The 1930s and '40s were a golden age of movie mysteries, from Bulldog Drummond and Charlie Chan to Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Moto. None were classier, however, than the adventures of Nick and Nora Charles in MGM's "Thin Man" series, six funny whodunits given A-class treatment in a genre generally regarded as B-movie fodder. Though Warner Home Video released The Thin Man (1934) as a no-frills DVD in 2002, fans of this excellent series have had to wait until now for the sequels: After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), and Song of the Thin Man (1947).
Based on Dashiell Hammett's (The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest) novel, The Thin Man operates from an irresistible premise, that lowly if sophisticated alcoholic private eye Nick Charles (William Powell) has married wealthy socialite Nora (Myrna Loy). He's retired but she's intrigued by his glamorous if unseemly former life trailing unfaithful wives, breaking into apartments looking for evidence, and sitting in on autopsies. Though from two utterly different worlds they get along famously, and she, no slouch herself with a bottle, jumps at the chance when Nick is asked to help with a criminal investigation.
The Thin Man
Nora: You know, that sounds like an interesting case. Why don't you take it?
Nick I haven't the time. I'm much too busy seeing that you don't lose any of the money I married you for.
The first and in many ways still the best film in the series, the opening titles appropriately feature a copy of the novel in the background, with author Dashiell Hammett's image on the cover. The mystery surrounds the disappearance of a wealthy inventor (the "Thin Man" of the title), but the real charm of the picture is the dialogue between Nick and Nora, who are both extremely witty and sophisticated yet behave very much like a real married couple, this in spite of their opposing backgrounds. The film abounds in quotable dialogue, and the screenwriters penning the sequels had to work hard to even approach this film's constantly funny banter.
The Thin Man was published soon after the end of Prohibition, and the movie came out soon after it. The picture delights in its boozy drunkenness, and William Powell gives a remarkable (and Oscar-nominated) performance as a man perpetually blotto yet always able to function. Such political incorrectness would seem to preclude faithfully adapting the novel today.
W.S. Van Dyke, an efficient, somewhat underrated director, handles both the comic banter and suspense set pieces with equal adeptness. The excellent cast includes Maureen O'Sullivan, taking a well-deserved break from the Tarzan series. Porter Hall's family lawyer is less grouchy than was his norm, while Nat Pendleton's detective is both smarter and more agreeable than he usually was. Cesar Romero, in only his second film, is fine as a slimy gigolo. Edward Brophy, later the voice of Timothy the Mouse in Dumbo, and memorable screen heavy Walter Long have good smallish parts.
Shot in 12 days for just $231,000, The Thin Man was a surprise hit, earning $1.4 million at the box office, making it one of the year's great successes. But wealthy MGM Studios knew how to milk success; rather than rush a sequel (or three) the following season, like the Tarzan movies they took their time, deliberately pacing Thin Man sequels at about one every two years.
After the Thin Man
Nick: "Come on. Let's get something to eat. I'm thirsty."
And it literally is After, as the picture picks up almost exactly where the first film left off, with Nick and Nora pulling into San Francisco station just shy of the New Year. This time, it is Nora's wealthy cousin Selma (Elissa Landi) who's in trouble after her no-good fiance goes missing. The murder in this entertaining if overlong film (nearly 20 minutes longer than the briskly-paced Thin Man) doesn't even occur until 45 minutes into the picture, which overflows with well-cast suspects: shady nightclub manager "Dancer" (Joseph Calleia), Selma's spurned former fiance David (James Stewart, very early in his long career), floozy hoofer Polly (Dorothy McNulty, later Penny Singleton of Blondie and Jetsons fame), her ex-husband Phil (Paul Fix), and menacing psychiatrist Dr. Kammer (George Zucco, with Coke bottle glasses and a limp).
After the Thin Man is a worthy sequel, with longtime writing partners Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett returning for the sequel, and again bringing a wonderful repartee to Powell and Loy's scenes. There's a marvelous sequence where Nora slyly keeps her exhausted husband awake because she's hungry and wants him to fix her some scrambled eggs. There's a bit less drinking (though Nick is often blasted), and a much stronger emphasis on Asta's cute antics (the evolution of this rather parallels the growing screen time of Cheeta's comedy relief in MGM's Tarzan series). Here Asta's scenes, or rather those of Mrs. Asta, are downright racy for MGM. Nick's chumminess with seemingly every crook in San Francisco is overdone, but only slightly. Nick tends to abandon Nora when there's real men's-work detecting to do, but these scenes still exhibit the same air of authenticity former private eye Dashiell Hammett had brought to the original novel. Returning director W.S. Van Dyke daringly stages a long sequence without dialogue, as Nick checks out Polly's apartment as well as the one directly above, while "Dancer" plays cat and mouse with Nick.
