Thursday, August 29, 2013

Madison Avenue - 1962

Madison Avenue (1962) is a less slick, more cumbersome Mad Men ancestor that does not expose the hypocrisy and shallowness of the world of corporate advertising as much as it merely makes a polite nod to its existence.  It is a plodding movie, but there is something striking about the way Dana Andrews chain-smokes, wields a ready cocktail (as does everybody in this movie), and openly and publicly leers at women, condescends to them, and conveniently uses them whether he knows them or not.  If we were watching the television show Mad Men, we might grin and shake our heads at the faux-1960s parody before us.  But Madison Avenue was made in 1962 and it’s the real thing.  What may shock us more is not the behavior we titter over on Mad Men, but that we know full well it was filmed with absolutely no intent to shock us.  Nobody in the theater in the 1962 was surprised by any of it, and probably didn’t notice the sexism, or stop to count the cocktails.
This is our annual post in anticipation of Labor Day.  We’ve covered two similar films in the past here:  Executive Suite, and I Can Get it for You Wholesale.  We do not encounter in Madison Avenue any hint of the contributions of organized labor, as we do a bit the previously mentioned films, but since Madison Avenue, the New York advertising institution, plays such a huge role in our economy, for better or worse, it’s worth a look—and so is this movie, even if it does not have the energy and bite of the other films.

Dana Andrews is a cunning ad man.  We get his measure in the opening moments of the film when he in the office of a client—the CEO of a milk association, played by David White, who most of us remember as Larry Tate on Bewitched.  Mr. Andrews leers at Mr. White’s nubile secretary, speaks all the sycophant kiss-ass bilge he can to David White, and heartily sips a glass of milk to please his client with the rapture of a baby enjoying it for the first time.  Andrews is an up and coming man, we are told, but he is due for a heavy fall.

His boss, sneering, cigar in hand, played by Howard St. John, stabs him in the back over a new account because he feels threatened by Dana’s success and wants to keep him under his thumb.  Dana spends the rest of the movie trying to steal back Mr. St. John’s top account.

To do this, he enlists old girlfriend Jeanne Crain and uses her shamelessly, which she knows.  She’s disgusted with him, but stuck on the guy.  She remarks sardonically, “I just got promoted from a person to a contact.”  There is the point of the movie in a nutshell.  She’s a reporter for a Washington newspaper, and against her better judgment, does a favor for him by setting up a series of articles that will promote Dana’s new client, a small Washington-area dairy.  This is his first steppingstone to swiping the big client—David White—back from Mr. St. John.

Dana starts by attaching himself like a barnacle to a small, dying ad agency run by Eleanor Parker.  Her only employee is played by the wonderful Kathleen Freeman, who, as Dana Andrews says, “She greets people as if they were stepping into an open grave.”

One of my favorite scenes in this movie is when Dana is led by Miss Freeman back to Eleanor Parker’s office.  He passes slowly through a large, dim room with empty desks and drafting tables.  We see this business is failing, with almost all employees let go, and the lights turned down to save energy.  It is deathly quiet.  I think there may be nothing more haunting and depressing than a business that looks like it’s going under, or already has.  Haunted houses are not more ominous.

This scene, and a couple scenes that show the New York City skyline from the enormous windows of an executive office—which denotes power as much as Eleanor Parker’s dingy office denotes failure—are really the only times that setting moves the story along.  This movie was shot in CinemaScope, and really didn’t need to be.  Most of the action takes place in a bar.  Because of this widescreen camera process, we have very few close-ups—they didn’t look good in CinemaScope—and we have actors placed several feet apart from each other when delivering their lines.  The space needs to be filled up, you see, so CinemaScope becomes the master of the film instead of the director.
As for bars, if we’re not in the bar, we’re talking about going to a bar at the airport, or downtown.  Even a later bowling alley scene has the neon sign “Cocktails” right over the shoulders of the actors.  In 1962, it seems people needed a lot of refueling.
Dana, taking stock of Miss Parker’s office, decides to join her firm like a rainmaker promising a shower to a desperate farmer.  His message is hardly friendly; it is downright rude, but strikingly honest and ultimately helpful to her:
“You need light walls behind you, maybe one of those French grays that looks neutral that vibrates with life; low, modern furniture, paler than your hair; thick, cream-colored carpets; indirect lighting, with a few hidden spots directed at you.  That’s an old stage trick.  Concentrate light, you concentrate attention.” 
Then he proceeds to tell her what a mess she looks like.  “You look like a refugee from a nursing school or a novel by Louisa May Alcott.”  He suggests a new outfit, makeup, a little blush and lipstick two shades darker.  He wants soft wools, nothing frilly, that fits well but not too tightly, with the sheerest hose she can find and high heels.  No jewelry, or very little.  “The average businessman wants the deal, not the dame.  When a man is doing business with a woman, he doesn’t want her sex thrown at him.  It’s distracting.  On the other hand, he resents it if she throws her sex out the window.”  He writes her a check to fix herself up.
What a fine tightrope the ladies in business walk, but one wonders if good taste can really be taught, let alone be manipulated to a commercial advantage.  The advertising world of today clearly has no use for good taste.

