Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2022) on… Murder By Death (1976)

-Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) – “Never consider murder to be business, Mr. Diamond”

And yet, for the Fall 2022 blogathon from the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA), that is the business, as the theme is “Movies Are Murder!” On that note, I decided to go with a murder comedy I’ve enjoyed for a long time (but haven’t gotten around to writing about yet), 1976’s Murder By Death, starring Eileen Brennan, Truman Capote, James Coco, Peter Falk, Alec Guinness, Elsa Lanchester, David Niven, Peter Sellers, Maggie Smith, Nancy Walker and Estelle Winwood!

Five famous detectives and their associates have received an invitation to “dinner and a murder” at the mansion of Lionel Twain (Truman Capote). This group includes Dick Charleston (David Niven) and his wife, Dora (Maggie Smith); Inspector Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) and his adopted son Willie (Richard Narita); Milo Perrier (James Coco) and his chauffeur, Marcel Cassette (James Cromwell); Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and his secretary, Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan); and Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) with her nurse, Miss Withers (Estelle Winwood). In the leadup to the dinner, there are various attempts on their lives, which all fail. During the dinner, their host (who had previously kept to himself) appears, and explains why he brought them all there. Every one of those detectives had a reputation for solving every one of their cases, and Mr. Twain wanted to bet them all that he could solve a murder before them. He predicted that one person sitting at that table would be murdered at midnight, and another would be the murderer. While he disappears, everyone else vows to stay together, although at various times, they leave the room to investigate some of the goings-on in the house. At midnight, Mr. Twain himself appears, dead (and murdered exactly as he had predicted). So, the detectives and their associates all set out to figure out who indeed murdered Twain. But will they succeed, or will Mr. Twain get the upper hand (even though he’s dead)?

Ah, the murder mystery. The genre has long been a favorite with readers and moviegoers alike. Of course, with good murder mysteries come various detectives, who become famous for their wit and their ingenuity in solving these crimes. Some authors were able to create memorable detectives that audiences loved and followed through entire series, both on the big screen and in the written word. Murder By Death was writer Neil Simon’s spoof of the detective genre. In particular, he parodied detectives from Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple), Dashiell Hammett (Nick and Nora Charles, Sam Spade) and Earl Derr Biggers (Charlie Chan). A number of big stars were offered roles (including original Thin Man actress Myrna Loy), but they turned them down. Those that did decide to take part in the film enjoyed themselves. Alec Guinness in particular thoroughly enjoyed himself, as he made the trip to Hollywood to make the film (not something he was prone to doing). In fact, he had to reassure author Neil Simon that he was having fun with it (since the author liked him so much that he offered to rewrite anything to suit him). Admittedly, some of the cast didn’t exactly have a lot of faith in the film, as Peter Sellers sold his share of the percentage back to the producers of the film, and the company that David Niven’s son was working for (and which had invested in the film) believed they would be writing it off as a tax loss. And yet, the movie ended up being the eighth biggest hit of 1976.

I first saw this film when it was given to me on DVD along with two other Peter Falk films (this film’s 1978 “sequel”, The Cheap Detective as well as the 1979 film The In-Laws). Even though I had no experience with any of the detectives that the film was spoofing (outside of Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon), I took to the film right away! The movie has a lot of twists and turns as we see the murder occur and then get solved (if you can call it that) by the film’s end. Admittedly, the film’s ending does leave you with a number of rather big plot-holes, but, at the same time, it’s so fun that I can easily forgive the movie as I get swept up in the proceedings! In general, I think all of the cast do quite well, from Peter Falk’s excellent imitation of Humphrey Bogart, to David Niven and Maggie Smith, who come off quite similarly to William Powell and Myrna Loy’s Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man films. Personally, I think that Alec Guinness’ role as the blind butler Jamessir Bensonmum is one of his best, as he is quite funny (especially with that name!). I have to throw in a SPOILER ALERT to say this, but he is at his absolute best when we see him at the end of the film, revealed as the culprits by the various detectives, and he changes his manner and character so well every time that one of the detectives comes in and accuses him of being somebody different. END SPOILER ALERT

Besides Alec Guinness, I also really like Peter Sellers here. Normally, I don’t care for him at all, but his performance as Sydney Wang is a real delight (even if it isn’t exactly politically correct, since he’s wearing yellowface to appear Asian). Quite frankly, he’s one of the most quotable characters in the film for me, with this line being a personal favorite:

-Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) – “Conversation like television set on honeymoon. Unnecessary!”

