeannette MacDonald).

Why You Should Watch It: Busby Berkeley wasn’t the only innovator working in the musical genre during the early 1930s. Rouben Mamoulian pulled out the whole toolkit of movie magic, including fast and slow motion, superimposition, and oodles of camera movements, to add sparkle to this naughty romance. Flowing seamlessly into the plot, the musical numbers, including a wonderful stroll down a Paris street, brim with humor and ease. Fair warning though: you might not be able to get “Isn’t It Romantic?” out of your head.

Pre-Code Content: Myrna Loy as a nymphomaniac, extensive leering, lingerie, and almost constant risqué banter

m

M is for Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)

The Story: A roguish drifter (Spencer Tracy) falls for an idealistic waif (Loretta Young), moves her into his shantytown, and struggles with the prospect of settling down.

Why You Should Watch It: Like a daisy growing out of asphalt, Man’s Castle reminds the viewer of the miraculous persistence of beauty, hope, and love during the darkest times. This shimmering, sadly little-known masterpiece reframes the tribulations of the Depression as surreal fairy tale obstacles and teases disarmingly vulnerable performances from Young and Tracy.

Pre-Code Content: Skinny dipping, racy banter, premarital sex, discussions of pregnancy and possible abortion, unpunished crime

n

N is for Night Nurse* (William Wellman, 1931)

The Story: Assigned to care for two rich, neglected children, a tough nurse (Barbara Stanwyck) vows to protect them from a scheming chauffeur (a moustache-less Clark Gable).

Why You Should Watch It: Having a bad day? Watch Stanwyck punch out an offensive drunk. I promise, you’ll feel better. You might also want to watch this for the chance to see Stanwyck and Joan Blondell taking off their clothes. And by clothes, I mean nurse uniforms. Really. This movie is so fetishistic at times that I worry I’ve been added to some sort of cautionary watch list for buying it.

Pre-Code Content: Lingerie, girl-on-girl cuddling in said lingerie, drunkenness, sympathetic gangsters, unpunished murder

o

O is for One-Way Passage (Tay Garnett, 1932)

The Story: On a ship bound for America, a convicted murderer (William Powell) and a dying woman (Kay Francis) fall in love and decide to seize their brief window of happiness.

Why You Should Watch It: Pre-Code Warner Brothers specialized in gritty, rough-and-tumble plots torn straight from the front page, but this tender love story shows that the studio could also excel at more sentimental fare. Melancholy but never mawkish, the romance between Francis and Powell urges us all to make the most of life’s fleeting joys.

Pre-Code Content: Likable criminals, a cop who lets a certain pretty crook go, and the sexiest ellipsis you ever saw

p

P is for The Public Enemy* (William Wellman, 1931)

The Story: An Irish hoodlum takes over a piece of the bootlegging racket, incurring the wrath of his war hero brother.

Why You Should Watch It: James Cagney’s performance as Tom Powers forever defined the 1930s gangster—carnivorously attractive, irrepressibly cocky, and, when provoked, utterly remorseless. Little Caesar came first and Scarface boasted more splashy violence, but The Public Enemy best captured the take-no-prisoners stakes of bootlegging. William Wellman cleverly amplified the impact of violent outbursts by hiding them off-screen, so that when the final blow comes at the movie’s conclusion, we’re left reeling and horrified.

Pre-Code Content: Exciting and glamorous depictions of the gangster lifestyle

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Q is for Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)

The Story: Wise Queen Christina attempts to steer Sweden’s macho government towards peace and progress, but her love affair with a Spanish emissary jeopardizes the future of her reign.

Why You Should Watch It: Never has diplomacy seemed so sexy. Garbo’s Queen Christina would be imposing and controversial even today. Not unlike the high-rolling woman executive in the corporate drama Female (made the same year), Christina rules her love life and her country with the same unabashed pride and control.

Pre-Code Content: Cross-dressing, not-so-subtle intimations of bisexuality, and intoxicatingly sensual love scenes.