Just when we may despise him for  his arrogance, he treats Kathleen Freeman with greater tact, moving her from the receptionist’s job—because he wants an attractive, younger woman there—and appoints her as his personal secretary.  No young chippie for him to sit on his lap.  He’s got work to do and realizes she has experience.  He gives her a raise, and they become pals.  His one gesture of flirtation is to tell her that “Thelma” is a very pretty name.  We see it makes her whole day.
Miss Parker, after initial resentment, takes Dana’s advice and comes into the work the next day in a whole new outfit, her hair coifed, and ready for action.  They converge upon the owner of the dairy, a simpleton, child-like oaf who inherited it from his father.  He is played in a very cute and deceptively deft way by Eddie Albert.  They meet him in his executive office.  He plays with toys, and wears a white milkman’s uniform, because he likes to take his own route for fun.  The business of the company is left to sour-faced Henry Daniell, who is kind of wasted in the small role.
Eddie Albert takes a shine to Miss Parker, which Dana notices and he exploits.  Soon they have the account, and Dana, in his campaign to win back David White’s business, creates two Frankenstein monsters: Eddie Albert and Eleanor Parker.

Mr. Albert’s shy reticence soon turns to bombastic egoism with every speech he’s encouraged to make before members of his industry.  He sounds like a fool, but he speaks with absolute belief in the blather he says.  Confidence, it seems, is the path to power, and real substance doesn’t matter.  His business increases, but more important to him, his fame and power increases and soon we see he may be invited to run for public office—shades of A Face in the Crowd (1957) here, another great movie showing the hypocrisy of the advertising world and political evil of manipulating public opinion.   (But as we see, not even ad men are immune to the spell of their own message -- Dana confesses he smokes too much because he got hooked on the habit when he worked for a cigarette account.)
Eleanor, who, after some vigorous chasing of Dana realizes he’s not the marrying kind, transfers her intentions, if not actual affections, to Eddie Albert who looks as though he’s going places.  She began as an earnest and hardworking ad woman, who like Mr. Albert, inherited the family business, but given a taste of the glamorous life, wants to keep it by hook or crook.  In a strange way, they really are meant for each other.
The movie culminates with a series of double-crosses.  Jeanne Crain wants to take Dana down by writing an exposé on his tactics and the nefarious ad world.  Dana, realizing he’s responsible for foisting Eddie Albert on the American public, plots to knock him out of high position even at the cost of his own career.  That move, and his relationship with Kathleen Freeman are the only indications we have that deep down, Dana is a mensch. 
He tells Mr. Albert, “I’m tired of inflating balloons.  I’m tired of seeing good men held back while mediocrity like you are catapulted to the top.”
And of Miss Parker, he regrets that he, “kicked her up the ladder, now all she wants to do is kick other people in the face.”  Curiously, all the people Dana has touched in this movie are the worse for it.  Ironic for man who’s supposed to have the Midas touch.
Dana Andrews was in his early fifties when he made this film, and looks older than a freewheeling bachelor cad who is supposed to be up and coming in his career.  The two leading ladies are in their late 30s, and all of them are nearing the end of the film careers (though Eleanor Parker gets to make one more big splash as the nasty countess in The Sound of Music- 1965).  The 1960s will belong to younger actors with fewer moral dilemmas.
Only plucky, indispensible Kathleen Freeman would have a longer active career in film, TV, and the stage as a character actor we’re not supposed to notice but we always do.  She was working on Broadway in the musical version of The Full Monty in 2001 (a role for which she was nominated for a Tony), when she died of lung cancer only five days after she resigned her part.  She was 82. 
That’s a trouper.
We never really know where Dana stands with Jeanne Crain until the last few moments of the film, when he proposes.  I don’t think we really believe him at this point, but Jeanne does.
One other scene I like occurs in a bowling alley, where Dana brings an out-of-town client to entertain him.  The client is played by our old pal Grady Sutton.  Here’s our previous post on Grady.  It’s also nice to see that Mr. Sutton actually got screen credit; he usually did not.
In way, I suppose it’s appropriate that Dana’s unresolved relationships keep us off balance, because that reflects his personality, and the CinemaScope-required arm’s-length distance between characters also suggests the isolation and lack of warmth, of genuine connection between the characters.  We just can’t seem to get close to these people, but maybe it’s for the best.  There’s really not much there.  Both reflect Madison Avenue and the modern world where insincerity, shallowness and opportunism are the way to prosper.  Mad Men is intentionally nostalgic; Madison Avenue is unwittingly prophetic.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Chain of Fools - a book review

