October 03, 2005

More about my thing for Myrna Loy

Saw The Thin Man on the soon-to-be-no-longer-on-strike CBC last night (gottatellya... haven't missed em). The retelling of the fine little Hammett novella was an instant classic back in 1934, and is notable for some of the most ludicrous women's fashion mistakes ever put on celluloid. Still the cracking dialogue between William Powell and Myrna Loy is worth the price of admission... as is, of course, Ms. Loy herself (although to my mind she was even cuter in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer).

I think the groundbreaking thing about The Thin Man movie was at the time it was one of a scant few cultural bulwarks that gave a view of middle-aged married life that could be cosmopolitan, urbane, witty, and fun... much different from early TV sitcoms, with all their steadfast homemaking, or indeed, the real thing. In their time, they were that rarest of cultural icons: the Cool Parents; parents a teenager would want to have, in other words. (Did Jane Austen's Mr. Bennet serve a similar function in Pride and Prejudice in her day? I wonder.) I have no idea what the equivalent icons today would be for young, pre-married people today... most on-screen parental figures seem... harried, haggard, something. Definitely not cool. The most recent epitome of cool, Josh Whedon's Buffy series, has no real parental figures at all.

The other interesting thing about Thin Man, viewing it today, is the completely casual attitude towards police heavy-handedness. This is very much a reflection of Hammett, of course, but it's a useful reminder that our current ideas of civil liberties are of very recent vintage. In the 1920s and '30s, a character like Inspector Gill (nice guy, but tough, and not constrained by fear of civilian complaints) would have been run-of-the-mill for real cops, or his portrayal in book and on screen would not have been as believable. The classic exchange is when Gill, having come into Powell and Loy's apartment in the middle of the night, says "frisk the place" to his underlings. Powell says, "not without a warrant," and Gill says, "so you say," (ie, "do you really want to escalate this?") and Powell immediately backs off and lets him search. Imagine that in a Law and Order episode today.

By historical standards, it's important to remember that we are at something of a nadir in police powers, or at least we were in 2001. Of course, back in the interwar years, most of the real abuse was directed at people who were beyond the pale... trade unionists, communists... not actual criminals that preyed on innocents. The police had greater powers because they had a generally accepted role in preserving the social order, in addition to their crime-fighting job... a role that the press was actively complicit in. How many police brutality stories were there in the 1920s papers, do you think? Not too many.

Posted by BruceR at 10:18 AM

Another in the plus column

I don't see much point in blogging if you're going to repeat conventional wisdom and shun your own predictions. Of course the upshot of that is one is often fantastically wrong. Nice to see I wasn't on this one.

Posted by BruceR at 09:53 AM