By Christine and Robert Bamberger
The Thin Man – 1934 – dir. W.S. Van Dyke
Most people get a terrific kick out of the interplay between William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies, especially in the original, made just before the Production Code in Hollywood went into full force. But the film’s convoluted plot and numerous characters make it necessary to keep notes just to follow along. In getting a handle on the many personalities in the movie, it becomes increasingly apparent that this large cast of characters, spread all over the periphery of the plot, is not peripheral at all. Indeed, this bunch serves to draw our attention even more to Nick and Nora Charles.
In The Thin Man, the first entry of the series, the title refers to the character Clyde Wynant (tall, thin Edward Ellis)–although MGM thereafter applied the “thin man” descriptor in the sequel titles to William Powell. Early in the film, Wynant wordlessly glowers a threat at his mistress (Natalie Moorhead) as he leaves their apartment, causing her to fling her knuckles toward her lips in that classic melodramatic gesture of feminine distress. A later scene echoes this; departing “gigolo husband” Chris Jorgenson (Cesar Romero) flashes a look of manly determination and vows to “do just what I said I’d do,” which instills panic in his older wife Mimi, played with Pekinese-pup nervousness by Minna Gombell. But the movie never does make clear what or whom it is these two men are about to imperil. Perhaps these moments could be described as red herring-do. (Sorry!)
Maureen O’Sullivan, on hand as Dorothy, made a growth industry in the 1930s of portraying sweet young things when she wasn’t in the jungle with Johnny Weissmuller. Dorothy is concerned about her thin and missing father Wynant; annoyed with her money-grubbing mother, young stepfather, and kook of a brother Gilbert (Gombell, Romero, and a rather superfluous William Henry); and about to be married to the sweetly vacuous Tommy (Henry Wadsworth). Then we have the thin man’s quietly efficient lawyer MacCaulay (Porter Hall).
Throughout the entire series we encounter shady characters. Nick has put some of them away in the cooler, but once sprung, they seem to bear him no animus and are pleased to encounter him and furnish him assistance. But here our attention is first taken up by some sinister figures associated with the thin man’s mistress in some way or other (Edward Brophy, Harold Huber, Gertrude Short, Cyril Thornton). It follows that we’d have lawmen trying to solve the mystery; their head honcho is Detective Guild (Nat Pendleton).
And let us not forget Asta! Not only is the pooch’s appeal second only to that of Nick and Nora, but he became a sort of mascot of screwball comedy, appearing in the subsequent Thin Man entries, in The Awful Truth, and in Bringing Up Baby. Asta probably single-pawedly saved a number of wire-haired terriers from a crueler fate when he made his breed all the rage in the ’30s.
In short, this plot is teeming with characters and their lovers or sidekicks. This multitude are incessantly making references to one another until some in the audience may justifiably think, “Now which one was Julia, again?”
But who cares? The mysteries in these films are, by and large, decently conceived, but have they been the subject of any dissertations? Doubtful. When there is consideration of the Thin Man series, it is dominated by Nick and Nora, the most beloved and iconic of 1930s cinema’s married couples, and the way they bounce off each other. One of their most endearing qualities, though, is the way they also play off the host of characters that pass in and out of their province.
The elegant and playful Nick and Nora Charles were born in the mind of detective-story writer Dashiell Hammett, and conventional wisdom has it that he based the couple on himself and his mistress, playwright Lillian Hellman. Hammett’s novel “The Thin Man” was not as frothy and frolicsome as the screenplay fashioned from it by his friends, the married couple Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. As James Harvey puts it in his poetically rendered history of “Romantic Comedy in Hollywood,” “…any suggestion of the novel’s mordancy… is banished from the film. As a result, so also is some of Hammett’s most vivid characterization…” But Harvey adds that Powell and Loy’s Nick and Nora “are even richer and more compelling figures than Hammett’s.”
Reading David L. Goodrich’s book about his aunt and uncle, tellingly titled “The Real Nick and Nora,” it occurred to me that Hammett’s married characters, especially as shaped by Goodrich and Hackett, carry on much like writers. Consider Nora and Nick’s sense of democracy among all classes and stripes because it makes life more interesting; their sophistication and security about their own sexual relationship in relation to potential “intrusion;” and their analysis of the psychological motivations of all the above-mentioned individuals, so as to solve “the case.” And they drink like fish!
Compared to the denizens of other madcap romantic comedies and detective tales of the era, their habits or intellects stand out in bas relief, and yet they are said to be a retired gumshoe and an heiress. This last is important because Nick and Nora do not need to be out there placing themselves in jeopardy solving murders. Yet, at the same time, it’s that lack of necessity that accounts for the insouciance that is at the core of their appeal to us.
So is the magic from Frances or Albert or Bill or Myrna? All of them, of course, but so much is added by their cohort. As small-time hoods, policemen, society sophisticates, fight promoters, and drunks tunelessly sing and cry at their cocktail party, Nora says affectionately, “Oh, Nicky, I love you…” (hugging his neck) “because you know such lovely people.”
People around them get pulled into their starry fun orbit: Waiters and maitre d’ receiving a lesson from Nick on how to mix drinks to music; bar revelers watching with amusement as Nora is dragged in by Asta; cops investigating a thug who shoots at Nick; photographers and reporters excited at a turn in the case; plainclothesmen on hand for a dinner party of suspects; even the taut-strung members of the thin man’s family getting teased by both Charleses as they are unwillingly caught up in the whirl of their impromptu Christmas bash.
The movie’s climax is the dinner to which all the murder suspects are invited, a plot contrivance that was hokey even in 1934, but which again brings to the fore a variety of personalities and their reactions to each other. Despite the potential for tension, Nick and Nora keep it not only cool, but humorous. Everything Nick says to clarify the role of each dinner guest makes perfect sense, and yet I was grateful for DVD-pause so that I could go through and track his indirect way of revealing the identity of the murderer!
In a review of the film After Office Hours for The New Yorker in 1935, Russell Maloney writes: “Since The Thin Man, all the best melodramas have begged not to be taken too seriously, which of course makes them much easier to take.” A nod here to the film’s director, one of those rarely-touted MGM workhorses, Woody Van Dyke. Often eyebrows are raised at how speedily he completed a film shoot, because he was famous for little (if any) rehearsal and for filming scenes in one take. But it may be that this pace leant a spontaneity and freshness to the interaction of the cast, especially as an ensemble. Accounts vary, but The Thin Man may have been filmed in as few as 12 days.
Both Loy and Powell were such masters of the understated, sometimes almost unreadable series of reactions to other characters, and both can look dignified in the midst of the most clownish of verbal embarrassments or pratfalls. And speaking of the physical, their ease with each other in teasing and smiling and smooching makes them seem convincingly happily married (and sexually compatible) indeed–even when no one else is around but us.
Note: Now available from BearManor Media is a brand-new book by prolific film history author Charles Tranberg: “The Thin Man Films: Murder Over Cocktails.”