Popped Culture: Inside Shelley Berman

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When I was 12 years old, I discovered an LP of Inside Shelley Berman in my mother’s small record collection. Nestled between The Sound of Music movie soundtrack and Helen Reddy was this comedy gem. While my mother was at work, I transferred the record onto audio cassette by holding my white Centurion boombox up to the stereo speakers. I managed to fit the entire album onto one side of the cassette. I listened to the album on my generic Walkman during my commute to school every day for several months. I didn’t know anything about Shelley Berman. For the longest time, all I knew was this one record. This was all pre-Internet. Berman didn’t have prominent television presence at the time and the local record stores couldn’t be bothered to stock pre-Yankovic comedy albums. Those were dark times, friends.

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Inside Shelley Berman was aspirational listening for me. I’m not sure I wanted to be Shelley Berman as much as I wanted to be worthy of sitting in his audience. Berman exudes a sophistication lacking in your Adam Sandler or Louis C.K. You listen to a Shelley Berman record, you want to be wearing your best cocktail attire. Inside Shelley Berman is the comedy record I imagine the Drapers would play while entertaining their suburban pals. Grey suits and their wives having a giggle over observations about air travel and department store customer service. A couple of the guys would elbow and wink at Don about The Morning After, “Hope I don’t have to make that phone call to you in the morning, har-har-har.”

This record will not blow your mind with outrageous ideas. While I’m sure Shelley Berman is no stranger to outrageous ideas, his stage persona in this album does not indulge in them. Inside Shelley Berman is polite, gentle comedy. This is comedy that can be enjoyed in mixed company, should anyone still concern themselves with comedy etiquette in mixed company. If you want to be shocked by comedy, get a time machine and a Lenny Bruce album. If you like neuroses couched in light observational humour, Berman’s your man. Through a mix of telephone bits and monologues, Berman taps into the average anxieties and frustrations of modern life. Although some of the specifics are dated, the general concepts remain as relevant today as they were in 1959. Technology may be evolving rapidly but human behaviour plods along.

Because this is a live recording of a performance, comedy students can study the audience response to Berman as well as the material itself. This is a well-behaved, mild-mannered audience. There is no hooting. There is no wild applause. There is genuine, honest laughter. Sometimes only chuckles. Occasionally a cough. In the first two minutes, you can hear the audience shuffling in their seats, unsure whether the actual comedy has begun. That it takes so long to illicit a laugh from the audience would surely unsettle an entertainment executive today.

Twenty years ago, most of the material on this record went over my head. From the Airline bit: “…if anybody can forget an Erskine Caldwell novel. Frankly, I don’t know why that man is seeking success, he can have so much fun sitting around thinking.” I didn’t know who Erskine Caldwell was then (or until two days ago, when I looked him up on Google after listening to this record again), but I enjoyed the idea. Revisiting Inside Shelley Berman 20 years later, I find that I understand more of the jokes and references. The album may actually be better now than it was when I first heard it. We’re a long way from rotary dial phones and cassette tapes, but buttermilk and neuroses remain the same.

Fun fact: Shelley Berman was a recurring judge on Boston Legal.

Popped Culture: Beach Party

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I’m one of those nostalgists suffering from Born-too-Late-ness. I missed out on so many seemingly great experiences of the mid-20th century—diners, train travel, and the drive-in cinema. Gone are the days when you could sneak your buddies and a four-course meal in your trunk to the drive-in and have a grand evening out. By the time my day rolled around, the local drive-in was abandoned (but possibly haunted by dead teenage motorcyclists) and the idea of just riding in my boyfriend’s trunk for funsies didn’t have the same appeal.

Fortunately, living the Future means that I can at least watch the drive-in movies from the comfort of my own driveway (which is haunted by raccoon motorcyclists). Go get your anthropomorphic popcorn, ’cause we’re gonna watch a bunch of beach party flicks!

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For me, the beach party movies are a guilty pleasure, but let’s not fool ourselves. These are not good movies. These are low-budget, bubblegum, frothy make-out flicks. It’s possible that my own parents rounded a couple of bases during Beach Party. My mother probably got mad at her beau for making a crude comment about Annette’s bosoms during How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. And everyone knew, no matter how much of the middle you missed, you could always tell your parents that Frankie and Annette wound up together at the end. An American International picture is not rocket science. Maybe social science. Definitely Mystery Science (Theater 3000).