But aside from some of his sayings (or “stories” as he calls them), I most enjoy his interactions with Truman Capote’s Lionel Twain, who is almost a grammar Nazi with regards to Wang’s ability to speak English, as exemplified by this exchange:

-Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) – “What meaning of this, Mr. Twain?”

-Lionel Twain (Truman Capote) – “I will tell you, Mr. Wang, if you can tell me why a man who possesses one of the most brilliant minds of this century can’t say his prepositions or articles. ‘The,’ Mr. Wang, ‘What is the meaning of this?”

-Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) – “That’s what I said. What meaning of this?”

Of course, I just love how Wang refers to a moose head mounted on the wall (which Twain is using to watch them) as a “cow on wall.” Quite frankly, my only really serious complaint about this movie is that these two don’t interact enough.

Apart from that, I do know that this movie isn’t for everyone. Aside from Peter Sellers being made up to look Asian, the movie has a number of other things going on that keep it from being politically correct. In general, there are a handful of racist comments (usually directed towards Peter Seller’s Wang or his Japanese son, played by Richard Narita). There are definitely some issues with sexism going on, and a number of homophobic comments as well. Plain and simple, it’s not a perfect film. But, it’s one I have enjoyed seeing on an almost yearly basis (especially around the Halloween season) ever since I first saw it, and it’s one that I highly recommend (at least, for those who can get past its issues). And with that, I leave with a quote that admittedly needs another spoiler warning (since it comes from the end of the film, and hints enough at the film’s ending), but it’s one that feels apropos for the whole “Movies Are Murder!” blogathon (not to mention, it’s certainly how things sometimes feel when things don’t go our way). So thank you all for reading (and don’t let the “murder” referred to in this quote be the situation for you this weekend, either 😉 )!

SPOILER ALERT

-Willie Wang (Richard Narita) – “I don’t understand, Pop. Was there a murder or wasn’t there?”

-Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) – “Yes. Killed good weekend.”

What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2018) with… Murder By Death (1976)

This movie is available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory. The transfer seems to be using an HD scan. For the most part, it looks pretty good. There is some damage in the form of specks and dirt, but it’s really only visible on bigger and better TVs. Overall, it’s the way that I would recommend seeing the movie.

Film Length: 1 hour, 35 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

*ranked #9 in Top 10 Movies Watched In 2022

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

Robin And The 7 Hoods (1964) – Peter Falk

Naughty Marietta (1935) – Elsa Lanchester

Magnificent Doll (1946) – David Niven

The Notorious Landlady (1962) – Estelle Winwood

As an Amazon Affiliate, this site gets a small percentage for every purchase made upon using one of the Amazon links, even if it’s not the movie I linked to (and it’s at no extra cost to you). If you like what I’m doing with the blog, please consider using them so that I can continue to do more!

“Star Of The Month (June 2021)” Featuring Claudette Colbert in… Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)

Next up for our June celebration of actress Claudette Colbert (as the Star Of The Month), we’ve got the 1938 comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, also starring Gary Cooper!

Coming Up Shorts! with… Rock A Bye Pinky (1966)

(available on Blu-ray and DVD as part of The Pink Panther Cartoon Collection: Volume 2 (1966-1968) from Kino Lorber)

(Length: 6 minutes, 8 seconds)

When the Pink Panther can’t sleep due to the Little Man’s snoring, he tries to do something about it! This one is a lot of fun, as the Little Man (who doesn’t know the Pink Panther is there) keeps blaming everything on his dog. Obviously, one can’t help but feel sorry for the dog (who keeps trying to save his master, only to be blamed for it), but the gags are funny enough that you want to keep watching! I know I do, as I enjoy coming back to this one again and again!