Chain of Fools is one of the finest books ever written on silent film comedy.  It is a guide to an art form and a technological revolution, and a survey of popular history in a most exciting era where the scientific wizardry of the film industry fed the demands—and put on a pedestal—the desires of the common man as it never has since.
The author is Trav S.D. a theatre historian whose previous book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous—well, everything you need to say about that is pretty much all in the title.  Our erstwhile guide—you may sometimes see him in an appropriate pith helmet as would a proper guide wear—also writes an exceptional blog, “Travalanche.”  He is also a performer and playwright, and has written for a number of publications, and is also a public speaker and radio guest.
Chain of Fools is notable not only for its extensive and impressive research, but that the scholarly tone is frequently punctuated like a pie in the face with the author’s humor, as well as his thoughtful reverence for this era of film.  What is most pleasing is that this is, to great extent, no longer a “lost” art form.  In his opening passages, Trav S. D. recounts his early interest in silent comedy as a young man which, like for so many of us back in the day, was an infrequent treat on a television that only got three channels.  Then the deluge of the VCR, the DVD, the Internet—and (as we bow our heads and genuflect) TCM.  As Trav joyously puts it.
Silent comedy lives more vigorously now than at any time since it passed out of favor over eighty years ago.  Ironically today’s film buffs are in the enviable position of being far closer to the great silent comedians than were the audiences in the immediate wake of silence’s demise in the late 1920s.
For those just learning to appreciate silent film comedy, Chain of Fools is a delightful and fascinating compendium, and a valuable tool for film bloggers and those who are more familiar with the history of silent film.  I especially like that he sets the films and their movie clowns in the context of the era, explaining in a natural way how each influence the other.  Here you have the back stories on Chaplin and Fairbanks, and the “Our Gang” kids.  Here you have the triumphs and a few tragedies of the lesser knowns. 
Referring to the ultimate demise of silent film as “The Dialogue Diaspora” (I really like that), the author takes us past tired clichés of the whys and wherefores, and brings us to a new and thoughtful understanding of how these silent film veterans influenced comedians for decades to come, through the early days of television and beyond.
I am impressed with Chain of Fools, and enjoyed the rollicking prose that lures the reader into this remarkable world of silent comedy, its roots, and its legacy.

NOTE:  This review was written in exchange only for a review copy of the book provided by the author.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Crack-up - 1946

Crack-up (1946) takes us to the art world, not usually the sphere of film noir, but this brooding little mystery is unabashed in its take on salons of high culture and waterfront thugs.  Especially appealing is abating this quirkiness by casting veteran priest-coach-boring nice guy Pat O’Brien as the hero.  Pat was 47 when this picture was made, seems a bit long in the tooth for some of the stunts he (or rather his stunt double) is required to do, but his brand of sly, knowing maturity is particularly suitable for this protagonist who must solve the mystery with his brains and his expansive knowledge of art.
I also like that the plot hinges on a phone call he gets regarding his ailing mother, and how he rushes to see her in the hospital.  Real men worry about Mom.
Since this is a mystery, I’ll try to side step the spoilers, but there are some interesting scenes that push the plot along for their atmosphere.  First, we have the pulsating theme music over the opening credits and sounds like the rhythmic pounding of train wheels. A train figures prominently in the mystery.  Look at the lettering on the title.  Just that tells you we’re in for real noir.  Them’s real noir fonts.

