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 relatives.
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 almost anything.
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 opera.
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.
After the Thin Man (1936)
Another Thin Man (1939)
Shadow of The Thin
The Thin Man Goes Home (1943)
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 couldn't be 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 films.
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: