Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Bill and Myrna New Year's Blogathon - Another Thin Man

This post is an entry in The Bill & Myrna New Year's Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and The Flapper Dame

In my opinion, The Thin Man is kind of an odd duck as movie series go. They often follow the pattern of, first movie's good; second movie sucks; third movie's good; and fourth movie sucks so bad it kills the franchise. I joke, but I could give you examples. Lots of them. The Thin Man series is unique in that all of the films are good and never lose their edge.

If I had to pick my least favorite, it would have to be, The Thin Man Goes Home. It's not a bad film, but in the film, Nick and Nora visit Nick's father, a conservative doctor in a small town, who objects to Nick's drinking. As a result, Nick switches to cider. Don't get me wrong, it's still a good movie, but Nick and Nora being sober just doesn't work for me like the others.

If I had to pick my favorite, simple, Another Thin Man, the third film in the series, mostly because of the cast. It has the best cast of any of the series, and yes, I am taking into account that Maureen O'Sullivan being in the first movie and James Stewart in the second.  Also, there is the nightclub scene, which really has to be the best single scene in any of the Thin Man movies. Finally, it is the last film to have the full creative team of William Powell/Myrna Loy, of course, director Woody Van Dyke,the husband/wife screenwriting team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and an original story by Dashiell Hammett.

I think the key element in the creative team is probably Goodrich and Hackett, who wrote the screenplays for the first three Thin Man films as well as It's a Wonderful Life, Father of the Bride, and Father's Little Dividend.  Not that the last three films suffered from their absence, but they set the groundwork for what was to come. According to Wikipedia on the first film, Van Dyke encouraged them to use Hammett novel for the plot structure but to concentrate of providing witty banter between Nick and Nora, and that was a formula that just worked. 


**** The following text contains mild Spoilers ****

My  second reason for picking Another Thin Man as my favorite in the series, is the nightclub scene. Nick in typical style ditches Nora to follow up on a lead that ultimately brings him to the West Indies Club. Meanwhile, Nora gets a phone call which leads her to the same nightclub. The scene opens with Nick arriving. The maître d' recognizes Nick and seats him with a bevvy of hot Latino women, who faun all over him, order drinks, food, a steal his cigarettes. 

The scene switches to nightclub entertainers René y Estela credited as Renee and Stella, who headlined a show at New York's Havana-Madrid Club in real life. It is one of the coolest dance routines I've seen in any movie:


After the performance, a waiter hands Nick a note signed with the name of one of Nick's old flames. He asks the waiter who gave him the note. Nick is referred to a table with at least a dozen men hovering around.. Nick calmly moves them out of the way, and there is Nora. The interaction between Nick and Nora here is absolutely hilarious.

Nora is supposed to meet a man who has information in the case they are working on. She doesn't know what he looks like but they have a pre-arranged signal, but as luck would have it, a nightclub patron who knows nothing of the case intercepts the signal. As Nora tries to find out what he knows, the location of a man involved in the case. The patron, a hot-blooded lover type, becomes more and more frustrated that Nora, the woman he thought was making eyes with him is only interested in another man. It soon becomes apparent to Nora, that she has the wrong man, but she has no idea how to get rid of the love-smitten nuisance. Fortunately, Nick steps in and deals with the situation with a style and grace that only William Powell could pull off.


**** End of Spoilers ****

Finally, the cast is perfect. Myrna Loy and William Powell are wonderful as always. Well, maybe not always. The first teaming of the pair was Manhattan Melodrama, a movie so forgettable that I need to go to read a plot summary to remember what it was about, a crime drama with something of a love triangle, between Myrna Loy and criminal Clark Gable and district attorney William Powell. Loy ends up with Powell, but I don't remember much in the way of chemistry between them in that film. Their second outing, The Thin Man was where the magic began, and their best films capitalized on the easy humor between the pair, so evident in The Thin Man series

Surrounding Powell and Loy in Another Thin Man is a virtual Who's Who of Golden Age Hollywood character actors:

Nat Pendleton reprises his role as the none-too-bright Lt. Guild from The Thin Man.

