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Warner Home Video presents
"I often wished I could turn your head—on a spit, over a slow fire."
DVD ReviewCertainly the most enduring image of the screen pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy is as Nick and Nora Charles, in their five Thin Man pictures—but wise men at Warners could see that they had that ineffable, rare and unquantifiable commodity, screen chemistry, so they were wisely paired again, as often as possible. This set brings to DVD five Loy/Powell pictures roughly contemporary with the Thin Man movies, and they are delightful—he's a charmer and she's a darling; the only real quarrel is that she frequently doesn't get as much to do, perhaps because he's a man, or more of a clown. You watch and can't help think that she's an often underutilized resource in these films—this was a lament of actresses back to silent pictures, and can reasonably and understandably be heard even today. But these movies, and especially the connection between Loy and Powell, still shimmer, and watching them on DVD is a delight.
Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
"Nothing like a district attorney to keep a girl in shape."
—Eleanor (Myrna Loy)
The set kicks off in a smashing manner, with an early 1930s potboiler that lives up to its grand, consonant title. It comes with a first-rate pedigree, that's for sure—it's a David O. Selznick production; Joseph Mankiewicz shares screenplay credit; photography is by the legendary James Wong Howe; and it even sports a song by Rodgers and Hart. (Clearly they were satisfied with the music but not the lyrics of the tune, "The Bad in Every Man"—you'll recognize the melody, because these words were tossed out, and new ones were written, and it became the perennial "Blue Moon.") Powell and Loy share top billing with Clark Gable, creating a wicked little love triangle, and a dynamic between friends on the wrong side of the tracks that persists right up to The Departed.
We first meet them as boys—Jim and Blackie are pals on board a ship that sinks in 1904, orphaning them both, and forging a lifelong bond of best friendship between them. The young Blackie is played by Mickey Rooney, who grows up into Clark Gable—he's the darker of the pair, and Blackie moves up the rungs of the ladder to become one of the most feared crime bosses in the five boroughs. Jim (Powell) is the straight arrow, who gets his law degree from Columbia and becomes a crusading district attorney, with eyes on the Governor's mansion in Albany, and beyond. And Loy of course is the pretty young thing who trips them both up—we meet her as Blackie's girl, but she's soon switching teams, giving up life as a gun moll for one as a candidate's wife.
It's a film with a great feel for its time—we even get to see Leon Trotsky agitating for revolution on the streets of New York—and you've got to believe that director W.S. Van Dyke was a big-time sports fan, because crucial plot points occur at the Dempsey/Firpo fight, at the race track at Belmont, and at a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden. (Some vintage stock footage from the last two locations make for terrific viewing.)
The movie lives up to the grand flamboyance of its title, when Jim is the lead prosecutor in a case against Blackie that will result in a trip to the electric chair if a conviction comes in. There's much in the plot that's downright preposterous, but you get the sense that all participating in the endeavor are having a whale of a time, Gable particularly—even the prospect of getting executed cannot extinguish the glint in his eye or muss the sharp creases in his suits.
Evelyn Prentice (1934)
"Nothing is safe with a man like you."
—Evelyn (Myrna Loy)
Powell remains a member of the New York State Bar in the second entry, also from 1934, but he's got more woes, especially on the home front. He plays John Prentice, a showboating defense attorney who loves his name in the tabloid headlines as much as he loves winning in court; and his practice keeps him constantly on the run, and possibly even in the arms of one of his more comely clients (played by a slinky young Rosalind Russell). His lovely wife, the title character, is played of course by Miss Loy, who grows increasingly annoyed and despondent that her husband cannot make it to his own white-tie dinner parties, nor even pretend to want to spend any quality time with their daughter. We know it's just a matter of time before she starts stepping out on him, and sure enough, she meets a smoothie named Lawrence Kennard, who is ready for illicit trysts, or a little blackmail, or both.
It's a movie with kind of a long fuse, and is bottom heavy with story—the first half seems like all preparation for the lurid things to come, and then the plot developments come cascading out, in increasingly melodramatic fashion. The film is filled with gauzy close-ups of Loy, the law widow, the earth mother, and later possibly the femme fatale; Powell isn't quite as grand (you sense that the director, William K. Howard, isn't nearly enchanted with his leading man as he is with his counterpart), but he's still mighty fine.
As with many films from the Depression era, this one luxuriates in the opulence of its very rich characters—the Prentices' Manhattan apartment must take up a city block, and you sense that New York's employment figures are driven in large measure by the family's domestic staff. Particularly delicious too is Una Merkel, as Evelyn's wiseacre best pal, who always seems to have one eye on the most handsome man in the room, and the other on her next cocktail.
Double Wedding (1937)
"Where is this combination of Casanova, Julius Caesar and Bluebeard?"
— Mrs. Bly (Jessie Ralph), waiting for Charlie (William Powell)
Powell is at his most rakish and flamboyant here, and he has to be, given that his principal task is melting the ice princess played by Loy. In many ways, this one is a screwball comedy in the vein of Bringing Up Baby, with the gender roles swapped—here it's the guy who's the force of nature, and the gal who needs to get over herself. Powell plays Charlie, an aspiring filmmaker without a lick of talent, but with a devil-may-care bohemian air that's really quite winning, even if you don't go in for a man in a beret and raccoon coat. His latest protégée is to be Irene (Florence Rice), who with her drippy fiancé Waldo (John Beal) hangs around with Charlie just to get out of the house. And that's principally because they're continually under the watchful eye of Margit (Loy), Irene's all-business control freak of an older sister. There's talk that Irene might actually be falling for Charlie, and Margit will do whatever is necessary to see that Irene and Waldo get hitched—and given the film's title and its eagerness to live up to all the conventions of its genre, there's no great mystery as to where this is headed.
Loy is all work and no play, and she brings a sweetness to the role as she falls for Charlie, but it's Powell who is at his hammiest here, seeming to channel the John Barrymore of Twentieth Century. Beal steals more than a few scenes in a fantastically dopey performance as Waldo, who's undeniably a dunderhead, but doesn't want to see his girl swooped up by a madman. Also particularly noteworthy are some of the luscious Art Deco design elements—Margit runs a dress shop and her home is immaculate, but even Charlie's shabby trailer looks as if it's been given a touch with the magic wand of Erté.
I Love You Again (1940)
"You know, a thing like a divorce can break up a marriage."
— George (William Powell)
The premise of this film is so absolutely daffy that you've got to run with it, or pop another title into your DVD player, because if you can't give yourself over to the silliness, this isn't the film for you. We meet Powell as Larry Wilson, a teetotaling, penny-pinching stuffed shirt on board an ocean liner—when he tries to rescue an inebriated passenger who has gone overboard, Larry takes an oar to the head, which alleviates him from a nine-year bout of amnesia. Miracle of miracles! He now recalls that he's a card sharp called George Carey, who is Wilson's polar opposite—a hard-drinking chiseler who has been hibernating in the body of a sober, rich bank president, making the opportunity for plunder abundant.
But the very notion allows the filmmakers to exploit it to great comic effect, and we're in territory quite similar to Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Larry/George comes ashore and returns home to the musty burg of Habersville, PA—he brings along a new partner in crime, Doc Ryan (Frank McHugh), but the plans to fleece the estate of the mysteriously disappeared Mr. Wilson get sidetracked when Carey gets a look at the missus. She is played of course by Loy, who's already got a new beau and merely wants to serve her husband with divorce papers—but he's not going to let a dishy thing like her get away, and more than any Hays Code movie I can think of, this one is principally driven by Carey's rapacious desire to get laid. (You look at her, and you can't blame him; and the fact that he's inhabiting the body of her husband is what must have made this palatable to the censors.)
The filmmakers do a creditable job mining the comic possibilities of their story—especially rich is when the big-city chiseler has to lead the local Boy Scout troop, whose most prominent member is played by Carl Switzer, more familiar as Alfalfa from The Little Rascals. This one is apparently being remade some time soon, but you'll surely want to check out the original first.
Love Crazy (1941)
"There's nothing wrong with anyone's life that a good marriage can't cure."
—Steve (William Powell)
The set concludes with a bon bon that's part Feydeaux sex farce, and part swipe at the burgeoning science of psychiatry. Powell and Loy play Steve and Susan Ireland, an absurdly happy married couple about to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary, when (as they often do) circumstances intervene. A series of wacky and improbable coincidences—an old flame of Steve's has moved in downstairs, the building's elevator malfunctions, Susan's battle axe of a mother shows up with a rug for a wedding present that functions like a banana peel in a slapstick gag—give Susan the wrong idea, and once she thinks that Steve is stepping out on her, she's got no choice but to file for divorce.
Before the courts can bring the marriage asunder, however, Steve must stall for time, and the best way to do that, apparently, is to pretend you're as nutty as a fruitcake. But what was intended as a goofy delaying tactic draws him into the bowels of the jurisprudential system, and his fate now lies in the hands of the members of what is delightfully referred to officially as the Lunacy Commission. (We've all got our own nominees for this one, no?) It's a movie of many slamming bedroom doors, and it's only marginally uncharitable about those who may have some sort of psychological issues—it's absolutely withering, however, about the quacks who purport to care for and heal them. It gives Powell a chance to demonstrate his chops as a first-rate farceur—there are elements of Ernie Kovacs and Preston Sturges in his performance—and this one really is his show. Elisha Cook Jr. appears briefly as a befuddled elevator man, but what you'll take away is the enduring vision of Powell and Loy and marital bliss, even if only in the movies.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Manhattan Melodrama looks particularly sharp for a film of the period, and Howe's photography is quite well transferred. Evelyn Prentice doesn't fare as well—frequent instances of bacterial decay are evident, and there even seem to be a few missing frames; Double Wedding has similar print problems.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: There's some buzz on the Evelyn Prentice track; all the others sound fair, and especially endearing is Franz Waxman's slightly syrupy score for I Love You Again.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 48 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
5 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Boxed Set
Double Wedding sports a musical short, Dancing on the Ceiling (8m:49s), " a tabloid musical," a behind-the-scenes look at the glamorous doings at a nightclub, featuring cigarette girls changing into costume in sync; and in a cartoon The Hound and the Rabbit (7m:35s) match wits on the gridiron. I Love You Again is accompanied by A Crime Does Not Pay Short Subject called Jack Pot (19m:28s), with our host, The MGM Crime Reporter, which features a cop chewing out us the audience for our indifference; but we can patch things up as we're serenaded by Tom Turkey and His Harmonica Humdingers (7m:15s), whose set list includes Darktown Strutters' Ball.
Finally, the cartoon accompanying Love Crazy is Alley Cat (9m:30s), in which a feline from the wrong side of the tracks tries to woo a kitty from uptown; and a Screen Directors Guild Playhouse Radio Broadcast (22m:09s) of the story, which features Powell but not Loy, and is so truncated that both the plot and the jokes are thrown to the winds.
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsOne of the great screen pairings leave Asta and the dead bodies at home in these five features—there's no intellectual heavy lifting here, thankfully, and each of the quintet has its own particular pleasures.
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