August 2008


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

There was a thread yesterday on Rotten Tomatoes about remakes, and which ones were better than the originals. It actually sparked an interesting discussion about whether or not remakes can be good movies. As usual, there were some who said basically that remakes are completely unnecessary and that they’re only made so frequently now because Hollywood is running out of ideas.

Well, that’s just not true. And it shows a complete lack of knowledge of cinema history.

In the classic era, remakes were extremely common. Silent films were remade for sound, pre-code films were remade after enforcement. And sometimes a director, producer or actor just liked the story so much they wanted to make is again.

If anything, remakes may have been even more frequent in the classic era than they are now. And some of the best movies ever made are remakes. His Girl Friday is a remake of The Front Page. The Maltese Falcon is a remake of Dangerous Female (this also received an earlier remake with the bizarre Satan Met a Lady.) It could be argued that these aren’t exactly remakes. The Front Page is a play and The Maltese Falcon is a book. But do you really think that these films would have had a second (or third) go so soon after the original was made if the originals were excellent films?

Part of the reason The Maltese Falcon and His Girl Friday work so well as remakes is because they take the opportunity to try something different. The Maltese Falcon couldn’t get away with the pre-code sexuality of the original film, so John Huston created a unique, dark atmosphere, and pretty much kicked off the noir movement. His Girl Friday switched the gender of one of the main characters and turned the story into a romance. Both His Girl Friday and The Maltese Falcon are considered better than their predecessors.

And just because a remake may not be as great as the original doesn’t mean it’s automatically a bad movie. There are several remakes from the classic era that are very good movies, even if they aren’t as good as the original. Silk Stockings is a musical remake of Ninotchka. Weekend at the Waldorf is a comedic remake of Grand Hotel. Daddy Long Legs is a musical remake of the silent film of the same title. The Children’s Hour is a remake of William Wyler’s These Three.

These films are good because, like with the two films discussed earlier, they take the material and put an original and unique spin on them. There are remakes seem to be pointless because no attempt is made to try something new. The Jennifer Jones remakes, A Farewell to Arms and The Barretts of Wimpole Street are perfect examples. The only significant change to these is the addition of color. And as for The Barretts of Wimpole Street, director Sidney Franklin, who also directed the original, used the exact same shooting script, word for word. Both of these films end up being completely dull and uninteresting, especially since the original films are among the finest films of the 1930s.

Of course, not every remake that adds something unique to the material is good. I suppose it’s a matter of looking at the material and attempting to see if that ‘something’ fits. Two musical remakes, The Opposite Sex and Smilin’ Through suffer from this problem. Smilin’ Through, a remake of the 1932 film, feels awkward and bizarre with musical numbers. Borzage directs the non-musical parts of the story well, but then a musical number pops in and it simply doesn’t feel like it fits in the movie. The Opposite Sex, a remake of The Women, is just a wretched movie all around. The musical aspect, while terrible, the least of the problems, which starts with a horrible cast, and goes right down to the addition of men to the film.

There are movies from the classic era that would benefit from a remake now. Specifically Lady In the Lake. It was the first film directed by Robert Montgomery, and he really showed both his skill as a director and his incredible creativity and skill with a camera by shooting the entire film in first person. While Montgomery’s film is both a fascinating film experiment and and just an amazing film all around, the story could certainly use a remake to film it in a  more traditions, third person stle.

So, after all that, are there any classic films you guys think would benefit from a remake today?

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1934

Director: Wood Van Dyke

Cast: Robert Montgomery, Maureen O’Sullivan, Mickey Rooney

Hide-Out begins as a gangster film and evolves into a romantic comedy, a smooth under the direction of Woody Van Dyke. In the first minutes of the movie, Lucky Wilson (Robert Montgomery), a playboy and racketeer is juggling five women. First, we find Lucky in the apartment of a woman with whom he apparently spent the night yet he is on the phone making a date with another woman. Soon as he hangs up, the maid walks in and he quickly plans a rendezvous with her. After he leaves the apartment, a car waiting to pick him up there is still another woman waiting with open arms in the backseat whom he tells he’s “crazy about.”

They go to a new nightclub and before they are even seated, Lucky is eyeing the female singer on stage. He signals to her of his interest and they make a date while she is in the middle of performing her song. It‘s a cute scene that does not go over very well with his current girl sitting at the table who is watching this whole scene play out.

In between his dates with women, Lucky is selling “protection” to night club owners. Unfortunately, for Lucky, one of the disgruntled club owners has squealed to the cops about the protection racket and the police are now out to arrest Lucky. The police close in that night as they follow him to the apartment of the singer who he made plans to meet after the show. There’s a shootout, and Lucky escapes but not before being shot.

Wounded, Lucky manages to get to a car and flees the city ending up in Connecticut. Bleeding badly he is found slumped over in his car by Henry Miller a local farmer. When he wakes up, he finds himself at the home of the Miller’s, a wholesome family who take care of him while his wounds heal. Never out of New York before, Lucky can’t wait to go back to the city until he meets the Miller’s daughter Pauline (Maureen O’Sullivan). It is at this point, that this “gangster” flick turns into a romantic comedy. We now have a fish out of water story about a city guy in the country and out of his element on the farm.

Life is idyllic for Lucky with the Millers, he learns how to feed the chickens and milk the cows and other farm chores. Lucky pursues Pauline and they fall in love. There’s a very tender romantic scene where they kiss for the first time confessing their love for each other, a high point in the film. He also realizes at that same time that his past life, which the Miller’s know nothing about, will come back to haunt him. It soon does in the face of his nemesis Lt. McCarthy (Edward Arnold). Lucky will have to pay for his past. He tells Pauline all about his former life and she tells him she will wait for him. Love conquers all in this tender entertaining film.

