On this week’s post, we’re reaching back to some classic comedies, one a detective story, and one a farce. This week’s films are:
W.S. Van Dyke – The Thin Man (1934)
Sam Wood – A Night at the Opera (1935)
The Thin Man is a classic detective story and the introductory film of a long running series. A Night at the Opera is a Marx brothers film, and comes with all the insanity that implies.
Let’s get into it.
The Thin Man (1934)
In The Thin Man, a scientist and inventor disappears, and when his girlfriend is murdered, he is the main suspect. The police enlist the help of a former detective Nick Charles. Nick has been running his wife Nora’s family business for the last few years and has gotten out of the detective game. Will this case be enticing enough to pull him out of his brief retirement?
The film stars William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora, and they became one of the iconic film couples of all time. This is the first Thin Man film, which became a long running series in the 30s and 40s. They’re all detective stories, and it’s all rolled up into a screwball comedy package. The film is based on a book by Dashiel Hammett, the famed detective story writer. Besides Nick and Nora, he also created the Sam Spade character popularized by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.
The film starts off introducing us to Clyde Wynant. He’s some kind of inventor and scientist, working in his lab. The film sets up as much about his life as it can in this short scene. He’s visited by his daughter, Dorothy, who has gotten engaged. We learn that he’s going away on a trip, but refuses to tell her where. We also learn that he doesn’t have much if any contact with Dorothy’s mother, having gotten divorced years before, having an affair with another woman.
One of the films major strengths is how well it sets up information that makes the mystery hard to solve. When Clyde disappears later, we already know he is incredibly secretive so his staying out of contact isn’t out of the ordinary. We also see two sides of Clyde. With his daughter he’s the doting father, kind and loving. But then he goes to see his girlfriend, Julia. He suspects she has stolen some bonds he had in a safe, planning to give them to his daughter. Here he is ruthless, and we get our first sense of a major dark side. So later, when he’s accused of murder, we as the audience can believe it.
We meet Nick and Nora a bit later, and they have wonderful intros. Nick we see teaching some bartenders how to mix drinks properly. Nora comes in being drug around by their little dog Astor, who is searching for Nick. The dialogue between Nick and Nora is crackling and witty. It’s in the tradition of a screwball comedy, and Powell and Loy are perfectly cast.
Nick is presented as a comical drunk, the kind of character that can’t really exist anymore. In the 30s, you could play a character who was constantly somewhere between buzzed and hammered, and it played as charming. Now it just seems dark. But here it plays funny enough to still work.
Initially, Nick wants to stay out of the case. Early on he meets Dorothy, who recognizes him, as he worked a case for Wynant when he was still a detective. Dorothy has just realized that her father hasn’t contacted her on Christmas Eve, which he promised to do. She asks Nick if he would look into it to see if he can find Wynant. When Nick is visited the next day by Wynant’s lawyer, who says he heard from him, Nick assumes it’s over. But then Wynant’s girlfriend turns up dead. Even so, Nick tries to stay out of it.
In fact, for the first half of the film, Nick is telling everyone he’s not involved. But that doesn’t stop the police, the Wynant family, and various shady characters around town from assuming he’s working on it.
There’s a particularly funny scene where Nick and Nora are hosting a Christmas party. They host a series of ridiculous and fully hammered guests and when the doorbell rings, it’s the police, or Wynant’s daughter or ex-wife, or reporters asking about the case. Dorothy tries to claim responsibility for the murder, hoping to take suspicion off her father. But Nick doesn’t believe her. Meanwhile, the reporters are pumping Wynant’s son, Gilbert for information. Gilbert is mainly here for comic relief, and is a ridiculous figure, assuming he can attribute the crime to a serial killer.
Finally, after a criminal who worries he will be blamed for the crime comes to threaten Nick with a gun, Nora convinces him that he should look into the case, and he reluctantly agrees. Of course, once he gets involved, he reveals that he is an excellent detective. When he and a police detective go to interrogate a suspect, Nick recognizes that he’s going to jump out a window long before the detective does. Of course, when this informant turns up dead, it is also blamed on Wynant.
But once Nick is on the case, it’s only a matter of time. Nora isn’t as much of a partner to him in this film as a cheerleader. I’m not sure if she became more a part of the mystery solving later in the series, but in this film Nick sends her off in a taxi while he does the more dangerous work. However, she’s portrayed as capable and intelligent, driving Nick to do better work. It’s a good partnership, and their scenes together are excellent.
The film culminates with an excellent scene where Nick and Nora invite all the suspects to a fancy dinner where Nick will reveal the solution. This is especially funny because all the guests have been brought by the police against their will. While Nick offers his solution, Nora leans over and asks if it’s the truth. He responds that he has no idea but it’s the only thing that makes sense.
In the end, the killer is brought to justice and everyone lives happily ever after.
This film is incredibly enjoyable watch, due in no small part to the interplay between Powell and Loy. They come alive on screen, and you just want to be at their party, and be friends with them. There’s also some really great cinematography, unexpected for a light, simple film like that.
Overall, I totally get why they made so many of these movies. They’re just really fun and enjoyable, and the mystery really works, even 80 years later.
A Night at the Opera (1935)
In this film, Otis B. Driftwood connects a wealthy woman with an opera as a patron. The opera wants to hire an famous singer, Rudolfo to be in their opera, but his preferred costar, Rosa is in love with another man, Riccardo another singer who hasn’t has the same success. The opera succeeds in hiring Rudolfo and he brings Rosa with him, But Riccardo follows as a stowaway on the ship to New York, along with his new manager Fiorello, and the silent dresser of Rudolfo, Tomasso.
This is a Marx Brothers film, starring Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx. If you’re not familiar with the Marx Brothers, then you should take some time to go back and watch their films. The Marx Brothers are a legendary comedy team who starred in a lot of films in the 1930s. Their brand of comedy is far past screwball, all the way into absurdity. The world around them is totally normal, and they come in causing chaos. They’re essentially live action cartoon characters. The plot I gave up there, like the rest of their films is just a loose backdrop for their comedy bits, which are amazing.
Like any good comedy team, each member has their own role to play. Chico is the most serious of the three, if that can really be said. He sets up a lot of jokes, and plays off the others well. Harpo is completely silent, usually with a goofy smile on his face. Honking a horn at people, and causing chaos. He’s essentially a clown without the makeup. Groucho is the leader, but never serious, tossing out witty one-liners and commenting on the situation. Groucho is essentially Bugs Bunny, and it’s claimed the cartoon character was modeled after him. Groucho also always has a thick, painted on mustache and cigar with thick glasses. Harpo has thick curly blond hair under a top hat. Chico just has his hat which he is constantly wearing.
The Marx Brothers got their start as vaudevillians, back when that was a thing. Their act was built on stage performance with a variety show. Comedy was one thing, but singing, dancing and music were also on the agenda. In this film, we have an entire sequence of Chico and Harpo playing music. They both play piano, and Harpo plays the harp. But they don’t lose the comedy or showmanship. Chico’s piano performance is all comedy, as is Harpo’s, regardless of how skilled a musician they are.
Besides the Marx Brothers, the film stars Kitty Carlisle and Margaret Dumont. Margaret Dumont is a staple of the Marx Brothers films, the perfect oblivious foil to Groucho’s jokes. Kitty Carlisle plays the smitten opera singer Rosa, trying to find a way to reunite with her love Riccardo.
But the plot is just an excuse for the jokes and bits, and there are plenty of them. Each of the brothers has funny moments on their own, but the film really shines when two or more of them are together at the same time. There’s a great bit when Chico has become Riccardo’s manager and finds Groucho, who is trying to find the amazing singer his opera wants to hire. Chico inserts his own client, and they begin to discuss the contract. Of course, neither of them have any idea what it says. Rather than argue, they start altering the contract by tearing off sections. This continues until there’s nothing left but a signature line.
Another amazing bit happens after the group has gotten on a ship to cross the Atlantic on their way to New York. Groucho has been given a very small cabin, and he has a comically large trunk. The other two brothers and Riccardo have stowed away in his trunk, and now want to stay in his cabin. Meanwhile, they want food. Groucho orders them a meal from the steward, and meanwhile, every random service and maintenance person comes to the cabin. Groucho invites them all in happily. It ends up with about 10 people in a room the size of a closet who all spill out when someone opens the door.
The film goes on like this, with us getting to witness all the insanity. I could detail every little bit and joke, but the Marx Brothers are a national treasure, and need to be experienced.
I’ve always loved the Marx Brothers and their absurdist, chaotic comedy. It all still holds up today, and I think it’s partly because their brand of humor is fairly timeless, but also, the Marx Brothers are pretty influential even up to this day. These films show an early form of sketch comedy. If you look at a show like Comedy Bang Bang, or The State, you can see the shadow of the Marx Brothers in what they do.
Regardless, these are wonderful films, and they need to be watched and remembered.
The Double Feature
There’s not much that can stand up to the hijinx of the Marx Brothers, but Nick and Nora make a fair effort. They’re very different films, but at the core, they’re both comedies. They also both take on common genres and put a comedic spin on them, although the Marx Brothers are really a genre all their own. The love story that they use as the foundation of their antics really falls to the background. In reality, there’s only about 20-30 minutes of screen time featuring the couple.
But even still, they manage to make a satisfying story beyond their antics. Nick and Nora do the same. The comedy is excellent, but there would be something lacking if the mystery wasn’t also satisfying. That’s the magic of well-made films. They can mix genres with ease or even create new ones if they keep enough of the original genre intact.
I’m at the point in the semester where I’ve realized that I’ve taken a bit too much of a break since my last major accomplishment, and I’m going to have to get things moving if I want to finish everything by the end of the semester. But that’s ok, I’m ready to buckle down and hit it hard.
So let’s talk about next week’s films. I’ve had good luck with FilmStruck lately, and I’ve actually watched most of my unwatched films. So I’m going back to them, and looking at a couple of films I haven’t seen before:
George Stevens – Woman of the Year (1942)
Mike Nichols – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
I don’t know a ton about these films, but as I understand it, they’re both about married couples, though very different tones.
I’m looking forward to seeing them. See you next week.