|Released by MGM | Directed By W.S. Van Dyke
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Well, Nick Charles punches Nora Charles in the face.
- There are a large number of jokes about dogs peeing.
- The police just punch a dude in the face for being lippy.
- Bigamy is a large part of unwinding the film’s conclusion.
Thin Man: Another Shadow Goes Home After a Song
“Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?”
I’m an adult, and as an adult, I’ve found that life is rather quite boring for the most part. You get used to eating, breathing, cooking, cleaning, and walking the dogs, and much of life begins to blur together. As such, I’ve often wondered what the sophisticated couple who has wisely disavowed children are supposed to do with their long, responsibility free days.
Much like Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man, I do believe a constant state of inebriation is a pleasing option. The two socialites for whom the film revolves around indulge in every manner of alcohol that one can imagine, and find it to be an absolutely splendid time. That there’s a murderer lurking in their midst is hardly much of concern.
The concern may belong to us though, the few, the proud, the people who are here to recite plot to you in case you weren’t paying much attention. The Thin Man is about social drinkers the Charles and what happens when an old friend is accused of murder. Bodies pile up; shenanigans abound.
The cast is peppered with tons of great actors like Edward Brophy, Porter Hall, Harold Huber, Cesar Romero, Natalie Moorehead, Mina Gombell, and Maureen O’Sullivan, with each getting their turn to play suspicious to just the right degree. The movie does a sublime job in pointing the audience away from the most obvious suspect, with even detective Nick Charles at the end admitting he’s just playing them off each other until the true criminal will get annoyed enough to pull out their gun.
That being said, the mystery is still pretty much a drag. Considering we don’t get to the titular couple for the first ten minutes and long stretches are spent with them apart, the mystery can get kind of wearying.
But that’s okay! Nick isn’t much of a detective– the couple’s dog, Asta, does some of the film’s heaviest lifting. What matters is Nick’s personality, that of a gumshoe exalted to a socialite bored to the point that drinking is not only an escape but an essential lifestyle choice. One must wonder upon learning that his marriage to rich heiress Nora removed him from the position of hard working detective whether or not he drinks merely out of boredom at his upper class lifestyle or if he’d always been that way. Considering the later entries in the series, I’d assume the booze is what is keeping Nick going.
So Nick’s become an alcoholic, and it appears Nora is more than happy to share in the fun. Like with Don Birnam, the main character in The Lost Weekend (1945), they’re a treat to be around when they’ve had a drink. To one up Don Birnam, they ain’t actually that bad when they’ve got a hangover either.
So the plot’s crap and our two main characters are a blackout and a spat away from an intervention. Why is The Thin Man so well remembered? Chemistry, plain and simply, that of the William Powell and Myrna Loy variety. With jagged barbs and playful banter, the two dance around each other with their wits as boxers would use their fists– “How’d you like Grant’s tomb?” “It’s lovely. I’m having a copy made for you.”
Powell’s virtues I have extolled many times, and will continue to do so with pleasure– he’s urbane and sophisticated but also glib and playful. He was the anti-Clark Gable of his time, someone who didn’t reek of overt sexuality but rather sly innuendo. Like in the spectacular Jewel Robbery or even in middling pictures like Private Detective 62, Powell’s ability to be two steps and a wink ahead make him irresistible. His drunk acting as the disaffecting Nick Charles is also splendid, revealing a character of consummate inebriation and infinite fun.
Loy spent most of the early 30s stuck as ‘The Other Woman’ as in Arrowsmith or typecast as foreigners of eastern descent in yellow face, as when she was Fu Manchu’s daughter or a psychotic Javanese killer. She did those parts dutifully, though that may be because few could play cold and cool like her. In The Thin Man, though, given the chance to show off her comedic chops is a godsend. Her scrunched up face is elastic, and her ability to inflate and deflate those around her with simple smiles and sideways glances make her the perfect match for the usually untouchable Powell.
