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Sunday, September 29, 2013

'William Powell at Warner Bros.:' A Soldier, A Playboy, and a Detective, Oh My!



William Powell at Warner Bros.
Being a HUGE fan of the "Thin Man" series hinders reviewing the recently released 4-disc DVD set "William Powell at Warner Bros.," which features four other WB films starring Powell. Powell is perfectly cast in his roles in the good films in the current collection, but each of these diverse movies only provide an element of the incomparable awesomeness that he brings to the role of socialite mystery solver Nick Charles years before Robert Wagner donned Jonathon Hart's velour wardrobe.

The 1933 film "Private Detective 62" is arguably the best film of the four in "Powell."  Powell plays Donald Free, who literally washes up in New York Harbor following a European scandal for which a Powell character typically is unfairly made the scapegoat. The challenge of finding employment in Depression-era New York leads to forming an incredibly uneasy partnership with unethical and lazy private investigator Dan Hogan.

A series of events leads to Hogan agreeing to help a racketeer with whom the detective agency is closely associated frame a successful gambler who the racketeer owes roughly $50,000 in 1933 dollars. One complication is that the more ethical Free begins a romance with that lucky lady before learning that she is the target of his dirty work.

This role is tailor-made for Powell who gets to display his cunning, wit, and ability to mix it up with the best of them. Free's humorous and very appropriate revenge on Hogan who is ready to strand Free after an inexcusable blunder by Hogan is one of the film's best moments.

On a broader (pun intended) level, "Detective" is a great noir film that is worth watching (pun also intended). It makes New York City seem as rainy as Seattle, is full of characters who look and act like weasels and snakes, and has some of the best banter of the best films in this genre. This great dialog includes the not-so-fatale femme telling the racketeer "I came here to get paid, not pawed."

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, of "Detective's" trailer illustrates the awesome elements described above.

"High Pressure" from 1932 comes in a close second for best film of the set; this screwball comedy has Powell as legendary business promoter Gar Evans brought on board to help launch (yep, another pun) a new company that holds the patent on a process for recycling sewage into artificial rubber; Evans' philosophy that the relevant law prohibits lying about a product but allows exaggeration sums up the theme of the film.

This role allows Powell to show his fast-talking skills and charm that make "The Thin Man" so entertaining; further, opening scenes in which Powell is virtually dead drunk makes good use of his talent for physical comedy.

The well-presented story of Powell initially hyping and building up the business and then struggling to salvage it when the hype seems unfounded is timely 80 years after its release.

"The Road to Singapore," which has no relation to either the later Hope-Crosby film of the same name or those "Road" pictures in general, is the first film of the "William Powell at Warner Bros." era. Although good, it clearly shows that that studio had not yet quite found a role that suited Powell as well as the part of Nick Charles.

Powell's Hugh Dawltry is a British expat playboy who is returning to a tight-knit expat community in the tropics after being run off due to a scandal involving a married woman. Dawltry's developing friendship with the fiancee of a local doctor who focuses more on his patients than his beloved, sets the stage for history to repeat itself.

"Singapore" is an entertaining film with interesting twists and social commentary that makes you think. It also supports the theory that you can take the gentry out of England but not the England out of the gentry. It simply does not generate the same sense of wanting to repeatedly watch as many films of that era.

"The Key" from 1934 rounds out the group and has many good qualities. This one has Powell playing roguish English officer Bill Tennant assigned to Dublin during the Irish Revolutionary period in which the local populace is not shy about expressing its animosity toward those soldiers.

Like other Powell characters, Tennant is not a model citizen but has an admirable sense of honor and duty despite what those ideals cost him. One of the best scenes has Powell bantering with an Irish barmaid. His stating that he is Scotch and pocketing the change from his bill is hilarious.

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, conveys a good sense of Tennant's charm and attitude toward life.


Soon on arriving, Tennant is reunited with former Irish flame Norah. The first twist is that Norah, played by Edna Best of many productions including the film version of "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," is now unhappily married to former Tennant colleague and current English intelligence operative Capt. Andy Kerr. Colin Clive of an early film version of "Frankenstein" plays Andy.

Seeing Norah again predictably stirs up old feelings for her and Tennant. This leads to a turn of events that prompt Tennant to act according to his conscience at the risk of both his military career and freedom.

The bottom line regarding these four films is that they provide a good chance to experience nuances regarding Powell's acting style and to see how those roles helped prepare him to play Nick Charles.

Anyone with questions regarding "Powell," Powell, or "The Thin Man" is encouraged to email me. You can also follow me on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.