We begin with Pat O’Brien in a crazed fit, smashing his fist through the glass doors of a New York City museum, tangling with a cop—in a hall of marble statues where a broken figure of a nude male topples to the floor and smashes—there’s a little artistic symbolism for you.  Pat passes out, psychotic or drunk, we don’t know.  Pat works at the museum.  The museum administrators, in a late meeting, are shocked and try to hush the matter up when detective Wallace Ford wants to haul him in.
Good old Wallace Ford.  He deserves a post of his own someday, for many reasons.
Ray Collins is a doctor on the board of the museum, the voice reason in this mess.
Claire Trevor is a society dame and magazine writer who appears in a different outfit and a different hairdo every time we see her.  She sparkles, but she’s a regular dame.  We gather she and Pat were an item once, and he’s still interested enough in her to be jealous and sarcastic of any man who takes her to dinner, like Herbert Marshall. 
Our old favorite Mr. Marshall is typically elegant and eloquent here as an international man of mystery.  We don’t really find out who he is or what his game is until nearly the end of the movie.  Mr. O’Brien does not disguise his distrust and disdain for him.
Pat is a docent at the museum and gives lectures on art.  (How many cool film noir guys do that?)  We are told that the museum curators regard Mr. O’Brien as revolutionary—in their eyes not a good thing—and that if it weren’t for his service record, they might have sacked him long ago.
This being film noir, nine times out of ten, the protagonist is a war vet trying to adjust to this weird new world he’s come home to but doesn’t recognize.  Especially interesting is that later we get some background on O’Brien’s war record—he worked for the Allied Reparations Committee investigating the Nazi theft of precious works of art. 
We trace Pat O’Brien’s psychotic disturbance to a train wreck he claims he was just in, though there are no reports coming to Wallace Ford that a train wreck has occurred.
Now we go to the requisite flashback as Ray Collins asks Pat to tell them what he remembers happened to him today.
We pick up from Pat’s docent job and his lecture, and the call about his mother.  When Pat rushes to the train station to start his frantic journey to see his mother in the hospital, we follow him pretty much step-by-step—the ticket line, the empty commuter car filling with nighttime stragglers getting off work late, a sarcastic butcher boy selling fruit, magazines and cigarettes.  There’s a guy half-dragging his buddy who appears to have had a little too much to drink.
The train car is already a place of tension because of Pat’s anxiety about his mother and trying to reach her as soon as possible.  He glances with impatience at the people around him, not studying them with interest, but as if they are adding to his annoyance and tension.  We hear the omnipresent sound of the train wheels, which seem to grow louder.  Pat seems to grow acutely aware of all the sounds and images around him, and so we, too, focus on these sensations.
He looks out the moisture-tinged train window, and sees in the distance, around a kind a bend in the track, a beam of light.  To his horror and ours, it appears to be another train on the same track.  Look at Pat’s frozen expression as he’s mesmerized by the sight, a sense of unavoidable doom.  Suddenly, the train whips around the bend and heads right toward us.  The flash of light splashes across his train window, and we hear screams.
Then the flashback ends and we are back in the present.  He is physically and mentally exhausted.
He is told by Wallace Ford that his mother is fine.  She was never in the hospital.  There was no train wreck.  They all think Pat is cracking up, and his clothing reeks of alcohol.
Poor Pat, baffled and shaken, and doubting his own sanity, is released by Ford for the time being, but the museum fires him.  You can’t have a loony giving lectures on Salvador Dali in the gallery.  Pat fears he really is cracking up, like other ex-GIs he’s known.  He confesses, “It’s the one fear everybody had.
Claire Trevor and her apparent new beau, Herbert Marshall, take Pat back to his apartment.  It’s all messed up, as if somebody has overturned everything looking for something.  We also see Pat is being tailed.
Pat, scared, but wanting to get to the bottom of this, even if it means he proves he’s a nut, tries to retrace his steps according to what scraps he can remember.
He goes to the train station, rides the same train, tries to track down the same butcher boy or others who might remember seeing him.  Nobody saw him, nobody remembers him.  We are filled with the same sense of tension as before, afraid another “wreck” will happen.  Just at the pivotal moment, that train that looks as if it’s on the same tracks comes barreling at us again, and Pat is panicked.  Then-whoosh!  It passes by.  It was a double track.  The conductor calls out the name of the next stop.
Aha.  Pat realizes this was the moment something must have happened to him.  He gets off at that stop, and the station master in this tiny, empty depot remembers him from the night before, as a drunk guy being dragged off the train and into a car.
Now he knows he’s not crazy, but he’s in somebody’s way.  Mr. O’Brien is mad and on the hunt.
A murder occurs meanwhile, and he’s implicated, and Wallace Ford is after him, so Pat takes it on the lam.  We are taken to a penny arcade where he meets up with Claire Trevor trying to help him hide.  It’s a neat setting, showing what typical urban penny arcades were like in the day, a place for grownups and not kids—see the “No Minors” sign—because there’s nickelodeon peep shows and stuff.
Pat slugs people.  He x-rays masterpieces.  He appeals to the mousy secretary of his museum boss to help him investigate a forgery connection to the museum.  Even Mary Ware, played by Mary Ware, is not what she seems.
We go to a cocktail party, end up at a rusty freighter at the wharf, where Pat saves a valuable canvas from a fire.  Ultimately, we have a showdown between Pat and the mastermind of the mysterious gang, and we discover the reason for his psychotic episode at the beginning of the film.  It might seem like a slightly goofball ending after all that noir atmosphere, but it’s a fun movie, especially for being offbeat.  Keep an eye out for Ellen Corby as a maid.
But, especially keep your eye on the graying middle-aged action hero with the knowledge of art history, a devotion to his mom, and a growing paunch at his belly.  Pat O’Brien was lucky to get the part with so many younger pretty boys in Hollywood, but none of them would probably be as interesting.  He earned it, because he gives it not so much an “edge” as a burnished shine. 
Besides, film noir protagonists are supposed to be world-weary and haunted—and who is more tired and cynical, and has as deep a back story as a middle-aged man?
As we discussed in last week’s Adventure in Manhattan, also about art theft, the surprise mystery or what we do not expect from a film doesn’t have to be a shocking plot device.  It can just be a little quirk that sticks out and fools us—and intrigues us.
Here's a preview of the cover of Dismount and Murder - number three in my cozy mystery series.  The book will likely come out in November, and I'll post more about that in weeks to come.  The artwork here is by the amazing Casey Koester, the Noir Girl.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Adventure in Manhattan - 1936

