Tag Archives: W.S. Van Dyke

Penthouse (1933, W.S. Van Dyke)

Penthouse is a lean mystery masquerading as a class melodrama. Most of that class melodrama stuff comes at the front–and is only really ever alluded to later–making the film front-heavy. Unfortunately, so much time goes towards the melodrama, the mystery suffers. Luckily, there’s a whole bunch of charm–from the cast, from the script, from director Van Dyke–and it makes up for the uneasy narrative.

Warner Baxter is a blue blood lawyer who discovers his passion is for helping the unjustly accused professional criminal. The criminal can’t be guilty of the crime he’s charged with. The film opens with Baxter successfully defending Nat Pendleton’s mob boss. Pendleton’s fantastic. He’s part of the film’s comic relief, but he’s also conveys danger.

Penthouse doesn’t seem to have much of a budget–it’s that lean mystery, after all–so there aren’t a lot of big set pieces. Danger and drama usually play out in conversation. It’s a talky lean mystery, so it’s good screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett do so well with the dialogue.

Baxter can make any line engaging. He easily breezes through most of the mystery stuff at the end as he distracts from the film’s lack of a big third act finish, but when his material’s good, he’s outstanding. There’s not a lot of time in the script to establish Baxter. His girl (Martha Sleeper) breaks his heart and the film follows her instead of him–because the melodrama. Baxter’s just getting hammered, much to the chagrin of both Pendleton (in addition to being a client, he’s a pal) and Charles Butterworth (as Baxter’s suffering butler).

Only then the film doesn’t stick with Sleeper, but follows Phillips Holmes as her other suitor, then shifts to Mae Clarke as Holmes’s illicit lover. By the time C. Henry Gordon shows up–as Clarke’s ex and Pendleton’s criminal rival–one might forget there was someone else in the opening titles, second-billed, in fact. Myrna Loy. She doesn’t even show up until the second act, which isn’t ideal because there’s only an hour left.

Loy’s sort of a mob moll, sort of not. It’s unclear; Goodrich and Hackett get a lot of amazing innuendo into the script but barely any details. Penthouse isn’t supposed to make sense, it’s supposed to entertain. When it’s too busy trying to build to entertaining points–Loy and Baxter flirt wonderfully but when it comes time for them to make actual sweet talk, it’s all off. Goodrich and Hackett awkwardly combine their romantic melodrama into mystery deduction scenes. It never gels. Maybe because Baxter treating Loy as disposable doesn’t make any sense.

But they’re still great together in most of their scenes and both of them generate a bunch of goodwill on their own. Loy and Butterworth are wonderful together, for example.

Van Dyke’s got some good direction in the film, usually involving Clarke or Loy. He doesn’t try as much in the other scenes, just keeps it brisk. He does seem to get bored occasionally. There’s one fifteen minute stretch in the second act it feels like nothing but two shots between different characters sitting (or walking to some other place to sit).

Penthouse is an uneven, but still successful outing. Another thirty minutes or so, a little more of a budget, a little better editing from Robert Kern (though maybe Van Dyke didn’t have the time for more coverage), it probably would’ve been better. With Loy, Baxter and Pendleton (and Butterworth)–and Van Dyke’s able direction–it works pretty well.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on a story by Arthur Somers Roche; directors of photography, Lucien N. Andriot and Harold Rosson; edited by Robert Kern; music by William Axt; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Warner Baxter (Jackson Durant), Myrna Loy (Gertie Waxted), Nat Pendleton (Tony Gazotti), C. Henry Gordon (Jim Crelliman), Martha Sleeper (Sue Leonard), Charles Butterworth (Layton), Phillips Holmes (Tom Siddall) and Mae Clarke (Mimi Montagne).



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THIS POST IS PART OF THE CLASSIC SYMBIOTIC COLLABORATIONS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THERESA OF CINEMAVEN'S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH.


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I Love You Again (1940, W.S. Van Dyke)

I Love You Again is such a confident success–the whole thing rests on William Powell and everything he does in the entire picture is fantastic–it’s hard to think of anything wrong with it. It moves beautifully, its ninety-nine minutes sailing by, the supporting cast is all excellent and every one of its big comic scenes work.

The film’s premise–Powell as a teetotaler who, following a hit on the head, discovers he’s really a con artist–is well-suited as a vehicle for he and Myrna Loy. Loy plays the divorcing wife–bored with the teetotaler–who finds him a changed and intriguing man. I Love You Again comes about seven years after their first pairing and the two work in absolute unison, allowing the narrative to do without added exposition.

Watching Powell pursue Loy–and run afoul of her new beau, played by Donald Douglas (in one of the film’s only weak performances)–is delightful, with their pre-existing film partnership part of the agreed upon amusement. And it’s their filmic relationship, the one playing out in I Love You Again, where the film gets overconfident. It assumes the viewer will take that relationship for granted to a degree; the romance, which becomes the film’s driving force, isn’t the biggest plot foil.

Instead, there’s an elaborate con going on. The con’s good and beautifully handled–it’s a shame Edmund Lowe doesn’t have more scenes, but Frank McHugh’s great as Powell’s sidekick–but it confuses the film’s effectiveness. Loy’s hardly in the film’s last third, just because there’s an elaborate and hilarious set-up for the con involving Powell dressed up as a Boy Scout. Because the sequence is so good–and because Loy and Powell do have a nice scene dealing with the romance plot following it–as the film plays, it isn’t clear how much time Loy’s been off-screen.

The first half of the film, filled with some of its best comic scenes–there’s a great dinner scene with Powell, Loy and Douglas, another scene with Powell and Loy shopping–is heavy on Loy. She’s an integral part of the experience and to put her off-screen because it’s workable is bothersome (I know I’m harping on it, but Loy doesn’t get a very good close).

In some ways, this pairing is more convenient than collaborative. Powell gets to do physical comedy, play two wildly different parts (the teetotaler being completely against type for him) and gets to work with McHugh. He and Powell have a great chemistry and McHugh gets most of the film’s best lines; his character is the only one free of a real narrative.

But the film viewing experience itself is so joyful, it’s hard to identify the shortcuts the filmmakers are taking while watching. The film’s a superior diversion and the slightly less than filling feeling takes a few minutes to set in. During, there are a few moments where it’s clear Van Dyke’s not really giving the direction his all. Some of the camera set-ups are identical–even if they frequently do have some excellent cuts–and he’s not really trying. He doesn’t have to, not with the material, not with the cast, but it’d have been something if he had.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Charles Lederer, George Oppenheimer and Harry Kurnitz, based on a story by Leon Gordon and Maurine Dallas Watkins and the novel by Octavus Roy Cohen; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Gene Ruggiero; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Lawrence Weingarten; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Powell (Larry Wilson), Myrna Loy (Kay Wilson), Frank McHugh (Doc Ryan), Edmund Lowe (Duke Sheldon), Donald Douglas (Herbert), Nella Walker (Kay’s mother), Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer (Leonard Harkspur Jr.), Pierre Watkin (Mr. W.H. Sims), Paul Stanton (Mr. Edward Littlejohn Sr.), Morgan Wallace (Mr. Phil Belenson) and Charles Arnt (Mr. Billings).


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