The Thin Man (1934)
Do you have your cocktail shaker handy? The Thin Man (1934) is a truly delightful mystery-comedy chock full of snappy dialogue, fantastic stars, art deco sets, magnificent costumes, enough mystery to make it suspenseful, and enough alcohol to give you a sympathy hangover.
It’s now considered a classic, but it was shot in only 12 days on a tiny budget, and it was not even classified as an “A” picture (the top tier of studio system releases that had the biggest budgets and were released into the swankiest picture palaces).
The Thin Man was not supposed to be a hit, but it was so popular that it became the first in a series of six, yes six, Thin Man movies released between 1934 and 1947, all starring William Powell as Nick and Myrna Loy as Nora Charles. You can read my review of the second film, After The Thin Man (1936), and the third film, Another Thin Man (1939). And for more on the series, check out Thoughts on The Thin Man: Essays on the Delightful Detective Work of Nick and Nora Charles, which includes an essay by yours truly!
It’s a rare thing for one film to spawn so many sequels featuring the same characters played by the same actors, but thank goodness it happened!
The Thin Man was Loy and Powell’s second outing after Manhattan Melodrama (1934), which was directed by The Thin Man director W.S. Van Dyke, who also went on to helm three other Thin Man movies.
This film was based on a detective novel by hard-boiled author Dashiell Hammett, hence the book cover theme of the titles. Hammett also wrote The Maltese Falcon which was turned into a classic film noir starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade and Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Hammett wrote The Glass Key, too, which was made into a movie starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd in 1942.
But back to our film. It seems crazy, but originally MGM didn’t want William Powell and Myrna Loy to be Nick and Nora. MGM thought that Powell was already too identified with another detective; he had played Philo Vance in four popular films in 1929-1933 (The Thin Man trailer actually opens with Powell being introduced as Philo Vance!)
But director Van Dyke believed Powell would be perfect, and Powell himself was keen to play the part. Apparently he was excited to play a more normal guy with “friends in low places” instead of the high-class Vance.
Van Dyke also had to lobby for Myrna Loy. Oddly enough, until this film, Loy had typically played “exotic” women or the “other woman,” acting in 80 films without becoming a star. Here she is playing a half-Asian vengeful murderess with Irene Dunne in Thirteen Women (1932).
Loy wanted to play Nora because she didn’t get many comedies, and fortunately Van Dyke convinced MGM to let her do it. He liked the chemistry between Loy and Powell in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), and thought they’d be great as Nick and Nora.
Van Dyke brought his films in on time and on budget, so MGM let him have his stars, though they didn’t make it easy on him.
MGM tried to keep Loy from playing Nora by casting her in another film, Stamboul Quest (1934), scheduled to start shooting three weeks after the first day of production on The Thin Man. But Van Dyke was super fast, and finished production on The Thin Man in only 12 days (or maybe up to 18, sources give different stories).
Married screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were charged with turning Hammett’s novel into a script. They were known for writing sophisticated characters and witty, snappy dialogue, and Van Dyke wanted to tap their talent. He told them to focus on Nick and Nora’s relationship (asking for at least eight “marital” scenes between Loy and Powell) instead of the murder mystery. Well done, Van Dyke! What’s memorable and fantastic about this movie is Nick and Nora, not the whodunit-murder-plot. Fun fact: the same screenwriters were hired to write After The Thin Man, too.
Although Van Dyke was right to guide the script in that direction, it scared MGM. It made them nervous to have a murder mystery treated so lightly, they were concerned about Nick and Nora’s cocktail consumption, and worried about depicting such a sophisticated marriage…let’s dig into that.
Nick Charles, (who is not the thin man of the title, that honor is reserved for the first murder victim) is a detective who has retired after marrying Nora, an heiress.
A running joke through the series is that Nick only married Nora for her money. For instance, when Nora asks why Nick is reluctant to get involved in the case, he responds as appears above.
This rather cold thought is funny because it isn’t true–they are a perfect match. Even after his marriage and his subsequent retirement and entrance into polite (high) society, Nick can’t seem to get away from sordid crimes and sordid people, and Nora loves the excitement.
But we don’t even meet Nick and Nora until several minutes into the film. We start in a beautifully shot shadowy workshop where a thin man is doing something with a machine.
Dorothy tells her father the wedding is on December 30, and he promises to be there. Then Dorothy and her fiancé leave the workshop, passing Clyde’s lawyer MacCauley (Porter Hall) on his way in. Turns out that Clyde is heading out of town on secret inventor business, and he has a few last-minute instructions for MacCauley.
He also wants to get some bonds he’s been saving up for Dorothy, but when he opens the safe they are gone! The first crime of the film! Clyde heads to his girlfriend Julia Wolf’s (Natalie Moorhead) apartment. She used to be his secretary, and that’s what precipitated his divorce. He thinks she stole the $50,000 bonds that Clyde had been saving. To make a bad situation worse, when he arrives in her apartment there’s another man there…Uh oh.