Adventure in Manhattan (1936) is a strange mixture, not always successful, but intriguing, nevertheless, of drama and romantic comedy—and stretches our ability to suspend our disbelief simply because it is both suspenseful and comedic.
The movie pairs Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea for the first time (they would later be paired together in the magnificent The More the Merrier– 1943, which we discussed here).  Some comments I’ve noted express disappointment that Arthur and McCrea fail to live up to the Nick and Nora Charles image in this movie.  That’s because they’re not Nick and Nora Charles.
I sometimes wonder if we are not too mired in genre to an extent that we cannot accept hybrid.  I find it very odd that an audience that can accept films of fantasy and science fiction and are able to suspend their disbelief under the implausible circumstances of these kinds of films, yet cannot suspend their disbelief watching a movie which simply has both dramatic and comic elements to it at the same time.  We struggle to paste one label or the other on a film.  Adventure in Manhattan is both, sometimes alarmingly so.
This week and next were going to cover two movies that deal with stolen art.  Unlike films about bank heists that show thuggish gangsters, theft in the art world always seems to be done by gentlemen, or at least devil-may-care scamps.  We are perhaps left with the fallacy that no one really gets hurt in art theft, and that it is more or less a high-stakes gentleman’s game, like polo without the horses. But crime is done, people do get hurt, there are consequences, and these two films show us the difference in genre and how we accept genre.
The movie we’ll talk about next week is Crack-Up (1946), strictly noir, and the gentlemanly art of stealing art shown as a world of dark shadows and grim postwar angst, psychological terror, and a really mean trick.  It stars Pat O’Brien and Claire Trevor, and they are not Nick and Nora Charles, either.
Both films have plots that hinge on a really mean trick.
Adventure in Manhattan is part 1930s with a little hint of 1940s noir thrown in, quite unexpectedly, and this is what is most tantalizing about the film—and most unbalancing.  It seems to be a precursor of what will come, but quite unconsciously.  It is not trend-setting; it is only experimentation.

Joel McCrea is a writer of crime stories.  He writes newspaper columns on real-life crimes and mystery novels about famous cases.  He is very successful, very much in demand, and very well aware of his gifts and his success.  He’s charming and so confident that he drives everyone else around him nuts.  He’s the kind of guy who does everything perfectly.  You want to see him mess up just once to see if he’s real.
A series of art thefts and jewel robberies has occurred, and we are told this as the film starts with several flashing headlines and the blare of police sirens.  We are in New York City in the middle of the Great Depression.  