C. Aubrey Smith plays Colonel MacFay, Nora's father's former business partner, who administers her estate and conveniently gets murdered setting the whole thing in motion.

Virginia Grey plays Colonel MacFay's daughter. She's one of those actresses best known for small parts in big movies, or big parts in small movies. You probably know her as the woman who works with Joan Crawford at the perfume counter in The Women.

Otto Kruger plays a Long Island assistant DA who doesn't take the threats to C. Aubrey Smith's life seriously. No wonder they need Nick and Nora to solve their murders for them.

Ruth Hussey plays an ex-con nurse the Charles hire to babysit Little Nicky.

Sheldon Leonard plays Phil Church, one of Colonel MacFay's former employees who went to prison for crooked dealings MacFay was into, and now the main suspect in his murder

Abner Biberman plays Dum-Dum, Phil Church's right-hand man. You probably know him as Louie, the little guy who does all of Cary Grant's dirty work in His Girl Friday.

Marjorie Main plays the landlady at an apartment, where Nick and Nora do some sleuthing. She only has about 2 minutes of screen time but every second is pure gold.

Shemp Howard, probably the least known of The Three Stooges, plays Wacky, one of the dozen or so unsavory types who show up with rented/stolen babies for little Nicky's first birthday party. I'm sure they all have names like Wacky, Dum-Dum, and Creeps. As Nora would say, "Oh Nicky, you know the nicest people."

William A Poulsen plays Little Nicky. Okay, this is nobody you would know. He only made Another Thin Man, and appeared as himself in a documentary short that same year. I only mention him because he is only there to prove that Nick and Nora had a kid, but he doesn't stick around long enough to keep Nick and Nora from drinking, sleuthing, or making wisecracks. There is one scene where Nora encourages him to pull on Nick's mustache while he's trying to sleep. That's about the perfect amount of domesticity that you need out of the Charles family.

And Skippy as Asta. Skippy made about 20 films, including Asta in all six Thin Man movies. Most movie dogs were known for playing just one role, like Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, but Skippy also played Mr. Smith in The Awful Truth and George in Bringing Up Baby. Sure, he was typecast to a certain degree but this little dog could act.

Another Thin Man is a great entry in the series, good story, and wonderful interactions between Mr. and Mrs. Charles, and a cast that is just insane. Plus, Nick and Nora get to prove they are a real family with the baby, but he is never around enough to cramp their style.

TCM 2017, a Year of Changes?

The year 2017 saw a lot of changes on our favorite film network. Of course, the biggest and most far-reaching was the passing of Robert Osborne in March. Osborne was not just the face and voice of TCM, but its heart and soul as well. While it was sad news for any classic movie fan, I can't say that it was too much of a shock to me. He had been scaling back his appearances on the network for years and cancelled his appearances at the TCM Classic Film Festival (TCMFF) at close to the last minute in both 2015 and 2016.

The death of Robert Osborne has had a ripple effect that is still being felt, though I think some of what we perceive as changes went into place before his death. With Osborne appearing less regularly, TCM had hired host Tiffany Vazquez in the Spring of 2016. Personally, I think Vazquez is coming into her own as a host, though I never had a serious problem with her from the start. Also I was somewhat surprised to see that semiregular feature "Treasures from the Disney Vault" with Leonard Maltin goes all the way back to 2014.

At the Remembering Robert Osborne panel at TCMFF,  Ben Mankiewicz offer some insight into how the network might move forward post-Robert Osborne. He told a story about how he loved music and in particular Bruce Springsteen. When Clarence Clemons of Springsteen's backing band The E Street Band died, the band didn't just hang it up. They didn't want continue without him, but they didn't want to stop either. They ended up getting Clemon's nephew, who also played saxophone, but ultimately, they end up replacing the late saxophone player with three people. He continued that there was no one person who could step into Robert Osborne's shoes. The hosting duties would be spread among several hosts.

