Friday, July 26, 2013

The Thin Man (1934 film)

The Thin Man is one of the greatest movies ever made. Don't believe me? Then you obviously have never seen it.

If you've never seen The Thin Man I'm going to guess that you either don't like comedies, you don't like mysteries, or you are not into black & white films. I can't do anything about you if you fall into the latter category, and to tell you the truth the photography is probably the one thing I would change about the movie if I could. There are several scenes, however, where I get the distinct feeling that the director and director of photography were staging them in such a way as to get the best result from the b&w, such as when Nick and Asta are investigating an empty forge. As a modern movie fan, of course, I can only imagine what this excellent film would look like in color. If you fall into either of the first two categories, however, you should still give this film a try. It's a comedy with murder, or a drama with a hilarious script (take your pick).

The story is of Nick and Nora Charles, played by utter perfection by William Powell and Myrna Loy. These two actors had such wonderful screen chemistry together that MGM paired them in 14 films, beginning with Manhattan Melodrama (1934), the last film John Dillinger saw before he was gunned down in Chicago. Powell was nominated for Best Actor three times: The Thin Man, My Man Godfrey, and Life With Father, but never won. Loy was never even nominated, although she did receive an Honorary Academy Award in 1990. Here they are fresh and funny as "an old married couple," he a private detective and she a rich heiress. They are dragged (almost literally) into a missing person's case which turns into murder. Powell plays Nick as a ne'er do well intent on drinking and enjoying their Christmas holiday; however, because SO many people have linked him with the missing person (the titular Thin Man), he eventually decides to solve the case just to get out of it. Loy plays Nora as the traditional "dumb" wife who may not be as dumb as she acts. She may not be as clever as her husband, but she is definitely as brave as he is and just as classy. She even tries to keep up with his drinking! 

Also featured (in no particular order) are adorable Maureen O'Sullivan a year before she became Tarzan's Jane, Nat Pendleton as policeman Lt. John Guild (you may not know his name but you probably would recognize his face), and a wire-haired fox terrier named Skippy as Asta, the Charles' energetic dog. Skippy was also famously featured in The Awful Truth (1937) (with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) and Bringing Up Baby (1938) (with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn) after hitting it big here. He went on to appear in all six Thin Man films.

The plot is deceptively simple, but entertainingly complex. I don't want to give too much of the story away, but basically young and beautiful Dorothy Wynant (O'Sullivan) runs into Nick and Nora at a bar and asks them to find her missing father. They demure, but too many people are looking for him, and saw Dorothy with the Charles, so almost immediately it's all over town that Nick is involved in the case, so...! The Charles have to meet the entire Wynant family and hangers-on before a solution to the mystery is eventually presented.

The story is fine, but it is the script that is the best part of the movie. Not only are the scenes with Nick and Nora pure gold, but the scenes between all of the characters are wonderful. I can watch and re-watch this movie and pick up something different in each actor each time. For example, Nick and Lt. Guild have a great relationship: Guild is The Man, but Nick is The Expert; they both want to be Top Dog but not hurt the other guy's feelings too badly. Not only is it fun to think that this is really how men conversed back in the Thirties, it's just plain fun to listen to!

The wonderful script is by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.I watched the movie and then read the book to compare scenes and dialogue. Some great dialogue was originally by Hammett, and some are new creations by Goodrich & Hackett. For example, in the film when Nick and Guild go to interview the informer Nunheim (played by character-actor Harold Huber) we get a wonderful scene basically cribbed directly from the novel. Nunheim's girl, Miriam (played by Gertrude Short) storms out on him, telling him, "I don't like crooks, and even if I did I wouldn't like crooks who are stool pigeons, and if I liked crooks that are stool pigeons I still wouldn't like you!" It's a great line and it's delivered beautifully by Short. Another famous exchange, this time between Nick and Nora, is as follows:
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.
This scene was written specifically for the film.
Dashiell Hammett wrote The Thin Man and had it published so that it would come out at the same time as the movie. He was living in Hollywood by the time he wrote this, flush from his success from The Maltese Falcon. The Thin Man would turn out to be his last novel. There are two big differences between the film and the novel: in the book, there is no "Tommy" boyfriend for daughter Dorothy (O'Sullivan), to help support her in her drama. In the book she turns into a kind of floozie, hanging out inappropriately with a married man. I think all in all I like how in the movie she veers off the path at the end, only to have Tommy there to help bring her back. The other major change is that in the book Nick doesn't do a lot. Lt Guild does the sleuthing at the missing man's forge, and the breaking down of people's alibis is done off-camera, sort to speak. In the movie, there is a large dinner party with all of the suspects invited for the big denouement instead. It's staged so that you might think Nick accidentally comes upon the solution, and that is something I don't like, but otherwise the film version is more entertaining than the book.
The Thin Man was nominated for four Academy Awards in 1934 (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Story). However, it didn't win any of them! That doesn't mean it isn't a wonderful example of vintage Hollywood film-making, though. If you love comedy, drama, mystery, and fine actors tearing into a fantastic script, I guarantee that you will enjoy The Thin Man. If you don't like it, I want you to write in and tell me why not!

Be with us next week as I talk about the film that beat The Thin Man at the 1934 Oscars....

By the way, as I mentioned earlier, the title "The Thin Man" refers to the missing person, not to Nick Charles! The missing person was so thin that he could disappear into thin air; hence the reference. After the success of the film, however, MGM decided to maintain it in the title of the sequels for continuity purposes, and then people began to think of it as a reference to Nick Charles by mistake!

Here's the first official trailer....introduced by Philo Vance, William Powell's then-most famous character. Listen carefully and you'll hear Nick Charles mention The Kennel Murder Mystery, which was Powell's last Philo Vance film. 

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