Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Dr. Jahnke's History Of Film - Another Thin Man

The Thin Man series is one of the minor miracles of Hollywood filmmaking. These six movies, produced between 1934 and 1947, are among the most effortlessly entertaining, smart and sophisticated films to come from Hollywood’s Golden Age. William Powell and Myrna Loy starred as frequently inebriated investigator Nick Charles and his wife/partner-in-crime Nora. Powell and Loy made plenty of other movies together, many of them quite good, including 1936’s Libeled Lady. But Nick and Nora would prove to be their most enduring collaboration, coming to represent witty repartee and undeniable romantic chemistry at its best.

We tend to think of sequels (or, to use the abominable current phraseology, franchises) as a relatively modern phenomenon. But today’s studios are positively restrained compared with their 30s and 40s forebears. It’s impressive that the Fast & Furious movies are still packing ‘em in at seven-going-on-eight entries. But Vin and crew have a ways to go before they catch up with Blondie (28 movies between 1938 and 1950) or The Bowery Boys (48 between 1946 and 1958 and that’s not even counting earlier iterations like The East Side Kids).

Of course, one big difference between today’s franchises and yesteryear’s long-running series was the budget. Back then, movies series were typically the domain of Poverty Row studios like Monogram. Even if they started life as A-pictures, like the Charlie Chan series, they’d eventually be discontinued by the majors and picked up elsewhere.

The Thin Man movies were unique in this respect as well. The six movies were spaced out over a number of years (most series back then would cram as many as three or four entries into a single year) and retained their prestige and relatively high budgets. And if none of the sequels can quite match the sheer perfection of the original, they are all at the very least entertaining.

The third entry, 1939’s Another Thin Man, introduces what should have been a surefire series killer. After two movies of unencumbered marital bliss, drinking their way from port to port, the Charles family finally produces an offspring: Nicky, Jr. Surprisingly, this has almost no effect on Nick and Nora’s demeanor or behavior. Nora stays a bit more sober in this installment but that’s about it. Child-rearing duties are pretty much handed over to a nanny (Ruth Hussey) who’s hired on the spot without so much as an interview, much less a background check. At this point, Nicky Jr. has less impact on the story than Asta, the Charles’ faithful dog.

This would be the last film in the series based on a Dashiell Hammett story, albeit one that did not originally feature Nick and Nora. This time, Team Charles is summoned to the Long Island estate of Colonel MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith), an old friend of Nora’s father and the manager of her vast inheritance. Strange and troubling accidents had been occurring around MacFay recently, accidents he believes are the work of a man named Church (Sheldon Leonard). MacFay let Church take the fall for some illegal business dealings, so naturally Church is out for revenge. But when MacFay is actually killed, the case becomes a lot more complex than it first seems.

The great pleasures of these movies are obviously the sparkling dialogue and easy banter between Powell and Loy. But in the three movies based on Hammett stories, the mystery is every bit as clever and nuanced as the characters. I’ve never been one to actively try to solve mystery plots while watching or reading them. If my mind is engaged on that level, it means something else in the story isn’t working and I’m not engaged elsewhere. If a mystery plot doesn’t work, then I’ll notice and have a problem. Another Thin Man is fun because while it may not be the most plausible story ever told, it makes just enough sense to be believable.

It’s also a pleasant surprise that motherhood hasn’t dulled Nora’s instincts. At one point, Nick ditches Nora, worried that it’d be too dangerous for her to come along. A lesser movie would have her throw a tantrum and stay behind with baby. Not Nora. Within 60 seconds, she fields a phone call and heads out on her own adventure, potentially even sketchier than the one she was being protected from. It’s hard to pinpoint who deserves credit for moments like this, although I suspect husband-and-wife screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett had a lot to do with it. Not to mention the fact that it’s virtually impossible to imagine an actress as vibrant and exciting as Myrna Loy being sidelined for long.

For years, a Thin Man remake was in development that would have starred Johnny Depp. While I feel like Depp’s gotten a bit of an undeserved bad rap lately, his recent turn in Mortdecai didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that he’d make an ideal Nick Charles. Since the film series ended, the characters have returned on TV, radio and on stage. I’m certain they’ll be back yet again, either on film or elsewhere. But William Powell and Myrna Loy will always cast a huge shadow over these roles. It isn’t that you can’t imagine anyone else playing them. You absolutely can. But why would you want to?

