Sunday, 16 August 2009

Pre-code Myrna Loy: Men in White (1934) and Penthouse (1933)

Myrna Loy had been around for a while when in 1934 she sky rocketed to popularity as Nora Charles in "The Thin Man". It was her last film to open before the Hays code was fully enforced and it completely changed her career. It showed how gifted she was as a comedian, but also limited her career a bit, as MGM made her play Nora Charles five more times (I managed to watch the first two sequels and they aren't terribly interesting really) or clone parts that weren't worthy of her talent (there are exceptions, like "Libeled Lady"). Before that, in early sound films, she was often the vamp or something of the kind. No one knew what to do with her. In "The Mask of Fu Manchu" she plays the predatory sadistic nymphomaniac daughter of Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff). Barely keeping a straight face, the two of them make the film a gem.

The man who "discovered" and gave her a chance was director W.S. Van Dyke. He paired her with William Powell (and Clark Gable) in 1934's "Manhattan Melodrama" and then again in "The Thin Man", and of course the rest is history. But between the vamp and the comedian, she did a few films, two of which I got a chance to see recently. One was "Men in White" (1934) and the other "Penthouse" (1933). Both are full on pre-codes. One is a dud, the other is a delight.

I'll start with the dud: "Men in White". On paper this has a lot of potencial. A young promising doctor (Clark Gable) is having relationship problems, torn between his fiancee (Loy) and his career and a great opportunity to work with a great doctor. After a fight, he has a one night stand with a nurse. She gets pregnant but doesn't tell him. Later she tries to have an abortion, but things don't go according to plan. The way the story is dealt with is surprisingly modern. The problem is it's a flat film. Everyone's heart isn't there. Well, the script didn't help... Gable is too noble and too bloody irritating. Loy's character is a spolied brat in need of a slap. Worst of all, Jean Hersholt's great doctor is the most selfish of all the selfish characters in the film. The film is streched to some very long 74min (according to imdb). If not for the stars, and its theme, this one could easily (and deservedly) be one of those that Time forgot.

And then there's "Penthouse". Her first film with W.S. Van Dyke, and I think he probably spot something immediately. She has great, funny lines and her timing is impecable. You can see the begining of Nora. As you already could in "Love me Tonight". The film is a simple crime mystery where a lawyer tries to prove the guy who's going to marry is ex is innocent of murder. It's an engaging film, fun and with a good pace. The pre-code side of it is visible in Loy's character, a call-girl - despite such a word, or any synonime, ever being used, there is no room for doubt. She's sexy and seductive, in a "been there, done that" sort of way. She definitely has been in that world for quite a while. "Yours or mine" she asks when Warner Baxter tells her they should go home and she gets really disappointed when there's no sex. A few other lines could have been taken from any of the Loy/Powell films. And then there's the ending. This needs some context: for someone not used to classic films, the ending is predictable, because that's how a modern film would end; but if you are used to them then I think it is a bit surprising. And laudable. And I feel extremely happy that I got a chance to see this, it put a smile on my face.

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