"I was shot twice in the Tribune."
"Well, I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids."
"He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids."
People generally regard author Dashiell Hammett as the father of the modern, hard-boiled detective story ("The Maltese Falcon," "Red Harvest," "The Dain Curse"), but not everyone remembers that he also invented one of fiction's most debonair, sophisticated sleuths in his novel "The Thin Man." The husband-and-wife team of Manhattan socialites Nick and Nora Charles, and their dog Asta, would create almost as much stir in the literary world of private investigation as Hammett's more tough-minded hero, Sam Spade.
The first, 1934, screen incarnation of the famous duo, "The Thin Man," from MGM (a film now owned and distributed by Turner Entertainment/Warner Home Video), was an instant comedy-mystery hit and has remained so ever since. The movie's success is all the more impressive when you consider it was a relatively low-budget affair filmed in only a couple of weeks.
In fact, "The Thin Man" was so successful that MGM went on to produce five more pictures in a series that lasted from 1934 to 1947, all of them starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Then, with the characters still in the pubic consciousness, the famous detectives went on to a TV show from 1957-59, starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.
Now, the good folks at Warner Bros. have collected all six of the "Thin Man" movies into one big box set, and fans of the series can see the whole lot of them. Perhaps this DVD set will bring Nick and Nora back into popularity all over again. Their brand of clever repartee and sophisticated humor may never go out of style.
"The Thin Man":
As I've said, William Powell and Myrna Loy play Nick and Nora Charles in all six "Thin Man" movies, both actors exuding the kind of ultra polish and style that Depression-era audiences and beyond must have longed for. In the first film they reside in a plush apartment atop a New York City high-rise, living off the considerable money Nora inherited when her wealthy father died. This allows Nick, a former private detective, the luxury of working when and if he chooses, and it allows Nora the luxury of tagging along on any case she wishes. What's more, it allows Nick to pay for what must amount to an enormous alcohol bill every month, since we never see him without a drink in his hand. Today, we'd probably call him a lush; in 1934 his drinking must have seemed the height of refinement and elegant good taste.
Most of the time it's hard to tell if Nick is tipsy or just naturally giddy. One way or the other, he's always got his wits about him, as does Nora, and their friendly rivalry and clever give-and-take were surely a refreshing change of pace for moviegoers used to the dominating males or at best bickering marriage mates of early talking pictures. The only character in the movie able to upstage Powell and Loy is their terrier, Asta, who must have popularized the breed all over the world.
The plot is of little concern next to the main couple and the colorful supporting cast. For what it's worth, though, the story involves the disappearance of an inventor, the father of an old friend of the Charleses, and the subsequent murders of several people whom the police suspect the inventor did in. For friendship's sake, Nick and Nora help determine who killed whom and why. There are some admitted surprises along the way, but it's hardly the plot the holds the concoction together.
Among the rest of the cast are Edward Ellis as the missing inventor, Clyde Wynant; Maureen O'Sullivan as Dorothy, the inventor's beautiful daughter; Henry Wadsworth as Tommy, Dorothy's fiancée; Minna Gombell as Mimi, the inventor's fishy ex-wife; Cesar Romero as Chris, Mimi's gigolo husband; William Henry as Gilbert, the inventor's bizarre son; Natalie Moorhead as Julia Wolf, the inventor's blonde bombshell mistress; Edward Brophy as Morelli and Harold Huber as Nunheim, all-around shady, sinister characters; Porter Hall as MacCaulay, the inventor's lawyer; Cyril Thornton as Tanner, the inventor's bookkeeper; and Nat Pendleton as Lt. Guild, the exasperated policeman assigned to investigate the case. Everyone but the cop has a possible motive either to have killed the people who turn up dead or to have killed the inventor himself. In classic mystery-story fashion, it's quite a suspect list.
W.S. Van Dyke directed the film; he was a man who made a ton of potboilers from 1917 to his death in 1943, films like "Tarzan the Ape Man," "Trader Horn," "Manhattan Melodrama," "Rose-Marie," "San Francisco," and "Dr. Kildare's Victory." In addition, he directed all but the final two "Thin Man" movies, and in almost every instance we see more of style from him than substance; but that's OK, especially where "The Thin Man" is concerned because that's all "The Thin Man" is about. There is little innovation in lighting, cinematography, cinematic storytelling, or set design going on (indeed, most of the movie centers in and around the living room of the Charles's apartment), yet the film glitters despite its being so straightforward. Van Dyke simply leaves it up to his stars to create the sparkle in an agreeable mixture of humor and tension.
As things go along, the bodies pile up, Asta helps solve the case, and in the film's climax, Nick invites all the suspects to a candlelit dinner at his place. It's a great scene, one that is traditional in drawing-room mysteries, and it's been parodied time and again in films like "Murder By Death." The denouement is rather a letdown, but as I say, the plot isn't as important as the people in it. Nick eventually exposes the wrongdoer and solves the puzzle, even if he is not quite so sure how he is going to do it until the time rolls around. One must accept a degree of luck, happenstance, and coincidence in such cases.
These days we take for granted a certain amount of comedy in our mystery and adventure movies, the Indiana Jones series being a good example. In 1934, "The Thin Man" marked the beginning of this trend, and the movie has hardly been equalled since for its fast-paced fun, wisecracks, and suspense. 7/10
"After the Thin Man":
In the view of many fans, "After the Thin Man" (1936) is the best episode in the series; and I can't say I disagree. The setting this time out is San Francisco, where Nick says they're heading at the end of the first story and where author Hammett himself lived. Apparently, Nick and Nora maintain residences on both coasts.
Everybody in the City knows Nick Charles, from the pickpockets to the news boys and from the truck drivers to the prize fighters. Nora's rich, stuffy family disapprove of Nick, his disreputable friends, his outspoken sense of humor, and his sleuthing, but when Nora's cousin's husband goes missing, the family are quick to ask Nick to investigate.
By the midway point in the movie, we've got murders piling up all over the place and suspects galore. There's Selma Landis (Ellissa Landi), Nora's cousin with the missing husband. There's Robert Landis (Alan Marshall), the errant husband. There's David Graham (an early role for a young James Stewart), a friend of the family and Selma's former suitor. There's Katherine Forrest (Jessie Ralph), Nora's aunt, whom Nick describes as an "old battle-axe." And there is the usual collection of really suspicious types: "Dancer" (Joseph Calleia), the shady owner of the Lichee night club; Lum Kee (William Law), "Dancer's" partner and co-owner of the Lichee; Polly Byrnes (Dorothy McNulty, later Penny Singleton of the "Blondie" series), a dancer at the club who is about to run away with Selma's husband; Phil Byrnes (Paul Fix), Polly's tough-guy "brother"; and Dr. Adolph Kammer (George Zucco, who generally specialized in mad scientists), Selma's peculiar psychologist. Sam Levene plays Lt. Abrams, the harried homicide detective trying to sort out the business. And, needless to say, there's Asta, the Charles's dog, playing a bigger role in this film than in the first.
W.S. "One-Take Woody" Van Dyke again directs in a light, breezy style; and there's a lot more music and dancing than usual, possibly because much of the story occurs during New Year's Eve and possibly because the filmmakers wanted to liven up the spirit as much as possible. As always, we seldom see Nick and Nora without a drink in their hand, and Nick does have one good line on the subject: "Let's get something to eat. I'm thirsty." Overall, "After the Thin Man" is as delightful an entry in the series as the first movie was, and the resolution of the mystery comes as a pleasant surprise. 8/10
"Another Thin Man":
I was looking at a photograph of Dashiell Hammett on the back cover of my edition of "The Thin Man," and I couldn't help noting the similarity between him and William Powell. In the picture Hammett is handsome, slender, nattily dressed, and wearing a mustache. He was perhaps not so Hollywood handsome as Powell, but it's close. Just a thought.
