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 They’ve all been replaced by the jazz musicians, which don’t quite have the same stereotypical wackiness that nicknamed criminal types bring to the table.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.
Categories: Good, Movie Reviews Tags: Asta, Bess Flowers, Bruce Cowling, Connie Gilchrist, Dashiell Hammett, Dean Stockwell, Don Taylor, Edward Buzzell, Gloria Grahame, Harry Crane, James O'Hanlon, Jayne Meadows, Keenan Wynn, Leon Ames, Marie Windsor, Movies gone to the dogs, Myrna Loy, Nat Perrin, Patricia Morison, Phillip Reed, Ralph Morgan, Stanley Roberts, Steve Fisher, Thin Man, William Bishop, William Powell
The Thin Man Goes Home
Story by Robert Riskin and Harry Kurnitz
Screenplay by Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor
Directed by Richard Thorpe
The Thin Man Goes Home doesn’t feature the regular creative crew of the series. Regular director W. S. Van Dyke, had committed suicide in 1943, suffering from illness and unwilling to go seek treatment due to his Christian Scientist beliefs. Regular script writing team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich also didn’t return, nor did series creator Dashiell Hammett, who had worked with the writing pair to help develop the prior entries.
The new director was Richard Thorpe. Thorpe was the original director of the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, though most of his work was discarded when he was fired after two weeks. He directed several Tarzan flicks and a bunch of adventure dramas, many featuring Robert Taylor. The story for The Thin Man Goes Home was conceived by Harry Kurnitz and Robert Riskin, Riskin going on to write the screenplay with Dwight Taylor. The lack of continuity is easily apparent with the many small changes in the film.
Most importantly, this entry changes Nick’s family from Greek immigrants (Hammett had Nick’s father change their last name from Charalambides to Charles to fit on a photograph) to an upper class family headed by a respected community doctor. This switches Nick from an immigrant’s son who done good to a black sheep who left his family to find his own path. That craps on a lot of the class issues from the previous four films, and turns things into an attempt by Nick to finally impress his father.
The Thin Man Goes Home was a 1945 pictures, released while the US was in the midst of the Second World War. This is reflected in the film itself, and we see the Charles deal with wartime rationing. Their normally spacious private train cars are gone, replaced by packing in like sardines on the train, and even being forced into the baggage car because they bring Asta along with them. Nick Charles is forced to drop his usual 100 martinis a day habit due to alcohol rationing (explained in the film as abstaining from drinking because his father disapproves), and instead chugs cider. Many of the background actors are dressed as members of the armed forces.
Myrna Loy actually stopped acting to get married and become a big booster during the war, working with the Red Cross and ticking off Hitler (a feather in anyone’s cap!) Shadow of the Thin Man was her last film before stopping, and The Thin Man Goes Home was her return. Rumor was they were trying to make the sequel earlier and bring in Irene Dunne as Nora Charles, but Dunne flatly refused, saying the chemistry between Powell and Loy was why the series worked (and she was subsequently no longer offered scripts by MGM!)
There is a nod to pulp detectives as Nick lounges in the hammock and reads a Nick Carter magazine.
Nick Charles Jr. isn’t in this entry, as explained he’s away at school, and pulling him out of school so the senior Charles family could meet their only grandson for the first time is just wand-waved away. That’s the sort of thing that if I pulled it off with my mom, she’d have sent me immediately away on a train to go get my son. He does return in the final film, which is good because it would just be too weird otherwise.
Categories: Good, Movie Reviews Tags: Anita Sharp-Bolster, Anne Revere, Asta, Dashiell Hammett, Donald MacBride, Donald Meek, Dwight Taylor, Edward Brophy, Gloria DeHaven, Harry Davenport, Harry Kurnitz, Helen Vinson, Leon Ames, Lloyd Corrigan, Lucile Watson, Minor Watson, Morris Ankrum, Movies gone to the dogs, Myrna Loy, Nora Cecil, Ralph Brooks, Richard Thorpe, Robert Riskin, Thin Man, William Powell
Shadow of the Thin Man
Story by Harry Kurnitz
Screenplay by Harry Kurnitz and Irving Brecher
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke
Shadow of the Thin Man is the last of the classic four Thin Man films before the large drop in quality of the final two flicks. Dashiell Hammett doesn’t help provide the story, and Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett have also moved on, leaving the writing in the hands of Harry Kurnitz and Irving Brecher (Kurnitz also developing the story) Director W. S. Van Dyke returns for his last Thin Man entry.
