Friday, December 24, 2010

The Thin Man Meets Fitzwilly! Team Bartilucci's Favorite Christmas Movies

As The Beatles once sang, Christmastime is here again! Here at Team Bartilucci H.Q., that means it’s time for family, festivities, and films! Ah, but our favorite Christmas-themed films go well beyond the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life. (Call us Grinches, but we find that particular Frank Capra classic so dark and downbeat before the happy ending that it’s always struck us as a film noir.)

Dorian’s Christmas Fave:  The Thin Man (TTM), 1934

This smart, snappy romantic comedy-mystery couldn’t have avoided becoming a classic if it wanted to, despite its relatively humble beginnings as a B-movie shot in about two weeks by director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke.  TTM is so wryly sophisticated that, among other things, it makes boozing look fun (but please drink responsibly. Okay, sermon over!). The romance between TTM author Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman inspired the dashing, retired detective Nick Charles (William Powell) and his beautiful, effervescent heiress wife Nora (Myrna Loy in a performance that forever changed the exotic temptress stereotype she’d been stuck in).

Nora: "What hit me?" Nick: "The last martini."
(Actual dialogue from the film!)
The couple and their adorable terrier, Asta, visit NYC during Christmas week, but there’s no time for sightseeing or caroling: murder’s afoot! Nick and Nora find themselves plunged into a murder mystery involving old friends, the eccentric Wynant family. Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan at her most endearing) enlists Nick’s help in seeking her beloved father, who had promised to return to New York in time for Dorothy’s December wedding.  Dorothy’s missing dad is absentminded genius Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), the “thin man” of the film’s title, though the name stuck to Nick when the film became a hit, spawning a six-film series. Our happy, cheeky duo wade through gunplay; glam gowns by Dolly Tree; drinks mixed to dance rhythms (“A Manhattan, you shake to fox-trot time….”); witty repartee, courtesy of Oscar-nominated screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (in fact, major Oscar nominations went to everyone in TTN except Loy! Her Oscar snub is the only thing I don’t like about the film! But I digress….); and swell parties, including a dizzy Christmas Eve soiree that perhaps later inspired Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the swanky dinner party where villains are revealed and tough-guy waiters snap, “Have a cocktail!” to rattled guests/suspects. (We taught the kids in our lives to say it, too!)

Aw, who can resist Nora's cute "scrunchy face"?
Still, tenderness shows between the bouts of zaniness. In addition to the breezy, loving chemistry between Powell and Loy as Nick and Nora, Dorothy has affectionate relationships with her dad and her supportive fiancĂ© Tommy (Henry Wadsworth). Thank God she had them, because all the rest of the clan is either screwy or greedy! TTM proves that when a film is well-written and performed, a happily married couple can be far more witty, sexy, and just plain fun to watch and hear than the childish bickering that too many writers mistake for sexual tension. A good bit of the dialogue was taken verbatim from Hammett’s novel, including this Team Bartilucci favorite from Gertrude Short as Nunheim’s (Harold Huber) fed-up moll Marion:
“I don’t like crooks. And if I did like ’em, I wouldn’t like crooks that are stool pigeons. And if I did like crooks that are stool pigeons, I still wouldn’t like you!”

Is it any wonder that TTM, along with the 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon and the 1942 film version of The Glass Key, got me interested in reading Hammett’s books, turning me into one of his fans?  TTM is not only one of my favorite lighthearted mysteries, it’s also one of my favorite New York-set movies; as a native New Yorker, I’m a sucker for flicks set in my hometown. Considering TTM takes place during Christmas week, it quickly became one of my fave Christmas movies, too. The whole Thin Man movie series is a joy to watch, but in my opinion, the first one is still the best!

Vinnie's Christmas Fave: Fitzwilly, 1967

Dick Van Dyke is one of those misleading actors, the ones you think has a limited skill set, and then a film comes along that shows a whole new direction and ability. Van Dyke is a stellar comedian and song & dance man, but some of his other works display a varied dramatic ability. He did a TV movie about alcoholism called The Morning After, and an all but forgotten film called The Comic about a fictional silent film star that fell on hard times. This past year, the darling people at the MGM arcives (their Print-on-Demand service) released two of my favorite films of his on DVD, Cold Turkey (about which I can and shall wax rhapsodic another time) and Fitzwilly (about which I shall wax rhapsodic now)

Van Dyke plays the titular character, Claude "Fitzwilly" Fitzwilliam, the latest in a family line of 13 butlers in the service to Miss Victoria Woodworth, played by the delightfully wacky Dame Edith Evans. As the film starts, we see Fitzwilly engage in a series of amazing con-jobs with the assistance of his domestic staff, massive purchases on Fifth Avenue being charged to other millionaires, diverted to other addresses via moles in the shipping room, and liquidated for cash. We learn quickly that he's not doing it for himself, but to keep Miss Vicki solvent. She's bankrupt, and Fitzwilly and his staff spend nearly every waking moment scrambling to rake in enough cash to keep her living in the style to which she's been accustomed, never letting her know of the situation. At the same time, he's manufacturing hobbies for her to keep her mind active, including a pseudo-Cub Scout troop for sons of millionaires and a dictionary for mis-spellers. For the latter hobby, she needs the assistance of a secretary; she hires Juliet Nowell (Barbara Feldon), the only person in the house who isn't in on the scam, and is immediately seen as a threat to the operation. So while they're trying to keep her out of the loop, they're still trying to bring in enough money to cover the occasional checks Miss Vicki sends out to charities that they can't intercept.

