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Scenes from a Marriage: Watching the “Thin Man” Movies as a Set

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There’s no point in heaping more praise on the 1934 film The Thin Man, frequently cited as one of the best films of all time. It’s made several of the American Film Institute’s top lists, and film critics and scholars such as Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin, and Pauline Kael have given in high marks–in some cases, their highest. From the first screenings, audiences were dazzled by William Powell and Myrna Loy as wealthy socialites Nick and Nora Charles, and since the film heartily invited sequels (Nick keeps insisting his career as a detective is over, but Nora keeps urging him to continue sleuthing), MGM obliged and gave moviegoers five more films with Powell and Loy reprising their roles. 

The resulting movies–After the Thin Man, Another Thin Man, Shadow of the Thin Man, The Thin Man Goes Home, and Song of the Thin Man–don’t get the same overwhelming praise as the film that started the series. For example, Leonard Maltin, who had nice things to say about all of them, gave The Thin Man his highest rating (four stars), then gave After the Thin Man three and a half, then three stars each for the next three films, and finally two and a half for Song. In his wonderful book Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges, James Harvey regarded the series as increasingly disappointing, describing a devolution of Nick and Nora into tame domestic-comedy stock characters. 

Viewers can make their own assessment of the series, now that all the movies with the exception of The Thin Man Goes Home are up on HBOMax. Harvey and other critics may have been too harsh on the later movies: The series as a whole is surprisingly consistent, having been made over a thirteen-year span, and enjoyable elements from that first classic continue in the rest of the movies. There are also other fun reasons to watch the films–coincidentally, each even-numbered sequel includes a cast member from It’s a Wonderful Life–Jimmy Stewart in the second, Donna Reed in the fourth, and Gloria Grahame in the sixth. Only one of the films leaves the formula so far behind that it’s not worth the time, and more on that later.

In addition to the lead actors (plus their dog Asta, played by an in-demand wire-haired terrier named Skippy), three other collaborators on the first film returned for the first few sequels: Director W. S. Van Dyke and screenwriters (and married couple) Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Their participation preserved at least some of that initial rhythm and dialogue from the initial film. Nick and Nora had some of the greatest ongoing banter in Hollywood history, combining clever wordplay, romantic innuendoes, good-humored sarcasm, and extremely dry observations on the world and people around them. While every film had a mystery to solve, what made the films so engrossing was the depiction of a wildly enjoyable marriage between two people so affectionate for each other that occasional spats never had a chance to get serious. What all the sequels get right is that this is a marriage that doesn’t evolve. Locations change, a person is added, and sobriety makes unwelcome advances, but Nick and Nora maintain their amorous regard for each other, without demanding that it strengthen, or deepen, or develop in any way. Because it’s perfect as it is.

If The Thin Man is a masterpiece, then films two through four aren’t far behind. They’re enjoyable mystery-comedies that let us hang out with Nick and Nora for 90-or-so minutes at a time, and tag along with them to their swank socials and dangerous nightclubs. They’re also the four films directed by Van Dyke, who passed away in 1943. After the Thin Man opens with the couple heading to San Francisco, Nick’s old stomping grounds, and getting recruited to find a missing relative of Nora’s. Jimmy Stewart, in only his second year in show business, plays a member of Nick and Nora’s fun-loving social set. The mystery leads to a nightclub, then to a convocation of Nick’s old underworld acquaintances, then to a finale where Nick and Nora gather all the suspects and walk everyone through their findings to the solution–standard elements of this series, along with a helpful turn from Asta. The dialogue is terrific (Nick: “Did I ever tell you you’re the most fascinating woman this side of the Rockies?” Nora: “Wait till you see me on the other side.”) and the crime is… there, with the vanished relative leading to a blackmail scheme and two murders. Nick spells it all out for his costars and the audience, but no one remembers that part.

The film ends with Nora revealing to Nick that a child is on the way, a move that critics like Kael and Harvey regard as a major misstep for the series. Surely, the most lighthearted and entertaining couple in movies would have their fun spoiled with the addition of a child, and the work and responsibilities that come along with a baby. But with no offense meant to Kael and Harvey, nothing on the earth nor in the heavens could ever upend Nick and Nora’s marriage. The child arrived, adding no greater stress or worries than the usual murder case.

Another Thin Man introduces audiences to Nicky Jr., an infant and therefore someone incapable of speaking and interrupting his parents’ banter. The Charleses are back in New York and once again get roped into a murder investigation on Long Island; there’s a nightclub, a gathering of Nick’s underworld pals (one of whom is an uncredited Shemp Howard from the Three Stooges), some sleuthing by Asta, lots of drinking, and the gathering of suspects at the end, and it’s all very enjoyably done, but it becomes obvious that Powell and Loy aren’t alone together as much as they were in the first film, and that the film’s never quite as good when they’re apart as when they’re together. Because when they are in the same scene, you get lines like Nick’s “I’d hate to wake up and find that the fortune I married you for is gone,” and an exchange where Nick asks, “Mrs. Charles, how long have you been leading this double life?” to which Nora responds “Only since I’ve been married.”