2nd July 1932: Hollywood star Jean Harlow (1911 - 1937) as Lil Legendre in 'The Red-Headed Woman', directed by Jack Conway. (Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull)

R is for Red-Headed Woman* (Jack Conway, 1932)

The Story: A low-class secretary (Jean Harlow) schemes her way into her employer’s bed—and his wallet.

Why You Should Watch It: Harlow turns in a flagrant and fetching performance, cooing like a baby, flashing her underwear, and feistily haranguing any stuffy hypocrites who criticize her. In contrast to the bitterness of Baby Face, this brisk comedy encourages us to laugh with the brazen gold-digging protagonist as she twists men around her little finger.

Pre-Code Content: Harlow taking off her clothes, forcefully seducing gullible idiots, shooting her ex-lover, and getting away with it all scot-free.

s

S is for The Story of Temple Drake* (Stephen Roberts, 1933)

The Story: Assaulted and kidnapped by a sadistic gangster (Jack LaRue), privileged Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) copes with her shame and longs to escape. Will she have the courage to return home and come forward with the truth about what happened?

Why You Should Watch It: Who would have thought that such a sordid story could look so beautiful? Based on Faulkner’s scandalous Sanctuary, this landmark of pre-Code cinema combines the eloquent visual storytelling of the silent era with the advantages of sound.

Pre-Code Content: Rape, murder, bootlegging, a practically nude Hopkins—this one is not for the faint of heart!

t

T is for Three on a Match* (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

The Story: Reckless Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) marries well but bores easily. When she gets mixed up with a petty racketeer, she puts her young child in danger.

Why You Should Watch It: One word—Dvorak. I wonder how the film strip itself didn’t melt under the heat of her blisteringly intense performance as a pampered wife who devolves into a grungy cokehead.

Pre-Code Content: Oh, boy… drugs, sex, child abuse, violence, lingerie. This one seems to make it onto everybody’s pre-Code list, and deservedly so.

u

U is for Under Eighteen (Archie Mayo, 1932)

The Story: Saddled with the responsibility for her family during the Depression, a plucky teen (Marian Marsh) approaches a wolfish tycoon (Warren William, who else?) to help her sister escape a bad marriage.

Why You Should Watch It: Warren William utters one of the most famous lines of the pre-Code era, “Why don’t you take off your clothes and stay a while?” Despite an egregious cop-out ending, Under Eighteen actually offers an interesting commentary on male hypocrisy. Whether men actively victimize women or passively stand by, the film makes it clear that they’re part of the problem.

Pre-Code Content: Gaggles of models undressing, illicit affairs, and an appropriately loathsome depiction of an abusive husband and domestic violence

v

V is for Virtue* (Edward Buzzell, 1932)

The Story: A New York streetwalker (Carole Lombard) falls for a cab driver (Pat O’Brien) and jumps at the chance to marry him, but his lack of trust strains their relationship.

Why You Should Watch It: A lot of pre-Code movies deal with the difficulties of a disgraced woman trying to go straight. What sets this one apart is the slangy, authentic rhythm of the dialogue, written by the great Robert Riskin, and the warm chemistry between Lombard and O’Brien.

Pre-Code Content: Prostitution as a major plot element (empathetically depicted, too) and an onscreen murder

w

W is for What Price Hollywood? (George Cukor, 1932)

The Story: A waitress at the Brown Derby (Constance Bennett) dreams of becoming a movie star. When she gets her wish, however, she learns how cruel fame can be.

Why You Should Watch It: Cukor’s obscure but astonishingly great melodrama satirizes Tinseltown as a purveyor of toxic illusions. With its tantalizing glimpses behind the scenes of early 1930s moviemaking, What Price Hollywood? deconstructs the glamorous myths of the studio system and bares the mercilessness of both the film industry and the public it feeds.

