A uniquely fun detective story filled with murder, laughs, and liquor
When was the last time you heard a detective film described as delightful? Your answer could very well be never - unless you’ve ever heard a description of “The Thin Man”. This charming film broke new ground by infusing detective work with smart comedy, glamour, and the infectious banter of a high-society husband and wife who love their dog and their liquor. This film is more of a delicious romp than a straightforward whodunit, and is so enjoyable it was nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture), and is ranked at #32 of the American Film Institute’s list of The 100 Funniest American Movies Of All Time.
The mystery in this unique Pre-Code detective film centers around “Clyde Wynant”, a divorced inventor who has mysteriously vanished. His daughter “Dorothy”, who is about to marry, runs into former detective “Nick Charles”, who knows her father. "Nick", his wife “Nora” and their dog “Asta” happen to be in town while vacationing for the holidays. “Dorothy” eventually enlists “Nick’s” help at finding her dad, while murders and mysteries ensure. Also involved in the mayhem: “Clyde’s” ex-wife and her unemployed new husband; his girlfriend/secretary and her hoodlum boyfriends on the side; his bookkeeper who just returned from Sing Sing prison; and his lawyer who always knew his whereabouts. Reluctant to take on the case, “Nick" is further convinced to lend a hand by “Nora”, and does so with the help of his terrier, “Asta”. A bit confused? No worries. “The Thin Man” is probably the only detective story you’ll care less about the sleuthing than the jovial interplay of its characters.
The film is based on the novel, “The Thin Man”, written by the master of hardboiled detective and mystery fiction, Dashiell Hammett. The film’s clever highbrow screenplay was written by husband and wife team, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who each received a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination for their work. “The Thin Man” was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who succeeded at creating a beautifully shot and well acted film filled with secrets, snappy speech, and spirits (the drinking kind). It earned him his first of two Best Director Oscar nominations (the second was for the classic “San Francisco” in 1937). "The Thin Man" was so popular, that Van Dyke reteamed with his two stars (and the dog) for three of five sequels (“After the Thin Man”, “Another Thin Man”, “Shadow of the Thin Man”), but died before the final two were produced (“The Thin Man Goes Home” and “Song of the Thin Man”). Van Dyke had a knack for making things appear spontaneous in his films often by capturing action in the first take, earning him the nickname, “One Take Van Dyke”. He believed after the first take actors lost their fire. He sometimes secretly filmed what he told actors was a rehearsal (such as William Powell’s opening shot in this film), or gave last minute action to actors immediately before shooting (such as instructing Myrna Loy to fall upon her entrance - giving her no preparation or rehearsal). He liked speed, improvisation, last minute dialogue changes, and anything to keep things fresh and in motion - and it shows. There is a distinct pace and spontaneity to this film, which was filmed in its entirety in about two weeks. W.S. Van Dyke began directing silent films, and by the sound era became one of MGM Studios’ most successful, versatile, and reliable directors. He is credited with making stars of many actors, including James Stewart, Margaret O’Brien, Maureen O'Sullivan, Eleanor Powell, Nelson Eddy, Johnny Weissmuller, and Myrna Loy. While best known for directing four “Thin Man” movies and six musicals featuring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, some of his other classics include "Marie Antoinette", "Tarzan the Ape Man", "Trader Horn", and "Personal Property”. He was married twice. Being a Christian Scientist, when W.S. Van Dyke began to suffer from health issues he declined treatment, and committed suicide in 1943 at the age of 53.
What makes “The Thin Man” so special is the magical chemistry between its two stars, William Powell and Myrna Loy. Powell plays the retired “Nick Charles”, and Loy his wealthy wife “Nora”. They are heartily believable as a long married couple still in love, who sportively banter and have fun together. How refreshing is that?! Playfully throwing sarcastic and witty quips at one another to amuse themselves, they create an infectiously joyous rapport unrivaled in cinema. Loy astutely explained their undefinable chemistry in her autobiography, “Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming”, when she wrote, “…a curious thing passed between us (she and Powell), a feeling of rhythm, complete understanding, an instinct for how one could bring out the best in the other. In all our work together you can see this strange - I don’t know what. . . a kind of rapport. It wasn’t conscious. If you heard us talking in a room, you’d hear the same thing. He’d tease me a little and a kind of blending emerged that seemed to please people. Whatever caused it, though, it was magical, and Woody Van Dyke brought it to fruition…”. Their dog "Asta" enriches their connection, and is an undeniably adorable part of their family, magnificently mixing with them both.
