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Warners follows up its The Thin Man Collection from last year with the Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection, five romantic comedies that parallel their "Nick and Nora Charles" series. The set contains one classic remembered for the wrong reasons, two excellent semi-screwball comedies, one turgid melodrama and another comedy that doesn't click, at least not with this reviewer. More importantly, the collection allows us about 7.5 more hours with the Golden Age's most beloved romantic couple, in a variety of situations.
Manhattan Melodrama (1934) is considered a classic mostly for its high-powered casting. William Powell and Clark Gable play two disadvantaged boys (Mickey Rooney is young Gable) who grow up to be a respected District Attorney and a notorious gambler, respectively, and Myrna Loy is the 'swell dame' who loves them both but chooses the 'good' one. It's the familiar good boy/bad boy plotting we remember from old Warner Bros. pictures. MGM soaks the entire tale in a barely restrained piety that includes periodic appearances by a friendly priest (Leo Carrillo).
Loy's Eleanor Packer begins as an unhappy gambler's moll to Gable's Blackie Gallagher, a 'noble' crook forever defending his good name in the underworld. Powell's Jim Wade tells Blackie of his intention to clean up the city, and, old pal that he is, Blackie encourages him. Eleanor decides that she prefers Wade's clean living to Gallagher's diamonds and yachts, but Blackie holds no ill will even after she throws him over. A couple of murders later, Blackie goes to prison and possible execution refusing to defend himself, with the noble motive that he doesn't want to drag honest politician Wade down with him.
Manhattan Fairy Tale would be a better title for this fantasy with its scrupulously honest politico, gloriously noble racketeer and the glamorous but virtuous sweetheart who loves them both. Blackie and Eleanor apparently live together, but the movie seems to imply that he's too busy for sex. Wade is so pure that he doesn't realize that associating with Blackie is potential poison for his career.
Myrna's best moment is her first flirtatious taxicab encounter with Jim Wade, and it's a classic. For most of the rest of the show she's on the sidelines looking glamorous or concerned as needed. (Spoiler) This is really a love story between two 'swell guys' who have always been 'on the level' with each other and stay loyal to the weepie ending -- where Gable plays a death row inmate who talks the Governor out of commuting his execution. It's great fairy tale storytelling.
Manhattan Melodrama is doubly famous for being the show John Dillinger was watching when he was set up for an F.B.I. hit by The Lady in Red. Legend has it that Dillinger identified with Clark Gable and thought they had a lot in common. We can only assume that the robber would approve of the movie's portrait of a dashing crook and murderer who turns out to be the nob'lest of them all.
Isabel Jewell is a whiney broad not in Eleanor's league ("I wanna hot dog!"), Nat Pendleton a crook underling and George Sidney the kindly Jewish father who adopts the two boys when their parents die in a ferryboat disaster.
1934's Evelyn Prentice is a straight marital soap opera and murder story. Powell and Loy are certainly up to their roles but the basic story was hopelessly flawed even when new. Like many MGM melodramas of the thirties, it claims to be a fair tale of marriage, love and unavoidable trouble. As filmed, Evelyn Prentice ends up putting all of the blame on the wife.
