Saturday, February 18, 2012

AFTER THE THIN MAN Remix: Mystery Dates!

Hey, everybody, in honor of the Classic Film and TV Cafe Dogathon, I did a sort of re-mix of my 2010 post of After the Thin Man, the sparkling sequel to The Thin Man (1934), with more fun facts about Skippy, the adorable wirehaired fox terrier who played Nick and Nora Charles' beloved pooch Asta in the first two Thin Man films, plus more pictures and rib-tickling GIFs! Every dog has its day during the Dogathon! Click here to give it a look and join the fun! Feel free to leave a comment or two! :-)

Friday, February 10, 2012

THE GLASS KEY: The Littlest Gumshoe

The Glass Key (TGK) gets Team Bartilucci's vote!  Dashiell Hammett, one of my writing heroes, wrote his hard-boiled crime novel in 1931, and like virtually all of Hammett’s novels, TGK became a best-seller and a classic. Hollywood got ahold of it twice: first came the 1935 version starring Edward Arnold, George Raft, Claire Dodd, and Ray Milland; then came the 1942 version starring Brian Donlevy, Alan Ladd, and Veronica Lake. I’ve only seen the 1935 version once, and I’m afraid it didn’t really grab me — but the 1942 version is one of my favorite films, so that’s what we’re focusing on this time around!  The film gets off to a snappy start at the campaign headquarters of a city that isn’t identified but brings to (my) mind a cross between Chicago and Baltimore. Paul Madvig (Donlevy), aptly described on my 1989 paperback edition of the novel as “a cheerfully corrupt ward heeler,” breezes through the crowd, leaving both brickbats and bouquets in his wake:

“He’s the head of the voters’ league.”
“He’s the biggest crook in the state.”
“I hear he feeds a thousand people a week.”

A new type of ploy

Paul is against Senator Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen from Hitchcock’s Notorious, and the Father of the Bride movies) and his Reform Party: “If Ralph Henry’s so anxious to reform somebody, why don’t he start on that son of his? He gets in more jams than The Dead End Kids.” A beautiful, petite blonde has been listening. She greets Paul with a resounding slap in the face (pretty impressive, considering she’s wearing gloves! I’ll admit I didn’t think about that until Vinnie pointed it out — that’s how quickly I got into the story). “That’s for talking about decent people,” she snaps. “A little reform wouldn’t do you any harm. As a matter of fact, I think it would do the state good if someone would reform you. Get out of my way, you cheap crook!” Since TGK is a 1942 crime drama and not real life here in 2012, where people sue each other at the drop of a hat (and what charming chapeaux the gals in TGK were wearing that season!), Paul is immediately smitten as he watches the feisty lass storming out. “Hey, what a slugger,” he says, grinning as he rubs his aching jaw and finds out he’s been slapped by Senator Henry’s elegant patrician daughter Janet (Lake). Paul can hardly wait to break the news to his right-hand man and close friend, Ed Beaumont (Ladd): “I just met the swellest dame...she smacked me in the kisser!” Although TGK is set in the early 1940s, I’m hearing a song from another era in my head: “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” On the one hand, I get a kick out of the rollicking way Paul cheerfully bulldozes his way through life, but on the other hand, he’s also an impulsive, hot-headed guy who all too often acts before he thinks. Ed’s usually good at keeping Paul from letting those impulses backfire on him.