"Another Thin Man" (1939) doesn't have quite the same luster as the first two entries in the series but nevertheless stands up well. It's fascinating to observe the changes in attitude from the thirties to today in the way people behaved and the way they accepted certain conditions of male-female relationships. While it's nice to see Nick and Nora sharing their casual sleuthing responsibilities, it's usually Nick who actually solves the cases. And, too, it's Nick who gives up his professional detective work to manage his wife's financial affairs. As Hammett has Nick say in the book, "a year after I got married, my wife's father died and left her a lumber mill and a narrow-gauge railroad and some other things and I quit the Agency to look after them." Apparently, women couldn't be trusted to handle their own monetary concerns back then; either that or Nick just likes the idea of being a gentleman of leisure.
When I said "Another Thin Man" doesn't have the same luster, the same frothy tone, as the first two, it's because this one is more of a mystery story and less fun and games than the first two. In the plot Nora's father's former partner, old Col. Burr MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith), calls Nick and Nora to his mansion, thinking someone's trying to kill him. Sure enough, shortly after the Charleses arrive, somebody murders the Colonel. Before long, even more people are bumped off. Only Nick and Nora can figure it out.
As always, it's the colorful roster of suspects that keeps the proceedings alive, given that there are fewer jokes, fewer songs and dances, and less joshing around in this installment. Questionable characters surround the Colonel: Lois MacFay (Virginia Grey), his adopted daughter; Phil Church (Sheldon Leonard), a former employee and ex-con; Dum-Dum (Abner Biberman), Church's flunky; Diamond Back Vogel (Don Costello), a racketeer; Dudley Horn (Patric Knowles), Lois MacFay's fiancée; Freddie (Tom Neal), a young fellow with a crush on Lois; Mrs. Bellam (Phyllis Gordon), the Colonel's housekeeper; and Dorothy Waters (Ruth Hussey), the Charles's new nanny. Add in Van Slack (Otto Kruger) as a district attorney and Lt. Guild (Nat Pendleton) back again as the blustery police detective, plus an assortment of other recognizable character actors like Shemp Howard (a former and future Stooge) and Marjorie Main (Ma Kettle) and you get the picture.
The biggest gimmick in the movie is the introduction of Nick and Nora's new son, Nicky, Jr. (William A. Poulsen). The kid is about a year old in this film, and he would appear in several further "Thin Man" films as well, growing appropriately older with different actors in the role as the series continued.
I appreciated the way practically everybody likes Nick. Even people the famous detective has sent up the river seem to have a grudging admiration for him. The film moves along slowly through the first half, fortunately picking up steam in the second half. As mayhem ensues around them, Nick and Nora remain their imperturbable selves. The solution, when it finally arrives, seems more convoluted than necessary, and as usual the murderer breaks down and confesses in the end. Still and all, it's good to see Powell and Loy in action. 7/10
"Shadow of the Thin Man":
After Hammett wrote "The Thin Man," the principled novelist chose not to do any major sequels, only a few short stories; therefore, MGM's screenwriters were on their own in continuing the series after the first three movies. What they did have, though, was the basic framework for the "Thin Man" tales, in part based on Hammett himself. The author worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency before the First World War, so it's easy to see where he got his fictional detectives (and Hammett's middle name was Samuel, no doubt the inspiration for Sam Spade). The author patterned Nora Charles after his lifelong romantic interest, playwright Lillian Hellman.
Interestingly, the title of Hammett's novel, "The Thin Man," was never meant to refer to the character of Nick Charles at all but to a secondary character in the story. After the success of the book and particularly after the success of the initial movie in the "Thin Man" series, everyone assumed Nick was the thin fellow of the title. I suppose it was as good an incentive as any for William Powell to maintain a healthy diet. In reality, the original "thin man" was a character named Clyde Wynant, a guy the book refers to as being "so thin he had to stand in the same place twice to throw a shadow." Maybe that's where the scriptwriters came up with the idea for the title of the fourth entry in the series, "Shadow of the Thin Man" (1941).
In this one the Charleses live in swankier digs than ever, a San Francisco hotel suite overlooking a park. But little of the story takes place there; most of the happenings occur in and around a racetrack, a wrestling arena, and various suspects' offices and apartments. The plot involves the killing of a jockey and then the murder of a news reporter, while Nick and Nora are coincidentally near both times. A friend of Nick's, Major Scully (Henry O'Neill), a legislative official looking into illegal gambling activities in the state, asks Nick to help out with the detective work. Homicide Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene), the sarcastic, fast-talking S.F. police detective, returns to head up the investigation.
This entry has a thinner story line, fewer colorful characters, and even fewer witty lines than the first three films in the series, and unlike the previous episodes, Nick and Nora are absent for longer spells. The list of suspects includes the usual lineup: Paul Clark (Barry Nelson, who would go on to become Ian Fleming's very first James Bond in an early TV show), a news reporter trying to get the goods on an illegal gambling syndicate; Molly (Donna Reed, who would go on to become everybody's favorite television mom), Paul's fiancée; Link Stephens and Fred Macy (Loring Smith and Joseph Anthony), a pair of racketeers; Claire Porter (Stella Adler, the celebrated "method" acting teacher in a rare screen appearance), a high-class gangster's moll; and "Rainbow" Benny (Lou Lubin), a gambler living in fear of his life.
Young Nicky, Jr. (Dickie Hall), a few years older now, also has a small part in the proceedings, but not enough to count. As is the custom with these things, the movie winds up with all the suspects gathered together, while Nick baits the murderer into blurting out a confession. It's a formulaic film in the series but fun for maybe a single viewing. 6/10
"The Thin Man Goes Home":
By the time "The Thin Man Goes Home" (1944) rolled around, the series was beginning to feel pretty thin itself. If the fourth film was formulaic, the fifth one is positively fluff.
For reasons unknown, Nicky, Jr. is nowhere to be found. The Charleses go off on a vacation to visit Nick's parents in the small town of Sycamore Springs, and they leave the kid behind to attend school. It seems odd because he returns in the final feature. Oh, well, he had not added much of substance to the previous installments, anyhow.
So, it's a little over three years since the last episode, and to break the monotony of every mystery being set in a big city, the screenwriters decided to locate this chapter in a tiny community where everybody knows everybody else. The idea, I suppose, is to show how evil can exist even in the most unlikely and seemingly benign environments.
Nick's mother (Lucile Watson) and father (Harry Davenport) don't approve of Nick's drinking, so another change from previous films is having Nick on the wagon; he's only drinking cider this time out. Moreover, Nick's dad doesn't approve of his son's gumshoe business; the dad's always wanted him to become a doctor like himself. Nora wishes Nick had the chance to show his father what a great detective he is, and, wouldn't you know, he gets the opportunity. Trouble seems to follow the Charleses wherever they go.
I wasn't sure anything was going to develop in the film, though, when by the end of the first half hour practically nothing had happened. Then, at long last, a young man is shot to death on the parents' front porch, and Nick (and Nora) spring into action. It's an unlikely occurrence, but at least it gets things moving.
The detectives meet the same assortment of colorful and suspicious characters in Sycamore Springs that they had always encountered in the city: Sam Ronson (Minor Watson), a local skinflint tycoon; Laurabelle Ronson (Gloria De Haven), the overly dramatic daughter of the tycoon and the fiancée of the murder victim; Crazy Mary (Ann Revere), the town looney; Edgar Draque (Leon Ames), a crook trafficking in stolen documents; Helena Draque (Helen Vinson), the crook's wife; and Dr. Bruce Clayworth (Lloyd Corrigan), another town doctor and an old schoolmate of Nick's. It goes without saying that they all have something to hide.
Regardless, the real highlight of the show is Brogan, a con-man friend of Nick's played by Edward Brophy. Brophy was a character actor who appeared in about 800 films, always playing exactly the same type, the tough but lovable little guy who was forever comically on the edge of respectability. Mel Brooks liked the man so much he paid tribute to him in the movie "High Anxiety" by creating a similar character he named "Brophy," played by Ron Carey. In "The Thin Man Goes Home" the real Brophy plays a small but memorable role and practically steals the picture. As you may remember, Brophy also appeared in the first "Thin Man" movie but in a smaller, less engaging part.
Even though the film appeared at the end of World War II, there are very few references to the War. The train Nick and Nora take to Sycamore Springs is crowded with passengers, a wartime condition; one character in the film is described as having just been discharged from the army; a gun is emphasized that was a product of the war; and the denouement revolves around some military plans. But it isn't much considering the importance of world events at the time, perhaps an indication that the filmmakers were trying to get their audience's mind off the weighty problems of the day.
The humor in "The Thin Man Goes Home" is more slapstick than witty, at least at first, and the story is less coherent than ever. W.S. Van Dyke, the director of the first four movies, died in 1943 and had to be replaced. His successor was Richard Thorpe, who may have been more at home with adventure films ("Ivanhoe," "Tarzan's Secret Treasure," "The Prisoner of Zenda") and dramas ("Above Suspicion," "The Great Caruso") than he was with light, urbane comedies. At any rate, the movie barely rises above the ordinary for a comedy of any kind. 5/10
"Song of the Thin Man":
The final entry in the series, "Song of the Thin Man" (1947), is a pleasing step above the previous film, taking us into the world of smoky jazz clubs, dark shadows, and dirty deals. It makes a fitting close to the series by going out strong.
The movie opens on a luxury gambling boat, the S.S. Fortune, anchored off New York harbor, where the principal players in the melodrama are introduced. A bandleader, Tommy Drake (Philip Reed), hated by everyone, is murdered late in the evening, leaving everybody with a motive for killing him.
The gambling ship's owner, Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling), is a major suspect because he was seen having a tiff with Drake just before the murder. What's more, Brant was engaged to a rich socialite, Janet Thayer (Jayne Meadows, later of "The Honeymooners"), whose father (Ralph Morgan) disapproved and who may have wanted to discourage Drake from marrying his daughter. Seems Brant and Drake looked very much alike and in the dark could have been mistaken for one another.
Plus, there's a raft of other folks with motives for killing Drake, like Mitch Talbin (Leon Ames), a talent agent Drake hits up for money; Fran Page (Gloria Grahame), a singer who used to be Drake's girlfriend; Al Amboy (William Bishop), a gangster to whom Drake owed money; and Buddy Hollis (Don Taylor), an alcoholic musician that Drake just fired.
When the newlyweds Phil and Janet come seeking Nick's help to clear Phil's name, Nick immediately turns the fellow over to the police! Then Nick enlists the aid of another jazz musician, "Clinker" Krause (Keenan Wynn), to help with an investigation to clear Phil.
"Song of the Thin Man" naturally contains a good deal of music, and it turns out to be some of the best music in the series, filled with any number of skillful jazz arrangements. Moreover, there is a stronger noir atmosphere in this film than in any of the others, with an abundance of nighttime shots and shadows. There is plenty of swinging jive talk, too, pretty hep for the era; and Asta does as much detecting as Nick.
Edward Buzzell was the director this last time out, and he was obviously more into comedy than his predecessor, having done things like "Easy To Wed," "Ship Ahoy," and several Marx Brothers films. Nick's witticisms appear to come more easily under his direction. "Darling," says Nick, "give me my pipe, my slippers, and a beautiful woman, and you can have my pipe and slippers."
Trivia notes: A young Dean Stockwell plays Nicky, Jr., about ten years old at the time. Leon Ames is the only actor to play in back-to-back "Thin Man" movies as different characters. Actor Tom Dugan is also back from an earlier "Thin Man" but in a new part and in a role so small you'd hardly notice him anyway. The same year that Powell did "Song of the Thin Man," he did "Life With Father," playing about as dissimilar a character from Nick Charles as one could imagine. Lastly, in another chance circumstance, the aforementioned Leon Ames later played the same character as Powell in the television version of "Life With Father."