Shadow of the Thin Man was released November 21, 1941, on the eve of the US’s entrance into World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. None of the ongoing worldwide conflict is reflected in the film, which involves murder and horse gambling conspiracies. The only real acknowledgement of real world events seems to be the rolling back of displays of Nora’s wealth, though it is still obvious they are flushed with money.
The Thin Man flicks zigzag back and forth between New York and San Francisco, so we return to the Bay Area for good time Bay Area fun. Also returning is Lieutenant Abrams (Sam Levene) from After the Thin Man, because we’re back on his beat. Once again he needs Nick Charles’ help, because of mystery murders with lots of complications.
Murder victim “Whitey” Barrow (Alan Baxter) is one of those obvious murder victims. Baxter’s also ridiculously overacting when he’s playing the tough mobster guy, yet sounds like a normal person when he’s hiding his gangster persona. It’s a weird choice (and frankly a bit distracting), luckily he gets knocked off early enough it doesn’t become a big problem.
Nora keeps up with Nick’s investigations the most in this sequel, following him on his searches, showing him up when it comes to dealing with his son, and even luring him home with the siren song of a shaking martini mixer. There are bonus points added for Nora heroically leaping onto a gun during the climactic scene where the real murderer reveals themselves by grabbing the gun they always have.
Aside from Nora Charles, most of the female roles are pretty thankless, despite being filled with quality actresses. Stella Adler manages to turn the limited role of Claire Porter into something amazing. Porter is drenched in the casings of the upper class, appearing to be well-to-do despite her gangster boyfriend. But her money comes from a job not so well-to-do, a job they can only hint at (due to the Hays Code) by her switching up accents when flustered by Nick Charles. Donna Reed has the truly thankless role as the secretary girlfriend to the accused murderer Paul. Despite a hint that she might be more than she looks due to who she works for, her character is given little to do except worry about her man.
Louise Beavers’ character of Stella, the Charles’ maid, is the largest part for a black actor in the Thin Man series. Sadly it’s what I call a Mammy Whammy, in that it’s over the top servant character. Beavers is associated with that type of role, partially because those roles were the only roles available to black performers. She gained fame with a non-stereotypical black maid role, Delilah in 1934’s Imitation of Life.
This is the Thin Man entry with some of the funniest bits in the series – the wrestling scene, the merry-go-round, the brawl at the restaurant, Nick getting a speeding ticket, and Nick’s encounter with an old landlady obsessed with radio crime shows and police gazettes, who talks Nick’s lingo and then some.
One of the major criticisms is the film focuses on too much that isn’t the murder mystery, and the sequence of events that the mystery follows are practically spelled out. It is true that things seem almost designed to happen no matter what Nick and Nora do, they are practically swept up into the original murder and are present at every important event following it, complete with the police actively encouraging them. The killer is the most obvious of the whole series, but my view on the films are that it is about the journey, not the destination. After being raised on two decades of carbon-copy police procedurals where the real differences are the show’s characters and gimmicks, which quickly become the defining reason to watch. The old detective movies that are memorable have their own cool characters and gimmicks, of which the Thin Man flicks excels. I don’t think Shadow of the Thin Man is a shadow of the prior films (BOOOOO!!! to that pun!), instead standing tall with the original four despite a few flaws.
Categories: Good, Movie Reviews Tags: Alan Baxter, Asta, Barry Nelson, Dickie Hall, Donna Reed, Harry Kurnitz, Henry O'Neill, Irving Brecher, Joseph Anthony, Loring Smith, Lou Lubin, Louise Beavers, Movies gone to the dogs, Myrna Loy, Sam Levene, Stella Adler, Thin Man, Tor Johnson, W. S. Van Dyke, William Powell
Another Thin Man
Story by Dashiell Hammett
Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich
Additional material by Anita Loos (uncredited)
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke
After taking a brief trip home to San Francisco for the prior film, the action returns to New York City with Another Thin Man. The third entry in the franchise features one of the best mysteries and a cool collection of the off-beat characters that help make the Thin Man films so endearing. If you can’t smile when a bunch of mugs and lowlifes sing an off-key rendition of Happy Birthday while each holding random screaming children, then you’re probably a boring person scared of life.
Another Thin Man is my favorite of the series, I feel it has the best mix of characters, humor, and mystery. There is a constant stream of characters both good and seedy, and often both. Another Thin Man picks some of the themes of the prior two films and then throws them on their ears – there is a love triangle with a rich girl, a rich father who becomes a murder victim, and secret identities. Nora’s father’s business partner Colonel Burr MacFay makes an unsympathetic murder victim with his dismissal of Church and admittance that things outside of the law were done to ensure the fortune. But the law isn’t about whether someone is worthy of being a target.
