Category Archives: Starring William Powell

The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937, George Fitzmaurice)

The Emperor’s Candlesticks starts with an exceptional display of chemistry from Robert Young and Maureen O’Sullivan. They’re at the opera, it’s the late nineteenth century, it’s a masked costume ball, Young is a Grand Duke dressed as Romeo, and O’Sullivan is the sun.

Then it turns out O’Sullivan is working with a bunch of Polish nationalists who want to kidnap Young and ransom him for a political prisoner getting a pardon from the Czar (Young’s dad). Young and O’Sullivan aren’t the leads of the picture, the leads of the picture are William Powell and Luise Rainer. Powell’s an ostensibly apolitical Polish noble who’s more interested in philandering than revolting, Rainer’s a Russian noble who’s a professional spy. So Powell gets the mission to bring Young’s letter to the Czar and get the prisoner freed. Simultaneously, Rainer’s compatriots have discovered Powell’s actually a spy too. So she’s charged with bringing evidence of his treachery to St. Petersburg.

They both have a mutual acquaintance in Henry Stephenson, who wants Powell to take a pair of candlesticks to a Russian princess Stephenson is courting. The candlesticks have this awesome hidden compartment and Powell’s more than happy to do Stephenson the favor, since the hidden compartment is perfect for the letter he’s got to transport.

Powell gets ahead of himself and puts the note in before taking possession of the candlesticks, which Stephenson wants to have delivered to Powell at the train station. Seems like everything’s going to be fine, until—just missing Powell—Rainer pays Stephenson a visit and he can’t resist showing her the hidden compartment either. Powell’s worried about getting his document into Russia, Rainer’s worried about getting her documents out of Poland. It doesn’t take much for Rainer to charm Stephenson into letting her deliver the candlesticks to his lady friend. Rainer puts her documents in the other candlestick; they’re distinguished by some slight damage.

So there’s already the trouble—for Powell—of catching up to Rainer and getting at the candlesticks. But then there’s Bernadine Hayes, Rainer’s maid, who’s let thief Donald Kirke talk her into robbing her mistress of her jewelry… and her candlesticks. So then there’s going to be trouble for everyone, leading to a sometimes joint effort from Powell and Rainer, sometimes separate, across the continent. Powell’s mission has a timeline (the prisoner’s execution is set and, therefore, Young’s is as well).

Powell and Rainer falling in love doesn’t help things, especially for her, since she knows about her mission and its repercussions for Powell (he’ll be arrested, then shot by firing squad), while Powell is just trying to make sure neither the prisoner or the Grand Duke run out of time.

Powell and Rainer falling for each other pretty early, which works out well because they’ve got to bring enough chemistry to overshadow the memory of Young and O’Sullivan’s at the beginning. They do, with Rainer doing the heavier lifting as she’s falling for a man she’s condemning, but the film’s got to keep that angle pretty light—Powell’s whole persona in the picture is based on him not acting at all like a secret agent, but a playboy, including when he’s hustling to get the candlesticks. He’s doing it—he tells Rainer—because as a gentleman he should be aiding a lady in distress. Little does he know he’s causing Rainer a great deal more distress than she anticipated.

With the exception of Frank Morgan’s out-of-place introduction (he’s Young’s sidekick, in and out of captivity), Candlesticks is a joyous. Powell and Rainer are wonderful, O’Sullivan and Young are great, Stephenson’s fun. Morgan’s a little much but not enough to hurt the experience. And Morgan’s fine, he just takes up time Young could be spending with O’Sullivan.

Fitzmaurice’s direction is good. Every once in a while Candlesticks will go to second unit exteriors, which gives it a nice scale. With the exception of a (second unit-fueled) montage sequence, Conrad A. Nervig’s editing is poor. Lots of harsh cuts, a handful of severe jump cuts. Some of it is lack of coverage, but Nervig doesn’t have a good rhythm. Luckily the actors are so good and the Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe script is so strong, Nervig’s rough editing doesn’t do much damage. It’s occasionally grating.

Otherwise, the film’s technically solid.

Thanks to Powell and Rainer (and Young and O’Sullivan), The Emperor’s Candlesticks is a constant delight.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Fitzmaurice; screenplay by Harold Goldman and Monckton Hoffe, based on a novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy; director of photography, Harold Rosson; edited by Conrad A. Nervig; music by Franz Waxman; produced by John W. Considine Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Baron Stephan Wolensky), Luise Rainer (Countess Olga Mironova), Robert Young (Grand Duke Peter), Maureen O’Sullivan (Maria Orlich), Bernadene Hayes (Mitzi Reisenbach), Donald Kirke (Anton), Frank Morgan (Col. Baron Suroff), and Henry Stephenson (Prince Johann).


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Lawyer Man (1932, William Dieterle)

Lawyer Man is a tad too streamlined. It runs around seventy minutes, charting neighborhood attorney–meaning he works with ethnic types and not blue bloods–William Powell’s rise and fall from grace. At the end, he says something about the events taking place over two years, which the film accomplishes through a variety of narrative shortcuts, usually newspaper headlines. The second half of the film is a little too truncated; it plays like the budget ran out around the forty-five minute mark.

The film opens on the crowded streets of the East Side of Manhattan; Powell’s office is amid the Jewish theaters, the street markets, the hustle and bustle of the working folk. He’s got an admiring secretary (Joan Blondell) but he’s a skirt-chaser, which contributes to his eventual downfall. Something Blondell warns him about frequently.

By the second half of the film, when Powell’s made it, there’s no more exterior street scenes. It’s one office to another, usually with the same handful of cast members. After some wonderfully efficient setup, the plot proper kicks off with society lawyer Alan Dinehart offering Powell a partnership. Whenever Powell beats someone in court, they always want to be pals–he’s such a good lawyer they can’t help it. Unfortunately, part of the film’s efficiency is never showing any of the courtroom lawyering. Even when it’s Powell on trial.

Anyway. Powell and Blondell go uptown to a skyscraper office and a better class of clients. Powell’s still skirt-chasing, Blondell’s still obviously mooning over him (Powell’s unbelievable obliviousness to it is one of Lawyer Man’s failings), but they’re more successful. And then in walks Helen Vinson as Dinehart’s sister and a suitable marriage prospect for Powell. So the film’s now got Powell, Blondell, Vinson, and Dinehart in the mix as far as characters.

Immediately after Powell runs afoul of political fixer David Landau, Claire Dodd comes into the film. She’s a showgirl just jilted by society doctor (and Landau flunky) Kenneth Thomson. Since Lawyer Man is so streamlined, it only takes her about five minutes to have Powell wrapped around her finger. And about ten minutes until she’s helped get him into a bunch of hot water.

Powell’s got to scrap to stay afloat and he becomes a dirty opportunist, with only Blondell sticking by him. At this point, the film sheds pretty much everyone except Powell and Blondell–and shaves Blondell’s subplot off her–as Powell fights to regain his good name. Landau becomes a much bigger player, until he’s pretty much the only other billed actor who interacts with Powell by the final third.

Instead of character development, there’s a lot of summary and speeches from Powell. It’s masterfully done summary, sure, but it’s still just summary. The speeches are a little much. Dieterle sort of zones out during them. He’s really involved when it’s about Powell’s skirt-chasing (there are some great examples of pre-Code visual euphemisms in Lawyer Man too) and Dieterle does really well with the bigger sets. When it’s just the static offices and melodrama… he checks out. Not on the actors, however. Blondell and Powell maintain their charm throughout, even as their characters thin. Blondell’s not the only one who loses her subplots as things progress; Powell goes from a Tex Avery wolf to a practical monk by the end.

The supporting cast is all fine. Landau’s got the only significant part throughout. He’s good.

Lawyer Man’s a little too short, a little too slight. It needs just a little more time to bring its threads together. And to keep its threads in play.

But for a seventy-ish minute programmer? It’s pretty darn good. Great photography from Robert Kurrle and the film’s general sense of humor help.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Dieterle; screenplay by Rian James and James Seymour, based on the novel by Max Trell; director of photography, Robert Kurrle; edited by Thomas Pratt; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring William Powell (Anton Adam), Joan Blondell (Olga Michaels), David Landau (John Gilmurry), Helen Vinson (Barbara Bentley), Claire Dodd (Virginia St. Johns), Kenneth Thomson (Dr. Frank Gresham), Allen Jenkins (Izzy Levine), Ann Brody (Mrs. Levine), and Alan Dinehart (Granville Bentley).


