Showing posts with label Thin Man. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Thin Man. Show all posts

02 June 2020

Outside the Three-Mile Limit


by Paul D. Marks

As many regular readers here know, I’m fascinated with Los Angeles history. I post about various aspects of it from time to time. I use it as background in much of my fiction. And one of the most fascinating aspects of L.A. history are the gambling boats that used to anchor off the shore, just outside the three mile legal limit.

The Rex
Bobby in the just-released (yesterday) The Blues Don’t Care has more than his share of adventure on one of those gambling ships. In the novel, Bobby and the band he’s in get a gig on the Apollo, one of the gambling ships off the Los Angeles coast. They find more than a little trouble there that really sets the plot in motion.

Cops dumping slot machines off the Rex
The Apollo is based on the real gambling ships that used to lay off the SoCal shore, just outside the three-mile limit. I’ve taken a few liberties with the Apollo. It’s much nicer than the real gambling ships, which, while they had their amenities, weren’t always as glamorous as you might think. But when gambling was illegal I guess they were good places to go and get your fix.

                  The interior of the Lux
The most famous of the real gambling ships was the Rex, run by Tony Cornero, A.K.A. The Admiral. Cornero had a checkered career, to say the least. During Prohibition in the 1920s he was a rum-runner (I wonder if he knew Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.?). He moved much of his illegal booze on ships, so had a background on the bounding seas for when he decided to open up the gambling ships later on.



When Prohibition was repealed, Cornero made the easy slide over to gambling. In 1931 when gambling was legalized in Las Vegas, he and his brothers set up there, opening up The Meadows Casino and Hotel, beating out Bugsy Siegel’s Vegas venture by over a decade. Unfortunately, Lucky Luciano got wind of it and, since Cornero wouldn’t pay extortion money, the Meadows was torched. Hmm, no connection to old Lucky there, right?

Tony Cornero aboard the Lux
So back to L.A. Cornero went. And in 1938 he bought two ships, the SS Rex and the SS Tango and converted them into gambling boats. By running them outside the legal limit he could skirt US law. The ships included gourmet chefs, gunmen to keep the peace, waiters, waitresses and—wait for it—orchestras. And that’s where Bobby and the Booker ‘Boom-Boom’ Taylor Orchestra come in.


Cornero was a constant thorn in the side of authorities, but things went along swimmingly until The Battle of Santa Monica Bay—yeah, that’s a real thing. The authorities tried raiding the ships. The Rex held them off for nine days, but eventually lost and Cornero, to make a long story short, hightailed it back to Vegas, where he built the Stardust Casino and Hotel, which I stayed at many times. At the time, way back when, I knew it was mob-connected, but I didn’t know then about the Cornero connection, which I find intriguing.

The Battle of Santa Monica Bay
And, of course, some pivotal scenes in The Blues Don’t Care are set on the Apollo, just a water taxi ride from the Santa Monica Pier:

“A fine briny mist bit Bobby’s skin as he waited in the throng of people on the Santa Monica Pier for the water taxi that would take him to the gambling ship Apollo. The little cartoon-like ‘Kilroy Was Here’ drawing glared at him from the water taxi shack. Kilroy was everywhere these days. He had to shield his eyes from the fiery late afternoon sun, wished he had a pair of sunglasses. Only movie stars and musicians wore sunglasses. Maybe he’d get a pair of shades.”

Below, Bobby describes seeing the Apollo’s ballroom for the first time:

“Bobby peered over the sea of faces in the ballroom—white faces in expensive suits and chic dresses. The Apollo wasn’t the biggest or fanciest or the most seaworthy ship in the world. But if she went down, half of Hollywood, the Los Angeles political establishment, and business movers and shakers in the Southland would disappear into Davy Jones’ Locker. That didn’t stop the people who ran her—gangsters everyone knew—from decking out the main ballroom as if it were Versailles. The ceiling was tall and sparkled with lights under a false ceiling with a gauzy, azure-painted sky. Below it, the dance floor in the center of the room, surrounded by gambling tables—craps, roulette, blackjack, and the like. And in rows behind the gambling tables, dining tables.”

The La La Land gambling ships also make appearances in one of my favorite books and a movie from one of my favorite series.

Raymond Chandler talks about them in Farewell, My Lovely. In the novel, Philip Marlowe is told that Moose Malloy might be hiding out on one of the gambling ships outside the three mile limit. Marlowe sneaks aboard and persuades Brunette, the gangster who runs the ship, to get a message to Malloy. Farewell, My Lovely was made into the movie Murder, My Sweet (1944). The 1942 B movie The Falcon Takes Over is also based on the plot. And in 1975 Robert Mitchum starred in a remake.

