Tag Archives: Penny Singleton

After the Thin Man (1936, W.S. Van Dyke)

There is very little economy to After the Thin Man; instead, screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and director W.S. Van Dyke act with rampant abandon. The first twenty or so minutes of the film is just audience gratification–it’s a sequel to a popular film and the filmmakers are giving the audience what they want. They’re doing it well, sure, but it doesn’t have much to do with the eventual narrative.

Instead, Goodrich, Hackett and Van Dyke stage massive comedic set pieces, whether it’s William Powell and Myrna Loy getting home to a surprise party in their honor where no one notices them or Asta the dog’s rather amusing (and beautifully staged) domestic problems.

The murder mystery itself doesn’t start until about a half hour in. The plotting of the film is significant too–it’s a direct sequel to the previous movie and the first sixty-seven minutes are continuous. Once Powell and Loy finally get to go to sleep, there are only about forty minutes left. Strangely enough, the only time the film plods is during those forty minutes. The last twenty minutes breeze by, but some of the investigating is too full of exposition to move well.

Lots of great supporting performances–Joseph Calleia, Elissa Landi, James Stewart, Jessie Ralph, Levine, Penny Singleton. The script gives the supporting cast lots to do.

Technically, Van Dyke and editor Robert Kern do have problems with disconcerting cuts to close-ups–and then not cutting to Loy in the finale–but otherwise, the film’s a fantastic time.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, from a story by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Robert Kern; music by Herbert Stothart and Edward Ward; produced by Hunt Stromberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (Nora), James Stewart (David), Elissa Landi (Selma), Joseph Calleia (“Dancer”), Jessie Ralph (Aunt Katherine), Alan Marshall (Robert), Teddy Hart (Casper), Sam Levene (Abrams), Penny Singleton (Polly), William Law (Lum Kee), George Zucco (Dr. Kammer) and Paul Fix (Phil).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | THE THIN MAN.

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Blondie Meets the Boss (1939, Frank R. Strayer)

It’s hard to say who gives a better performance in Blondie Meets the Boss, Larry Simms as Baby Dumpling or Daisy the dog. Simms has a lot of funny lines–all the best lines are from kids talking about adults, it was hard not to think this entry should have been called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” But Simms is always looking off to the side, like Strayer or someone is giving him visual cues. Maybe there are cue cards. Something similar happens with the other child actor–Danny Mummert–who is even funnier than Simms in his one scene. The dog’s cute and has a real personality and it’s in that inclusion where the movie feels like it’s trying something. A dog in a comic strip can do a lot of stuff a dog in a movie cannot, but they try in Blondie Meets the Boss and it’s appreciated.

Otherwise, the movie’s something of a mess. The plot is contrivance on top of contrivance–the script goes through so many of them, it’d be hard to list them all. The biggest problem, the one affecting the climax, has to do with Dagwood–Arthur Lake’s a convincing bumbler (the best parts of his performance are when he’s thinking and it’s a visible struggle)–trying to hide from his wife he’d been in an inappropriate situation with another woman. He ends up kissing the other woman because of peer pressure from the neighbor and it’s like the viewer’s supposed to think it’s okay Dagwood’s so weak-willed because, I don’t, it’s a Blondie movie.

The situation is never really dealt with–though he at least doesn’t confess the circumstances to wife Penny Singleton, who could have then just shook her head at what a moron she’d married–and it leaves the film with a bad taste. The neighbor, played by Don Beddoe, is a seedy guy and he just gets seedier throughout. It’s a strange, serious addition to an otherwise genial, near slapstick comedy.

Singleton’s story arc–the film splits the pair and, as with the first entry in the series, they don’t seem as comfortable together as they do apart–has to do with her taking Lake’s job for a day or two. There’s some funny Lake as Mr. Mom for a while, before the whole philandering bit starts. Then there’s this annoying character introduced to make Lake jealous. The supporting cast runs hot and cold and, given the amount of monologues each character gets, it’s tedious. Stanley Brown’s fine as the other man, but Joel Dean (whose character never shuts up) is awful. Dorothy Moore’s good though.

Singleton’s disappointing, because the movie spends the first two acts showing the viewer how much smarter she is than Lake… and then the third act she gets stupider. Their intelligence levels don’t flip, she just dumbs down for the movie to resolve itself–as a light comedy–in seventy minutes. Still, it doesn’t really hurt Singleton’s mostly mediocre performance–it wasn’t like her material at the office was very good either.

But the kid and the dog are hilarious.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Frank R. Strayer; screenplay by Richard Flournoy, based on a story by Flournoy and Kay Van Riper, and on the comic strip by Chic Young; director of photography, Henry Freulich; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Milton Drake and Leigh Harline; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Penny Singleton (Blondie Bumstead), Arthur Lake (Dagwood Bumstead), Larry Simms (Baby Dumpling Bumstead), Jonathan Hale (J.C. Dithers), Danny Mummert (Alvin Fuddle), Dorothy Moore (Dot Miller), Don Beddoe (Marvin Williams), Dorothy Comingore (Francine Rogers), Stanley Brown (Ollie Shaw), Joel Dean (Freddie Turner), Richard Fiske (Nelson), Inez Courtney (Betty Lou Wood) and Skinnay Ennis (Himself).