One delight is the Cuban dance number in the West Indies Club, working with the Cuban origin of Church while providing a follow up to the Chinese-themed nightclub from Another Thin Man. Nora had received a phone call promising a clue would be told to her there, and she rushes over so she can show up Nick. Nick manages to get to the club by other means, and finds his wife at a table swarmed by male suitors (one of the few turnabouts to Nick constantly finding the admiration of random ladies in the series), they trade some hilarious wordplay that send the men scattering, and Nora ends up dancing with a guy who she thinks is the man with the information, but is just a lovestruck random guy. Nick has his own adventure with a man who begins spilling the entire plot after a few drinks, and Phil Church’s goon Dum-Dum is there to continually tell the guy to shut up. Nick does end up saving his wife from dancing with the random lothario thanks to a well-time punch when the power goes out.
Another Thin Man is jammed packed with the character actors that gave the Thin Man films their goofy dangerous flavor. Harry Bellaver plays Creeps, a “reformed” criminal now working as a bellhop (and another of Nick’s busts back from his detective days) who is determined to throw the couple a party. Shemp Howard appears as another reformed criminal named Wacky, who borrows a baby to get into said party. Paragon of British upper crust C. Aubrey Smith is Colonel Burr MacFay, business partner to Nora’s father, and he turns out to have been involved in some very shady dealings. And let’s not forget Dum-Dum, the knife-welding member of Phil Church’s crew who projects an aura of intelligent danger, even if he’s occasionally deflated by Asta retrieving his knives. Assistant District Attorney Ben Van Slack (Otto Kruger) becomes very involved in the investigation, at first trying to flip it on Nick, then eventually chasing after any lead and making lots of exaggerated implications. There is also the welcome return of Nat Pendleton as Lieutenant John Guild, the New York detective more than happy to have Nick help on this case. Keep your eyes peeled for Marjorie Main (from the Ma and Pa Kettle movies) as Mrs. Dolley!
A seedy trio lead by Phil Church are threatening Colonel MacFay for compensation for the time Church spent in jail while working for the Colonel. Church is embittered over his time served, but also has a complicated plan to get money and cause problems. He speaks of dreaming of his enemies dying, and then they do so in real life. Church’s knife welding servant Dum-Dum is more than just a goon, he knows the plan and knows he needs to keep people quiet, but occasionally is even cordial to Nick despite his deadly undertone. His devotion to Church is total. The female quotient is Smitty, who has a few secrets of her own. There is even an unofficial fourth member of this trio, who at first appears to just be watching the group, but manages to weasel himself inside to give us an additional suspect.
The plot is among the more complicated of the series, red herrings flying around like Lew Zealand is performing. A good chunk of what happens seems to transpire just to lead us off course. There is a long-lost daughter, a mystery woman, and people who are more than they appear. Another Thin Man is the last of the films given a story by Dashiell Hammett, which were also worked on by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (and Anita Loos is also credited with story work by online sources).
Categories: Good, Movie Reviews Tags: Abner Biberman, Albert Hackett, Anita Loos, Asta, C. Aubrey Smith, Dashiell Hammett, Don Costello, Frances Goodrich, Harry Bellaver, Marjorie Main, Movies gone to the dogs, Muriel Hutchison, Myrna Loy, Nat Pendleton, Otto Kruger, Patric Knowles, Phyllis Gordon, Ruth Hussey, Sheldon Leonard, Shemp Howard, Thin Man, Tom Neal, Virginia Grey, W. S. Van Dyke, William Powell
After the Thin Man
Story by Dashiell Hammett
Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke
Nick and Nora Charles return to San Francisco as heroes, their solving of a murder exploits big news as San Francisco has never had any crime, ever. Okay, maybe there were a few crimes in San Francisco, but the Charles are famous thanks to the power of media making heroes. Of course, the fun can’t last, and soon Nick and Nora are drawn into a brand new murder mystery. Never fret, there are plenty of wacky characters and real dangers along the way, with Nick and Nora quipping all the while.
It’s almost literally right after The Thin Man, which took place over Christmas, and it’s now New Year’s Eve. That keeps the festive atmosphere without retreading the Christmas theme. There is a surprise welcome home party happening at Nick and Nora’s house, which means the house is packed full of people who have no idea who Nick and Nora Charles even are, nor who recognize them when they come in. A guy hilariously welcomes them inside and explains he doesn’t know who the Charles are, and advises them to just fake it like he’s doing. They go along with it, dancing together to the kitchen, where the house staff actually does recognize the pair.