And sure enough that's what we're seeing. We are seeing more guest programmer's. I can't say this for sure, but Ben Mankiewicz seems to have expanded his role. Illeana Douglas definitely has expanded hers. Eddie Muller now hosts a permanent show with Noir Alley, and now seems to do the promotional stuff for the wine club. This brings me to, Alec Baldwin and The Essentials.

I seem to remember a lot of complaints about Alec Baldwin on The Essentials, but I like him. He may not be the most knowledgeable person on classic film, but I do get a genuine sense of his affection for classic films, and that's good enough for me. Of the three guests he had this year, Tina Fey was easily the most engaging. As a writer/producer/actress, her insights translated well to classic Hollywood. I also heard a lot of complaints about David Letterman, but I laughed my butt off whenever he was on. Again, he is not the most knowledgeable person, but I do get the sense that he loves old movies. Yes, he is a goofball, but did you really expect anything different from him? Of the three guests on The Essentials, William Friedkin was easily the most qualified to be on the show, but for me the least interesting, though I did appreciate his comments. I just thought the rapport between Tina Fey and David Letterman and Alec Baldwin made them more a better watch for me than Friedkin's superior knowledge.

In August, Now Playing ceased as a print  publication. I'm sure this came as a blow to some. With an electronic version included with TCM Backlot, I assume that eroded subscriptions to the print version to a point where it was no longer viable. I only subscribed to Now Playing once, at a time when I was working a lot of hours, so I really didn't get a chance to read it like I should have. Having it be a purely electronic publication in my inbox twice a month is perfect for me. I read it more than when I subscribed. Of course, that's just me. Your mileage may vary.

One of the biggest complaints I hear all the time is that TCM shows too many new films. I know that Joel Williams (Joel's Classic Film Passion), one of the co-founders of #TCMParty, keeps tabs of the number of films shown, broken down by decade. He has done so since April 2016, and he was kind enough to share his numbers.

The numbers are probably a bit misleading, being based just on the number of titles. I'm guessing that 1900 to 1929 would contain more shorts and fewer feature-length films. Also, older movies particularly from the 1930s can be very short, often under 90 minutes. Because of this, I'm guessing that if this was figured based on running time on the titles shown it would skew heavier to the newer films. Then again, it seems to me that most films that TCM shows from the 1990s and 2000s are documentaries about some aspect of classic film, e.g., Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story was made in 2015, but was about film-makers from classic film.

Era Ave. number of titles each month 2016 Ave. number of titles each month 2017 Total 2016 Total 2017
Era 1
Mostly Silent
Era 2
Classic Talkie (1930-1959)
Era 3a
Era 3b
Era 4

What surprised me was not that the numbers changed, but that they didn't. I converted Joel's numbers to percentages, rounding to the nearest whole percent. The numbers are different but the percentages are the same for 2016 and 2017.

Joel broke down the numbers by decade. I thought that was a little too granular. I decided to break them down by era. I figured that 1900-1929 is mostly the silent era. I treated 1930-1959 as the second era for classic talkies. I broke the third era into two sub-eras, the 1960s and 1970s, respectively. Finally, the fourth era was anything after 1980, modern film. I treated the eras this way because what constitutes a classic film depends on whom you ask. Most will agree that films made before 1960 can be considered a classic films.  Others argue that films from 1960s are old enough to be considered classic, and some consider films from both the 1960s and 1970s are old enough to be considered classic. Thus, if your definition of classic film is:

  • Pre-1960, 73% of TCM programming is classic film.
  • Pre-1960 plus the 1960s, 89% of TCM programming is classic film.
  • Pre-1960 plus the 1960s and 1970s, 96% of TCM programming is classic film.

By the way, I fall in the last group and don't see what people are complaining about. Most films from the 1970s are 40 years old. To me, that seems old enough to be a classic. Still, even if you fall in the first group, almost three quarters of TCM programming is classic.