And Now For The Main Feature…

Oh, the crazy things that can bring people together! While shopping at a store on the French Riviera, American millionaire Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper) tries to buy only the top half of a pair of pajamas, but the clerks and store owners won’t let him. It is only when Nicole De Loiselle (Claudette Colbert) steps in and offers to buy the pants that everything is cleared up. Michael is also struggling with insomnia, and tries to change rooms at the hotel he is staying at. However, the other room he attempts to switch to is still occupied by the Marquis De Loiselle (Edward Everett Horton) (even though he hasn’t paid his bill for some time and is being threatened with eviction), and Michael discovers the Marquis wearing the pajama pants that Nicole had bought. Realizing that Nicole is the daughter of the Marquis, Michael decides to buy an antique bathtub that the financially-strapped Marquis tries to sell him. Michael finds Nicole at the beach with her friend (and one of Michael’s bank employees) Albert De Regnier (David Niven). While Michael sends Albert off to type up a letter, he tries to propose to Nicole, but she turns him down. Michael keeps trying, and eventually she does agree to marry him. However, at their engagement party, Nicole finds out that he has been married not once, not twice, but SEVEN times previously. She resists the idea of marrying him, but, upon hearing that his previous wives all got a settlement of $50,000 a year for life, she proposes a settlement of $100,000 a year if they divorce, to which Michael agrees. However, things don’t go the way he expects, as, even after marriage, she tries to maintain a distance between them (as in, they don’t consummate the marriage). In spite of that, he’s bound and determined to try and keep this marriage going. Her efforts finally win out, when she attempts to make it look like she’s having an affair, and he walks in on Albert, who had been knocked out (by a prize fighter she had hired to pose as her lover). That’s finally enough to convince him to divorce her, but in the process he suffers a nervous breakdown. Will they come back together, or will this divorce last, too?

This movie was based on a French play by Albert Savoir and its English translation by Charlton Andrews. The story had been done onscreen before, as a silent film in 1923 starring Gloria Swanson. For the new film, director Ernst Lubitsch came in, and, for writers, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were teamed up for the first time. The opening scene about the pajamas came from Billy Wilder, who, as the director and his co-writer later found out, was also prone to sleeping only in pajama tops, and had wanted to use the idea in a comedy for a while.

This was yet another wonderful screwball performance from actress Claudette Colbert. In general, a lot of the fun from this movie comes about as a result of how much smarter her character Nicole is than Gary Cooper’s Michael. Once she learns about his previous wives, she quickly figures out that the best way to keep him is to NOT to behave like a normal wife, and instead make him fight for their relationship. Heck, she even outsmarts the private detective he hires to follow her around, and turns the tables on him, too! Considering how casually Michael considers marriage, it’s hard not to cheer for her as she tries to bring him around to her way of thinking!

I may be coming off my first time seeing this movie, but, wow! What a screwball comedy! I personally think that the chemistry between Claudette and Gary Cooper makes this film work quite well! Again, the fact that he thinks he’s so smart (while she proves far smarter than him) is what makes this film fun! I’ll admit, one moment between the two that sticks out in my mind is when he reads Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew for inspiration on how to handle her. I’ll admit, the only reason this moment works (since he slaps her and then later spanks her) is because she gives as good as she gets, frustrating him to the point of throwing the book in the fire (without that, it wouldn’t be that funny). Honestly, if I have ANY complaint about this movie, it’s that Edward Everett Horton isn’t in it enough! In my opinion, he steals the picture, whether it be his reaction when he finds out about the previous wives (he faints offscreen), to the greed he displays when he hears about the settlements that the other wives got from their divorces. But I’ll never forget how he gets himself into the sanitarium to see Michael when he suffers a nervous breakdown. Seriously, this movie is just a hoot from start to finish, and one I look forward to seeing again and again (so, yes, I would definitely recommend it)!

