Warner Bros. and Turner Classic Movies team up to present the simply-titled "Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection," a five-disc set of the screen duo's five films not previously released on DVD.
Loy and Powell remain one of Hollywood's finest on-screen couples, having starred together in thirteen features. (Not counted is Powell's "The Senator Was Indiscreet," in which Loy made a cameo appearance.) Their best known collaborations were the "Thin Man" films, six comic-mystery adventures of Nick and Nora Charles; it was here that the duo proved a priceless chemistry, their casual charms bouncing off each other in all the right ways, even if the franchise eventually lost the comic sting of the original entry. That film series was granted an excellent DVD box set in 2005.
Two other highly regarded Loy/Powell team-ups are also already available on disc. The Oscar-winning "The Great Ziegfeld" landed on DVD in 2004 and has since also been offered as part of various "Best Picture" box sets. "Libeled Lady" arrived on disc the next year, both as a single release and as part of Warner's "Classic Comedies Collection" box set.
Which leaves five more pairings: "Manhattan Melodrama," "Evelyn Prentice," "Double Wedding," "I Love You Again," and "Love Crazy," all collected under the "Turner Classic Movies Spotlight" banner. (As of this writing, these titles are not available separately.) Some fans see this as a batch of second-rate leftovers, and while the quality of these films varies wildly, the set is well worth owning, and not just for Loy/Powell completists.
"Manhattan Melodrama" (1934)
It's impossible to get upset with "Manhattan Melodrama" for being over-the-top in its sentimentality, characterizations, and plot turns. After all, they put "melodrama" right there in the title.
The first movie to pair Loy and Powell (and the first of three films from them in 1934!), "Melodrama" also stars Clark Gable - the film's main draw. Powell and Gable play Jim Wade and "Blackie" Gallagher, who as children were orphaned and grew up as blood brothers. The screenplay (Arthur Caesar won an Oscar for Original Story; Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz penned the final script) kicks off with a parade of tragedy: the boys lose their parents in a fire, get adopted by a kindly old man, only to eventually watch him die, too. It's big and woeful and full of kid actors (Mickey Rooney among them) hamming it up to ludicrous extremes. Yet on its own terms, it actually works.
The story proper kicks into gear once the boys grow up to be the two handsome leading men we came to see. Jim, a man of flawless integrity, is New York's most trustworthy assistant D.A.; Blackie is the city's wildest racketeer, running a gambling ring out of his uptown apartment. Blackie's lifelong respect for Jim's honesty leads him to demand Jim never go easy on him just because they're friends.
Loy stars as Elanor, Blackie's girlfriend who eventually dumps the criminal to marry Jim. Yet again, Blackie holds no ill will toward his old pal. Throughout the entire film, Blackie understands that Jim will always be the better man, and instead of jealousy, we get admiration.
All of this leads to an oversized ethical dilemma: when Blackie kills a man who could prevent Jim from becoming governor, it's Jim himself who prosecutes his friend, arguing for the electric chair. Later, when Jim wins the election, he finds himself with the power to commute Blackie's death sentence. At what point, then, do the cold philosophies of moral logic and the warm realities of personal relationships clash?
For all its larger-than-life storytelling, its peculiar attempts at comic relief (Muriel Evans' running gag as a gangster's dopey moll is a hoot), and its portrait of Jim as a man so upright he couldn't possibly exist on this planet, "Melodrama" remains a thoroughly engaging piece, one that leaves us questioning ourselves. Can Jim remain righteous and set his friend free? Considering Blackie's actions led to Jim's election, should he even remain in office, or, since such things remained out of his control, is it excusable for him to stay in power? The drama may be clunky and old-fashioned, but once "Melodrama" gets rolling, it never stops engaging the viewer.
Side note: "Melodrama" is best known not for itself, but for being a footnote to history - this was the film John Dillenger (a Clark Gable fan) was watching before he was gunned down in front of the Biograph Theater in Chicago. It's a critic's rule that no review of this film omit this trivia nugget, so there you go.
More fascinating is the inclusion of a song that, following a later rewrite, would become "Blue Moon." Fans of that standard will enjoy the novelty of hearing darker, unromantic lyrics with the title "The Bad in Every Man."