Finding Taylor dead in the street curbs Ed’s enthusiasm!
Poor "Snip" fought forlorn, and forlorn won.
Tough politicians need good dental hygiene!
Nurse Frances Gifford  likes Ladd's bedside manner!
But things get complicated. Janet Henry is turning Paul’s head, and he’s sweetened the pot with an eye-popping engagement ring. Paul’s rival Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia from After the Thin Man, My Little Chickadee, Gilda, Touch of Evil) is out for payback after Paul closes Nick’s casino. Nick’s vicious henchmen, Rusty (Eddie Marr from Mr. Moto’s Gamble and Mr. Moto on Danger Island, as well as Disney’s The Reluctant Dragon — in which a young, uncredited, pre-star Alan Ladd played a storyboard artist, while supporting actress Frances Gifford played the voice of the train!), and sadistic cohort Jeff (William Bendix, scary yet darkly funny in Hissable Thug mode a la The Dark Corner), are closing in. The situation only gets worse when Ed finds Janet’s irresponsible brother Taylor (Richard Denning of Creature from the Black Lagoon; No Man of Her Own; the TV series version of Mr. and Mrs. North) dead in the street, his skull apparently fractured by a blunt instrument. Every finger in town seems to be pointing to Paul as the killer. The grieving Janet is angling for Ed to help him find out who killed Taylor, and the reluctant yet undeniable attraction growing between Ed and Janet is stirring things up all the more. Even Paul’s 18-year-old sister Opal, affectionately called “Snip” (Bonita Granville, Oscar-nominee from 1936’s These Three, and heroine of the Nancy Drew movies from the late 1930s! She also went on to be executive producer of the early 1970s Lassie TV series) thinks Paul killed Taylor, making the situation even tougher since Snip was in love with the big dope (even though Taylor kept “borrowing” money from her to pay off Taylor’s gambling debts; boy, she sure can pick ’em!). Then there are those mysterious typed notes about Paul, insinuating that Ed knows more than he’s telling. On top of that, Snip must live an awfully sheltered life with Paul, because she stubbornly insists that all the wild stories Paul’s enemies are printing in the paper surely couldn’t be printed if they weren’t true — sheesh! It’s a good thing Ed is a cool, wily guy who wears a fedora, because he’s got to play detective if he wants to keep Paul out of the electric chair!

After a spat with Paul, Ed throws in with Nick Varna—or does he?  Turns out Ed’s still on Team Paul, gathering evidence, but what a way to make his point! Poor Ed is attacked by a German Shepherd, and Jeff and Rusty hold Ed captive in a marathon beating, mostly from Jeff, who dubs our hero “Little Rubber Ball.” That scene always has me on the edge of my seat; it almost makes the classic slugfest in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) look like kids playing in a sandbox! Wally Westmore’s makeup effects for the savage beating William Bendix gives Alan Ladd looked convincing enough to make me wince! Heck, it seems like everyone was slaphappy on the Glass Key set at one time or another. Ironically, bad-guy Bendix was a sweetheart in real life, at least with co-stars Ladd and Lake. According to Jeremy Arnold on the TCM Web site, “During the film’s memorable beating scene, Bendix accidentally slugged Ladd in the jaw for real, knocking him out. (The take survives in the finished film.) Bendix felt awful and he burst into tears. When Ladd woke up, he was so touched by Bendix’s reaction that he became friends with the actor and requested him for many of his future films, helping him with his career as best he could.” Lake hit it off with Bendix, too, becoming close friends. “I came to adore the guy,” Lake wrote in her autobiography. “It was a platonic adoration for a marvelous human being.” Then there was another real-life beating on the set, this one during TGK’s opening scene, where Janet Henry had to sock Paul Madvig in the jaw. Lake and Donlevy had previously worked together in I Wanted Wings (1941), and the experience didn’t exactly make them the best of pals, so when Lake did that scene, she actually slugged the guy! She wrote, “I’d learned in my Brooklyn youth to lead with the hip when you throw a punch…Every pound I owned was behind it when it caught his jaw.” When the irate Donlevy confronted her, Lake admitted she didn’t know how to pull her punches.” I’ll give you until the next take to learn,” he said and walked away.