Just for grins, I decided to see how February worked out (if they changed it substantially for 31 Days of Oscar). Joel started tracking this stuff in April 2016, so I only have February 2017 to work from. In February, 5 titles (1%) were from 1900-1929 (the Academy Awards only covers films made from 1927 forward, so a lower number here makes sense); 242 titles (72%) were from 1930-1959; 48 titles (14%) were the 1960s; 30 titles (9%) were from the 1970s, and 13 titles (4%). I do acknowledge that these numbers might be a little skewed. 31 Days of Oscar runs 31 days, duh, but February only has 28 days, so if even a few modern titles were shown in March, that might have a fairly big effect. Looking at just February, the numbers look pretty consistent there too. 

Just for the sake of argument, let's say TCM does show more modern films that they did five or ten years ago. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Say someone tunes into TCM to watch a film form the 1970s or 1980s and gets sucked into a film from the 1940s or 1950s, and maybe becomes a fan of  the network and classic film in general. Isn't that a good thing?

Now, me, I guess my big complaint is that it seems that TCM is replaying films more frequently than they used to. I can't back this up because I've never tracked it. It just seems like lately, TCM will show a film and then show it again a week or two later, and this seems to happen more often than it used to. Possibly, they've been doing this for years and I haven't noticed until now. Possibly, this is done to allow people in different parts of the country to watch films that played in off hours in their time zone. Possibly, this is done to save on licensing costs. Even if the latter is the case, I have to accept that TCM is a business and part of a much larger corporation, which expects that business to perform. 

According to Wikipedia, TCM is part of Time Warner, although Time Warner is in process of being bought out by AT&T, pending government approval. It might have already gone through. Wikipedia isn't always the most accurate source of information in the world. Me, I am convinced that TCM as a company, and the people who work there do care about classic film, but to the parent corporation, Time Warner or AT&T, TCM is a business unit like a ton of other business units in the corporaion. Let's say, TCM makes 7% profit in a year. Now to me, that seems pretty good. I wish I made 7% a year on my money. But corporations don't think like that. Say other business units make 8% profit while TCM only makes 7%. Or TCM made 7% profit one year but made 8% the previous year. To a corporation, that 1% difference is losing them money. As a business, TCM needs to make sure they meet the corporation's goals. If that means TCM needs to show the same film  twice in a two-week period or run the Backlot Promo more often, I can accept that.

I know we all like to think we have ownership of TCM, but we really don't. You own things that you buy.  If everyone who is reading this chipped a million dollars and if that added up to enough to buy TCM, and Time Warner or AT&T was willing to sell it, we could own TCM. Oh, wait, I just looked at my bank balance the other day, I probably don't have an extra million dollars in January, and February and March aren't looking very good either. Maybe in April, but wait, April is taxes. Then again, people who have a million dollars lying around don't pay much in taxes. I kid. I don't really have a million dollars. 

I like to think that I'm a pragmatist. I love classic film and I love TCM, but I do accept that it is a business, a business that makes its money on classic film. If that means they sometimes show a crappy public domain B movie instead of Billy Wilder or Hitchcock, I'm cool with that. If that means, I have to look at the same promo for the Noir Alley Boutique on 20 times a week, I'm cool with that too. I love classic film. I'm addicted to classic film, and TCM is what provides me my fix. When I need a good hit of Joan Blondell, where else am I going to go?

Friday, December 15, 2017

What a Character Blogathon: Charles Lane

This post is part of the 6th Annual What a Character Blogathon, hosted by, Outspoken & Freckled, Once Upon A Screen, and Paula's Cinema Club.

Charles Lane is one of those character actors whom even if you don't know his name, you probably know his work. Specializing in crabby authority figures, Charles Lane was the go-to guy when film or TV producers needed a mean miserly lawyer, judge, tax collector, banker, or landlord. A lot of actors complain about being typecast, but probably no one had more right to than Charles Lane. Then again with 361 IMDB credits and a career that spanned 77 years, he had a career that few could boast of.

