William Powell at Warner Bros. DVD Review: The Early Adventures of a Thinner Man

Everyone needs a role model. Especially when they’re growing up. As a young lad, I found myself at odds with my choices. The men folk amidst my surroundings weren’t entirely suitable to my liking on account that I was a precariously peculiar boy delimited by rednecks, loggers, farmers – just a plain assortment of simple-minded people in general, really. But that all changed upon my first viewing of The Thin Man. I had found a god amongst men. And although William Powell had retired from acting many, many moons before I was ever so much as a twinkle within the ocular organs of my own biological male contributor to my existence, I had nevertheless found someone to look up to.

He was cool. Collected. He knew how to woo the ladies and handle his liquor. Sadly, I failed on all four of those counts – only coming in a close second in the coolness department, directly behind a late ’70s-era Jack Lord. Now, decades since having disgraced the memory of the long-dead Mr. Powell in my own lamentable fashion, I still have to admit the guy has more class now than I ever will. And, having only recently re-watched the entire Thin Man series (with Mister Roberts as a chaser) to pay respect to my own waning sense of classical manliness, the arrival of the Warner Archive set William Powell at Warner Bros.on DVD-R couldn’t have been any more serendipitous.

The four-disc set of pre-Code rarities from the early 1930s begins with The Road to Singapore (1931). It’s an interesting flick, to say the least – not just because it preceded a similarly titled Hope/Crosby/Lamour picture by nine years – but mostly because its own titular Asian city has very little to do with the movie itself, but is actually set in the tiny province of Khota (which is between Colombo and Singapore, hence the title). Here, Powell is a wealthy ladies man who has recently returned to the area – unable to escape his disreputable wife-stealing reputation with the stuffy rich locals at the nearby gymkhana club.

As it so happens, our hero has set his eyes upon a newly married nurse (Doris Kenyon), whose doctor husband (Louis Calhern, years away from achieving immortality in The Marx Bros. Duck Soup) is more interested in exploiting a patient with a rare tumor than the soon-to-be-rare opportunity of exploring his own bride. Based on a stage play written by one person that was inspired by a forgotten novel from somebody else (!), The Road to Singapore plays out exactly like you might think it would: rather dully, and with some truly mind-numbing writing. That said, however, it does receive special note for a highly inventive (for the time) scene wherein we “pan” from Kenyon to Powell via dissolves and miniatures – wherein they seem to seek out each other’s burning passion from afar. Kudos to director Alfred E. Green for that scene alone – well, that and for casting the stellar beauty known as Marian Marsh, whose risqué clothing in one segment ignited a passion of my own.

Moving on, we find ourselves under High Pressure (1932) – a much more enjoyable feature of the comical nature that centers on the plight of gifted New York City promoter Gar Evans (Powell) who can sell just about anything once he thinks up the right angle. Or once he sobers up, as we witness in the beginning of the film as his frantic associate scours every gin joint in town – with a bizarre idea and the man who is eager to sell it (George Sidney, who is as ideally mashugana as can be) in tow. The item in question is artificial rubber – which can be obtained via recycled sewage! And with a million-dollar idea like that, how can you go wrong, right? Wrong.

First, Evans’ on-again/off-again good luck charm of a mistress (Evelyn Brent) decides she’s had it with his unfaithfulness and sporadic alcoholic behavior. Again. Next, Big Rubber starts to put the squeeze on their laughable notion. The fact that the supposed inventor of this artificial rubber may be nothing more than a big loon doesn’t hold a lot of water, either – but all is fair in love and war in this rollicking comedy that co-stars John Wray, Evalyn Knapp, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, and the one and only Charles Middleton (filmdom’s original Ming the Merciless) in a tiny role as a representative of the rubber industry. Directed by the great Mervyn LeRoy.

While High Pressure is an utter delight to behold unto itself (especially when held up to The Road to Singapore), it’s Disc Three’s entry – 1933’s Private Detective 62 – that gets my vote for Most Undersung Title in this collection. Though no one is ever referred to the name, Powell’s character here – who is named Free, incidentally – is a private dick for the government (I think they call them Secret Servicemen today). Caught in action in France (of all places) and disavowed by one country and deported by the other. Returning to the States, he uses his witty wiles to finagle his way into the office of a rather ethically-challenged private detective named Hogan (Arthur Hohl – who starts out as a somewhat shady character, only to deteriorate into absolute scum midway in).

Managing to make a name for his new partner’s agency, the two are soon rolling in the dough – but Hogan’s ties to the underworld, in specific a gangster named Bandor (Gordon Westcott) who helped reboot the firm in its posh contemporary form – are keeping things from being truly moral. When asked to make sure a high-society dame (Margaret Lindsay) who has been winning too much money at Bandor’s private casino, our hero naturally falls in love with her – and begins to suspect something is amiss. Ruth Donnelly (as the agency’s secretary) is her usual fine comedic self, Powell’s future Thin Man co-star Natalie Moorhead is in there, and character actor James Bell – who usually portrayed doctors, cops, and judges throughout his long career – has one of his few trysts on the other side of the law as a cocaine-fueled hitman who is aptly named named Whitey. Michael Curtiz directs this fun noir-esque dramedy.

The last entry in this set (Disc Four, kids – keep up, please) is The Key – yet another vaguely titled film, but a decent one, nonetheless. Here, Powell is questionably cast a British (?) officer who is assigned to the tense situation in 1920 Dublin, where the locals are keen to pick off any man in uniform. Moving into a rundown apartment with his faithful valet (Hobart Cavanaugh, who completely disappears at some point entirely when the notion of comic relief is no longer needed), Capt. Tennant (Powell) discovers his old pal Capt. Kerr (Colin Clive – Dr. Henry Frankenstein himself) is living upstairs with his new bride, Norah (Edna Best) – who just happens to have been an old flame of Tennant!

While Irishman Kerr works with the British to find the local Sein Fein leader, Tennant works on Kerr’s wife a bit (the cad) – and becomes friendly enough with his local enemies to put himself into a curious (and story wise, perfect) situation once things start to heat up. Halliwell Hobbes is the British colonel in charge (and who Powell likes to drive crazy), character performers J.M. Kerrigan and Donald Crisp portray the “bad” guys, Gertrude Short is a barmaid, and the already-established splendor of a teenaged Anne Shirley (under his early stage name of Dawn O’Day) can be seen cast as the poor flower girl Powell loves to flirt with in this rather uneven Michael Curtiz film.

Then again, most of the titles here are a bit uneven. Hollywood was, after all, still in its infant stage during this time: talkies were still relatively new, tales weren’t always waterproof, and many actors still performed as though they were on the stage. But of course, that’s part of what makes these idle classics so enjoyable (well, that The Road to Singapore flick is still a dud in my opinion) – though I doubt they would have been as enjoyable without the presence of their leading man, William Powell. Each film in the William Powell at Warner Bros. set looks positively beautiful, and early (read: primitive) trailers for each film are included not only as a bonus, but so you can see how bad the prints could have looked had the folks at Warner Archive not cared about these gems.

Needless to say, William Powell at Warner Bros. comes recommended. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go brush up on being a cool, collected, martini-swiggin’ ladies’ man.

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Luigi Bastardo

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