Pre-Code Content: Lingerie, alcoholism, divorce, and a vivid suicide scene

x

X is for Doctor X (Michael Curtiz, 1932)

The Story: A streetwise reporter (Lee Tracy) races to find a serial killer among a group of sinister doctors before the maniac strikes again.

Why You Should Watch It: One of only a few feature films shot in early two-strip Technicolor, this thriller not only serves up some serious pink- and green-tinged eye candy, but also treats us to one of the decade’s craziest plots.

Pre-Code Content: Nightmarish makeup; allusions to sexual assault, cannibalism, and serial killings; Fay Wray in a skimpy negligée

y

Y is for The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1933)

The Story: Held prisoner by a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther), an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) struggles to reform her captor even as she confronts her own ingrained prejudice.

Why You Should Watch It: The name Frank Capra tends to conjure nostalgic visions of America as it was, but this lush, exotic tale of forbidden love stands out as one of his most complex works.

Pre-Code Content: Interracial eroticism, discussions of Christian hypocrisy

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Z is for Murders at the Zoo (A. Edward Sutherland, 1933)

The Story: A pathologically jealous millionaire (Lionel Atwill) conspires to bump off any man he suspects of touching his wife. And, given his passion for wild animals, he’s not at a loss of ways to dispose of the perceived interlopers.

Why You Should Watch It: When a movie starts with a guy having his mouth stitched shut, you know you’re in for a real bloodbath. This proto-slasher contains some of the most luridly violent scenes you’ll catch in a classic Hollywood movie.

Pre-Code Content: Hints of bestiality, scatological humor, kinky innuendos, casual adultery, and lurid violence.

A Reel Treat: Day Three of Capitolfest

reelsonasphaltSifting through folders of vintage movie stills. Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? Errol Flynn winks up at me. Valentino smolders from a shiny pocket-sized portrait. And Tyrone Power, well, he just looks like Tyrone Power. That’s enough.

Apparently my idea of heaven turns a little hellish when I have to do it under a time constraint. Because there I was, standing in the lobby of the Capitol Theater frantically searching through soon-to-be-dismantled displays of old movie memorabilia on the final day of Capitolfest. I always leave important work to the last minute.

Operating under duress, I managed to score an obscene amount of glossy stills and star portraits at 25 cents apiece—a price that seems to belong to another era as much as the pictures do.

Cherished favorites like Carole Lombard and George Sanders joined my collection, but I’m also pleased to have adopted pictures of Mary Miles Minter and Fatty Arbuckle. Those two need a good home. Best of all, as I write this post my pocket Rudy, in matador attire, pocketrudysmolders down at me from the base of a reading lamp, making its light seem dull by comparison.

I could hardly imagine a more appropriate souvenir of a weekend spent immersed in classic cinema than a packet of old Hollywood glam shots… but I tried to go one better. You see, as I was leaving the theater with my armful of photos, I happened upon film reels from the festival casually lined up on the sidewalk, waiting to be returned to their respective archives. Although I asked quite reasonably if I could take Forgotten Faces home with me, Art Pierce, executive director of the Capitol, politely declined and I respect that.

Now let’s get to the real goodies: the films I saw on the last day of the festival. (If you’re interested, here are my write-ups of day one and day two of Capitolfest.)

Cradle Song (Mitchell Leisen, 1933)

I confess: the thought of a weepy melodrama about nuns raising an orphan girl didn’t really enthuse me when I took my seat that Sunday morning. Consider me a convert now. Since actresses as different as Dorothea Wieck, Louise Dresser, and Gertrude Michael all play nuns, we get to see religious devotion refracted through diverse personalities; there’s wieckno one “right” path to goodness. Not the least bit preachy or dogmatic, this film exhibits profound respect for the wisdom, insight, and compassion of the women at its core.

A meditation on the challenges of raising a child, Cradle Song also reminded me of Ozu’s Late Spring, which is always a good thing. Both films eschew the conflict-driven narratives we’ve come to expect from melodramas in favor of the wistful inevitability of letting a loved one go. The cinematography, lyrical and mobile, yet still reminiscent of an old master painting, adds to the sweetness of this movie’s sorrow.