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Blondie (1938, Frank R. Strayer)

When I was in middle school, I read most of the comic strips in the newspaper, Blondie being one of them. I remember seeing, in the TV listings around the same time (probably a little later), some station running a bunch of Blondie movies at five o’clock in the morning. I missed taping them, but they’ve since shown up on DVD (some of them–I guess the series has twenty-seven entries). This first film, which I wasn’t expecting much from, is actually fairly good. There are a number of problems, the most damaging being the kid. First–as a relatively modern reader of the Blondie strip, I wasn’t aware of its classical content–is the name: Baby Dumpling. I’m not sure I ever got over it, but the silliness dulled as the movie went on. However, the kid playing the kid, Larry Simms, comes off like a little shithead, not an adorable troublemaker.

The film’s at its best when it’s out of the house and doing comic strip-sized gags. There are a number of three panel gags in the film–until the last act, most of the film is these gags, actually–and they work well for the most part. When in the house, Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake are less successful together then they are alone. For whatever reason, doing the comic strip gags doesn’t work with the two of them. When the film’s acting like its own animal, they’re all right. Lake isn’t particularly good, though he’s a decent physical comedy actor (which is why the scenes with him alone work better) and Singleton ranges in quality too, best when she’s putting up with him, which is the Blondie character’s defining trait. The film’s best scene is a quiet one, when they both check in on the baby. Watching the film, even today, one is participating in the concept–the adaptation of the Blondie comic strip, which has its own set of rules, rules a regular film does not have–and the baby checking scene really breaks free of the concept. It gives the characters real character, as opposed to the two dimensional adaptation.

The best performance in the film is Gene Lockhart, who plays a captain of industry obsessed with tinkering. In a film with so many mediocre performances, Lockhart immediately stands out as giving an excellent performance. I kept waiting for him to come back around.

As for the writing and directing… well, the writing’s all right. It’s certainly not as innocuous as I expected and I did laugh a few times. The director, Frank R. Strayer, is adequate. He’s better outside than in, but the film doesn’t offer many of those opportunities.

I wasn’t expecting much from Blondie (in fact, I was expecting to turn it off), but it’s a nice enough way to spend seventy minutes.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank R. Strayer; screenplay by Richard Flournoy, based on the comic strip by Chic Young; director of photography, Henry Freulich; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Leigh Harline and Ben Oakland; produced by Frank Sparks and Robert Sparks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Penny Singleton (Blondie), Arthur Lake (Dagwood Bumstead), Larry Simms (Baby Dumpling), Gene Lockhart (C.P. Hazlip), Ann Doran (Elsie Hazlip) and Jonathan Hale (J.C. Dithers).


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After the Thin Man (1936, W.S. Van Dyke)

The last time I had a Thin Man marathon–which must have been five years ago, maybe more (I had the LaserDisc set, so I’m trying to remember when I started concentrating more on DVD), I thought After the Thin Man, the second film in the series, was disappointing. Now I’m not having a marathon, just watching the film, and that opinion was wrong. It seems to have come from comparing it to the first film too much (specifically, the first film’s brevity). After the Thin Man is excellent and establishes a lot of good sequel mechanisms… ones I don’t think the other Thin Man sequels employed (as they became closer in pacing to MGM’s other film series).

Coming into the second film, the audience has a few expectations–the banter and the mystery. After the Thin Man concentrates on the banter first, dedicating almost the entire first act to catching up with Nick and Nora. Dashiell Hammett actually wrote the story for After the Thin Man, they weren’t just being nice and putting his name on it–I have a copy somewhere, but never read it. Hammett started the story differently, with a dying man showing up on their doorstep. The film’s measured pacing, however, reminds the audience just why they liked the first film so much.

Today, past being one of the Thin Man films, it gets no notice. Even the Thin Man series has fallen away (and I remember in the 1980s, when it was such a big deal when all the films came out on VHS). I suppose it’s worthy of a footnote in James Stewart’s filmography, but James Stewart’s not really popular anymore, is he? Films made before 1983, it seems, offer nothing to moviegoers today (that snide remark is based on George Lucas’s “rejiggering” of the original Star Wars films and Peter Jackson remaking King Kong because he didn’t think audiences today should have to watch black and white films). Home video companies dedication to releasing their classic product is probably the best, unexpected benefit of the DVD format (as I type, The Complete Thin Man collection is #69 on Amazon’s DVD sales chart). The format’s introducing new audiences (I hope) to good films.

As a Thin Man film, After the Thin Man has a lot of the classic set pieces–Nick and Nora sleeping all day, after some late night scrambled eggs, is the one I’m recalling most. I was also surprised how funny some of the scenes get… I laughed at a couple as much as I laughed at the last episode of “American Dad.”

I can’t say much else, since I don’t want to spoil anything, but the killer’s unveiling is some damn great acting….

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, from a story by Dashiell Hammett; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Robert Kern; music by Herbert Stothart and Edward Ward; produced by Hunt Stromberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (Nora), James Stewart (David), Elissa Landi (Selma), Joseph Calleia (“Dancer”), Jessie Ralph (Aunt Katherine), Alan Marshall (Robert), Teddy Hart (Casper), Sam Levene (Abrams), Penny Singleton (Polly), William Law (Lum Kee), George Zucco (Dr. Kammer) and Paul Fix (Phil).



This film is also discussed in Sum Up | The Thin Man.