Song of the Thin Man
Screenplay by Steve Fisher and Nat Perrin
Story by Stanley Roberts
Additional dialogue by James O’Hanlon and Harry Crane
Directed by Edward Buzzell
Song of the Thin Man puts Nick and Nora in the secret world of jazz club singers in New York. It’s also a sort of pun, as this is the swan song of the series. Some of the charm is still there, William Powell and Myrna Loy can’t not be charming when together in a room. The film spends too much time on the jazz atmosphere to trust the actors to carry scenes. It can get a bit tedious when there is yet another jazz scene, yet another instance of Clinker using weird slang, and yet another instance of Nick and Nora trying to fit in and absorbing the language. The outside scenes where other things happen become breaths of fresh air, but there isn’t enough in this ecosystem to make it stand out.
We again get a new creative crew for this Thin Man entry. The direction is by Edward Buzzell, who had previously directed the Marx Brothers’ film At the Circus Stanley Roberts came up with the story, and Steve Fisher and Nat Perrin handle the script, with additional dialogue thanks to James O’Hanlon and Harry Crane (are they who came up with all the goofy slang?) Once again Nick and Nora become inserted in a more generic plot, something that could even be used as a plot for a comedy mystery tv show episode. Did Monk ever hang around with musicians? A large amount of writers is usually a bad sign for a film.
While this team realized they can’t ignore the Nick Jr. character, they don’t do one of the reoccurring gags of the series, the procession of former criminals Nick Charles knows because he busted them long ago. They’ve all been replaced by the jazz musicians, which don’t quite have the same stereotypical wackiness that nicknamed criminal types bring to the table. One weird thing is despite this entire entry being about jazz and musicians, almost every one is white. The lack of black jazz musicians in 1940s New York City is the most unbelievable thing about this entry, and I’m including the ridiculous jazz slang in the unbelievable things list.
Nick Jr. is back and now a bit older. He is a fan of the comic pages of the paper, and he keeps saying “dame”. He also refuses piano practice, which means he would get a spanking…if his dad didn’t have visions of the good times while staring at his son’s bottom. I’d like to point out how weird it is to describe this scene while trying to not be creepy. The lack of spanking here is especially odd when you remember that Nick spanked Nora in that last film.
The focus of our attention is on the casino boat SS Fortune, where our mystery is set. There, Reed Man Buddy Hollis is having problems both with his instrument and his personal life, his crush Fran having dropped him for an arrogant conductor named Tommy Drake. Drake collects enemies like they are Pokemon, and is in the process of leaving this conducting job for a big time conduction gig for famed music mogul Mitchell Talbin. Never fear, Drake is piling on the problems by burning bridges where he works now, owing bookies lots of money, and even having bad mob connections. Talbin refuses to advance Drake $12,000 to pay off his mob debt. Tommy Drake might as well be carrying a big neon sign that flashes “The Murder Victim!”
There is even a class subplot where a casino boat owner named Phil Brant is going to run off with the daughter of a rich man named Janet Thayer and get married. Janet’s father David Thayer is rather upset, because despite Phil Brant owning the casino boat, he’s considered poor, because he’s not old money. Of course it is Phil Brant who is framed when Drake shows up with a bullet in him.
Nick and Nora are on the boat delivering zingers all the while, because it isn’t a movie if hey aren’t involved randomly in a crazy murder. A murder that Nick is once again for the sixth time reluctant to investigate immediately, but will get drawn into it due to the wrong people getting framed and personal connections to those involved.
Phil Brant and Janet Thayer, the forbidden couple from the casino boat, did manage to run off and get married, but now that Phil Brant is framed for murder, they stop by the Charles place in the morning to ask for help. Nick does help them, but by getting Brant arrested! It’s part of his plan to keep Brant safe, as actual mob people are after him for the killing of Drake, who owed them lots of dough. This also means Nick has to intervene in the case and save the day again.
Unlike other entries where everyone just assumes Nick is going to help and practically let him wander through crime scenes contaminating evidence left and right, Nick actually has to sneak around and bribe his way into access on the crime scene. The boat is currently closed, the only people being let on are the jazz musicians who have permission to retrieve their instruments. This results in an impromptu jam session on the boat, and also cover for Nick and Asta after they pay a fisherman to row them out to the boat. It also means they meet jazz man Clinker, aka Clarence Krause, who will be an invaluable aide in navigating the world of club musicians.
Clinker is also the source of every 1940s jazz slang word the writers could think of (the accuracy of the slang I will leave up to the decision of all the 1940s jazz musicians in the audience to determine), words that start to get adopted by Nick and Nora as the film progresses. The bulk of Song of the Thin Man consists of tracking down one lead or another and working through a bunch of after-hours parties where the musicians play until the sun rises. As the suspects are now diluted through the music scene thanks to the dissolution of Drake’s band, Nick and Nora have to track them down and separate the guilty from the red herrings. There is added pressure with the mob angry about their unpaid debt, and evidence the debt was paid for Drake by Mitchell Talbin, evidence which goes up in smoke.
Despite the more comedic tone of the various jazz adventures, there is a surprisingly strong scene with Buddy Hollis in a mental hospital, obviously in the midst of a breakdown as his life crumbled around him. Don Taylor does a great job of portraying a man with a legit illness and not someone acting “crazy” in some sort of goofy way. Myrna Loy’s interactions with him in the room walk the line between needing him to answer information but not wanting to push him into a manic state.
The usual conclusion of Nick narrating the events with all the parties gathered to expose the murderer is still present, now set on the gambling boat and Nick can explain everything on stage. It’s an interesting twist on the fact the entire conclusion scenes are a big performance from Nick, full of truths and half-truths and suppositions that all end up working out in the end thanks to the one slip up the villains inevitably do.
While I prefer this entry to The Thin Man Goes Home, neither are anywhere near close to the first four films in quality. Song follows the formula more close, but the class issues seem forced, with the Phil Brant vs. David Thayer problems coming off as sort of quaint, and Thayer’s attempts to further frame Brant so obvious that they seem criminal. There is a nice callback to the last film, as Nick and Nora again are confined to the baggage car on the train due to Asta, this time playing cards with the porters. In the post-war years, their excess with private cars and special privileges for their dog are but a memory.
While it is a shame the Thin Man flicks end in the downward direction, it is not the end of Nick and Nora Charles, who reappeared on a tv series (played by Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk) in the 1950s. Most impressively, one client was Robbie the Robot! There was also a contemporary radio series that ran from 1941 to 1950. Claudia Morgan played Nora for the entire run, while Nick was variously played by Les Damon, Les Tremayne, David Gothard, and Joseph Curtin. Powell and Loy also did radio play versions of the first two Thin Man films for Lux Radio Theater, The Thin Man in 1936 and After the Thin Man in 1940. Both of those recordings (and a few of the radio series) can be found on Archive.org. There was a revival TV movie starring Craig Stevens and Jo Ann Pflug in 1975, and a big budget remake has been threatened off and on for the past decade. Probably most importantly for modern interpretations, Nick and Nora were also spoofed in the 1976 film Murder by Death as Dick and Dora Charleston (played by David Niven and Maggie Smith), with Myron the dog. The iconic Nick and Nora Charles, and William Powell and Myrna Loy’s chemistry, is what keeps the couple alive in our hearts, It’s a chemistry that overcomes bland scripts and wacky scenarios, a chemistry that keeps the films charming 80 years later, and will keep them charming in decades to come.
Rated 7/10 MGM, angry dad, wanted, Is Schroeder in this movie?, missing gun, matchbook clue, necklace clue)
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