Bottom Line: A delight. If this is nunsense, it really is habit-forming.

My Weakness (David Butler, 1933)

A peppy piece of musical fluff, My Weakness showcases Lilian Harvey, the British-born star of the German-made international hit Congress Dances, in her first American film. This glamorous confection gives the Pygmalion trope a decidedly pre-Code twist. One of those drop-dead gorgeous jerks that women in 1930s comedies keep falling for, Ronnie Gregory myweakness(Lew Ayres) bets his stingy uncle that he can turn a mousy chambermaid into a successful gold-digger. Low-class Looloo (Harvey) cleans up so nicely that she sets out to win over Ronnie… by seducing every eligible man in his family.

Harvey’s pixie-ish charisma floats the film, but the supporting actors have even more fun (as usual). Henry Travers—whom you know as Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life—is no angel here. That white-haired screen institution eagerly smooches the effervescent Harvey and, aping Mae West, even invites her to “come up and see me sometime”! Charles Butterworth pulls out all the stops on his wimpy Romeo routine as a carrot-nibbling, stamp-collecting dork who, won over by Harvey’s allure, cries out, “Take me!” in one of the film’s most hilarious scenes. Silent clown Harry Langdon presides over the story as a decidedly fey Cupid, rattling off rhymed couplets and bounding hither and yon with his bow.

A collection of uproarious gags also compensates for the lack of originality where the story’s concerned. For instance, the song “You Can Be Had” is sung not by any of the actors, but by a collection of grotesque statuettes, chintzy figurines, and even the pages of a fan magazine!

Bottom Line: I’m still whistling “Gather Lip-Rouge While You May” to myself. What do you know? This movie is my weakness, too.

Pointed Heels (A. Edward Sutherland, 1929)

With its cliché-ridden plot and love-conquers-all denouement, Pointed Heels soothed and satisfied audiences recently smote by the shock of the Great Depression and pulled in a hefty profit for Paramount. From a modern perspective, this backstage musical creaks here and there, to say the least. Phillips Holmes and Fay Wray look so beautiful that we can almost forgive their characters—a composer disowned by his heelswealthy family and the chorus girl who loves him—for their drippy blandness. William Powell fares slightly better as a suave, noble impresario who lusts after Wray, but does the right thing by her in the end. Eugene Pallette adds some much-needed crankiness to the love-fest. Thank goodness for Skeets Gallagher and Helen Kane, who carry off the show with generous helpings of boop-boop-a-doo and whoopee.

I’d seen an incomplete version of Pointed Heels before at the Internet Archive, but a newly-rediscovered two-strip Technicolor sequence excited me. I love this early color process for its unnaturalness, the way it allows you to see the world as through the vivid, askew filter of a fever dream. The minty greens and coral reds left me spellbound.

Nevertheless, when I ponder the color musical number in retrospect, the unimaginative laziness of the camera, plunked down in the audience like a back-row spectator, irks me. We enjoy a few close shots of Fay Wray as Marie Antoinette (a look she’d reprise in Mystery of the Wax Museum), but the point-of-view remains lethargic and uninteresting. In contrast to an imaginative backstage montage earlier in the movie, the color sequence seems perfectly content with its imperfect imitation of a night at the theater, circa 1929. Then as well as now, it takes a while for art to catch up with technology.

Bottom Line: A waste of talent. A. Edward Sutherland directed some fine comedies in his time, but I want to leave these heels on the shelf.

