Saturday, January 7, 2012

1934: The courtship of Myrna Loy and William Powell

There are two film couples who set the tone for the era of Code Enforcement -- the years when Hollywood adhered more strictly to the moralistic strictures of the Production Code under pressure from religious groups. One couple is Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who grounded musicals in virtuoso performance and marriage plots after an epoch of orgiastic abstraction and pre-Code cartoonishness. The other, as you can tell from the headline, is William Powell and Myrna Loy, who became a double-act at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the Enforcement year of 1934. They didn't transform a particular genre, but set a tone by being themselves transformed and gradually domesticated to the point when Loy, previously typed as an exotic vamp or snooty bitch, became known as the "perfect wife" of movies.  Powell's evolution was less drastic; he could play heroes as well as heels in the past, and casting usually split the difference by making him a likable rogue much of the time. Still, a domestication took place, and we see it beginning before 1934 is over.

M-G-M knew how to put over a new romantic team. The studio paired Powell and Loy in two May releases. The more famous of the two as a film is, of course, W. S. Van Dyke's The Thin Man, the adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's final novel that launched a series of six films over thirteen years. The earlier release of the two is famous as a footnote to the history of American crime. Also directed by Van Dyke, Manhattan Melodrama is best known (and was quickly advertised) as the film John Dillinger was watching at the Biograph theater in Chicago while Melvin Purvis's G-Men waited outside to kill him. One wonders what Dillinger thought of the picture, whether he though Clark Gable's gangster an ideal antihero or some sort of sap. This is Gable's movie, with Loy and Powell paired in support, she switching affections from gangster to Powell's prosecutor. Romance takes second place to bromance here, however. Gable and Powell were orphaned as boys by the 1904 General Slocum disaster (believe it or not, Mickey Rooney grows up to be Clark Gable), and raised as brothers by a Jewish survivor who'd lost his own boy. They continue character trajectories already established, Gable becoming a gambler and gangster, Powell a lawyer and crusader against crime. But there are rarely hard feelings between the two, and Gable proves a recklessly selfless criminal. He wants Powell to succeed in his career no matter what peril that puts his racket in, and at one point commits murder to protect him from fellow crooks. At the end, he refuses Governor Powell's offer of a commutation of his death sentence, because he knows it'd hurt Powell's political career. Melodrama is a film that critiques itself. Powell gets a speech acknowledging that Prohibition and Depression circumstances had encouraged a glorification of gangsters, yet this movie has possibly the most glorified gangster of all, a criminal apparently unmotivated by malice, resentment, or even self-preservation -- an ultimate free spirit who freely lays down his life for the good of society. That's the pre-Code aspect of the movie, as you can see by comparing it with the similar Enforcement-era epic Angels With Dirty Faces, in which the charismatic criminal must play the coward in the death chamber, one way or the other, rather than appear a martyr as Gable does.  Loy is little more than a love interest here, but the important thing is that she's a good girl -- not foreign, not snobbish, not decadent, and that makes her a fit mate for Powell, not Gable.

The Thin Man is the first Powell-Loy vehicle and is naturally shaped by the Hammett novel, which I haven't read. The movie is a sort of screwball mystery, the whodunit element taking second place to the booze-fueled banter of Nick and Nora Charles. A year after Repeal, Thin Man revels in heroic drinking. Arriving late at a club, Nora orders a marini and asks Nick how many he's had. Since he's had six already, she orders five more martinis to be set up side by side at her table. An unknown number of martinis later, he has to carry her to bed. But as a rule, both Nick and Nora can handle their liquor, which mostly makes them playful. You can see why this film made Powell and Loy a star team, because the characters clearly enjoy each other's company. They can tease each other like a couple of kids and not look obnoxiously silly. This being a transitional film, the Charleses still seem to behave in an irresponsible if not amoral way, but that seems to be okay in this film's context because they're safely rich. Pre-Code disturbed many critics because it so often spotlighted the survival ethics of the poor. Screwball comedy calmed critics (whether they liked the actual films or not) because the whims of the wealthy weren't seen as a threat to anyone, except for the occasional hapless bourgeois swept up in their wake. Nick and Nora would grow more domesticated within a couple of films, but the real domestication of Powell and Loy as a couple act came in their next, rather darker teamup.

Six months after the films above, the third Powell-Loy film appeared. William K. Howard's Evelyn Prentice has a plot worthy of a pre-Code picture. Loy is the title character, the neglected wife of defense attorney Powell. She starts a relationship with another man who proves a manipulative, mercenary gigolo. When the gigolo ends up dead, another of his girlfriends is accused of the murder, and Powell defends her, but we have reason to believe that Loy is guilty. This sets up a sequence of courtroom climaxes, including Powell's heartbroken examination of Loy on the witness stand, a late revelation that throws our understanding of what happened into question, and a summation in which Powell continues to defend the original defendant. A lot of higher-law buncombe comes into it, the premise being that a gigolo deserves death for messing with women's affections and so on. Howard films it as effectively as was probably possible, and the stars contribute carefully modulated performances with an emphasis on mutual regret. The key new element here is a child, the protagonists' daughter. Prentice alternates between intense mature drama and would-be heartwarming scenes of father and/or mother with the little girl. One scene of the whole family doing their morning exercises really seems to set the tone for the future, encouraging fans to see Powell and Loy as a family rather than merely as a couple. The child as center of moral gravity would shortly domesticate Nick and Nora, just as it would domesticate Tarzan and Jane in the most notorious example from the Enforcement era. The kiddie scenes in Prentice are pleasant but don't quite fit the overall tone of the story. The kid is arguably superfluous if you believe that the love of the star characters is strong enough to keep them together, but M-G-M seemed to consider the girl necessary to close the deal, representing a perhaps preferably non-sexual bond keeping the couple together. Fortunately, the stars invest the conclusion with enough emotional truth for me to feel that the girl was superfluous.

Powell and Loy were helped immeasurably in 1934 by the fact that all three of their pictures are entertaining films. The Thin Man is the best of the three, but fans of the two stars will find all of them rewarding, even if Manhattan Melodrama renders them subordinate to Gable. They're all interesting as transitional films, with Evelyn Prentice perhaps the most interesting in that problematically historical sense. These films retain a pre-Code charge that will most likely be lacking in their later work together, though I'll take recommendations from the audience. These three I can recommend flaws and all.


Judy said...

Great posting, Samuel. I've only seen 'the Thin Man' so far out of these three, and found it hugely enjoyable - I hadn't quite realised that all the "heroic drinking" (perfect description!) came so soon after the repeal of prohibition. Both the other films sound very interesting and I'll hope to see them soon. I also just recently saw Powell and Loy with Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy in screwball comedy 'Libeled Lady', from 1936,and I'd definitely recommend that one if you haven't seen it - very witty dialogue, a lot of satire about newspapers, and a great scene where Powell has to pretend to be an expert angler!

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Judy. I vaguely recall glimpsing Libeled Lady some time ago, but I'll have to take a closer look now.