THE POWELL TOUCH
by Walter Albert
In 1935 and 1936, William Powell followed his 1934 starring role in MGM’s The Thin Man with two RKO comedy-mysteries, Star of Midnight and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, both of them directed by Stephen Roberts.
In Bradford Jean Arthur is the ex-Mrs. Bradford who turns up at the beginning of the film to have physician Bradford (Powell) served a subpoena for non-payment of alimony; in Star, Ginger Rogers is Donna Manton, a social butterfly in love with lawyer Powell who claims to have more fun solving cases than trying them and whose friends consider him to be a combination of Charlie Chan, Philo Vance and the Sphinx.
Bradford is a racetrack mystery and Star a Broadway mystery, both versions of the classic form of amateur detective considered by less-than-bright homicide detectives to be a prime suspect in a murder case.
Bradford has the more original conclusion with the suspects invited to a meeting at which a film reveals the murderer’s identity, but Star is better paced and has some more polished acting in secondary roles, particularly by Vivian Oakland as a former girlfriend of Powell’s and Gene Lockhart as a somewhat unconventional butler who didn’t do it but is drafted for some ironic sleuthing.
Arthur and Rogers, both fine actress/comediennes, are delightful foils for Powell’s stylish drollery and each has at least one scene that is a standout: Arthur in a brilliant closing sequence and Rogers in a comic tum as she foils Oakland’s play for Powell.
Powell’s earliest appearance as an urbane amateur detective was in The Canary Murder Case, in which Jean Arthur also appeared, and by 1935 there was no more adept player of drawing-room comedy-mysteries.
The actor is probably no less accomplished in Bradford and Star than he is in The Thin Man, but it is certainly debatable whether, as William Everson maintains in The Detective in Film (Citadel, 1972), The Thin Man is “almost” equaled by the two lesser known movies.
The level of craftsmanship in all three of the films is very high, but I think that the decisive elements in the superiority of The Thin Man — and in its continuing popularity — are the inspired pairing of Myrna Loy, who matches Powell’s arch style with her own elegant delivery and movement, and first-rate scripting by Albert Goodrich and Frances Hackett, and directing by W.S. Van Dyck.
Script, direction, and performance come together in an extraordinary tour-de-force that climaxes the film. The wrapup party sequence in The Thin Man still dazzles as Powell delivers what is in effect an extended monologue and it is this perfectly timed scene, a classic example of the “cosy” mystery denouement, that, for me, makes The Thin Man the success that Bradford and Star achieve only in part.
Both actresses were on the verge of major stardom when they appeared with Powell. Loy would, of course, continue the role of Nora Charles in five sequels, and also appear in films like The Great Ziegfield, The Rains Came, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.
The Thin Man is usually seen as the one in which Loy escaped type casting as an Oriental temptress — most notably as the daughter of Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) — but non-Oriental roles in films like Love Me Tonight (1932), Topaze (1933) and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) suggest that her film roles were far more varied than they are usually thought to have been.
An oddity in the casting of Arthur is that she had played in three Fu Manchu films (in 1929 and 1930) and in the early thirties was better known as an actress in melodramas than as the star of comedy/dramas as she was subsequently to be.
By an equally ironic reversal, Rogers, after her dizzying success with Fred Astaire, would establish herself as a dramatic actress in the late thirties and forties, but with Astaire and with Powell she demonstrates an apparently natural comedic talent and a freshness that makes her performances with them among her most engaging.
[Almost eighty years] after their original release dates, The Thin Man and the two “forgotten” films, Star and Bradford, are entertainments that largely defy the passage of time. In addition, all three films — and one must add to the list James Whale’s brilliant 1935 baroque send-up of the drawing-room mystery, Remember Last Night? — are a tribute to the popularity of the amateur sleuth mystery in the 1930s and to the professional and artistic integrity of this genre.
The Thin Man gains some lustre in the context of related films but also should remind us that it operated out of a tradition that still gives pleasure for its wit and invention and, in particular, celebrates the career of one of the screen’s most distinguished player of amateur detectives, William Powell.
— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1986.