The Shadow of the Law (Louis Gasner, 1930)

Did I miss something? Some other reviews of the festival praised this drama about a fugitive from blind justice, but I found it rather tepid and uninspiring. The best thing about the movie, William Powell delivers a noteworthy, if unusual, performance as a shadowofthelawman-about-town falsely imprisoned for murder. Shorn even of his dapper mustache in the hoosegow, Powell conveys the dehumanization of the prison system with his blank looks of desperation. When he busts of out jail, Powell builds a new life for himself but spares no expense searching for the one witness who can exonerate him. Unfortunately, she’s not the kind of dame who’ll do a good turn for anybody…

Intrigued? Well, the movie didn’t turn out to be nearly as taut and moving as it could have been. After the opening scenes and a hard-hitting courtroom montage, the plot moved forward in fits and starts. Dragged down by an insipid romance, the tough drama collapsed into an abrupt change-of-heart happy ending. Powell still took full advantage of his big coup-de-théâtre in the third act: he plunges his hands into a mangling machine to destroy his fingerprints and elude recapture. He only screamed with his eyes, but that was enough to make my blood run cold.

Bottom line: Bill Powell’s bald lip (not to mention his dramatic gifts) could incite any woman to lobby for justice reform. But not to watch this movie again.

Sharp Shooters (John Blystone, 1928)

This beguiling comedy ended the festival on just the right note. Hunky navy man George O’Brien woos a girl in every port, until he makes an insincere promise to French dancer Lois Moran… a promise that his two sailor friends force him to keep. WWI’s heavyweight champ of the Pacific Fleet, O’Brien easily turns on his snarky, sharpshooters_postermegawatt charm in comfortable territory. With the aid of some luminous close-ups, Lois Moran transforms a character that might have been irritating and clingy into a surprisingly grounded dreamer who could make even most hardened cynic believe in destiny. The stars’ chemistry strikes a perfect balance between glamorous sensuality as only the movies can do it and a more relatable sheepishness.

Well-played running gags stitch the simple rom-com together and shape amusing characters, like the three navy buddies who, whenever threatened with a fight, coordinate to “Hoist pants for action.” Seasoned with doses of humor, romance, and tension, the gossamer love story really floated my boat (pun intended). And, hey, who wouldn’t want to watch a small army of navy mugs do battle with a speakeasy full of scumbags to defend a maiden’s honor?

Bottom Line: Will destiny please reunite me with this movie? I think I’m in love.

A Reel Joy: Day One of Capitolfest 12

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William Powell, featured star of Capitolfest 12, in a still for “Ladies’ Man”

The good news: there are more quality classic films out there than even I suspected. The bad news? Well, let’s just say they can be mighty elusive.

But, hold on, there’s still more good news, because each year a cozy festival in Rome, New York screens some of the rarest films on the planet. A small, but passionate crowd of spectators settles into the seats of a vast 1928 movie palace, the lights go down, and films unseen for decades flicker up on a huge screen.

Out of the 17 features on the festival’s roster, I was familiar with only two of them. Nearly all of the obscure films surpassed my expectations. From zany curios to one bona fide masterpiece, the program showcased a range of stimulating movies that renewed my faith in early Hollywood’s ability to surprise and delight me (not that I ever really doubted it). Capitolfest confirmed that I’ve only been chipping away at a single vein of classic cinema: commercially available movies. Meanwhile, there’s a whole cache of obscure, but exceptional films waiting to be to rediscovered.

This year marked my first pilgrimage to Captolfest. Needless to say, I’m hoping it won’t be my last.

I had the good fortune to share the experience with two wonderful bloggers, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Annmarie of Classic Movie Hub, as well as my extraordinarily understanding mother (@MiddParent on Twitter). I also got to meet Beth of Spellbound by Movies, who flew in from San Francisco for the festival, and Shirley and Mark of the Toronto Silent Film Festival. You really ought to check out their respective blogs and sites, if you haven’t already.

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Me, Aurora, Annmarie, and Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the Capitol, in the theater’s projection booth.

As I struggled to condense my opinions about Capitolfest, it occurred to me that all of the movies deserved at least a few lines. I couldn’t stop myself from writing a mini-review of each. One of my favorite aspects of the program, the abundance of short subjects almost made me believe that I really was sitting in a movie theater circa 1930, gearing up for the big feature or double bill. However, if I wrote about every newsreel or Vitaphone morsel that I saw, you’d be reading a three-volume treatise instead of a blog post (although I realize that, with me, it can be hard to tell the difference).

