Posted on 3/16/13 10:10 PM
The Origins of the Heiress
It's funny, if you think about it. This is the second film. There are six in the series altogether. In this second one, we follow Nick (William Powell) and Nora (Myrna Loy) as they return to her home. It would be two more movies before we followed Nick home, and in theory, he's the main character. We know, in the first one, that Nora is an heiress, that Nick doesn't ever have to work again at anything more complicated than making sure her money is there. He's a former cop, too. We know that from the beginning as well. And in every movie, he encounters someone or other he's sent to prison, or in this case the brother of someone he sent to prison. However, we don't learn about his family until after we've encountered hers. I think this is because he's more shaped by his past work, and she doesn't have any. She went from being an heiress to being Mrs. Charles with no employment in between, as was sort of expected of her.
Nick and Nora have returned to her hometown of San Francisco. It's New Year's Eve, and their plan is to spend it in bed together. They mostly talk about sleep, but that can't be all they have in mind. However, her Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph) summons. Her cousin, Selma Landis (Elissa Landi), married badly, and Selma's husband, Robert (Alan Marshal), had disappeared. The family has decided that, if they must have a detective in the family, they might as well use him. Only Nick and Nora spot Robert at a nightclub/Chinese restaurant, and Nora asks Robert to go home. Only Robert has other plans. He has persuaded David Graham (a young James Stewart) to pay him twenty-five thousand dollars to leave Selma, who used to be engaged to David. And then, as all this goes on, Robert is murdered. Selma is the obvious suspect, of course. It doesn't help that David threw away her gun. And, as is so often the case in these movies, there are more bodies to come.
It strikes me that no one in the piece seems to care about Selma as a person except Nora. Nick cares about her as "Nora's cousin." Aunt Katherine and the others care about her as part of the family and its honour. Robert cares about her money. David? Even without getting into spoilers, and be aware that Graham and I have some dispute about how believable the ending is, if David really thought of Selma as a person with her own thoughts and feelings, he wouldn't have made the offer to Robert that he did. He was, when you get right down to it, offering to buy Selma. Yes, as Nick and Nora agreed, you could rather get up a collection to make Robert go away, and a lot of people would have contributed to it. Nick and Nora, for example. However, Nick and Nora know that Selma has her own decisions to make, and if she doesn't, she'll just resent anyone who tries to force it on her. David . . . turns out to have his own issues, but anyway no one would ever buy anyone they thought of as a full person.
I think perhaps the point of this one, insomuch as there is a point, is that you can never truly know what's going on inside another person's head. One of the characters we ware meant to see as shadowy and sinister turns out to really like Nick and consider something Nick did in the past to have been a great favour. Another character has been harbouring resentments he will not show. Some characters who appear to be in it for love are in it for money and vice versa. Yes, Robert is a fairly unpleasant and unsalvageable character, and we aren't supposed to see him as anything else. That being said, one of the characters we really are supposed to like turns out to have a darker nature than anything in the film leading up to it could suggest. (Which is why Graham doesn't like the ending; he finds it unbelievable. I find it all too believable and think the actor does a superb job, better than in many of his better-known movies.) And there's Nora's conflict between being who her family wants and her own thrill in the chase.
The series as a whole was nominated for five Oscars. The first movie was nominated for four, all of which it lost to It Happened One Night. (Myrna Loy wasn't nominated, which is a bit of a shame, really. It's because there were only three nominees in the category that year, I'm sure.) This lost to The Story of Louis Pasteur for screenplay. I have not seen The Story of Louis Pasteur, but I do know that biopics of that era are almost universally bad. Actually, it's the only one of the five nominees that I haven't seen. As is typical of the category, most of the nominees were comedy. It's the one field where the Academy generally acknowledges the challenges of comedy. However, while comedies are much more likely to be nominated in the writing categories, they aren't as likely to actually win. Oh, sure, these are only sort of comedies, but the comedy is at least as important as the mystery.