Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Well, a new year (2019) and a new resolve, to try to keep up with my blog, so that i can actually think about the things that i've been seeing. Of course, the end of the year brought about various polls, though this year, because of the attrition (no more Village Voice/LA Weekly poll), that left only two: Indiewire and Senses of Cinema. (Somehow, during the year, Indiewire, which used to be IndieWire, decided to go lower-case with the "w".) But before i get into the films of the year (and also the various festivals, etc. which i attended), i'll just reflect on some of the immediate viewing on television (which often means Turner Classic Movies).

On the afternoon of New Year's Eve, TCM played the entire Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. It was fascinating: it turned out that i remembered who the villain was in every single case. The first two ("The Thin Man" and "After the Thin Man") are really the best: the plots are logically worked out, there are surprises, and the dialogue has a high degree of wit. By "Another Thin Man" (1939), there is a bit of coarsening in terms of the use of comedic bits, and the dialogue isn't nearly as witty. But the nadir of the series is probably "The Thin Man Goes Home" (1944), because removing Nick and Nora from an urban setting strands them. So "Song of the Thin Man" (1947), which was the sixth and last of the series, really was the swansong of the series, and it proved to be a very unusual movie. The setting is once again swanky New York, but this time, the characters aren't the usual urbane socialites that inhabited "The Thin Man" and "After the Thin Man", rather, it's a world of shady characters, jazz musicians and grifters: it is, in fact, the world of film noir, and the film has the look of film noir (and it's filled with many actors who would have prominent roles in other film noirs, such as Gloria Grahame, Marie Windsor, Jayne Meadows, Patricia Morison; even Leon Ames, who was featured in "The Lady In the Lake", and Don Taylor, whose most notable starring role was in "The Naked City", share that distinction). Nick and Nora have to navigate a world which has changed, and there is a slight disjunction, which signals that the series really is at its conclusion. The ending was also startling, probably the most violent ending to any "Thin Man" movie.

"The Thin Man" series, like other series at MGM (Andy Hardy, Dr. Kildare, Maisie), was a testing ground: a lot of people under contract were put in these films, and so you always got a sense of who had recently been signed, how MGM was trying to figure out what kinds of roles these people should play, who might go on to better things. "Shadow of the Thin Man" (1941) has one of the rare screen appearances of Stella Adler (at one point, in the heat of an argument, Adler's voice goes from her affected cultured voice to a squawking Brooklynese, prompting Nick's comment, "Don't look now, but your accent is showing"). It also had Barry Nelson and Donna Reed, both recently put under contract by MGM, and both struggling to find their niche in the studio system. Unfortunately for both of them, they never really found much distinction at MGM, Nelson being just another male juvenile (a slightly older version of Marshall Thompson) and Reed the second-string ingenue (usually playing second fiddle, to Angela Lansbury in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" or Lana Turner in "Green Dolphin Street" or Elizabeth Taylor in "The Last Time I Saw Paris"), both would have to get away from MGM to make any impact (Nelson by returning to the stage in the 1950s, and Reed by moving into television).

What was funny was that it turned out other people i knew had decided to do the same thing, and had watched at least some of the "Thin Man" movies. And so it seemed as if a lot of film critics, while preparing for their New Year's Eve festivities (or not), had TCM on in the background during the day.

On New Year's Day, the morning/afternoon offerings on TCM were classic comedies from the 1930s, i would have said "screwball" but Capra's "You Can't Take It With You" doesn't really qualify, but i did watch "Bringing Up Baby", "The Awful Truth" and "Twentieth Century" again. Hadn't seen those in a while, and forgot how fast, stylish and witty they were. One unfortunate side-effect was that the movie which started off the evening line-up, "It Happened in Flatbush" (1942), just seemed so dim by comparison, a baseball comedy starring Lloyd Nolan as baseball team manager and Carole Landis as a socialite who inherits the team. (The evening was devoted to films starring Carole Landis, in honor of what would have been her 100th birthday.) One thing: i did get to see a movie i'd never seen before, in fact, i hadn't really heard of "It Happened in Flatbush" before. Sometimes, B movies can get by with some energy and a little inventiveness, but such was not the case with "It Happened in Flatbush". Flat, indeed.


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