Wednesday, August 8, 2007

MYRNA LOY AND WILLIAM POWELL COLLECTION (MGM 1934-1941) TCM/Warner Home Video


In 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld, William Powell – as the title character - confesses to a beguiling Myrna Loy that there’s “nothing I can give you except my love” to which Loy – as his potential 2nd wife, Billie Burke astutely replies “That isn’t enough. I’d expect part of your ambition, half of your trouble, two-thirds of your worries and all of your respect.” It was a telling bit of on screen dialogue for the two actors who became affectionately known as everyone’s perfect married couple.

Before getting underway, this reviewer must confess a biased soft spot for the teaming of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Never in film history, have two separately accomplished talents been so idyllically paired. Their palpable chemistry stems from a genuine affection for one another behind the scenes – never a great romance, but a solid and mutual respect and understanding for each other’s much enjoyed company, camaraderie and craft. Never married in real life, Powell and Loy continue to be fondly remembered today as everyone’s favorite sleuthing duo – Nick and Nora Charles from MGM’s popular Thin Man series.

But apart from these six stellar films, it’s little wonder that MGM kept Powell and Loy in close proximity to one another on screen. They made 14 films together – 13 of which are now available on DVD – five in this TCM/Warner Home Video newly minted Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection.

This set effectively brings together 5 of the couple’s celebrated outings, beginning with their first film together: Manhattan Melodrama (1934). Unusual for the pair, they’re not married at the start of the film. Loy is Eleanor Packer, a fast talking, wry moll to Clark Gable’s carefree racketeer, Blackie Gallagher.

Eleanor is Blackie’s gal, preaching restraint and prudence for getting off the fast track to nowhere – a cause not embraced by her paramour. In mid-stride, Eleanor switches over to Blackie’s boyhood chum, James Wade (Powell), a self-made man who becomes New York’s DA and shortly thereafter pledges an end to organized crime.

The wrinkle in the story occurs when Blackie murders rival racketeer, Manny Arnold (Noel Madison) and accidentally leaves James’ coat (loaned to Eleanor after their first date) behind. Wade thinks he has the evidence required to arrest his old friend. But then Blackie’s stooge, Spud (Nate Pendelton) informs his boss that he’s had an exact copy of Wade’s coat made to order for a bait and switch.

Oliver Garrett’s screenplay may seem dated and cliché now, but in 1934 it was cutting edge – enough to earn an Oscar as Best Screenplay. In retrospect, I must confess that the serious undercurrent of this story slightly interfered with this reviewer’s overall enjoyment of the story – primarily because everyone seems to be working against type. Gable plays the villain of the piece – not its hero. Powell and Loy are not a couple yet and Asta isn’t even an afterthought. In reality, none of the film’s stars had yet to create their iconic reference points that audiences have since come to know and love.

Next in this collection is Evelyn Prentice (1934) – a superior thriller in which Loy is cast as the loveless spouse of the title. Her husband, attorney John (Powell) is a notorious womanizer whose latest fling involves Nancy Harrison (Rosalind Russell) – a client accused of murder. Jilted and in emotional distress, Evelyn takes up with writer Lawrence Kennard (Harvey Stephens). But the affair turns sour when Evelyn discovers that her lover will stop at nothing to extort money.

Panicked at the thought of surrendering her cushy lifestyle, Evelyn shoots Larry and runs away – realizing hours later that she has, in fact, killed him – and that another woman, Judith Wilson (Isabel Jewell) has been accused of the crime. To alleviate her guilt, Evelyn encourages John to take the case, hoping that his prowess in the court room will earn Judith an acquittal. But the facts are not stacked in her favor and, as the mood of the trial grows more ominous and dire, Evelyn finds herself considering her own confession to the crime.

Based on W.E. Woodward’s novel, the plot moves effortlessly, drawing us into Evelyn’s growing angst, its ‘crime doesn’t pay’ message neatly concealed behind stellar performances from all concerned.

The third film in this collection is also the first opportunity we get to experience Powell and Loy doing what they do best – romantic comedy. Double Wedding (1937) is a riotous catered affair; all about Waldo Beaver (John Beal) – engaged to the long suffering Irene Agnew (Florence Rice) for four years while residing at the home of her sister, Margit (Myrna Loy). Waldo’s a bit of a willy-nilly – a fact that does not sit well with Irene who desperately wants a he-man by her side.

