A PBS Double Feature
PBS has always shown exceptional taste in the movies it broadcasts, and recently the public supported station held to its reputation by giving us a William Powell double-feature. If you like old movies that make you laugh, this combo is a straight three hours of good old American comedy entertainment.
The Thin Man is a 1930’s comedy, crime-caper based on a detective novel by Dashiell Hammett. The film stars Powell and Myrna Loy, a perfect pair who made several movies together that followed to create a series of similarly funny, tongue-in-cheek and slightly corny films.
It all takes place in New York City amid the posh and fashionable as well as the seedier side. Nick Charles, played by Powell, with always a dry martini at hand, appears to drink more than anyone really could and still remain more sober and lucid than all of the rather daft people surrounding him. The drinking and partying is really played-up, which is funny; because, this was the prohibition era!
There is a murder afoot and Nick, who feigns indifference and a stronger desire to lounge around and sip martinis than to solve crimes, is persuaded by his young wife, (Loy), and other sundry characters to step in and solve the case. Nick shrugs them off and tips another martini, while secretly figuring the whole thing out on the sly, along with his faithful terrier, Asta.
Powell was one of those rare actors who could make it all look so effortless; because, he had impeccable timing. He really never stops moving, and if he does, his dazzling eyes grab all of the attention. The movie was filmed in black and white, but you can still tell that he had these delightful, sparkling blue eyes.
Myrna Loy, as Nora Charles, keeps up with Powell, not missing a beat with her wry humor. And with her sprightly, Irish features and glamorous, bare shoulders, she wore the 1930’s suits, hats and dresses with the grace of a dancer.
Stay for the ending and see if you can figure out who-done-it before Nick does.
My Man Godfrey was filmed two years later, in 1936, with Powell playing a different sort of character: slightly more serious with sparks of Chaplinesque humor, to Carole Lombard’s darling, comedic, drama queen.
Powell is highbrow no matter where he is: here, the setting begins in a dump-heap along the smellier side of the East River. Godfrey, (Powell) lives among a community of “forgotten men”, until a car load of young aristocrats want to claim him as their prize in a treasure hunt and bring him back to the Ritz Hotel to a party where they will present him as proof that they’ve won the game by finding a “forgotten man”.
Enter Carol Lombard as Irene Bullock, the spirited and impulsive rich girl who falls instantly in love with her forgotten man, Godfrey, even though he has a thick and unruly growth of “whiskers” and no proper clothes.
Godfrey, of course, sees through the glitter and the pomp of the vulgar rich and their ridiculous game. But, he plays along when Lombard decides to make him her protégé as well as her family butler. I love the scene where, on his first day as the Bullock’s butler, Godfrey brings the mother, Angelica Bullock, breakfast in bed. She is so hung-over that she hears strange music, actually coming from the crystal lamp by the window, and sees “little men” dancing on her bed. The imaginary music is composed to sound odd and haunting, but today the percussionistic chimes could be called progressive!
The word zany describes best this rich, eccentric family that Godfrey goes to work for. The actor Mischa Auer, as Carlo, the mother’s protégé, imitates a monkey to cheer up the love-sick Irene. He puts a whole apple in his mouth and leaps across the furniture and crawls up the walls, which sounds really corny, but I thought it was hilarious! There are a lot of laughs and Lombard is priceless. Many actresses since have tried to emulate her spontaneous grace and effervescence. Even Powell seems hard-pressed to keep up with her! In the end, a decadent and spoiled family has been humbled and, paradoxically, brought up out of iniquity by Godfrey the Good.
It is a kind of do-good film among a handful of others that Hollywood put out in the 1930’s during the Great Depression. Times were actually relatively innocent compared to the onset of WWII, which was right around the corner. People were somewhat hungry, whether they knew it or not, for examples of kindness and good will. In 1999, My Man Godfrey was proclaimed ”culturally significant” by the National Film Registry.