The Thin Man (1934)
“A laugh tops every thrilling moment!”
Director: W. S. Van Dyke
Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan
Synopsis: Nick and Nora Charles, a former detective and his rich, playful wife, investigate a murder case mostly for the fun of it.
Filmed in just two weeks, shot on a shoestring budget and intended as a modest b-movie, The Thin Man stunned all concerned with its box office success. The pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, a wealthy and sophisticated couple with a fondness for alcohol and sleuthing, eventually resulted in a total of six Thin Man movies over thirteen years. In the 1930s, the movies provided an escape from the rigours of the Great Depression in much the same way as musicals and Shirley Temple pictures. The Thin Man movies offered the audience an escape into a world in which the depression was never mentioned, in which the constant consumption of alcohol had no consequences other than a slight slurring of speech, and in which murder mysteries were something of a game. And when WWII finally brought an end to the depression, the Thin Man movies continued to enjoy success simply because moviegoers had grown so fond of Nick and Nora and their cute dog, Asta.
The couple make a late entrance in their introductory movie. The first reel establishes a number of characters who will become suspects and/or victims of a string of murders. A scientist named Wynant (Edward Ellis) goes missing and, while the Charles’s are vacationing in New York over the Christmas period, his distraught daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan) begs them to investigate his disappearance. Because of his disappearance, the police believe Wynant’s responsible for the murder of his girlfriend Julia (Natalie Moorhead), but after reluctantly being pulled into the case, Nick suspects that Wynant has actually been a murder victim himself.
The murder case in The Thin Man is really just a backdrop against which Nick and Nora’s witty repartee is displayed, which is just as well as it gets horribly convoluted, with virtually every character other than the Charles’s being placed in the frame at one time or another. The movie was released in 1934, just after the Hays Code really took hold of Hollywood’s output, and it leaves you wondering just what screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich would have come up with had they not been working within its constraints. As it is, the dialogue comes pretty close to the knuckle at times. Consider this exchange between Nick and Nora shortly after he has been shot by an intruder.
Nick: I’m a hero. I was shot twice in The Tribune.
Nora: I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.
Or the astonished look on Nick’s face when his wife casually asks, ‘What’s that man doing in my drawers?’
Nick’s heavy drinking – he’s depicted as being intoxicated for probably ninety percent of his scenes — is passed off as a harmless character quirk. He never stumbles, never becomes dishevelled, and never loses that famous sparkling wit. In fact, he’s a bit like me really. But he does have a problem, blithely stealing the drinks of others – whether his wife or a criminal low-life – and even getting up in the middle of the night to have a slurp. It’s all depicted in a light-hearted vein, but it does seem strange to see someone who would today be portrayed as a tragic figure presented as a hero worthy of our admiration.
Nevertheless, The Thin Man still represents vintage Hollywood — and MGM, in particular – at its polished best. Even though production values aren’t high, you’d never know judging by what’s up there on the screen because all the quality is in the writing and performances. Powell and Loy play off one another wonderfully, and seem to be having as much fun as the characters they play, while a young Maureen O’Sullivan is hugely appealing as the missing man’s frantic daughter.
(Reviewed 6th February 2012)