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.
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).
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.
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).
Since its first installment in 1934 and in the eighty years since, The Thin Man series has stood apart from other film series and franchises. Its six films always delivered a “twist” mystery and the wonderful chemistry between stars William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Much of the series’s most memorable features came straight from the Dashiell Hammett source novel. Nick and Nora Charles were rich and glamorous during the Depression, though extremely grounded thanks to Nick being a former private detective. Asta the dog, the New York setting, the martinis, the Thin Man mystery itself–they were all from the novel. Powell and Loy just brought it all to life.
Although MGM budgeted and produced the first entry more like a B picture, by the time of its release, the studio knew they had something special with The Thin Man and, in particular, its stars: William Powell and Myrna Loy. The two were recent MGM contract additions; both had been bouncing around Hollywood since the mid-twenties and had come to MGM after unfulfilling Warner contracts. They weren’t big time movie stars yet, but Loy and Powell had become familiar faces to moviegoers. And then The Thin Man turned them into mega-stars, both individually and as a pair. Loy and Powell appeared in fourteen movies altogether, almost always playing a couple. The Thin Man isn’t even their first film together. That first film, Manhattan Melodrama, opened a few weeks before The Thin Man. It too was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who would frequently work with Loy and Powell–as a pair–after The Thin Man, including the first three Thin Man sequels. Van Dyke had directed Loy (alone) in a number of reasonably successful films the year before, also in collaboration with Thin Man producer Hunt Stromberg.
So, the first Thin Man wasn’t so much a happy accident as every right piece coming into the right place at just the right time.
The Thin Man is the second-shortest picture in the series, running ninety-three minutes. There won’t be a Thin Man picture running under that time until the last one. Director Van Dyke has to convey a lot of information in very little time. Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s dialogue needs to be expository–it’s a mystery after all–so they weave it though conversation and characters’ personalities.
Nat Pendleton and Maureen O’Sullivan lead the supporting cast. Pendleton is an intrusive but competent copper and O’Sullivan is Nick’s “client.” Quotation marks because Nick never works for money; he’s just a big softy. The supporting cast is great. A good supporting cast can make or break a Thin Man movie.
Since its theatrical release, The Thin Man has enjoyed continuous popularity; eighty plus years without losing its appeal. The Thin Man has been available on every home video format–VHS, LaserDisc, DVD–never going out of print. And now it’s always available streaming.
The sequel came out two years later, on Christmas Day 1936. After the Thin Man closed one of the busiest years of Powell, Loy, and Van Dyke’s careers. They had all become MGM A-listers, though Loy was a tad beyond Powell and Van Dyke. In fact, she was actually just about to be voted the studio’s “Queen of Hollywood.”
MGM spared no expense on After the Thin Man. It’s the longest film in the series–twenty minutes longer than the first entry–with a lot of time and money spent setting up Nick and Nora as a couple in their natural habitat, ritzy San Francisco. There’s location shooting (a big deal for the sequel to a B picture) and a first-rate supporting cast. James Stewart in it–After the Thin Man is also known as “The One With Young Jimmy Stewart”–Joseph Calleia, Sam Levene, George Zucco, Paul Fix. Asta the dog even gets his own a subplot. It’s a big deal sequel.
And it’s a good one. After the Thin Man has another great script from Hackett and Goodrich–with Hammett contributing a short story to base it on. It’s a cross of hardboiled gum shoe and sublime screwball. Lots of smart, funny scenes for Powell and Loy–and Asta too–all alongside the doozy of a mystery. Awesome supporting cast. It’s nearly as perfect as the original.
After the Thin Man was another hit and one with some very confident sequel building. The film ends with a big reveal setting up the next outing to leave everyone wanting to know what’s next for Nick and Nora. Serial cliffhanger adapted for A list picture. After the Thin Man being excellent locks it in. More than the first film, After the Thin Man proves the cast, the filmmakers, the studio, can do these big and on purpose and on a regular basis. It’s a little showy in its confidence.
When Warner released the first Thin Man on DVD, they didn’t put out any of the sequels. They the first one was bait and didn’t sell well enough. After the Thin Man–and the rest of the sequels–had been VHS mainstays. MGM/UA had put out a great LaserDisc box set too. Their DVD absence was conspicuous. It took five years before Warner got After the Thin Man out and then it was in a box set. The eventual collection was success. So successful Warner split the series for budget catalog release. And now, of course, the entire series is available streaming.
