Monday, October 5, 2009

Blue, White and Perfect

Blue, White and Perfect is the fourth film in the Michael Shayne mystery series, starring Lloyd Nolan as the hapless private detective who's always down on his luck, and who often bumbles through his cases on pure luck and the intervention of others rather than his own sleuthing skills. That's the case here as well, though this film puts the focus more on Shayne himself than the earlier films, with their great casts of character actors, did. Nolan has a lot of fun with this role, playing Shayne as a comic figure rather than an actual good detective: it's only in the film's increasingly less interesting second half that the film really settles into the mystery mold. It's much more fun when the script gives Nolan some comic business to do, like the great series of gags involving a convenience store that Shayne stumbles into, shocking the proprietor and his wife with his odd, plot-motivated behavior. First, he makes a call to his girlfriend Merle (Mary Beth Hughes, who played a different part in the earlier Shayne outing Sleepers West). She thinks he works in an airplane factory, so he accompanies the call with improvised industrial noises using a fan, blender and various metallic banging sounds. Of course, he's really on a case, trying to route out a gang of Nazi diamond smugglers, so when he next returns to the store, he's hiding from the bad guys by trying on a series of scary masks. Finally, he nearly lands on the store owners when leaping through their awning from a second-story window. It's all played for humor, with Nolan's broad mugging matched by the deadpan reaction shots of the store owners, who look on in amazement at all this buffoonery.

Equally fun is the gag where Shayne keeps returning to the office of a printer (Charles Williams) to get new business cards printed out, each time with a new name and a new occupation, and sometimes a horrendous accent to go with it — it's not clear if Shayne's hapless lack of talent as a master of disguise is an intentional part of the joke, or if it's simply a result of Nolan's limits as an actor. Probably, the filmmakers are in on the joke, especially since when Shayne disguises himself as a distinguished Southern gentleman, he tells the printer to "throw a 'Colonel'" in front of his assumed name, and opts for Lee rather than Sherman as an appropriate surname. This is the level of the film's corny humor, and only Nolan's laidback persona and sly wit can bring across the film's low-key pleasures.

Of course, in the film's second half the mystery itself comes to the forefront, though as usual in this series calling it a mystery is something of a misnomer. Because the film doesn't strictly follow Shayne but also spends time with the villains, the audience is ahead of Shayne in knowing what's going on. So there's no mystery, only the question of when (or if) the detective is going to catch on to the plot. The German smuggler Vanderhoefen (Steven Geray) is bringing stolen industrial-strength diamonds to Honolulu on board a steamship. (Never mind why the Germans are shipping things through Hawaii; don't look to these films for any kind of sense.) To help with his scheme, he enlists the lovely, crooked Helen Shaw (Helene Reynolds), who turns out to be an old friend of Shayne's. The onboard shenanigans are complicated by the presence of the absurdly named Juan Arturo O'Hara (George Reeves), a Latin/Irish playboy whose role in this plot is ambiguous, and the courtly steward Nappy (Curt Bois), who seems to be working for everyone and keeping an eye on everything from his inconspicuous vantage point. The action on the ship is largely static and circuitous, moving at a slow pace that defuses any real potential for suspense or intrigue. The mysterious gunshots that ring out periodically, always just missing any potential targets, only add to the pointless confusion.

The only real fun here comes in the interaction of Nolan with his supporting cast, especially the lively Reynolds, who's a far better romantic/comic foil for the leading man than his actual girlfriend, who's mostly reduced to stock throwing-objects-at-the-cad humor. Reynolds gives her character some real femme fatale frisson, casting electrically charged glances at Shayne as she covers her scheming with thick layers of playful banter. Director Herbert I. Leeds, taking over the series from Eugene Forde, who directed the first three films, proves himself just as anonymous and inconsequential as his predecessor. The staging is flat and sometimes awkward, and scenes drag on for too long with no real point. Leeds' one real saving grace is a modest feel for comic timing in some of the earlier scenes. No one would ever call the Michael Shayne movies great cinema, but they're fun enough for a light diversion, and Blue, White and Perfect encapsulates both the series' minor charms and its limitations.


Sam Juliano said...

You got me here Ed. I have never seen any of this series, nor have I ever been motivated to do so. Sounds like Nolan's performance is the major redemption. The way you describe some of the gags here makes me think of W.C. Fields, but perhaps I'm way off. Any similarities here to the THIN MAN series?

As always, a vibrant, observational and fecund account.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, there's not much real reason to dig into this series. It has its minor pleasures, though, mainly Nolan, and also in some of the earlier installments, the delight of watching some good character actors sparring against him, especially Elizabeth Patterson in the first film, Michael Shayne: Private Detective, which is probably the best of the bunch.

Watered-down Fields is probably a good description for some of the series' more humorous moments; its gags are fun but not really original. There's also not much comparison to the Thin Man movies, which are generally at a much higher level because of the Loy/Powell interplay.

Then again, these films do remind me that at one time Hollywood used to dependably crank out this kind of lightweight, disposable B-movie entertainment. You don't see this kind of stuff anymore: everything Hollywood makes now has to be either an Important Oscar Picture or utter lowest common denominator trash. The solid, fun B-movie has died out.

John said...


It is too bad that Hollywood no longer makes these kinds of programmers, b-movies, second features. Many times, as you know, the second feature was better than the main feature. Unpretentious, light and economical, they wasted no time telling their story keeping a quick pace.

I have not seen any of these Michael Shayne films but some years ago, I actually found a used copy of one of the novels and it seems like the movie they are light and throwaway detective stories. An admirable detailed review. Thanks

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, John. Good point about the quick pace, too. I miss these short little movies like they used to make -- I watched this one in just over an hour on a Sunday morning, and though it doesn't exactly have tight plot construction (it takes about half its length to get to the main setup) it still breezes by.