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The Thin Man and More: The Best William Powell Movies

09/30/2013 01:28 pm ET | Updated Nov 30, 2013

The Warner Archives Collection has just released an item well worth celebrating: a William Powell collection featuring four early, virtually unknown films he made at the Warner's studio during his brief stint there from 1931-34.

The set includes The Road To Singapore, a surprisingly racy feature where Powell draws a doctor's wife away from an unhappy marriage into an intense liaison; in High Pressure he plays an ace salesman hawking investment in an artificial rubber company when the inventor of the process goes missing; in Private Detective 62, he's a private eye who saves a lovely lady from being framed by his crooked partner; and finally in The Key, he portrays a British soldier who sacrifices his career to save a colleague (Colin Clive, of Frankenstein fame), whose wife he once loved.

None of the features in this new set are undiscovered classics (though"Singapore and particularly Detective come closest), but they'll be catnip for fellow (or soon-to-be) Powell fanatics.

I confess this actor, who'd earn screen immortality playing detective Nick Charles in 1934's The Thin Man, is someone I'd watch in most anything. What set him apart?

On-screen, he projected an irresistible combination of dignity, warmth and humor. He was always the total gentleman in the positive, old-fashioned sense: superb posture, graceful moves, perfect diction, and impeccable manners. Yet never stiff, never arrogant.

Though not impossibly handsome like Gary Cooper or virile like Gable, he was irresistible to women, and we could see why. It was that rare, increasingly elusive quality called "charm."

And -- though he didn't possess the range of a Spencer Tracy or Fredric March, within the scope of what he could and did play -- mainly the roguish gent, often down on his luck -- he brought such force, charisma and technique that one's eyes never strayed from him when he was in the frame.

Indeed, the closest he ever came to sharing a scene was with his frequent co-star Myrna Loy, who was his perfect foil in the 14 films they made together.

Powell was born in Pittsburgh in 1892, but raised in Kansas City, Missouri. An only child, he showed an early aptitude for acting. After high school, he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA), and then embarked on a stage career. Later, he broke into silent films, where his somewhat exotic looks won him primarily villainous parts.

He showed he could do more playing the pivotal role of the film director in the late silent classic, "The Last Command" (1928). With the arrival of sound pictures the following year, Powell's rich, mellifluous baritone helped advance him to leading man status. His memorable turn as sleuth Philo Vance opposite Louise Brooks in "The Canary Murder Case" (1929) put him over the top.

Over the next quarter century, he appeared in over 50 films, married and divorced Carole Lombard, got engaged to Jean Harlow the year before her sudden and untimely death, and finally settled down to a long and happy second marriage with actress Diana Lewis.

Powell retired gracefully from the screen at age 63. He'd spend the next three decades in Palm Springs, where he died in 1984 at age 91.

Here's my take on the absolute must-see Powell films... and if you love him in these, you should also lay your hands on that Warners set.

The Thin Man (1934)- Nick Charles (Powell) and his wealthy wife, Nora (Myrna Loy), seem to care more for witty repartee and tippling at odd hours than they do for honest-to-god sleuthing, but a worried daughter named Dorothy (played by Maureen O'Sullivan, Mia Farrow's real-life mom) convinces the effervescent newlyweds to join the hunt for her missing scientist father. The investigation that follows (between cocktails) keeps the viewer guessing right up to its suspenseful conclusion. Director W.S. Van Dyke's filming of Dashiell Hammett's saucy detective novel features the second inspired teaming of Oscar-nominated Powell and Loy (after 1934's Manhattan Melodrama, infamous as the film that John Dillinger saw right before he was shot outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre). The two stars are note-perfect as the high-living detective couple. This film's enormous success spawned five sequels over 12 years. A deft mix of comedy and mystery, with a heady dose of glamour thrown in, The Thin Man remains top-flight entertainment.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)- This enchanting film traces the colorful life of early twentieth century showman Florenz Ziegfeld (Powell), from carnival sideshow barker to producer of the immortal Ziegfeld Follies, the most elaborate stage show ever mounted. These lavish productions featured the world's prettiest chorus girls and the country's top vaudeville acts, including comedienne Fanny Brice and hoofer Ray Bolger (who both appear in the film). MGM's nostalgic, larger-than-life tribute recreates the glory days of the musical theatre in the early days of the twentieth century. The ever-charming Powell reflects ideal casting for showman Ziegfeld, and frequent co-star Loy is also on hand playing second wife Billie Burke. The film won that year's Best Picture Oscar, and Luise Rainer also took home a statuette for her brief but poignant portrayal of "Ziggy"'s first wife Anna Held (her culminating phone scene clinched it for her). Long but dazzling, "Ziegfeld" combines backstage drama with on-stage spectacle -- in particular, don't miss that immortal "Pretty Girl" musical number.