Another Thin Man is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Back To The Future

If you’ve read any of my posts here since relaunching Jahnke’s Electric Theatre in blog form, first of all, thank you. There is a LOT of content online bucking for your eyeholes, a lot of which is presented in pictographic listicle form that doesn’t require you to read nearly as much as my run-on sentences do. I appreciate each and every one of you who takes the time to click on over to the Theatre.

However, you may have had a couple of puzzled thoughts I’d like to address. The first one (and I’m paraphrasing here) is, “Jeez, Jahnke. You’re posting even less here than you did when you were writing for The Digital Bits. What gives, you lazy choad?” Well, you nailed it on that score. Left to my own devices, I tend to get easily distracted and allow myself to waste ridiculous amounts of time on pointless things. I apologize and I’m trying to fix that.

Your second thought may have been, “Is there, you know, like a point to all this? A lot of what you’re doing here doesn’t seem all that different from what you were doing on the Bits. Why aren’t you just putting it there? And the rest of it’s kind of all over the map. Focus up, dude.”

OK, fair enough. First off, there were a number of reasons behind my decision to leave the Bits. But the driving force was that as much as I enjoy writing about film, I really didn’t want to write about DVD and Blu-ray anymore (and I sure as hell didn’t want to have to write about whatever 4K nonsense is coming next). Don’t get me wrong. I’m still a fervent champion of physical media. Witness the ongoing JET’s Most Wanted crusade over on Facebook. But writing about discs has turned a corner in the last couple of years and is headed down a road I didn’t want to live on.

When you’re writing a review of a DVD or Blu-ray, you are writing about the film as a consumer product, not as a work of art. This is actually an obligation the disc reviewer has to his/her audience. Nine times out of ten, the person reading the review has already made up their mind about the movie itself. These days, they may have already purchased it on different formats two or three times. If you’re lucky, the reader will listen politely to your opinions on the film itself but that isn’t really why they’re there. This reader wants to know how this particular product stands up to every other product that’s come before it. And heaven help the reviewer who misses something because there will always be someone looking at the product with a far more critical eye than you.

To a certain extent, I understand and sympathize with this viewpoint. For years, every new home video format was, at best, a little better than the one it was designed to replace. Then Blu-ray came along, touted as the ultimate home entertainment experience. Of course, now we know it’s not but whatever. After years spent building a DVD library, consumers rightfully demanded to know why they should bother starting all over again.

But the rise of high-definition also helped prove the old adage a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Now that HD televisions were commonplace and people were adding more and more speakers to their systems, it seemed there were a lot more “experts” than ever before. Unfortunately, this all came at a time when quality control at the studio level was on the decline. There have absolutely been far more discs making it to market with serious flaws than should ever be acceptable. But now we have people seeing mistakes where there aren’t any or, at the very least, so negligible that they’re scarcely worth mentioning.

The miracle of being able to own a library of films and television programs, including many that were once virtually impossible to see, has been overshadowed by complaints about color timing, aspect ratios and audio mixes. It seems the only people reading DVD and Blu-ray reviews anymore are the people who intently study screengrabs trying to decide between a US or UK release. That’s only going to get worse in the Ultra HD era, so I decided it was time for me to bow out.

That said, I’ve been writing about the movies in some form or another since I was a teenager. I wanted to keep doing so, even though there isn’t a dime to be made in it. The recent shuttering of The Dissolve, home of the best film writing on the internet, was a bucket of ice cold water to anybody who still harbors dreams of making it as a full-time film critic. Right now, I make no money off this blog, although that’s chiefly because I have no idea how to monetize it. If anybody has some advice, I’m all ears, even if I only make the same amount per post that Lucy Van Pelt earns for a session of psychiatric help.

But writing about “The Movies” is a great big blank canvas that could lead anywhere. I don’t do well with absolute freedom, so I wanted to steer this in a particular direction. After giving it some thought, I realized the answer was literally staring me right in the face.

For years, I’ve had a “Now Playing” DVD display stand hanging in my living room. I’ve always enjoyed rotating wall art, so I decided to switch it out weekly. A couple of years ago now, I hit upon the idea of using this so-called Movie of the Week project as a way to watch my entire collection in chronological order, from the silent era on up. It’s been a fascinating experiment, so why not bring the Movie of the Week to the Electric Theatre?

In fact, I already started this with my last post looking at the Jimmy Stewart/Ginger Rogers comedy Vivacious Lady. I’m now about to embark on 1939, widely considered Hollywood’s greatest year, so I figured that would be the ideal time to jump on board. Bear in mind, this project is only roughly chronological. I’m not such a stickler for detail that I’m looking up exact release dates. Also, if I add something to my library later (say, for example, I pick up a copy of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari in a few months time), I’ll pause and include that earlier title. This project will also incorporate my ongoing themes such as Captures and An Honor To Be Nominated, so watch for those to return.