Speaking of untouchable, there is a point in the movie that can be a sore spot for some viewers. During one lengthy sequence where Nick and Nora are confronted in their bedroom by a gun wielding suspect, Nick opts to punch his wife in the face and get her out of the path of the bullet, rather than… not. While I’ve never had too much of a problem with spousal abuse (other than the fact that my wife thinks sucker punching me in the kidneys is “hilarious”), I can see why this would turn some viewers off. However, and believe me when I tell you this, women were just assumed to be more rough and ready in the 30s. Like drunk driving, punching women was considered wrong under many circumstances, and both would grow much more taboo over the ensuing decades.
Nick and Nora are also much more slapsticky than many of their screen partners. One beautiful non-verbal bit, as Nora suffers from a hangover and Nick gloats while an associate is talking on the phone, is pretty much Three Stooges stuff. The duo’s famous dog, Asta, gets to partake as well, as the Wire Terrier operates with an innate knowledge of what his humans are up to and just how silly they are to boot.
The film’s ending and fadeout is essentially a big arrow pointing to the couple– who had a pair of twin beds in their New York hotel room– celebrating the successful denouement in a shared berth, doing what people normally get to do in a shared berth. After Asta covers his tender eyes, the pullout to a locomotive chugging along at full speed is something that Hitchcock no doubt had in mind when a similar ending popped up in North by Northwest (1959).
Through efforts like that, Nick and Nora did eventually procreate a successful series of follow up films as well as a prodigious offspring and a host of mysteries to solve. (That last sentence was awful. I apologize.) Like most of the great filmed detective stories of the 30s and 40s, they were about a sense of pleasure in unwinding a mystery with fun characters rather than gruesomeness or clue-filled extravaganzas. Thanks to some great writing and perfect acting, Nick and Nora remain the barb tongued ideal for couples all over the world– sober or not.
Trivia & Links
- If you enjoy The Thin Man, I highly suggest you checkout Thoughts on the Thin Man, an eBook I compiled with several other bloggers which covers each movie in the series in-depth. Read more here.
- There are a total of six movies in the Thin Man movies series, each with Powell and Loy reprising their roles: 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). I’m not much of a fan of any of the sequels– they soon transform Nora into the ‘nagging wife’ archetype that the late 30s and 40s were so fond of and much more relies on Asta’s complicated love life for humor. But if you like The Thin Man, you could do worse than giving them a shot.
- For a great ‘making-of’ for the entire film series, please check out Richard Drees’ paper over at Film Buff Online. This one has pretty much everything you need to know in it, including the five words that made the original Thin Man book infamous– “didn’t you have an erection?”
- Counted among Roger Ebert’s Great Movies. An excerpt:
Assuming as we must that “The Thin Man” is not about a series of murders and their solution (that entire mechanism would be described by Hitchcock as the MacGuffin), what is it about? It is about personal style. About living life as a kind of artwork.
- Cliff over at Immortal Ephemera calls this one of Nat Pendleton’s best roles, and further luxuriates over the supporting cast.
- Kellee over at Outspoken & Freckled also adores the picture, saying, “Myrna Loy truly epitomized the consummate combination of beauty and brains.”
- Hollywood Dreamland talks about the way the film introduces us to Nick, and details where you may have heard of its many supporting players.
- A Shroud of Thoughts outlines the surprising similarities between the Thin Man series and It’s A Wonderful Life.
- Film Noir Photos has a bunch of publicity pictures from all of the entries in the series.
- Movie Classics compares Dashiell Hammett’s novel to the film version.
- I’m not linking anything here, because I’m just that classy, but there’s a number of people who hold this in much higher regard than 1934’s Best Picture Winner It Happened One Night. To those people I say: I enjoy both movies, but, seriously, hogwash to that.
- I usually include more links, but this is another one of the more famous movies of the 30s. Check out some good writing on it from Collector’s Corner, Common Sense Media (with discussion questions!), Doom Cheez Cinema, and True Classics.
- And a nice chaser– all you ever needed to know about Skippy, the dog who plays Asta in the film, from Films of the Golden Age. He would later go on to costar with Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1936) and Bringing Up Baby (1938).
Hover over for controls.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- Nominated for Best Picture in 1934, and Powell was nominated for Best Actor. How Loy escaped a nomination is anyone’s guess.
- This film appeared in the Wikipedia List of Pre-Code Films.
- This film is available on Amazon both streaming and on disc form, and can be rented from Classicflix.
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