Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky loves Myrna Loy and William Powell because they know such lovely people.
"You've tried your darnedest to make me fall in love with you and now you have. So from now on, I'm going to do the chasing. And believe me, brother, you're going to know you've been chased."—Mrs. Kay Wilson (Myrna Loy), I Love You Again
They made 14 films together and proved the most enduring and compatible onscreen couple of the classic studio era. No couple quite had their chemistry. Not Bogie and Bacall. Not Tracey and Hepburn. Not Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson.
William Powell: suave, quick-witted, debonair, with his slick hair and perfectly groomed mustache. Myrna Loy: clever, coquettish, with her wise eyes and adorable nose. Off screen, they were just friends. On screen, they always seemed like they knew each other for ages. Their most famous partnership was in the Thin Man series, as Nick and Nora Charles, crime-busting socialites with a penchant for heavy drinking and witty repartee. They made 13 films together, from 1934's Manhattan Melodrama to 1947's Song of the Thin Man (not counting a final brief pairing in The Senator Was Indiscreet, where Loy gets an unbilled cameo). While they never married each other in real life (both had plenty of failed romances with other people though), Powell and Loy were always perfectly matched, the married couple you always wished you could be. Their chemistry could save even the hoariest romantic comedy—and elevate an already good film to comic brilliance.
Warner Brothers has combed through the MGM film vault to find five Powell/Loy pictures that don't have "Thin Man" in the title. They show many sides of this famous screen pair, at their best and worst. Let's dance our way through them one at a time.
Manhattan Melodrama (1934): This film is best known as the movie John Dillinger went to see the night he was ambushed. Sometimes it doesn't pay to have a crush on Myrna Loy. It is also the first time Powell and Loy are paired up on screen, although their romance is hardly at the center of the story.
The Thin Man director W.S. Van Dyke, producer David Selznick, a screenplay co-written by Joseph Mankiewicz—there are some heavy hitters behind what is really a pretty routine film. Roguish Blackie Gallagher (Clark Gable) and bookish Jim Wade (William Powell) have been the best of friends since childhood. Jim becomes a morally upright district attorney who marries Blackie's former moll (Myrna Loy). (In real life, the triangle went the other way around: Carole Lombard divorced Powell the year before and would later marry Gable.) But when Blackie proves his friendship by killing Jim's political rival, Jim must decide whether to help his friend or uphold justice.
Yes, the whole business is as melodramatic as the title suggests, with Gable and Powell both coasting entirely on their charm while the script piles on the sentimental plot twists. Tragic orphans? Bathetic moral crisis punctuated by a whining string section? The result is watchable mostly because of its eminent pedigree: a cast and crew this good has to work hard to make this a fun time. Blackie is a charming crook (could Gable have played it any differently?) willing to sacrifice anything for his best friend, and his "moral struggle" is really the heart of the film. But Powell and Loy show remarkable chemistry together the first time they meet on screen, flirting in the back seat of a car, then at dinner. It seems less like acting from a script (especially if you compare Loy's scenes with Gable) and more like improvisation, the two of them perfectly in sync. The film also shows why "One Take Woody" Van Dyke was their best director: he trusted their loose and natural chemistry to carry the scene, rather than forcing them to play to type as a more restrictive director might.
The extras for this disc, and for all the discs in the series, are characteristic of Warner studio-era collections these days, although this is really a more stripped-down version of the "Night at the Movies" approach Warner takes on more prestigious sets. We get a Pete Smith-hosted parody newsreel and fake trailer collection titled "Goofy Shorts #2" and a Harman-Ising cartoon "The Old Pioneer" that serves as a reminder of how weak MGM cartoons were before Tom and Jerry came along. Nothing essential or even particularly funny, but it is nice to know that old stuff in the vault still has some use.
Evelyn Prentice (1934): Powell and Loy followed up the legendary The Thin Man with this sentimental tale of a marriage on the rocks, with some legal drama thrown in. Powell plays a fast-talking defense attorney with a penchant for defending pretty women, a part which almost seems too obvious for him. Loy is his patient wife whose kind heart gets her embroiled in a blackmail scheme. When the blackmailer is shot, Mrs. Prentice (who believes she is the killer) insists that her husband defend the blackmailer's girlfriend against the murder charge. Don't worry if the plot does not make much sense: whatever credibility it has goes out the window during a trial sequence that would—if this were real life, or even a better-written movie—end with everyone in the courtroom, including the gallery witnesses, disbarred and possibly spanked. Worse, the whole business is weighty and humorless, which blunts the edge of the Powell/Loy romance. In fact, it almost seems like the two are in separate movies: Loy is always on the verge of tears, moping through a languid romantic tragedy, while Powell is trying to rev up the proceedings with the courtroom nonsense.
The extras are much like those on the Manhattan Melodrama disc: the third in the "Goofy Shorts" series and a cartoon. Neither made me laugh as much as the last act of the movie. I don't think I was supposed to laugh at it though.
Double Wedding (1937): If Evelyn Prentice shows how not to deploy the Powell/Loy chemistry with an overly sappy story, this film shows what happens to a film on the very rare occasion that the two actors do not click. Storywise, Powell and Loy are in their element as a flirtatious couple in this screwball comedy. This time out, Powell plays the ditzy role as a broke artist "corrupting" Loy's sister (played Florence Rice) and her milquetoast finance with the "bohemian" lifestyle. Of course, the sister develops a crush on the artist, which drives busybody Loy (playing the "straight man" part required for a screwball couple) nuts—until she falls in love with him too. You can guess how it all works out. Double Wedding is better than Evelyn Prentice, but it lacks focus, in part because Powell was emotionally shattered at the time by the death of his off-screen girlfriend, Jean Harlow. As a result, his usually peppy screen persona seems a little strained, and the sexual tension between him and Loy does not sparkle as it should. (You can see all three actors in better times, plus Spencer Tracy, in Libeled Lady.) But even half-hearted Powell and Loy is more interesting than the other lame romantic couple that takes up time in the picture.
As for the extras, we have another cartoon ("The Hound and the Rabbit," featuring football-playing bunnies) and a "tabloid musical" (or so it bills itself) called "Dancing on the Ceiling," in which a handsome guy visits his toothsome female dentist and her office full of "sentimental man-attractors, sweet and gentle tooth extractors." My father was a general dentist for thirty years, and I don't remember more than two spontaneous musical numbers ever happening in his office. And I know he never had a fully stocked bar or a chorus line.
I Love You Again (1940): Woody Van Dyke helps our favorite screen couple bounce back. Powell plays Larry Wilson, a straight-laced businessman who awakens from a nine-year bout with amnesia to discover he is really conman George Carey. So George decides to impersonate Larry with the help of a fellow con man (a scene-stealing Frank McHugh, pretending to be George's personal "doctor"). George also gets to win over Larry's estranged wife (Loy). At first, Kay is shocked by her dull husband's transformation (when he seems pleased he can still turn her head, she quips, "I often wished I could turn your head—on a spit over a slow fire"), but soon she falls—as all proper girls do in the movies—for the bad boy. Meanwhile, George has to pause only briefly from double-talking his wife into staying in order to double-talk his way through a real estate scam with a former criminal partner (Edmund Lowe). Trying to follow the plot will give you a headache, so sit back and enjoy the fireworks. Think of it as a screwball version of A History of Violence.
I Love You Again is the biggest surprise of this DVD set. (The print is in the best shape too; most of the other films in the set have more scratches and nicks than this one.) It is funny and fast, and allows both stars to play to their strengths, with Powell always moving so quickly that he risks flying off the rails, and Loy cleverly balancing him out with precisely timed wit.
The extras on this disc are a strange match: a "Crime Does Not Pay" short called "Jack Pot" (a dramatic recreation of slot-machine racketeers at work), which fits the "con man" theme, and another Technicolor Harman-Ising cartoon, "Tom Turkey and His Harmonica Humdingers," which features some fine animation and impressive use of color.
Love Crazy (1941): Libeled Lady director Jack Conway helms another tale of romantic misunderstanding, with Powell and Loy as a married couple, Steve and Susan Ireland, who endure what marketing departments like to call "wacky hijinks." First, Steve fights with the quintessential mean mother-in-law (Florence Bates), and then Susan thinks her husband has cheated on her with an ex-girlfriend. When his wife threatens divorce, Steve pretends to be crazy to stall his wife's efforts to divorce him and ends up in a mental asylum. There is plenty of slapstick and even a bit of cross-dressing (a rare chance to see Powell without his signature mustache), but the physical comedy is really anchored, as it should be, in the verbal chemistry of our favorite screen couple. Without them, Love Crazy would be an incoherent mess. With them, it is actually pretty funny. I wonder though, were mother-in-law jokes as tiresome in 1941 as they are now?
No live-action short is included this time around, just another MGM cartoon ("Alley Cat"). There is also a 1949 Screen Director's Guild Playhouse radio adaptation of the film, starring Powell and Gloria Blondell. Given how much of the film depends on visual comedy (compared to most Powell/Loy movies at least), the radio version is certainly an odd creature. The audio tone is fairly muted, and an awful lot has been cut (including the mother-in-law stuff). Powell tries gamely to bring some energy to the show, but the stripped-down antics and lack of chemistry between Powell and the other actors shows why films featuring Powell and Loy together worked even when the stories were not so great.
What makes the team of William Powell and Myrna Loy work so well? Clark Gable's Blackie nails it early on in Manhattan Melodrama when talking about his pal Jim: "Class. It's written all over him. Class." They seem spontaneous, natural, as if they just arrived on set from a great party and picked up the conversation without having to read the script. In fact, their charm and timing could save a weak script much of the time. Their light touch made their screen relationship perfect for romantic comedy, where every emotional crisis could be solved with a martini and some clever banter (and maybe a pratfall, if you are really desperate). Of course, this meant that their lightness sometimes did not work as well in an overly serious film (like Evelyn Prentice). Powell and Loy were—at their best—about the fun side of romance.
The bottom line: there are three strong films in this set, and two fairly weak ones. No classics, and no outright duds. And they are all as good as they are because of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Individually, they were stars—just watch Powell in Mr. Roberts or Loy in The Best Years of Our Lives. Together, they were magic.
The court pours drinks for all the witnesses. Martinis, neat. Case dismissed.
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