Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, August 01, 2011

Without a Slur: STAR OF MIDNIGHT (1935)

For any true classic alcoholic movie lover, Nick Charles, as played by William Powell, embodies the dream of being able to drink heroically while always remaining competent, coherent, and witty. Sadly, few of us have managed it in real life: sooner or later the drinks catch up to us, and forget about murders, we're lucky if we can solve the mystery of where our pants are or whose couch we're waking up on and what time it is. But Powell's Nick Charles, no matter howmennydrinksh he has, stays lucid, in control. Even if he slurs on occasion he can still spot even the tiniest slip-ups of well-concealed murderers. And Myrna Loy as Mrs. Charles doesn't bat an eye when her husband pops open the bedroom bar in the wee hours of the night. She merely raises a bemused eyebrow when he shoots out a window on Christmas morning with his toy gun present. She finds out he's already had five martinis, so orders five of her own instead of browbeating him. What a gal!

Bu the chemistry of Powell and Loy / Nick and Nora was something strictly from the land of genius drunk Dashiell Hammett. They were the happily ever-after of all the cool detectives who fall in love with their rich client's sexy 'good' daughters, thus eventually inheriting the family fortune. It helped their high-functioning, co-dependent cause that they started the series already married. In the post-code world, girls cared only about getting that ring on their finger, and if their man liked to drink, the 'comedy' came from making him stop before the bitchy mother-in-law moved in with her rolling pin and stern glowers.

And the success of the THIN MAN movies was something anyone who could afford to rent William Powell from MGM wanted to duplicate, even if they couldn't get Myrna Loy for his co-star. Of one example, STAR OF MIDNIGHT, Classic Movie Ramblings' Dfordoom notes "The plot is fiendishly complicated, perhaps even too complicated, but these sorts of 30s mysteries rely mostly on style, witty dialogue and classy acting so it doesn’t do to get too stressed out about following every one of the countless plot twists." And I'm glad he notes that because I used to use to go to sleep watching this film on a blurry VHS back in the 1990s, when my drinking was at its most Wagnerian. With its rambling, dull plot, the film knocked me out like a feather with a Harpo crowbar behind it. Only now, after 35 viewings, can I actually follow most of it. As for rapport, I even prefer even the breezy B-movie bonding between Tom Conway and his various lady taxi drivers in the Falcon films to Powell's futile attempts to be scintillating with Rogers' clothes horse post-code buzzkill.

As a point of conversation, however, STAR OF MIDNIGHT is an invaluable window into an alternate cinema universe that imagines a sadder-than-Pottersville alternate cine-reality, wherein Nick and Nora had never met, and Nick had instead become a lawyer and hung out with a post-code Ginger Rogers, i.e. vivacious, gorgeous, stylish, yet hammered into the common post-code frilly mold of a suffocatingly nurturing, marriage-minded champion of moral sobriety. In fact, her attitude and acting seem to bitchily satirize Powell's true cinematic love, Loy, as the Ludivico technique's Chase Kahn points out: "(Rogers) mocks the gaudy glamor and comedic timing of Myrna Loy, even scrunching her face at a sly comment... Well, Ginger, that kind of mocking only works if you're superior to the thing you're mocking! If not, it just scans as bitter jealousy.

And worse, she's incompetent even as a harridan micro-manager: when she finds out Powell's been shot (just grazed), she freaks out to the point where he has to snap at her: "Hey, it's my wound!" You can't imagine Nora ever being so overbearing, no matter how many humiliating situations and castration-symbolizing hats and hairdos she was forced into by the post-code Better Home and Gardens gestapo. In THE THIN MAN, when Nick was similarly shot (just grazed), Myrna Loy's response was touching --she was really scared for a moment--and her womanly concern was understandable; "I'm just... used to you, that's all." She gives him a drink; Rogers tries to give him a hot bath--a terrible idea for a flesh wound--and Powell is more or less forced to kick her out just to drink in peace. And when Rogers does finally pour him a drink, she measures it out with an eye dropper. Is that supposed to be funny, you bitch? Bitch, I'll KILL YOU!!

In short, without Loy, this MIDNIGHT can only remind us of the lonely feeling of being stuck in a relationship with someone who desperately wants us for a life partner but only after they've changed us to their and their mothers' liking, and we have no better offers at the moment, no pressing engagements, and we're too drunk and/or lazy and/or weak-willed to resist except in token increments.

This is certainly borne out in the late night presence of murder suspect Vivien Oakland (left) as one of Powell's former lovers, who bursts in to get information, stays to flirt, and forces Powell to give the old "what's done is done, lets just be friends" speech (later it turns out she's slept with half the other suspects). Oakland's matronly carriage offers subtle insight into this beaten-down Powell's weakness for low-hanging-fruit, as she clearly didn't seduce him with her lithesome beauty, sporting instead a Margaret Dumont-ish height and imperiousness (she was in a lot of Laurel and Hardy films, pie-faced, no doubt).

And that's the thing.... poor William Powell seems so lost and sad in this RKO alternate reality (he was on loan from MGM), it's as if he had no one to eat lunch with between takes and was afraid to ask even where the commissary was. Jean Paul Belmondo seemed similarly alone and adrift in PIERROT LE FOU, knowing he could never compete with the camera for Anna Karina's affections, so too Powell seems alone and adrift in STAR. Ginger nags about his lack of interest in marriage--answering her own question via her incessant hammering-- but he's too sorrowful and bewildered to resist much longer. He needs to cheat or something, or get a crowbar to pry her off him. Or hop on an outgoing freighter, suddenly and without leaving a forwarding address.

Meanwhile at least two people in the murder mystery are never even seen and a lot of the action takes place off camera. What we get instead are those suffocating post-code 'domesticities.' We come to know in great detail every domestic breakfast in Powell's chambers and where Rogers slept that night (in the butler's room) so the censors can relax. There's lot of virginal white bouquets around and if someone's going to get semi-naked and take a shower under a police grilling it's going to have to be Powell and not Ginger. In fact Powell's so pussywhipped the butler has to practically prod him into drinking with any kind of heroic gusto. STAR OF MIDNIGHT indeed! Rogers all but enforces a nine o'clock curfew.

The big eerie possibility might be, and I dread saying it, that this mismatched pair are truly in love, and that's why they put up with this draggy repulsion. Sometimes the only way your friends know you've finally found love is when you seem happy in your despair and by contrast your old joviality and free-wheeling bachelorhood seems, in hindsight, forced and a little desperate, as if you had to keep the drinks and murder clues going full throttle lest your shaking hands, slurred speech and total loss of coordination drag you down to that same old ledge, like VERTIGO's Jimmy Stewart, fighting against the tediously life-affirming gravity vortex that is marriage... to Midge. Good old...

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