Perhaps no screen couple has ever so delighted viewers yet been so forgotten. While the much celebrated pairings of Astaire/ Rogers and Bogart/ Bacall stand as landmarks in the popular history of cinema, the no less astounding work of William Powell and Myrna Loy tends to be overlooked. This is curious and regrettable, but now, with all but one of their collaborations available on DVD, by no means inevitable.
In 2005, Warner Home Video released the Complete Thin Man Collection to impressive commercial response. The fact that this series of six films of varying quality and of scant enduring political or social interest should prove so extraordinarily successful – they rank as the bestselling classic set Warner has ever released – should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever had the pleasure of screening the titles. The films are endless fun, and not because of their plotting (often terribly contrived) or the quality of their production (rushed and often lazy), but because of the astonishing magnetism of their lead actors, Loy and Powell.
As the witty, urbane Nick and Nora Charles, Powell and Loy drink and fumble their way through all six of these mostly pre-noir detective films (which, admittedly, suffer from the law of diminishing returns) with an easy grace, a charming lethargy, and a detached humor so captivating as to obfuscate the one-would-think significant problem that the films rarely made any sense. In most cases, they are so much fun to watch that one doesn’t much care whodunit or why. The repartée and banter between the two wealthy (and always reluctant) detectives revolves around cutesy marriage jokes and an insatiable thirst for martinis, and yet seldom is the one-liner that comes off as stale as the subject matter. Throughout it all, to watch Loy’s subtle glances and rare, knowing calm in the face of Powell exuberant indolence is one of cinema’s greatest joys.
On the strength of the sales of the Thin Man Collection, Warner has returned with this five-disc boxed set of further nuggets from the ‘30s and ‘40s, a valuable compilation offering the delicious opportunity to enjoy Powell and Loy’s famous chemistry outside of the Thin Man formula. This is a fun trip, and one worth taking for any fan of their work, but it must be said that the very best of these films fails to match even an average installment in the Thin Man vein.
Manhattan Melodrama (1934), famously the film John Dillinger, enamored of Myrna Loy, had risked attending with his “woman in red” the night of his fatal ambush, is the first and best of the lot. This engrossing morality play focuses on the relationship between a pair of childhood friends (Powell and a winning Clark Gable) as they grow up, and apart.
While Powell has become a top-shelf prosecutor, Gable has become a top-shelf gangster. Inevitably, the two end up on opposite sides of the witness stand in a trial for Gable’s life. What will Powell do? Is he his brother’s keeper? Loy plays the love interest shared by both men – a plot device which, although it could have been bland and predictable, actually plays out in surprising ways. The Oscar-winning screenplay is impressively sturdy, the performances are all vibrant and, especially in the fraught final scenes, the effect is profoundly moving.
Evelyn Prentice (1934), the third of three films the pair would make together that busy year, is poky and significantly less fun than it could have been, but nonetheless features a strong performance from Loy in the title role. The plot is fairly ridiculous and riddled with holes, but the film is short enough to make for an amusing little diversion on a dreary day. And, as always with these two, therein lay a glowing gem: the scene between Loy, Powell and their precocious little daughter as they go through a fitness routine is adorable and effective, a stunning reminder of the remarkable ability of both actors to convince the audience of a deep affection and unbreakable bond. Although the film asks us to consider their unsuitability, and even to hope for their sundering, the performances do not allow us to entertain the thought. It’s a lovely bit of magic.
Double Wedding (1937) is a trifle, but it’s sweet and has moments of undeniable charm. Certainly more interesting than the goofy plot, however, is watching this film while considering the truly disastrous conditions under which it was shot and performed. Powell’s young fiancé, Jean Harlow, also a good friend of Loy’s, had passed away from a sudden illness as the early scenes were being shot. Production was shut down for a period of a few weeks, and then recommenced with all involved under considerable strain. And yet Powell somehow managed to produce a zany, inspired performance as a bohemian-type who must endeavor to win over a mean-spirited and uptight Loy.
I Love You Again (1940) is one of the more satisfying screwball romps from a period verily defined by screwball romps, and remains an excellent showcase for the versatility of its leads. Powell plays a tedious provincial miser who, after being cranked on the head by an oar while on vacation, awakens to rediscover his previous identity as a conniving grafter. Returning home under the guise of the dull version of himself, and harboring plans to defraud his town and then split, Powell finds that he has an unhappy wife (Loy) who, to his dismay, he is unable to resist.
The wrinkle is that she’s become tired of the boring old guy she married, and wants a divorce. It’s all quite ridiculous, of course, but as Loy gets to know this new, “improved” version of her husband, she drifts back into love with him, and we’re carried along through it all on the waves of their delightful banter. In one representative scene, a look of swift fascination slips across Loy’s face as she discovers her husband’s long-buried abilities: “Where did you learn to dance like this?” she demands. “By mail,” replies Powell as he leans his love into a dip. Marvelous stuff.
Love Crazy (1941) is a kooky little amusement, if not exactly a comedy classic. In this minor frolic, the only way that Powell can keep hold of his wife (who believes him to have been unfaithful) is to convince a judge (and, subsequently, everyone else) that he is nuts. Apparently, one cannot get a divorce if one’s partner has cracked? Tough one, K-Fed. Anyway, watching Powell behave like a goon is tremendous fun, even if on the whole the thing tends to be fairly uninspired and not a little insensitive. Still, it does sport a third act which Powell plays almost entirely in drag (sans moustache for the first and only time in his career), and one of the better back-and-forths of the whole collection: After he admits to having just run into a former flame, Loy dons an air of exquisite disapproval. “But she’s married now—got a husband!” he protests. “Oh Yeah,” she whips back? “Whose husband has she got?” Perfection.
The extensive (if inessential) extras included on each disc include shorts from Warner’s vaults, none of which have much to do with the films they are packaged with, but all of which have their moments.