After The Thin Man (1936)
Gather your cocktail shaker, your fur-trimmed everything, and your sassiest viewing attitude because it’s After The Thin Man! This is the second of six Thin Man films starring the perfectly matched duo of William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles.
The first film, The Thin Man (1934), was not supposed to be a big hit for MGM. It was filmed quickly (between 12 and 18 days depending on the source) with a minuscule budget, and actors the studio would rather have used elsewhere. (For more on the first Thin Man, visit my review here.) But the public loved it. Produced at just over $230,000, it brought in about $1.4 million at the box office. So MGM quickly put another Nick and Nora mystery in the pipeline.
For more on these films, 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!
The studio nearly tripled the sequel’s budget to $673,000, and wisely kept much of the same personnel from the first film on the second. MGM assigned the same director, W.S. Van Dyke, who would direct the first four Thin Man films as well as I Love You Again before his death in 1943.
MGM also hired Dashiell Hammett, the author of the detective novel on which The Thin Man was based, to write a new story, and the studio assigned the same screenwriters from the first film, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, to adapt it.
Hammett wrote The Glass Key, too, which was made into a movie starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd in 1942.
Along with the director and writers, Myrna Loy and William Powell were brought back, too, thank goodness! Fun fact: although After The Thin Man is just the second Thin Man film, it was actually the fourth movie that Loy and Powell worked on together. Manhattan Melodrama (1934) and Evelyn Prentice (1934) were the other two. The pair would make an astonishing fourteen films together.
Another fun fact: Loy had become a big star after The Thin Man and was even voted “Queen of the Movies” by exhibitors in 1936. But she was reportedly only earning half of Powell’s $3,000 weekly salary for After The Thin Man. Loy rightly thought that she was just as valuable to the franchise as Powell, and that if MGM was going to publicize them as equal stars on the film, she should get paid the same amount. She lobbied for an increase in her salary, and she won! It was a rare victory over L.B. Mayer.
The rest of the cast is pretty stellar, too. We’ve got James Stewart, Broadway star Dorothy McNulty, Elissa Landi, Joseph Calleia, Alan Marshall, Jessie Ralph, and Sam Levene as Lieutenant Abrams. (Levene would reprise his role in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).)
And, of course, Asta the terrific terrier! Mrs. Asta makes an appearance, too, and the dogs even get a separate title card.
Asta was an adorable and smart wire fox terrier who appeared in many films including The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, and the first two Thin Man movies. (He retired in 1939, so the Astas in later Thin Man films are lookalikes.)
Fun fact: Asta’s name was originally Skippy, but in The Thin Man it’s Asta, pronounced with a faux British accent that all the high-class people in these movies use: “Aaa-stahh.” After his scene-stealing performance in The Thin Man, Skippy changed his name to Asta permanently. He was featured prominently in the ads for this film:
WARNING: There will be spoilers!
At the end of The Thin Man, Nick and Nora are on a train on their way home to San Francisco after spending Christmas solving the Thin Man case in New York. This sequel picks up just four days later as they pull into the San Francisco station. We immediately get two of our favorite Nick and Nora moments.
First, the very happily married couple kiss in their cramped compartment, not realizing that a station worker is watching. He wags his finger at the lovebirds, and Nora deadpans, “It’s alright, we’re married.”
Next, when Nora goes to change out of her satiny dressing gown, Nick enjoys his first libations of the film. He’s supposed to be packing, but first things first! After pouring himself a generous drink, he carefully wraps up the shaker in one of Nora’s dresses and tenderly places it in a suitcase so it won’t get damaged in transit.
An adorable and funny love scene plus cocktails in the few minutes of the film! Perfect.
Members of the press are at the station to greet the famous couple with questions about the Thin Man case. Fun fact: the “thin man” is actually the murder victim from the first film, but the title was so associated with Nick that MGM decided to keep it for the sequels even though it doesn’t make much sense.
Nora is terribly proud of her detective husband, but she tells the reporters that there won’t be any more crime-solving in their future. Things got a little scary back in New York. You can watch the opening scene of this film here.
