THE THIN MAN (MGM, 1934) Warner Home Video
Celebrated mystery/crime author, Raymond Chandler once remarked that his contemporary, Dashiell Hammett “took murder out of the drawing room and put it back in the gutter where it belonged.” Indeed, though perhaps he elected to keep one foot in the parlor…for propriety’s sake, or simply to plumb and straddle both ends of the spectrum. Eulogized in the New York Times as ‘the dean of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction’, Hammett’s penchant for stylish thrillers has become something of the model for anyone attempting the genre since. Hammett’s trademark was forever shaped by his participation in both World Wars, and, his former life as a Pinkerton Guard before embarking on his second career as a lucrative writer. Repeatedly stricken with tuberculosis, a condition worsened by his chronic addiction to tobacco (this would ultimately lead to his death from lung cancer at the age of 66), Hammett wrote, drank and smoked – prolific in his craftsmanship of the hard-bitten realist thrust in the middle of some wildly original and usually salacious crime du jour; the crime solver with a passion for truth, justice and the American way, though, even more tantalizing, not always keen about solidifying the ‘moral good’ in his characters.
The Thin Man is one of Hammett’s most enduring crime/thrillers, not the least for its witty sex/comedy banter between newlyweds Nick and Nora Charles, nor because of its immortalization on celluloid at MGM in 1934, one year after its runaway success in book form. Ironically, this was to be Hammett’s last novel. For the record then, none of the cinematic sequels that spawned the lucrative Nick and Nora franchise at Metro were inspired by Hammett books, although Hammett was hired by the studio to write screenplays for two subsequent installments; 1936’s After the Thin Man and 1939’s Another Thin Man. In hindsight, these remain the best of the six atmospheric outings to co-star William Powell and Myrna Loy. The character of Nick Charles shares many of Hammett’s virtues and vices; Nora, his Nob Hill heiress/wife, modeled on wry playwright and authoress, Lillian Hellman whom Hammett wed the second time around and stormily lived with until his death. Nick is a breezily boozy, if occasionally jaded ex-Pinkerton detective, repeatedly dragged into the thick of some sensational society murder that fascinates his upper-crust wife, unaccustomed to the darker side of humanity.
Indeed, very little translation was required by the screenwriting team of Albert Brackett and Francis Goodrich to finesse the prose of The Thin Man into Metro’s smash hit of 1934. Under the direction of W.S. Van Dyke, known for his prudence, economy and straight-forwardness, The Thin Man remains as urbane, acidic and charming as Hammett’s page-turning novel; a gutsy, occasionally ghoulish whodunit with Powell and Loy as the quintessential saucy and sexy screen couple. Powell’s Nick Charles is playfully glib – when he is not drinking – and utterly immune to taking his work seriously – ever! Loy’s Nora is the lanky brunette with a wicked jaw and a taste for fashion; the pluperfect gal Friday with a penchant for excitement to invigorate their marital sparring. Together, and much to Nicky’s chagrin, they become inveigled in an investigation over the disappearance of a scientist, Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) after his anxious daughter, Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan) implores Nick that foul play has befallen him. If The Thin Man (and is subsequent sequels) do have a flaw, it’s that to today’s more jaundice eye Nick’s frequent frolics with the bottle are taken far too lightly. Alcoholism is not a joke – true. But this franchise treats it with invigorating jest; typified in the telephone query about their whirlwind honeymoon made to Nora by her mother in the first sequel, whereupon Nora nonchalantly replies, “Yes, we had a good time. Nick was sober in Kansas City” to which Powell’s Nick, casually chomping on an ice cube, turns to an over-sized stuffed teddy bear to comment, “That is a bitter woman.”
The teaming of William Powell and Myrna Loy is one of those inspired decisions, so succinctly fitted into our collective movie-land folklore that one cannot imagine one without the other today. And yet, each embarked upon a star-making career apart and with varying degrees of success. In the days long before the internet ruined all hope of any star living a private life, many a fan chose to believe either a real romance was brewing between these frequently pitted co-stars or that, in fact, they were already secretly married. In reality, Loy was wed to MGM producer, Arthur Hornblow Jr. – the first of four husbands – and Powell, then engaged to Metro’s platinum sex bomb Jean Harlow, after the untimely death of her first husband, producer, Paul Bern. Harlow’s tragic demise at the tender age of 26 in 1937, coupled with Powell’s discovery he was stricken with cancer that same year created a 2-year hiccup in The Thin Man franchise, from 1937 to 1939. Over time, Powell and Loy’s reputation as the ‘perfect marrieds’ became overshadowed by that other iconic coupling of Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. But it was Powell and Loy who set the standard in the thirties, their appearance together in 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama – co-starring Clark Gable, leading MGM’s raja, L.B. Mayer to reteam them - sans Gable - in The Thin Man, and subsequently, other Thin Man sequels, as well as such memorable fare as 1936’s Oscar-winning musical biopic, The Great Ziegfeld and 1941’s ebullient screwball comedy, Love Crazy.