So, with a heavy heart, I’m confining myself to the feature films and decided to split my festival recap into three parts. Here’s what I saw on the first day of Capitolfest…

Partners of the Sunset (Robert H. Townley, 1922)

Oh, 2014, you think you’re so cutting-edge. When a woman proposes to a man in the movies nowadays, critics and fans alike lavish praise on the clever gender inversion. Well, then, how are we to respond to a movie that did the same thing almost 100 years ago? In this obscure Western, two impoverished sisters—one in love with nature, the other alleneenamored of high society—inherit a ranch in Texas and decide to claim it. When a greedy local landowner tries to force them out, the rugged Patricia joins forces with a windmill engineer to face down the baddies and defend her new home.

The little-remembered Allene Ray, catapulted into the limelight after winning the 1920 Fame and Fortune Contest, grew up on a Texas ranch in real life and earned a reputation for doing her own daring stunts in Westerns. In Partners of the Sunset, she imbues the strong female protagonist with an earthy, almost elfin spunk. Whether frolicking barefoot by a river or pulling a pistol on her would-be captors, Ray acquits herself as one hell of a boss lady. Inspiring outdoor long shots and refreshing action sequences helped this film launch Capitolfest in style.

Bottom Line: Go west, young woman and kick some serious butt! My favorite from the first day.

Derelict (Rowland V. Lee, 1930)

Two ships’ officers (George Brent and Jed Graves) wage a war of petty one-upmanship—until one steals the other’s girl and the rivalry turns potentially lethal. This tough, grimy little pre-Code drama impressed me with the realism of its scenes at sea. The artful simulation of its hurricane sequence proved thrilling, violent, and remarkably convincing. Amazing what you could do with industrial fans, water tanks, and camera angles as opposed to CGI, huh?

derelictThe script also crackled with some enjoyable tough-guy banter. Reduced to working on a banana boat, Brent calls out the captain’s cowardice by snarling, “You’ve been carrying bananas so long you’ve turned their color!” At the end, once the old enemies have buried the hatchet and Brent’s walking off to the altar, the pair can’t resist a final jab:

Brent: You can be the best man.

Graves: I always was.

Plus, I relished the chance to watch Jessie Royce Landis, Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest, play a tempting nightclub singer.

Bottom Line: Testosterone in celluloid form. Snappy, economical, and well worth its short runtime.

Horse Play (Edward Sedgwick, 1933)

I can’t remember the last time I cackled so loudly in a movie theater. I kept expecting a surly usherette to escort my rowdy companions and me from the premises. When a lovelorn hick from Montana strikes it rich, he and his pal Andy gatecrash the British aristocracy in search of Slim’s sweetheart. Slim Summerville, whom I like to think of as Gary Cooper redesigned by a five-year-old, delivers the goods in terms of belly laughs.

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The mixture of crude yokels and snooty nobles brewed up a broadly comic variation on the traditional comedy of manners. For instance, in perhaps the film’s funniest scene, Slim and Andy invite two curious grande dames to their hotel room at the Ritz for a little drink. CUT TO: the aforementioned scions of the aristocracy swigging whisky, firing rodeo pistols, and suggestively saddling up furniture. As one of the ladies who lets her hair down with the cowboys, Una O’Connor looks more primly sexy than you might imagine she could—and demonstrates that her comic chops extended far beyond that famous paint-peeling shriek of hers.

This film milked its gags for maximum screen time. Nows, sometimes that works brilliantly. If you push a gag past the funny mark, it gets unfunny, but it turns out there’s a sweet spot just past unfunny where a gag becomes absurdly funny again. For instance, Slim and Andy have a slap-happy fight with collapsible top hats that lasts about five minutes, and I never wanted it to end. Other times one had the distinct impression that a dead horse was being beaten.

Bottom Line: Uneven as a whole, but the side-splitting antics of Slim and company made you forget its failings.

The Bright Shawl (John S. Robinson, 1923)

One could argue that this fine historical thriller runs too long, but if the movie needed that much time to cram Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish, William Powell, Mary Astor, Jetta Goudal, and, yes, even Edward G. Robinson into one movie, you won’t hear brightshawlme complaining! An ambiance of tropical sultriness and wide-open spaces confer a special vibe of authenticity on the film, since the cast and crew travelled to Cuba to shoot exterior scenes on location.

In this adaptation Joseph Hergesheimer’s novel, a naïve American visits Cuba with his resistance leader friend and joins the movement himself after witnessing the cruelty of the Spanish oppressors. However, in the end, our hero escapes with the girl he loves only by the grace of a foe’s merciful whim. And who else to play that gallant, sympathetic villain but William Powell in his fourth movie appearance! Even without the advantage of his voice, Powell displays the insouciant, dandyish charm that would serve him throughout his career. Everybody else does their darndest, too: Barthelmess is earnest and indignant, Gish is naughty but nice, Astor is pure but feisty, Goudal is slinky and sinister, and Robinson is full of mighty rage and grief as a bereft father.

Bottom Line: A dream cast in a handsome production, albeit one that feels too much like a filmed novel at times.

Ladies’ Man (Lothar Mendes, 1931)

Get in the queue, girls, ’cause William Powell makes one dapper gigolo! Interestingly enough, Ladies’ Man presents a gender-flipped version of the fallen woman sagas that 1930s audiences ate up with such gusto. As Powell’s character explains, “I look at women the way women look at men”—that is, as meal tickets. The difference is, the hookers and courtesans played by the likes of Garbo, Crawford, and Stanwyck often got their chances at redemption. When a man prostitutes himself, though, the penalty is death. How’s that for a double standard?

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Kay Francis having her gown mended on the set of “Ladies’ Man”

Elegant escort for a rich society lady, Jamie Darricott also indulges in a liaison with her wild daughter (Carole Lombard). As if that weren’t awkward enough, a mysterious woman from out of town (Kay Francis) wins his heart and convinces him to leave his sordid occupation. Unfortunately, Jamie’s powerful paramour and her jealous husband won’t let him escape their world unpunished.

In a distinctly amoral role, Powell oozes savoir-faire and never falls into the trap of sanctimoniously renouncing his, ahem, profession. The actor supposedly disliked this part, believing himself too unattractive to pull it off. (Yeah, right, Bill.) You’d never know it, though, from the confidence and breeding he projects in even the most embarrassing situations. Herman Mankiewicz’s sophisticated dialogue, spoken by Powell’s velvety baritone, likewise boosts the value of what could have been a tawdry melodrama.

Do I wish that Powell, Lombard, and Francis had been drafted into, say, a Lubitsch comedy instead of this? Well, yes. But I can still appreciate the film for its luscious Travis Banton gowns and its stars’ vivid performances.

Bottom Line: An unapologetic yet occasionally heart-rending portrait of a man who lived and died beyond his means.

Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933)

Call it politically incorrect, trashy, or flat-out goofy, but first try to stop laughing. One of the more famous films on the Capitolfest program, this trippy pre-Code musical centers on a sweet-natured loser from the corrupt modern town of West Rome. Magically transported back to ancient Rome, he finagles to save an imprisoned princess—and his own skin.

lucyEasily sustaining the pace of a big-budget musical extravaganza, Eddie ‘Banjo Eyes’ Cantor jumps around like a bunny on speed, singing, dancing, cracking wise, and offending pretty much every possible demographic. Busby Berkeley arranged some of his weirdest musical numbers for this film, including a hymn of hope sung by evicted families in the streets and the infamous slave market sequence.

I’d seen clips of the cult classic before, but the dazzling quality of the 35mm print left me breathless. Say what you will about Sam Goldwyn, but the man sure could harness star power. If I’d been around in ’33, this piece of box-office bait would have reeled me into the theater for repeat viewings.