Dr. Jahnke’s History of Film will be the primary focus here from now on, although I reserve the right to toss in other stuff and non-movie-related content from time to time. What’s the fun of writing a blog if you don’t allow yourself to write about whatever crosses your mind from time to time? Anyway, this should be fun and, if nothing else, my collection is eclectic enough that you probably won’t get bored. Join me next week as we go back to 1939. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Captures - Vivacious Lady

{Captures is a deep dive into the seemingly bottomless well of movies previously unavailableon DVD.}

While George Stevens is far from becoming a forgotten filmmaker, it’s undeniably true that his name and work are mentioned far less often than those of his contemporaries such as John Ford and Howard Hawks. Part of the reason for his relatively low profile may be that he was never quite as prolific as other directors of the era. He began his career as a cameraman before becoming a dependable director of comedy shorts for Hal Roach and later RKO. Moving into features, Stevens helmed several acknowledged classics in the late 30s and early 40s before the outbreak of World War II.

Stevens was one of several filmmakers who played a key part in the war effort, capturing legendary black-and-white and color footage of Nazi concentration camps and D-Day. But after the war, Stevens’ output slowed down considerably. He made only 8 films between 1948 and 1970. Granted, these included some of the best work of his career, including Shane and Giant. Nevertheless, it’s far less than Ford and Hawks turned out over the same period.

Vivacious Lady, a breezy romantic comedy directed by Stevens in 1938, is no classic but it’s deserved a better fate than languishing in obscurity for so long. James Stewart, just starting on his transition from “what-the-hell-do-we-do-with-this-guy” to leading man, stars as botany professor Peter Morgan. Tasked with fetching his philandering cousin Keith (James Ellison) home from New York, he instead falls head over heels in love with the object of Keith’s affection, nightclub singer Francey (Ginger Rogers). After a whirlwind courtship of less than 24 hours, Peter and Francey impulsively decide to get married.

Peter brings his new bride home to the staid college town of Old Sharon where his father (Charles Coburn) is president of the university. But after seeing Francey get off the train with Keith, Mr. Morgan makes a snap judgment against the blonde hussy and will hear no more about it, leaving Peter far too flummoxed to tell his parents or social-climbing fiancée (Frances Mercer) about his new marital status.

Even by screwball comedy standards, the plot of Vivacious Lady is outlandishly contrived. The entire film hinges on Peter’s total inability to convey a single bit of information to his family (not to mention Francey’s willingness to put up with this and not just drop the bombshell herself). And while Jimmy Stewart was certainly a world-champion hemmer and hawer, this strains even his abilities. But Stewart and Rogers have terrific chemistry together and if that were all the movie had going for it, it’d probably be enough to carry it a long way.

In fact, it’s the interplay between the supporting characters, particularly the women, that makes Vivacious Lady worth revisiting. Beulah Bondi appears as, surprise surprise, Stewart’s mother and she shares several affecting scenes with Rogers, sneaking cigarettes behind her husband’s back and sharing marital secrets. It’s a very pleasant surprise to see such genuine moments of female bonding in a movie of any vintage, much less one from 1938. While on the opposite end of the spectrum, Rogers and Mercer get into it with a truly hilarious fight scene. Even if you like nothing else about the movie, you’ll probably like this scene.

If the men don’t fare quite as well, there is at least a case to be made for James Ellison’s performance as Keith. When Peter and Francey return as husband and wife, a more predictable movie would have found Keith in a rage at Peter for stealing his girl. Instead, he reacts with minor irritation, followed quickly by resignation and bemusement at Peter’s predicament. It’s as if Keith knew he never really planned on asking Francey to marry him. He’s just out for a good time. If anything, he seems happier to have Francey as a pal and in-law than as a wife. The characters seem more believable thanks to this platonic but still flirtatious relationship.

It’s too bad Stewart and Rogers never made another movie together after Vivacious Lady. Jimmy could have been to Ginger’s comedy career what Fred Astaire was to her musical career. As for George Stevens, he would eventually begin to focus on more serious-minded pictures but first, he’d go on to make a few more crackling romantic comedies, including the classic Tracy-Hepburn team-up Woman Of The Year. And while all involved would go on to make better pictures, Vivacious Lady remains an entertaining step in the evolution of their careers.

Vivacious Lady is now available on MOD DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.