Monday, May 25, 2009

 

“Oh, Nicky…I love you because you know such lovely people…”


By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In the surviving movie trailer for 1934’s The Thin Man, famed movie detective Philo Vance (William Powell) stands next to a book mock-up of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel…and is startled when the figure depicted on the cover — detective Nick Charles…also played by Powell — begins to speak to him:
CHARLES: I haven’t seen you since you solved The Kennel Murder Case…how are you?
VANCE: Well, for the love of…Nick Charles!What are you doing up there, impersonating a book cover?
CHARLES: Shhh…I’m working on a case…
VANCE: Don’t tell me you’ve gone back to detective work…I thought you had turned respectable…didn’t you get married?
(Charles steps down off the book cover to chat freely with Vance)
CHARLES: Oh ho…didn’t I! Vance, I married a girl in a million!
VANCE: Hmm…I heard it was a girl…with a million…
CHARLES: Well, same thing…I’ve become a California gentleman
VANCE: I never heard of such a thing…what are you doing here in New York?
CHARLES: Well, it seems that Clark Gable is making some personal appearances here — which, uh, interests my wife…and there’s a very good bar at the Ritz, which is all right with me…so we popped into town to play…but would you believe it? Before you could say Metro Goldwyn Mayer, I stepped right into the middle of a baffling murder mystery and they put me to work…
VANCE: Well, you poor fellow…you have my deepest sympathy…
CHARLES: I can use it…believe me, Vance, this case is a toughie…it all revolves about a tall, thin man…


The Thin Man trailer provides all the necessary proof that this film — released to movie screens on this date 75 years ago — was not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill detective melodrama. While it does contain an intriguing whodunit plot (one that’s so convoluted that you can watch the movie, then return to it a year or two later and completely forget the identity of the killer) the film concentrated on the chemistry between Nick Charles — a retired detective who nevertheless often found himself neck-deep in solving mysteries — and his wife Nora, a society heiress whom Charles unabashedly admitted he married for the money. The married couple — whose sexy and saucy badinage was reportedly based on author Hammett’s longtime rocky affair with Lillian Hellman — were unlike any previously depicted on the screen; they drank to excess (a trait that was gradually phased out once they produced a son in the many Thin Man followups to come), teased and flirted with each other as well as members of the opposite sex, and provided an interesting yardstick to measure cinematic marriages at a time when the institution of marriage was either something couples in the movies ran to or away from. Sure, it wasn’t realistic — but anyone who didn’t honestly wish their relationship was more like Nick and Nora Charles’ clearly had some news for themselves.

Casting Powell in the lead was a no-brainer; he had become identified onscreen as the movie’s definitive Philo Vance (he made four films as the shamus, including The Canary Murder Case, which featured silent-movie siren Louise Brooks) and studio executives gave director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke to use the actor that, earlier in his career, was one of moviedom’s suavest villains. But Van Dyke also wanted Myrna Loy for the role of Nora; chiefly because the two performers demonstrated such an amazing chemistry in the film he had directed previously, Manhattan Melodrama (1934). MGM balked, but then acquiesced and told Van Dyke he could use Loy under the proviso that he finish the film in 16 days so that the studio could have the actress available for a film they thought more suitable. Van Dyke — known in the movie biz as “One-Take” — did it in twelve, spending only $231,000 (it was budgeted as a B-film) and creating of one of MGM’s biggest hits that year, raking in $1.4 million. The success of Powell and Loy in this film would shore up one of the most successful cinematic partnerships; they would eventually appear in a total of 16 films together — six of them being Thin Man entries.

Supporting Powell and Loy was a superlative cast of contract players and great character actors: Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton (as Lieutenant John Guild; he would reprise his role in 1939’s Another Thin Man, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall, Henry Wadsworth, William Henry, Harold Huber, Cesar Romero, Natalie Moorhead, Edward Brophy and Edward Ellis (“the thin man”). Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich adapted Hammett’s novel, creating a sparkling, sophisticated screenplay that contains so many memorable exchanges of dialogue:
NORA: You know, that sounds like an interesting case…why don't you take it?
NICK: I haven't the time…I'm much too busy seeing that you don't lose any of the money I married you for…
LT. GUILD: You got a pistol permit?
NICK: No.
LT. GUILD: Ever heard of the Sullivan Act?
NORA: Oh, that's all right — we're married.

NORA: All right! Go ahead! Go on! See if I care! But I think it's a dirty trick to bring me all the way to New York just to make a widow of me.
NICK: You wouldn't be a widow long…
NORA: You bet I wouldn't!
NICK: Not with all your money...

NICK: How'd you like Grant's tomb?
NORA: It's lovely…I'm having a copy made for you.

And my personal favorite:
NICK: I'm a hero…I was shot twice in the Tribune…
NORA: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids…
NICK: It's not true…he didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.

With the success of The Thin Man, the eventual sequel came two years later in After the Thin Man (1936) — an equally enjoyable romp that some fans consider superior to the original. But After lacked the fresh, improvisational feel of its successor (another benefit of Van Dyke’s direction-by-stopwatch), as did the four follow-ups to come. Audiences and critics alike began referring to the Nick Charles character as “The Thin Man” so MGM insisted on working that reference into the other films of the series: Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) and the final entry, Song of the Thin Man (1947). (I guess only the second film uses “the thin man” in its proper perspective: it is the second of the series, following [“after”] The Thin Man.) However, this nitpicking serves only to obscure the fact that not only were The Thin Man movies the most profitable of the studio’s many series, but one of the most successful film series of any studio at that time. Seventy-five years after its debut, The Thin Man remains — as clichéd and painful it is to say — one of the movies “they don’t make like they used to."

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Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. writes and edits the wonderful blog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear and has a companion piece on the 1950s television series version of the Charles' adventures starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.


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Comments:
A great appreciation of one of classical Hollywood's most fun film franchises. The first remains the best -- because it's the one with the most alcohol, naturally -- but the banter of Powell and Loy made even the weakest of the sequels at least worth seeing. They were dynamite on screen together.
 
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