Truth to tell: Mayer had very little faith in The Thin Man; just another B-thriller likely to fade into obscurity, though perhaps, also to turn a tidy little profit for the studio besides. Herein, we pause. One has to sincerely admire both Mayer and the studio system – neither perfect, yet both willing to take a gamble on projects and programmers that, more often than not, hit the bull’s eye with astounding accuracy to meet and exceed the pulse of the public. Reportedly shot in two weeks, The Thin Man is a superb example of the system with all its pistons firing in unison. At $226,408 The Thin Man may have been budgeted only as a disposable programmer (today, you cannot even shoot a 30 second Super Bowl commercial for this). Nevertheless, Van Dyke delivers a movie so chic and funny it easily caught the public’s fascination. The same year as its debut, in a national poll conducted by Look Magazine, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy were awarded the coveted titles and crowns as ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ of the year, prompting Powell – a celebrated raconteur, to send Loy a conciliatory flower box loaded with old, dirty and rotting grapes, and, a card that read, “From William – the fourth”. As Loy later explained with a chuckle, “He had come in fourth in the poll and these, of course, were sour grapes!”
The success of The Thin Man (it grossed $1,423,000 worldwide) was not lost on Mayer. Indeed, by the mid-1930’s, Mayer had suckled a franchise from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s vine-swinger, Tarzan and was about to launch two more enduring series with Dr. Kildare and Andy Hardy. His V.P. in Charge of Production, Irving G. Thalberg, did not care for this sort of economizing in picture-making. Thalberg’s passion leaned rather severely toward the costly and opulent. In the end, both endeavors turned a profit for Metro, though only Mayer’s would outlast the decade after Thalberg’s untimely passing in 1936. In the decades since past, the infectious teaming of Nick and Nora Charles has become the inspiration for such smash hit television series as Moonlighting and Hart to Hart. But even before these valiant successors, Metro was not above re-mining its fortune and glory for ripe new profits; The Thin Man translated into a 1950s TV serial costarring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. Running from 1957 to 1959, it had limited appeal and distribution. Yet, it is primarily for the galvanized reputations of William Powell and Myrna Loy that The Thin Man endures to this day; Powell’s debonair, yet casual good nature, and Loy’s delicious flippancy, a perfectly baked soufflé of wit and sophistication, unimpeachable at a glance, and thoroughly Teflon-coated from the misnomers of ever-changing times and tastes.
The plot of the original Thin Man is subdued and tame by today’s ‘in-your-face’ standards, but revolves around newlyweds, Nick and Nora Charles. Nick’s early retirement is predicated on the fact he has married a wealthy socialite who does not seem to mind his inexplicable lack of interest in supporting her, but rather relishes being her ‘kept man’. Although based in San Francisco, the couple have already embarked upon a whirlwind honeymoon, stopping in New York for the pending Christmas holidays. Alas, joy galore and the quiet life are not to be for this serenely contented, if slightly screwball marital coupling. Nick encounters Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O'Sullivan) inside a fashionable downtown club. She reminds him of an earlier meeting; her father, scientist, Clyde Wynant (the eponymous ‘thin man’) – a former client, since vanished into thin air. Arriving late to this party, her arms full of Christmas packages and mercilessly tugged at the end of a leash by their beloved wire-haired terrier, Asta, Nora is also introduced to Dorothy. Nora takes pity on the girl, despite Nick’s protestations of wanting ‘a quiet life’ free of his former career.
Thus, the investigation begins. It seems the curmudgeonly Clyde was toiling on a mysterious experiment for Washington when Dorothy arrived on the arm of her fiancée, Tommy (Henry Wadsworth); the couple announcing their intentions to marry with all speed. Pleased, though distracted, Clyde promised Dorothy he would be back from his secret business trip in time for the wedding. He never arrived. Regrettably, what began as a ‘missing person’ case takes on more sinister undertones when Wynant's ex-secretary and love interest, Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead), is found murdered; all evidence pointing to Wynant as the prime suspect. Ever the devoted daughter, Dorothy refuses to believe her father is guilty. Meanwhile, Wynant’s ex, the money-grubbing Mimi Jorgensen’s (Minna Gombell) only concern is her former hubby’s disappearance will put a stop payment on her ‘hush money’ since re-marrying to one Chris Jorgensen (Cesar Romero) – an elegant gigolo. Frustrated by Wynant’s absence, and coaxed by Nora, Nick and Asta revisit the old scientist’s laboratory. Asta unearths skeletal remains. Although the police still believe Wynant killed Julia, Nick proves the body in the lab is Wynant, based on some shrapnel lodged in one of the femur bones.