"Evelyn Prentice" (1934)
Ethical quandaries return, with disastrous results, in the utterly silly romantic thriller "Evelyn Prentice." This "women's picture" finds Powell and Loy starring as John and Evelyn Prentice, a not-so-happily married couple who venture off to tiptoe around adultery. Of course, the movie backtracks so many times one starts to get actively angry at it. Neither Prentice ever actually winds up going through with their respective affairs, and when, in a ridiculous turn of events, Evelyn is on trial for murder, the script goes out of its way to ensure that even though she shot someone, she's not actually guilty of anything but loving too much.
John is a successful lawyer tempted by an alluring socialite (Rosalind Russell) he recently defended; Evelyn is the bored housewife who flirts with an obnoxious poet (Harvey Stephens). Nothing much comes of either affair. John rebuffs the socialite's advances (or so he says - and the script works overtime to believe his story) and works hard to keep his marriage from crumbling once he learns Evelyn suspects him of cheating. Evelyn also uses this opportunity to entertain her own thoughts of infidelity, although she too backs off quickly.
Distressingly, the screenplay (by Lenore J. Coffee, adapting W.E. Woodward's novel) strains to make John's avoidance of sin a noble gesture, while Evelyn's similar actions become an evil that can only be healed by John's forgiveness, even though both are equally guilty (or not guilty, or whatever). The story lets John off the hook with a snap, leaving poor Evelyn to land herself in the center of a murder mystery. You see, the poet blackmails Evelyn once she calls off the flirtations, and Evelyn shoots him, and then the poet's girlfriend is accused of the crime, and then Evelyn gets John to defend the girlfriend, and oh, what an awful, awful little mess this movie becomes.
Much has been written of the film's utter lack of realism in its final act, a courtroom showdown that goes so far off the rails and becomes so far removed from any legal authenticity that the only reasonable response from the viewer is a hearty chuckle of embarrassment. I'm willing to accept a little cinematic dishonesty in regards to the legal system as long as the drama works. But in "Evelyn Prentice," the finale suffers a failure of pure logic, going so far to shift the case so that John is now figuring out a way to make his wife not guilty. Sadly, the screenplay gives him the very excuse he needs, a last-minute revelation that's so far beyond stupid that the very few viewers still holding onto some hope for this movie will have thrown up their hands in frustration.
All the characters here, from leads to supporting roles, are dullards to the very end. There's no reason to root for the couple's grand reunion, because we don't care about them at all. Nor do we hope they will find happiness elsewhere, for all potential side suitors are even less interesting. Toss in a grate-the-nerves child star (seven-year-old Cora Sue Collins, doing her worst Shirley Temple impression) and awkward, go-nowhere attempts to bring a bittersweet charm to the Prentices' family life, and "Evelyn Prentice" winds up a major misstep for all involved.
"Double Wedding" (1937)
While not a failure on the same level but not at all a success, "Double Wedding," the duo's seventh film together, tries so hard to be an edgy, wild comedy, yet it hits all the wrong beats. Its nonsensical script seems built from leftover parts from a dozen other stories, its slapstick-heavy screwball finale lands with a giant thud, and the debonair Powell finds himself dreadfully miscast as a bohemian artist.
Charlie Lodge (Powell) is a pre-beatnik type (complete with beret!) enjoying a carefree lifestyle. He paints, he writes, he stages rehearsals for his upcoming romance movie in the neighborhood tavern. His hangers-on are actress Irene (Florence Agnew) and her wimpy beau, Waldo (John Beal). Irene's domineering sister, Margit (Loy), has planned Irene and Waldo's wedding down to the last flower petal, but alas, Waldo's such a fuddy duddy that Irene easily falls in love with Charlie instead. Margit will have none of this, and schemes to use up all of Charlie's time, Charlie promising to keep away from Irene so she can fall back in love with the wimp.
There's one solid scene in the movie, and that's when Charlie, an expert in romance pictures, informs Margit that in many stories, the two leads pretend to hate each other until love blooms. It's a nice little rundown of romcom cliché, but we ultimately don't need it - in a movie called "Double Wedding," starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, we can figure out the finale before the film even starts, no matter how much bickering Charlie and Margit throw our way.
Not, of course, that the movie is trying to hide its intents. It knows that we know who'll wind up with whom, and so it takes a breezy, easy-going approach to the plot. Problem is, the plot is so contrived that we never buy it, even as a lark. When Margit mentions to Charlie her master plan for getting Irene back with Waldo, we realize just how lazy the movie has gotten - the main characters are basically scheming to fix themselves up but are too stupid to realize it. And the finale, in which a crowd of zany extras pile into Charlie's trailer home, is the sort of scene that feels like it wanted to be funny-clever but gave up half way.
