Tuesday, March 6, 2007

THE ULTIMATE THIN MAN COLLECTION (MGM 1934-47) Warner Home Video


One of MGM’s most celebrated screen teams – Myrna Loy and William Powell reached their zenith in one of the studio’s most lucrative film franchises; The Thin Man. From 1934 to 1947 this lighthearted duo were better known to film audiences as amiable husband and wife sleuths, Nick and Nora Charles. Due largely to their on-screen chemistry, the series retains an air of adroit sophistication quite capable of sustaining and entertaining when all else – usually plot – fails. Now, Warner Home Video unites all six of Powell and Loy’s filmic excursions in The Ultimate Thin Man Collection.

The series begins with W.S. Van Dyke’s original, The Thin Man (1934). Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, newlyweds Nick and Nora are on a bender in New York City around the holidays when they are asked by a family friend, Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan) to look into the strange disappearance of her scientist father, Clyde (Edward Willis). His estranged wife, Mimi Jorgensen (Mina Gombell) was pressing Clyde for more money while living comfortably with her male gigolo, Chris (Caesar Romero).

Nick reluctantly takes the case at the behest of his wife, though he’s much more intent on drinking up a storm, throwing lavish cocktail parties for his former associates, shooting out windows of his penthouse apartment with an air gun (a Christmas gift) and casually joking about the million reasons he married Nora…for her money. It’s all in jest and harmless fun. Not that Nora takes anything lying down. She’s Nick’s partner 5-0/5-0 – even if he does lock her in the closet from time to time.

The film makes light of Nick’s consumption of booze (which on anyone else would easily be classified as acute alcoholism) and is even less concerned with offending feminists in its accomplished sexism.

An overwhelming critical and financial success, MGM just had to have another. The aptly titled, After the Thin Man (1936) picks up with Nick and Nora on their return to Los Angeles with their beloved pup, Asta. All set to settle into a quiet New Year’s Eve, Nora receives a frantic phone call from her cousin, Selma (Elissa Landis) that beckons further interest and consideration. Seems Selma’s hubby, Robert (Alan Marshall) is up to no good. Marrying Selma for her money, he flaunts his infidelities and is even planning to run away with her money. But this time Robert has gone too far and he winds up dead for his efforts.

Again, the investigation into who shot who pales to the witty banter between Powell and Loy, or Powell and anyone else for that matter. For example, when asked by an aged butler hunched over with crippling arthritis to “walk this way,” Nick teases, “Well, alright” then proceeds to totter along in the same hunched manner as his guide.

In 1939, the Powell and Loy reunited for Another Thin Man. By then, in his private life Powell had lost fiancée Jean Harlow to uremia, and, had also undergone an operation for a cancerous tumor. None of this real life drama seems to have impugned his ability at adept comedy. Another Thin Man is one of the wittiest installments in the series.

On this third outing, Nick and Nora are summoned to the estate of Colonel Burr McFay (C. Aubrey Smith), an explosives manufacturer who believes that small time hood, Phil Church (Sheldon Leonard) is conspiring to have him murdered. The murder does indeed take place as predicted one dark and stormy night, leaving Nick to pursue Church and his accomplices through the usual series of plot twists and turns. Darker, and perhaps more intelligently scripted than the rest of the series, Another Thin Man still retains the comedic sparkle of that coyly sparring couple.

Plot wise, Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) is the weakest installment in the series. Not that plot ever greatly mattered in the other films – but on this occasion it seems practically nonexistent. Nicky Jr. (Richard Hall) is determined to break his father of his drinking habit with Nora’s sly complicity.

But before Nick gives up gin he gets involved in the murder of a race horse jockey. Reporter Paul Clark (Barry Nelson) wants the scoop, so he employs his girlfriend, Molly (Donna Reed) to get close to Whitey Barrow (Alan Baxter) – a two time loser who winds up on the wrong end of a gun barrel for which it appears Paul is going to take the wrap.

That is as far as the plot goes; for the rest, the film is a charming array of disembodied vignettes – the best being an all-out brawl at a saucy seaside restaurant, inadvertently started by Asta tripping a waiter who dumps food all over a thuggish patron.

1944’s The Thin Man Goes Home represents something of a last major attempt at keeping the series alive. After the death of director W.S. Van Dyke, Richard Thorpe inherited the series. On this excursion, Nick and Nora return to Nick’s home town to visit his parents; owlish mom (Lucile Watson) and pragmatic father, Dr. Charles (Henry Davenport).

The plot concerns a painting that Nora purchases as a surprise birthday gift for Nick from a local art dealer right out from under the nose of Helena Draque (Helen Vinson) who desperately wants it for herself. Not as a piece of art; the painting is actually a blue print vital to the war effort. After the painting disappears from Nora’s room, the town codger, Crazy Mary (Anne Revere) gets a hold of it and pays dearly for the rights with her life.

Powell and Loy are still quite a team, but Loy in particular shows her age. She began the series playing a wealthy pin-up gal, but herein is ushered into the more matronly trappings that are sometimes an ill fit for the one-time girl who wanted to play detective. Nevertheless, there’s enough comedy and adventure to sustain the audience through to the final fade out.

The same cannot be said for Powell and Loy’s farewell nod, Edward Buzzell’s Song of the Thin Man (1947). Conceived and shot as almost film noir, the plot focuses on dead band leader, Tommy Drake (Phillip Reed). It looks as though spurious casino owner cum good guy, Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling) is going to take the fall for the crime. After imploring Nick, together with his wife, Janet (Jayne Meadows) to take his case, Nick has the police incarcerate Phil for his own safety while he pursues mentally unstable clarinetist, Buddy Hollis (Don Taylor).

The rest falls somewhere in between genuine film noir and a not terribly stylish detective thriller. Powell and Loy are given little opportunity to play off one another – the rest of the series’ strength – instead working the case separately while the studio’s resident funny man, Keenan Wynn is given a meaty supporting role as beatnik jazz musician, Clinker Krause.

Warner Home Video’s box set exhibits fair to exceptional image quality. In short order then; The Thin Man and Another Thin Man represent the best transfers in the batch. On both DVDs the gray scale has been impeccably mastered – refined and ideally balanced with fine details evident throughout and a minimal amount of film grain and age related artifacts. Shadow of the Thin Man is almost as good, with just a hint more grain and age related anomalies.

The weakest transfers in the batch are After The Thin Man and The Thin Man Goes Home. The former suffers from weak contrast levels and quite a bit of age related artifacts throughout. The latter exhibits a rather ‘thick’ characteristic in which fine details are lost during dark scenes. There’s also a hint of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details of both The Thin Man Goes Home and Song of the Thin Man. In all cases, however, the image quality will not disappoint.

The audio is mono but adequately represented in all cases. Extras include a litany of vintage short subjects and cartoons as well as an extra disc ‘Alias Nick and Nora Charles’ featuring two individual biographies on William Powell and Myrna Loy – both touching on their work together and apart, the latter hosted by Kathleen Turner. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
The Thin Man 5
After The Thin Man 4
Another Thin Man 4.5
Shadow of the Thin Man 3.5
The Thin Man Goes Home 3.5
Song of the Thin Man 3
VIDEO/AUDIO
The Thin Man 4.5
After The Thin Man 3.5
Another Thin Man 4
Shadow of the Thin Man 4
The Thin Man Goes Home 3.5
Song of the Thin Man 3.5
EXTRAS
3

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