The third film, Another Thin Man, was not just a special event as a Thin Man sequel but also because it put William Powell and Myrna Loy back on screen in grand fasion. Powell had been engaged to Jean Harlow, another MGM star; she died of kidney failure in 1937. Powell, understandably devastated, then found out he had cancer. So he took a big break for treatment. Loy had slowed down too, doing half as many pictures a year as she had pre-“royalty.” Her interests were changing from Hollywood stardom; in fact, she was newly home from England when shooting started.
Screenwriters Hackett and Goodrich were also changing their pace. They had almost stopped working in Hollywood entirely. Another Thin Man would be their last Thin Man and their last screenplay for five years. It’s also Hammett’s last work on the series.
Van Dyke and Stromberg had been staying busy, however.
Another Thin Man fulfills the previous entry’s cliffhanger–Nick and (mostly) Nora make baby, Nicky Jr. An apparently divorced Asta is back too. The action takes the Charles family to New York, where they happen into another mystery to solve.
It’s an ostensibly less mysterious one–there’s a supernatural angle instead. It’s Nick and Nora vs. evil mentalist Sheldon Leonard. Well, for some of it, anyway. Leonard’s making threats to rich old guy C. Aubrey Smith, who knows the Charleses and so they get involved. Smith’s got a daughter (Virginia Grey) with multiple suitors (Patric Knowles and Tom Neal), there’s a Long Island DA–Otto Kurger, and Nat Pendleton is back as the New York detective.
Much more than the first sequel–or the original–Another Thin Man relies on William Powell and Myrna Loy; in the script, in Van Dyke’s direction, in their performances. New mom Loy sits out a lot of the mystery so she and Powell’s scenes have the majority of the film’s personality, just not the mystery. It results in the film lacking any standouts in the supporting cast. The script just doesn’t have parts for them. For example, Pendleton’s character is now played for laughs, instead of having some ability. But it’s an excellent production. Van Dyke has definitely got Thin Man movies down now–it’s all about Powell and Loy.
As far the Thin Man sequels go, Another Thin Man enjoys a fine enough reputation. I mean, it’s got the first appearance of Nicky Jr., how can it not enjoy a fine enough reputation. Still, the baby is the thing, not the supporting cast, not the mystery itself. It’s also the point where Loy starts teetotaling big time.
Now back to a two year schedule, Powell, Loy, Van Dyke, and Stromberg returned in 1941 with the fourth film in the series, Shadow of the Thin Man. Instead of Hackett and Goodrich writing, the film has Irving Brecher and Harry Kurnitz on the script. Kurnitz worked on the screenplay for the previous year’s I Love You Again, a non-Thin Man screwball outing from Powell, Loy, and Van Dyke.
Shadow focuses on bringing Nicky Jr. into the comedy dynamic. It goes so far as to age him an extra four or five years. He’s now played by seven-year-old Dickie Hall. Sure, there’s a race track murder mystery, with Sam Levene returning as the San Francisco detective, but the most memorable moments involve Hall and Loy domesticating Powell. They’ve got him off the martinis and on to the milk. Yuck. But Powell leads Hall around on a shared leash with Asta and sneaks gin. It’s amazing comedy.
Barry Nelson and Donna Reed are desperate young lovers who need help from Powell and Loy. Another Thin Man skipped the young lovers in need characters, but the first two films hinged on them. The screenwriters try really hard to do a Thin Man movie with all the familiar trappings, but also moving things forward.
Apropos of nothing, it’s also the only Thin Man to end in a police station.
Powell, Loy, and Hall are all delightful together. The emphasis on “Great Detective as parent” works out. Van Dyke directs it well, smoothing the occasional script bump; he also helps imply depth for the thin supporting characters. Shadow of the Thin Man is a successful application of talent and chemistry to a mediocre script.
And Shadow was another hit, another good Thin Man sequel. It’s maybe a footnote in Donna Reed’s career too, though her performance doesn’t stand out .
Big events and small changed the series’s trajectory. Shadow of the Thin Man came out just before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II. Loy immediately took leave from her contract at MGM to join the war effort. While Powell continued to work, he still mostly kept to a movie a year. Van Dyke died of cancer in 1943. Stromberg left MGM soon after Shadow‘s release, breaking his contract under cloudy, unpleasant circumstances. The Thin Man series made Powell and Loy movie stars, it had been a big hit for Van Dyke and Stromberg, for Hackett and Goodrich. The series kept going through a lot changes in the principals’ lives, but Loy leaving Hollywood had to mean no more Nick and Nora.