The series begins with Beach Party, when a bearded anthropologist “secretly studying the mating habits of Southern California teenagers” gets mixed up in all the “teen” antics. Naturally, hilarity ensues. We’re introduced to the perpetually on again-off again Frankie and Dee Dee (Annette), their surfing pals, Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, and the villainous Eric von Zipper and his Ratz pack. We’re also introduced to the running gag of the Himalayan Mind Suspension technique, wherein Eric von Zipper inadvertently paralyzes himself by pressing his forefinger to his skull. And Les Baxter provides the musical score for all the smooching scenes and surfing montages.

In 1964, AIP released Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and Pajama Party. Muscle Beach Party focuses on a rivalry between the surfers and a gang of bodybuilders. Frankie and Dee Dee’s true love is threatened by an Italian countess. Don Rickles lobs a few insults, Little Stevie Wonder sings a couple of songs, bodybuilders walk around in capes and mankinis, and everything works out in the end.

Then there’s Bikini Beach. Oh, Bikini Beach. Frankie and Dee Dee’s true love is threatened by a British pop star “Potato Bug” (Avalon in a dual role). The surfers are also into drag racing, some stuffy millionaire wants to turn the beach into a retirement community. Don Rickles (as a new character) lobs a few insults, Little Stevie Wonder sings a couple of songs, Eric von Zipper and his gang get into a scuffle, and—after a lengthy car chase and a bunch of art slinging—everything works out in the end. Wait, did I mention the monkey?

Pajama Party departs from the standard beach party formula by replacing Frankie with a Martian called Go Go (played by Tommy Kirk). Annette plays Connie, neglected girlfriend of Big Lunk (Deadhead in the previous films). Buster Keaton plays an Indian, Martian Don Rickles lobs a few Martian insults, Eric von Zipper gets a sidecar for his motorcycle, Elsa Lanchester offers advice…there’s subplots, swimming pools, lingerie and longjohns, and everything works out in the end. I guess. If you’re running a marathon of these flicks, Pajama Party is the one you miss most of because of bathroom and snack breaks.

With Beach Blanket Bingo we’re back on track. Frankie and Dee Dee blah blah. Deadhead (now Bonehead) falls for a mermaid, Don Rickles insults everybody, the surfers take up skydiving, Dee Dee argues for gender equality in daredevil stunts, Eric von Zipper falls for (and kidnaps) the visiting singing sensation, Paul Lynde is a smarmy publicity agent, and—after yet another massive brawl between the surfers and the bikers‚—everything works out. It’s getting tougher to pass these kids off as kids. Can’t adults be allowed to blow off everything for a weekend and go surfing with a hundred other adults? Is there a meetup group for that?

We saw how Annette fared without Frankie in Pajama Party. How does Frankie hold up without Annette in Ski Party? Without an established relationship to muck up, Frankie’s left to engage in wackiest of all schemes to land the girl. In Ski Party, Frankie and Dwayne “Dobie Gillis” Hickman are a couple of love-starved college guys. The guys join the school’s ski club and tag along on their skiing trip. But wait! These boys don’t know how to ski! Of course the only solution is to cross dress as British exchange students and join the ladies on the bunny slopes! Cue the manipulation, hilarious misunderstandings and co-ed pillow fights. Lesley Gore sings on a bus and James Brown shows up at the ski resort when his bus runs out of gas or something. Eventually everyone winds up at a beach house and everything works out.

How to Stuff a Wild Bikini is the last beach party movie featuring Frankie and Annette as our heroes. Frankie’s off in the tropics, under the thin guise of naval reserve duty. He’s frolicking with exotic island babes but gets concerned that Dee Dee might get cozy with some other fella (and withhold sex from that guy). Naturally, the solution is to have a witch doctor (Buster Keaton) conjure up a vapid bikini chick to distract the boys from Dee Dee. Dwayne Hickman tackles the role of Frankie’s rival, while all the other guys (otherwise known as Frankie’s pals in all the other movies) stay away from the fully-clothed-for-the-entire-picture Dee Dee. Mickey Rooney calls everyone chicky-baby, Uncle Leo and Dobie Gillis get into a fist fight, Eric von Zipper tries to change his image, a motorcycle race is full of hijinks, everyone sings a bunch of forgettable songs, Frankie returns, and it’s happily ever after for everyone except Dobie Gillis.