Lovebirds Juliet and Fitzwilly get face time between capers
As time passes, Juliet begins to realize that Fitzwilliam's standoffish attitude is merely overprotectiveness for Miss Vicki.  Her curiosity continues to prove troubling, and by the time she and Fitzwilly fall in love (like you doubted?) and she's let in on the totality of the operation, she's already inadvertently sent the ledger wildly into the red by mailing out a $50,000 donation.  Fitzwilly is forced to concieve a massive Superfly-like "One Last Big Deal" to cover the donation, various other operations that have fallen behind, and set up enough of a nest egg to keep Miss Vicki set for the rest of her remaining days.  He hatches a scheme to rob Gimbels on Christmas Eve in a style and grandeur worthy of (either version of) Ocean's 11.  It's a wonderful climax that runs smooth as silk...rather.

"Dad, I see Miss Vicki's household is chock full o'nuts."
This is a wonderful bit of work which provides a new entry in the classic "Gentleman Bandit" genre. Indeed, it's so good a film that I want to do a remake starring Will Smith and Thandie Newton in the leading roles.  Ever since their planned appearance in Jonathan Demme's remake of Charade went awry back during the Writer's Strike and became the abysmal, Smith-less The Truth About Charlie, The Wife and I had been trying to come up with a fun project to get those two glorious people together.  An all-black cast would be a neat idea.  I'd always imagined Lena Horne as Miss Vicki, but alas, that was rendered impossible this year. No worries, Nichelle Nichols was my backup all along, and I think she'd kill it.  Will Smith played an excellent con man in his first film, Six Degrees of Separation, and sadly, he's never gone back to the type.  If I can't have him as Raffles, I think Claude Fitzwilliam will do nicely.

7 comments:

  1. Hey, THIN MAN fans, did you know that TCM will air AFTER THE THIN MAN, the first of this great movie's 5 sequels, on March 13th, 2011 at 11 a.m. ET? Save the date! :-) If you'd rather watch AFTER THE THIN MAN on the day it actually takes place, New Year's Eve/Day, rent the DVD ASAP! Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and/or Happy Winter Holiday of Your Choice!

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  2. Ah . . . Fitzwilly. Mom and Dad wanted my younger sister and me out of the house on Christmas Eve, so Pat and I were allowed to attend an evening showing of the film by ourselves at the beauteous Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin. I was 11, Pat was 9.

    All heady with the thought of being on our own, Pat and I decided to shoot the works and, for the very first time, sit up in the balcony as high as we could. For those of you who've never experienced the Paramount, its balcony seating rises some 28,251 feet, at an incline of some 40 degrees. Instead of ushers, you get Sherpas. Or at least that's how it seemed to us by the time we successfully reached the summit (dutifully planting the Wolff flag). I just remember that the screen was wayyyyyyyy down there.

    Enjoyed the movie immensely. I always thought it a pity that Barbara Feldon never found more big screen roles, as she was quite comfortable with comedy (and easy on the eyes as well). And Dick Van Dyke was, as always, a joy to watch.

    My favorite Christmas movie? Why: ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE.

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  3. I'm not at all surprised that ON HER MAJESTY's SECRET SERVICE is your favorite Christmas movie; it even had a great Christmas song! :-) We loved your reminiscence of seeing FITZWILLY in a great big beautiful non-multiplex so huge you had to look down to see the screen. It reminded me of the grand old theaters in NYC where I grew up, particularly Radio City Music Hall back when it still showed movies regularly. We, too, would have liked to see Barbara Feldon tackle more big-screen roles (though Vinnie and I certainly have no complaints about her delightful performance as Agent 99 on TV's GET SMART). Thanks for the memories! (Which reminds me: Vin gave me the remastered Bob Hope Collection, including a fabulous print of MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE!)

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  4. Oh dear, methinks I need see Fitzwilly. Of course Dick Van Dyke is completely and utterly wonderful, but Barbara Feldon too?! Agent 99? My second favorite female spy? (Another Barbara, Ms. Bain, takes the top spot)

    Must add Fitzwilly to my Films-to-be-tracked-down-if-it-takes-a-century list!

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  5. Emm, once again your superb taste in movies comes to the fore; you're wise beyond your years! :-) Good news: FITZWILLY is now available on DVD from www.mgm.com in Print-On-Demand! Hubby Vinnie and I bought it in time for Christmas. See http://www.mgm.com/view/movie/663/Fitzwilly/ for details!

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  6. While I won't rave about FITZWILLY, the film certainly has its charm with Van Dyke, Feldon and the great Edith Evans heading the cast, and the movie ending caper, as Vinnie states is worthy of "Ocean's 11." There is a nice supporting cast here also with John McGiver, Norman Fell, John Fielder and a very young Sam Waterson!

    Thanks for recommending the film Dorian and thanks to Vinnie for the review!

    John

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  7. John, I'm delighted that you enjoyed Vinnie's review of FITZWILLY; Vinnie thanks you for your praise! Playful charm goes a long way in the right hands, and Vin and I agree that the folks behind FITZWILLY had the right hands. :-) Thanks for your positive comments, John, and have a very Happy New Year with more intelligent, enjoyable movie reviews to come in 2012!

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