After the success of The Thin Man, MGM decided to put their hot new screen couple Myrna Loy and William Powell in to another picture while they figured out what to do with them and prepared to work on a sequel. The film the studio gave them was Evelyn Prentice, another of the seemingly endless cycle of early 30s melodramas about marital infidelity and intrigue. Despite a decent cast and crew and by all accounts positive contemporary reviews, the film is ultimately rather average, and not really the best showcase for its stars. However, if you are in the right mood (and I was) it’s a supremely silly film brimming with over the top courtroom dramatics, utterly ridiculous legal twists, dubious moral behaviour and featuring possibly the world’s worst barn dance. I had planned to document it’s less than stellar moments but when I looked at the list I had made, one aspect of the movie leapt out at me as possibly the most jarring.
Throughout the film, our stars Myrna Loy and William Powell seem rather muted and lack a lot of the sparkle and chemistry that made them their names together in The Thin Man and the earlier Manhattan Melodrama. Part of the blame for this is surely the tired soap opera of the plot concerning busy lawyer Powell leaving bored wife Loy to suffer the drudgery of a fabulously wealthy lifestyle of endless parties and cocktails (oh, the ennui of it all). Her boredom culminates in a near miss with an affair and (predictably) murder. William Powell has his problems too as Myrna suspects he is having an affair with a former client played by the debuting Rosalind Russell. The film never shows any of his alleged infidelities, tantalising us by fading out just before anything untoward happens, thus putting the focus of the marital problems on the wife. Due to the fact that he’s a man with a respected position in society, the assumption is that he’s obviously innocent. Because that happens. But I digress…
What really got to me was that the couple have a young daughter in the film, played by Cora Sue Collins. Despite the fact that she seems to be largely raised by Myrna’s best friend (played here in a brilliant turn – possibly the only dose of pep in the whole dreary affair - by the under rated and wonderful Una Merkel) and that both parents seem to be too busy working, carousing or moping (usually after the carousing) to bother with child care, something just isn’t right.
For a start, sweet little Cora Sue is a curly haired moppet in a sailor suit of the Shirley Temple variety. She has a nice line in saccharine dialogue, specialising in saying “Mommy, what’s wrong?” with big eyes and trembling lip. In reality though, her plaintive pleas for her parents’ love are probably due to the fact that she never actually sees them.
And of course the most glaring thing that is wrong with the poor child is that frankly, she’s not Asta, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Her character in the film is wrong on so many levels. Firstly, if Loy and Powell ever fictionally procreated (let’s forget about Little Nicky in the later Thin Man films for the moment - actually let’s try to completely forget him) then they would surely produce a more sophisticated and less annoying child. It’s just basic genetics. Okay, in the film the child has largely absent parents, so misses out on the touch of urbane sophistication and expert cocktail shaking abilities of her dad, and the sly wit and fashion sense of her mother. However (and here we could possibly get into a nature versus nurture debate) surely the unfortunate child would have picked up something by osmosis in the brief minutes she spends with her folks? Failing that, if she could have at least picked up a sense of fun, energy and the baffling ability to randomly speak French of her surrogate carer Una Merkel then it would at least be a minor victory for all concerned.
No, this child is failing at all her basic duties. Our ringlet-strewn urchin has had these wonderful opportunities given to her on a silver platter and has single-handedly managed to be oblivious to the glittering world of fun around her. The poor girl probably can’t even tell you the correct glass for a mint julep, and I'd guess is a shockingly bad bridge partner to boot. No, I refuse to believe that this could be the true child of a Powell-Loy fictional union. The only explanation is that somebody must have swapped the baby at birth and that this plot point was edited out of the final print due to timing constraints. Yes, that’ll be it.
There is a strange scene in the film where William Powell, home for a brief moment between busy work assignments spends time playing and exercising with dear little Cora Sue and wife Myrna. The point of the scene is to show the bond between the parents and child and also seemingly to inject a moment of Thin Man style whimsy into the movie. It also shows the underlying tension between the husband and wife while contrasting with the innocence of the child. However, the scene, with its silly exercise routine just comes across as a failed attempt to inject some spontaneity into the movie and to make the characters a bit more likable. The result is just emotionally cloying and despite flashes of the old chemistry the whole thing is just contextually wrong. Firstly the scene seems unnatural for the straight-laced characters and secondly, the addition of an irritating child to the Powell-Loy act seems forced.
Which brings me to Asta. Let's face it, Little Cora Sue bless her heart just doesn’t have the charisma, the poise and the raw cinematic presence of Asta. To me, Asta is as much a part of the Powell – Loy act as Dorothy Lamour is to Hope and Crosby (not that I’m comparing the two but you know what I mean). In fact it’s a shame that after The Thin Man, Asta was not part of the package for other new films starring the pair. Granted, he wouldn’t have always fitted in, but I’m sure he would have had fun trying. Perhaps he got an agent and his doggy demands for bones and sausages were too much for the studio to give in to. I’d imagine that talent like his didn’t come cheap during the meat shortage.
Anyway, despite the fact that Cora Sue Collins is just all kinds of wrong as the fictional offspring of William Powell and Myrna Loy, she generally just looks out of place sitting next to the two stars. Powell and Loy just don’t do soapy melodrama and comfortable family units, or at least they shouldn’t, and anyone who shares the screen with them needs to be able to hold their own and push them to greater heights. A cheeky little scamp like Asta could provide the needed kick in the pants to a film taking itself too seriously, but a curly haired young urchin just makes things worse. Personally I think the perfect child for Bill and Myrna on screen would be Mitzi Green, possibly the only non-irritating child star in Hollywood history. (For more on Miss Green, please see here)
For instance, if poor Evelyn Prentice were sad because of sort of accidentally murdering a man she’s sort of not really having an affair with, little Mitzi would simply do a skipping soft shoe dance number then cheer her up with an impression of George Arliss. That one never fails. She would also come in useful at the dreadful social events her mother has to appear at by insulting haughty guests with a Dorothy Parker-esque put down while mixing a mean manhattan.
Of course she’d still be second choice behind Asta. Evelyn Prentice was obviously a stop gap film given to it’s stars regardless of whether it suited their screen personas, but it highlights so much of what makes the William Powell and Myrna Loy films so magical by showing us what it lacks. The film lacks the characters we would all grow to love, shoehorning them into stodgy melodrama, but most of all the film lacks that special catalyst to free them from the straight-laced theatrics. Cora Sue Collins, an otherwise talented child performer was not the solution. As Myrna said of the film in her autobiography, "The Thin Man had been so perfect for us, such a ball to make, that going into this thing was kind of a bore. It sent Bill into occasional depressions" And if you ask me, any film that made William Powell sad makes me sad too.
The lesson to be learned here is that all you really need to brighten up any picture and give that extra bit of appeal to a new screen couple is a cute dog that does tricks. Hey, some films can win Oscars due to it. Cute children just don’t quite cut it. Evelyn Prentice was a movie sorely lacking something, and that something had four paws and a tail and a special affinity for fire hydrants.