And much of Song of the Thin Man, the last Thin Man movie (co-written by my friend Nat Perrin) is partially set on one of the ships. A benefit is happening on the gambling ship Fortune. The bandleader is murdered. Guess who has to figure it out. Song of the Thin Man should be called Farewell, My Thin Man as it’s the last in the series and unfortunately not the best by far, but it has its moments.

Mr. Lucky
Another movie that takes place on a gambling ship is the Cary Grant-Larraine Day flick Mr. Lucky. Not his best, but I like it. And you can check out my close encounter of the first kind with Cary Grant at my website.
The book was released yesterday. Hope you’ll want to check it out. Here’s what some people are saying about it:

"This is a beautifully noirish book, set firmly in the dark days of wartime and offering a sharp insight into the life and times of Los Angeles, 1940s style. Yes, it’s a mystery thriller, but The Blues Don’t Care is so much more than that, with historic detail, chutzpah, a cast of hugely entertaining characters, a really unusual protagonist and, best of all, a cracking soundtrack too."
    —DeathBecomesHer, CrimeFictionLover.com

“Award-winning author Paul D. Marks hits it out of the park with this finely-written novel bringing WWII-era L.A. alive with memorable characters, scents, descriptions, and most of all, jazz. Highly recommended.”
     —Brendan DuBois, New York Times bestselling author

“Paul D. Marks finds new gold in 40's L.A. noir while exploring prejudices in race, culture, and sexual identity. There's sex, drugs, and jazz and an always surprising hero who navigates the worlds of gambling, music, war profiteers, Jewish mobsters, and a lonely few trying to do the right thing. Marks has an eye for the telling detail, and an ear that captures the music in the dialogue of the times. He is one helluva writer.”
      —Michael Sears, award-winning author of Tower of Babel, and the Jason Stafford series


"While The Blues Don't Care is a complex, sometimes brutal, story, it also has its glimmers of beauty and joy. Those glimpses come from Bobby's passion for music, and his awe when he sees celebrities such as Clark Gable and Billie Holiday. Wander into Bobby Saxon's world in Paul D. Marks' latest book. It's a world you won't easily forget."
      —Lesa's Book Critiques, lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com



~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

06 August 2013

Mystery Film Series


by Terence Faherty

In my recent post on obscure and forgotten mystery films, I intentionally omitted any entries from mystery film series, a very popular form of crime film in the thirties and forties.  I did say, however, that I would return to the subject of film series at some later time.  Well, it's hot outside (and inside, my office is under the peak of the roof), vacation is looming, serious thought is even harder than usual, so here are some unserious thoughts about three of the best series from Hollywood's Golden Age.

A Little Background

With one notable exception addressed below, all mystery series were B pictures.  The term "B picture" might make one think "low budget," and most of these films were made for what passed for shoestring spending back then.  But the term also refers to the function of these films in a standard film program of the day.  In addition to an A picture, movie goers in the thirties and forties expected to see some combination of a newsreel, a two-reel comedy or a cartoon, a travelogue or some other informative short subject, and one or more B picture.  (Because of their role in filling out a film program, B's are sometimes referred to as "programmers.")  Being appetizer courses, these films were necessarily brief.  The average running time was just over an hour.

Series were popular with audiences because they were familiar:  same stars, same music, same sets, etc.  This recycling is one of the things that made them inexpensive to produce.  They were popular with the studios because they gave them a place to try out new talent.  So, for example, you can catch early performances of Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart in Thin Man films, Jean Arthur in two Philo Vance entries, and Ray Milland in a Charlie Chan.  All those actors would go on to win Academy Awards.  Mystery series were also a place where studios could use older stars at the ends of their careers.  Warner Baxter (another Academy Award winner) finished up as the Crime Doctor (ten films) and Richard Dix (Academy Award nominee) in the Whistler series (eight films).

The Thin Man Series

The exception to the B picture rule mentioned above was the Thin Man series, which starred the great team of William Powell and Myrna Loy.  It could be argued that the first film, The Thin Man, based on the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, was modestly budgeted by MGM standards.  But it earned a pile of money, ensuring that subsequent films would be unquestioned A products.  They appeared at long intervals for a series; only six films were made over thirteen years.  The closest thing to the Thin Man phenomenon was probably the Road pictures Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made for Paramount:  A picture follow-ups to an unexpected smash hit, released at irregular intervals as special event films.