The trouble with the beach party films is that none of them are particularly memorable. You can walk away with the basic formula, but the details vanish. These movies weren’t built for careful repeated viewings. The AIP flicks were quick cash grabs aimed at teens looking for something to do on a Saturday night. A beach party movie is good for casual, passive viewing, requiring minimal investment but also offering minimal reward (especially if your date is a real Dee Dee). Since the days of drive-ins are well behind us, the most we can demand of an AIP production is light entertainment during a bout of the flu.

If you’re tuning in a beach party movie to see an accurate depiction of teen life in the 1960s, you’re out of luck. These things were written by middle-aged men with little, if any, insight into the average teenage mind. They steer clear of any political or social upheaval and unrest. Everyone’s just out to have a good time. The only concerns are whether Dee Dee will ever get Frankie to settle down and marry her and whether Frankie will ever convince Dee Dee to just put out already. Those questions are answered in the 1987 nostalgia trip Back to the Beach, which features Frankie and Annette and ignores most of AIP beach party canon.

TCM-worthy fun fact: Eric von Zipper was played by Harvey Lembeck, father of Helaine Lembeck who played Sweathogs foe Judy Borden on Welcome Back, Kotter. One of the stars of Welcome Back, Kotter was, as we know, superstar John Travolta, who went on to play Danny Zuko, another leader of a motorcycle gang, the T-Birds, in the 1978 musical Grease.

American International continued to produce films marketed to teen viewers well into the 1970s. They put out a number of monster horror movies, a series of movies based on the stories by Edgar Allan Poe directed by Roger Corman, spy spoofs, car racing sagas, kung fu, and blaxploitation films.

Popped Culture: Nancy Sinatra

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You can find her on every female empowerment mix tape, wedged between Helen Reddy and Gloria Gaynor. Her biggest hit is the anthem for jilted girlfriends. Nancy Sinatra and her boots walked into the hearts of millions in the mid-1960s and made her a feminist icon. Now she seems little more than a feminist footnote. Let’s remedy our ignorance by putting on our nostalgia boots and taking a tour of Nancy’s career.

It would be easy, though inaccurate, to write off Nancy Sinatra as a celebuspawn with a career based solely on nepotism. At the initial launch of her career, Nancy was in danger of living a lifetime in her father’s shadow. A mousy brunette with moderate singing talent, she started out singing the same bubblegum pop and torch songs as her contemporaries. As Frank Sinatra’s Daughter she was entitled a chance at stardom but was posed for a mostly forgettable string of appearances on holiday specials and the occasional duet with Frank or Dean Martin. She probably didn’t set out with the intent to become a trail-blazing feminist and role model for aspiring women musicians. Like most entertainers, she just wanted to sell some albums.

When Nancy emerged with a new look and sound, she stood apart from her competition and her own father. Her rebel bombshell persona let her dominate the stage in way she couldn’t as a brunette. Songwriter Lee Hazlewood gave her an edgy pop sound and lyrics that turned the tables on the traditional male-female relationship. Nancy’s new bold blonde attitude made the feminist statement that she could be ogled but on her own terms, that she was a woman who doesn’t tolerate misbehaving men but isn’t above misbehaving herself. And with “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’“, Nancy’s proclamation was well-received and adopted by newly liberated women.

For all the talk of female empowerment and gender equality, none of Nancy’s songs purport the message that she doesn’t need a man at all. She may chastise a man for doing her wrong, but she’s gonna find a new man that she can whip into shape not give up on men for good. Nancy isn’t really about sisterhood and girl power so much as she is about sexual liberation, which shouldn’t be disparaged. It was the 1960s and these baby steps were giant leaps in that era.

Nancy’s tough girl act didn’t translate into dance. It’s rare to find a performance in which Nancy Sinatra performs a full dance routine. Most footage of her performances usually show her posed gracefully atop set pieces or standing amidst dancers who handle all the heavy hoofing. Cool girls don’t do choreography, it seems. Occasionally Nancy can be seen employing an obligatory wiggle. Based on her performance in Speedway, maybe some cool girls don’t need to dance.

After her initial success, Nancy began disconnecting from her brand. She maintained the physical appearance but veered off in different musical directions. Questionable song choices, like a duet of “Somethin’ Stupid” with daddy Frank, are used to fill out an album. Her albums become more disjointed with covers that show off her pipes rather than her persona. The argument could be made that tracks like “Until It’s Time for You to Go” and “As Tears Go By” balance out ones like “Sorry ‘Bout That” and “I Gotta Get Outta This Town” and give her a necessary vulnerability so that she doesn’t come across as a cold-hearted heartbreaker. The ratio of Hazlewood-inspired pop to mellow ballads decreased with each album. Two years after Boots, Nancy made a musical shift from pop into country, teaming up with Hazlewood vocally.

Despite the branding conflicts, Nancy’s pop offerings have interesting musical arrangements that are fun and unexpected. She really makes cover songs her own instead of crooning along to the original arrangement. Her foray into the country-western genre retain most of her pop edge, making it passably palatable even to someone who eschews country music.

After four years, Nancy began shifting out of the spotlight and into motherhood. Beneath the liberated modern woman facade lurked a traditional-minded woman content to settle down and raise a family. She resurfaced in the mid-1990s with a Playboy spread and a new album. She was 54 when she posed for Playboy in 1995, again blazing trails and challenging perceptions, this time leading the sexual liberation of AARP members. Nancy’s daring magazine appearance helped pave the way for society’s acceptance of sexy older ladies like Helen Mirren and motivated aging women to trade their blue rinse for Botox.

It’s a shame that Nancy’s legacy is one song when there’s so much in her musical catalog to be discovered and enjoyed. Love her or hate her, she’s an inspiration. She cultivated an identity separate from her father and managed a comeback at a time of life when most people are dreaming of retirement. And she’s still active, making music and donating her time to political and charitable causes. She keeps her Twitter (@NancySinatra) and website regularly updated and is a regular host on the Siriusly Sinatra channel on SiriusXM.

Popped Culture: Peter Cook

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When you think of British comedy, you instinctively quote from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. When you think of the British satire boom, you may recall That Was The Week That Was or Private Eye. Meet the man who helped pave the way for them all.

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Peter Cook (November 17, 1937 – January 9, 1995)

A few years ago, I bought my boyfriend a copy of The Best of What’s Left of Not Only…But Also, a long-forgotten BBC series from the 1960s starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The series employed young dreamboats Cook and Moore fresh off their successful West End and Broadway runs of Beyond the Fringe. Through three series, Cook and Moore delighted audiences with bits like the “Dagenham Dialogues” of Pete & Dud, “Superthunderstingcar,” the interviews of Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, and musical interludes from the Dudley Moore Trio.

After viewing Not Only…But Also and Beyond the Fringe (also available on DVD), I was hooked on Cook. No sooner had we finished watching those programs was I searching YouTube for more. I spent hours watching other salvaged clips (not the best of what’s left, I suppose) from that series, bits from Behind the Fridge and The Secret Policeman’s Balls, interviews on chat shows. I searched for movie titles from Cook’s IMDB. Movies led to books, books led to plays, plays led back to the internet. This introduction—or reintroduction, rather, as I had a brief involvement with some Monty Python albums in the mid 1990s—has immersed me in the mid-century British satire boom.

The career trajectory of Peter Cook is remarkable and cautionary. This was a man intent on being a renaissance man, dominating the world of satire if not the world itself. Just barely out of university, he conquered the West End and Broadway as a writer and performer. By the age of 30, he’d been a nightclub owner, magazine publisher, a writer, an actor of film and television, and would-be rock star. He had not, however, been wholly successful at the lot. The Establishment closed within several years of opening, Private Eye was susceptible to libel suits, his movies were not blockbusters, and he was tone deaf. The trouble with rising to stardom so fast and reaching the level of hobnobbing with royalty, working regularly with childhood heroes, and earning loads of money in the first quarter of life is that it doesn’t leave much left for future goals.