Born in San Francisco on January 26, 1905 as Charles Levinson, he was one of the oldest living survivors of the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. As a young man, he spent a short time selling insurance before turning to acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1929. His first film appearance was as an uncredited man in train station in City Girl (1930), F.W. Murnau's second to last film. In 2005, he was honored at the TVLand Awards for his long career and 100th birthday. As he accepted the award, he told the audience, "In case anyone's interested, I'm still available!" He later appeared as the Narrator of a short adaptation of A Night Before Christmas, when he was 101 years old.

Many of his roles in the early 1930s were uncredited, playing desk clerks, cashiers, and salesmen, but by the mid-1930s, a pattern starts to emerge as you see more of the parts he would become known for, lawyers, judges, and a state examiner.  He appeared in many of director Frank Capra's best films:

  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town - Plays Hallor, the crooked lawyer for Deeds' benefactor's commonlaw wife.
  • You Can't Take It with You - Plays Henderson, the IRS agent who informs Lionel Barrymore that he needs to file tax returns.
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - Plays Nosey, one of the reporters who dupes James Stewart into making a fool of himself when he first hits Washington. 
  • Arsenic and Old Lace - Plays one of the reporters, who recognizes famous bachelor, Cary Grant, as he is trying to apply for a marriage license. 
  • It's a Wonderful Life - Again with Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter) as his rent collector who informs him that he's losing money from the poor suckers who are now leaving his slums to live in the affordable homes built and financed by George Bailey (James Stewart).
Other memorable Charles Lane film roles include, Larsen, the accountant for the Totten Foundation, the organization financing the encyclopedia, being written by Gary Cooper and the other professors in Ball of Fire, the landlord in the Christmas classic, It Happened on Fifth Avenue, and the airport manager who tries to keep Buddy Hackett and and Mickey Rooney from waking the drunk pilot/airplane owner, Jim Backus, in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

At times, Lane had so much work that he had to shoot two pictures on the same day. He would show up in the morning for wardrobe say his few lines of dialog on one film and then move to a different set for new wardrobe and another small part on a second film all on the same day. Sometimes, he would go to the movies, not remembering that he had appeared in the film he was watching until he showed up onscreen. 

Charles Lane was also founding member of both the Screen Actor's Guild and the Television Academy. Television turned out to be as much of a boom for Charles Lane as motion pictures had been for him earlier. He was a good friend of Lucile Ball, whom he had met when they were working on musicals at RKO. He appeared on multiple episodes of I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour and had a recurring role on The Lucy Show

One of the few times, you will ever see Lane smile a real smile onscreen
in the few seconds he thinks he has a son, before learning otherwise
Charles Lane appeared in one the most viewed episodes of I Love Lucy ever, "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," where little Ricky is born. At the time it first aired, over 70% of the people who owned a television in America tuned in to see this episode. He played Mr Stanley, an expectant father in the waiting room with Desi Arnaz. While Desi is a nervous wreck, Lane is calm and collected, he already has six children, all girls. When the nurse comes in to tell him she has a surprise, Lane is excited to learn that his wife has finally given birth to a son, but his elation is short lived. His wife has not given birth to a son, but triplets, three more girls. "Nine girls," he laments in that distinctive growl of his. 

"Well, you can always plan on a girls' softball team," quips William Frawley (Fred Mertz). 

Charles Lane appeared in dozens and dozens of TV shows. The following are just the ones I remember watching either in first run or in syndication:
  • Perry Mason
  • The Untouchables
  • The Twilight Zone
  • Maverick
  • Mr. Ed
  • Dennis the Menace
  • The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
  • The Andy Griffith Show
  • Get Smart
  • The Munsters
  • F Troop
  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
  • The Wild Wild West
  • Gomer Pyle: USMC
  • Green Acres
  • Petticoat Junction
  • The Flying Nun
  • The Beverly Hillbillies
  • Bewitched
  • The Odd Couple
  • The Rookies
  • Medical Center
  • Rhoda
  • Chico and the Man
  • Maude
  • Soap
  • Mork and Mindy
  • Lou Grant
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • Hunter
  • St. Elsewhere
  • L.A. Law

Charles Lane's final feature film was a romantic comedy, Date with an Angel. He played a pot-smoking priest. How cool is that? I would like to say that this was a great capper to a wonderful career, but I can't. No, Charles Lane is not bad in the film. He's perfect as his typical crabby self, but it's a completely missed opportunity to do something different with him. 

