“AFTER THE THIN MAN” (1936) Review

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“AFTER THE THIN MAN” (1936) Review

Following the phenomenon success of 1934’s “THE THIN MAN”, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to cash in on that success with a sequel, two years later. “AFTER THE THIN MAN”, released in 1936, proved to be the first of five sequels that starred William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles..

Although the story for “AFTER THE THIN MAN” was created for the screen by Dashiell Hammet; Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who adapted Hammet’s novel for the 1934 movie, wrote the screenplay for this sequel. And W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke, who directed the first film, returned to direct “AFTER THE THIN MAN”. Set nearly a week after “THE THIN MAN”, this movie finds Nick and Nora Charles returning to San Francisco, following their vacation in New York. It is not long before they find themselves embroiled in the lurid problems of Nora’s socialite cousin, Selma Landis. Apparently her ne’er do well husband Robert has disappeared to join his mistress, a nightclub singer named Polly Byrnes. Robert also tries to extort $25,000 from Selma’s ex-love David Graham, on the promise that he will leave for good. Selma and her haughty mother, Aunt Katherine Forrest, asks Nick to find Robert and bring him back. Although Nick and Nora track Robert down to a Chinatown nightclub, where Polly sings, it is not long before he leaves and someone murders him before he can get that $25,000 and permanently be out of Selma’s life.

Although “AFTER THE THIN MAN” failed to follow in its 1934 predecessor and earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination, Hackett and Goodrich’s screenplay did. It is a pity that director “Woody” Van Dyke and the movie itself did not receive any nominations. Because the movie is regarded by many as the best of the six THIN MAN movies. Do I agree with this assessment? Honestly, I do not know. But I can say that it is my favorite in the series. I love “THE THIN MAN”. But I really love this 1936 sequel. I feel that one of the reasons I regard it in such high regard is the story. The mystery surrounding Robert Landis’ death and the other deaths that followed permeated with human drama. This will especially become obvious in the scene featuring Nick Charles’ revelation of the murderer. Surprisingly, this seemed to be the case for both Nick and Nora, some of the other supporting characters and even Asta.

As many people know, the Production Code finally came into effect in July 1934, two years and five months before the release of“AFTER THE THIN MAN”. Yet, there is something about Hackett and Goodrich’s screenplay that reeked with a Pre-Code sensibility. Who am I kidding? There is so much about this movie that practically screamed PRE-CODE. For one, the story is filled with extramarital sex, adultery, hatred, love, extortion, class bigotry, and some of the raciest humor to come out of a MGM film from the 1930s. As an added bonus, “AFTER THE THIN MAN” featured at least three musical numbers – two of them performed by Dorothy McNulty (the future Penny Singleton from the “BLONDIE” movies). My favorite proved to be the lively New Year’s Eve tune, . Only one aspect of “AFTER THE THIN MAN” makes it clear it was released during the post-Code period – twin beds for Mr. and Mrs. Charles. I do have one major complaint about Van Dyke’s direction of “AFTER THE THIN MAN” – following Robert Landis’ murder, the movie’s pace starts to drag a bit, while Nick and Lieutenant Abrams conduct the investigation of the murder at the Chinatown nightclub and at Aunt Katherine’s home.

Both William Powell and Myrna Loy returned in top form as Nick and Nora Charles. What can I say about them? What is there to say? They were perfect. They were magic. They were yin and yang . . . peanut butter and jelly. They were . . . oh, never mind. Whoever is reading this review probably has a very good idea about what I am trying to say. They were Nick and Nora . . . and that is all I have to say. The two second best performances came from James Stewart as Selma Landis’ former boyfriend, David Graham and Joseph Calleia as the nightclub owner/con man “Dancer”. Watching Stewart in “AFTER THE THIN MAN”, it was easy to see how he became a star within two to three years. He gave a very natural and relaxed performance. And Calleia was deliciously menacing, yet suave as “Dancer”. Frankly, I think he was one of the best character actors between the 1930s and 1950s.

Sam Levene gave a fine comic performance in his first appearance in a THIN MAN movie as Lieutenant Abrams. And Penny Singleton (I might as well call her that) was hilarious as the whining songstress/mistress Polly Byrnes. Elissa Landi gave an emotional portrayal as the much put upon Selma Landis, although there were times I found her a bit hammy. Alan Marshal has never struck me as an exceptional actor . . . just competent. But I must admit that I was very impressed by his portrayal of the slimy Robert Landis. William Law was deliciously subtle as “Dancer’s” nightclub partner. George Zucco took his suave villainy schtick to portray Selma’s sly and menacing psychiatrist. And yet, he gave one of the most emotional and funniest lines in the entire film. And what can I say about Jessie Ralph? I should have included her performance as the haughty and manipulative Aunt Katherine Forrest as one of the best in the film. Because she was magnificent in conveying Aunt Katherine’s manipulative efforts in keeping her family together and her class bigotry against her nephew-in-law, Nick Charles.

