William Powell

Criterion Files

The common, received wisdom about Hollywood during The Great Depression tends to go like this: Hollywood played an important role as a place for escape, or a low-cost brief vacation, for a populace struggling to make it day-to-day. Much of Hollywood entertainment no doubt possessed escapist entertainment value, and the importance of Hollywood’s social role in this respect shouldn’t be dismissed. But the assumption that Depression-era Hollywood worked exclusively – or even mostly – as a purely escapist institution with little reflection on the overwhelming social conditions and problems of the time is greatly misinformed. The Depression-era-escapism argument about Hollywood has significant implications. While the industry’s role as an institutionalized dream factory had been well established by the early 1930s, the early years of the Depression were instrumental in the formation of a Classical Hollywood mode because it was during these years that synchronous sound became solidified with other standardized industry conventions. Genres like gangster films and westerns certainly existed during the silent era, but these genres acquired their shared signatures as sound grew into an expected, important part of the cinematic experience, just as the sonic spectacle of the musical or the rat-a-tat dialogue of screwball comedies became essential defining components of their respective genres after the standardization of sound. So, in short, how we conceptualize Hollywood in the 1930s is instrumental to understanding the foundation of Hollywood’s entire history.

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With all the commotion of Johnny Depp and Rob Marshall tackling a remake, I felt it important for non-fans to get a small glimpse into the world of Nick and Nora Charles. The 1934 comedy/mystery/drinking contest starred William Powell and Myrna Loy as the crime-solving, party-hosting pair trying to solve the disappearance of eccentric businessman (and thin person) Clyde Wynant just because, you know, for the fun of it. The Thin Man spawned a ton of sequels, the pair became icons in the comedy and mystery worlds alike, and their lush lifestyle (in movies set during Prohibitionist) was a definite middle finger to the powers that were. This charming trailer showcases Powell talking as Nick Charles to another one of his detective characters, and sharing the joys of new love and baffling murders.

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Retired detective and alcoholic Nick Charles (William Powell) is drawn out of his retirement (which is being funded by his marriage to gorgeous, witty socialite lush Norah (Myrna Loy)) by the disappearance of the very thin Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) who may also be mixed up in the murder of a young woman. Throw in the usual familial suspects, Cesar Romero, and a few gutter-dwelling punks, mix thoroughly with outlawed gin, and you’ve got yourself one sober mystery to solve un-soberly.

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