There's Always a Woman (1938) follows the "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" rulebook. The success of the Thin Man series in the '30s brought about a slew of competing series featuring lovers exchanging witty repartee while solving crimes. Warner Bros. jumped into the fray with its Torchy Blane series, while MGM supplemented their own Thin Man films with a short-lived series following a pair of married book dealers who sleuth on the side. What, you never heard of the Joel and Garda Sloane movies? Perhaps Warner Archive will remedy that, someday.
Columbia's effort at a Thin Man franchise kicked off with There's Always a Woman, starring solid Melvyn Douglas and vivacious Joan Blondell as a pair of married detectives (the sequel, 1939's There's That Woman Again, retained Douglas but re-cast Virginia Bruce as the wife). Unlike Nick and Nora Charles, indelible characters from a novel that's still beloved and in print, this film's William and Sally Reardon seem like the kind of people created as a pleasant distraction for magazine readers on their morning commutes. The stars' chemistry and the film's accent on screwball comedy over crime solving helps, but there's an essential something lacking here.
There's Always a Woman opens as William and Sally Reardon are running a detective agency that is so down on its luck, they're forced to let go the company's last employee (a secretary). While William closes up shop to work for the local District Attorney (Thurston Hall), Sally happens to be at the office for the arrival of a potential new client. Wealthy society matron Lola Fraser (Mary Astor) needs assistance in finding out if her husband is having an affair with his ex-fiancee, Anne Calhoun (Frances Dee). Sally agrees to take on Mrs. Fraser's case, without informing William. When Mr. Fraser later turns up dead, however, the District Attorney's office and William get involved - and the two Reardons wind up competing against each other for clues in the case. The convoluted doings that ensue involve unpaid gambling debts, an illegally purchased gun, and plenty of physically taxing - even violent - interplay between the two stars.
There's Always A Woman changes up the married detective formula somewhat in having Sally doing most of the legwork, while William's discoveries mostly come about by accident or coincidence (though, in the end, it's William who eventually solves the crime). Sure, the story ain't much, but it's competently enough made and the lead actors' effervescence is almost enough to make it worthwhile. The underrated Melvyn Douglas plays a variant on his usual self-deprecating, too-cool-for-the-room guy here, and he's a delight. So is Mary Astor, although by this time she must have been getting bored playing the same Society Lady With A Secret in film after film. In this film, Joan Blondell plays a looser, more physical take on the snappy, streetwise dames she'd been known for - an interesting changeup, but the obnoxious results come across like a desperate-to-please aping of Carole Lombard's "lovable ditz" shtick. At times, she's downright unpleasant to watch.
Another thing about There's Always A Woman - although I didn't realized it, I had already seen this film when it was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies in May 2010. Yes, this is the kind of film that one tends to forget about almost as soon as the end credits roll - not that there's anything wrong with that (another thing I got from this particular viewing - the '30s era Columbia Pictures lady looks exactly like Mary Astor).
This is a puzzler ... when broadcast on Turner Classic Movies in 2010, There's Always a Woman sported a clean, bright picture. As seen on this m.o.d. disc, the graininess of the film has been overly sharpened to the extent that it's a continuous texture, dancing across the screen like a swarm of insects. It's murky, too.
The film's simple mono soundtrack, a little raggedy around the edges but basically serviceable, is decently preserved on this disc with no outstanding flaws to speak of. No subtitles or alternate audio.
None, not even a basic menu (film automatically starts upon DVD's insertion, then repeats once it's finished).
Breezy faux-Thin Man mystery, coming right up. The convoluted whodunit There's Always a Woman mostly gets a passing grade due to the likability of stars Melvyn Douglas and Joan Blondell. The made-on-demand DVD edition from Sony's Choice Collection leaves a lot to be desired, however. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.