Despite his ability to create brilliant original material, Cook seemed content to revisit old characters and recycle old material. And recycle he did, even early on. Bedazzled revisits and expounds on the “The Leaping Nuns of the Order of St Beryl” from the original Not Only…But Also series, E.L. Wisty was a creation from Cook’s school days and made appearances on all manners of series and specials with interesting facts and ideas about world domination and nude ladies, and “One Leg Too Few,” originally part of Beyond the Fringe, is clumsily inserted in the The Hound of the Baskervilles. A dedicated historian could probably find a recorded version of Cook and Moore’s “Frog and Peach” sketch or “One Leg Too Few” from every year past it’s original performance until Cook’s death. While once standard practice for comedians to get mileage out of old bits for years, Cook couldn’t get away with that today, what with smart phones and rabid comedy nerds and competition from prolific creators like Louis C.K.


Peter Cook died just before the Internet began sprouting up. I wonder, given his earlier ambitions, whether Cook would have seen the potential and considered using E.L. Wisty to create a World Wide Web Domination League. Would E.L. Wisty have his own podcast? Would Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling host a vlog? Or would he merely be content to pop up on the odd panel show, stumping Lee Mack on Would I Lie to You? or spouting interesting facts on QI?

If you’re interested in having a Peter Cook marathon for yourself, I recommend:
Beyond the Fringe
Not Only…But Also… Best of
Bedazzled
(the pinnacle of the Cook-Moore partnership)
Rise & Rise of Michael Rimmer
(pre-Python John Cleese and political satire)
The Bedsitting Room (although Cook and Moore are not heavily featured)
The Wrong Box (young Michael Caine! Peter Sellers in a room full of cats! A room full of cats!)
Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland
(which is bizarre, hippy-trippy, and wonderful—if you’re in the mood for it, and reunites 3/4 of the Beyond the Fringe cast)

Seek out The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978), Yellowbeard (Widescreen) (wee baby David Bowie!), and Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies only if you’re the completist sort.

katharine hearts davy

My experience with The Monkees begins much the same as most in my generation. MTV and Nickelodeon were young networks that hadn’t yet discovered reality programming or Dan Schneider (for he was holding court in the back of the Head of the Class room). For me, I’m almost certain The Monkees aired on a local station prior to 1986. I distinctly remember watching The Monkees before my afternoon nap and watching Gidget after my nap. The point is that I was a wee pre-pre-preteen when I got hooked on the Pre-Fab Four. When I got my first boombox, one of my first albums was The Monkees Greatest Hits (yes, Brucio, greatest hits albums are for housewives and little girls). I listened to that cassette tape on the way to school everyday for two years. Tip: Don’t let your seven-year-olds listen to “Shades of Grey” on repeat.


Davy Jones was my first favourite Monkee. He was my imaginary friend when I had to spend horrendous afternoons with my drunk grandmother. Even into the 1980s, with the mullet and California tan, Davy proved to still be a heartthrob. And to multiple generations. Davy Jones was no Rex Manning. If young women were lining up for his autograph, it was out of genuine affection. They weren’t queuing up for their moms or spinster aunts. Most teen idols don’t cross generations successfully. And no teen idol has been able to gracefully retain his boyish good looks (Prove me wrong, Bieber).

I outgrew The Monkees for a while. I needed to experiment with other music and swoon over other funny boys. These days, I’m a Mike girl (although he refuses to be my imaginary friend). And I’m strictly softcore in my fandom, compared to others. Epcot will be a little sadder without an annual appearance by Davy. The possibility of seeing The Monkees in concert just one more time grew a little dimmer. And somewhere, a group of people are comparing The Monkees to Golden Girls and taking bets on who will go next (will they go by height? Will Peter experience a Betty White-like surge of popularity? Who will be saddled with title of “the remaining Monkee”?). My own act of mourning the loss of Davy Jones is to preserve my best memories of him, to not focus on the later years of mullets and man-boobs. And to not tarnish his memory by continuing to poke fun at his mullet and moobs. (I’m already failing.)

katharine has interests (but probably doesn’t share those interests with you)

A few weeks ago on my Tumblr dashboard, the curator of themodculture shared this experience:

“I once posted a picture of Jimmy (Quadrophenia) on Facebook and people wrote: “Oh look, a hipster” – the only thing I replied was with the Wikipedia page for “Mod (subculture)”, which should be a good start for the ignorant.
But the only answer I got was “I don’t want to get into something I’m not interested in.”
Well, that’s a pretty sad attitude to life, isn’t it?”