I supposed there is nothing else to say about “AFTER THE THIN MAN”. I cannot say that it is perfect. I feel that the sequence following the first murder could have been trimmed a bit. And one of the supporting performances occasionally drifted into hamminess. But aside from these complaints, I feel it was . . . perfect. In fact, thanks to Dashiell Hammett’s story, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s screenplay, W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke’s direction and a superb cast led by William Powell and Myrna Loy; I feel that “AFTER THE THIN MAN” is one of my favorite films from the 1930s . . . and my favorite in the six-film series.

“THE MALTESE FALCON” (1931) Review

The three versions of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel seemed to have become a legend in Hollywood circles during the past decade. Many filmgoers are familiar with John Huston’s 1941 adaptation that starred Humphrey Bogart. However in recent years, these same movie fans have become familiar with previous adaptations of the novel. In 1936, William Dieterle directed a comic version starring Warren Williams and Bette Davis called ”SATAN MET A LADY”. And Roy Del Ruth directed the original adaptation in 1931, which starred Ricardo Cortez. It is this particular film I will be discussing. 

 

“THE MALTESE FALCON” (1931) Review

I have a confession to make. I have never read the novel, ”The Maltese Falcon”. The only Hammett novel I have ever read was ”The Thin Man”, published in 1934. Because of this, I would not be able to compare the novel to Del Ruth’s film adaptation. But I can discuss the movie. In a nutshell, ”THE MALTESE FALCON” told the story about a San Francisco private detective named Sam Spade, who finds himself drawn into a search for a valuable falcon statuette first created during the Crusades, while investigating three murders.

The story began with a Miss Ruth Wonderly hired Spade and his partner, Miles Archer, to find her missing sister and a man named Floyd Thursby. When Thursby and Archer end up murdered, Spade discovered that Miss Wonderly is one of three people searching for a statuette called the Maltese Falcon. A mortally wounded ship’s captain delivered the statuette to Spade’s office before dropping dead, making him the case’s third murder victim. The entire case spiraled into a game of cat-and-mouse between Spade, Miss Wonderly, a wealthy fat Englishman named Caspar Gutman and an effeminate continental European named Dr. Joel Cairo. Spade also had to deal with the police, who are determined to pin the three deaths on him.

So, what did I think of this version of ”THE MALTESE FALCON”? In the end, it turned out better than I had expected. However, the movie is not without its faults. There were times when I felt I was watching a filmed play (very common with early talking movies). But the film’s main problem seemed to be its pacing. It seemed too slow for what was supposed to be a witty murder mystery. Especially during the film’s first half hour. By the time Joel Cairo was introduced into the story, the pacing finally began to pick up. The dialogue provided by screenwriters Maude Fulton, Brown Holmes and an unaccredited Lucien Hubbard failed to improve over the course of the movie. Not only did the screenplay allow the dialogue to drag throughout the entire film, the latter was not that memorable. I did recognize a few lines from the 1941 film (which probably came from the novel), but nothing more. Also, I found the scene that featured Spade’s visit to an imprisoned Ruth Wonderly rather irrelevant. Spade’s reluctance to turn her over to the police should have conveyed his feelings for her toward the audience. The prison visit featured in the movie’s final scene simply struck me as unnecessary.

But ”THE MALTESE FALCON” still struck me as a pretty damn good film. Considering that it had been released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code Period (1929-34), it is not surprising that this version is considered the sexiest of the three movies. Del Ruth, along with Fulton, Holmes and Hubbard, did an excellent job of conveying the womanizing aspect of Spade’s character by revealing his affairs with Archer’s wife Iva, his casual flirtation with his secretary Effie, and visual hints of his relationship with Ruth Wonderly – like a small indent in the pillow next to the client’s head, which hinted that Spade had spent the night with her. Other signs of Pre-Code sexuality included Spade bidding a female client good-bye at the beginning of the movie, a nude Miss Wonderly in a bathtub, an off-screen striptease eventually revealed with a bare-shouldered Miss Wonderly, and a hint of a homosexual relationship between Caspar Gutman and his young enforcer Wilmer Cook.

Fulton, Holmes and Hubbard did a solid job of adapting Hammett’s novel for the screen by maintaining most of the original story. As I had pointed out earlier, the film’s dialogue did not strike me as memorable. It lacked the sharp wit of the 1941 adaptation. And it included an unnecessary scene from the novel – Spade’s visit to an imprisoned Ruth Wonderly – that could have easily been deleted. But the screenplay managed to hold its own. And considering that I have never read the novel, the screenplay did allow me to completely understand the story in full detail for the first time, without leaving me in a slight haze of fog. I found nothing memorable about William Rees’ photography or Robert M. Haas’ art direction . . . except in one scene. The scene in question featured an exterior setting, namely a street in San Francisco’s Chinatown where Miles Archer’s body was discovered. I suspect that this particular scene gave both Rees and Haas an opportunity to display their artistry beyond the movie’s usual interior settings.

”THE MALTESE FALCON” also featured a surprisingly solid cast. In fact, I would say that it turned out to be better than I had expected. Ricardo Cortez, a New York-born Jewish actor with a Latin name, led the cast as detective Sam Spade. Cortez got his start in silent films and had grown to leading man status by the time he shot this film. By the late 1930s, he ended up in supporting roles as a character actor and later ended his acting career to become a successful stockbroker on Wall Street. I thought that Cortez gave a very sexy interpretation of Spade in his performance. Mind you, his constant smirks and grins in the film’s first ten to fifteen minutes seemed annoying. But in the end, Cortez grew on me. I can honestly say that not only did I find him very effective in portraying a sexy Sam Spade, he also managed to superbly capture the character’s cynical humor, toughness and deep contempt toward the police.

Bebe Daniels, another survivor from the silent era, portrayed the movie’s femme fatale, Ruth Wonderly. She first became a star (following a stint as a child actor before World War I) during the 1920s. Her role in ”THE MALTESE FALCON” has been be considered as one of her best. And it is easy to see why. She managed to give an excellent performance as the ladylike, yet manipulative Ruth Wonderly, who drew Spade into the labyrinth search for the Maltese Falcon. Mind you, she lacked Mary Astor’s throbbing voice and nervous manner. But that is merely a minor hitch. Daniels still managed to portray a very convincing elegant temptress.

Irish-born Dudley Digges portrayed the wealthy and obsessive Caspar Gutman, who is not above murder, bribery and a score of other crimes to acquire the falcon statuette. Although not as rotund as Sydney Greenstreet, Digges seemed plump enough to be regarded as Gutman’s nickname, ’the Fatman”. However, Digges’ Gutman seemed a bit too obsequious in his performance. He lacked the style to believably portray a man wealthy enough to conduct a twenty-year search for a valuable artifact. Instead, Digges reminded me of a corrupt minor official at a British post in the tropics. He seemed to lack talent and subtlety for infusing menace into his character. Whenever he tried to menacing, he only ended up giving a hammy performance. On the other hand, Otto Matieson gave a more believable performance as Dr. Joel Cairo, Gutman’s Continental accomplice. Despite Effie’s description of him as an effeminate, Matieson portrayed Cairo as a no-nonsense and practical man who is careful with his money and with whom to trust. Whatever effeminate qualities his character possessed, Matieson kept it to a minimum.

Una Merkel gave a humorous performance as Spade’s Girl Friday, Effie. Her Effie is not hesitant about expressing her attraction to Spade, yet at the same time, she seemed to find the detective’s other amorous activities rather amusing. Perhaps Merkel was amused at Thelma Todd’s performance as Archer’s widow and Spade’s mistress Ivy Archer. I found the future comedy star’s portrayal as the amorous and spiteful Ivy rather theatrical and false. It could have been her slightly hammy acting . . . or the fake clipped tone she used when pronouncing her words. All I do know that is that Todd seemed to be trying too hard as a scorned lover without any subtlety. At least Dwight Frye fared better as Gutman’s young enforcer, Wilmer Cook. Frye barely had any lines in the film, thank goodness. I have seen him in other films and his performance seemed to come off as hammy. But in ”THE MALTESE FALCON”, I thought he did a solid job in conveying the portrait of a baby-faced killer.

It is a shame that John Huston’s 1941 movie has overshadowed this version of Hammett’s novel. Mind you, Roy Del Ruth’s version is not perfect. The movie’s pacing in the first 15 to 20 minutes struck me as rather slow. But if I must be honest, I can say the same about the 1941 film. I was not impressed by Dudley Digges and Thelma Todd’s performances. And this Pre-Code movie seemed to lack any memorable dialogue or mysterious atmosphere. But it had a sly sexuality that seemed to be missing in both the 1936 and 1941 versions. Also, the rest of the cast gave excellent performances – especially Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. And ironically, this version of ”THE MALTESE FALCON” made me clearly understand the story’s plot in clear detail for the very first time. I believe that it deserves to be considered more than just a footnote in movie history.

“THE THIN MAN” (1934) Review

“THE THIN MAN” (1934) Review

Between 1934 and 1947, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) released at least six movies based upon the characters created by detective novelist, Dashiell Hammett. The first and one of the two best was 1934’s ”THE THIN MAN”, based upon Hammet’s novel, also released in 1934. 

Produced by Hunt Stromberg and directed by W.S. Van Dyke, ”THE THIN MAN” is a murder mystery about a former detective named Nick Charles and his wealthy wife, Nora, who investigate the disappearance of an old friend of Nick’s named Clyde Wynant. When the latter’s mistress is found murdered, Wynant becomes the police’s prime suspect. Wynant’s daughter, Dorothy, asks Nick to not only find her missing father, but discover the identity of the real murderer.

William Powell and Myrna Loy first appeared in a movie with Clark Gable called ”MANHATTAN MELODRAMA”. Not only did that movie proved to be a hit, it also begat a very famous Hollywood screen couple. Producer Hunt Stromberg liked what he saw and decided to pair the two as Nick and Nora Charles, the witty and sophisticated married couple from Hammet’s mystery novel. Powell and Loy not only portrayed Nick and Nora simply as a loving husband and wife, but also two friends who clearly enjoyed each other’s company. And more so than in ”MANHATTAN MELODRAMA”, Powell and Loy were magic together. The two ended up working on twelve other films together. And even in mediocre fare like the later THIN MAN, they sizzled with a wit and charm that made them one of the best Hollywood screen teams in history.

Stromberg also included in the cast, the Irish-born ingénue Maureen O’Sullivan (from the ”TARZAN” fame) as the missing Clyde Wynant’s daughter, Dorothy; Nat Pendleton in his first of two THIN MAN movies as New York Police detective, Lieutenant Guild; Minna Gombell as Wynant’s greedy ex-wife, Mimi Wynant Jorgensen; future Hollywood legend Cesar Romero as Mimi’s gigolo husband, Chris Jorgenson; Porter Hall as Wynant’s attorney Herbert MacCauley; Natalie Moorhead as Wynant’s mistress, Julia Wolf; Edward Brophy as Julia’s gangster friend, Joe Morelli; as Harold Huber as the stool-pigeon Arthur Nunnheim; and Edward Ellis as the missing Clyde Wynant. As much as I try, I could not spot a bad performance from any of them. I was especially impressed by O’Sullivan’s performance as the seemingly normal Dorothy who seemed stuck in the middle of an eccentric and/or amoral family.

Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, a married couple that also happened to be contract screenwriters at MGM, wrote the screenplay. They also received Academy Award nominations for their adaptation of Hammet’s novel and I have to say that they deserved the nomination. ”THE THIN MAN’ is a witty and rich story filled with memorable characters and an intriguing mystery that was neither too complicated or insulted the moviegoers’ intelligence. Even more interesting is the fact that ”THE THIN MAN” would prove to be one of the last Pre-Code movies that would be released before the onslaught the Hays Code enforcement on July 31, 1934. ”THE THIN MAN” was released in theaters on May 23, 1934. Hackett and Goodrich’s screenplay was filled with risqué dialogue and situations that made it clear that ”THE THIN MAN” was a Pre-Code film.

And director W.S. (“Woody”) Van Dyke did justice with not only a talented cast, but also with Hackett and Goodrich’s script. During his tenure as a contract director for MGM, Van Dyke had a nickname – “One Take Woody”. Van Dyke usually shot his scenes in one take, which guaranteed that he would complete his assignment on time. MGM boss, Louis B. Mayer loved him for this. Although Van Dyke was never known as one of Hollywood’s more gifted directors, he had a reputation for coaxing natural performances from his stars. This was very apparent in his direction of ”THIN MAN”. There is not a bad performance within the entire cast. Even better, he managed to keep the story rolling with a first-rate pacing – something that is very difficult to do for murder mysteries.

Some eight to nine months after its release, ”THE THIN MAN” collected Academy Award nominations – Best Director (Van Dyke), Best Actor (Powell), (Best Adapted Screenplay) Hackett and Goodrich, and Best Picture. Unfortunately for MGM, the movie was shut out by Frank Capra’s classic screwball comedy, ”IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT”. Well . . . even if the movie had failed to collect one Academy Award, I believe that it is still one of the best movies that was released during the 1930s.

”THE THIN MAN” was such a success that it spawned five sequels. Aside from 1936’s ”ANOTHER THIN MAN”, which proved to be just as good; the other four sequels turned out to be a ghost of its original success. If you want to see William Powell and Myrna Loy in action as Nick and Nora Charles, I suggest that you stick with this film and its 1936 sequel.