William Powell, Asta, and Myrna Loy
 on the set of The Thin Man Goes Home 
The Thin Man films depended heavily on the charm and chemistry of their two stars:  Powell, the husband detective repeatedly pulled out of his boozy retirement, and Loy, the detective-wannabe wife who often did the pulling. They may have been the most happily married couple in Hollywood history.  Early on some name confusion arose.  "The Thin Man" actually refers to character from the first film whose disappearance sparks the plot.  The earlier titles in the series reflect this:  After the Thin Man and Another Thin Man.  But soon, probably because Powell was no weightlifter, the Thin Man came to mean the character Powell played, Nick Charles, in the public's mind.  Eventually, MGM gave up the fight (as Universal did when the Frankenstein monster usurped the last name of Dr. Frankenstein).  So the fifth entry is called The Thin Man Goes Home.    

In addition to the drinking and the leads' banter (and the participation of Asta, a fox terrier), a standard feature of the films was the denouement scene that ended each entry, in which all the suspects were brought together and Charles winged a summation of the case, hoping that someone would make a slip ("just one slip").  According to Loy, Powell complained about the pages of dialogue that he had to learn for these scenes, and the scriptwriters probably felt the same way about it.  But as payoff scenes, these really pay off.

The series declined gently after its great start, as the actors aged and the characters were softened (meaning they drank less).  My favorite is After the Thin Man, from 1936.

The Sherlock Holmes Series

My favorite film series when I was a kid was the Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson.  This was actually two series, made by two studios.  20th Century Fox got the ball rolling with two films set in the proper Victorian time period:  The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, both released in 1939.  The box office wasn't what they'd hoped for, so they dropped the project.  But Rathbone and Bruce didn't drop the roles.  They began instead what would be a long run playing the famous duo on radio, also in period.  So the public was primed for a return to the big screen.  But when it happened, in 1942 courtesy of Universal, Holmes and Watson were in what was then modern dress, facing off against the Nazis.

Nigel Bruce, Basil Rathbone, and Evelyn Ankers
on the set of The Voice of Terror
This updating has bothered purists ever since, but the Universal series was simply reverting to what had been the norm prior to 20th's Hound.  The strange-but-true fact is that every Holmes sound film prior to 1939 had been updated to the then current period.  This was true of an earlier series, Arthur Wontner's six-film effort, of Clive Brook's two films as Holmes, and of a number of one-offs by various actors.  Unfortunately for the Universal series, all Sherlock Holmes theatrical films that followed it were done as period pieces, making this second Rathbone/Bruce teaming seem like an aberration.  One of the things I like about PBS's Sherlock and CBS's Elementary, which were written about in this space recently by Brian Thornton, is that they again reimagine Holmes and Watson for the modern age, offering the Universal films some retrospective cover. 


Like the Thin Man films, the Sherlock Holmes series banked on the playing and chemistry of its two leads, who, like Powell and Loy, were good friends in real life.  Basil Rathbone's Holmes, perfect in stature, profile, and voice, seems to be enjoying life in the two 20th Century Fox outings.  In the Universal films, he is often serious and even somber.  I'm always grateful for the occasional smile he gets from the carrying on of Nigel Bruce, though my gratitude is not universally shared.  Many Sherlockians deplore Bruce's trademark buffoonery, wishing for something closer to the Watson of the stories.  This wish ignores the reality that Watson's function in the series isn't the same as it had been in the stories.  Here he's comic relief.  With the exception of the Thin Man films, which were basically comedies with mystery relief, all the mystery series had comic relief sidekicks.  Nigel Bruce was the best. 

The twelve Universal films only paid lip service to Doyle's stories, but they always moved along briskly.  Other assets include a stock company of English bit players that almost makes you believe these were shot in England and great title music by Universal's house composer, Frank Skinner (who also scored some of their horror films).    

Many commentators pick The Scarlet Claw as the best of the Universal films, but my favorite is 1942's Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror.  I mean, if you're going to bring Holmes into the forties, he might as well be helping with the war effort.  Plus this one has some strikingly noir photography and the beautiful Evelyn Ankers. 

The Charlie Chan Series

It is not uncommon these days to hear the Charlie Chan films, based on the character created by Earl Derr Biggers, referred to as racist, which is sad and silly in equal measure and says more about our times than it does about this series, the longest running mystery film series of them all.  There were two or three precursor films starring Asian actors as the detective, but the run really began with the casting of Swedish actor Warner Oland as a globetrotting Chan.  (In one four-film stretch, Chan jumped from London to Paris to Egypt and on to Shanghai.)  Oland's claims of Mongol ancestry might have been studio moonshine, though costar Keye Luke, himself Chinese, has testified that Oland wore no special makeup for the part, other than a fake goatee.  But Oland's genetic makeup and his dependence upon makeup are equally beside the point, in this writer's opinion.  Oland was an actor playing someone he wasn't, which is what all actors do.  And he played this particular someone better than any actor before him or after him.

