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!
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.
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.