It's raining diminutive detectives!
Might as well stay for dinner!
Brian Donlevy gets top billing in TGK. His career and colorful life could fill a blog, a book, or even a movie of its own, including Donlevy’s war record and valor in battle (14-year-old Donlevy lied about his age to join the Army), as well as his roles in both silent and sound films as well as stage acting. In 1939, Donlevy earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as sadistic Sgt. Markoff in Beau Geste . His career soared with such box-office hits as The Remarkable Andrew; Nightmare (which I’ve never seen, and want to. Paging TCM!); In Old Chicago; Wake Island; I Wanted Wings; and Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty (read Brandie’s great blog post about it in True Classics!). But we of Team Bartilucci, especially Vinnie, know and love Donlevy best in the movie versions of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass science-fiction novels, directed by Val Guest. Admittedly, Donlevy’s portrayal of scholarly British scientist Dr. Bernard Quatermass goes through some changes, probably to attract us excitable Yanks. Donlevy’s Quatermass is more the two-fisted type in The Quatermass Experiment (a.k.a. The Creeping Unknown) and Quatermass II: Enemy from Space. Vin gets a kick out of these particular flicks; he feels that half the fun of Donlevy’s portrayal is that viewers half-expect Quatermass to just punch out the aliens and save the day!

You'd think Nancy Drew could solve this case!

William Bendix is the spitting image of evil!
Paramount Pictures must have blessed the day that Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake came into their lives! Back in those days, guys with the physical stature of 5-foot-6¼-inch-tall Alan Ladd didn’t always get the girl in real life, much less in movies, plus young Ladd was haunted by his tragic childhood. But talent scout and former actress Sue Carol saw something special in fair-haired, cool yet smoldering Ladd, and under her tutelage, his career began to take root. So did love: she became Mrs. Alan Ladd and stayed that way until his death in January 1964. By comparison, Donlevy practically towered over his co-stars at 5-foot-8!

Before Veronica Lake (born Constance Ockelman in Brooklyn, New York; I love it when my fellow native New Yorkers make good!) became a star as “The Peek-A-Boo” girl, thanks to her long blonde mane and her memorable performances in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), as well as This Gun for Hire, TGK,  and I Married a Witch (all in 1942), she had bit parts in the late 1930s and early 1940s in films like Sorority House. For the record, my 1995 edition of Halliwell’s Film Guide describes the 1942 movie adaptation of TGK thus: “Nifty remake of the (1935 version) which finds some limited talents in their best form, helped by a plot which keeps one watching.” I agree; to paraphrase our own John Greco of Twenty-Four Frames, nobody could play Alan Ladd like Alan Ladd! Similarly, when Paramount teamed up Ladd with sultry, flaxen-haired, 4-feet-11½-inch tall Veronica Lake, who happened to be pretty darn good at playing Veronica Lake (and looking gorgeous in Edith Head’s costumes), it was the blond leading the blonde, and a new movie star team was born! According to the IMDb, Ladd and Lake made seven movies together: in addition to the films we've already discussed here, Ladd and Lake also appeared together in Star-Spangled Rhythm; 1945’s Duffy’s Tavern and Variety Girl, in which Ladd and Lake played themselves; The Blue Dahlia (1946); and Saigon (1948).

"Bear with me, Ed, all this
intrigue has me easily distracted!"
Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer had adapted Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock for the big screen, in addition to Alias Nick Beal (see the great review over at Jim Lane’s Cinedrome) and the long-running TV series adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, among many others. Latimer’s tight, wry adaptation of Hammett’s novel was right on target, with director Stuart Heisler (The Monster and the Girl; Along Came Jones; Smash-Up) ably playing to his stars’ strengths. Victor Young’s score deftly blends sweetness and menace. An uncredited young Dane Clark (also in Wake Island) plays Henry Sloss (his character was “Harry Sloss” in the novel). Clark gets a memorable opening scene: after mouthing off about Janet Henry, Paul throws Sloss through a window and into a fountain! Of the three TGK stars, Donlevy did well for himself, but Ladd and Lake sadly fell on hard times both physically and emotionally as they got older; both died at the age of 50. However, Donlevy continued to have a steady acting career, including his 1952 TV series Dangerous Assignment. According to the IMDb, he retired to Palm Springs, CA until his death from throat cancer in 1972 at the age of 71. However, in his retirement, Donlevy wrote short stories and ended up owning a prosperous California tungsten mine — good for him, I say!

When you work for Paul Madvig, bring water wings!

Having a dish like Janet at his bedside would perk up any guy!
Hold onto your hats: Janet and Ed are playing for keeps!
(Cheer up, Paul, a big politician like you won't have trouble finding a new babe!)