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Song of the Thin Man (1947, Edward Buzzell)

Song of the Thin Man has a lot of strong sequences and the many screenwriters sting them together well enough, but can’t figure out a pay-off. Some of the problem seems to be the brevity–while director Buzzell does an adequate job and Charles Rosher’s cinematography is good, none of the scenes end up having much weight.

The film does give William Powell and Myrna Loy more to do in regards to their parenting–with Dean Stockwell as their son–they have less to do as far as investigating. Song runs less than ninety minutes and even another ten of a good mystery would help immensely. All of those really good sequences are either comedic parenting ones or a single “race the clock” one. Loy excels in the latter.

There are just too many suspects and not enough time spent on them. The script sets up the suspects in the first few scenes and it plays efficiently enough, but then keeps everyone too suspicious to be sympathetic. The script works against itself and Buzzell isn’t at all the director to bring it together.

Of the supporting cast members, Keenan Wynn and Jayne Meadows have the most to do and are the best. Wynn is Powell and Loy’s guide through the nightlife, with the script cutting a lot of corners as to how that tour progresses. It’s either lazy writing or lazy producing. Either way, it hurts the film.

But Song is still entertaining, it just easily could’ve been better.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Edward Buzzell; screenplay by Steve Fisher, Nat Perrin, James O’Hanlon and Harry Crane, based on a story by Stanley Roberts and characters created by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Charles Rosher; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by David Snell; produced by Perrin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (Nora Charles), Keenan Wynn (Clarence ‘Clinker’ Krause), Dean Stockwell (Nick Charles Jr.), Phillip Reed (Tommy Edlon Drake), Patricia Morison (Phyllis Talbin), Leon Ames (Mitchell Talbin), Gloria Grahame (Fran Ledue Page), Jayne Meadows (Janet Thayar), Ralph Morgan (David I. Thayar), Bess Flowers (Jessica Thayar) and Don Taylor (Buddy Hollis).


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The Thin Man Goes Home (1945, Richard Thorpe)

The Thin Man Goes Home is very genial. It would be hard for it not to be genial given some of the supporting cast is around just to be genial–familiar character actors like Edward Brophy, Donald Meek and Harry Davenport are around to be likable. And why shouldn’t William Powell and Myrna Loy heading to small town U.S.A. be genial? Of course, there’s a murder mystery, but director Thorpe manages to keep the investigation of it amusing too.

The film’s problem is the geniality is the important thing, not just an approach to the story. Thorpe does really well with some of the comedic set pieces–the Grand Central Station sequence at the beginning, followed by a great packed train car sequence, then there’s a later one with Loy trailing Brophy to comic effect. He does great with Loy and Powell’s few scenes together too. Eventually their visit to Davenport and Lucile Watson (as Powell’s parents) and the murder mystery make it hard to make time for scenes together.

At least, it’s hard for Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor to figure it out in the script, which is strange, since it’s a really breezy piece of writing. Between Powell acting without sensible motivation, one large subplot being entirely ignored and then a few characters forgotten about, the script’s Home’s biggest problem.

Powell and Loy are good, though she gets much better scenes, and the supporting cast is fine.

After being a reasonably successful entry, the third act is a complete disaster.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Thorpe; screenplay by Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor, based on a story by Riskin and Harry Kurnitz and characters created by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Ralph E. Winters; music by David Snell; produced by Everett Riskin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (Nora Charles), Lucile Watson (Mrs. Charles), Gloria DeHaven (Laura Ronson), Anne Revere (Crazy Mary), Helen Vinson (Helena Draque), Leon Ames (Edgar Draque), Donald Meek (Willie Crump), Edward Brophy (Brogan), Lloyd Corrigan (Dr. Bruce Clayworth), Anita Sharp-Bolster (Hilda) and Harry Davenport (Dr. Bertram Charles).


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