Starring as the often tipsy, semiretired investigator, “Nick Charles”, William Powell makes his entrance in the film after about ten minutes as we eavesdrop while he explains to a huddle of bartenders the importance of choosing the right musical rhythm to which one should shake mixed drinks. As he states “the dry martini you always shake to waltz time”, his character and the remainder of the film’s tone are set. The film is a mix of murder, gaiety, and liquor, and Powell is the keystone, seamlessly navigating all three. Ever since “Nora’s” father left her gobs of money, “Nick” retired to enjoy his drinking, and the two are living the high life. Powell’s magnetic personality is utterly captivating as he makes “Nick” warm and carefree, with things just rolling off his back - even when they get tough. Evidence of Powell's adept acting skills are visible throughout the film, as his performance is truthful and unrestrained, as he listens to his fellow actors with acute awareness. It is an outstanding performance for which he earned his first of three Best Actor Academy Award nominations (the other two for the classics “My Man Godfrey” and “Life with Father”). Contrary to what many think, the character “Thin Man” is not “Nick Charles”, but refers to the missing inventor, “Clyde Wynant”, played by Edward Ellis. Confusion comes because the subsequent five films (none of which feature the character of “Clyde Wynant”) all contain “Thin Man” in their titles. It was a studio tactic to let audiences know Powell and Loy were back as the ever popular “Nick” and “Nora”.
William Powell began his career in vaudeville and on stage, eventually making it to Broadway. He began his film career with a supporting part as the evil henchman in the 1922 silent film, “Sherlock Holmes” starring John Barrymore. In his early silent film career he often played a villain of some sort in films such as “Beau Geste” and “The Last Command”. With the coming of sound, his fine speaking voice boosted his career, and he found stardom in 1929, starring as detective "Philo Vance" in the film “The Canary Murder Case” - a character he would play in three more films. Powell soon transitioned to suave and sophisticated leading man roles in comedies and mysteries such as "One Way Passage" opposite Kay Francis, "The Kennel Murder Case" opposite Mary Astor, "Fashions of 1934" opposite Bette Davis, and "Manhattan Melodrama", opposite Clark Gable and Myrna Loy (also directed by Van Dyke, and Powell's first on-screen pairing with Loy). Van Dyke saw something in their chemistry and wanted to expand on it with “The Thin Man”, so he cast the forty-two year old Powell opposite the twenty-nine year old Loy, and the film made both of them official A-list movie stars. It has become Powell's best remembered role. From here on he appeared in top films, including such not yet mentioned classics as "The Great Ziegfeld", "Libeled Lady", "Double Wedding", "Ziegfeld Follies", and "How to Marry a Millionaire”. His final film was "Mister Roberts” in 1955, after which he retired. He married three times, including a two year marriage to actress Carole Lombard beginning in 1931, and to actress Diana Lewis in 1940 (which lasted until his death). While filming the 1935 musical “Reckless” opposite Jean Harlow, the two fell deeply in love and became unofficially engaged. Harlow fell ill and died suddenly two years later at the age of twenty-six. Grief stricken, he apparently never fully recovered, and to make matters worse, he was immediately faced with a bout of cancer (which he fought and won). William Powell died in 1984 at the age of 91. He was my grandmother’s favorite actor.
Myrna Loy is altogether alluring as “Nora Charles”, the sophisticated and easygoing wife of “Nick”. Beautiful, poised, and sharp witted, Loy makes it clear that “Nora” is very much “Nick’s” equal, as his teasing never ever gets the best of her. While bringing her own humor, Loy plays the somewhat sarcastic straight-man to Powell’s devilishly humored comic, always with an undercurrent of mutual affection and love. Just watch the way she looks at him. If there’s one thing Loy has in spades, it’s likability. She is enchanting from her dressed-to-the-hilt disarmingly slapstick entrance, to her priceless expressions while watching “Nick” shoot balloons off a Christmas tree. This is someone you can’t help but be drawn to. After appearing in approximately eighty films, “The Thin Man” made Loy a star, and her chemistry with Powell cemented them a place among cinema’s greatest on-screen couples. She and Powell were so believable as a married couple that when they went to San Francisco to film exteriors for the film “After the Thin Man”, the St. Francis Hotel booked them together in one hotel suite believing they were married. Luckily Harlow happened to tag along with Powell, and she and Loy shared the suite (resulting in what Loy called “one of my most cherished friendships”) while Powell slept in a downstairs hallway due to a full hotel. Including the six “Thin Man” films, the Loy and Powell appeared in a total of fourteen films together.