Loy's Evelyn Prentice is a wealthy Manhattan housewife, just the typical homemaker in a luxury high rise with servants, a spoiled daughter (the insufferable Shirley Temple wannabe Cora Sue Collins) and plenty of leisure time to spend with her wisecracking best pal Judith Wilson (Una Merkel). Husband John Prentice (Powell) is so busy defending rich clients that he has no time for the understandably demoralized Evelyn. Then Evelyn discovers that on a business trip to Boston John was accompanied by Mrs. Nancy Harris (Rosalind Russell, in her first movie). Upset, Evelyn accepts 'harmless' dates with young rake Larry Kennard (Harvey Stephens), unaware that he's a ruthless blackmailer. A couple of steps down the road, Kennard is dead and a woman Evelyn knows to be innocent (Isabel Jewell) is being railroaded to a conviction. Evelyn talks John into taking the defense, all the while knowing that she herself is the guilty party.(Spoilers)
Amid all the distrust and deceit, Evelyn Prentice stays technically pure. As a drama, Evelyn Prentice cheats every step of the way. John Prentice only looks as if he's having an affair with his beautiful client, when it was just an unavoidable kiss or two. Although a fade-out raises the possibility that he's had relations with Mrs. Harris, we're supposed to agree that his later rejection of her clears him of any wrongdoing. On the other hand, Evelyn keeps encouraging the transparently noxious Kennard. The script blames friend Judith Wilson for accepting the first date, but Evelyn rides her emotions to the point of meeting Kennard in his apartment and sitting close and snug with him on his couch. For her sin, Evelyn is to blame for a whirlpool of murder, lies, deceit and shame. Can her noble husband forgive her?
The lack of credibility in Evelyn Prentice can be judged from a crazy courtroom scene where the attorney for the defense verbally attacks his client on the witness stand and forces a confession. I know zilch about the law but this would seem to be entirely inappropriate behavior. The MGM solution for marital problems, of course, is for both parties to accept whatever the other is doing without question. Any problems can be straightened out with a romantic cruise to Europe. In keeping with MGM's 'let them eat cake' attitude toward people who aren't rich, Evelyn Prentice shows the wealthy and respectable class being essentially virtuous while the poor take the rap for all of the criminal activity. Evelyn goes to France and Kennard's miserable girlfriend goes to the Big House.
Powell and Loy stay noble and serious throughout, which is a shame. The delightful Una Merkel takes care of the wisecracking asides that keep Evelyn Prentice from sinking completely into bathos, and spunky Edward Brophy is on hand as John's detective assistant. Harvey Stephens is inexcusably bad as the nefarious Kennard. Newcomer Rosalind Russell is immediately identifiable in some shots, and looks like an entirely different woman in others. Evelyn Prentice is a fun movie but will be best appreciated by soap opera fanatics and Loy-Powell completists.
1937's Double Wedding is the only real turkey in this box, and is good for little more than analyzing why the Loy-Powell chemistry works so well elsewhere. The rigid script is from a Ferenc Molnar play, the source of more than one hit by Billy Wilder. The mistakes begin with inappropriate casting. Powell mugs and pratfalls as Charlie "Horse" Lodge, a 'Bohemian' artist and hopeful moviemaker who lives in a trailer parked next to a downtown bar. Charlie rehearses terrible movie scripts with youngsters Waldo and Irene (John Beal & Florence Rice), a couple unhappy because Waldo is too meek to propose after four years of dating. But Irene's domineering, icy older sister Margit (Loy) runs a fashion house and plans out the daily schedules of those around her down to the minute. She's decided that Waldo and Irene will marry, and they'd better do what she says. Naturally, when the free thinking dreamer Charlie and the button-down iceberg Margit get together, comedy hilarity ensues (or doesn't).
The very title Double Wedding tells us what will eventually happen, as Charlie slowly works to snare Margit's affections. Frustrated by Waldo, Irene develops a confused crush on Charlie, and Charlie threatens to elope with her unless Margit agrees to have her portrait painted. The film is packed with comedy bits that don't work because we never accept the main characters. Powell can clown about but the loony Charlie is not his style; Loy has a wide range but the rigid Margit is two-dimensional at best, and simply not fun. The finale is a depressing "hilarious" wedding in the packed mobile home, with a huge mob outside. Jessie Ralph, Sidney Toler and Edgar Kennedy toss in comedy material from the sidelines.
At one point Charlie tries to ride on the running board of Margit's convertible. She tells a mounted policeman that Charlie is a drunken pest. The cop takes one look at Charlie in his 'bohemian' beret, shouts "Aha, a RED!" and hauls him off to the hoosegow.
