Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
With the popularity explosion of television series on DVD, MGM's old The Thin Man pictures might
qualify as some kind of miniseries, if you accept the idea that the waiting time for new episodes was
between two and three years. Along with
Tarzan, Andy Hardy and
Dr. Kildare, the Thin Man movies were tent-peg franchises for Louis B. Mayer's Leo the Lion.
Starting with 1934's The Thin Man
(reviewed separately), the series
started popular and remained that way for over a decade. The talented screenwriting duo of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (responsible
for much superior work from It's a Wonderful Life to the prize-winning play and movie
The Diary of Anne Frank) created a winning buddy-picture comedy duo from Dashiell Hammett's Nick
and Nora Charles, society types routinely entangled in spicy murder cases. Nick has retired to look after
his wife's fortune but is invariably drawn back to his old profession by old friends or Nora's upset
Sophisticated character comedy sets the series far apart from most other pictures of the thirties. The
mystery plots range from so-so to not-bad, but the real fun is watching the verbal sparring between Nick
and Nora. A goodly portion of the jokes center around liquor, which the couple imbibe in Olympic proportions,
especially in the first couple of pictures. Nobody ever gets truly swizzled, but there are few hangovers.
Nick's smart remarks are matched for wit and point by the feline-eyed Nora; he's always pretending he's
only interested in her money, while she knows how to skewer his 'masculine' pretenses of being a tomcat
with the women. Naturally, they're madly in love so it's all the joke of two very secure sophisticates --
viewers can laugh along, wondering what it would be like to have a marriage where both parties still
behave like a playboy and playgirl. The comedy never quite becomes screwball -- somehow that seems counter
to the way MGM made movies -- but it's always solid entertainment.
Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey
centered its satire on class inequity in the Depression. The Thin Man movies ignore economics but
derive a lot of comedy mileage from Nick's old associates in the crime racket, both in San Francisco and
New York. He and Nora can't go anywhere without being mobbed by 'colorful'lowlifes and ex- crooks, some
of whom Nick helped put behind bars. No matter, as the retired detective is loved and feted by
criminals and cops alike. Nick apologizes when Nora gets glad-handed by some palooka who slaps her on the
back or behaves innocently low-class, but Nora reminds him that she married him because she likes his
underworld habitat. The scripts generally reserve respect for Nora's wealthy peers, while the underclass
both straight and crooked are treated with benign condescendsion. They're good old folks with their
beer and pretzels, and thank God they go home when asked.
The The Thin Man series is like an extended television show, except that the players age by thirteen
years across six entries. Styles change, as does the film stock, at least twice. The second show from 1936
has a new sharpness and silver screen lustre; somewhere between '35 and '36 some superior negative stock
must have been introduced.
As for the actors, William Powell gets a little heavier, while Myrna Loy transforms from a wisp-faced
looker to a more mature but equally beautiful woman. Loy had played a lot of exotic temptresses in
silent movies and early talkies (MGM's The Mask of Fu Manchu) but clearly was capable of playing
A fixture from the start was Asta, the dog, a frisky terrier (or collection of trained terriers) that
the pair dote on. Every imaginable taking-bowser-for-walksies joke is there, along with plenty more
clever anthropomorphosed gags, usually having the dog cover its eyes when Nick shoots out Christmas ornaments
with his new popgun, or Nick and Nora kiss. In one clever gag, Asta does a complete back flip, with the
camera following as if he were Donald O'Connor running up a wall. The first sequel gets away with a randy
Asta gag that comments on Nick and Nora's constant jokes about infidelity: Asta returns with his masters
to their San Francisco hilltop digs, to find 'Mrs. Asta' surrounded by a litter of odd-colored puppies. Asta
is delighted until he sees a scotty dog sneaking in to carry on his doggie affair! Oh the ignominy -- Mrs.
Asta slinks in shame back into the doghouse, while Asta leaves to howl in distress. It's a regular soap
Starting with the third film, Asta is somewhat supplanted by Nick and Nora's baby, introduced as a pair of
knit booties at the end of the previous instalment. The baby spends one show as a toddler, ending up confused
with a room-ful of 'lower-class' babies and the possible target of a kidnapping-hostage scheme. I imagine
the idea wasn't developed further than a few seconds in the interests of good taste - the kidnapping of
children was an unofficial Production Code no-no for decades after the Lindbergh case. By his second film,
the boy is already in Military school uniform and is being used for 'like father, like son' jokes. "He's
learning to use a corkscrew!"
W.S. Van Dyke directed the first four movies, and his reputation for haste is only visible in some
continuity flubs. For instance, mismatched cuts of Donna Reed in Shadow of the Thin Man show
her changing expression dramatically, from sour-faced to smiling and back again, just as we're trying to
decide if she's a good Jane or a sneaky murderess. Goodrich and Hackett bowed out of the series, with
stalwarts like Robert Riskin, Harry Kurnitz and Dwight Taylor taking up the slack. Richard Thorpe and
Edward Buzzell eventually took over for Van Dyke, who took his own life in 1943.
Interestingly, even though the "Thin Man" of the first film was a murder victim, subsequent
entries associate Nick and Nora as "Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man", in honor of their famous case.