Myrna Loy originally trained and worked as a dancer, but as she began getting parts in silent films (starting with an uncredited role in “Pretty Ladies” in 1925), she made acting her focus. She had small or uncredited parts in such early classics as "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ", "Noah's Ark", and the first talking picture, "The Jazz Singer" in 1928. For the first half of her career she was typecast as an exotic (often Asian) seductress or femme fatale, which continued through to early sound films. Her career changed when she first worked with Van Dyke. After working with him in both “The Prizefighter and the Lady” and “Penthouse” (both in 1933), he claimed by the following year Loy would be a star. The following year he cast her in “Manhattan Melodrama” and the film that did make her a star, “The Thin Man”. It was a battle for Van Dyke to cast her in this film, as she had only played one “witty” character before (in “Love Me Tonight”), and MGM did not think her capable of playing the role of “Nora”. But Van Dyke fought hard and won. While Loy was already well known, “The Thin Man” made her a top star, and forever changed her screen persona. No longer the vamp, her grace, beauty and intelligence finally were given an opportunity to be exhibited, and thus she became typecast as the “perfect wife” - a role she would play in some form for the majority of the remainder of her career, in both comedies and dramas. In a 2004 article on Loy by Robert Osborne, she is quoted as saying “Some perfect wife I am. I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children and can’t boil and egg”.
While Clark Gable was hailed as “The King of Hollywood”, by 1936 Myrna Loy was dubbed “The Queen” (the two appeared together in seven films). She worked steadily until WWII, after which she juggled her time between acting and activism. She began appearing on radio in 1936, television in the late 1950s, and appeared in close to 150 films and TV shows. Some of her other classic films include "The Best Years of Our Lives", "Libeled Lady", "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer", "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House", "Cheaper by the Dozen", and"Airport 1975". Her final film appearance was in Sidney Lumet's 1980 film "Just Tell Me What You Want”. Loy made her one and only Broadway appearance in 1973’s, “The Women”. In 1987 she was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award, and though never nominated for an Academy Award, in 1990 she was awarded an Honorary Oscar in recognition of her "extraordinary qualities both on screen and off, with appreciation for a lifetime's worth of indelible performances". She accepted the award via satellite, and her nine word acceptance speech (“You’ve made me very happy. Thank you very much”) would be her final public appearance (you can watch it HERE). During WWII she began working with the Red Cross, and was an ardent anti-Fascist, speaking against Adolf Hitler (to the point where her films were banned in Germany). She was also outspoken against HUAC and Senator Joseph McCarthy during the McCarthy Era. Loy became the first Hollywood celebrity to become a member or the US National Commission for UNESCO, and was a co-chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. In 1987 she published her autobiography, “Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming”, which is fabulous reading. In it she disclosed begin diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing two mastectomies in the mid 1970s. She was married and divorced four times. Myrna Loy died in 1993 at the age of 88.
Maureen O'Sullivan plays “Dorothy Wynant”, daughter of the missing thin man. She brings a spirited and sweet youthful energy to the role, which helps one believe “Nick” and “Nora” would want to help her. At the time of “The Thin Man”, O'Sullivan was one of MGM’s most popular ingenues, playing leads in B-movies, and supporting roles in A-list films such as this one. Born in Ireland, Maureen O’Sullivan went to school in Ireland, England (where her classmate was Vivien Leigh), Paris, and back to Ireland. She aimed to be an actress, and got lucky when Hollywood director Frank Borzage happened to notice her while he was in Dublin shooting exteriors for his 1930 film, “Song o' My Heart”. He cast her in the film and she moved to Hollywood to complete filming. Thus began a hugely successful film career. After making films at different studios, O’Sullivan signed with MGM in 1932, where she was cast her in her most famous role, as “Jane Parker” in "Tarzan the Ape Man”, opposite Johnny Weissmuller (also directed by Van Dyke). O'Sullivan and Weissmuller were so popular, they were paired in five more “Tarzan” films over the next ten years. She also had substantial roles in such classics as "Anna Karenina", "Pride and Prejudice", "David Copperfield", "A Day at the Races", "The Barretts of Wimpole Street”, and "A Yank at Oxford" (with Vivien Leigh). In 1936 she married writer-director, John Farrow and decided to work less by 1940, and in 1942 took six years off to devote to her husband and children. She returned to acting in 1948 in "The Big Clock” (directed by her husband) and continued to work in films and mostly TV shows. She began appearing in theater in the early 1960s and would continue onstage for several decades. In the 1980s she had recurring roles on the daytime soap operas “All My Children”, “Guiding Light”, and "Search for Tomorrow". Her final appearance was in the 1994 TV movie “Hart to Hart: Home Is Where the Hart Is”. O’Sullivan is sometimes called “Ireland’s first film star”. After John Farrow’s death in 1963, she married a second time, and remained so until her death. She had seven children with Farrow, including actress Mia Farrow (and O’Sullivan played Mia’s mother on-screen in the 1986 Woody Allen classic "Hannah and Her Sisters”). Maureen O'Sullivan died in 1998 at the age of 87.
I want to briefly mention Cesar Romero who has a somewhat small role as “Chris Jorgenson”, the inventor’s ex-wife’s new husband. “The Thin Man” was his second film out of what would become over 200 film and TV credits in a career spanning over sixty years. American born, of Cuban and Spanish parents, Cesar Romero began his film career in the 1933 film “The Shadow Laughs”. He continued to appear in supporting and occasional leading roles such as in the 1935 Josef von Sternberg film "The Devil Is a Woman" opposite Marlene Dietrich. He moved between “Latin Lover” parts, roles in musicals, and six westerns in which he played the "Cisco Kid" (beginning with "The Cisco Kid and the Lady" in 1939). While he appeared in many television shows and other classic films such as "Around the World in 80 Days", "Ocean's 11”, "Vera Cruz”, "Week-End in Havana", and "The Little Princess", he is best known for playing his iconic recurring role of “The Joker” in the classic 1960s TV show, “Batman”. A "confirmed bachelor”, Cesar Romero never married. There had been many reports of him being gay, and he publicly came out in an interview with Boze Hadleigh in the book, “Hollywood Gays”, which was published in 1996. Cesar Romero died in 1994 at the age of 86.
Powell and Loy weren’t the only players to come away stars from “The Thin Man”. Skippy, the male Wire-Haired Fox Terrier who played their dog “Asta”, also walked away a star. Being intelligent and a bit mischievous, he is an endearing part of their family, and the film spawned a national craze for pet terriers. According to Loy, he bit her once, and the actors were not allowed to make friends with Skippy, as his trainer thought it would break his concentration. He was trained from the time he was three months old and became known as the most intelligent animal star in films - able to follow verbal and hand cues. It is estimated he was about three years old when he made “The Thin Man”, and it was his third film. Because he made such a mark in this film, Skippy would sometimes be called (and credited in films as) “Asta”. Many sources say he appeared in the first four films of the “Thin Man” series, though Loy claims he was only in the first three. Once he retired, his offspring replaced him in the latter sequels. If you are watching the films on this blog, you’ve already seen Skippy in the classic comedy, “Bringing Up Baby” with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant (I wrote a bit about him in that post which you can read HERE). Skippy appeared in approximately twenty films in his ten year career, with other notable roles in the classics “The Awful Truth” and “Topper Takes a Trip“. It is not known exactly when Skippy died.
Make sure to take note and enjoy the stunning cinematography in “The Thin Man”, for it is the gorgeous work of the brilliant James Wong Howe. His use of shadows, light and dark, camera moves and angles, all help elevate this film to more than just a run-of-the-mill caper. There’s an almost expressionistic feel to “The Thin Man” at times, and it is a visual treat to watch. Howe was one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers, and I wrote about his life and career in my post on the classic film, “Hud”. Please check it out for more information.
The spot-on art direction is by Cedric Gibbons, who creates a believable world of the upper society, a haunting laboratory, and the gritty crime ridden side of New York. One of Hollywood’s preeminent Art Directors, I’ve written about Gibbons in “The Good Earth”, “Camille”, “Forbidden Planet”, “The Philadelphia Story”, and “The Wizard of Oz” posts.
This week’s film is a rollicking detective story, bound to captivate and put a smile on your face. It is beautiful to look at, fun to watch, and a definite classic. Enjoy “The Thin Man”!
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