Friday, August 15, 2008

Beyond the Thin Man: Powell and Loy

How is that I've had this blog for a month and I haven't talked about Powell and Loy? They are my favorite screen couple of all-time. He was so dashing yet wacky. She was so funny in a cool way. Together they were dynamite and crazy sexy to boot. Best known as Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man movies, Powell and Loy were such a popular pairing that appeared in eight other films outside that series.

Manhattan Melodrama and Evelyn Prentice were released in 1934, the same year as The Thin Man. This accounts in part, I think for their ease of portraying a married couple in The Thin Man. They'd already spent a fair time together on screen. I was so excited the first time I watched Manhattan Melodrama. Here was a Powell and Loy movie with Clark Gable in it as well. I should have known what with the word "melodrama" actually in the title that it wasn't going to be funny. I guess I was hoping it was ironic. Well the only irony I could find in Manhattan Melodrama was that it was the movie that bank robber John Dillinger went to go see on the night he was killed, though it is debatable whether he was there for the instructive anti-crime story or the air-conditioning. (Dillinger was shot in Chicago in mid-July.) It's not a bad movie and on second viewing I liked it better because I wasn't disappointed with the lack of comedy. Powell plays a lawyer and politician who defends his childhood friend from his orphan days (Clark Gable) on a murder charge and falls in love with his girlfriend (Myrna Loy). Of course, that's a gross over-simplification of the plot. A lot is packed into this movie including a ferry boat accident and a riot started by Bolsheviks.

In Evelyn Prentice, Powell plays a defense attorney again, and this movie isn't funny either. It is a decent romantic drama with Rosalind Russell, in her first screen performance as John Prentice's seductive client who causes a rift between he and his wife, Evelyn (Loy). Evelyn goes out and gets even. Since this movie was made just after the enforcement of the code it is very careful to show that both John Prentice and his wife's cheating were mere flirtations that were unwise and indiscreet but nothing more. Evelyn's mild flirtation really comes back to bite her. I guess taking tea with someone other than your husband is really a gateway to murder. The other man, Kennard, sets her up for blackmail as he's well aware she's the wife of a prominent attorney. After trying numerous times to give him the brush off, Evelyn naively goes to his apartment to try to convince him to leave her alone and witnesses his murder by his long-suffering and abused girlfriend, Judith (Isabell Jewell). Evelyn's bad luck keeps getting worse as her husband takes on the Judith's case. Loy is excellent as a woman in a difficult moral position and Isabell Jewell is very compelling in her part.

Powell and Loy's next non-Thin Man outing was the Great Ziefeld (1936). This is not at all what I expected from one of their movies. It is a huge production musical with long, intricate musical numbers interrupted by anecdotal vignettes about Ziegfeld's (Powell) life. Myrna Loy doesn't come in until the very end as Ziegfeld's second wife, actress Billie Burke. The musical numbers are entertaining in the same way as watching large set-ups of dominoes. It looks cool and you appreciate that a lot of work went into it.

Libeled Lady came next with it's star packed cast that also includes Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy. Harlow and Powell were an off-screen couple and they wanted the story fitted so that might end up together on screen. MGM wasn't about to let that happen and they insisted that it remain a Powell and Loy vehicle. Libeled Lady has some of Powell and Loy's most romantic scenes as he plays playboy sent to seduce her out out of a lawsuit. This is a not to be missed outing from the couple, and one that stands with the best of the Thin Man films.

The next thee films, Double Wedding, I love You Again and Love Crazy are among the best the pair ever made. The Thin Man formula was starting to wear a bit thin, at this point and it seems that the duo could get by at the box-office without the Nick and Nora moniker. Double Wedding( 1940) is about a bohemian artist (Powell) who falls in love with a controlled society lady (Loy) and goes to crazy lengths to win her hand. Double Wedding is a heady cocktail of romance and screwball comedy. Some of their best love scenes and funniest antics are in this film. I Love You Again (1940) is about a failing marriage saved by amnesia. The improbable plot is buoyed along by an improbable series of complications that end with Powell dressed in a boy scout uniform leading troops of kids through a swamp. That sequence alone makes it worth a rental. Love Crazy (1941)is my personal favorite Powell and Loy movie. It pushes the boundaries of what they had done in a comedy, especially Powell who is in drag for a good deal of the movie. The plot involves a nosy mother-in-law, an anniversary misunderstanding and a husband who tries to prevent a divorce by getting himself declared legally insane. There's nothing William Powell won't do for love including throwing all the top hats at a swanky party into the pool and declaring them emancipated.

Powell and Loy reunited for one final film after the The Thin Man series ended in 1947, The Senator was Indiscreet (1947). Though it wasn't a true Powell and Loy film, in that Loy only appears in a surprise cameo at the end, I include it here for the sake of completion. By the mid forties, times had changed and the emphasis on family comedy and film noir. The Thin Man movies adapted by giving the Charles' a kid as well as a dog, but part of the escapist fun of a wealthy gentleman who solves crime in spare time was lost when added domestic comedy. Myrna Loy and William Powell continued to make films without one another for the next two decades, Loy continuing to act on television until the early 1980s.


kda0121 said...

Jen, I must be psychic. I was wondering when you would write about William Powell and Myrna Loy, and lo and behold! Wow, what timing.

Bill and Myrna are my favorite screen couple too. What a chemistry they had together. Who wouldn't like this great couple on celluloid? Powell is so suave and urbane and frankly I find Myrna incredibly sexy. That turned-up nose of hers sends me all a flutter.

I tend to like their comedies best, with Love Crazy and I Love You Again being my too favorites. Powell was actually going against type in Double Wedding, as the eccentric artist. I wasn't crazy about it on my first viewing, because of this, but it has grown on me. How could you not like Love Crazy, with the great supporting cast and the chance to see Powell in drag!

As to the Thin Man series, it would be very difficult not to enjoy them. Of those, I enjoy the first two the best, but I like them all. It's interesting to see young James Stewart in After the Thin Man.

Looking at their dramas, I would probably choose Evelyn Prentice as my favorite. Maybe I'm reading too much into to it, but I thought that "what wasn't said" made it clear that out and out adultery had been committed, and not just "tea party" talk. Perhaps it's just that wild imagination of mind running amok again. Either way, I like the picture very much.

I think Manhattan Melodrama is a fine movie, but it's not one that I look to watch again and again. Not sure why. I like the actors and it's well made. Perhaps it's because I don't like seeing Gable go to the chair. If the movie had been made precode, they would have found a technicality to get Clark off the hook.

rab693 said...

I've been enjoying your blog very much but haven't commented until now. I am also a fan of William Powell and Myrna Loy, and coincidentally, just watched 5 of the movies you mention while on vacation this past week. I had only seen part of Double Wedding and Love Crazy and never seen Manhattan Melodrama and Evelyn Prentice, so it was a week of discovery. I prefer the comedies, but found Evelyn Prentice to be quite suspenseful. Also, it was great to see Rosalind Russell in her first role. One of their comedies that you don't mention is Libeled Lady. Although they share the screen with Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow, I think the Powell-Loy pairing makes the movie for me.

Jennythenipper said...

Oh my gosh rab, how could I have forgotten Libled Lady? I love that movie. Sooooo many great stars. I just spaced it out. I will add an addendum, I think. Glad you are enjoying my blog.

kda, I'd have to watch it again, but I was pretty sure it was all perceived cheating in Evelyn Prentice. Oh, well could just be my unadulterated love for Powell and Loy that is being extra forgiving of them!

I like all the Thin Man movies, myself, but I like the first two the best as well. I recently watched the Thin Man Goes Home again and that's pretty good too. It's a completely different and type of movie than the early pictures, but it still entertains.

I agree about Manhattan Melodrama. I didn't like that Gable went to the chair, either. I think you are totally right, that if the movie would have come out a few months earlier it would have had a different ending. Gable makes such a loveable rogue it's hard to imagine any woman falling out of love with him, even if it is for William Powell!

kda0121 said...

I too, am guilty of forgetting Libeled Lady! What a wonderful movie! Powell and Loy are at their absolute best and the indomitable Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow are also in top form.

Libeled Lady was one of those long, lost movies that I didn't see until just a few years ago and I am so happy that it is commercially available on DVD.

As much as I love this movie, it is still one that seems to "slip through the cracks" when I think of Powell and Loy movies. I have no idea the reason for such an absolute lapse of memory about this movie. Thanks for jogging my memory, rab.

kda0121 said...

After the reminder about Libeled Lady, I just had to watch it again. It gets better with every viewing! I just love this movie. Now, I don't know if I have a clear cut favorite Powell/Loy movie. It's between Libeled Lady, Love Crazy and I Love You Again. You can't go wrong with any of them.

AbbyNormal said...

I have sooooo many movies to watch. I will never catch up with you all :-)