Already suspecting the real murderer, Nick and Nora stage a lavish whodunit dinner party. After some polite badinage, Nick settles into the real purpose for their gathering, laying out the clues as he as discovered them. It is revealed Mimi was aiding Wynant’s attorney, MacCaulay (Porter Hall) in an embezzlement scheme in exchange for more money on the side. Having exposed Chris as a bigamist, Mimi is free to divorce him now and inherit all of Wynant's money. Ruthlessly, she incriminates MacCaulay whose fraud eventually caught Julia’s eye. Rather than remain loyal to Wynant, Julia began blackmailing MacCaulay and this directly led to her being murdered by him to keep her silent. MacCaulay is also responsible for Wynant’s untimely demise after he finally discovered what had been going on right under his nose. MacCaulay’s escape at gunpoint is foiled by Nick. After a brief struggle he is subdued and taken into custody. Nick, Nora, Dorothy and Tommy board a train; a newlywed foursome happily bound for the sunny shores of California.
Despite its meager budget, The Thin Man is an A-list release from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the studio then, with ‘more stars than there are in heaven’. L.B. Mayer paid Dashiell Hammett $21,000 for the rights to produce it with director, W.S. Van Dyke encouraging his writing team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to concentrate their efforts more heavily on the repartee between Nick and Nora, using Hammett’s authorship merely as their guideline. Van Dyke was also instrumental in convincing Mayer that William Powell was not ‘too old’ to play the part, and Myrna Loy – then, being groomed as something of an exotic ‘bird of paradise’ – could equally don the garb of a cosmopolitan sophisticate. Skippy, rechristened as ‘Asta’, proved a star in his own right, in huge demand shortly thereafter and cast in two screwball classics, The Awful Truth (1937) for Columbia, and, Bringing Up Baby (1938) made at RKO. Alas, his high-spiritedness on the set of The Thin Man caused him to bite Loy on the finger. For the record, Hammett’s novelized hound had been a schnauzer, not a wire-haired fox terrier.
Affectionately known around the MGM lot as ‘One-take Woody’, Van Dyke’s economy in picture-making has never been equaled. He seems instinctually to have known when and where to place his camera and what to cover in a single shot, rarely photographing a scene more than twice. In fact, for William Powell's first scene in The Thin Man, Van Dyke instructed the actor to play around with mixing a cocktail, feeling his way through the nightclub set while improvising his dialogue. The legend is Van Dyke told Powell he was merely blocking of the scene, the camera lazily following Powell around the set as he performed these perfunctory duties, though hardly in a perfunctory way. When the scene was finished, Powell was startled to hear his director holler, “That’s it! Print it!” Indeed, cast were soon to discover this as the order of the day, kept on their toes, learning new lines and bits of business on the fly and then shoot the sequence with little time to fully prepare.
One scene became the exception to this house rule: the penultimate dinner party, where Powell became so thoroughly confounded by the intensity of his dialogue he repeatedly flubbed his lines. The result was an unanticipated consequence; the real oysters being re-served to dinner guests putrefying from the intense heat given off by overhead arc lamps. It created quite a stench on the set. While co-star Maureen O’Sullivan did not appreciate Van Dyke’s technique, some years later, Myrna Loy would recognize the genius in Van Dyke’s ‘off the cuff’ precision, crediting him with The Thin Man’s brisk pacing and spontaneity. “He paid attention to our easy conversations between takes,” Loy later recalled, “…and worked as much of that into the picture as he could.” And Powell, for his part, absolutely adored working with Loy. “We forgot about technique, camera angles, and microphones,” he admitted, “We weren't acting…just two people in perfect harmony. Myrna has the happy faculty of being able to listen...she has the give and take that brings out the best.”
The Thin Man was a colossal hit for MGM, racking up the dollars as well as unprecedented unanimous critic’s praise for its lithe concoction of comedy and thrills. Today, it remains one of the cleverest adaptations of a popular novel ever turned out. In 1997, The Thin Man was added to the United States National Film Registry of culturally, historically and aesthetically significant motion pictures. As with all of its subsequent Thin Man sequels, (there are five all told) the plot is incidental to the on-screen chemistry of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Given the virtues of the piece, it is positively repugnant Warner Home Video, or the Warner Archive (WAC) have avoided re-issuing The Thin Man (and its sequels) to Blu-ray. But no, like so many truly golden offerings from the retired MGM and Warner catalog, the present custodians of such iconography have given preferential treatment to remastering ‘B’ and ‘C’ grade sci-fi and horror flicks from the late fifties and beyond to re-releasing such classic stuff as this.
So, it is 2018 and film lovers must still content themselves with Warner Home Video’s DVD release from 1998. Perhaps it’s not as much of an oversight as back then the studio – paying attention to its riches – elected to restore and remaster The Thin Man to the best of standards available back then. Gone are the ravages of age-related damage and disrepair. The Thin Man’s B&W visuals are heartily represented; crisp, clean and with very clean whites and decidedly rich and deep solid blacks. Contrast is bang on. The audio is mono and just as well, with minimal hiss during quiescent scenes and virtually zero pop throughout. Given its social significance, its fairly disgusting not to have even an audio commentary to accompany this movie. But there it is. No extras. Bottom line: while we continue to wait for the executive brain trust at Warner to get off their collective lump and start releasing the ‘good stuff’ to Blu-ray, their DVD incarnation of The Thin Man suffices. Recommended, but in the hopes a 1080p offering in the works…pretty please!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)