There are certain times when I speak to you about new releases from Warner Archive that I find myself particularly geeked. Which is to not say I’m not always enthusiastic when speaking about their titles, but sometimes they put out something that hits right in the target of my movie love, and or is something I’ve been hoping they would release for quite some time. This week, it’s a case of both.
Making its Blu-Ray debut is the first film in one of the most beloved classic film franchises of all time, 1934’s “The Thin Man” starring the wonderful duo of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Then, Warner Archive brings us “Best of Pete Smith Specialties, Vol. 1” A collection of short films from the long-running short film series that modern eyes may have glimpsed on Turner Classic Movies—and a personal favorite of mine.
When MGM paid novelist Dashiell Hammett $21,000 for the film rights for his novel “The Thin Man,” they thought they’d make the film quickly and have a nice little, low-budget, filler film on their hands. Hiring W.S. Van Dyke, who on the lot was known as “One-Take Woody.” MGM allocated three weeks for filming the novel, and Van Dyke brought in the completed picture in 12 days. What MGM couldn’t have foreseen, was that the film was going to become a massive hit at the box-office, receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and be the kick-off for one of the first major film franchises in history.
“The Thin Man” introduces us to Nick and Nora Charles. Nick Charles, a former detective, has given up looking for baddies to enjoy his newlywed life with his rich, society-minded wife Nora, and their dog, Asta. Their love for each other as strong as their love for a good martini. When a former client of Nick’s goes missing, who happens to be a notable scientist, his daughter turns to Charles for help in finding him. Charles, glad to leave detective work behind him, isn’t initially interested, but reluctantly agrees. Nora takes great amusement at being alongside her sleuthing husband for the first time, meeting all kinds of interesting folk from Nick’s past.
What elevated “The Thin Man” from being just another detective movie to something special, was the cast. However you choose to look at it, the universe lined up perfectly when William Powell and Myrna Loy was cast as Nick and Nora, respectively. The pair was so convincing in this, and other films in the series, and other non-Thin Man films they starred in, that many people thought them to be actual husband and wife. In their hands, the two fire off dialogue like a dream, and the dialogue is perfect as the screenplay as written by married couple Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich—two of the best scribes of the era.
“The Thin Man” would spawn five sequels, with the series coming to an end in 1947, then living on television and home video release, courting new generations of fans (and being a popular New Years Eve marathon pick on Turner Classic Movies). The film is a dream, an absolute joy, and one of my favorite film series of all time. Watching Powell and Loy together is just the best, and I can’t imagine how anyone couldn’t be charmed by this movie, and the sequels that followed.
Then Warner Brothers released the entire Thin Man series on DVD in a box set in 2005, “The Thin Man” was the worst looking of the bunch. It wasn’t bad, but the print looked a little worn, which wouldn’t be surprising to anyone for a film from 1934. Watching Warner Archive’s new blu-ray of the film was, simply put, a revelation. I frequently found myself saying “Wow” out loud during the movie. The quality is stunning. Clear, sharp, bright—with great contrast. “The Thin Man” has never looked this good, and I even doubt it looked this good in theaters in 1934.
Features from the previous DVD are carried over here. A trailer for the film, a 1936 “Lux Radio Theater” adoption of the film with Powell and Loy, and an episode of MGM’s short-lived 1957 TV stab at “The Thing Man” with Peter Lawford. If you love this film as much as I do, this is a must-own, if you often wonder on how earth something shot in 1934 could look dazzling in HD, this is a must-own. I don’t care who you are, this blu-ray is a must-own.
Moving on. When Warner Archive began ten years ago—and a happy anniversary to them—one of the first tiles I bought from them was a collection of the short films starring humorist Robert Benchley. I was so excited, as, at long last, there was a chance to see all the shorts in that series, in one go, after having caught them here and there on TV. Since then, as they issue other collections of MGM short subjects, I would occasionally ask them “When are you doing Pete Smith?” At long last, it’s here.
When Pete Smith began his career as a publicity man at MGM, I’m sure he and the studio had no idea he’d become a star of their short subjects division. Short Subjects were the banner under which the program material that would play before a movie was made. “The Three Stooges” and “The Little Rascals” may be the most famous example of the genre. As a night out at the movies meant a newsreel, a trailer, a cartoon, a short subject or two, and perhaps one to two entire feature films.
From 1931 to 1954, at the end of the short subjects, Smith was the producer and star-narrator of “Pete Smith Specialties” a series of shorts that was largely a variety series, but during the 1940s mixed in a sort of comedic documentary look at every day. Smith’s distinctive, nasally voice commenting on all the action, with a sort of snark in his humor that wasn’t common at the time.
On a recent episode of The Warner Archive Podcast—which I do recommend you all check out—their Matt Patterson said of the shorts “They’re kind of life 1930s YouTube.” I can’t think of a more apt description for modern eyes. As the shorts cover everything from sports, to household hints, looks at popular fads, then modern life, the army, the Canadian Mounties, and even pop quiz type films to test the audiences I.Q.
These films, particular the more comedic ones, have always caught my eye when they would appear between films on TCM. I tried to record as many as I could, and a few were issued as extra features on WB DVD releases of classic films. I went so far as to buy a 1990s MGM LaserDisc box set of shorts that had an entire “side” of a disc devoted to the series. But now, finally, the first in I hope many deep-dive collections looking at the series has been released.