Mostly, the film builds on the first picture's foundation, and despite its over-length it never wears out its welcome. Impeccably cast from the leading parts down to the tiniest walk-ons, look for Jessie Ralph (very funny as Nora's aunt, who treats "Nicholas" like dirt), Mary Gordon (as Nick and Nora's cook), and perennial Hollywood drunk Arthur Housman, seen here practicing a welcome home speech. (It's a shame he and Powell share no scenes.) MGM knew they had a winner; though it cost more than twice that of its predecessor ($673,000), the film was still a bargain as it became the studio's fifth-highest grosser, earning $3.1 million.
Another Thin Man
Hammett supposedly provided the original stories for the first two sequels, but Another Thin Man is the first to really impose an MGM-esque homogenization of the characters, from the boozy carefree couple of the first films to an eccentric but basically wholesome family unit of the later films. It's also one of the weaker films, overly precious coupled with a weak mystery, surrounding the murder of Nora's father's former business partner.
The film boasts the usual fine cast, however, with C. Aubrey Smith, Virginia Grey, Patric Knowles, Tom Neal, Sheldon Leonard, and Marjorie Main giving strong support. Nat Pendleton returns in the role of Lieutenant Guild, while Doodles Weaver and Shemp Howard have amusing uncredited roles.
Shadow of the Thin Man
Nora, referring to infant Nick, Jr.: He's getting more like his father everyday.
Estrellita, the Charles' maid: He sure is. This morning he was playing with a corkscrew.
Back in San Francisco, Nick is once again reluctantly pulled into another murder investigation, this one involving a crooked jockey apparently murdered at the track while taking a shower. The domestication of the Charles Family plods on, despite the racetrack setting and a long, amusing sequence set at a wrestling match (Tor Johnson, with a full head of hair, is one of the wrestlers). More screen time than ever is given over to Nick, Jr. and Asta, with more references to than actual onscreen boozing by the proud parents.
Now closer in spirit to Damon Runyon than Dashiell Hammett, Shadow of the Thin Man is crowded with loveable lugs and pick-pocketing pals, including such fine character actors as Sam Levene (returning as Lieutenant Abrams) and, all uncredited: Sid Melton, Harry Wilson, and Horace McMahon. The real surprise for many, though, is the rare screen appearance by legendary acting teacher Stella Adler, cast here as Claire Porter, a pretentious gun moll. She's fine but the part is hardly a stretch.
The film has its share of amusing scenes, such as Nick's encounter with an old landlady obsessed with radio crime shows and police gazettes, who talks Nick's lingo and then some, but the easy-to-solve mystery isn't likely to tax anyone's brain cells, and the film is both overlong and homogenized.
The Thin Man Goes Home
Nick: "I've handled trickier shows than this!"
Further plunging Nick and Nora into Louis B. Mayer's beloved world of Andy Hardy, The Thin Man Goes Home has the couple holidaying in the folksy hamlet where Nick grew up, a veritable Small Town, U.S.A. Further, to impress his country doctor father (Harry Davenport), Nick and Nora abstain from alcohol altogether, guzzling apple cider throughout. More than ever, what fun this entry offers is derived from the still delightful chemistry of Loy and Powell in their scenes together, and especially Powell's natural charisma. (Loy here shows signs of having been transformed from the risque free-spirit socialite to a matronly Good Wife, ever-supportive Mrs. Charles, but the old spark bubbles up to the surface now and again.)
Robert Riskin, after a long run as Frank Capra's main screenwriter (on such hits as It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) co-wrote the script with Dwight Taylor for producer-brother Everett Riskin, but the work still conforms to MGM's bland specifications. (To their credit, Riskin and Taylor leave Nick, Jr. at home this time, and Asta is less the cartoon character he had become in previous entries.) The cast includes such familiar faces as Leon Ames, Donald Meek, Morris Ankrum, Donald McBride, and Edward Brophy.
Song of the Thin Man
Though it did more than respectable business, earning $2.3 million against a $1.6 million negative cost, Song of the Thin Man still lost money on MGM's books (albeit just $128,000) and that signaled the end of the still-popular series. Movie mysteries were on their way out, with Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes having retired the year before and Charlie Chan the year after the Thin Man took his last bow.
The picture shows signs of postwar studio aimlessness, and this actually helps. Though Nick Jr. is back, this time played by 11-year-old Dean Stockwell, and his scenes are annoyingly cloying, for the most part the film is a step up from the previous two entries, as it's both more atmospheric and its mystery -- about the murder of a much-despised bandleader (of a lily white jazz combo) aboard a floating casino -- isn't shoved into the background the way the mysteries had been in both Shadow of the Thin Man and The Thin Man Goes Home.
Song of the Thin Man also benefits from a great late-1940s cast, including Keenan Wynn, Patricia Morrison, Ralph Morgan, Don Taylor, Al Bridge and, in early roles, Gloria Grahame, Marie Windsor, and Jayne Meadows (look-alike sister of Audrey Meadows and widow of Steve Allen). Leon Ames, Morris Ankrum, Tom Dugan, are back for another round, albeit in different roles from their earlier series appearances.
Video & Audio
All six movies are given above average transfers. The Thin Man, apparently identical to its 2002 transfer, shows the most age-related wear, with quite a bit of speckling obvious during scenes set in dark, unlit rooms, etc. After the Thin Man is an improvement; you can practically count the freckles on Penny Singleton's shoulders. The remaining films and all the contemporary short subjects look good for their age. The Thin Man offers mono audio tracks in both English and French, with subtitle options in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. (The remaining titles do not have Portuguese subtitles, and the last three films do not have French audio.)
The Thin Man includes trailers for all six movies, most of which emphasize MGM's "first in two years!" marketing strategy. After the Thin Man kicks off with How to Be a Detective (1936), an okay Robert Benchley short co-written by the team of Robert Lees and Frederic I. Rinaldo, who'd later write several of Abbott & Costello's best films. The Early Bird and the Worm (1936) is a fairly charming Harman-Ising Cartoon in Technicolor, about an, uh, early bird chasing a worm, both of whom in turn are menaced by a rattlesnake. Also included is a belated 6/17/40 Lux Radio Theater broadcast, a Leo is on the Air radio promo, and the original trailer.
Another Thin Man includes an entertaining one-reel short, Love on Tap (1939), starring the Merriel Abbott Dancers, real-life headliners at the Cocoanut Grove, but centering on their chaperone, Penny (Mary Howard), and her long-suffering fiance, Tommy (Truman Bradley, later the host of TV's Science Fiction Theater). The short, directed by George Sidney, offers some good footage around the Ambassador Hotel. Also included is The Bookworm (1939), a Hugh Harman cartoon with atmospheric animation and the voice of Mel Blanc as a hapless raven chasing after the title creature. A theatrical trailer is included as well.
Shadow of the Thin Man features that film's trailer (including Powell riding a different amusement park ride from the merry-go-round that appears in the film), plus Jules Dassin's marvelously atmospheric (and very un-MGM-like) adaptation of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart (1941). The two-reel short stars Joseph Schildkraut, very good as the hard-working, unhappy son who murders father Roman Bohnen, only to be haunted by the apparent beating of the dead man's heart. This is paired with The Goose Goes South (1941), an okay Hanna-Barbera cartoon loaded with ancient black-out gags.
Besides the usual trailer (which again uses the "first...in two years!" line, even though it's actually been more than three years this time!), The Thin Man Goes Home's extras include Why Daddy (1944), another Robert Benchley "Miniature," this one more painful than funny as the humorist is gleefully humiliated as a contestant on a radio quiz show. Screwball Squirrel (1944), an MGM cartoon directed by the great Tex Avery, mercilessly satirizes Disney's cutesy animal cartoons and predates the wilder antics of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck taken several years later by Warner Bros. director Chuck Jones.
Song of the Thin Man includes its original trailer, plus a second opportunity to see Dean Stockwell (and, for that matter, Morris Ankrum), in an outrageously schmaltzy short subject entitled A Really Important Person, part of John Nesbitt's Passing Parade series. Young Dean wants to win a brand-new fielder's mitt writing an essay in a local contest, then gets into trouble when he hits a line drive through a neighbor's window. Slaphappy Lion is another Tex Avery short, this one quite funny as the King of the Jungle is driven mad by a mouse.
A seventh disc includes yet more extras, though none specifically focus on the Thin Man series. An 11/21/58 episode of The Thin Man: Darling, I Loathe You exhibits all the promise and disappointments of that 1957-59 television series, which was produced by future Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum. Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk are well cast as Nick and Nora, and the setting intriguingly has been moved to Greenwich Village. Yet despite Lawford's offscreen notoriety as a swingin' boozer, the series (if this episode is any indication) depicts Nick and Nora as vertible teetotalers. "Two coffees," Nick orders, "plain and black." Kirk is eccentrically attractive much like Myrna Loy was in the 1930s, but little of the Hammett Nick and Nora is carried over into the series - here they're simply generic TV crime-solvers. This episode features series regulars Jack Albertson and Patricia Donohue, with guests Alan Reed (later the voice of Fred Flintstone), Paul Richards, and Blanche Sweet.
Of much less interest are two so-so documentaries, the 30-minute plus William Powell: A True Gentleman and the 46-minute Myrna Loy: So Nice to Come Home To. Though both nail the basic appeal of these fine actors, neither goes into any real depth, relying on film clips and expert observations in the former, and the husky-voiced, femme fatale-style delivery of host Kathleen Turner on the latter. Warner Home Video's Tarzan boxed set included an original documentary on that series, and The Thin Man Collection is less than it might be for lacking any real background on the films or the original novel.
The first two Thin Man movies are terrific, but the later ones are only okay. Just as it did with Tarzan, Keaton, and the Marx Bros., MGM had a knack for bringing in great talent than bludgeoning it with wholesomeness and/or mismanagement. What made the first two movies so good is pretty much absent in the last four - except for the onscreen chemistry of William Powell and Myrna Loy. So engrained have they become in those roles it's no wonder that no studio has since tried to remake The Thin Man. Theirs is a hard act to follow.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.