More than any of the other films, After the Thin Man is aware of the class differences between Nick and Nora. Nora was born into wealth, while Nick married into it. Despite their differences, the pair are equally willing to hang out with anyone from any class strata. Nick has a constant stream of lower class reformed criminals that he runs into that are all wanting to be buddy-buddy, while Nora’s rich relatives treat Nick like a pariah, especially ironic considering the guy Aunt Katherine’s daughter Selma ended up married to.
One of the biggest draws to After the Thin Man is Jimmy Stewart, who knocks it out of the park and whose performance will be one of the main things you remember from this sequel. When I first watched the Thin Man flicks, it was because I was getting into older movies and became a big Jimmy Stewart fan. I also needed to watch the films in order, because that’s just how I roll. Luckily, they had just released all of the Thin Man flicks on VHS tape (remember those? Of course you do!) and so they were easy to find at the rental stores. Except for After the Thin Man. For some reason, none of the video stores in the St. Louis area seemed to have a copy. I finally found one at an independent video store on the way home from work, and that place became a regular stop due to a classics section that outdid much of the competitors (though the cheapo DTV action films I still rented from Schnucks!). Oddly enough, their copy of After the Thin Man was ancient, in a giant clamshell package, despite the other five films all being the new VHS versions. Whatever, I finally got to see Jimmy Stewart be awesome, and then could continue the series. I do remember the commercial in front of each movie for the whole Thin Man set, which is a nice dumb thing to remember when I can’t recall where I put my keys.
Asta has an expanded role, not only does he partially destroy a clue while attempting to play with the Charles, but there is a running gag with Mrs. Asta, who thanks to Asta’s long absences has take to accepting visits from a local black dog, including producing at least one puppy. Despite Asta chasing off the interloper, by the end of the film Asta is continuing to hang out with the Charles family, leaving his “wife” to her own devices. As she and his children are never seen again, we can deduce what her decision was. While the new dog being black might constitute a racial component, I’m thinking it’s more of a way to make the visual gag of a puppy that’s decidedly not Asta’s work the best in black and white. Still, this is the type of humor that has begun to dry up with enforcement of the Hays Code, and subsequent Thin Man features would have to resort to even more abstract metaphors to discuss infidelity and other issues.
Categories: Good, Movie Reviews Tags: Alan Marshal, Albert Hackett, Asta, Dashiell Hammett, Eadie Adams, Elissa Landi, Frances Goodrich, George Zucco, James Stewart, Jessie Ralph, Joseph Calleia, Movies gone to the dogs, Myrna Loy, Paul Fix, Penny Singleton, Sam Levene, Teddy Hart, Thin Man, W. S. Van Dyke, William Law, William Powell
The Thin Man
Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich
Based on The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke
Of all the old school detective films I’ve watched (and I’ve watched quite a few), the most enduringly entertaining detective series is by far the Thin Man films, headed by the irreplaceable William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. The married couple quip and drink their way through complicated murder mysteries and have a good time while doing so. The mysteries are top notch, the chemistry between Powell and Loy is legendary, the guest stars put in powerful performances, and there is plenty of danger and gags to keep the fun and excitement at a steady pace.
Nick and Nora Charles have since embedded themselves in pop culture, becoming a mystery archetype with similarly premised shows and films. There is even occasionally the dreaded remake rumors, though nothing will replicate the chemistry of William Powell and Myrna Loy.
The Thin Man films are among the first series of classic films I tracked down and watched the whole sequence of back when I was just starting out as a cinephile (along with the Hope/Crosby/Lamour Road movies and the Marx Brothers), so the films have a nostalgic connection for me. But they’re also pretty darn good regardless of memory enhancement, even if the series begins to drag a bit with the final two films.
As everyone who is anyone knows, the “Thin Man” of the title refers not to Nick Charles, but to the murdered victim, Clyde Wynant. Audiences soon came to refer to Nick Charles as the Thin Man, so the name stuck through all the sequels and the television series. The Thin Man was the last of five novels by Dashiell Hammett, who did story work on the next two Thin Man films (edited versions of these stories were published after his death). Hammett was sick with TB, and focused his career on screenwriting and political activism before joining the Army in World War 2 (having pulled strings to get enlisted). He later was jailed and became a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist due to his left-leanings, and died of lung cancer in 1961.
Coming out in 1934, The Thin Man appears right as the Hays Production Code was beginning to get enforced more vigorously. Of the six movies, it has the most dirty jokes and references that the other films could only dream of using. But there is still plenty of things that seem done just to keep people from panicking, such as Nick and Nora sleeping in separate beds (as they do in all six movies!) One wonders just how Nick Jr. was conceived, though they did spend an awful lot of time together in tiny train cars, so there’s that answer!
