Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Films # 3 & 4: Thin Man Double Feature (May 25th)

Another Thin Man

1939, B&W, 103 min.
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke

The Thin Man Goes Home

1945, B&W, 100 min.
Directed by Richard Thorpe

I arrived for my date with Nick & Nora Charles early. I figured it would give me plenty of time to explore and to see Radio Park before the 7:00 showing of Another Thin Man. It had been an easy-going kind of day, and I was looking forward to some lighthearted cinema to add to the day's motif. I must confess I had not seen any of the six Thin Man movies before, although a few have sat in the Netflix queue for about two years now. I was on the verge of bumping these up, but again figured it would just be best to partake of them on the big screen.

I arrived and decided to seat myself in the mezzanine for the double feature. Gazing again at the ornate ceiling, I nearly bumped into Brandi, a young lady who was ushering on the upper level.

After explaining that I was just taking in the sights again, she asked if this was one of my first trips to The Paramount. I explained that I was a veteran of a whopping two shows, and we both had a chuckle. I introduced myself and explained that I was a new publicist for the theatre, and didn't know if I'd ever stop marveling at it's beauty (mostly, I wanted to reassure her that I wasn't a guest with a neck injury, since I was looking straight up for a lengthy period of time). After taking a couple of photos of the ceiling, Brandi asked if I was gonna take pictures of "the hole."

Now I don't know about you, but terms like "the hole" don't exactly conjure images of nice things. The first thing I thought of was Courtney Love. The second was a solitary confinement cell inside a prison. Images of Andy Dufresne defying The Warden swam through my mind. Blinking off such whimsical fantasy; I listened as Brandi told me the story of why there was a hole in the ceiling of The Paramount.

According to legend, shortly after The Paramount was opened in 1915 (known then as "The Majestic"), Harry Houdini performed a show at the theatre. The story goes that the proprietors of The Majestic aided Houdini by drilling a hole in the ceiling of the brand new establishment for him to complete his escape. Since the hole in question appeared to be the size of a bottle (perhaps the scale of the ceiling was playing tricks on me), I couldn't imagine a body squeezing through that opening. My next thought was that a rope could fit through there; perhaps dangling an upside down Houdini hundreds of feet above the crowd as he worked his magic to escape a straight jacket stunt. Either way, to accommodate Houdini by drilling a hole for any reason seemed awfully gracious of The Majestic. I couldn't imagine anyone offering the same gesture to... say, Gob Bluth (cue "The Final Countdown"). Overall, I must admit it smelled of urban legend, but to me that wasn't the point. What got me about the story was that this movie palace is nearly 100 years old. Oh what these marvelous walls have seen!

I graciously thanked Brandi for her time and the story and let her get back to her duties. Remaining on the upper level, I walked out and over to the lounge, where Radio Park was about to perform. Radio Park is a duo of improv actors (Tami Nelson & Dan Grimm) who portray Birdie and Mr. Jack. Their mannerisms, acting, and dialects would fit right in with the witty banter of the 1930s and early 40s.

Once their show began, they delighted the crowd with their characters and repartee. Nelson and Grimm charmed the onlookers (who sat a mere 8 feet away) without a trace of nervousness about the proximity of their audience. Their exchanges were like volleys, at times reminiscent of Spencer and Tracy. All were delighted, giggling and snorting at the silly antics of Birdie and Mr. Jack. It was the ideal way to set the mood for the night's double feature. While everyone was there for the cinematic features, the live comedic duo did not disappoint. After their 15 minute show, their improv was met with enthusiastic applause.

Following Radio Park's act, I made my way back and took my seat. The lights went down, and a lone cartoon started.

"Who Scent You?"

My, my, zey really like PePe Le Pew at zee Paramount, zon't they? I must admit he's probably always been my favorite Looney Tunes character because of his combination of romanticism and cluelessness. Oh, and the accent, of course. Another case of skunk chases cat. On to the show.

Another Thin Man is third in the six part series. That makes it the Revenge of the Sith of the saga, if that helps you. The story features the team of Nick and Nora Charles, a retired famous detective and his witty and curious wife. Also along for the ride is Asta, a surprisingly adorable pooch and a real audience favorite. This third film marks the beginning of their adventures with a baby in tow, but Jr. here is more of a plot device than a character.

Now, as I said earlier, I've never viewed a Thin Man movie before. I was expecting more comedy than mystery, so I was taken aback by how dark and tense the first act of this film was. Sure, it has light moments and humor injected into it by the hilarious Nick and Nora, but the circumstances of the plot are insidious indeed. Dogs are slaughtered, houses are burned, and throats are slashed in the first half hour. Yikes.

Luckily for us, Nick and Nora are both captivating and a ton of fun to watch. Separately they're stellar; together they are pure gold. Nick Charles (William Powell) is not just a smart detective, but a clever one. Always several steps ahead of everyone else, he seems to be following bread crumbs before anyone even knows the oven was turned on. Nora (Myrna Loy) is beautiful and a smart cookie herself. She can handle anyone in her way; especially Nick when he plots to keep her in the dark. Time and time again, Nick fails to realize you can't pull one over on her.

And what a cast of characters these two must contend with over the course of this film! There's a creepy Cuban blackmailer who dreams of murdering people. Now, that's not exactly normal by itself, but the fact that they die after he dreams it three times makes him the Freddy Krueger of the Depression era. Surprisingly, no one ever seriously questions the Cuban's sanity. There's also a myopic heavy, an inept assistant D.A., the Cuban's creepy little henchmen (hints of a deadly bro-mance there, for sure), many others and of course... Asta.

Once the second act begins, the movie finally begins to lighten up and stretch its legs, leading to the highlight. The best sequence in the film is an evening at The West Indies Club. Nick and Nora follow separate leads to the club, and a series of riotous exchanges kept the audience holding their sides in laughter. A quip about "a quarantine" in particular brought the house down. Yet even better is a seemingly random dance sequence by the club's dancers, René y Estela. She dances around him as he pivots on one leg, seemingly defying physics or gravity. He's like a flamingo spinning and dancing like Michael Jackson in his heyday. It's simply amazing to see.

The plot held my interest, but I was slightly disappointed to see how quickly Nick was able to assemble all of the suspects together and demonstrate the whodunit like a game of Clue. Nevertheless, Another Thin Man was solid entertainment.

As the lights came up for the brief intermission between the two films, I decided to go downstairs and grab some refreshments. Ah... Sprite and popcorn. NOW it's a movie night! I was ready for round two, which starts with another Looney Tunes short.

"Past Perfumance"

What I find most fascinating about these PePe Le Pew cartoons is the many inventive ways they get a white stripe on that cat. This one has several good chuckles, as it takes place in a studio setting. To me the biggest laugh was early in the short, when the director is followed closely by his yes men, er- make that "oui men." Some things never change, eh? Good stuff.

The Thin Man Goes Home, the fifth in the series, was the second feature of the evening. This one has Nick and Nora going to visit his old stomping ground on his birthday. The humor is much more evenly spread in this film, and overall the film feels smoother.

I must say, however, that the funniest thing about the movie is unintentional. You see, the filmmakers don't even try to bring Jr. along in this episode, yet Asta is present. It made me wonder what kind of parents Nick and Nora really are. Sure, they're smart, metropolitan, witty, rich and fun, but Jr. probably grew up with some issues. I mean, they picked the dog rather than take Jr. to see his grandparents. The friggin dog. Oh well, guess the producers realized what a mistake it was to write a baby into the series in the first place.

Once they get to Sycamore Springs (the hometown), everyone assumes the famous Detective Charles is on a case. Of course, soon a murder occurs in this sleepy town, and the game is afoot. Nick and Nora find Sycamore Springs is a community full of closet skeletons and red herrings.

All the while, Nick is dealing with his own daddy issues and is trying to curb his own notorious drinking habits. Perhaps all the cider he drinks worked to keep a clean mind, because by the time "the Scooby Doo solution" is presented at the end of the film, there are some major leaps of logic only Sherlock Holmes himself may have attempted.

What struck me about these films after their conclusion was how elaborate these mysteries were. Every character and event serves the plot in some way, even if not immediately. One can easily see that these characters were created by Dashiell Hammett (as was The Maltese Falcon). In fact, I could easily envision Sam Spade working the same city as Mr. & Mrs. Charles. The clientele may be slightly different, but the crimes are no less heinous and the criminals no less desperate.

What a blast it was to see these films, though. The Thin Man series let the characters run free and were fantastic escapist entertainment. Leaving the theatre, I rushed home to rearrange my Netflix queue. All that evening and the next morning I kept thinking of lines of dialogue and smiling to myself. Yes, indeed. Tuesday was a fun night for Nick & Nora's intricate playlist.

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