Although the ending of "Song of the Thin Man" leaves a lot to be desired, including the compulsory confession, everything leading up to it works pretty well. Thus do Nick and Nora go off into the sunset, Nick remarking, "Now Nick Charles is going to retire." "You're through with crime?" asks Nora incredulously. "No, I'm going to bed." 7/10
Although the films vary somewhat in their video quality, the standard Academy ratio, 1.37:1 prints Warner Brothers obtained for these MGM productions must have been in remarkably good shape, given their years. Nowhere on the packaging does it indicate they underwent complete digital restorations, but a bit of touching up probably occurred. There are only a few lines here and there and the intermittent touch of grain to give away their age. Most of the transfers are quite clear, except in brief and infrequent bursts of deterioration, probably at the ends of reels where film stock will sometimes show wear. There is, as I say, a little grain in some of them, the second film in particular, but very few instances of motion effects or edge enhancement. (OK, Nick's checkered coat does present some problems with shimmering pixels now and again.) None of this is to suggest, however, that these are the best possible black-and-white transfers I've ever seen, only that they are reasonably well reproduced on DVD. In truth, the picture quality, while clean and clear, is slightly soft, and the B&W contrasts are occasionally subdued.
The soundtracks display the common audio limitations of the period. The films were made, after all, just a few years into the movie sound era and a decade or so beyond. The 1.0 monaural sonics are remastered in the Dolby Digital process, rendering them about as good as they can be, and background noise has been reduced about as much as possible without adversely affecting midrange playback. The soundtracks can be a tad hard, with a limited frequency and dynamic range, mainly showing their merits in the clear execution of mid-frequency dialogue.
Not unexpectedly, the extras vary from disc to disc, so here are the individual items on each DVD: "The Thin Man": Six theatrical trailers, one for each of the "Thin Man" movies that Powell and Loy starred in, and some cast and crew information. "After the Thin Man": A Robert Benchley comedy short, "How To Be a Detective"; a vintage cartoon, "The Early Bird and the Worm"; a radio show with Powell and Loy; a radio promo; and a theatrical trailer. "Another Thin Man": A musical short, "Love on Tap"; a vintage cartoon, "The Bookworm"; and a trailer. "Shadow of the Thin Man": A vintage short, "The Tell-Tale Heart"; a vintage cartoon, "The Goose Goes South"; and a trailer. "The Thin Man Goes Home": A Robert Benchley comedy short, "Why Daddy?"; a vintage cartoon, "Screwball Squirrel"; and a trailer. "Song of the Thin Man": A "Passing Parade" short, "A Really Important Person"; a vintage cartoon, "Slap Happy Lion"; and a trailer.
All of the films contain a generous number of scene selections but no chapter inserts. The spoken languages offered are English and French for the first three films and English only for the last three, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish for all six movies, and Portuguese thrown in for "The Thin Man."
The major bonus item in the box is the documentary disc, "Alias Nick and Nora." On it we find four features of interest to any "Thin Man" enthusiast. First up is "William Powell: A True Gentleman," a thirty-minute, newly made biography of the actor, narrated by Michael York. It contains comments by film historians, archivists, and critics, with plenty of movie clips to illustrate their points. The closing credits thank Christian Anderson, Rudy Behlmer, Emily Carman, Leonard Maltin, and Marvin of the Movies. Second up is "Hollywood Remembers: Myrna Loy," a forty-six-minute, 1990 biography of the actress, hosted by Kathleen Turner. It is conveniently divided into eleven chapters. While both biographies are largely tribute pieces, they are useful glimpses into the lives and work of two Hollywood legends.
The final items are complete stories. The first is "Darling, I Loathe You," a thirty-minute episode of "The Thin Man" television series from 1958 starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. The second is a 1936 Lux Radio Theater broadcast of "The Thin Man" reuniting most of the movie's original cast. It's sixty minutes long, in audio only, and divided into twenty-two chapters.
Well, there ya go: The world of Nick and Nora Charles, filled with penthouse apartments, fancy night spots, jazz clubs, racetracks, hoodlums, gangsters, gamblers, and murderers, mixed together with an endless stream of clever quips, lighthearted banter, cigarettes, and booze. It was a world far removed from that of the average moviegoer of the era, but for an audience living through the Great Depression and the Second World War, it must have come as a welcome respite, indeed.
Today, the "Thin Man" series may be an acquired taste, but over the years quite a few people have obviously acquired it. The smooth and sophisticated blend of comedy and mystery these films display has never gone out of style, and I hope it never will. While it's true that for some viewers a little of Nick and Nora can go a long way, for their legion of dedicated fans, there can never be enough. The seven-disc package gives us just about everything there is.