Then we get another of the charming ingredients in the Thin Man movie recipe: Nick’s amusing underworld connections. An unsavory pickpocket called Fingers swipes Nora’s purse. But Nick recognizes him and pulls him in for a friendly chat, during which he introduces him to his wife. Fingers realizes he has made a mistake; you don’t steal from Nick’s wife!
Fingers surreptitiously slips Nick the purse and disappears. Poor Nora is frantically trying to find her purse when Nick hands it to her and explains that Fingers stole it. He tells her not to make a fuss because they don’t want to “embarrass” Fingers. “Think of his feelings,” he tells his bewildered wife. Nora sighs and says, “Dear, you do know the nicest people!”
Nick used to be a humble gumshoe, but after marrying socialite Nora he runs in different circles, though his old buddies are always popping up with comic effect. We get more of this high/low dynamic when Nick and Nora are driven through San Francisco in their open car. Newspaper boys, boxers, and assorted sorts jump on the bumper to greet Nick. He knows them all by name.
But Nora doesn’t mind Nick’s friends. She gets a kick out of it.
Nick and Nora are delighted to be home. They’re exhausted and ready for a quiet evening alone. It’s New Year’s Eve, but they just want to go to bed. Here they are filming this scene:
But when they enter their house, they stumble into a raucous New Year’s party that was supposed to be a surprise welcome home bash. But most of the revelers are strangers, so Nick and Nora dance their way to the kitchen without anyone recognizing the guests of honor! This party forms a nice rhyme with the wild Christmas Eve party that Nick and Nora threw in their hotel suite back in New York. In fact, many of the same set pieces from the first film appear in this one, too. MGM found a winning formula, so they stuck with it!
Here is the gang relaxing during takes:
Fun fact: Powell and Loy were good friends but were never romantically linked. But their crackling onscreen chemistry and wonderful ease together meant that the public had a hard time remembering that what they saw on screen wasn’t reality. People often assumed that Loy and Powell were a couple in real life; for instance, when the stars arrived in San Francisco to shoot this movie, the hotel manager led the pair to the deluxe suite where he hoped “Mr. and Mrs. Powell” would have a delightful stay.
This mix-up was extra-awkward because Jean Harlow was traveling with them, and she and Powell had recently become engaged. Their engagement hadn’t been made public yet, so to get out of the “Mr. and Mrs. Powell” situation, Harlow and Loy stayed in the suite together and Powell booked the only other vacant room in the hotel.
In her autobiography Being and Becoming, Loy wrote that she loved spending that time with Harlow: “That mix-up brought me one of my most cherished friendships. You would have thought Jean and I were in boarding school we had so much fun. We’d stay up half the night talking and sipping gin, sometimes laughing, sometimes discussing more serious things.”
Back to the film! While Nick and Nora navigate the unexpected party, Asta runs around to the backyard. He is delighted to see Mrs. Asta and their adorable spotted pups:
He’s less delighted when an all-black puppy waddles into view…and when an all-black terrier pops out from a tunnel near the pen. Why, Mrs. Asta! Asta chases his love rival away and fills in the hole with dirt. It’s a cute little dog-side-story. You can watch it here.
Back to the human drama. Nora gets a phone call from her cousin Selma Landis (a very dramatic Elissa Landi.) Fun fact: Landi was born in Venice and grew up in Europe. She was a rumored descendant of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, so that’s unusual. She acted in some big films in the early 1930s, but appeared in only two more films after this one. She retired from the screen to be a writer.
Selma begs Nick and Nora to come to Aunt Katherine’s dinner party that evening. She desperately needs their help! But Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph), a formidable, domineering lady, scolds Selma for telling Nora anything. She seconds the dinner invitation, though. Nick and Nora do not want to attend, not at all, but naturally they have to, for Selma’s sake.
Nick is particularly unexcited, as Nora’s very respectable, old-fashioned, and old-money relatives don’t quite get him. They wrongly pity “poor Nora” for making such a bad marriage!
