Cast: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Erich Von Stroheim, Owen Moore, Hedda Hopper

In one of Garbo’s strangest films, she plays amnesiac nightclub singer Zara, who only has a memory that goes ten years back. She lives with the controlling writer Carl Salter (Von Stroheim) in a twisted, sadistic relationship. Tony (Moore) comes along one night claiming that Zara is actually Maria Varelli, the vanished wife of his friend Bruno (Douglas). Zara goes with Tony, despite not really believing she’s Maria, to get away from Salter. Both Bruno and Tony completely believe that Zara is Maria. But Zara struggles between not really believing she is Maria and wanting to stay with Bruno.

The film is based on a play by Luigi Pirandello, and one has to wonder if the story was an inspiration on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The two stories share extremely similar plot points and themes. As the viewer, we’re torn between Zara’s inability to believe she really is Maria, and Bruno’s certainty that she is, never certain which we believe. It’s very possible that Bruno and Tony, who have been clinging to an almost non existant hope for over ten years, are simply seeing what they want to see in Zara. It’s fascinating to watch Zara make the transformation from drunken nightclub singer to Italian Countess, and you have to wonder if she’s simply becoming who she always really was, or making a forced transformation to try to be what Bruno wants her to be. The only source of information we have on what Maria was really like is second hand, through the people who knew her and an old diary, so it’s hard to even tell if Zara is truly becoming like Maria at all. Even in the end, it’s left open and we don’t know for sure. It’s a really fascinating examination of perception, identity, and even hope.

Beyond those parts of the story, As You Desire Me also explores a really destructive relationship between Zara and Salter. Not a lot of screentime is given to the pair (an extended scene early in the film and the finale), but Salter’s need to control Zara is one of the main conflicts of the film, and leads to the climax. It’s interesting to compare Zara’s relationship with Bruno to her relationship with Salter. It could be argued that both are equally destructive (up until the conclusion, at least). While Salter may be more controlling and sadistic, with Bruno being gentle and loving, both relationships are initially based on the man seeing what they want to see in Zara, not necessarilly what’s really there. They project their own ideas on to her, essentially making her become what the want her to be (Thus the title). It’s a really interesting exploration of relationships. I don’t think people expect a film this emotionally and psychologically complex to come from 1930s Hollywood.

After seeing nearly every film Garbo made (there are still one or two of her European films I haven’t seen), I’m comfortable with saying that this is her best performance. The character falls in between the troubled vamps from early in her career and the self sacrificing tarnished angels from later in her career. Zara is so often confused, desperate, and even frightened that it would be easy for an actress to portray her as scatterbrained, weak, and pathetic. But Garbo gives her strength. She’s a strong women who’s endured extreme hardship, and while he situation is complicated and she’s certainly not sure what to do about it, she still has the strength to go on. And Garbo mixes that strength with a gentle vulnerability of spirit. It’s that combination that makes her so incredibly convincing and sympathetic in the role.

Both of the lead men (Von Stroheim and Douglas) give interesting performances. Von Stroheim’s Salter is pretty fascinating to watch. His desire to control a woman he so clearly holds a great deal of contempt for could come off as ridiculous, but Von Stroheim simply has the personality to make it believable. Again, he doesn’t have much screen time, but he makes his mark with just a few scenes. Douglas is much better known for his comedies, so it’s a little strange to see him in such a melodramatic role. Of the main three cast members, he is the weakest (I don’t really want to say ‘weakest’, since it’s not at all a bad performance. It’s just not as fantastic as the other two). He really pulls off a sort of urgent desperation in his scenes with Garbo, both for Zara to really be Maria, and to make up for ten years of lost time with his wife.

As You Desire Me is a really unique film to come out of the 1930s. I think it’s one that people who are a little wary of older films will really enjoy. It explores some pretty emotionally and psychologically complex themes that I don’t think people expect from older films. This is definitely one of my all time favorites.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1940

Director: Wesley Ruggles

Cast: Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray, Melvyn Douglas, Harry Davenport, Dorothy Peterson, Melville Cooper

Vicki (Arthur) discovers that her dead husband Bill (MacMurray) is not dead after all, but was stranded on an island for a year. This presents a problem since she’s married Bill’s best friend, Henry (Douglas). Vicki, after being neglected in favor of adventure or work, in both of her marriages, doesn’t feel the need to choose a husband too quickly, instead making the men grovel for her affection.

Too Many Husbands was released the same year as the similarly plotted My Favorite Wife, and both did well at the box office. However, the latter film really is the better film. Too Many Husbands has a very cute and entertaining plot, and I really liked that both men were portrayed as good guys and decent choices. However, the pacing is all over the place and, even though the film only runs for 81 minutes, about half way through the idea becomes repetitive and old. And this makes the movie feel like it’s going on forever. Add to that the fact that the film can’t seem to make up its mind. At first I liked that both men were good choices and it’s wasn’t obvious who she was going to choose, but soon it became apparent that it wasn’t obvious because the film had no idea. Even in the end, there’s no definitive answer.

I love Jean Arthur. She’s one of the greatest comedic actresses of all time. But this really isn’t one of my favorite performances from her. That does have a lot to do with the script, though. It seems that Vicki is supposed to come off as quirky and cute, but instead she comes off as irritating, self centered, and desperate. Her inability to choose a man goes from being amusing to being somewhat pathetic and very annoying pretty quickly.

The movie really belongs to the men. Both MacMurray and Douglas create really funny characters who are both decent men with their own, huge flaws. They would both be good choice. MacMurray is perhaps the funnier and more charismatic of the two, but Douglas really captures that fear of losing the woman he loves better than MacMurray. In the end, I kind of ended up hoping they’d both just give up Vicky to go off and be best friends again.

I’m a pretty big fan of Wesley Ruggles. He’s one of the most underrated directors if the 1930s and 1940s. He did a lot of his best work in dramas like Cimarron, Bolero, No Man of Her Own, and Somewhere I’ll Find You, but he’s shown more often that he’s great with comedy. Films like True Confession, Slightly Dangerous, The Gilded Lady, and You Belong to Me. But Too Many Husbands really lacks the creative and lovable comedic flair of his other films.

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