Warner Oland and Keye Luke
on the set of Chalrlie Chan
at the Opera 
Oland's Chan was smiling and genial, much of the time.  This is one of the charges brought against it: that its geniality reflects subservience. For me, it places Chan in the long tradition of detectives who encourage their opponents to underestimate them.  I always loved the moment in the Chan films when Oland would drop the smile and intone "you are murderer."  This phrasing brings to mind another charge against Chan:  his English isn't perfect.  But I don't think Oland/Chan was ever ungrammatical.  He merely dropped the occasional article and struggled with American idioms.  Unless they lived in very small towns, audience members of the thirties probably knew immigrants of many ethic backgrounds who fought the same battles with English.  Many had fought them themselves. 

Moviegoers of the period were also familiar with another part of the immigrant experience reflected in these films:  the conflicts between immigrants and their Americanized children.  This source of comedy relief was introduced to the series when Chan's "number one son" Lee, played by Keye Luke, debuted in Charlie Chan in Paris.  After that, this series, like the earlier two I've described, profited greatly from the chemistry of its costars, in this case a Swedish pretend father and his Chinese pretend son.  

Oland died in harness and was replaced by Sidney Toler, who did depend on makeup and could never be accused of smiling too much.  He received a new sidekick son, Jimmy Chan, played by Victor Sen Yung.  A third son, Tommy, would be played by Benson Fong while Yung was in the service during the war.  Around that time, Toler died and was replaced by Roland Winters.  When the series sputtered to an end, there had been over forty entries and it had proven popular all over the world, including China.

Since I'm picking favorites, I'll name a Chan film, 1936's Charlie Chan at the Opera.  It's from the series' peak period and features Boris Karloff as the skinniest baritone in the history of grand opera.  Plus they hired Oscar Levant to whip up a phony opera for the picture.  How's that for attention to detail?

In Conclusion

I don't have a conclusion; I just needed another heading for balance.  Someday, when it's hot again, I'll write about some of the lesser movie series.  In the meantime, stay cool.

03 May 2012

Tough Broads


by Deborah Elliott-Upton


 

In creating characters for my stories, I lean toward tough women. I like the idea of spending time with an Ava Gardner, Barbara Stanwyck or Jennifer Lopez type. Tough on the outside, but have a softer side just beneath the surface. They have to be smart, sassy and have a sense of humor that isn't bawdy or giggly, but ready to take a tense moment down a notch if need be. I don't often write about these type of characters when they have reached their maximum strength, but somewhere on the path to that growth. I don't believe whiny, wimpy people -- female or male -- are often heroic and I want the best for my characters and especially for my readers. When I saw the above quote from Joss Whedon, I knew I was in good company.


There has always been something about tough broads in literature that keeps my interest. Keep Pollyanna and send me Scarlett O'Hara. Nancy Drew was one teenage girl who didn't wait for a boy to save her even though the mothers of that time period would have probably advised her to feign a bit of damsel in distress in order to catch her boyfriend's attention. Bring on the Zena, Warrior Princess!

Don't misunderstand. I like a "John Wayne-take charge-kind of guy" for my hero. I just don't think he has to "help the little lady" when she is perfectly capable of doing so herself most of the time. And women with brains are sexier than anything.

I recently read a novel that is selling like hotcakes during a pancake race where the main character is female and supposedly the hero of the story. When she gets into a predicament where I couldn't imagine how she could manage to escape, I was correct. She couldn't. The cavalry arrived in the form of her new and mysterious love interest who "saved" her. I was disappointed and I wondered how many other mystery readers would be also. We'll see if her sequel sells as well as this first book did.

In today's world, equality still doesn't exist in terms of equal pay. Men are still deemed better in combat than their female counterparts. Female roles in movies and television are still less in number than the male opportunities.

That doesn't mean incredibly smart and talented women aren't moving on up the corporate ladder and making their voices heard. They aren't regulated to the kitchen or tea parties in the afternoon unless that is their choice.

Men also have evolved to a new playing field. Men are choosing to become nurses, stay-at-home-dads and airline attendants; choices a few generations ago would have been taboo.

We're changing and I think today's readership enjoys real life women and men as characters in their fiction reading.

I read Johnny Depp will be starring as Nick Charles from Dashiell Hammett's "The Thin Man" series and as yet an uncast Nora. I look forward to seeing who will play that character with a certain bit of sass, brains and sex appeal. What a tough broad she'll be. Can't wait.