The elephants’ graveyard, inaccessible beyond a high escarpment it is death for any man to look upon, is the main motif.
Ivory worth millions of pounds is there for the taking.
A second theme, just before King Kong, is a rather Dantean view of the tribal mentality in African dwarfs who keep a great ape in a pit for interlopers.
The uncanny presence of Weissmuller, more ape than man, sets the whole thing off.
Africa is a “hellhole” for the ivory-seekers, but Jane Parker realizes that she likes it and feels at home there. Tarzan grabs her at the first opportunity.
The subtle themes and grand construction were entirely too much for critics at the time.
The Thin Man
The Thin Man can’t be praised too highly, unless you fail to mention all the groundwork laid by other filmmakers. It’s the full flower of the genre in the Goodrich-Hackett script, James Wong Howe’s cinematography, etc. A perfect feat of style.
The Princess is engaged by her uncle to a Spanish grandee, who arrives with three female relations dressed in black, to present the bride’s trousseau, also entirely black. The Princess asks him, “Has there been a death in your family?” No, it is the traditional color amongst them, and to his credit, she need not wear it.
Her Viennese professeur de chant is developing some notes on bells into a song, the two try it out, “It’s like the music of the spheres,” says the pupil, “Mysterious, ain’t it,” says the instructor. “Ah, sweet mystery...”
Her maid is off to America. “France is not for poor people these days,” she and her Giovanni are too poor to marry, but they do, and the Princess sails as Marietta. It was that or join the grandee at Versailles as a toy of Louis XV, on pain of confiscation and imprisonment.
Pirates steal the ship and all the women bound by contract with the King to marry settlers. A lady foreman or chaperone berates the brigands and is shot with a pistol. “You’re the horizon I’ve been looking for,” says a pirate with much appreciation.
The mercenary scouts of Captain Richard Warrington are on the march, singing “Here’s to men who love a fight.” A bloody battle and a song, for which latter the captain apologizes. “Sorry, girls, but it breaks out once in a while.” Singing is a point of honor, “I’m known as the mad mudlark of Mississippi.” The Princess is serenaded by the captain, and begins to warm. “You couldn’t help yourself,” he points out, “every note a jewel!”
The girls arrive at New Orleans and are sized up by potential bridegrooms. The governor takes an interest in Marietta, though his wife scolds him. The captain is a Petruchio.
Marietta gains employment with Rudolfo’s Marionettes in the Petit Théâtre de la Nouvelle Orléans, at the sign of the Dancing Doll. The captain visits her after a performance, puts her hand on his forearm and says, “Here, touch me, it’s true.” They have lunch of shrimp next to two of his men at an outdoor restaurant, and are graciously offered the jug. The men are ushered away, mocking the politesse of their betters.
A reward of 500 louis is announced for the Princess. As he steers a boat he sings to her, “I’m falling in love with—“, someone, she nixes the pronoun. Her uncle arrives with Don Carlos, who nearly died of seasickness. She must return to France after a reception in her honor.
There is a minuet, the lovers catch sight of each other and sing across the room, “Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found thee.” The captain’s men disguised as soldiers arrest them, and they escape to the West.
There are so many jokes that Variety’s review is incomprehensible. Van Dyke sets problems only solved much later by Donen in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or On the Town (the substitution song) with Kelly, or by Minnelli (the live marionettes of The Band Wagon).
A scalding rebuke is made of the ancien régime for the purposes of this musical, which finds the system replicated in the New World. Capt. Warrington and his men are Indian fighters who scoff at the army as unable to tell a screech-owl from a war-whoop, and scared of both. Douglass Dumbrille wigged and mustacheless is a marble villain, Frank Morgan similarly is a governor who enjoys a minuet so much he might be jitterbugging, Elsa Lanchester as his wife is the picture of scornful beauty who fawns on the unveiled Princess, Akim Tamiroff as Rudolfo crowns the marionette act, Jeanette MacDonald is a brilliant performer and Nelson Eddy a great actor, in addition to their singing voices.
The title is explained in a ruse. Each girl is certified by a civic official as a guarantee of her moral character, Marietta escapes the legal contract by claiming to have been naughty. The disappointed governor has her taken away, Capt. Warrington assumes custody of the prisoner. Goodrich & Hackett anticipate Comden & Green all the way.
The production costs have evidently forced Van Dyke to shift the burdens of the drama onto the finale and the opera scenes (Faust and La Traviata). He is able to capitalize on his lightness of touch to pull off the opening sequence with its decisively funny punchline, which has Jeanette MacDonald attempting to rest her head on a sequined “Welcome to San Francisco” pillow. After that, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable spar in the boxing ring, in a quite canny evocation of the place and time.
While the side bets are placed on Gable and the chain of fire and fire laws and Nob Hill, Van Dyke recoups with Gable and MacDonald dancing in the open air (he snatches a hot dog and feeds it to her, the sucker accosts another gentleman, mistakenly).
Artistic achievement and God are explicitly stated as themes. Just when Van Dyke’s cinematic staging of Faust makes you anticipate the Sempre libera of The Goldwyn Follies, he does that, too.
The editing of the earthquake scene has been cited as an influence on The Wild Bunch. It is also the direct progenitor of at least part of the nightmare sequence in Wild Strawberries (wheel and runaway wagon). In fact, San Francisco is one of those junctures full of influences both coming and going.
The script by Anita Loos is not only incomparably racy, it knows just when and how to make its points. Ted Healy shows himself to be the missing Stooge.
After the Thin Man
Two years before Bringing Up Baby, and four years before the official start of the Forties, the Thin Man crew apparently decided to stop encapsulating and start inventing, and brother did they ever.
You can’t blame Variety for being left in the dust. Even now, the Goodrich-Hackett screenplay is not to be contained in a can or a cranium. Again, the full flower is open. The art direction and lighting are minutely expressive. The blistering plot has a young lady under a psychiatrist’s care who doesn’t know which side to butter her bread on, between a bad gigolo and a mad Romeo.
Oliver T. Marsh picks right up from James Wong Howe; both of them show you how much Hollywood understood about photography at this time, which is everything.
Any resemblance of Jessie Ralph as Aunt Katherine to Derek Jacobi is pure fun.
Shadow of the Thin Man
The double-take of smiling wonderment is something you find characteristic of this series, almost a trademark. Van Dyke (billed as Maj.) introduces it early on by tilting down from Nick Charles to Nick, Jr. on a leash, wearing a complete Army uniform in miniature, holding Asta on a leash.
He follows this with the serene hilarity at the dinner table. “Drink milk,” commands Junior, and Nick must reluctantly obey, covering his eyes as he drinks so as not to see the offending liquid.
Following the money where the scum also rises is the purveyance of the script, which has several of the best jokes in cinema.