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Collector's Corner

February 2003

The Thin Man

  • Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Asta
  • Directed by: W.S. Van Dyke
  • Theatrical release: 1934
  • DVD release: 2002
  • Video: Academy Ratio
  • Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono
  • Released by: Warner Home Video

Imagine living in the United States in 1934. People had been suffering through the Depression for five years. After 18 dry years, the US citizenry had repealed Prohibition in 1933. Folks wanted to escape the day-to-day hardships of their lives and they did so by going to the movies. Hollywood accommodated the need for diversion by pumping out an endless stream of movies about rich, carefree people. The movies were filled with gorgeous people who had no financial worries and whose main job was to make witty remarks. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, resplendent in formal attire, were doing the carioca in The Gay Divorcee. Rich socialite Claudette Colbert was teaching Clark Gable the finer points of hitchhiking in It Happened One Night. However, the high point of the genre was The Thin Man, in which Nick Charles (William Powell), an ex-detective, marries Nora (Myrna Loy), an ultra-wealthy and stunningly gorgeous heiress to, as Nick describes it, "a narrow-gauge railway, lumber mill, and, oh, several other things."

The story is a typical whodunit. Wealthy inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) is missing. His daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) fears foul play. She runs into retired detective Nick Charles in a fancy nightclub while he is explaining the particulars of making a martini to the bar staff. ("The important thing is the rhythm! Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.") She begs for his help, but Nick is enjoying the easy life. Events conspire to force Nick to look into the matter. He finds plenty of suspicious people, including the ex-Mrs. Wynant and her husband, Wynant’s mistress, a family lawyer, a crazy son, and various lowlife specimens. The whole thing comes to a climax when Nick calls all of the suspects together for dinner and an opportunity to expose the true criminal.

If the plot had to carry The Thin Man, no one would remember it today. Clearly, the studio bosses gave it little regard. Filmed in just two weeks on a B-movie budget, the film was rush-released as an opener for a double feature. The only star was William Powell, and he was about the level of Ralph Fiennes today -- respectable and recognizable, but not a superstar. Myrna Loy was known mostly as an exotic vamp. MGM head Louis Mayer didn’t think the public would buy her in the role of a wife, but director W.S. Van Dyke had made another film earlier in the year (Manhattan Melodrama, the movie that spoiled John Dillinger’s day) that had starred Clark Gable, Powell, and Loy. He thought she would make a great Nora. Van Dyke eventually had his way.

And thank God, because what makes The Thin Man a classic is the interplay between Powell and Loy. Described at the time as the most perfect married couple in the world, Nick and Nora display the easy friendship, lovingly sarcastic banter, and dreamy glances you generally see only in couples who have been married for many happy years. You can easily imagine that they both love and honor each other, and while their glances and touches leave no doubt they take the regular roll in the hay, the main thing you would want to watch is their day-to-day repartee. The Thin Man is to sophisticated and funny dialogue what Rear Window is to suspense and Lawrence of Arabia is to epics: the Gold Standard.

A couple of examples: In chapter 6, Nora makes a hilarious stage entrance as her dog Asta drags her through a bar. She sits down with her slightly but perennially inebriated husband, who has just finished talking with Dorothy Wynant.

Nora: Pretty girl.
Nick: Yes, she's a very nice type.
Nora: You got types?
Nick: Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.

In chapter 15, it’s Christmas Day. Nora is lounging around in her full-length fur coat, while Nick shoots out balloons on the Christmas tree with his new pellet gun. Nora is reading the newspaper accounts of Nick’s fight with a gunman. She reaches across him to get the New York Herald Tribune.

Nora: Are you finished with this?
Nick: Yes, and I know as much about the murder as they do. (pause) Oh, I'm a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read you were shot five times in the tabloids.
Nick: It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.

The snappy dialogue came courtesy of novelist Dashiell Hammett, along with married screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. Hammett’s book (one of his least successful) has several of the best lines, but Hackett and Goodrich lent the film its humanity. Where the book is bitingly acerbic, the screenplay is lovingly mischievous. Hackett and Goodrich successfully took the best parts of the novel and created something infinitely better -- intelligent, loving, playful, and sexy. While not well known today, they received four Oscar nominations (The Thin Man, After the Thin Man, Father of the Bride, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), a Pulitzer Prize for The Diary of Anne Frank, plus the love of millions for scripting It's a Wonderful Life.

Director Van Dyke was foremost a competent storyteller. He was best loved in Hollywood by the producers (they called him "One-Take Woody") who prized his ability to bring in a reliable film, on time, and under budget. He also deserves our recognition for hiring good writers, a budding superstar cinematographer (10-time Academy Award nominee James Wong Howe), and ideal actors.

William Powell is the perfect Nick Charles. Handsome and dashingly dressed, he somehow pulled off the trick of perpetually appearing to be just slightly inebriated without ever losing his charm or our sympathy. Notice the nuances of his performance. His intoxicated way of talking respects the dialogue in the script, yet is always slightly slurred. Something as simple and subtle as his gait is an inspired addition to the character. Watch the way he always looks a little off-balance, just like a person would after a third martini. Study his eyes as he gazes lovingly at Nora. His acting is so subtle and so invisible, you might miss it. Don’t. Powell is the heart of The Thin Man.

Myrna Loy is its soul. She had made 79 films (!) in the nine years before The Thin Man. But she had always been cast as the "other" woman. By the time The Thin Man came around, she was 29 years old and ready for the move to leading lady. Before The Thin Man, no one would have believed that she would eventually become typecast as "the perfect wife." But it happened. In film after film, from The Thin Man and its five sequels, through The Best Years of Our Lives, even in supporting roles like The April Fools, Loy was cast as the tolerant wife of an offbeat husband. But she wasn’t reticent or timid. Besides being lovable and intelligent, she always had a snappy comeback and a delicious kiss. It didn’t hurt that she was dazzlingly gorgeous.

The public loved her in the role of ideal wife. Just two years after The Thin Man, she was named Queen of the Movies in a survey of Ed Sullivan’s readers, and was one of the top box-office draws in the US. She starred with all the top names, but the public kept demanding more Powell and Loy. The reason was simple -- they made marriage sexy, exciting, classy, and unpredictable. They went on to do 14 films together, all worth watching.

Warner Home Video has done a great job with the DVD. It looks much better than either the VHS or laserdisc versions. There are a few unavoidable scratches, but the rich black-and-white picture has excellent delineation of all the beautiful textures (especially Nora’s superb wardrobe). The mono sound is what you would expect from a 69-year-old film -- clear but a little noisy. The extras include a very incomplete filmography for four of the principals. We also get the theatrical trailers for all six of the Thin Man movies. I especially loved the trailer for The Thin Man, a little story about a chance meeting of detectives Philo Vance (a role Powell was famous for) and Nick Charles. Unfortunately, Warner Home Video missed some opportunities. How about Loy receiving the Kennedy Center honor in 1988? Or her interview in The Lion Roars, a documentary about MGM? Or something from her interview in the 1965 documentary The Love Goddesses? Oh, well. It doesn’t matter. I’m happy just to have the film.

It’s February, and on the 14th we honor St. Valentine of Rome, the patron saint of lovers and happy marriages. What better time to watch The Thin Man, the best movie ever made about how perfect and how perfectly wonderful marriage can be? Now, can we please have the other five Thin Man movies?

...Wes Marshall


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