After the Thin Man (1936)
picks up right where the original leaves off, with Nick and Nora
arriving in San Francisco. But they're entangled in family affairs with a troublesome aunt (Jessie Ralph),
and the missing playboy husband (Alan Marshall) of Nora's cousin (Elissa Landi). Helped by Lt. Abrams
(Sam Levene), the duo must single out the killer from a formidable lineup of crooks and sleazy characters.
Young James Stewart doesn't fare very well, and overacts terribly in the final scenes. Also featuring
Joseph Calleia, Penny Singleton, George Zucco and Paul Fix.
Another Thin Man (1939)
Charles'es back to New York and a complicated murder scheme involving the partner of Nora's deceased
father (C. Aubrey Smith) and an eccentric gangster (Sheldon Leonard). The baby is along for the ride
in this one. Once again, the mystery is solved at a round-up of suspects in one room -- why the criminals
cooperate in these games of charades is anyone's guess. Virginia Grey does well, and the extended cast
lets us see Ruth Hussey, Patric Knowles and everyone's favorite loser, Tom Neal
Shadow of The Thin
bills its director as Major W.S. Van Dyke II. A murder at a horse track puts Nick in the
center of more crooks and red herrings, including future TV James Bond Barry Nelson (who looks like he
could play a Kennedy brother) and an unusually subdued and dour Donna Reed. Pint-sized track tout
Lou Lubin is a key suspect, two years before his iconographic role in Val Lewton's
The Seventh Victim. As a change of pace, the unfolding of the mystery is rather well-done in this
instalment, even though the eventual guilty party comes out of left field. This is also the show in which
Nora gets Nick into a hammerlock at a wrestling match.
The Thin Man Goes Home (1943)
Song of The
Thin Man (1947)
know that it's wartime through a crowded train and a recital of the phrase "Goodbye Mama, I'm off to
Yokohama." Nick also goes mostly on the wagon
for the duration (the only patriotic thing to do, I suppose). He and Nora (the kid is out of
the picture for this one) go to Nick's hometown and solve a murder mystery involving secret
war plans. Continuity is seriously strained in the round-up finale in this one, with Nora explaining Nick's
crime-solving process to his father (Harry Davenport) as if she were reviewing the movie. Gloria De Haven has a gushy role
as a stage-struck teen, but Anne Revere is the standout as a mysterious old maid, with a Winchester. Nick
solves the mystery with yet another miraculous bullet-trajectory theory. With Leon Ames. Nick
nails the murderer but little attention is given to the small-town traitors that have been uncovered.
is the final instalment and carries a rap as the series' bitter end. Still, it's not
bad, even though Powell has put on quite a few pounds and Loy is finally starting to look older than 25.
This time the boy is played by Dean Stockwell and the plot involves murder on a gambling ship. Keenan
Wynn helps Nick through the world of be-bop musicians, and for once the Charles'es seem out-of-place and
behind the times. Both Leon Ames and Morris Ankrum show up from the previous episode, inexplicably playing
different roles. Jayne Meadows and the sultry Marie Windsor
(The Narrow Margin) decorate the margins.
Gloria Grahame has a slightly bigger role and is dubbed in her singing, none too convincingly. The
series' worst joke happens when Nick picks a razor blade from the floor, but then decides the murderer
Somerset Maugham. When the killer is
unmasked, it's in an embarrassingly silly scene - he simply stands up and confesses to all. He has the
nerve to off two people but not enough to keep his cool.
Warners' The Complete Thin Man Collection is uniformly good-looking, with the oldest picture
slightly granier, with less contrast. Audio is also fine throughout. They stand as solid examples of
standard MGM factory moviemaking.
The first disc (which was released as a snapper in 2002) has a full trailer gallery, but each disc
thereafter contains its own trailer, a short subject and a cartoon. Robert Benchley is in
How to Be a Detective and Why Daddy? among musical shorts and an instalment of
Passing Parade. There are also a couple of radio shows with Powell and Loy. Cartoons include
strange efforts like The Early Bird and the Worm and The Bookworm with Tex Avery making
a nice showing in Screwball Squirrel and Slap Happy Lion. Fans of film noir will
be pleased to see the Jules Dassin short subject The Tell-Tale Heart: Dassin was going nowhere
as a trainee at
the studio when they allowed him to shoot it. It was shelved for a year but so acclaimed when released
that the brass had to take notice and give the young director feature work. The artsy adaptation
features expressive camera angles and Joseph Schildkraut as the paranoid murderer, ta-thump, ta thump.
A seventh disc contains the 'documentary profiles' William Powell: A True Gentleman and Myrna
Loy: So Nice to Come Home To. Both actors have fascinating backstories and seem the kind of Hollywood
royalty who deserved their fame and glory. They're a pleasure to learn about. Sparkhill did the new
Powell piece and the Loy show is by Richard Schickel from 1990.
Also on the bonus disc is a
TV episode of The Thin Man from the late fifties, starring Peter Lawford and Phillis Kirk, and
another radio show with Powell and Loy. Lawford and Kirk don't begin to touch the personality of the
All in all, a gigantic collection for the price. Unlike most other Warners boxes, the individual titles
in this one are not available separately.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Complete Thin Man Collection rates:
Movies: Excellent to Good
Supplements: short subjects, radio shows, cartoons, trailers, docus and bonus TV show on 7th disc (see above)
Packaging: Seven Keep cases in card box
Reviewed: August 14, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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