As you can see from Julia’s apartment, the set design is spare and art deco, and everyone has a gleaming white telephone. I suspect one reason it’s so clean and streamlined is because this was not a big-budget film, and it was shot very quickly. There wasn’t a lot of time to go wild with art direction, but the simple lines and furniture work. (It’s a nice palate cleanser after Minnelli’s visual party in Meet Me in St. Louis.)
Julia admits that she took the bonds, and Clyde is absolutely furious. It is pretty ballsy for a mistress/girlfriend to steal money that her boyfriend was saving for his kid. Julia knows she messed up big, and she’s terrified of what Clyde will do. I’m mostly intrigued by how she gets her hair so white-blonde and perfectly marcelled.
We move from this melancholy scene to one of Christmas merriment in a gleaming art-deco bar. Van Dyke shot films fast, but he still does interesting things (the shadows are lovely, for instance) and I am rather fond of this shot: it starts under the piano and swoops up, up, and above the dancing revelers.
She goes flying onto the floor in a magnificent prat-fall. She’s helped up by waiters while her husband watches, amused. “It’s you!” Nora exclaims, and says that Asta pulled her into every “gin mill” on the block in search of Nick. “Yes, I had him out this morning,” responds her cheeky husband.
You may recognize Asta from The Awful Truth, After The Thin Man, and Bringing Up Baby. He’s an amazing dog-actor. His name was originally Skippy, but in the movie it’s Asta, pronounced with a faux British accent that all the high-class people in these movies use: “Aaa-stahh.” After this movie his name was changed to Asta permanently–so long, Skippy!
Anyway, Dorothy runs back to Nick with the news that MacCauley is right down the street and she’s going to check with him about her father. I’m not sure what it says about her intellect that she didn’t think to check with her father’s attorney in the first place, but we’ll let that go. Nora sits down and orders five martinis in order to catch up with her husband. As they wait, she asks him who that lovely girl was. And off Nick goes:
This type of exchange is very typical in the Charles’ relationship and it’s what makes the movie so special. Nick and Nora are smooth, impeccably dressed, and wonderfully goofy. They are silly and glamorous and their repartee is mesmerizing. It looks like they’re having the greatest time, no matter what is going on. You can watch the scene here, including Nick’s drink tips, Nora’s graceful entrance, and Nick and Nora’s witty conversation.
Here’s a shot of them filming this scene on the lot at MGM:
Nick and Nora were one of the first married couples to be portrayed positively in Hollywood. Up until The Thin Man, most characters were trying to get into or out of marriages, but Nick and Nora make marriage look like fun. Their romance is not the conflict in the film, so you don’t have to mess with typical worries like “will Nick stray with Dorothy?” or “will Nora doubt Nick and become consumed by jealousy?”
Instead we get amazing verbal and non-verbal exchanges like this one when MacCauley visits the Charles’ hotel suite. It’s one of my favorite moments: Nora drank too many martinis (even she can’t keep up with Nick) and tied on an ice pack to ease her aching head. She forgets about her makeshift fascinator and comes out to meet MacCauley. Nick teases her about it, she pokes him as he swills yet another drink, he pretends to retaliate, and Nora giggles. Then he pulls her close when MacCauley hangs up the phone:
LOVE IT. The movie is full of moments like that, and I’ll definitely share my favorites as we continue through.
MacCauley gets a phone call informing him that Clyde is back in New York, so he calls Dorothy with the good news. Dorothy is relieved, but Mimi is still frantic, though not for Clyde’s safety.
Mimi (Minna Gombel), Clyde’s ex-wife, has married a loser named Chris (Cesar Romero). Mimi relies on alimony payments from Clyde, so when he disappears the money dries up. Chris is upset about this, but at least he has a star-studded mirror in which to voice his disappointment to Mimi.
Julia agrees to see Mimi, but when Mimi arrives at her husband’s girlfriend’s apartment (awkward!) she finds something grisly…Julia dead on the floor. She takes something from Julia’s hand before calling the police…it’s her ex-husband’s watch chain!
Thus begins the murder-mystery! Naturally, Clyde is the prime suspect in Julia’s murder. Dorothy is devastated, especially when her mother shows her what she found clasped in Julia’s dead hand. It’s nice of Van Dyke to enliven a fairly visually dull shot with such distinct shadows:
Nora is amusingly exasperated by the company but secretly thrilled. Soon their party is crashed by reporters, policemen, and Dorothy Wynant. She’s come to confess to Julia’s murder in order to save her father, but Nick sees through it immediately.
He offers a shoulder to cry on, but just then Nora walks in…It is a compromising position, as they say, but Nora doesn’t “think the worst” or resort to a clichéd storming out. Nick makes a funny face at her over the girl in his arms, and Nora returns it and closes the door.
Dorothy immediately backs away from Nick, saying, “Oh! I’m sorry!” but Nora replies, “Don’t be silly” and hands her a drink. Isn’t that so refreshing?
Then Mimi arrives, followed by Dorothy’s brother (William Henry). Do notice Nick glug-glugging his drink (a typical pose for him) and Nora’s layered, striped confection. It looks incongruous next to the other women in furs, but she pulls it off.