Sad, indeed. And yet that’s our collective attitude. If we’re not already interested in something, forget it. If I don’t already know and love a particular thing, it does not exist in my world. And furthermore, it is not welcome in my world. I developed all of my interests and beliefs at age 12 and remain firmly committed to them all. There is absolutely no room for me to grow or evolve or take the time to discover something new or different that might lead to a better understanding of humankind or merely superficial enjoyment. No. Shut it down. Remove all foreign concepts and notions from my sight. I’ll not give any consideration to your interests, ideas, beliefs, culture (pop or otherwise) for they might lead me astray or broaden my horizons.

That reaction seems a bit extreme, doesn’t it? “Keep an open mind,” you say. “Don’t shut yourself off from possibilities,” you say. “You never know until you try,” you say. But what say you if I ask you to listen to some celebrity dubstep or seapunk or bluegrass ballet? How might you respond to a YouTube link of witty Britcoms or baby mimes or “hilarious” crotch kicks set to Philip Glass? Would you be willing to attend my one-woman space opera and foosball match? Where’s your open mind now?

I feel that I’m fairly well-rounded and broad-minded. I know what I like. I know what I’m willing to tolerate. I understand the need for certain things at certain times. And I get that sometimes easier to bend to peer pressure and go along with the majority. Even if the majority heralds crap. It’s my perception that it is crap. What I believe to be rubbish is my taste. There is no longer “good” and “bad.”

Well, there is “good” and there is “bad.” It’s just that quality no longer factors into one’s determination of something being good or bad. More often it’s personal preference that dictates the perception of goodness or badness. A thing can be technically perfect and still perceived as “bad.” A thing can be politically incorrect and morally offensive and still be perceived as “good.” But can I really say something is bad simply because I do not care for it? Is something bad simply because I have been exposed to similar things which I considered to be better? What makes them better? What makes me better?

Maybe someone else’s interest isn’t rubbish. Maybe I’m feeling overextended within my own interests and hobbies and am simply unable to take on one more thing. Is it possible to like too many things? Maybe I’m cultivating an identity around a core group of related interests and don’t want to stray too far from my “brand,” lest I confuse future peer groups. We’ve gotten so snuggly in our own bubbles. We’ve splintered off into niche subcultures and urban (or cyber) tribes. We love to self-identify as stereotypes of our own inventions (Pinterest Mom is the new Soccer Mom). Maybe I just can’t relate to the steampunk-goth burlesque princess or parents who write poetry about the dreams of their food-smeared children.

We often consider our own tastes to be superior to others, sometimes developing a prejudice for a thing without properly experiencing it. We decide that we don’t care for the idea of something and dismiss it. I don’t know that I think dubstep is “bad” or that baby mimes are “stupid.” But I am choosing not to explore and find out. It’s a preconceived notion based on what I know of my own mind and pre-existing interests. Some people may roll their eyes because I like old things like The Monkees and Henry Mancini. I roll my eyes because people like Beyoncé and Bon Iver. At least I feel like I’m choosing my interests rather than allowing the tastemakers of the day to decree that I subject myself only to what is “hot” and “in.”

How do you know what you’re already interested in? At what point did you stop exploring and discovering new things? How do you know that someone else’s subculture doesn’t overlap with your own? What is a hipster anymore, really?

katharine watches 39 william powell movies

In December, Turner Classic Movies chose William Powell as their Star of the Month. Every Thursday night TCM ran a marathon of Powell-led films from 20 of his 30-year film career. The marathons excluded all of his silent pictures except the 1922 Sherlock Holmes starring John Barrymore.


