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Penthouse (August 25, 2011)

This series we’re starting, Singular Pleasures, will show movies that I’m fond of, that illustrate film art and film history in a certain way, but that aren’t famous. I’d guess none of the movies I’ll show this fall will ever be chosen by the Library of Congress as films worthy of preservation. And yet, they are – for their performances as well as for their visual styles.

W.S. Van Dyke was a director at Metro Goldwyn Mayer. They called him “One Take Woody”, because he could make pictures without mistakes. You make multiple takes because something isn’t aligned, or something isn’t right – and everything in the world can go wrong, from lighting, to the expressions on the actors’ faces, the costumes, and the way the actors and props are positioned on the set. Woody Van Dyke had a good eye and he could make pictures very fast, which saved the studio money. The most often seen of his films today is probably The Thin Man, from 1934. That movie established the William Powell-Myrna Loy team, though they’d made a picture together before then. The Thin Man was made in sixteen days in April 1934, retakes and all. Van Dyke made Penthouse eight months earlier, in August 1933. The two movies were the same length and he very likely needed about the same length of time to make Penthouse. It was being shown in theaters the next month. Variety’s contemporary review called it a “well-sustained crime solution with smashing climax and arresting title.” Leslie Halliwell, in his Film Guide, said it was “A sprightly murder comedy-drama which plays like a tryout for The Thin Man.” We’ll see another Woody Van Dyke movie later in this series, the 1939 screwball comedy It’s a Wonderful World.

The story was by Arthur Somers Roche and had appeared as a serial in the magazine Cosmopolitan. The screenplay was by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, a talented team whose subsequent credits include not only The Thin Man but also Easter Parade, Father of the Bride, and The Diary of Anne Frank.

I love Loy in this picture – her young woman in the big city performance combines innocence and cynicism in a way I find very appealing. Warner Baxter, borrowed from Fox for the male lead, may seem a touch too old to pair with Loy. He’s 44, three years older than William Powell, and Loy is 28. Baxter might not have been the greatest of actors, but his work is credible enough. His most remembered role today is probably as the dying producer putting on his last show in 42nd Street. Baxter made that movie the previous fall. Nat Pendleton had a long career at MGM playing New York street types. Here he plays the racketeer Tony Gazotti, in a performance that the French newspaper Le Monde’s film blog “The Eye on the Screen” calls “wonderful”. C. Henry Gordon was very comfortable as a villain. Here he portrays Gazotti’s competitor, Jim Crelliman. There are other, quickly sketched performances, like that of Charles Butterworth as the butler, or Mae Clarke’s as Mimi, that could also be compared to the best of their kind from this period of filmmaking. Even the young couple, Martha Sleeper (from Lake Bluff, Illinois) as Sue and Phillips Holmes (from Grand Rapids, Michigan) as Tom, successfully put their scenes across.

Part gangster film, part society picture, that starts out like it’s going to be a newspaper movie, Penthouse is a pleasant ninety minutes that gives you the flavor of its times. I hope you enjoy watching it with me tonight.