Thomas Mitchell is a newspaper editor, the kind of crabby, shrieking, in-your-face-palooka who wants a feature story on the crime wave.  He hires Joel McCrea to investigate and to write purple prose on the crime spree.
“Involve a woman in it!”
He’s getting a little ahead of us.  But we can tell by the cast of credits that the only woman listed is Jean Arthur, so there’s going to be a woman in it, and the job is all hers.
I wonder if newspaper offices are to thirties movies as living rooms are to fifties movies?
Enter Joel McCrea, know-it-all, laconic, wearing his fame like a kingly robe.  He presumes to sit right down at Thomas Mitchell’s typewriter, still wearing his hat and begins to weave a tale.  (I recall a funny line in the old Mary Tyler Moore Show where the character of Lou Grant tells Mary about the good old days when he used to work in a newsroom, and he said that they were real newsman because they wore their hats in the office.)
Mr. McCrea takes a break from his masterpiece, and heads to the local bar the reporters hang out, where he grabs a beer and a cheese sandwich, and where his fellow journalists are playing pool. One of the fellows is a playwright, played by hangdog Victor Kilian, who we last saw with Jean and Thomas Mitchell in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  The play he is currently writing will figure a great deal in the story, but we don’t know that yet.  And neither does he.
McCrea is smooth and confident and chatters about the latest robbery, which aggravates the other reporters who just can’t seem to get any leads.  McCrea acts self-superior, lecturing them, but it’s not just arrogance.  He really is superior.  He’s much smarter than the fellows and he takes the route of solving the crimes by what today we would consider a rather modern tactic: he uses profiling. He tries to get into the head of the man he thinks is behind these crimes.  McCrea, interestingly, plays his character like a charming egghead, who knows people’s psychology, but does not have the social skills to get close to anyone himself.  For all his intelligence, he is socially inept and doesn’t know it.
He plays pool and makes fantastic shots, never missing one.  When he leaves, Mr. Kilian remarks, echoing the other guys’ thoughts, “How do you live with a guy like that?”
Jean Arthur enters the story at this point, and her work in this film, as usual, is deft and many layered. We’ve mentioned before that there’s no one like her for playing along that thin knife edge of comedy and drama, of evoking great pathos, even tragedy, and yet still being able to shine a ridiculous spotlight on her character.  In this movie, her character might be considered all over the place by some viewers because at times she is very dramatic, and at other times she is doing screwball comedy.  We struggle to find what pigeonhole to put her in.
This is probably the same difficulty that early directors and the studio head Harry Cohn had with Jean Arthur, until the mid-thirties when she began to hit her stride, showing that she can do these unusual characters that flourished in the Depression era like nobody else. She’s not doing Nora Charles.  She’s doing Jean Arthur.
We first see her walking down a crowded city street.  She is bundled up to the neck in a plain unflattering raincoat and her cloche hat is pulled down close over her eyes.  Droplets of rain dot her hat and shoulders as she sidles up to people quietly, with anxiety and embarrassment, but desperate, she begs for money.
Joel McCrea sees her.  Neither he, nor the movie audience of the day, is surprised to see woman trying to quietly ask for change on a city street corner.  But his attention is distracted by an automobile accident close by.  We hear the screech of tires, a crash and everyone walking on the crowded sidewalks rushes to the scene of the accident.  We see that Jean Arthur moves through the crowd and tries to get close to Joel McCrea, because it looked as if he might have given her some money only a moment before and she doesn’t want to lose him. Instead, she gets up to him and then disappears.  When the chaos dies down, he realizes his wallet is missing.  He looks around and sees Miss Arthur walking quickly away.  She has taken his wallet.