Making things worse, Date with an Angel is an absolutely horrible movie. As you watch it, you find yourself thinking, Is this the worst movie I've ever seen? And then you think, No, it can't be. I've seen a lot of bad movies in this lifetime. But then you can't think of anything worse than what you are watching right now. The big problem with Date with an Angel is that it take what might be funny situations and then does absolutely nothing with them, like setting up a joke and not saying the punchline. A guy walks into a bar with a duck on his head. And that's it. By the way, the duck says to the bartender, "Can you get this guy off my ass." 

*** Spoilers Ahead, but don't worry about it. Date with an Angel is not worth watching, even for Charles Lane smoking pot. ***

Sorry for the poor picture quality, but it was the best
I could do taking a picture of the TV with my phone,
and I knew you'd want to see Charles Lane toking.
In Date with an Angel, an angel collides with a satellite and crashes into the main character, Michael Knight's, swimming pool. The angel has a broken wing and doesn't speak English. She just makes high-pitched squeaks, sort of like Beaker on The Muppet Show, except not cute or funny like Beaker, just annoying. Thus, she can't tell Michael Knight why she is there, so he takes her to a Catholic Church to ask the priest what to do. He opens the wrong door to the Confessional, the one where the priest is sitting, and there is an 82-year-old Charles Lane, smoking a doobie. Now you would think that this would be awesome, Charles Lane smoking a joint, but no. As with the rest of the movie, it introduces a potentially funny situation and then does nothing with it. Does Charles Lane act stoned? No. Does he offer one of those unique insights that you only think of when you're high? No. He just acts annoyed, like you have seen him do a thousand times. Okay, about 350 times. First, Charles Lane is annoyed that Michael Knight opened the wrong door and then that he's not Catholic and doesn't know what Hail Marys are. Ultimately, Knight tries to show Charles Lane the angel, but Lane thinks it's a joke and threatens to call the police and tells Knight to go to the Baptist Church down the street. It's a typical Charles Lane performance and about the only thing that almost makes it worth watching. It just could've been so much more. 

I ended up watching the rest of Date with an Angel, in hopes that Charles Lane might show up in another scene. No such luck. I did learn one thing though. How do you know when a romantic comedy is not working, when you're hoping that Charles Lane will come back for another scene.

I want to end with something that speaks to Charles Lane's influence on movies, TV, and pop culture in general. The longest running animated TV show in U.S. history is The Simpsons. Over the years, over a hundred celebrities have appeared on the series, as themselves or in parodies of their work. Limiting myself to just classic film people, The Simpsons have featured the following:

  • James Stewart
  • Ernest Borgnine
  • Mickey Rooney
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • Mel Brooks
  • Lauren Bacall
  • Humphrey Bogart
  • Claude Rains
  • Ingrid Bergman
  • Clark Gable
The blue-haired lawyer is a character first introduced as one Mr. Burns many lawyers in Season 2. In one of the DVD commentaries, animator Jim Reardon said that the character was designed to look like none other than Charles Lane. The blue haired lawyer has never been given a name. In one episode he worked for the legal firm of "Luvum & Burnham: Family Law," so possibly his name is either Luvum or Burnham. In another episode, he is revealed to be the author of a science fiction novel, The 60 Foot Baby, but on the book cover, he is credited as, Burns' Lawyer. The blue-haired lawyer has appeared in dozens of episodes without being given a name, a perfect tribute to Charles Lane.