What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2020) with… Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)

This movie is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. This movie appears to be using an HD scan, one that was probably done a while back. Still, it looks at least decent, with very little dirt or debris. One would wish that it could be improved with a new scan, but this is still good enough for a wonderful movie, and the best way to see it for the time being!

Film Length: 1 hour, 26 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

The Bride Comes Home (1935)Claudette ColbertThe Palm Beach Story (1942)

Alice In Wonderland (1933) – Gary Cooper – Sergeant York (1941)

Top Hat (1935) – Edward Everett Horton – College Swing (1938)

David Niven – Bachelor Mother (1939)

As an Amazon Affiliate, this site gets a small percentage for every purchase made upon using one of the Amazon links, even if it’s not the movie I linked to (and it’s at no extra cost to you). If you like what I’m doing with the blog, please consider using them so that I can continue to do more!

Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2020) on… Magnificent Doll (1946)

Next up, we have a bit of historical fiction with the 1946 movie Magnificent Doll starring Ginger Rogers, David Niven and Burgess Meredith!

Coming Up Shorts! with… Olive Oyl For President (1948)

(available on Blu-ray and DVD as part of Popeye The Sailor: The 1940s Volume 3 from Warner Archive Collection)

Disclaimer: On the disc case, it is noted that the set is intended for the adult collector, which is because these shorts were made at a time when a lot of racist and sexist stereotypes were prevalent. All I’m trying to say is, parents, be careful about just sticking these on for your kids.

(Length: 6 minutes)

Popeye dreams of what it would be like if Olive ran for U.S. President (and won). While a lot of the political ideas may be slightly outdated (and a few ridiculous), it’s a fun little short. I know I enjoyed the quick reference to some of Paramount’s stars from the time, including Bing Crosby and Bob Hope! A remake of the 1932 short Betty Boop For President. Certainly a welcome relief from all the “Popeye Vs. Bluto” shorts of the previous two years!

And Now For The Main Feature…

Upon returning to his home from the Revolutionary War, John Payne (Robert Barrat) announces to his family that he plans to free his slaves, become a Quaker and move to Philadelphia as well as announcing the betrothal of his daughter, Dorothea “Dolly” Payne (Ginger Rogers) to John Todd (Horace McNally), the son of a friend who died saving his life. Dolly is not thrilled, but she goes along with the marriage, even though she doesn’t love him. John loves her, but it is only during a plague of scarlet fever that takes her father, her son, and ultimately John himself, that Dolly realizes only too late that she loves him, too. Dolly and her mother (Peggy Wood) decide to open their home to boarders, and in comes Senator Aaron Burr (David Niven), who takes an immediate liking to Dolly and offers to bring in a few more boarders. One other boarder who comes in after seeing Dolly out riding with Aaron is congressman James Madison (Burgess Meredith). At first, Dolly takes a liking to Aaron, while James admires her from afar, but as Aaron’s politics and desire for power become more pronounced, Dolly realizes she loves James and they are married. When Thomas Jefferson (Grandon Rhodes) runs for president, they support him, both during his failed attempt and his more successful run. However, Dolly has to help contend with Aaron’s attempts at becoming president, since he plans to rule the country like a tyrant.

Magnificent Doll paired Ginger Rogers with two of her former co-stars: David Niven (from Bachelor Mother) and Burgess Meredith (from Tom, Dick And Harry). My own opinion is that both of those previous movies are better than this one. Ginger Rogers is maybe a little too old for the role (or, at least, the movie’s beginning section, anyways), and it just feels weird seeing David Niven without his mustache. Still, it is an interesting film (even if it does take some liberties with history). I like the performances overall, from David Niven’s Aaron Burr as a man who wants to rule, with Dolly as a “queen” in name only (staying out of politics), while Burgess Meredith’s James Madison believes in democracy, and wants Dolly’s help. And I definitely appreciate Ginger’s performance, especially for her speech at the end of the movie. The story may be far from the best I’ve seen for any of these, and the movie is a bit slow at times, but I do enjoy it well enough to make it one worth recommending as something to take a chance on!