She gets into a taxi.  He gets into another and utters that immortal line “Follow that cab!”
She gets out at a beauty salon.  A beauty salon?  We would have expected anything but this, and from this point on the next series of scenes is nothing like we would’ve ever expected to see. 
And culminates in one of the most shocking scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie of this era.
Bess Flowers is one of the beauty shop attendants.  At least she has to work in this movie and is not just some party guest this time.
He waits for her to come out of shop because he wants to follow her to see what she is doing with his money.  She emerges beautifully coiffed and in a dazzling white outfit.  She gets into a cab.  He forces his way in, and she is embarrassed and nervous and wants to stall him from going to the police.  He is cynical and disbelieving of her pleas for help.  He has every intention of turning over to the cops, but he is a student of human nature, and he wants to make her wriggle on the hook while he dissects her emotions.  He does not really care about her plight; this is only another psychological game for him.
She tells him that she had to steal the money, because she’s waited three years for tonight.  She has an appointment to see someone and begs him to give her only the next few hours and then she will go with him to the police.  He is dubious, but she invites him to come with her because he doesn’t trust her.  It’s wonderful to see Jean Arthur in these scenes because of her sensitive ability to seem so complicated and yet so transparent.  I can think of so many other actresses who would put a hearts-and-flowers spin on the scene, like an orphan in a snowstorm. Jean just looks very real and very uncomfortable, as if her own words are being dragged out of her, as if the very act of giving plot exposition is killing her.
She tells him that she is going to visit her ex-husband.  He was very cruel to her and they were divorced.  She fell in love with another man, and ran away with him, but she is now separated from that man, and she is alone.  She had a daughter with her husband and he kept custody of the child.  Today is her daughter’s fourth birthday, and she is going to go visit her.  She had asked her husband repeatedly to allow her to see the child, but he always refused.  Finally, tonight, he’s allowing her to see her daughter.  Jean tells Joel, “I couldn’t let her see me the way I was.”
Her damsel in distress routine is very genuine, but it does not move Joel.  He has told his reporter friends that they get too sentimental in their stories, they forget to be objective and that is why he is always able to solve crimes.  
They arrive at her ex-husband’s mansion and the butler answers the door.  The husband is there, pompous and severe.  He allows Jean Arthur to go visit her daughter, and tells her the girl is in the next room.  Jean rushes into the room, leaving the ex-husband and Joel McCrea to size each other up in the foyer.  We think that the husband probably thinks that Joel McCrea is Jean’s latest lover.
Okay.  You know this thing I have about always giving out spoilers.  I’m not going to go into detail about the mystery of this story, or who the guilty person is.  But I have to go into detail about this scene that’s coming up because it shocked the socks off me.  If you do not want to get the surprise, run away from this paragraph as if you are running for your very life from the bulls of Pamplona.
Are they gone?  Good.  Now we can talk in whispers.
Just as we are about to smile at the way Joel McCrea realizes he is being mistaken for “the other man,” we hear Jean’s piercing scream from the other room.  Joel rushes into the room and we get a quick, sliding close-up on his shocked expression.
Then the camera shifts to the interior of the room and we see a small white child’s coffin dimly illuminated in the dark room.  Suddenly this has become a Universal horror picture.  We look around for Bela Lugosi.  Jean is prostrate on the floor, crying. 

