Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happy Valentine's Day, Pass the Gin

Ken Levine's got a nice post on the true nature of love. Hint: it doesn't involve mass produced, low grade chocolate or ugly-ass heart-shaped jewelry.

Speaking from the distaff side, mostly we don't want the stupid Valentine's Day stuff. It's just as much a fabricated, consumerist trap for us as for you, except we have to wear uncomfortable undies.

What we want is to be in the room when you watch the Mets (read, Cubs).

When I think of aspirational screen couples, Nick and Nora Charles are right up there at the top of the list. Sassy, sweet, wholly unrealistic and marvelous. While The Boyfriend and I are short on glamour and have solved hardly any murders, both of us can make a killer martini. That's a start.

Here's another reprint from my movie column from Oxygen's (alas, now-defunct) Girls on Film site, about Dashiell Hammett's classic twosome.


Chill those cocktail glasses! Here come Myrna Loy and William Powell, the immortal Nick and Nora Charles of the THIN MAN series. This sophisticated pair has survived plenty, including a disastrous Broadway musical and the rather overextended run of their own franchise. The last of the 6 THIN MAN movies came out 13 years after the first -- oof -- and the quality of the writing deteriorated sharply once the writers ran out of Dashiell Hammett source material. And -- I'm going out on an un-PC limb here -- the movies aren't nearly as much fun when tippling Nick dries out. Plus Nick Jr. comes along, yawn (fun fact: a pre-BLUE VELVET Dean Stockwell plays li'l Nicky).

Here are the first, and best, two of the flicks featuring filmdom's favorite flatfoot couple.

The whodunit of THE THIN MAN (1934), by today's mind-warping, THE USUAL SUSPECTS-type standards, is almost comically tidy in the way that it trots out all the, well, usual suspects. Wynant (Edward Ellis) is a successful, paranoid, divorced inventor. In the first half-hour we meet everyone who might wish Wynant ill, from the shifty bookkeeper to his greedy mistress to his even greedier ex-wife. Wynant then promptly vanishes, and his daughter Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan) goes to family friend Nick Charles for help.

We see Nick taking the first of many, many drinks in the film, teaching some bartenders how to make a proper martini. Nora enters, towed by the terrier Asta, and soon catches up with him, to the tune of 6 martinis. Yow. Nora wants Nick to take the Wynant case: he protests he married her, and her money, to get out of the detecting game.

There's such an easy chemistry between Loy and Powell that you wonder if the occasional mugging or physical comedy was ad-libbed and kept in the final cut. They deliver breezy dialogue with impeccable timing: Nick mistily muses, "We're all like that on my father's side." Nora: "And how is your father's side?" Nick: "Much better, thank you. How's yours?" Loy is beautiful and elegant, and Powell manages somehow to be kind of sexy even though he's got no chin to speak of. Nick is supposed to have a tough-guy background, but, as played by Powell, the toughest Nick ever had it was getting cut from the Exeter lacrosse team.

The absent Wynant is accused of killing his mistress. More murders get pinned on him as the police search high and low, while Nick and Nora piece together the facts. The end of the film is fairly absurd, as they throw a fancy dinner party for all the suspects. Nick pins a case on everyone until the real murderer cracks. Hard to imagine Simone and Sipowicz flipping a suspect this way, but hey, in 1934, it seemed to work.

1936's AFTER THE THIN MAN brings us to Nick and Nora's chichi digs in San Francisco, on New Year's Eve. Rather than getting to hang out with the quite un-respectable souses who've invaded for a "surprise" bash, our heroes have to go to the Most Boring Party Ever. Hosted by Nora's battle-axe aunt, who looks like Ed Wynn in drag, the party is an excuse to get Nick to inquire discreetly after cousin Selma's (Elissa Landis) straying nogoodnik husband.

The husband might as well have a red bulls-eye painted on his chest, so many people want him dead for so many reasons. And die he does. Was it the trampy singer? Her gangster boyfriend? Cesar Romero? There's a fatally important mustache, many cocktails, and Jimmy Stewart. The movie ends with another improbable gathering of the clans, Nick addressing the peanut gallery until the truth comes out.

Sure, there's murders up the wazoo, but the world of these movies, even when dealing with the rougher element, seems so... civilized. Even ex-cons and thugs wear coat and tie, and rise when introduced to a lady. And detecting looks like much more fun when you have an alluring husband/wife and a highball in hand.

The rest of THIN MAN line:

Another Thin Man (1939)
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
The Thin Man Goes Home (1944)
Song of the Thin Man (1947)

So why not pick up a couple and make up a batch of martinis, recipe from Philip Collins' book The Art of the Cocktail:

1/2 - 1 oz. dry vermouth
2 oz. dry gin
Shake well with ice and strain into martini glass. Add olive.

Serve with quips and raised eyebrow. Drink 6 in a row, darlings, and you'll get what you deserve. Cheers!


Bill Cunningham said...

We are full of the lovelove for Myrna Loy....


Warren said...

Myrna Loy was, is and always will be my Pamela Anderson.