Katie-Bar-The-Door and I arrived shortly before dawn, creeping in through a side door to make as discreet an entrance as possible.
This was our second Willow Manor Ball so we had a better idea what to expect—dinner, dancing, free booze and movie stars out the yin-yang, all of it served up in the tastiest venue there is, the cerebral cortex of each individual attendee's brain. Which pretty much means anything goes and last year pretty much anything did.
Twelve months ago we made the mistake of inviting the cast of The Thing From Another World to tag along with us, and they had been an enthusiastic bunch, I'll give them that, but when I say they set the dance floor alight, I mean that quite literally. Only a hostess as gracious as Tess Kincaid wouldn't have sued our socks off. And I like my socks; I like wearing them. I wasn't inclined to test her patience again so soon.
We had been there maybe ten seconds when a burly waiter with a police revolver tucked under his arm approached us balancing a tray in his ham-sized fist. "Have a cocktail," he growled.
"Oh, no, thanks."
"I said have a cocktail!"
"I guess he wants us to have a cocktail," said Katie.
The drinks helped us blend in with the crowd, a mix of tuxedos, cocktail dresses, Halloween costumes and flights of fancy I don't have the space to describe, but sometimes you're in the mood for champagne and sometimes you want sterner stuff. This was an occasion for the latter.
We made our way to the bar.
"The important thing is the rhythm," a tall, thin man was explaining to the bartender. "Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, but a dry martini," he said, "you always shake to waltz time." He stopped and looked at me, an impish grin playing under his pencil-thin moustache. "How about you, friend. Dry martini?"
"I was hoping for a gin rickey," I admitted.
"A gin rickey," he said, quickly filling a highball glass with ice, gin, club soda and fresh-squeezed lime juice, "you shake to Jay-Z's '99 Problems'—the bootleg Grey Album mix, of course."
"That's pretty specific," I said, as a dog ran up and punched me in the belly with his paws.
"I've had eighty years to experiment," the thin man said. He introduced himself: "Nick Charles." His words were slurred but silky, as light and lilting on his lips as Fred Astaire was on a dance floor. Still, there was a worldly-wise toughness underneath his drunken elegance, and you would never mistake him for a gigolo or a pool parlor dude.
"Fictional characters," said a voice down the bar, "never worry about their fictional livers." I looked over Nick's right shoulder to see a lanky brunette with a wicked jaw curled seductively around an empty glass. "Bartender, bring me five more martinis," she was saying. "Line them up right here."
"My dog," said Nick, pointing at the beast peeing on my rented shoes. "Oh, and my wife."
"You might have mentioned me first on the billing," said Mrs. Charles.
"Nora, I'd like you to meet Katie-Bar-The-Door and the Mythical Monkey."
She nodded politely. "Katie, Myth, I don't usually look like this—I've been Christmas shopping. You know in 1934 we did our shopping on Christmas Eve? Now we do it before Halloween—fortunately, though, all online. Which explains the sweat pants and fur coat. Never left the sofa."
"Aren't you hot in that thing?" Katie asked, fingering Nora's floor-length sable.
"Stifling," Nora said. "But I figure if you're going to slaughter a room full of animals and sew their pelts into a garment, you might as well get some use out of it. Next year, I'm wearing Dalmatian."
"Come on," said Nick, "let's get something to eat—I'm thirsty. Katie, Monkey, won't you join us?"
"Yes, please do," Nora said. She was courteous and friendly to a fault, the sort of woman who would make a hobo feel welcome at the funeral of her mother. Which was good because we were joined at a large corner table by a motley collection of gangsters and roughnecks whom Nick introduced as Spider, Fingers, Clinker, Morelli, Dancer, Nunheim, Aunt Katherine, Julia Wolf, Rainbow Benny and Uncredited Hatcheck Girl.
"Oh, Nicky, you know such wonderful people," Nora said, and managed to sound like she meant it.
The caterer wasn't nearly so nice. "Waiter, would you please serve the nuts," she shouted at a plump-bellied man in a white dinner jacket and then she glared at us and snapped, "Yes, I said it—nuts! You're all nuts! Crazy as the proverbial loons! But all the same, would you care for some almonds and cashews?"
We declined and instead whistled up a variety of seafood, including shad roe, cracked crab and broiled lobster, that somehow arrived at the table as fourteen identical orders of sea bass. While as a general rule one should never order fish on Sunday, this being a fictional universe, it was actually quite good, a filet without bones, almost, cooked in butter as yellow as the sun.
We ate and while we waited for dessert, Nick raised his glass and said, "Now, my friends, I suppose you're wondering why I invited you to this swank little soiree—just this: I know who killed Robert Landis."
A groan went around the table and even the dog Asta opened one eye and yawned. "Good grief," said Clinker. "Not this again!"
The Hatcheck Girl agreed. "Bor-ing!"
"Bloody hell," muttered Morelli, "he's going to catch another killer. Every time I get invited to one of these darn dinners," he told Katie, "Nick here feels like he has to solve a murder. Even when I snuck into The Thin Man Goes Home as a completely different character, he solved another murder!"
"Yes, I agree with the riffraff," Aunt Katherine intoned haughtily. "Had I known you'd indulge in such tomfoolery, Nicolas, I'd have stayed home," and then under her breath added, "you alcoholic windbag!" At that Nora protested, and Nick whined, "I really do know who killed Robert," but the Nob Hill dowager would have none of it. "The floor show is quite sufficient without your added twaddle and flimflam. Besides, I'm missing a rerun of The Mentalist, dammit!"
Just then Jimmy Stewart popped out of the crowd, waving a pistol and foaming at the mouth. "Sure, I killed Robert! I've hated him for years! And Pedro and Selma, too! But more than anything," he said, "I hate sea bass! Sea bass?!? Who serves sea bass on a Sunday!?!"
"Put down that gun!"
"Get out of the way!"
Stewart waved us all back. "I've got six bullets!" he shouted. "One for the chef and one for myself! That's right, one for myself. And the rest for anyone who tries to stop me!"
"I'm not going to stop him," said Nunheim. "Are you going to stop him?"
"Not me," said Spider. "I don't like sea bass either."
A quick survey of the table revealed the group evenly split in our appraisal of sea bass, but unanimous in our distaste for bullets, and nearly so in our agreement that nobody was going to stop a heavily-armed Jimmy Stewart from shooting the chef if he really wanted to.
Only Katie-Bar-The-Door demurred and suddenly she flung aside her chair and laid out the would-be culinary assassin with a single blow of her tiny fist! Even as Jimmy Stewart fell back onto the dance floor, Katie tore the gun from his grasp and hurled it into the punch bowl, then pinned his ears back with a wrestling hold I had taught her on our wedding night.
The Oscar-winning actor was sobbing like a little girl when the police led him away.
"Why Katie!" I said. "You're a hero! You jumped right into the muzzle of that gun!"
"Hero is a sandwich," she shrugged. "I just didn't want to get kicked out of the Willow Manor Ball again. Although to tell you the truth," she said, "there is one thing I'd rather be doing—" And she gave me a come-hither look from under her eyelashes.
"Watching that rerun of The Mentalist?" I guessed.
"How did you know?" she laughed. "And afterwards," she said, waggling her eyebrows suggestively, "I'll demonstrate that wrestling hold for you."
Named for Katie-Bar-The-Door, the Katies are "alternate Oscars"—who should have been nominated, who should have won—but really they're just an excuse to write a history of the movies from the Silent Era to the present day.
To see a list of nominees and winners as well as links to my essays about them, click here.
Remember: There are no wrong answers, only movies you haven't seen yet.
The Silent Oscars
And don't forget to check out the Silent Oscars—my year-by-year choices for best picture, director and all four acting categories for the pre-Oscar years, 1902-1927.
Look at me—Joe College, with a touch of arthritis. Are my eyes really brown? Uh, no, they're green. Would we have the nerve to dive into the icy water and save a person from drowning? That's a key question. I, of course, can't swim, so I never have to face it. Say, haven't you anything better to do than to keep popping in here early every morning and asking a lot of fool questions?