My Man Godfrey (1936)- Through a scavenger hunt contest only the idle rich could invent, daffy heiress Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) finds a homeless, "forgotten" man named Godfrey (Powell) at the city dump, and impulsively decides to hire him as butler for her wildly dysfunctional family. Against all odds, he proves to be excellent at his job, and Irene finds herself smitten with him. However, the more practical Godfrey knows he can't mix business with pleasure. Not to mention the fact that this particular butler is not precisely who, or what, he seems. Gregory La Cava's sublime Godfrey blends screwball elements with more serious overtones on Depression-era class injustice, to create a wildly entertaining but also thought-provoking movie that holds up beautifully. The term "debonair" was indeed coined for Powell, and Lombard makes for an adorably ditzy heroine. Beyond the leads, the whole cast is delightful, in particular Alice Brady as the flighty Mrs. Bullock, Mischa Auer as her "protégé," and the rotund Eugene Pallette as frustrated patriarch Mr. Bullock, who appears more like an impotent keeper at an asylum. Classic comedy fans, don't miss Godfrey!

Libeled Lady (1936)- The ever-smooth Powell plays Bill Chandler, a freelance journalist hired by his old newspaper editor Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) to squelch a libel suit brought on the paper by society heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). To achieve these ends, Bill must go incognito, somehow make Connie fall in love with him, and then place her in a compromising position. Ultimately, he succeeds in melting her icy exterior, but ends up falling in love himself. What's a smitten newspaperman to do? Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1936, Jack Conway's underexposed screwball comedy is a raucous farce buzzing with zany humor, thanks to a flurry of impeccable one-liners delivered by Powell and Loy, reunited from their pairing in The Thin Man. Playing a frantic, henpecked newspaper editor and the fiancée he's jilted for years, Tracy and Jean Harlow round out a stellar foursome in this fast-paced, ingenious laugh-fest. Highlight: Powell goes fishing.

Life With Father (1947)- Wealthy financier Clarence Day (Powell) lives with his wife Vinnie (Irene Dunne) and four children in a Madison Avenue townhouse in 1880s New York. His attempts to run a disciplined, well-ordered household are thwarted at every turn by Vinnie's scatter-brained schemes and dizzying logic. Much to her husband's chagrin, Vinnie's cousin Cora (Zasu Pitts) and family friend Mary (a young Elizabeth Taylor) come to visit, the latter attracting the attention of their eldest son (Jimmy Lydon). Then, the devout Vinnie discovers to her horror that Clarence has never been baptized, and determines to rectify the situation, come what may. This fizzy period comedy was adapted from the hugely popular play of the same name which ran for years on Broadway, and which originally sprang from Clarence Day, Jr.'s own memoir. Director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) directs with expert comic timing and pacing. Both the Oscar-nominated Powell and Dunne are fabulous as the bickering but loving couple; their exchanges are filled with clever repartee. Just watch as they debate the need for a ceramic pug dog, or the placement of a rubber houseplant. Egad! (Note: we recommend the DigiCom TV edition only -- beware other poor quality, public domain editions.)

Mister Roberts (1955)- Adapted from Josh Logan's Broadway hit, this service drama tells of Lt. Doug Roberts (Fonda), an officer on a WWII cargo ship, desperate to see action, who instead has to cope with irascible, by-the-book Captain Morton (Cagney). Roberts is frustrated by life aboard the SS "Reluctant," but thankfully he's blessed with a good crew, including the wise, steady ship's doctor (Powell) and Ensign Pulver (Lemmon), the brash junior officer in charge of "laundry and morale." Returning to the big screen after a seven-year absence, Fonda successfully recreated his long-running stage role under the superb direction of Mervyn LeRoy, who replaced John Ford when he and Fonda literally came to blows just weeks into shooting! Young Lemmon must have been humbled by the cast line-up for this film: Fonda, Cagney, and the legendary William Powell (in his final screen role as the philosophical "Doc"). Yet his manic energy was ideal for Pulver, and Lemmon held his own with Hollywood's best, winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. (The film garnered a nod for Best Picture as well). No surprise: Cagney is also in his element as the world's touchiest skipper. All aboard for Mister Roberts.

Looking for good movies to watch? Top movie recommendations? For over 2,500 of the best movies on DVD, visit Best Movies by Farr

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