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On Powell's 118th, eight is enough



It's difficult to envision any member of "Carole & Co." who isn't a fan of William Powell as well -- and not just because he was Carole Lombard's first husband (although that certainly doesn't hurt!). Rather, it's because Powell epitomizes sp many of the best things about classic Hollywood: urbanity, wit, gentlemanliness, humor and romance (with a bit of sex appeal thrown in). Note that I say "epitomizes" rather than "epitomized," even though Powell's final film was released the year I was born (1955) and he's been gone for more than a quarter-century (he died in 1984). He continues to draw new generations of fans, people who respond to the qualities he brings to the screen -- qualities many people seek to emulate today.

I often call Lombard the most timeless of the classic stars, and dearly wish I could say likewise about Powell. But, sad to say, he remains very much of his time (though what a wonderful time it was!). It's not his fault, either. Today's movie business, where whiz-bang special effects and comic book adaptations for teens and twenty-somethings reign supreme, isn't the most comfortable habitat for a mature gentleman like Powell; sophistication isn't usually welcome at the multiplex. Powell still has something to say to us. Alas, relatively few people are listening.

Fortunately, Turner Classic Movies continues to give Powell a cinematic soapbox of sorts. This Thursday, the 118th anniversary of his birth, TCM in the U.S. will celebrate by running eight of his films during the day. It's an interesting mix to boot; four collaborations with his prime co-star, Myrna Loy (though only one is from the "Thin Man" series); some dramas, some comedies; two films from his often-overlooked period as a Warners contract player; even one from his post-World War II years. This marathon would be a good way to introduce newcomers to classic Hollywood to Powell. The schedule (all times Eastern):



* 6 a.m. -- "One-Way Passage" (1932). Powell is a condemned criminal, Kay Francis a wealthy woman slowly dying; they meet (and fall in love) on an ocean voyage. Some may wonder how Powell's urbane style could fit with street-smart Warners of the early '30s, but it did. He made a number of good films there, and some deem this his best. Others prefer...



* 7:15 a.m. -- "The Kennel Murder Case" (1933). Powell first played detective Philo Vance at Paramount; here he returns to the character, who's investigating a murder that's tied to a Long Island dog show. He gets support from Mary Astor and Eugene Pallette in a film directed by the always capable Michael Curtiz.

* 8:30 a.m. -- "Manhattan Melodrama" (1934). Lombard's two husbands made only one film together, made at a time she was married to neither. One-time boyhood chums Powell and Clark Gable take different paths (Bill good, Clark bad) and both share the affections of a lady (Loy, paired with Powell for the first time). This film gained a bit of recognition last year when it was used in the Johnny Depp movie about John Dillinger, "Public Enemies" (it was, of course, the film Dillinger saw just before authorities gunned him down in a Chicago alley).



* 10:15 a.m. -- "Reckless" (1935). Romance in their roles, romance in real life...that was the situation for Powell and Jean Harlow in this MGM programmer directed by Victor Fleming. This comedy-turned-melodrama was loosely based on the Libby Holman case, and truth be told it's neither one of Powell's nor Harlow's best. But the supporting cast features Rosalind Russell, Nat Pendleton, Mickey Rooney and Allen "Farina" Hoskins (as a jockey!).



* noon -- "Love Crazy" (1941). Some may deem "Reckless" a drag; this film definitely is, in a far different sense. You'll see Powell, sans mustache, disguise himself as a woman -- one of the many stunts he uses to keep wife Loy from divorcing him. Sounds silly, but this comedy will grow on you the more you watch it. This reunited Powell with "My Man Godfrey" antagonist Gail Patrick, and Jack Carson's also in the cast. Directed by Jack Conway.

* 2 p.m. -- "I Love You Again" (1940). Once you hear this plot, you'll wonder why this hasn't been remade of late. Powell plays a one-time con man, who'd received a bump on the head and wound up as a paragon of small-town Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce values, married to Loy. But another bump on the head brings him back to his old self, and he decides to take advantage of his new, "respectable" identity to pull off a heist. Got it? There's another "Our Gang" alumnus here, too -- Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, portraying an ersatz Boy Scout.

* 4 p.m. -- "After The Thin Man" (1936). If there was a cinematic equivalent of baseball's Most Valuable Player award (for a year's worth of performances, not just one film), Powell would clearly have won the Hollywood MVP for 1936. He had the lead role in the Oscar-winning best picture, "The Great Ziegfeld"; starred in two screwball comedy classics, "My Man Godfrey" and "Libeled Lady"; and starred with Loy in this worthy followup to "The Thin Man," as Nick and Nora Charles return to San Francisco and try to clear her cousin of a murder charge. James Stewart's in this one, too. (With one of the great closing lines in movies -- "And you call yourself a detective!") W.S. Van Dyke directed this, just as he did the first "Thin Man" (and "I Love You Again").



* 6 p.m. -- "Life With Father" (1947). It was back to Warners for this one, again directed by Curtiz. It's a turn-of-the-century comedy where the strait-laced Powell seeks to adjust to changing times. With Zasu Pitts and Elizabeth Taylor (both pictured here), as well as Irene Dunne.

There you have it -- close to 14 hours of Powell this Thursday. It may be his birthday, but through his sublime acting, we're the ones receiving the present. If you're in the Palm Springs area, come by the Cathedral City Cemetery and leave a flower to honor the memory of a man who brought joy to millions of moviegoers.

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