This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films.

Film Length: 1 hour, 35 minutes

My Rating: 6/10

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944)Ginger RogersPerfect Strangers (1950)

Bachelor Mother (1939) – David Niven – Murder By Death (1976)

Tom, Dick And Harry (1941) – Burgess Meredith

As an Amazon Affiliate, this site gets a small percentage for every purchase made upon using one of the Amazon links, even if it’s not the movie I linked to (and it’s at no extra cost to you). If you like what I’m doing with the blog, please consider using them so that I can continue to do more!

Film Legends Of Yesteryear (2019): 1939 & An Old-Fashioned Christmas Movie On The Farm (2019) with… Bachelor Mother (1939)

Now, to finish out our celebration of the 80th anniversary of 1939 is the classic comedy Bachelor Mother, starring Ginger Rogers and David Niven!

Ginger Rogers stars as Polly Parrish, a seasonal worker in the toy department at the John B. Merlin & Son department store, who has just been fired the day before Christmas. While on her lunch break trying to find another job, she comes across a baby being left on the doorstep of a foundling home. Running to pick it up, she is discovered and mistaken for the mother. She denies being the mother, and leaves the baby there. However, they come to see her boss, David Merlin (David Niven), who gives Polly her job back. Later, back in her apartment, the baby is delivered to her. In her frustration at being stuck with the baby, she tries to leave the baby with David to be put back in a home, while she goes to try and make some money in a dance contest with her co-worker, stock clerk Freddie Miller (Frank Albertson). David is waiting for her at her apartment, and threatens to fire her if she doesn’t keep the baby. She decides to keep the baby, and she and David start to develop feelings for each other. However, unknown to them, Freddie, who believes David to be the father (due to some of Polly’s comments that he overheard), has tried to tell David’s father, John Merlin (Charles Coburn), that he is a grandfather. Mr. Merlin decides to try and take the baby away when David refuses to be pushed into marrying Polly, which forces her to find a way out of this problem.

Bachelor Mother was Ginger Rogers’ first solo outing after doing The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle with Fred Astaire, which was planned to be their last movie together (and was until they were reunited one final time for The Barkleys Of Broadway a decade later). David Niven was starting to rise after being in many supporting roles, with this movie giving him his first chance as a romantic comedy lead. The story had already been done before in the movies, and the fifties would see a remake, Bundle Of Joy starring Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. But Bachelor Mother has become the best-known version of the tale, helped by the presence of the leads, along with Charles Coburn as the “grandfather.”

This is a movie I have enjoyed ever since the first time I saw it! So many fun moments! Even though her partnership with Fred Astaire had ended, we still get to see her dancing with co-star Frank Albertson (and, if only because of her, it’s no surprise when they win the dance contest)! And, before I go any further, I should also mention one of her “co-stars” in this movie: Donald Duck! No, it’s not him in animated form, it is instead a group of toy Donald Ducks. Ginger’s character works in the toy department selling these things. It’s definitely fun to see RKO studios connection to Disney at work here (since they were distributing Walt’s films at this time), and see what some of those toys must have been like. Of course, it’s a lot of fun watching David Niven’s character trying to exchange a broken duck at his store incognito (in order to prove to Polly that the store does do exchanges). And there are certainly many more wonderful comedic moments in this movie that make it worth watching, so I definitely have very high recommendations for this movie!

This movie is available on DVD from Warner Archive Collection.

Film Length: 1 hour, 22 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle (1939)Ginger RogersFifth Avenue Girl (1939)

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) – David Niven – Magnificent Doll (1946)

As an Amazon Affiliate, this site gets a small percentage for every purchase made upon using one of the Amazon links, even if it’s not the movie I linked to (and it’s at no extra cost to you). If you like what I’m doing with the blog, please consider using them so that I can continue to do more!