Thursday, May 6, 2010

“And I haven't killed a jockey in weeks—really…”

Mater and I abandoned our ongoing Bogart/Cagney/Robinson project last night to tune in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), the fourth entry in the successful M-G-M film series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, the sleuthing twosome created by author Dashiell Hammett. It’s a fun little diversion—and contains some laugh-out-loud moments courtesy of a script co-written by the late Irving Brecher, creator of radio’s The Life of Riley—that my mother joked was “sappy”…however, this analysis did not curtail her enjoyment of such.

Directed by Major W.S. “One-Take” Van Dyke II, Shadow could very well be called—as my pal Hal Erickson puts it—“Nick and Nora Charles Go to the Races,” for that’s the setting of this comedy-mystery that finds our favorite inebriated couple investigating the shooting of a jockey (“My, they're strict at this track!” observes Nora) and later a skeevy hanger-on, “Whitey” Barrows (played by Alan Baxter). Another reporter pal of Nick’s, Paul Clarke (Barry Nelson, in his film debut), is the prime suspect in the offing of Barrows…but don’t discount the possible participation of gamblers “Link” Stephens (Loring Smith) and Fred Macy (Joseph Anthony), down-and-out tout “Rainbow” Benny (Lou “Shorty the Barber” Lubin) or phony socialite Claire Porter (played by the legendary acting coach Stella Adler in a rare onscreen performance). As is customary in the Thin Man movies, all of the suspects are gathered together at the end so that Nick can reveal the party responsible; in addition to those already named, Paul’s girlfriend Molly (Donna Reed) and Major Jason Sculley (Henry O’Neill)—the head of a commission investigating racetrack corruption—are also considered suspect. (At the risk of popping a few buttons off my shirt, I’d like to point out that Mom and I fingered the guilty party before they were arrested by the slightly incompetent Lt. Abrams, played by TDOY fave Sam Levene.)

“You’re going to see some great wrestling tonight,” Stephens assures Nick as he and Nora arrive at the arena for a bout. “How do you know—were you at the rehearsal?” is Charles’ snappy reply, and a line that nearly made the ice water I was drinking come out of my nose. Brecher and co-writer Harry Kurnitz (who’s also credited with the story) were acquaintances of comedian Groucho Marx, and there’s a distinct insouciance to Shadow’s proceedings—the two men even include a brazen gag in which Loy, exiting a restaurant with Reed, instructs a cab driver to “follow that car”…and is left behind as the hack speeds off in pursuit. It’s also refreshing to see that the scribes on Shadow didn’t skimp on the drinking jokes (which were gradually toned down with each successive film in the series, owing to the fact that Nick and Nora were now “responsible” parents); when the Charles’ domestic (Louise Beavers) observes that “He's getting more like his father everyday” Nora fires back: “He sure is…this morning he was playing with a corkscrew.” (There’s also a hysterical scene in which Nick is forced to down a glass of milk at dinner in the interest of being a positive influence on Nick, Jr. [Richard Hall].)

Lots of familiar TDOY character faves are on hand here in Shadow, including Ken Christy, Jody “Rosa” Gilbert (she’s the dame with “Spider” Webb, played by Joe Oakie), Sid Melton (his film debut, too) and the always dependable Will Wright, who has a slightly bigger role as a ticket clerk who implicates one of the suspects. At the end of TCM’s showing, when Bobby Osbo remarked that the movie was shot quickly in two weeks Mom fired back: “It looks it!” (She’s only kidding, folks…she’s a kidder.)

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