That finale, by the way, tosses so much slapstick at us that it never pauses to see if any of the gags work. None do. The visual punchlines - Loy with a hat strap around her nose, Powell with a face full of cake - are so broadly staged that what we end up with is an approximation of what physical comedy should look like, as interpreted by someone who has never seen physical comedy before.
The movie keeps us mildly interested solely on the charms of its stars, who by this point have built a precise on-screen rapport. We like seeing these two together, so we stick it out, even though we not only never buy Powell as a bohemian, but we become convinced that the filmmakers have never even met a bohemian but found the idea of one to be a real kicker. "Double Wedding" is stupid when it needs to be smart, obnoxious when it needs to be charming.
"I Love You Again" (1940)
Back to the good stuff. "I Love You Again" contains one of the most absurdly complicated set-ups in the history of storytelling. Larry Wilson (Powell) is a bland, penny-pinching, well-respected businessman from small town Pennsylvania. While rescuing a man who fell overboard while on a pleasure cruise, Larry gets a good knock to the head, and wiping out the last eight years of his memory. Now he insists that he's George Carey, a slickster and a con man working top schemes during Prohibition.
It turns out that eight years back, George suffered a similar blow, leaving him memory-free; he started up a whole new life as Larry Wilson, eventually doing very well for himself. The man he rescued is another con man (Frank McHugh), and the two realize they can turn this amnesia thing into a master swindle - after all, George is already Larry, so now he just has to keep playing it up as the rich man he already is but can't remember. The other con man will pose as a respectable doctor looking after Larry's mental state, and the two will clean house.
Ah, but things do not always go according to plan. For while Larry is happy to discover he's married to the gorgeous Kay (Loy), she finds him so unbearably boring and detached that she's started their divorce proceedings. Once George/Larry realizes what a keeper Kay is, he must try to convince her to fall in love with him all over again, this time not as the stuffy old Larry, but as the new happy-go-lucky Larry.
Meanwhile still, it turns out that Larry's finances are harder to unlock than it seemed, and George's old con partner has rolled into town looking for a piece of the action.
Got all that? Me neither. But it sure is a whole heap of fun.
In fact, "I Love You Again" is one of the duo's finest works together, a rip-snorting screwball comedy that bounces from silliness to insanity with spectacular ease. Powell and Loy are back once again with director W.S. Van Dyke ("Manhattan Melodrama" and the first four "Thin Man" movies), and here, the helmer known as "One-Take Woody" for his lightning-quick shooting style puts the action on overdrive, zipping his leads through the zaniest of situations at a pace that captures the best screwball feel.
The screenplay (based on the novel by Octavus Roy Cohen) is credited to five writers, which may account for its scattershot feel, but here, it works. For all its convolutions, the actual plot is familiar, especially to those who've seen a fair share of con men comedies - George is repeatedly called upon to, say, sing a chorus of the town song he (as Larry) wrote, or to deal with a band of Boy Scouts he (as Larry) often leads, etc., etc. It's another case of the swindler having to fake his way through another's public life. Powell's cool headedness and his knack for ace comic timing make these moments sparkle.
There's a sweetness to Powell and Loy's scenes together that's far more natural and agreeable than what's on display in "Double Wedding;" here's the old charm from the "Thin Man" films delicately mixed with the extra appeal of a romance picture. Watching the two win each other over again is a delight that proves why the couple remained such a popular screen team for so long.
In fact, even when the script tries to drag in a few too many complications for the finale, we stick right with it, because its stars keep everything charming and light, never allowing the silly plot to override the simple good feelings of the chemistry on display. Through it all, "I Love You Again" remains big, adorable fun.
"Love Crazy" (1941)
The duo's follow-up to "I Love You Again" is another complicated offering, and while the plot is so nonsensical and exaggerated that it hurts the overall picture, the madcap pace and the instant charms of all involved keep the comedy afloat.
Steve (Powell) and Susan (Loy) are a happily married couple who enjoy each other's silly ways - they're celebrating their fourth anniversary by doing everything backwards (at dinner, desert comes first). But their celebration is interrupted first by Susan's buttinsky mother (Florence Bates), then by the arrival of Steve's old flame (Gail Patrick), who's just moved in downstairs. Conniving by all involved leads to Susan convinced Steve has started an affair, and divorce proceedings follow.