Montgomery and O’Sullivan make a good looking pair and have plenty of chemistry between them. Also in the film is Mickey Rooney as Pauline’s kid-brother, Willie, who I admit I did not find as annoying as I sometime do. Edward Arnold and Elizabeth Patterson are also good in their roles as Lt. MacCarthy and Ma Miller.

1934 was a good year for director Woody Van Dyke. Beside Hide-Out he directed Robert Montgomery in Forsaking All Others with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. That same year Van Dyke directed Manhattan Melodrama with Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy and The Thin Man with Powell, Loy and Maureen O’Sullivan.

Hide-Out is an enjoyable and distinctive film mixing genres, with a fine cast. A nice way to spend 80 minutes.

Robert Montgomery. Robert Young. Robert Taylor. during the 1930s in Hollywood, MGM had three fantastic contract players, all by the name of Robert. They were also frequently cast in similar roles, despite their types and styles being quite different. This habit of MGM of casting them similarly is the reason, I imagine, that my dad can never remember which one I’m talking about. I’m pretty sure he still thinks Robert Montgomery and Robert Young are the same person. I talk about Montgomery a lot, and my Dad always says, “Father Knows Best, right?” No. No, Dad. Not at all.

Robert Taylor

Taylor’s career started a little after the other Roberts. Taylor was classically good looking, which made him well cast in films like Camille. But he did have the charm and talent to pull off different kinds of roles as well.

Small Town Girl (1936)
Taylor plays a drunken playboy who gets smashed and married sweet Janet Gaynor one night. At first, Taylor’s role is kind of thankless. The pair agree to a sham marriage, and Taylor kind of treats her like dirt, even when they bury the hatchet and agree to be friendly. Taylor doesn’t try to make his character’s behavior charming. He’s not afraid to really show his character as the bad guy, so that when the character turns around and we get the happy ending we want, it’s a little more interesting.

Three Comrades (1938)
Taylor’s youthful looks served him well in this role as a childish soldier back from the first world war who falls in love with dying ex-socialite Margaret Sullavan. There are three “leading me” in this film; Taylor, the other Robert, Young, and Franchot Tone. They each possess something unique to their character so that when the three of them come together they almost create one whole person. Taylor provides, quite perfectly, the heart.

Johnny Eager (1942)
Taylor really broke type to play the seemingly heartless gangster of the title. Though there is romance to the story, Taylor is at his most compelling here when he’s being ruthless, as when he sets up his lover, Lana Turner, for a fake murder. The film also features a brilliant and Oscar winning performance from Van Heflin.

Robert Young

Of the three Roberts, Young is the least “suave” and “debonair”. However, I don’t agree with Hollywood’s assessment of him, that he had no sex appeal. While he may not be as attractive physically as the other Roberts, or the other stars in Hollywood, there is a certain something about him. Perhaps it’s just his talent, but there is something incredibly attractive about him.

Today We Live (1933)
This is one of my very favorite war movies. It centers on four people and their relationships with each other, and the way the war shapes them. Young gives a very good performance opposite Joan Crawford. He’s her childhood friend who loves her. The two marry, despite her love for Gary Cooper, and Young is blinded in battle. He gives a really nice, quiet performance, never overplaying it and never asking for pity.

Married Before Breakfast (1937)
Movies don’t get much cuter than this. I wasn’t expecting this movie, it was just on late one night when I was trying to sleep and I ended up staying up late and watching the whole thing. Both Young and his love interest are engaged to other people, but they have a one night adventure that makes you want them to both leave their respective fiancees. It fun, sweet, and completely adorable.

The Mortal Storm (1940)
For 1940, this film must have been brutal. America hadn’t even entered the war yet, but still Borzage made this moving and unflinching film about a half Jewish family in Germany torn apart by the Nazis. Young really broke type in this movie to play an intolerant young Nazi who helps to destroy the family he was practically a part of.

Robert Montgomery

Montgomery is my absolute favorite Robert. He’s also my favorite actor ever. Though he was frequently cast in supporting roles that required him to be suave and slick, he showed more than once his incredible range. He really could do it all. Sophisticated comedy, slapstick, drama, even psychological thriller. Montgomery was amazing as pretty much everything the studio threw at him, and he received two Oscar nominations for his work (for Night Must Fall and Here Comes Mr. Jordan)

Lovers Courageous (1932)
Montgomery is paired here with Madge Evans, his very best leading lady. Evans is a wealthy girl, Montgomery a poor playwright, and the two fall in love and are married, despite her parents’ objections. It’s such a simple story, and it is handled as such by director Robert Z. Leonard, but the simplicity of the film is one of the best things about it. It’s just a straight up, lovely, and honest romance.

Trouble for Two (1936)
This is one hell of a strange film. The plot involves royalty, arranged marriage, and suicide clubs. It’s really weird, and I can’t really explain it. It’s a good movie, but it has such a unique tone and bizarre storyline that it has to just be seen. Montgomery and costar Rosalind Russell give pitch perfect performances, which I can’t imagine was easy in a film with such a weird style and atmosphere.

Rage In Heaven (1940)
Montgomery apparently was not pleased about being cast in this film, and said that he wasn’t even going to try. Well, the fact that he didn’t even try in this only shows how amazing he was, because it’s still an excellent performance. He plays a man driven mad by jealousy. He starts out romantic and slowly descends into creepy and crazy. It’s really a good performance.

By Katie Richardson

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