Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Thin Man

Nora: (commenting on another woman) Pretty girl.
Nick: Yes, she's a very nice type.
Nora: You got types?
Nick: Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked

This comedic mystery series, staring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, is the ideal escape for a hardworking mom who wants to take a mini-vacation. These vintage flicks have a little of everything: romance, humor, adventure, mystique, escape, and a touch of glamour. Watch them alone or with your husband for a cheery jaunt into the lives of this endearing couple as they solve the mysteries that knock at their door. The six titles are:

The Thin Man (1934)
After the Thin Man (1936)
Another Thin Man (1939)
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
The Thin Man Goes Home (1944)
The Song of the Thin Man (1947)

The Thin Man, a detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, was the basis for the first film. Although he never wrote a sequel, the first film was so popular that five movie sequels were produced. The dynamic chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy was one of the reasons, along with their witty banter. The Thin Man (1934) was nominated for four Academy Awards and After the Thin Man (1936) received a nod for Best Picture. But comedies rarely win Oscars. They lost to stiff competition from the Oscar-sweeping smash hit, It Happened One Night, in 1934 and to The Great Ziegfeld in 1936.

This is a real shame. For here, we see dramatic comedy at its finest. The pacing, the timing, the delivery of the lines, and the undercurrents of unspoken communication are marvelous. The scripts for the first three movies were brilliantly crafted by the husband-and-wife screenwriting partnership Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who also created It's A Wonderful Life (1946), Easter Parade (1948), Father of the Bride (1950), and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). William Powell was so good at his role, I simply can't imagine anyone else doing it. Myrna Loy portrayed wealthy, urban sophistication with an ease and accessibility that still charms us and draws us in, decades later. They made it all look easy -- a feat was made possible by their great skill as performers. In addition to this, there is an x-factor: William Powell and Myrna Loy did truly have something magical together, something they brought out in each other that "just happened" when they were interacting on a set. It's this special connection which brings me back to watch them again and again. When I do, I usually find myself wishing there were more of these.

There is one particular issue in the films I should address, since I know that quite a few of you will search the web for other reviews of these films. Some of the reviews I have read describe them as tales of a hard-drinking detective. I suppose one could argue for that perspective. But it could easily give us the wrong idea.

Nick does drink in the movies. It's right out in the open and part of the dialogue. But there are no offensive scenes that I can remember. He does not appear to be drunk or to have problems with losing self-control. He just seems to be man who drinks socially and probably likes his liquor a little more than is good for him. He isn't perfect. We do get the feeling that he has been reformed by his marriage, and perhaps he drank more heavily in his younger days as a hard-boiled, full-time detective. But we are not shown any of that murky history in detail.

If this is so, then why in the opening scene of the first film, is Nick Charles sitting in a night club where he apparently has consumed six martinis? And why does his wife want to keep up with him (she comically orders five, all at once)? This is a tongue-in-cheek parody of a generation for whom drinking held the unique allure of forbidden fruit. We should keep in mind that the first film attempted to connect with audiences who were celebrating the recent reversal of Prohibition. Drinking was viewed as a mark of sophistication, and, in the movies, nearly essential for adding interest to dramatic scenes. A perusal of flicks from the 30's and 40's makes this abundantly obvious. Every movie star seems to drink alcohol at some point, unless they are portraying a religious character or one with unusual scruples. Detectives on the hunt and sophisticated people in urban settings drank frequently on movie sets. Just take a look at Humphrey Bogart -- Nick's polar opposite -- how many times does he have a drink? I suspect strongly that the Thin Man series presents a droll mockery of this convention, along with other traditions in detective stories. When Nick does drink, we are encouraged by Nora to make fun of him and chide him to grow up a little, rather than to admire and imitate him. Eventually, he does. The alcohol gimmick wears itself out. By The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), Nick has given up alcohol for apple cider.

I simply can't bring myself to see the alcohol as a dark element. Instead, it seems to be used as a comedic device that produces a quantity of silly lines. While I don't drink, and don't approve of drinking to excess, I find Nick to be so much fun to watch that I laugh with Nora and love him anyway. I am convinced that drinking is never the point of any of these films, and it doesn't show us anything significant about the characters. It's merely a social convention and a dramatic device. Ultimately, it is used to parody the role of liquor in detective stories and to poke fun at it's exaulted position the minds of the public. The movies are a rolling, rollicking discusssion of human nature and human society. We aren't supposed to take them seriously, unless they cause us to briefly reflect upon ourselves and makes some improvements.

Although you can pick up their story at any point in the series, I recommend watching the films in the order of their production dates. It's interesting to watch Nick and Nora age, and their relationship develop and change over the years. This also gives the viewer a pleasant journey through the culture, style, and fashions of the 1930's and 40's.

A full set of the entire six films sells on Amazon for $39.49 . The individual titles can be rented through Netflix. Alternately, they are likely to be available through your local library, or found in the classics section of your local movie rental store.

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