Or so one would have thought, but then MGM tried replacing Loy with Irene Dunne for the next sequel. Turns out no one–not the fans, not Powell–wanted anyone but Loy playing Nora. It’s unclear how far along that attempt got, but when Powell and Loy did return to the series in 1945, it was a far different kind of Thin Man.
The Thin Man Goes Home opens by putting Powell and Loy on a train out of an unseen New York City to visit Powell’s upstate hometown. Totally new production team, different crew too; David Snell is the only holdover. He composed the scores for the final three films. Richard Thorpe directed, Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor wrote the screenplay. Recent MGM addition, Everett Riskin–Robert’s brother–produced.
Starting on with that train ride, Thin Man Goes Home sets out to immediately establish some wholesome, patriotic credentials. Rationing was going on, after all. It’s not just no more hotel suites, it’s no more drinking for Nick and Nora. Nicky Jr. is off at boarding school and they’re staying with Nick’s parents–Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport–in a regular house, not a fancy hotel.
Riskin and Taylor’s script meanders through the mystery–though it does give Loy a lot more to do on her own than she usually gets in a Thin Man movie. Director Thorpe keeps it all together. The Thin Man Goes Home is well-produced and fairly well-acted. Then the third act is a mess and the final joke is bizarrely goofy.
The Thin Man Goes Home is perfectly titled (if canonically inaccurate) and fun–Nick and Nora in a small town, Nick’s parents, Donald Meek in the supporting cast, foreign espionage. Director Thorpe, producer Riskin, and the screenwriters deserve some credit for maintaining its accessibility. They were taking over an existing and beloved franchise without much help. It’s not like composer Snell had a “Thin Man” theme to tie the films together. The filmmakers’ safe, unambitious moves make Thin Man Goes Home an extremely affable entry. It plays rather well, though it’s generally agreed to be one of the lesser entries.
In fall 1947, MGM released the final Thin Man film, Song of the Thin Man. With the exception of composer Snell, it’s again an all-new the entire production team and crew. Edward Buzzell directs from a Steve Fisher and Nat Perrin script. Perrin also produced.
Powell and Loy are back in New York, living glamorously but a little more like restrained. They’ve got Nick Jr., after all, this time played by eleven year-old Dean Stockwell. The mystery involves missing jazz wunderkind Don Taylor and his stable of femme fatales. Keenan Wynn is third lead–a sidekick to show the now square Powell and Loy around the New York City jazz spots.
Song is a little cheap, but Powell and Loy get along fine integrating Stockwell into the family dynamic. And Wynn’s cravenly functional character works great; Powell and Loy (and Nick and Nora) have never had a similar sidekick.
Unfortunately, not being a bad go at a disinterested Thin Man sequel doesn’t make Song a hidden gem. Buzzell’s an okay enough director, he just doesn’t have any personality. Without a big gimmick like Goes Home used, Song needs all the personality it can get. It gets a long way on goodw ill and general competence. But it’s Powell and Loy who hold this one together.
And, thanks to them, Song of the Thin Man is far from an inglorious end to the series. In addition to inherently hilarious idea of Dean Stockwell once being eleven, much less Nick Charles Jr., the film has early performances from noir fatales Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor. It’s a distinctive footnote, if a generally dismissed sequel. It’s readily availability probably hasn’t helped its reputation; Song of the Thin Man gets a lot more goodwill when you’re just happy to have found a Thin Man movie playing on TV.
Because for a long time, people only discovered The Thin Man and its sequels playing on TV. And they they discovered them on VHS, AMC, TCM, DVD, streaming. People have been discovering these films for eighty years and there’s never been a better time to do so than right now.
The Thin Man series was a rarity on release and is still one. There aren’t any other six picture franchises with big-time classic movie stars like Loy and Powell, they’ve also remained popular since their original release, most of the entries are good. Not many eighty year old film series have that pedigree, certainly not to six films.
There’s nothing else like The Thin Man and it’s all because of Powell and Loy and Van Dyke and Hammett and Stromberg and Goodrich and Hackett. And Asta too, of course.
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.
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).