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Mr. and Mrs. North

Dashiell Hammett wrote only one novel about his crime-solving married couple, Nick and Nora Charles. Working fast, MGM filmed The Thin Man the same year it was published, in 1934. With William Powell and Myrna Loy as the sophisticated couple (his retired detective provided raffish worldliness, her heiress provided the money), they hit big, making five sequels. Richard and Frances Lockridge's Mr. and Mrs. North, the only real competition the Charleses had in the married detectives department, were enduringly popular everywhere but in movies. The couple first surfaced in his New York Sun newspaper columns in the '30s, then morphed into New Yorker stories. In 1940, the Lockridges collaborated on the first of what were to be 26 Pam and Gerry North detective novels. A year later, the Norths surfaced in a Broadway play. Years of radio and TV episodes followed. But the Norths only made it to the big screen once. Mr. and Mrs. North (1942), scripted by Owen Davis from his 1941 play, marked their first and last film.

There are a few reasons for this, but the one that mattered most was Gracie Allen. The beloved scatterbrained comedienne, foil for her husband George in their Burns & Allen comedy routines, was a veteran of 25 films, mostly, in effect, playing herself. She had most recently filmed The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939). It arose from the wish of their friend, the popular mystery writer S.S. Van Dine, to write her into a novel in his Philo Vance series. He did, and it was filmed with Gracie discombobulating the usually suave Vance of Warren William, a sort of American Sherlock Holmes. The formula in which a loose cannon of a woman upends a man works for screwball comedy, in fact almost defines the form. But it turned Vance into a fish out of water.

And it throws off the chemistry between the Norths. Never aspiring to the soigne sophistication of the Charleses, the Norths lived plainer lives in a Greenwich Village flat (although in the movie it's a more upscale Village apartment with a doorman). Unlike the idle Charleses, bouncing drolleries off one another, often from a reclining position, Gerry North worked, in publishing. Although they solved a murder a week for years, they never see themselves as anything but amateurs. But they are puzzle solvers. And the Lockridges were accomplished at their craft. They knew how to construct them, put all the clues out there, and play fair with their audiences. The Charleses appealed to audiences because their carefree lifestyle represented Depression-era escapism to penthouses and martini shakers. They solved crimes, when they solved them (because Nick didn't really want to) for fun, to stave off boredom.

The Norths, on the other hand, represent a more mundane existence, not exactly carefree, but maybe one rung up the ladder from the lives of most of their audiences. They solve crimes because bodies, in effect, keep getting dumped on them. Here, a stiff falls face first out of a closet in their flat. Gerry had been out of town. Gracie was out shopping. In no time, bland WASPy types fill the room, as if from a party list, misdirection ensues as domestic and extracurricular tangles are bared, and the well-tailored crowd, when it isn't gathered around the Norths' piano singing Arthur Freed songs, or marching through police headquarters with its smart cop-dumb cop team prodding them with questions and assumptions (would-be know-it-all dumb cop Millard Mitchell was a carryover from the Broadway stage version, Paul Kelly plays the smart one), angrily fills the air with accusations.

They all seem practically interchangeable. Just as there's a modicum of enjoyment to be gleaned from the period flavor – the woodenness of much of the dialogue is a campfest! -- it's also fun to note the aberrations – such as the suspect played by Tom Conway (best remembered as The Falcon, a sort of down-market Philo Vance) at a bit of a loss, stripped of his usual suave demeanor, left with nowhere much to go, looking as if he wandered by mistake into the wrong party.

The acting stalwarts in the Norths' world of hats, gloves and shoulder pads include, by the way, Rose Hobart. Yes, the same Rose Hobart Joseph Cornell built his trancy 1936 experimental film around, named for her, looping and relooping a blue-tinted clip of Hobart's jungle glamour in East of Borneo (1931). The roster of dependable character actors -- Virginia Grey, Jerome Cowan, Felix Bressart (comic relief as a Fuller Brush Man caricature), Thin Man veteran Porter Hall, Keye Luke – appearing as cops, suspects, witnesses, all seem little more than stick figures designed to serve as foils for Gracie. George Burns, by the way, doesn't appear. But then he doesn't have to. All the others are, in a sense, George Burns. All, to one degree or another, take turns playing straight man to Gracie.

This is especially true of William Post, Jr.'s Gerry North. He doesn't really collaborate on solving the case with Allen's Pam. He never gets the chance to collaborate at all. We never feel the easy intimacy of a married couple here, the quality that injected a fresh note into a genre so dominated by male loners. Like the rest, he's on the outside, a satellite presence, circling Gracie in wobbly orbit, with perplexed reiterations of "Great Scott" or "Holy smoke!" It's not that Mr. and Mrs. North is altogether without merit. But it's peopled mostly by mannequins, and the simultaneously lively and homey give-and-take that gives the Norths their low-key charm is pulled off course and out of reach, by the decision to turn the film into a Gracie Allen vehicle, even if she does solve the murder by dismembering syntax and logic and rejiggering facts, confidently marching to her own beat. She never seems grounded in the here and now, except in ways that make sense to nobody but her. Until they make sense to everyone. In the end, Mr. and Mrs. North isn't a comedy of murder. It's a comedy of obliviousness, especially to what it could – and should – have been.

Producer: Irving Asher
Director: Robert B. Sinclair
Screenplay: S.K. Lauren; Owen Davis (play); Richard Lockridge, Frances Lockridge (stories)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof (uncredited)
Film Editing: Ralph Winters
Cast: Gracie Allen (Pamela 'Pam' North), William Post, Jr. (Gerald P. 'Gerry' North), Paul Kelly (Det. Lieutenant Luke Weigand), Rose Hobart (Carol Brent), Virginia Grey (Jane Wilson), Tom Conway (Louis Berex), Felix Bressart (Arthur Talbot, Fowler Brush Salesman), Stuart Crawford (Stuart 'Stu' Blanton), Porter Hall (District Attorney George Heyler), Millard Mitchell (Detective Mullins), Lucien Littlefield (Mr. Barnes, the Postman), Inez Cooper (Mabel Harris, Gerry's secretary), Keye Luke (Kumi, Blanton's servant), Jerome Cowan (Ben Wilson), Fortunio Bonanova (Buano).
BW-68m. Closed Captioning.

by Jay Carr VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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