But Steve, still wildly in love with his wife, has a plan: act crazy. If he's deemed mentally unfit, the court must postpone the divorce for five years, giving him plenty of time to win Susan's heart back. The plan backfires, and Steve winds up in the loony bin, where he then must convince the doctors he was only kidding about the whole thing. We wrap up with Steve on the lam, cops thinking him to be a crazed serial killer, and yes, the best disguise here is for Steve to shave off his moustache (the only time in his career Powell would go bald-lipped on screen) and disguise himself as Steve's older sister.
The whole thing plays as a lightning-fast farce, especially in the opening and closing scenes set in the apartment complex. We bounce between flats as Steve tries to escape the seductions of his former lover and Susan hopes to make her hubby jealous by smooching the ex-flame's own husband (yet winds up in the wrong apartment, attracting the amorous attentions of big lug Jack Carson!). Later, the pace quickens as Steve must slink from room to room and flat to flat without being seen, only to wind up in drag.
It's like an adaptation of a whip-smart stage play, although surprisingly, this was an original story. MGM veteran helmer Jack Conway (who previously directed Loy and Powell in "Libeled Lady") keeps the comedy rolling merrily along even when the screenplay sputters, especially in the middle section when the story takes that weird left turn by suddenly asking Steve to fake his own insanity. When the movie takes us out of the confines of the apartment building, everything slows - yet Conway picks up the slack by amplifying the overall goofiness.
Some consider "Love Crazy" to be among the duo's best works; I disagree, yet still find it funny enough in all the right spots to make for a delightful afternoon viewing. Loy and Powell are as lively and as lovely as ever. This would be their last non-"Thin Man" movie together (again, not counting "The Senator Was Indiscreet") and would mark the beginning of the end of one of Hollywood's finest long term collaborations.
Warner packages these titles on five discs, one movie per disc, suggesting (maybe) these movies might be granted individual releases down the road. The discs are housed in a three-tray fold-out digipak; two of the trays hold two discs in an overlapping fashion.
Video & Audio
All five films are presented in their original 1.33:1 full frame format. The older three films contain a small amount of grain, and the occasional (very minor) print damage is visible (in the form of speckles of debris, nothing serious), but otherwise, the images are solid. The last two features look downright pristine, perfectly sharp and richly detailed.
The films are heard in their original mono soundtrack - nothing fancy required. All five films have been cleaned up quite nicely in this regard, being free of any hiss, pops, or other distortions. Optional subtitles are offered in both English for the Hearing Impaired and French.
Disc 1 contains the comedy short "Goofy Movies #2," a delightfully bizarre exercise in silliness that still holds up (I'm still giggling just thinking about it); "The Old Pioneer," a cartoon short that doesn't hold up; and the "Manhattan Melodrama" trailer.
Disc 2 contains "Goofy Movies #3," a lesser but still enjoyable entry in the oddball short series; the forgettable cartoon "Discontent Canary"; and the "Evelyn Prentice" trailer.
Disc 3 contains the musical short "Dancing on the Ceiling," in which singing female dentists woo patients (it's outstanding in its badness); "The Hound and the Rabbit," a cartoon featuring football-playing hares; and the "Double Wedding" trailer, which overplays the film's minor catchphrase ("yumph").
Disc 4 contains "Jack Pot," a fun but wildly dated short from the "Crime Doesn't Pay" series, this one hilariously belittling the audience for its "public apathy" toward illegal slot machines; the obnoxious musical cartoon "Tom Turkey and His Harmonica Humdingers"; and the "I Love You Again" trailer.
Disc 5 contains the cartoon short "The Alley Cat," in which a stray (whose voice comes about as close to Donald Duck's without actually landing a lawsuit) woos a penthouse kitty and outwits a tough bulldog; the Screen Directors Playhouse radio adaptation for "Love Crazy," starring Powell and Gloria Blondell (the aging audio is slightly muddy, and the "special features" menu remains on screen as the episode plays, but it's otherwise fine, and old time radio enthusiasts will definitely enjoy it); and the "Love Crazy" trailer.
While handing in the "lesser" entries from the Loy/Powell collection, this box set is still decent enough to be Recommended to fans of the duo as well as anyone interested in some of the less-remembered classics. Sure, "Evelyn Prentice" and "Double Wedding" are skippable, but the rest of the titles and a few keen bonus shorts more than make up for it.