Nora dutifully puts on a deep-V, backless, pleated gown with a flashy belt, train, and braided straps. Dolly Tree designed the costumes for this film, The Thin Man, and I Love You Again. Since Nora is a very wealthy lady, we get some great outfits!
Aunt Katherine calls Nick “Nicho-laasss,” and nobody gets his jokes. You can watch this hilarious scene here. It’s got a “walk this way” joke–gold star to anyone who can find the first filmed example of this!
After dinner, the old-fashioned group separates with the men smoking in the dining room and the women retiring to the drawing room. Nick has some lively conversation, albeit one-sided, as his companions all drift off into post-dinner slumber:
Anyway, back to the film! Selma finally spits it out: her no-good, gold-digging husband Robert has been missing for three days. She’s terribly worried, but Aunt Katherine refuses to call the police. Nora says that Nick will find him. Now we have a mystery to solve!
But first David (James Stewart) arrives. We learn that he and Selma used to be engaged, but she broke it off when she met Robert. It was a very stupid decision. Robert is a womanizing rat who only married Selma for her money, while David is a kind, devoted soul who appears to be very much in love with Selma, still.
Anyway, Nick and Nora decide to go look for Robert. Once outside the house, David tells them that Robert called him a few days ago and said that if David paid him $25,000, Robert would go away for good. Nora’s reaction to that unsavory deal is that $25,000 would be cheap if Robert would really go…so we know that Robert is a bad man.
This costume was featured in the publicity for the film:
Anyway, beautifully-coated Nora directs their car to the Lichee Club because Selma mentioned something about Robert being at a Chinese restaurant. Luckily for everyone involved, there is apparently just the one Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. Nick and Nora find Robert there!
He’s drunk and enjoying the floor show. He and the star, Polly (Dorothy McNulty) are having a fling.
Fun fact: this was McNulty’s first film in five years. She’d been on Broadway in the early 1930s, but came back to Hollywood. In 1938, she would change her name to Penny Singleton. Under that name, she starred in Columbia’s Blondie series inspired by the comic strip. She made 28 Blondie films from 1938-1950. You might recognize her voice as Jane Jetson in the TV series The Jetsons!
Polly really shakes things up at the club with her musical note dress, backup dancers, toy musical instruments, and brassy New Year’s Eve song! You can watch it here.
One of the owners of the club, Dancer (Joseph Calleia), is dismayed when Nick and Nora arrive. He knows they are related to Robert, and he is afraid they’re going to blow the whole plan.
What plan? Well, it seems that Polly and Dancer schemed to get Robert interested in Polly, and now they’re manipulating Robert into running away with Polly after he gets David’s big check.
Fun fact: Calleia was a big-time Broadway actor who also had a long career as a character actor in Hollywood. He appeared in 57 movies between 1931-1955, usually as a criminal or policeman.
Nora tries to talk to Robert but he’s a jerk and doesn’t care about Selma. So she asks Dancer to help them get Robert home. He says that Polly will take him back to Selma as soon as she finishes her last number, though of course that’s a lie.
We meet Polly’s brother, Phil (Paul Fix), a very suspicious character who roughs her up in the dressing room before Dancer throws him out.
We also meet Dancer’s partner in the club, Lum Kee (William Law), whose brother was sent to prison, thanks to Nick! So many characters, so many convoluted storylines!
For comic relief, a bunch of Nick’s old buddies join them to celebrate their friend’s recent release from prison. Nora handles the rough crowd beautifully.
Meanwhile, Polly croons and over-emotes into a funny microphone. It’s an odd song called “Smoke Dreams,” written by Arthur Freed (who would later produce Meet Me in St Louis, Easter Parade, Good News, and Kismet) and Nacio Herb Brown.
After the song, Polly spirits Robert away. It’s time to collect the money and get out of town. Now things get hairy, and bear with me as I try to keep track of this muddled mystery. First things first: where is Asta? Calmly waiting outside the club in the Charles’ car. Amazing. Thank you, filmmakers, for including this brief shot.
