Another Thin Man (1939)
Nick and Nora are back in another charming, convoluted mystery-comedy. All the old hits are here: cocktails in every scene, a huge cast of suspects, highly specific clues that somehow only Nick understands, a tacky blonde moll, a seedy/glamorous nightclub, a young heiress in distress, and of course, Asta.
The first Thin Man (1934) was a quickly made (12 days!) adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel. Despite a low budget and low expectations, it was a surprise hit. It brought in $1.4 million, which was about six times its budget.
Fun fact: The Thin Man was just one of Hammett’s novels that was adapted to the screen. The Maltese Falcon was first filmed in 1931, but the most famous version dates from ten years later and stars Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. The Glass Key also had multiple versions, with the first premiering in 1935. The 1942 film with Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd is the best known.
Anyway, after the success of The Thin Man, MGM lost no time making a sequel, the aptly titled After the Thin Man (1936). They hired Hammett to write a new story, assigned the same director, W. S. Van Dyke, the same screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and cast the same stars.
Audiences loved that film, too; it was MGM’s 5th highest grossing movie of the year with $3.1 million in box office on a budget of only $673,000. And screenwriters Goodrich and Hackett were nominated for Best Screenplay, though the prize went to The Story of Louis Pasteur.
Unsurprisingly, a third Thin Man was put into the pipeline. MGM had a winning formula and they didn’t want to mess with it, so once again the studio hired Hammett to write the story, assigned Van Dyke to direct, and Goodrich and Hackett to pen the script. Myrna Loy, William Powell, and Asta would reprise their roles.
But the studio couldn’t control everything, and the third sequel almost didn’t happen. First, Powell’s fiancée Jean Harlow unexpectedly died from kidney failure in June of 1937. He was devastated. Then about six months later, he was diagnosed with cancer just as production on Another Thin Man was slated to begin. He immediately had surgery in early 1938, followed by treatment and a second operation in February 1939.
During his illness, MGM considered replacing Powell with Melvyn Douglas or Reginald Gardiner, but they wisely decided to wait for Powell to recover. (He was replaced by Laurence Olivier in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), though.)
Once Powell recovered he returned to MGM in mid-July, 1939 to start filming Another Thin Man, his first movie after his illness. (Fox’s The Baroness and the Butler (1938) was released in February, 1938 but finished filming in January.) This was Powell’s first picture at MGM since Double Wedding (1937), which also starred Myrna Loy. Fun fact: the pair would make an astonishing fourteen films together.
When Powell arrived on the set for his first day of filming, the cast and crew gave him a standing ovation. As biographer Charles Francisco wrote in Gentleman: The William Powell Story, Powell was overwhelmed by the reaction: “…[He] seemed embarrassed by the attention. He held up his hands and the familiar grin began to play at the corners of his mouth as he tried to think of something funny to say. The applause stopped, and Bill found that he couldn’t speak. Myrna Loy rushed over to him and gave him a kiss and a big hug. Woody Van Dyke supplied the proper ending to the emotionally charged scene. ‘All right,’ he bellowed, ‘what are we wasting time for? Let’s get to work.'”
But MGM and Van Dyke were careful with their star on his first film back. They filmed for only six hours a day and hired stand-ins for duties like lighting checks between setups to ease Powell’s workload. They also used two crews working on four sound stages to compensate for the short workdays. I presume the other crew filmed non-Powell scenes while the first one worked with him.
To the film! The previous entry in the series, After the Thin Man (1936), ended with this adorable reveal:
This movie picks up almost two years later just before the baby’s 1st birthday. We open with shots of New York City and the family’s labelled trunks: they’ve just arrived!
There is something so glamorous and vintage-chic about traveling trunks! We follow the trunks from the train station to the hotel where porters deliver them to Nick and Nora’s suite.
How cute that Nick, Jr., usually called “Nicky,” has his own mini trunk! And naturally Asta’s travel dog house and fire hydrant toy (not the same one that he received for Christmas in The Thin Man–he must go through them) are labelled and crated, too.
Anyway, the trunks arrive in the Charles’ hotel suite as Nora (Myrna Loy) chats with a friend on the phone. When asked about their train trip from San Francisco, Nora says, breezily, “Oh, we had a lovely trip! Nick was sober in Kansas City!” And that’s why we watch these movies! It’s not for the mystery plots, it’s for the delightful chemistry between Powell and Loy, the zippy dialogue, and the constant cocktails.
Then the operator breaks into Nora’s call to ask if she can connect her to Colonel MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith), Nora’s father’s old business partner. He insists he speak with her!
Can you imagine being interrupted on your call by a stranger asking to put you on with someone else? I love moments with operators in old movies because it was a totally quotidian part of life that is basically extinct, now. (You can read more about telephone customs and technology in my History Through Hollywood on the subject.)
The Colonel orders Nick (William Powell) and Nora to come to his Long Island estate immediately. They don’t want to, but the Colonel won’t accept their refusal. Plus, he has already sent his chauffeur to pick them up. So the trunks are sent back downstairs. You can watch the scene here.
As they prepare to leave, a bellboy snoops in their bedroom and sees their silver toiletry sets. He mumbles to himself about this great score, not realizing that Nick watches him from the bathroom.
But it all ends well, because of course Nick knows the would-be-burglar! It’s Creeps, a man Nick “sent up the river” in his previous career as a detective. But they are all friends now, and Creeps decides to throw Nicky a birthday party on Monday.
Nora rolls with it, as usual. Nick’s unsavory social circle is a running joke in the series:
Anyway, off they go to Long Island accompanied by a new “nurse”/nanny named Dorothy (Ruth Hussey, whom you may recognize from The Philadelphia Story (1941)). Dorothy will eventually have a bigger part, but not really? More on that later.
Nick worries that the Colonel only wants to see them to discuss Nora’s estate. After her father’s death, the Colonel has managed and invested her immense assets, leaving Nick free to drink and enjoy himself. (Naturally, it was never an option for Nora to look after her own money!) But Nick’s fears are in vain. At least, those specific fears.
Strange things happen as soon as they drive into the estate. A stabbed body lies sprawled near the road, the chauffeur flees, the “dead” body disappears, and armed guards challenge the Charles’ car multiple times before they arrive inside the gates. Something is going on!
When Nick and Nora finally get to the house, they chat with the Colonel, his adopted daughter (the “adopted” part is emphasized), Lois (Virginia Grey), and her fiancé, Dudley (Patric Knowles), who works at the Colonel’s company. The man to the right of the Colonel is his secretary, Freddie (Tom Neal). Don’t worry, all of these characters will eventually get their own backstories and potential motives…You can watch the Charles’ arrival here.
Fun fact: Virginia Grey began acting in silent films when she was a kid in the late 1920s, then got back into acting as a young adult. She never made it huge, but she worked steadily in movies and TV until the 1970s, including appearances in All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Bonanza.
The Colonel explains to Nick and Nora that a former employee named Phil Church has threatened to kill him. Church was an engineer who did some illegal things at the Colonel’s company and went to prison for ten years. He blames the Colonel for his misfortunes, and he started questing for revenge as soon as he got out of prison.
Creepy violence against the Colonel began as soon as Church arrived in the neighborhood. When Nick learns that Church has asked for money, he suggests that the Colonel pay him and end this terror. Lois agrees with Nick (heiress in distress, check!). But the Colonel refuses.
Soon enough, Nick and Nora witness Church’s activities first hand. As they eat dinner, someone sneaks into the estate and sets the pool and bathhouse on fire. The arsonist also kills Lois’ dog. It’s an ugly business. The ability of the bad guys to get into the estate, along with the horrible dog murder, make this one of the scarier Thin Man plots. No place and no person is safe!
After these violent, sadistic events, Nick goes to talk to Church (Sheldon Leonard) to see if he can resolve this nastiness.
Church is a very creepy fellow. He talks a lot about his dreams, and how when he dreams something three times, it happens in real life. He has dreamed about the Colonel being beaten to death twice, and he waits with ghoulish excitement for the third dream. When he tells Nick that he might start dreaming about Nora and their baby, Nick punches him in the face. Hurrah!
Then Church’s girlfriend, Smitty (Muriel Hutchison), almost shoots Nick, and his friend/servant Dum-Dum (Abner Biberman), almost stabs him. But Nick escapes unscathed. You can watch it here.
Anyway, Nick returns to the Colonel’s house in a better mood. He thinks that Church will disappear if the Colonel pays him, so hopefully he can convince the old man to follow that plan. Selfishly, he doesn’t want the Colonel to die because then Nick would have to take over the management of Nora’s money. And he likes their current arrangement:
Meanwhile, Church and his cronies take a late train back to New York. Nick’s chat with Church worked–crisis averted! (Or is it?) But when the trio arrive at Smitty’s apartment, another creep named Diamond Back Vogel (Don Costello) shows up with a message from Smitty’s husband. Her hubby has been in prison for almost their whole marriage, so she has moved on to Church. But add Vogel to the list of criminals and creeps involved in the case.
Back at the MacFay estate, everyone goes to sleep, but then Nora and Nicky decide it’s the perfect time to play. This is another trope in the films. Nora always wakes Nick up when he longs to snooze.
It’s a great gag:
You can watch the scene here:
Soon they are joined by Lois, and the three of them play with Nicky in their beautiful robes. Maybe one of the Charles’ trunks is reserved for bathrobes–those would take up some suitcase space! For more on how everyone always wears dressing gowns/bathrobes even when traveling, visit my History Through Hollywood: Fashion.
This is one of the few scenes to include Nicky. The kid really doesn’t change the dynamic in this movie, though as he grows up Nick, Jr. plays a bigger role. The one big change in this film is that Nick calls Nora “Mommy” sometimes. It’s a little weird.
All is cute and calm until a shot shatters the night. Nick, Dudley, and Freddie rush to the Colonel’s room. But it’s too late–he has been brutally murdered just as Church predicted.
Everyone assumes that Church killed him, and a great montage shows the alert going out to the police and the press. Montages are another common thread in the Thin Man films.
As the police examine the bedroom, Nick walks outside to look for clues. Then Dudley steps out of the darkness with a gun pointed right at him. Fortunately, Lois appears and pushes Nick out of the way of Dudley’s bullet. Then the police kill Dudley. Was Dudley the murderer?
Meanwhile, Dorothy, the Charles’ nanny, easily evades the police and sneaks out of the estate. Interesting.
And Asta somehow gets Dum-Dum’s knife from the Colonel’s bedroom and leads the police on a merry chase around the grounds. Asta’s game of fetch with the murder weapon might be my favorite instance of laughable 1930s investigative protocols that I wrote about in History Through Hollywood: Vice.
The Thin Man films and other crime movies from this era are about as anti-CSI as it gets. For example, no one wears gloves, nothing gets “bagged and tagged,” there is no “perimeter,” and people throw evidence around willy-nilly. Plus, Nick almost always brings Asta to crime scenes, and he frequently pockets important clues and evidence, sometimes with the police’s approval. No chain of evidence worries here!
So it’s not that crazy that Asta wandered into an active crime scene, stole the murder weapon, and ran off with it. At least the detective acknowledges that Asta’s theft obliterated any fingerprints. So they weren’t totally clueless.
Anyway, the assistant district attorney Van Slack (Otto Kruger) comes to the house to oversee the police interrogations. With two murders in about twenty minutes, everyone is a suspect, including Nick and Nora. Although that doesn’t keep Nick from enjoying some cocktails during the interview.
The cops’ current theory states that Dudley killed the Colonel because the old man didn’t want him to marry Lois. In fact, the Colonel had threatened to cut Lois off if she married him. She stood to inherit millions of dollars, so this was a big deal. After killing the Colonel, Dudley tried to kill Nick because he was afraid that Nick knew the truth. Nick doesn’t buy it, but he never likes the obvious answer.
Anyway, everyone leaves the estate and goes to New York. Another great newspaper montage announces the latest in the case:
Nick keeps investigating the “dream butcher” in New York alongside Lieutenant Guild (Nat Pendleton), who worked with him in The Thin Man. It’s fun to keep the fictional universe intact across the different movies.
The investigation progresses as it usually does: the suspects accidentally and constantly incriminate themselves, Nick finds highly specific clues like poker chips or unusual jewelry lying around, and he slowly unravels the plot.
For example, Nick finds a matchbook from the West Indies Club at Smitty’s apartment, and because everything relates to the case, he visits the club that night. Naturally, the police are miles behind him.
But Nora shows up at the Club, too, despite Nick’s best efforts to keep her out of the investigation. She always finds her way to the hot spots.
The investigation at the West Indies Club pauses for a cameo dance performance by “Rene and Estela,” the stage name of René Rivero Guillén and Ramona Ajón, a famous dance team who were headliners at the Havana-Madrid Club in New York City.
You can watch the performance here:
Nick and Nora’s hunches pay off when Dum-Dum appears and a drunk guy spills the beans about Church’s other girlfriend, Linda Mills. He even tells Nick where she lives!
After a riot instigated by Dum-Dum, Nick and Nora leave the Club and go straight to Linda Mills’ apartment. Nora appears rather overdressed for a visit to a cheap boardinghouse, but I love it. Dolly Tree designed the costumes for this movie and the previous two Thin Mans. She always puts Nora in stunning, luxurious outfits that fit her sophisticated, very wealthy character.
This fur trimmed coat and V-neck, pleated lamé gown remind me of other “Nora” costumes. She often appears in fur and practically backless dresses! In fact, I wonder if the fur trim from the cape-coat in After the Thin Man was repurposed for the lamé coat in this movie.
