For Reel


Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
January 29, 2017, 3:21 pm
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Director: W.S. Van Dyke
2 Stars
shadow-of-the-thin-manIt is commonly accepted that plot is secondary to the character interactions between Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) in the famed Thin Man series. Fans are more apt to refer to the booze and banter than the specifics of any of the narrative machinations that culminate in the routine gathering of the suspects. It is consistently frustrating, then, that Nora often disappears from the films somewhere in the second act—if each Thin Man film is good in the beginning and end, everything inbetween is at the risk of feeling like a common subpar mystery. After the Thin Man, the best of the films by this point in the series, nicely integrated the problems of Charleses themselves with the murder plot (in that film, the case involves Nora’s extended family), whereas Shadow of the Thin Man simply finds its heroes stumbling upon a murder case involving a  jockey. Moreover, none of the supporting characters leave much of an impression, and the murder plot itself doesn’t have quite the emotional impact (as in After the Thin Man) or creativity (as in Another Thin Man) of the previous entries. Powell and Loy are reliably a delight—there’s a terrific bit of comedy in the beginning of the picture in which Nora summons Nick back to their home using the sounds of a cocktail mixer—but the film strays too far from their relationship at the service of a rather dull mystery.



Another Thin Man (1939)
January 29, 2017, 3:19 pm
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Director: W.S. Van Dyke
3.5 Stars
another-thin-manThe announcement that the Charleses were expecting at the end of After the Thin Man suggested that the lovable characters would be evolving—that is, one could hardly expect Nick (William Powell) to drunkenly stumble his way through another picture when he has a child to care for. Sure enough, the Nick Charles of Another Thin Man is more-or-less sober throughout the picture, and even has gotten to a place where he’ll deck a man who threatens his family. Just as Nick and Nora have settled down, so too does Another Thin Man deal with more of a serious mystery than those in the previous installments. While the series has always taken its murders seriously, the sense of danger was never quite so palpable as it is in this film—a dog is killed near the beginning of the picture, and a baby is threatened at the end! As Phil Church, the gangster and essential MacGuffin, Sheldon Leonard is terrifically menacing, selling his character’s quirk of threatening people based on his dreams to a brilliantly psychotic effect. One has to commend the series for taking the risks it did in adapting a more serious tone (certainly the result of the war, if not William Powell’s battles with cancer and the death of Jean Harlow in the years inbetween sequels), even if it is ultimately at the sacrifice of the charming, light-hearted banter that one expects of the series.



After the Thin Man (1936)
January 29, 2017, 3:13 pm
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Director: W.S. Van Dyke
4 Stars
after-the-thin-manGiven an increased budget after the original film was a surprise hit, After the Thin Man both recycled many of the elements from its predecessor while taking the opportunity to explore the relationship between Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) more deeply. If The Thin Man was occasionally bogged down by its mystery, this second film wisely maintains a serious interest in solving a murder but gives it more of an immediacy and relevancy to the Charleses. In exploring Nick’s relationships with hoodlums and Nora’s wealthy family history, After the Thin Man more deliberately invests itself in why exactly the Charleses bicker so much, and that the mystery comes from within Nora’s family adds fuel to their conversations about class and morality. Besides the new sure-footedness in establishing the relationship between the central duo, After the Thin Man is aided by a wonderful supporting cast—Jimmy Stewart, in particular, has comparatively little screentime, but the stakes of the drama he is involved in and his motivations within the narrative are always precise. If the original film is regarded as the classic of the bunch, the opening scene of this sequel—in which Nick and Nora share a romantic kiss, become interrupted by a station worker voyeur, and begin pouring drinks—succinctly reestablishes all of the groundwork that was laid and paves the way for what is ultimately a more satisfying comedy and mystery at every turn.



The Thin Man (1934)
January 29, 2017, 3:10 pm
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Director: W.S. Van Dyke
3.5 Stars
the-thin-manDashiell Hammett’s mystery novels have pegged him as one of the fathers of noir—adaptations of his work such as The Glass Key and The Maltese Falcon are exemplar pieces of the genre. If noirs are often beloved more for the personalities and attitudes of their characters than the machinations of their plots, the narratives are nonetheless established in a high stakes, ultra-serious context. The most enjoyable thing about The Thin Man, then, is that while it works within many of the expected tropes of the detective genre, sleuths Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) largely view the murder case they’re involved with as a distraction to their incessant drinking. As more bodies pile up, the resilience of their flirting is tested and is just about the only thing to stay sober—fittingly, the grand reveal of the murderer happens around a dinner table where more drinking is had. The Thin Man‘s mystery plot is too convoluted to follow, although it does lead to one suspenseful investigative sequence in which Nick and his loyal dog Asta pay a visit to the murder suspect’s warehouse, navigating the room only with a dim flashlight. The pleasure of the film comes not in the chiaroscuro lighting and hidden secrets, however, but the interactions in the glossy drawing rooms that seem lifted from one of the Astaire/Rogers pictures.



I Married an Angel (1942)
May 26, 2015, 11:20 pm
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Director: W.S. Van Dyke
3.5 Stars
I Married An AngelThe last of the eight collaborations between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy is often considered to be one of their weaker efforts, but I Married an Angel involves an especially good performance by MacDonald, memorable production and costume design, and an inventively accomplished dream structure. Romances involving unearthly creatures were fairly common in a decade that also saw comedies involving ghosts, witches, and mermaids, but this film doubles down on the fantasy aspect as it develops. As in a dream, on occasion the supporting players will repeat certain lines or spin in circles as if they are struck in a trance. Just as bizarre (albeit in a very different way) is a third act development that sees MacDonald doing her best Joan Crawford imitation. MGM was famed as being a studio that reveled in grandiose romances and involved spectacular production values–in others words, the studio most removed from reality. I Married an Angel follows in that trend but also pauses to make audiences aware of the fantasy. When Jeanette MacDonald and the scene-stealing Binnie Barnes dance the jitterbug, it’s a pointless tangent… but it’s the sort of development that goes unquestioned in dreams and musicals.



Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
September 6, 2012, 12:21 pm
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Director: W.S. Van Dyke

Trader Horn, MGM’s game-changing spectacle of 1931, paved the way for action adventures of its type. Famed for shooting extensively on location in Africa, the picture was largely a photographed safari, with its characters often stopping to admire creatures in shots that certainly would have excited the audiences of the time. With leftover footage from the project, the studio sought the possibility of a sequel, or even a picture that teamed the titular Horn with Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan character. What eventually amounted was one of the most iconic of all adventure films and the first of its lengthy series: Tarzan the Ape Man. Johnny Weissmuller, a multi-gold medalist at the Olympics, plays the hero, an unpredictable, shamelessly sexualized adonis who gets physical with lions as much as he does with Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane. The set pieces are spectacular (including an elephant stampede in the conclusion) and, unlike Trader Horn, they are well-integrated into the narrative rather than serving as the occasional diversion. Still, the production feels quite plain, perhaps due to O’Sullivan’s relentlessly-shrieking characterization, and one can’t help but compare it to King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise from RKO in the same year, which had a better sense of the rhythms of this type of sensationalized exotic living (that picture featuring a gender reversal, with Joel McCrea as the civilized man and Dolores del Rio as the native woman).



Trader Horn (1931)
August 27, 2012, 6:49 am
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Director: W.S. Van Dyke

The history behind Trader Horn is far more engaging than anything in the film itself. It was the first picture said to be shot entirely on location in Africa (in reality, a second unit photographed some of the brutal animal attacks in Mexico), and its production led to two fatalities, a slew of sicknesses among the cast and crew, and the retirement of actress Edwina Booth, who was falsely reported as having been killed by a disease that she picked up while filming (Bill Goodman, writing for TCM, suggests that she contracted her unspecified illness while sunbathing in the nude without protection from the environment). The project had such ambition that it was nominated for Best Picture by the Academy in 1931, the rare adventure film to earn such an honor. Despite the overwhelming ordeal that was its production, however, Trader Horn is largely a bore – at an excessive two hours in length, W.S. Van Dyke spends much of his time shooting star Harey Carey narrating nature footage in excruciatingly long safari sequences. Exciting as the footage may have been at the time, today it is dull at best and more often unpleasant, as when lions who had been starved during production sack hyenas and monkeys. From a historical perspective, the casual racism, implied homoeroticism, and a supreme condescension towards women make the picture a worthwhile curiosity as a time capsule, but sitting through it is an ordeal second only to its making.