Nick Charles is a former detective who seems to have worked out of both New York City and San Francisco, and seemingly solved every case that ever happened on both coasts. Thanks to his skills, everyone knows him, from the cops to a colorful cast of characters of the criminal persuasion. You see, Nick is such a gentleman that he gives them all square deals instead of treating them like criminals, and most of them were proud to have been caught by him. Thus, when trouble is afoot, everyone seems to assume he’s going to help crack the case. Everyone except Nick Charles, that is! But that reluctance doesn’t last long, and we’re soon off to the races!
Nora Charles was born into money, a Nob Hill heiress (a neighborhood of San Francisco where the moneyed elite settled in the late 1800s) who married Nick out of love, and because the couple are perfect for each other. Instead of one personality dominating, Nora easily keeps up with Nick with the zingers, and often with the drinking. Nora even tries her hand at detectiving, usually over Nick’s objections. Occasionally she ends up getting into trouble, but Nick is on hand to bail her out (or occasionally she bails him out!), and often she helps find additional clues for the puzzle.
The final main character of the Thin Man features is Asta the dog, a male wire fox terrier. Asta is played by a canine actor named Skippy, who appeared in several other films such as The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby. Skippy eventually just became known as Asta. There is conflicting information on how many Thin Man films feature Skippy and how many feature replacement dogs, but the original Asta is for sure in the first two films, and definitely replaced for the last two films. Skippy commanded a huge salary for the time, $250 a week. The Asta on the Thin Man tv series was reportedly a grandchild of the original. In the books, Asta is a female schnauzer. Asta is a mini canine detective of his own, finding clues when out with Nick, though Asta does destroy evidence on at least one notable occasion. Asta has a bark worse than his bite, occasionally being frightened by kittens and hiding during danger. Asta got a family in After the Thin Man, which consists mainly of visual gags and his wife having already found someone who sticks around to be with, culminating with Asta abandoning them for a life of jet-setting with the Charles.
The Thin Man came out in the heyday of the Great Depression, and Nick and Nora are running around with money to spare, living it up. Films had become a means of escape, and William Powell and Myrna Loy are just so charming together that you don’t mind that they’re rich. Powell previously played an aristocratic detective named Philo Vance in a series of films (the original trailer for The Thin Man has Powell’s Philo Vance introducing Powell’s Nick Charles) Director Woody Van Dyke had to fight to get his cast, using Powell’s prior role as leverage and fighting for Myrna Loy, which meant production had to be rushed so it would finish in time for a film the studio wanted to use Loy for.
Like many good mystery films, the story is not about the mystery so much as the couple and the characters. Thus, Nick and Nora flying zingers back and forth while having a good time and going with the flow make for an engrossing viewing experience, and that’s helped by the strong casts of supporting characters, both humorous and dangerous, and even four-legged such as Asta the dog. Powell and Loy appeared together in 14 films, six of them being Thin Man entries. The couple was so associated with their wonderful chemistry each other onscreen that people thought they were actually married in real life, leading to a few awkward situations if an actual significant other was around.
The Thin Man became a surprise hit, which lead to a string of sequels. Dashiell Hammett contributed stories to the first two sequels, and Van Dyke directed all of the pre-war Thin Man movies (he died in 1945). The series lost its oomph with the last two entries, but was revitalized in the 1950s as a television series (including an episode featuring Robby the Robot!) and occasionally we get a revival threatened. The concept is one that would lend itself to a great modern television series, it would just require two leads with explosive chemistry to pull it off.
I have watched a number of older detective series, and they harken back to the days when you could just barge into people’s homes and do all sorts of unsavory stuff. There were no CSI labs, and there is plenty of detectives messing up crime scenes by moving bodies, touching evidence, or “borrowing” clues for later. Yet there are also references to labs, showing there was some actual forensics work going on, even if the movies gloss over all of it. After wall, we got to have the big conclusion where Nick explains the entire crime to a crowded room of suspects only to reveal the murderer at the last second, that doesn’t really work if an out of date DNA sequencer matches a suspect before Nick’s decided if he’s even going to get off the couch and go detectiving.
Categories: Good, Movie Reviews Tags: Albert Hackett, Asta, Cesar Romero, Dashiell Hammett, Edward Brophy, Edward Ellis, Frances Goodrich, Gertrude Short, Harold Huber, Henry Wadsworth, Maureen O'Sullivan, Minna Gombell, Movies gone to the dogs, Myrna Loy, Nat Pendleton, Natalie Moorhead, Porter Hall, Ruth Channing, Thin Man, W. S. Van Dyke, William Henry, William Powell