Joel leads her away.  The pompous ass of a husband says that the child died the day before yesterday, so there would be no harm for her to have her visit from her mother, now.  He has exacted his final, most-heartbreaking revenge on his ex-wife.
This scene will cause you to offer up your favorite exclamation of alarm and dismay, perhaps several times.  You may even need a drink.  I recall myself saying to the TV, "I can't believe they did that."
The discomfort this scene causes the audience is remarkable and may be one of the greatest reasons why some viewers tend to see this film as a failed Nick and Nora Charles, because so much of the rest of it is funny and lighthearted, with teasing banter between Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea.  But this scene stands out like a sore thumb.  It is too much reality shoved into a cozy little romantic comedy world.  It is not movie-melodramatic, the way you might see the coffin in a monster movie, because it is real, and because it is Jean Arthur.  She has such a real presence in her films.  She is the woman on the Depression-era streets.  She’s the shop girl.  The newspaper reporter.  She’s the noble, the indefatigable and the downtrodden common woman.  And yet she still manages to be somehow ethereal and above us, if only for the purity of her conflicting emotions.
The next scene finds Jean in Joel’s apartment, lying on his bed, and he revives her with a drink. She really looks ill.  She is not the swooning type, but she really looks like she wants to die and doesn’t want to say so.  Joel tells her that she will stay here for the night and asks if there’s anything else he can do.  With difficulty, she tells him that she would like to have her daughter’s ring.
Mr. McCrea, with the relish for revenge, and the first real flush of emotion we’ve seen him display so far, says that he is only too happy to go back and face her ex-husband.  We imagine he wants to sock him.
When he goes back to the mansion, it is dark.  There are no lights in any of the windows and when he approaches the door, a night watchman questions him and asks him to leave.  Joel tells him that he was here only a little while ago speaking with the owner of the house.  The night watchman tells them that the owner is in Europe, and that the tenant to whom he is renting the home is not here right now.  And he kicks Joel out. 
Huh?  Is this a ghost story?
Now we have a different mystery on our hands, quite apart from the jewel heist.  Joel McCrea, with his inquisitive mind and his stubborn nature, is intrigued.  He sneaks back into the house and walks around in the dark.  He finds the child’s coffin, which has been tipped over one end on the floor.  There is no body inside.
We have definitely entered creepy movie territory.  Joel is then accosted by man with a gun, played by Reginald Owen.  They exchange words, and they also exchange neckties.
The man with the gun admires Joel’s tie, and Joel, attempting to be cute and to distract him because he’s pointing a gun, tells him he can have it, and so they trade ties.
Is the guy with the gun a crackpot?  Or have we just crossed over back into screwball comedy?
Suddenly the lights come on and people come out of the woodwork.  They are Joel’s reporter buddies with Miss Arthur in tow.  She is an actress in Victor Kilian’s play and some of the others are actors in his cast.  It was all a practical joke.
Jean Arthur is rueful, feels guilty, but thanks Joel for being gallant enough to come to her aid. We can see that he is embarrassed and sore about it, but he is a gentleman and a good sport.  He offers to buy everybody drinks, and this the beginning of his teaming up with Jean Arthur. 
We also have a foreshadowing in the scene of who the real criminal is behind the robberies, and very shortly, the film tells us point-blank who the bad guys are, so there really isn’t much of a mystery for the viewer.  From now on, the movie is about how Joel McCrea cracks the case, and a lot of that has to do with how he also plots to get back at Jean Arthur for her trick on him.  Both subplots are intertwined.
Victor Kilian’s play also has a lot to do with the case.  It is a World War I melodrama and Jean Arthur plays a kind of Red Cross volunteer or ambulance driver.  We see her in a kind of uniform.  She is a good actress and she is a lady, not a chorus girl.  Listen to her voice in this movie.  It’s slightly lower than her usual squeak, the quality of her voice that Edward G. Robinson once commented was like freshly grated peppermint.  There is something wistful and sad about her, as if she is still wearing the cloak of her many damsel-in-distress roles of the twenties and early thirties.  She made five movies in 1936, including the magnificent Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  She was starting to come into her own and Columbia started to realize this.
Another movie she made in 1936, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, was the real Nick and Nora knockoff, with William Powell, the real Nick, as her costar.  We’ll talk about that one sometime or other.
Adventure in Manhattan seems to start to get off-kilter from this point on, but mainly perhaps because Joel McCrea was trying to keep Jean Arthur off-kilter.  He sets the tone for the whole movie by playing small jokes on her to make her exasperated.  He invites her to the Ritz for lunch, but brings her home to his apartment instead, which he says he calls the Ritz and they eat beans.  She ends up having to cook them herself.  Reginald Owen shows up.  He is a wealthy man about town and is also the angel in charge of producing Victor Kilian’s play.  
When he shows up unexpectedly for lunch, they invite them to have beans and they sit there, eating their beans, trading banter.  We’re deep in screwball comedy territory again.  At one point Mr. Owen wanders into Joel’s bedroom to admire the valuable and artistic furnishings—Joel has an eye for art, which is probably why he’s so good at finding art thieves.  All three of them go Joel’s bedroom and eat their plates of beans.
A climactic scene occurs with a robbery during a live performance of the play in which Jean is performing.  She stumbles on the bad guys backstage, and drags Victor Killian to help her investigate, because after all, when you’re really in trouble, you go to the nearest playwright.  I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me to fight crime.  It’s really annoying.  I’m just sitting down to dinner, and they’re at the door, just because I write plays and I’m in the neighborhood.
The shift between scenes of extreme horror and extreme silliness make this film seem like it’s swinging back and forth on a pendulum and we don’t know what to think of it—but isn’t that the very essence of a mystery, a suspense story?  It plays upon what we were expecting and does not deliver.  I think the ultimate joke is played on us.  The audience, unlike Joel McCrea, are not always good sports.
Come back next Thursday for Crack-Up, where, again, all is not what it seems, and this nearly sends Pat O’Brien into a mental breakdown in a psychological post-war art mystery.  But it’s noir, so we don’t take offense if we’re caught in the middle of a shell game. That’s to be expected.

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