Loy may have been the most important actor of the series, as wonderful as Powell was. There had been smart-aleck playboy detectives before, but none of them were married to Nora Charles, a combination of breeding, caustic wit, glamour, occasional daffiness, and heart. Harvey points out in Romantic Hollywood that Powell reacts to everything with a sort of polite blankness, but that he really becomes fully alive and engaged when interacting with Nora. Loy’s Nora is the difference in the world, the thing that can’t be reduced to a cliché, the person who can never become boring. Audiences don’t need it spelled out—we know exactly what Nick sees in his wife.

By the time we get to Shadow of the Thin Man, Nicky Jr. is now a playful kid in short pants and Nick has noticeably slowed down his drinking. The family is once again in San Francisco, and Nick is called to help with the investigation of a gambling ring. A jockey is shot, as is a journalist, and Nick (reluctantly) and Nora (eagerly) investigate. This was the first film in the series without Goodrich and Hackett as screenwriters, and maybe the dialogue isn’t as sparkling and maybe the mystery is even more forgettable than usual. But it’s every bit as entertaining as films two and three, with Nick taking the very elegant Nora to a crowded, dirty wrestling match, and a nice turn by Donna Reed as a secretary to a suspect. Best of all, though, Shadow is one of Stella Adler’s few film performances, and her turn as a dangerous blonde somehow matches Powell’s and Loy’s straightfaced-but-touched-with-playful-zaniness line deliveries perfectly.

By the time The Thin Man Goes Home was made, Van Dyke was gone, Skippy was retired, and even Loy had taken a break from Hollywood. The War was on, and Loy aided her real-life husband in his administration of the Red Cross. The studio was going to go ahead with just William Powell and a replacement Nora, but the fans wouldn’t have it, and MGM persuaded Loy to return for what would be the worst, by far, of the series. 

The Thin Man Goes Home takes all the elements that made the previous films so enjoyable and chucks them in the dumpster. Instead of a cosmopolitan city, the mystery is set in Sycamore Springs, the small town where Nick grew up. In place of arch and witty humor, there’s a lot of unfunny slapstick and physical comedy. The haute couture outfits Nora typically wears are just plain outfits here, and even her haircut looks bad. And instead of a marriage that exists outside of time and circumstance, Nick and Nora actually seem fed up with each other at one point, as if their wonderful marriage actually HAS become stalled. Nick’s hip flask filled with apple cider–there’s no drinking in this movie–seems emblematic of the unfortunate substitutions this film makes to the established pattern. Strangely, Nicky Jr. is completely absent in this film. The only plus is that the mystery plot is slightly more ingenious, involving a worker at a munitions plant smuggling plans out disguised as paintings, which crook Leon Ames then buys from a pawnshop and resells to nogoodniks. 

This is the one film in the series that doesn’t need to be rewatched, but oddly, it was a hit, and MGM went ahead with one more film, 1947’s Song of the Thin Man, which Harvey describes as the series’ nadir but which is actually very good, and an inviting return to form. The film opens on a riverboat casino where Nick (in a tux!) and Nora (in a stylish cocktail dress!) are enjoying the jazz band. We soon learn that the band is a nest of vipers, with a bandleader heavily in debt to gangsters, a lead clarinet player who’s a mentally unstable alcoholic, and a beautiful singer (Gloria Grahame) looking to get out. The bandleader is shot, the young owner of the boat is blamed, and Nick and Nora step in to investigate, with the help of another member of the band played by Keenan Wynn. As though there were a shortage of actors in Hollywood, Leon Ames is also in this film, playing a different character. 

Song is a nice corrective to Home, with the dialogue returning to form. After the latest run-in with Nick’s underworld pals, Nora describes them as “perfect gentlemen, right down to their fingerprints,” and Nick, at one point hoping for a quiet evening, telling Nora, “Give me my pipe, my slippers, and a beautiful woman, and you can keep my pipe and slippers.” Even Nicky Jr. (played by, of all people, a very young Dean Stockwell (The Dunwich Horror, Blue Velvet, Married to the Mob et al.)) gets in on the fun. When Nora tells a nicely turned-out Nick “You look like a page out of Esquire!”, their son mutters “Not the page I saw.” 

Another nice callback is the cinematography. The first two films in the series made good use of dark interiors where Nick goes sleuthing, and the foggy haze of San Francisco evenings. The first film had the benefit of Academy Award winner James Wong Howe as its cinematographer. Song also has wonderfully composed shots when Nick is prowling about the boat, now closed off by the police. The cinematographer in this one was Charles Rosher, who doesn’t seem to have worked on many noir films, but he definitely could have. 

Despite everything coming out strong on Song of the Thin Man, the film was first in the series to flop. Maybe audiences found it too familiar. Maybe the eternal party that was Nick and Nora’s marriage actually did have an expiration date. Thirteen years of fun came to an end, and while the Charleses never had a high point like their first appearance, they had plenty of good times in the years that followed.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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