Robert stops by Selma’s room to steal a necklace, but she wakes up and they have an argument. Selma seems to be barely clinging to her sanity, plus she’s very weak. Robert pushes her aside and leaves.
There’s a gunshot. Robert is dead, but who did it? Well, Selma is leaning over his dead body with a gun in her hand, so it looks like a clear cut case. That’s when David shows up. He takes Selma’s gun and tells her to go back home and not say a word about any of this. Then he throws the gun into the bay.
News spreads fast. Lieutenant Abrams (Sam Levene) goes to Aunt Katherine’s house. But Aunt Katherine is very unhelpful, and Selma is unavailable after being sedated “for the shock to her nerves” by Dr. Kammer.
Nora hurries to Selma’s side (she didn’t actually take Dr. Kammer’s pills!) Nora is deeply concerned by Selma’s unstable behavior and protestations of innocence. Selma begs Nora to go tell David that she didn’t kill Robert.
So off Nora goes, but Phil follows her to David’s apartment, and a cop shows up, too, and hauls both Nora and David to the station with lewd comments about Nora being in a man’s apartment. He doesn’t believe that she is Nick Charles’ wife!
Dancer gets away! But Nick doesn’t seem worried. He’s also superbly unruffled when he gets a call from the police station telling him that a woman claiming to be his wife was picked up in David’s apartment. He knows it’s Nora, but thinks it will be funny to have her locked up for a while. So he claims that it can’t be his wife, and that they’d better hold her until he can get there and sort it out! Nora is not pleased.
It all makes for a funny scene at the jail when Nick does arrive. When the warden asks if Nick is looking for the woman who was doing the “fan dance,” he says “Well, if it is, she’s been holding out on me.”
Selma continues to proclaim her innocence. She says that if they’ll test her gun they will see that it wasn’t fired. But David threw it in the ocean! Oh, dear! Selma is arrested for the murder of Robert, then and there. You can watch the scene here, beginning with Nora’s release from the holding cell.
Although Stewart and Levene look a bit bored in this behind-the-scenes photo, according to Loy, filming this movie was a delightful experience: “We worked terribly hard on that San Francisco location. We shot all over town, with about sixty principals and crew and hundreds of local extras; but Woody Van Dyke always liked a festive company, so there were lots of parties.”
And Jimmy Stewart “was very excited and enthusiastic about it all, rushing around with his camera taking pictures of everybody on the set, declaring, ‘I’m going to marry Myrna Loy!'” Aww!
Well, Nick and Nora eventually get home. It wasn’t the New Year’s Eve they’d hoped for, but at least now they can get some rest. But Nora can’t fall asleep. It’s just like in The Thin Man when darling Nora keeps chatting about her Christmas present to an exhausted Nick:
In this film, Nora chats about poor Selma and asks Nick if he is hungry. But she refuses when he kindly offers to make her some scrambled eggs. Then comes my personal favorite, when she asks somnolent Nick, “Can you reach the water?” He grunts, rolls, and hands her the carafe without opening his eyes. She says, adorably, “Oh, no, I don’t want it. I just wanted to be sure you could reach it.”
After that gem, Nick knows he won’t be getting any sleep. So he groggily takes Nora to the kitchen to make her those scrambled eggs. As they cook together in their spotless kitchen, someone hurls a rock with a note attached through the window. Asta grabs the rock and leads Nick and Nora on a merry chase.
The note gives them the hotel where Phil, Polly’s brother, is staying. But rather than act on this intelligence, Nick and Nora head to bed for some much needed rest. As they sleep, the newspapers have a field day:
Nick and Nora sleep through New Year’s Day and are enjoying their breakfast at about 6pm when Lt. Abrams arrives to update Nick. He brings some checks that Polly/Robert cashed, which Nick cleverly determines to be forgeries when he notices that the signatures match exactly and must have been traced. So add check forgery to the list of crimes!
Nick wants to accompany Lt. Abrams to Phil’s hotel, and Nora would like to come, too. But, just as in the first film, Nick conspires against her. This time, he locks her in her closet when she goes to get dressed. He’s trying to keep her out of danger, but she’ll find a way out!
Nick and Lt. Abrams find Phil’s dead body sprawled across the bed in his hotel room. So naturally, Lt. Abrams grabs the body, shifts it more squarely onto the bed, touches everything in the room, and goes through Phil’s pockets with his bare hands. It’s not CSI, but it’s fun! Phil was strangled…but by whom? And why?
Nick has a hunch, so he follows it all the way to Polly’s apartment. He finds some interesting things, chief among them is a small hole in the ceiling. So he goes to the apartment directly above Polly’s, and finds listening equipment hidden beneath the floorboards.
Whoever was in this apartment could clearly hear anything happening below in Polly’s! While Nick is upstairs, Dancer arrives in Polly’s apartment. He’s looking for something…
Dancer catches on that someone is above him and flees to the basement. He and Nick enjoy a suspenseful, beautifully lit chase, including some not-so-friendly shots fired. One bullet conveniently hits the latch on a large wicker hamper, and out tumbles another dead body. What is going on?
Acting on Nick’s instructions, Lt. Abrams has summoned every suspect to Polly’s apartment for one of those great showdowns. Nick plans to throw everything they’ve got at each suspect and see what sticks! But first we learn the identity of the dead man in the hamper.
He was a man named Pedro, who six years ago worked as Nora’s father’s gardener. He worked as the janitor in Polly’s building, and last night he called Information and asked for Nick Charles’ phone number. Curious. Here they are filming this scene:
Don’t worry, the movie hasn’t forgotten Nick and Nora’s prodigious alcohol intake. Just before the fun starts, Nick tells Nora, “Let’s get something to eat–I’m thirsty.”
Why, Phil was really Polly’s husband! And she and Dancer were having an affair! And Phil was an ex-con who had been convicted of blackmail! And Dr. Kammer (George Zucco) thinks that someone is insane! And there is a fight, as usual.
You see, when Lt. Abrams asked David if he remembered Pedro from years ago at Nora’s father’s house, he said “Yes, the man with the long white mustache?” But Pedro didn’t have a long white mustache back then! His mustache was brown and short six years ago. So David must have been the spy in the upper apartment, and Pedro recognized him and got suspicious. So David killed him!
Nick surmises that David also killed Phil because Phil saw David shoot Robert and tried to blackmail him. David cracks pretty quickly. It’s a terribly earnest (as only Stewart could do!) and scary morphing into the crazed killer lurking behind the sweet exterior.
He gets wilder and wilder as his crazy comes out. He actually hated Selma for dumping him and has been plotting his revenge for years. He finally got to kill Robert, and he was hoping that Selma would hang for the murder!
After confessing his insane crimes in that thorough, wrap-it-all-up movie way, David tries to shoot Selma. But Lum Kee saves the day by throwing his hat at David, and then everyone tackles him and all is saved! Aunt Katherine has the best line to shocked Selma as she helps her from the room: “Oh, you certainly can pick ‘em!” she says, dryly.
Now that everything is cleared up, (and in record time! This was about a 24-hour mystery!), Nick and Nora board a train again, just as they did at the end of the first Thin Man.
And, just as before, they have a lovely, recovered young woman with them. Selma is going on a European tour, and she isn’t a crazed, overdramatic weirdo anymore! I’ll drink to that!
Tender music surges in the background and Asta wails, realizing he is about to be supplanted by a human baby. It’s too cute.
This movie was in production a bit longer than the two weeks spent on The Thin Man. It was shot between late September and the end of October 1936, and premiered less than two months later on Christmas Day. Quick turnaround!
Audiences loved this film; it was MGM’s 5th highest grossing movie of the year, bringing in $3.1 million and costing only $673,000. Screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were nominated for Best Screenplay, though the prize went to The Story of Louis Pasteur.
Here’s the trailer–enjoy! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, pinterest, and Facebook, and peruse Thoughts on The Thin Man, which includes an essay I wrote on the series’ music. And enjoy this four page ad from Motion Picture Daily! Cheers!