Oh, and whenever a certain young platinum blonde popped into the frame, knowing individuals in the Capitol audience burst into spontaneous ovations. The blonde in question would be a very young Lucille Ball. If you ever get to savor this nutty confection, keep an eye out for her.

Bottom Line: This movie has all the good taste of a gladiator fight. Fortunately, my tastes aren’t much better. By all means, bring on the bread and circuses!

Getting Excited for Capitolfest 12

heelsWhen in Rome, watch old movies. Rome, New York, that is.

Each year, cinephiles flock to this small city for Capitolfest, a feast of obscure, but awesome films from the silent and early talkie eras.

Released from their archives and vaults, 35mm prints of these neglected flicks once again get to elicit oohs-and-ahhs from appreciative crowds at the Capitol Theater, a movie palace largely unchanged since it opened in 1928. Audiences can enjoy silent movies as they were intended to look, thanks to a rare variable-speed carbon arc projector, and with stirring musical accompaniment from the theater’s original Möller organ. If I were a rare movie, I’d probably think of Capitolfest as something close to heaven.

So, while Capitolfest 12 is taking place, from August 8 to 10, three guesses where I’ll be.

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Click the banner to check out the complete Capitolfest 12 schedule!

Actually, I’m still facepalming myself that this will be only my very first jaunt to the destination. I’d probably still be in the dark about the festival if not for a tip from the fabulous Aurora of Once Upon a Screen whom I met at TCMFF. Just in case Capitolfest flew under your radar as well, I feel the need to write a bit about the event as it draws nearer.

Capitolfest groups its features together in seven sets or “sessions” of three movies, with generous breaks in between the blocks. (Read: I might actually get a meal.) Only one film horseplayis shown at any given time, so no worries about plotting a complicated matrix of priorities. Since the festival strives to “re-create the experience of seeing movies as when they were new,” each session is rounded out with a few short subjects or varieties.

For instance, the Friday session will include the reconstruction of “a day in the movies in 1933.” The Slim Summerville comedy Horse Play will follow a Hearst newsreel, an exotic Vitaphone travelogue, and a brief musical medley—all shorts similar to those that would’ve accompanied the feature upon its original release. (The only doubt remaining: will Valomilks and Choward’s Violet Mints be available at the concession stand for the full ’33 experience? Or should I bring my own?)

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The devastatingly dapper William Powell features prominently in the program as the festival’s “tribute star” for 2014. The Powell selections promise to showcase the actor’s versatility during his early screen career, from a leering villain role in The Bright Shawl (1923) to a complex would-be seducer part in Pointed Heels (1929) to a dramatic tour-de-force lead in Shadow of the Law (1930), among others. I’m especially eager to watch Ladies’ Man, one of two 1931 Paramount films that paired Powell onscreen with his soon-to-be wife Carole Lombard.

The super-rarities on the roster—like an “unseen sound version” of the futuristic British drama High Treason—have majorly piqued my interest. Similarly, the crime-flavored melodrama Forgotten Faces hasn’t been publicly projected since 1928. And it sounds like a real doozy, what with ex-con Clive Brook paradoxically plotting to kill his wife without murdering her in order to keep a promise. Finally, I’d miss my own benitawedding (were I ever to renounce spinsterhood) for the chance to witness the glory of a long-lost two-strip Technicolor sequence. Fortunately, I won’t have to go to such extremities to gape at a rediscovered color number from Pointed Heels, reborn in hues of flame and emerald!

I couldn’t be more delighted that Capitolfest 12 plans on showing so many films I’d quite frankly never heard of before. I suspect that I’m in for a fair share of surprises… and maybe even the odd revelation or two. All roads are leading to Rome!

I’ll be reporting about the event on this blog and on social media. So, stay tuned!

You can also browse the complete Capitolfest 12 schedule or check out the event’s Facebook page.

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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