To shake her fiancée from his complacency, Irene professes a grand love for trailer park Bohemian artist, Charlie Lodge (Powell). Naturally, Margit will have none of it. She is determined to see her sister’s happiness tied up with Waldo – whom she suspects is genuinely in love with her sister. Confronting Charlie about Irene’s interests, Margit discovers a new wrinkle; she too seems to be falling in love with him and this – inevitably (though not predictably) leads to a ‘double wedding.’ As Charlie harbors the same affections for Margit he sets about a new task; to transform Waldo into a man Irene can be proud to call her own.

Delightful, wacky and charming, Double Wedding is a gifted comedy transcribed for the screen by Jo Swerling from a play by Fernec Molnar. It sparkles with vintage kitsch and coo – the sort of good-time romantic comedy in short supply these days and a very welcomed addition to this set indeed.

Next up is the buoyant – often poignant - comedy of errors, I Love You Again (1940). Powell is cast as boring businessman, Lawrence Carey. While on a cruise with his old friend, Doc Ryan (Frank McHugh) he whacks his head, develops acute amnesia and is transformed into mean-spirited swindler George Carey. That would be enough of a premise for one Powell/Loy caper. But the plot only thickens from there.

Faking his identity and milking it for all its worth, George pretends to be Lawrence for the sake of his friends and family. The comedic coup de grace is that George realizes he is deeply in love (or, at least, lust) with his own wife, Kay (Loy) on the eve that she is to divorce him for Duke Sheldon (Edmund Lowe).

W.S. Van Dyke – who directed the pair in their most successful Thin Man movies, is once more in rare form on this outing, working out the romantic comedy kinks from a stellar screenplay by Charles Lederer, Harry Kurnitz and George Oppenheimer. Witty banter and a series of convoluted plot twists make the film a sparkling – if underrated – gem in the Powell/Loy canon.

And finally, there’s the delightfully unhinged, Love Crazy (1941); an absurdly premised good time chuckle that never fails to generate the hearty laugh. Powell and Loy are cast as idyllically married couple, Steve and Susan Ireland. But a note of suspicion is cast on Steve’s fidelity by busybody, Mrs. Cooper (Florence Bates) – a seemingly well intentioned indictment, especially when Susan catches Steve in a completely harmless – though, on the surface, compromising position with their neighbor’s wife, Isobel Grayson (Gail Patrick). To halt Susan’s divorce proceedings, Steve fakes insanity – a ploy that backfires when the judge hearing the case decides that Steve should be relegated to a mental institution for life!

The William Ludwig, David Hurtz, Charles Lederer screenplay plays fast and loose with mental illness (arguably, never a laughing matter), but populates the scenery with such a delightful bunch of crazies, that even most die-hard cynics will not be able to help themselves in this overwhelmingly hysterical outing.

The DVD transfers on these B&W films are, on the whole, quite solid – though not without a few oversights worth mentioning. The grayscale on all films has been impeccably rendered with a minimal amount of grain and age related artifacts. Contrast levels are accurate on all, except Manhattan Melodrama where they appear just a tad weaker than expected, though surely will not disappoint. Occasionally, the image quality can appear slightly soft on the aforementioned and also on Evelyn Prentice. But these are minor quibbling on an otherwise completely acceptable transfer. The best image quality in the bunch would be on I Love You Again and Love Crazy – if it were not for the excessive edge enhancement, aliasing and shimmering of fine details on the latter (only slightly on the former) that are quite distracting.

The audio on all films is mono, occasionally quite soft, almost inaudible, on Manhattan Melodrama, but presented at an adequate listening level on the rest of the discs. Extras are limited to audio only radio broadcasts, cartoons, short subjects and theatrical trailers.

One final omission worth noting – there is no chapter menu provided on any of these discs, though chapter stops have been haphazardly inserted (approximately 10 per film). For sheer entertainment value, this is a marvelous collection that should be added to your home library. One simply wishes that Warner Home Video would take more care in transferring their films minus these digital anomalies.
FILM RATING (out of 5 0 5 being the best)
Manhattan Melodrama 3.5
Evelyn Prentice 4
Double Wedding 4
I Love You Again 3.5
Love Crazy 4
VIDEO/AUDIO
Manhattan Melodrama 3
Evelyn Prentice 3.5
Double Wedding 3.5
I Love You Again 4
Love Crazy 2.5
EXTRAS
2

No comments: