If it weren’t for the first half of the film, The Best Years of Our Lives would be a series of vingettes. The film runs almost three hours. Almost exactly the first half is set over two days. The remainder is set over a couple months. Director Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood don’t really do much summary in the second half. Subplots run through a series of the vingettes, never all of them–the film’s unequally but definitely split between its three male leads. Wyler and Sherwood reveal develops through attitude and dialogue. Time passes through Dana Andrews’s gradual resignation. Through Harold Russell’s depression. Alternately, I suppose, it also passes through Fredric March and Myrna Loy’s re-familiarization.
The film opens with Andrews, Russell, and March returning from World War II. Dashing Andrews was an Air Force captain, sailor Russell has lost his hands, older guy March was just an Army sergeant. The first ten minutes sets up the characters, their hometown (the fictional, vaguely midwestern Boone City), and the people waiting for them.
The first ten minutes establishes how much of the film is going to be on the actors’ faces. Watching real-life amputee Russell contend with the polite and not polite–among fellow servicemen–dominates. Whatever nervousness Andrews and March are experiencing, they’re always aware of what’s going on with Russell. And they aren’t comfortable. The bond between the three builds with that comfort, which Russell (and Sherwood and Wyler) determinedly demand. Much of the first half of the film is spent examining the three men; both for character development and just plain characters looking at each other. The men are strangers when the film begins, polite ones, but strangers.
Once they arrive home, it gets more complicated. Sure, the trio aren’t looking at each other, but they’re discovering the ground situation. Wyler and Sherwood lay it out for the audience and the characters. All the characters. Best Years focuses on the three men’s return home, but their supporting cast gets a lot of establishing and developing. March’s homecoming to wife Loy and children Teresa Wright and Michael Hall sets up two big subplots and sort of Loy’s character arc. Russell’s return suggests something similiar–he’s got a literal girl next door fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell) waiting for him–but it doesn’t end up being as big. Russell gets less screentime in the second half. The film always returns to him at just the right moment, when he’s been away too long.
He’s got the “simpliest” subplot–his depression and how it affects his relationship with O’Donnell. Andrews has got PTSD a rocky wartime marriage (to Virginia Mayo), and a flirtation with someone he shouldn’t be flirting with. March has got a drinking problem, a work problem (back banking for chickenhawk Ray Collins), as well as feeling uncomfortable at home.
Most of these details get introduced in the first half. Mayo shows up just at the end with some foreshadowing for turmoil, but nothing onscreen. Same goes for March’s work problems. Andrews and March get these subplots second half; Russell doesn’t.
It’s unfortunate but the film’s so good, it gets a pass on that one.
The first half also brings the characters back together. March drags Loy and Wright out on the town, running into Andrews and then Russell. They’re all at Hoagy Carmichael’s bar. Carmichael is great as Russell’s wise, piano-playing uncle. He defuses situations, which Andrews, March, and Russell frequently need.
Even if it’s just making Loy and Wright less annoyed. They–and the audience–don’t really understand the extent of March’s drinking at the start. Because Best Years is slow to reveal its subplots, slow to foreshadow. One of the reasons it can get away with giving Russell so much less (though his eighth billing isn’t okay) is because what it does give him is so good. Because Russell’s so good. Best Years of Our Lives is, spared down, about a bunch of people who really want to cry and never let themselves. Russell’s the only one who gets to go through that on screen.
Meanwhile, Andrews has to combat his stoicism. His arc is this complicated ego one, with the PTSD an undercurrent; along with the romantic troubles.
So Andrews and Russell have the toxic masculinity arcs. March doesn’t. His resignation and rediscovery arc is much quieter, far less dramatic, and awesome.
Because the film’s so long and goes into vignette, the actor giving the best performance isn’t always consistent. Overall, it’s probably March. But Russell. But Andrews. Supporting it’s easily Loy… though Wright and O’Donnell are both outstanding. Loy’s just got the least screentime for her own arc. She’s always supporting someone else’s. So watching her character develop, rarely in close-up, is special.
Because Sherwood and Wyler are great at maintaining and building on details through the subplots. Andrews and Russell, independently and then together, deal with some real homecoming nastiness (as well as general disinterest), but it’s in the March subplot where it dramatically culminates.
Such a good script. Sherwood’s pacing is phenomenal. Even when, for example, Russell’s subplot is almost overdue, the film hasn’t been dragging. Best Years of Our Lives never drags.
Wyler’s direction is precise, deliberate, patient. He’ll have silences–either filled with mundanely urban background or Hugo Friedhofer’s excellent score. He’ll have noisy–almost anywhere outside Carmichael’s bar and March’s apartment is packed with people. He’s nimble too. He’s got this over the shoulder shot he repeats a few times in the third act, with the divine Gregg Toland photography (there’s no other word). He doesn’t use the shot earlier. He does some similar things, at least with how he places the actors, but it’s this distinct stylistic thing he’s moving towards throughout.
The Toland photography is perfect.
It’d be the most jaw-dropping technical feature–and I suppose, really, it is because it’s the photography–but Daniel Mandell’s editing is a masterpiece of smooth, fluid, and emotively considerate cutting. The editing is exquisite, simultaneously bold and subtle.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a remarkable motion picture.
Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle), Marlene Aames (Luella Parrish), Gladys George (Hortense), Roman Bohnen (Pat Derry), Minna Gombell (Mrs. Parrish), Walter Baldwin (Mr. Parrish), Michael Hall (Rob Stephenson), and Ray Collins (Mr. Milton).
Since its first installment in 1934 and in the eighty years since, The Thin Man series has stood apart from other film series and franchises. Its six films always delivered a “twist” mystery and the wonderful chemistry between stars William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Much of the series’s most memorable features came straight from the Dashiell Hammett source novel. Nick and Nora Charles were rich and glamorous during the Depression, though extremely grounded thanks to Nick being a former private detective. Asta the dog, the New York setting, the martinis, the Thin Man mystery itself–they were all from the novel. Powell and Loy just brought it all to life.
Although MGM budgeted and produced the first entry more like a B picture, by the time of its release, the studio knew they had something special with The Thin Man and, in particular, its stars: William Powell and Myrna Loy. The two were recent MGM contract additions; both had been bouncing around Hollywood since the mid-twenties and had come to MGM after unfulfilling Warner contracts. They weren’t big time movie stars yet, but Loy and Powell had become familiar faces to moviegoers. And then The Thin Man turned them into mega-stars, both individually and as a pair. Loy and Powell appeared in fourteen movies altogether, almost always playing a couple. The Thin Man isn’t even their first film together. That first film, Manhattan Melodrama, opened a few weeks before The Thin Man. It too was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who would frequently work with Loy and Powell–as a pair–after The Thin Man, including the first three Thin Man sequels. Van Dyke had directed Loy (alone) in a number of reasonably successful films the year before, also in collaboration with Thin Man producer Hunt Stromberg.
So, the first Thin Man wasn’t so much a happy accident as every right piece coming into the right place at just the right time.
The Thin Man is the second-shortest picture in the series, running ninety-three minutes. There won’t be a Thin Man picture running under that time until the last one. Director Van Dyke has to convey a lot of information in very little time. Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s dialogue needs to be expository–it’s a mystery after all–so they weave it though conversation and characters’ personalities.
Nat Pendleton and Maureen O’Sullivan lead the supporting cast. Pendleton is an intrusive but competent copper and O’Sullivan is Nick’s “client.” Quotation marks because Nick never works for money; he’s just a big softy. The supporting cast is great. A good supporting cast can make or break a Thin Man movie.
Since its theatrical release, The Thin Man has enjoyed continuous popularity; eighty plus years without losing its appeal. The Thin Man has been available on every home video format–VHS, LaserDisc, DVD–never going out of print. And now it’s always available streaming.
The sequel came out two years later, on Christmas Day 1936. After the Thin Man closed one of the busiest years of Powell, Loy, and Van Dyke’s careers. They had all become MGM A-listers, though Loy was a tad beyond Powell and Van Dyke. In fact, she was actually just about to be voted the studio’s “Queen of Hollywood.”
MGM spared no expense on After the Thin Man. It’s the longest film in the series–twenty minutes longer than the first entry–with a lot of time and money spent setting up Nick and Nora as a couple in their natural habitat, ritzy San Francisco. There’s location shooting (a big deal for the sequel to a B picture) and a first-rate supporting cast. James Stewart in it–After the Thin Man is also known as “The One With Young Jimmy Stewart”–Joseph Calleia, Sam Levene, George Zucco, Paul Fix. Asta the dog even gets his own a subplot. It’s a big deal sequel.
And it’s a good one. After the Thin Man has another great script from Hackett and Goodrich–with Hammett contributing a short story to base it on. It’s a cross of hardboiled gum shoe and sublime screwball. Lots of smart, funny scenes for Powell and Loy–and Asta too–all alongside the doozy of a mystery. Awesome supporting cast. It’s nearly as perfect as the original.
After the Thin Man was another hit and one with some very confident sequel building. The film ends with a big reveal setting up the next outing to leave everyone wanting to know what’s next for Nick and Nora. Serial cliffhanger adapted for A list picture. After the Thin Man being excellent locks it in. More than the first film, After the Thin Man proves the cast, the filmmakers, the studio, can do these big and on purpose and on a regular basis. It’s a little showy in its confidence.
When Warner released the first Thin Man on DVD, they didn’t put out any of the sequels. They the first one was bait and didn’t sell well enough. After the Thin Man–and the rest of the sequels–had been VHS mainstays. MGM/UA had put out a great LaserDisc box set too. Their DVD absence was conspicuous. It took five years before Warner got After the Thin Man out and then it was in a box set. The eventual collection was success. So successful Warner split the series for budget catalog release. And now, of course, the entire series is available streaming.
The third film, Another Thin Man, was not just a special event as a Thin Man sequel but also because it put William Powell and Myrna Loy back on screen in grand fasion. Powell had been engaged to Jean Harlow, another MGM star; she died of kidney failure in 1937. Powell, understandably devastated, then found out he had cancer. So he took a big break for treatment. Loy had slowed down too, doing half as many pictures a year as she had pre-“royalty.” Her interests were changing from Hollywood stardom; in fact, she was newly home from England when shooting started.
Screenwriters Hackett and Goodrich were also changing their pace. They had almost stopped working in Hollywood entirely. Another Thin Man would be their last Thin Man and their last screenplay for five years. It’s also Hammett’s last work on the series.
Van Dyke and Stromberg had been staying busy, however.
Another Thin Man fulfills the previous entry’s cliffhanger–Nick and (mostly) Nora make baby, Nicky Jr. An apparently divorced Asta is back too. The action takes the Charles family to New York, where they happen into another mystery to solve.
It’s an ostensibly less mysterious one–there’s a supernatural angle instead. It’s Nick and Nora vs. evil mentalist Sheldon Leonard. Well, for some of it, anyway. Leonard’s making threats to rich old guy C. Aubrey Smith, who knows the Charleses and so they get involved. Smith’s got a daughter (Virginia Grey) with multiple suitors (Patric Knowles and Tom Neal), there’s a Long Island DA–Otto Kurger, and Nat Pendleton is back as the New York detective.
Much more than the first sequel–or the original–Another Thin Man relies on William Powell and Myrna Loy; in the script, in Van Dyke’s direction, in their performances. New mom Loy sits out a lot of the mystery so she and Powell’s scenes have the majority of the film’s personality, just not the mystery. It results in the film lacking any standouts in the supporting cast. The script just doesn’t have parts for them. For example, Pendleton’s character is now played for laughs, instead of having some ability. But it’s an excellent production. Van Dyke has definitely got Thin Man movies down now–it’s all about Powell and Loy.
As far the Thin Man sequels go, Another Thin Man enjoys a fine enough reputation. I mean, it’s got the first appearance of Nicky Jr., how can it not enjoy a fine enough reputation. Still, the baby is the thing, not the supporting cast, not the mystery itself. It’s also the point where Loy starts teetotaling big time.
Now back to a two year schedule, Powell, Loy, Van Dyke, and Stromberg returned in 1941 with the fourth film in the series, Shadow of the Thin Man. Instead of Hackett and Goodrich writing, the film has Irving Brecher and Harry Kurnitz on the script. Kurnitz worked on the screenplay for the previous year’s I Love You Again, a non-Thin Man screwball outing from Powell, Loy, and Van Dyke.
Shadow focuses on bringing Nicky Jr. into the comedy dynamic. It goes so far as to age him an extra four or five years. He’s now played by seven-year-old Dickie Hall. Sure, there’s a race track murder mystery, with Sam Levene returning as the San Francisco detective, but the most memorable moments involve Hall and Loy domesticating Powell. They’ve got him off the martinis and on to the milk. Yuck. But Powell leads Hall around on a shared leash with Asta and sneaks gin. It’s amazing comedy.
Barry Nelson and Donna Reed are desperate young lovers who need help from Powell and Loy. Another Thin Man skipped the young lovers in need characters, but the first two films hinged on them. The screenwriters try really hard to do a Thin Man movie with all the familiar trappings, but also moving things forward.
Apropos of nothing, it’s also the only Thin Man to end in a police station.
Powell, Loy, and Hall are all delightful together. The emphasis on “Great Detective as parent” works out. Van Dyke directs it well, smoothing the occasional script bump; he also helps imply depth for the thin supporting characters. Shadow of the Thin Man is a successful application of talent and chemistry to a mediocre script.
And Shadow was another hit, another good Thin Man sequel. It’s maybe a footnote in Donna Reed’s career too, though her performance doesn’t stand out .
Big events and small changed the series’s trajectory. Shadow of the Thin Man came out just before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II. Loy immediately took leave from her contract at MGM to join the war effort. While Powell continued to work, he still mostly kept to a movie a year. Van Dyke died of cancer in 1943. Stromberg left MGM soon after Shadow‘s release, breaking his contract under cloudy, unpleasant circumstances. The Thin Man series made Powell and Loy movie stars, it had been a big hit for Van Dyke and Stromberg, for Hackett and Goodrich. The series kept going through a lot changes in the principals’ lives, but Loy leaving Hollywood had to mean no more Nick and Nora.
Or so one would have thought, but then MGM tried replacing Loy with Irene Dunne for the next sequel. Turns out no one–not the fans, not Powell–wanted anyone but Loy playing Nora. It’s unclear how far along that attempt got, but when Powell and Loy did return to the series in 1945, it was a far different kind of Thin Man.
The Thin Man Goes Home opens by putting Powell and Loy on a train out of an unseen New York City to visit Powell’s upstate hometown. Totally new production team, different crew too; David Snell is the only holdover. He composed the scores for the final three films. Richard Thorpe directed, Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor wrote the screenplay. Recent MGM addition, Everett Riskin–Robert’s brother–produced.
Starting on with that train ride, Thin Man Goes Home sets out to immediately establish some wholesome, patriotic credentials. Rationing was going on, after all. It’s not just no more hotel suites, it’s no more drinking for Nick and Nora. Nicky Jr. is off at boarding school and they’re staying with Nick’s parents–Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport–in a regular house, not a fancy hotel.
Riskin and Taylor’s script meanders through the mystery–though it does give Loy a lot more to do on her own than she usually gets in a Thin Man movie. Director Thorpe keeps it all together. The Thin Man Goes Home is well-produced and fairly well-acted. Then the third act is a mess and the final joke is bizarrely goofy.
The Thin Man Goes Home is perfectly titled (if canonically inaccurate) and fun–Nick and Nora in a small town, Nick’s parents, Donald Meek in the supporting cast, foreign espionage. Director Thorpe, producer Riskin, and the screenwriters deserve some credit for maintaining its accessibility. They were taking over an existing and beloved franchise without much help. It’s not like composer Snell had a “Thin Man” theme to tie the films together. The filmmakers’ safe, unambitious moves make Thin Man Goes Home an extremely affable entry. It plays rather well, though it’s generally agreed to be one of the lesser entries.
In fall 1947, MGM released the final Thin Man film, Song of the Thin Man. With the exception of composer Snell, it’s again an all-new the entire production team and crew. Edward Buzzell directs from a Steve Fisher and Nat Perrin script. Perrin also produced.
Powell and Loy are back in New York, living glamorously but a little more like restrained. They’ve got Nick Jr., after all, this time played by eleven year-old Dean Stockwell. The mystery involves missing jazz wunderkind Don Taylor and his stable of femme fatales. Keenan Wynn is third lead–a sidekick to show the now square Powell and Loy around the New York City jazz spots.
Song is a little cheap, but Powell and Loy get along fine integrating Stockwell into the family dynamic. And Wynn’s cravenly functional character works great; Powell and Loy (and Nick and Nora) have never had a similar sidekick.
Unfortunately, not being a bad go at a disinterested Thin Man sequel doesn’t make Song a hidden gem. Buzzell’s an okay enough director, he just doesn’t have any personality. Without a big gimmick like Goes Home used, Song needs all the personality it can get. It gets a long way on goodw ill and general competence. But it’s Powell and Loy who hold this one together.
And, thanks to them, Song of the Thin Man is far from an inglorious end to the series. In addition to inherently hilarious idea of Dean Stockwell once being eleven, much less Nick Charles Jr., the film has early performances from noir fatales Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor. It’s a distinctive footnote, if a generally dismissed sequel. It’s readily availability probably hasn’t helped its reputation; Song of the Thin Man gets a lot more goodwill when you’re just happy to have found a Thin Man movie playing on TV.
Because for a long time, people only discovered The Thin Man and its sequels playing on TV. And they they discovered them on VHS, AMC, TCM, DVD, streaming. People have been discovering these films for eighty years and there’s never been a better time to do so than right now.
The Thin Man series was a rarity on release and is still one. There aren’t any other six picture franchises with big-time classic movie stars like Loy and Powell, they’ve also remained popular since their original release, most of the entries are good. Not many eighty year old film series have that pedigree, certainly not to six films.
There’s nothing else like The Thin Man and it’s all because of Powell and Loy and Van Dyke and Hammett and Stromberg and Goodrich and Hackett. And Asta too, of course.
A Connecticut Yankee fumbles on pretty much every level, including wasting lead Will Rogers. The big problem is the script, from William M. Conselman. It doesn’t help any director Butler can’t mount an action or comedy sequences, because there’s nothing else in the picture. It doesn’t even work as a Rogers vehicle because his character’s so poorly written.
The film opens in the present, with vaguely dopey electronics repairman slash radio station announcer Rogers going to an old dark house to deliver a battery. He meets the house’s strange inhabitants and then gets knocked unconscious by a falling suit of armor. When he wakes up, he’s in sixth century England. Has Rogers mystically travelled back in time or is he unconscious on a floor? Oh, the drama.
Regardless of inventiveness, the device should give the film a chance to reset. The film sets Rogers up as slightly lazy, mostly stupid. No doubt once he gets back to olden times he’ll make a change for the better. Not really, though. He’s still just a bit of a moron. Conselman’s script makes cracks about him being a Democrat–which is on brand for Rogers, but one would think he’d want better material than one-liners.
Rogers meets King Arthur (William Farnum) and Merlin (Brandon Hurst). Both Farnum and Hurst are bad, but it’s hard to blame them. Their writing is terrible and Butler’s direction of actors is somewhat worse than his direction of action. At least with the action, there’s the castle set. It’s fine. Not so much once Rogers modernizes Camelot. Right after he proves himself worthy, the film cuts to a Camelot with telephones, roller-skates, machine guns, tanks, cars, whatever else.
Because Rogers might be a questionably talented electrician and radio announcer, but he’s a king of all industry. Connecticut Yankee would probably be able to get away with it if there was any direction. Conselman’s script is too inept for comedy or commentary, as is Butler’s direction.
There’s an almost amusing knight vs. cowboy joust. Butler can’t direct it, unfortunately. Then Farnum and Rogers go adventuring; they need to rescue princess Maureen O’Sullivan from evil queen Myrna Loy.
Rogers gets sympathy, but he’s not good. Farnum’s not good. O’Sullivan is appealing but she has a handful of scenes and nothing to do. Same with Frank Albertson as Rogers’s pointless sidekick. Hurst is awful in a fun way as Merlin though. He’s always sprinkling dust on things. Because magic.
Loy’s probably the best? It’s hard to say, as Conselman’s script is so wretched; Loy at least gets to have some fantastic gowns.
The big action finale with knights with tommy-guns ought to be a lot better. Everything about Connecticut Yankee ought to be better. Conselman and Butler never have a handle on the film. They’re fumbling from scene one.
Directed by David Butler; screenplay by William M. Conselman, based on a novel by Mark Twain; director of photography, Ernest Palmer; edited by Irene Morra; released by Fox Film Corporation.
Starring Will Rogers (Hank Martin), William Farnum (Arthur), Frank Albertson (Clarence), Brandon Hurst (Merlin), Maureen O’Sullivan (Alisande), Mitchell Harris (Sagramor), and Myrna Loy (Morgan le Fay).
Thirteen Women runs just under an hour. A minute under an hour. There was pre-release cutting on the studio’s part. But with those fifty-nine minutes, director Archainbaud is still able to create one heck of a creepy film. The film’s not a mystery. It’s not even a thriller. It’s all gimmick, but it’s suspenseful all gimmick.
The story’s simple–Myrna Loy is an Anglo-Indian woman whose plans to assimilate into white culture were once dashed. To get her revenge, she enlists C. Henry Gordon’s questionably insightful mystic to terrorize her victims and to push them into suicide and worse.
The film opens with a couple of the victims, using their plight for exposition. Not the Loy backstory, which comes in later. It’s relevant throughout, however, because the most peculiar thing about Thirteen Women is how reasonable Loy’s villain comes across. When Irene Dunne, who’s one of the intended victims, argues with Loy about motivation… well, it’s a little strange to hear the two talking around white privilege back in a pre-code RKO thriller. It makes me interested in the source novel. Loy and Dunne basically split the runtime, but Loy’s got a far more dynamic character and part in the story. Dunne just has an annoying kid–Wally Albright, who looks at the camera way too much–and a fetching police detective, Ricardo Cortez.
Of course, Cortez describes Loy in slurs. It’s pre-code, sure, but it’s very weird. Cortez and Dunne’s bigotry doesn’t get heroic presentation. It doesn’t get negative, not until Dunne has to acknowledge her responsibility for it. Thirteen Women knows exactly what it’s doing, at least in terms of Loy’s story. Who knows if it’s from the studio cuts or just Bartlett Cormack and Samuel Ornitz’s screenplay, but the Dunne sections plod along. Dunne’s fine, but she has nothing to do. Everyone who acts opposite her gets more material. But then those characters just disappear because Thirteen Women does only run fifty-nine minutes and it features multiple action set pieces. It’s sensational and not just in its raciness. Archainbaud goes all out with the film.
Good performances from Loy and Dunne. Pretty good from Cortez. He’s lazy, but his scenes are pretty lazy too. He basically calls out for all the story’s actual detective work to be done; he’s fine at the exposition, but it’s all he’s got. Gordon’s awesome as the mystic. Jill Esmond’s fine as Dunne’s sidekick who disappears.
The film doesn’t have a natural narrative flow, except for Loy. It’s jerky with everything else. Archainbaud holds it together admirably, with nice technical support from cinematographer Leo Tover and editor Charles L. Kimball. Max Steiner’s score is outstanding.
So Thirteen Women has its problems, but it’s well-made, well-acted, reasonably charming and only fifty-nine minutes. It’s all right.
Directed by George Archainbaud; screenplay by Barlett Cormack and Samuel Ornitz, based on the novel by Tiffany Thayer; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by Charles L. Kimball; music by Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Myrna Loy (Ursula Georgi), Irene Dunne (Laura Stanhope), Jill Esmond (Jo Turner), Ricardo Cortez (Police Sergeant Barry Clive), Wally Albright (Bobby Stanhope) and C. Henry Gordon (Swami Yogadachi).