The Thin Man is without a doubt the most popular screwball mystery film (or rather, series of films) in Hollywood history. And it’s easy to see why. Not only are the stories constantly engaging, not only do the scripts sparkle, but it’s Powell and Loy. And that’s a combination you just can’t go wrong with.
At the same time, though, a large part of the appeal lies simply with the type of film itself. There’s something really special about a film that combines quick witted humor and a tangled web of mystery. And while The Thin Man certainly did it best, over and over again, there were several films made after the first Thin Man, screwball mysteries with the same style, humor, and intrigue.
Star of Midnight
Perhaps the best of the Thin Man knockoffs, Star of Midnight also stars William Powell, only this time he’s a lawyer who just happens to be really good at solving crimes. Stepping into Loy’s Nora shoes is Ginger Rogers, equally as charming, just in a more vivacious and in your face way than the always graceful Loy.
I’d say the mystery is more compelling than at least the original Thin Man film. It concerns a mysterious veiled singing star who disappears in the middle of a show. As the story unfolds, the mystery aspect almost overtakes the comedy aspect. This may be one of the reasons I actually prefer Star of Midnight to The Thin Man. The mystery is very strong, distinct, and easy to follow. As are the characters.
I’m also extremely fond of the romance. While the strength of The Thin Man ‘s romance lies in the fact that Nick and Nora are already happily married, in Star of Midnight it lies in the wonderful dynamic between Rogers and Powell. Rogers plays the daughter of an old friend of Powell’s, who’s known the older man since she was just a kid. This could end up being creepy. But Rogers’ aggressive pursuit, paired with Powell’s ever wearing resistance, and their adorable banter, makes it perfect. All the time he’s exasperated by her, and her efforts to help with the investigation, it’s easy to see that, underneath it all, he just thinks she’s adorable. This was the only film Powell and Rogers made together, which is unfortunate, because they were so good together.
The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
Powell starred in yet another one of these with the wonderful and daffy The Ex-Mrs. Bradford. This one leans more toward the screwball side of things than either The Thin Man or Star of Midnight, and I suspect that has something to do with the presence of Jean Arthur, one of the queens of screwball. While Arthur was a fantastically talented actress and could do pretty much anything, her naturally high strung attitude and Minnie Mouse voice make her the perfect fit for screwball, and her Mrs. Bradford is one of the daffiest dames of the genres.
The mystery involves a horse race, much like the later Shadow of the Thin Man. However, unlike Star of Midnight, the mystery isn’t as as easy to follow and the characters aren’t as distinctive. The mystery is probably harder to follow than the original Thin Man. But that really is okay, since as I said, it leans more toward the screwball.
Arthur and Powell are a really excellent team. They’d worked together several years earlier in a pair of Philo Vance mysteries, and Powell predicted great things for Arthur’s future. They have a strong chemistry. Powell’s laid back ease is both the perfect match and foil for Arthur’s madcap heroine (they actually remind me of my friend Brandy and Brian). I also really enjoy the dynamic of this relationship. While in Star of Midnight the pair is just starting to get together, in and The Thin Man they’re married, in The Ex-Mrs Bradford they’re divorced, but still very much in love.
Fast and Loose
Montgomery steps into the detective role in the second film of the “Fast” series, as a rare book expert who gets himself tied up in murder mysteries that for some reason involve rare books (apparently, there was enough rare book crime back then for three movies to be made about it.) As bizarre as that kind of mystery sounds, it actually give the screwball mystery and interesting spin. I’d say Fast and Loose has probably the most sophisticated feel of all the screwball mysteries.
And the mystery, involving a fake Shakespeare manuscript, is actually very intriguing, and held my interest in the films just as much as the screwball and romance elements. The characters of the mystery aren’t just easy to tell apart, but they’re interesting in their own right. It’s just a really well crafted mystery.
But, with Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in the lead roles, it’s also extremely funny. Most of the humor in the film comes from their interaction as a (very much in love) married couple. Montgomery and Rosalind Russell made several films together, both comedic and dramatic, and this is probably the most fun of their pairings. They had such a solid chemistry. In terms of her style, at least in the 1930s and early 1940s, Russell is pretty much the female version of Montgomery, and it’s so much fun watching them play off of each other.
As I said, this is the second film in the “Fast” series but, oddly, each film has a different set of actors. The first, Fast Company, stars Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice, and the third, Fast and Furious, starred Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern. Both are really good, fun films, but Loose is easily the best.
By Katie Richardson