Thanks to the TCM marathon, I’ve now seen 39 William Powell pictures. Not all in one go. If you’ve followed me on Twitter or Facebook, you’re aware that I’ve been a Powell fan for quite some time. Most of my viewings have been scattered throughout the past two years. Many on TCM, accompanied by commentary by Robert Osbourne. Bobby O tells us which studio Bill Powell was working for and with whom he was involved at the time. Bobby O really likes to regale us with studio trivia. The recent string of marathons allowed me to fill in some gaps and see some lesser shown Powell films.

(An aside: I watch a lot of TCM. So much that I’ve taken to calling Robert Osbourne pet names. And when I watch any movie on some other platform, I’m always let down when he doesn’t appear at the end with follow up commentary.)


As you might guess, when one actor appears in dozens upon dozens of films, the quality is a bit hit-and-miss. So many misses. And so many misses. General audiences may only think of William Powell paired with Myrna Loy since they worked together in the six Thin Man movies and eight others. Even audiences of the time believed Powell and Loy to be married in real life (they were never romantically involved, to public knowledge). But Bill Powell played leading man to many leading ladies, including Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis, Hedy Lamarr, and real life lady loves Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow. The Powell-Loy pairings make for higher quality hits.


The great thing about William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles is they dispense with all that jealous spouse nonsense so that we can enjoy the whole cocktail-fueled mystery story. She may get in the way sometimes, but Nora is supportive and helpful of Nick’s detective career. She doesn’t huff and pout because her husband isn’t paying strict attention to her at all moments. Perhaps he spends too much time doting on her in between cases, so Nora encourages Nick to take a case just to get him out and about for a while. We don’t see a lot of happy couples  on the screen. Very often there must also be an inter-relationship conflict to be resolved in addition to the plot conflicts, which gets very tiresome. Breaking up couples just to put them back together again is a thread-bare trope. But it was still fresh in the 1930s movie world and Powell and Loy certainly played that drama once or twice in other roles.


Powell rarely gave a bad performance, though he was dealt many bad scripts. He was at his best as a smooth-talking con man or someone with slippery morals. When given a steady daytime job or put in a more fatherly role, Powell becomes a tad less sparkly and charming. The transition in the late 1940s to more mature roles put Powell in a different light (not to mention Technicolor). The tone of films changed, making Powell seem dated or out of place. Soapy dramas like The Girl Who Had Everything replaced screwball comedies. There was no place for smooth fast-talkers. Powell was right to retire after Mister Roberts. He was already in his 60s and in danger of, as he put it, “being cast as Elvis Presley’s grandfather.”

Youngsters looking to escape the three-dimensional noise-fests that get passed off as movies today—and aren’t put off by something simply because it’s black and white and produced in the early 20th century—would do well to take in a couple of movies from The Thin Man series. All of them are watchable and enjoyable in their way. Even Song of the Thin Man, which feels less like a Nick and Nora story than cheap noir, will provide some hep jazz lingo to lay on a new generation.

My favourite entry in the Powell-Loy oeuvre is Double Wedding. It’s silly, with a nice mix of romance and comedy and art deco sets. (I haven’t even mentioned art director Cedric Gibbons…so many obsessions, so little time.) Double Wedding doesn’t make demands of your intellect or leave you questioning plot holes after Bobby O’s talks about goings-on at the MGM lot during filming.


Film aficionados will insist that you watch My Man Godfrey and Life with Father, Powell’s other memorable movies. I will insist that you watch The Great Ziegfeld and Fashions of 1934, but for inappropriate reasons. Powell’s “I’ve got to have more stairs.” at the end of The Great Ziegfeld is to me what Orson Welles’ “Rosebud” is to everyone else. If you’ve developed an obsessive crush on William Powell, I’ve taken note that he appears shirtless in High Pressure, Lawyer Man, and Star of Midnight Star Of Midnight . I’ve also noted when he plays a lawyer, a con man, or a high-ranking official and when Frank McHugh appears as Powell’s conniving sidekick. Someday Jeopardy will dedicate a category to this topic and I will be well-prepared. I don’t know all the countries in Africa and have no clue how any of my internal organs function, but I can tell you that if Frank McHugh and William Powell are in the opening credits, they play men of questionable morals.

Please tell Robert Osbourne that his job is safe from me.