Anyway, the landlady (Marjorie Main) lets Nick and Nora into the house without any fuss. Nick does the usual snooping and somehow finds exactly what he needs, immediately. He also gets held up, but he’d asked Lieutenant Guild to shadow him, so everything ends well.
The next day, Nick thinks he has the case cracked and begins explaining everything to Freddie and Lois. But they’re interrupted by the baby birthday party. Remember Creeps and his offer to throw Nicky a party? Yeah, the Charles’ forgot, too. But Nick delights in the room full of old acquaintances and their kids, all of whom are about Nicky’s age. Huh.
During the party, Dorothy returns to the Charles’ apartment. Remember how she fled the night the Colonel died? Don’t worry, I didn’t either. There is just so much going on in this movie, so many suspects and tangential storylines that it’s hard to keep track. But that’s typical for a Thin Man!
It turns out that Dorothy recently got out of prison and wormed her way into a job with Nick and Nora because she thought they would be open-minded despite her background. But she ran away after the murder because she was afraid that her ex-con history would make her a prime suspect. So that’s Dorothy’s deal.
Anyway, Church breaks into the apartment during the birthday party and corners Nick and Nora in another room.
But instead of shooting them, he does his usual dream threats and then escapes over the roof. But a shot rings out and he plummets to the ground. Another murder!
Smitty and Dum-Dum were waiting for Church on the street when he was killed, which means that it’s easy for Lieutenant Guild to bring every suspect into the Charles’ suite for yet another fantastic Thin Man trope: you’ve got to have everyone nervously staring at Nick for the big reveal. Spoiler alert!
It was Lois! She hated her father and had been escaping his strict house to live a double life as trashy Linda Mills for a while. She eventually met Church, and they planned the murder together: he would get his revenge, and she would inherit all of her father’s money and be free of his control. Church set himself up as the obvious suspect to divert attention but Lois performed the actual murder. The plan was for him to be tried for the murder but reveal an airtight alibi at the last minute and go free. Lois would lurk in the background until it was all over, then live her life as a very wealthy, very bad lady.
But when Lois/Linda found out Church was two-timing her with Smitty, she snapped and killed him, too. And Dudley? He suspected that Lois killed the Colonel, but he was in love with her. He was afraid that Nick suspected her, too, so he tried to kill Nick to protect Lois. Idiot.
So that’s Another Thin Man! It was in production under the working title The Thin Man Returns from mid-July to late August, 1939, and quickly premiered in November. Like the previous films in the series, it was a hit.
Modern Screen‘s review recognized that Another Thin Man marked Powell’s return to the screen after almost two years, and reassured readers that he was in “tip-top form.” But the plot was too “tangled” to be of much interest (agreed), though fortunately the “gayety” of the Charles’ family “help[s] considerably in putting over the picture and providing enough moments of entertainment to compensate for the dull plot.”
Frank Nugent of The New York Times mostly concurred, writing that the latest installment follows the “gay tradition of its predecessors, howbeit a trifle more forced.” But “With William Powell back in domestic harness as Nick Charles, with Myrna Loy as the almost too-perfect helpmeet, and with—of all people—a Nick Jr. to guarantee the continuance of the series, this third of the trademarked Thin Men takes its murders as jauntily as ever, confirms our impression that matrimony need not be too serious a business and provides as light an entertainment as any holiday-amusement seeker is likely to find.”
He noted that, “Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett have spun their who-dunnit into a thoroughly mystifying tangle, but one of the rules of the Thin Man is that the corpses be kept from crowding the comedy. That is why the two most amusing sequences concern Nora’s rhumba with a loving Latin in a night club, Nick’s invasion of a frankly unrespectable rooming house run by our favorite biddy, Marjorie Main.”
The review includes the cheerful warning against running The Thin Man films into the ground: “The law of diminishing returns tends to put any comedy on a reducing diet and it may, unless his next script is considerably brighter, confound us with a Thin Man thinned to the point of emaciation. It hasn’t happened yet, mark! We’re merely getting in our warning early, notifying Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that there’s a limit to everything—including the charm of the delightful Mr. and Mrs. Charles.”
Naturally, MGM didn’t particularly care so long as the films made money, which is why there were three more Thin Mans to come! But this was the last with a screenplay by Goodrich and Hackett. Van Dyke would direct one more in the series, Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) but he passed away in 1943, so other directors helmed the last two films. Fun fact: Van Dyke directed Loy and Powell in I Love You Again (1940) before his last Thin Man.
And 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!