Never fear: Nick is a good detective and a dummy with a gun is no match for him, though Nick is slightly wounded. You can watch the scene here.
The next morning we have another of those “marital scenes” around the Christmas tree. Nora gave Nick a BB gun, which he uses to shoot balloons off of the Christmas tree, Annie Oakley-esque, from the sofa, until he misses and shatters a window. Nora watches him with a wry expression as she luxuriates in her gift, a fur coat “from Nick” that she bought for herself. Watch it here, please!
I’m going to be careful about spoilers now because it is, after all, a mystery…So here goes:
Nick is persuaded to help the police, and it turns out he’s a very good detective. After some comical/mysterious situations, including an encounter with a stool pigeon’s disenchanted girl:
Nora’s realization that Nick’s return to detective-work might be dangerous:
That awkward moment when Dorothy’s brother shows up with a scarf cut from her bedspread:
Nick’s nighttime wanderings with his trusty guard dog…(see below for images of filming the scene and a still), which gives us a look at 1934’s CSI techniques (the policeman handle everything, throw things aside, and pocket various pieces of evidence, while Asta cavorts all over the crime scene. The detective handling the clothes is Lieutenant Guild (Nat Pendleton), who appears in several of the sequels.
Some more deco sets and ridiculously inappropriate “house” dresses:
And wonderfully dizzy montages that provide information about the case in a quick, graphic way:
(This montage technique is so typically, fabulously 1930s I can hardly stand it! Newspaper headlines spin into focus, police cars zoom around, and a net covers a map of the United States. It’s great.)
Until finally, with the help of the police, Nick and Nora assemble a dinner party with all the relevant people. Nick has a gardenia in his buttonhole, and Nora wears a practically backless black dress (costumes designed by Dolly Tree). Just look at how many different glasses are on the table! It’s like a little crystal forest.
Let the games begin! Perhaps my very favorite moment is this gem:
Nick cleverly tricks the murderer into letting something slip, and bang–mystery solved! Here is the dinner scene being filmed:
This is how every Thin Man film ends, with everyone conveniently assembled and Nick giving a delightful synopsis of the crime, ending with a shoot-out. And a kiss.
Now to the sympathy hangover…Nick and Nora drink more than you will believe. There are cocktails in every scene–never mind the setting or the time of day. Drinking has never looked so glamorous, but it’s also a comedic gold mine.
The movie and even Nick and Nora make jokes about all the drinking; for instance, when Nick is shot, Nora asks if he’d like a drink, and he answers, swiftly, “What do you think?” She hurries off to the bar without another word. When a reporter asks Nick if he can tell him anything about the Wynant case, Nick answers: “Yes, it’s putting me way behind in my drinking.” And when MacCauley refuses a drink in the Charles’ suite, Nick says: “Oh, that’s a mistake.” I could go on, because they sure do.
It’s also a fun movie to watch just because it was made so quickly and inexpensively. The polka-dot fabric doubles as bedspread and scarf, the same draped and tasseled lamp appears in two different apartments (Mimi’s and Julia’s, turned the opposite way in Julia’s to disguise it) and four different scenes, and the pace never lets up.
Van Dyke was the opposite of William “Forty-Take” Wyler, whose favorite direction to his actors was “Again.” Van Dyke was called “One-Take Woody” (his first name was Woodbridge) because he didn’t do multiple takes and finished shooting his films early or on-time. There wasn’t time for much rehearsal or multiple takes even if Van Dyke worked that way, which many people credit for the zippy freshness of the movie.
Van Dyke took his speed so seriously that he didn’t allow time for anything “extra.” The story goes that on Loy and Powell’s first film together, Manhattan Melodrama (1934), One-Take Woody didn’t even want to “waste” time introducing Loy to Powell before their first scene together. Loy was supposed to run to a car and jump in: Loy remembers that when she leapt into the car she “landed smack on William Powell’s lap. He looked up nonchalantly: ‘Miss Loy, I presume?’ I said, “Mr. Powell?’ and that’s how I met the man who would be my partner in 14 films.”
Although all six Thin Man movies are worth watching, I like the first three the most, though the murder mystery of the first one is the most interesting and scary. Later they become a little too convoluted, seemingly adding twists and characters just for the sake of it. But you don’t watch these movies for the mystery plots. You watch them for Nick and Nora, the humor, Asta, and the cocktails. And to see soon-to-be stars who appear in the series; like Jimmy Stewart and Gloria DeHaven.
If you need more Thin Man: besides the movies, there was a Thin Man radio show, a TV series (starring Peter Lawford), and a Broadway musical that bombed. Johnny Depp has been interested in starring in a re-make of The Thin Man, but apparently the project has slowed. I can’t see Depp taking Powell’s role, but then I’m quite biased.
And for more on the series, check out Thoughts on The Thin Man: Essays on the Delightful Detective Work of Nick and Nora Charles! And you can buy a great collection of all six Thin Man films here!