Things pick up with 1940's I Love You Again, a clever and amusing comedy that plays, finally, to Loy and Powell's strengths. The cute story has stuffy teetotaling businessman Larry Wilson (Powell) konked on the head after rescuing a drunken con man, Doc Ryan (Frank McHugh) on an ocean voyage. When Wilson wakes up, he finds himself in a gag replay of Random Harvest: he's recovered an earlier identity as George Carey, another con-man crook from the prohibition days. He must have taken on the Larry Wilson identity about eight years earlier, during an earlier amnesiac switcheroo.
Knowing nothing about 'Larry Wilson' beyond the fact that he has $147,000 in his bank account, George and Doc rush to collect, maintaining the Wilson charade as best they can. On the way they meet Wilson's wife Kay, who is concerned for her husband's health even though she intends to divorce him for being such an annoying stick-in-the-mud. Larry/George is greatly attracted to Kay, but she figures it's a ploy to keep them together so he can win an upcoming Community Fund election. Sadly, George discovers that the big bankroll is money held in trust for one of Larry's community charities.
Along with a scoundrel named Duke (Edmund Lowe), George and Doc compensate with a wicked confidence swindle, hiding a leaky oil drum in a pond and maneuvering several greedy locals to ante up hundreds of thousands of dollars for property rights. As he falls in love with Kay, George begins to see things differently. She eventually sees the light and gives up her new boyfriend, but how will George break the news to her? For that matter, how will he stop the swindle without going to jail?
I Love You Again isn't the laugh-a-minute promised by the poster art but it is consistently funny. The only possible exception to that is an extended Boy Scout hiking scene that gets old quick, despite the presence of Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer as a goofy scout. The twist ending is cute and clever. Powell juggles crooked deals and conscience nicely, and Loy's frustrated wife is a fine comedic backstop, fending off her newly amorous husband's fresh advances.
1941's Love Crazy is a great screwball comedy that works wonders with an unpromising story idea. Steve and Susan Ireland (Powell and Loy) are still hot for one another four years into their marriage, but her meddling mother (Florence Bates) interrupts their anniversary night revels. Through the manic workings of a broken elevator, Steve ends up in the company of Isobel, a libidinous ex-girlfriend (Gail Patrick). Susan gets tangled with Ward Willoughby, a randy archery champion (Jack Carson) living on the floor below. When she thinks her husband is lying about his activities with Isobel, Susan begins divorce proceedings. Beside himself with remorse, Steve takes the advice of his lawyer (Sidney Blackmer) and delays the divorce by feigning insanity. This of course backfires, leading to involuntary institutionalization at the funny farm of Doctor Wuthering (Sig Ruman).
Love Crazy moves quickly, makes enough sense to stand up to scrutiny and turns in an unexpected direction at least once every four minutes. Elisha Cook is a harried elevator boy and Sara Hayden a fellow nuthouse patient; Vladimir Sokoloff is the concerned shrink, pardon, alienist, who is convinced that Steve is off his rocker. Some of the best comedy bits involve a battle of wits between Steve and the annoying Ward Willoughby, who is wasting no time moving in on the now-available Susan.
Act three brings the circus back to Ireland's high-rise, where Powell gets away with a masquerade, going in drag as an old lady to hide his identity. It may not sound promising, but the hilarious Love Crazy is one of Powell-Loy's best vehicles.
Warners' Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection is beautifully transferred, with the MGM pictures all in fine condition, even the popular Manhattan Melodrama. The fold out disc holder reveals five titles on separate DVDs. Each comes with an original trailer. All of the shows have subs in English and French, and chapter stops but no chapter selection menus. The following featurettes are spread out among the discs: Two Goofy Movies comedy shorts, five Harman-Ising cartoons (The Old Pioneer, Discontent Canary, The Hound and the Rabbit, Tom Turkey and His Harmonica Humdingers and The Alley Cat), the musical short Dancing on the Ceiling and a Crime Does Not Pay episode with Tom Neal, Jackpot. A radio show version starring William Powell is included on Love Crazy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, the
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