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|Thin Man, The
by Doug Bentin
“The Thin Man” is practically perfect, and I include the word “practically” in this sentence only because it’s always safer to hedge your bets. As it would be a few years later with “Casablanca,” “The Thin Man” is a practically perfect—oh hell, forget the “practically”—example of the genius of the system at its best.About 15 years before his death in 1992, I met Samuel Marx, a cousin of the Marx Brothers who had at one time been head of the story department at MGM. He said that the two things he was most proud of doing during his tenure at the studio were recommending that Elizabeth Taylor be cast in “Lassie Come Home” and talking his boss into buying the screen rights to “The Thin Man.” Better-known film people have done less.
"If movies like this didn’t exist, I’d read a lot more than I do."
William Powell is Nick Charles, former private detective now married to Nora (Myrna Loy), an heiress. He has given up sleuthing to look after her inheritance. When Nora tries to get him interesting in a murder case he tells her, “I haven't the time. I'm much too busy seeing that you don't lose any of the money I married you for.”
It’s that kind of marriage, something unusual in Hollywood films, although not unprecedented in the movies of director W.S. Van Dyke. In his 1932 crime drama “Night Court” he presents a similar marital relationship, one based on mutual respect and playfulness.
Nick and Nora are vacationing in New York when the daughter of one of Nick’s old acquaintances, the eccentric inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) tells Nick that her father is missing. Daughter Dorothy (Marureen O’Sullivan) is the sanest of the Wynant clan. Brother Gilbert (William Henry) is a bookworm interested in abnormal psychology, and mother Mimi (Minna Gombell) has re-married a slick gigolo (Caesar Romero).
Soon, Wynant’s secretary and girlfriend Julia (Natalie Moorhead) turns up murdered, as does a blackmailing hood (Harold Huber) and Wynant’s lawyer (Porter Hall) seconds Dorothy’s request for help.
But if the mystery were all the attraction, “The Thin Man” would be no more beloved today than are the Philo Vance films, Powell’s previous detective series. “The Thin Man,” and its five sequels (only the first four in the series were directed by Van Dyke, although all star Powell and Loy) have maintained our attention because they so deftly blend mystery with a comedy of manners that borders on screwball comedy.
In fact, the film’s most celebrated sequences are all comedy.
Nick and Nora are taking their dog Asta for a walk while discussing the case with Lt. Guild (Nat Pendleton). Van Dyke frames the traveling shot so Asta remains off screen, below the action. We know he’s there because we see Nora holding his leash. Watch that leash. First, it’s pulling Nora’s arm forward. Then, as the people pass a mailbox, Nora’s arm relaxes to her side, and as they pass the mailbox the arm stretches out behind her. In fact, every time they pass a fire hydrant or a tree, the same thing occurs. You never actually see Asta leaving his mark on the street items male dogs like to leave a mark on, but you know it’s happening. This may be the only time in film history a scene is stolen by a dog that isn’t even in the frame.
On Christmas morning, Nora is sitting in a chair and wearing the mink coat Nick gave her. He, however, is lying down on the sofa playing with her gift to him—an air rifle. He takes careful aim, pulls the trigger, and shoots a balloon off the Christmas tree. He changes position and fires again, popping another balloon. He lifts his legs and forms a circle, firing through that. He turns onto his stomach and shoots over his shoulder after lining up his target in a mirror.
As with the scene with Asta, the action is in counterpoint to what is being said. It’s indicative of how casually the mystery story is taken by Van Dyke and writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, working from Dashiell Hammett’s novel (from which much of the best dialogue is taken, just as it will be from “The Maltese Falcon” seven years later) that comedy is allowed to dominate the most memorable moments.
W.S. Van Dyke (Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke II, or, as he was best known around the studio, “One Take” Woody) was MGM’s version of Michael Curtiz. He got the plum assignments (“Trader Horn,” “Tarzan the Ape Man,” “Marie Antoinette,” etc.) and turned out a string of memorable films between 1928 and his death in 1943 despite the fact that he demonstrated no consistent style, preferring to let the material dictate the look and tone of the movie.
Van Dyke was a consummate professional film director during Hollywood’s golden ear. Like Curtiz, Raoul Walsh, Lloyd Bacon, and Jack Conway, he manufactured a quality product on time and under budget (“The Thin Man” was shot in 12 days), and when the mix was right, the result was a great movie.
The major ingredients in the blend that made “The Thin Man” the soufflé it is are its stars, William Powell and Myrna Loy. They had appeared in one previous film together, Van Dyke’s “Manhattan Melodrama,” the picture that lured John Dillinger to his death. So natural was their interplay, Van Dyke insisted that they be co-starred in “The Thin Man.”
Powell was tall and limber, with one of those pencil mustaches that adorned the upper lips of Glark Gable, Errol Flynn and David Niven. He was good looking without being conventionally handsome, and he had a mobile, expressive face that could register bemusement, good humor, or the seriousness of crime-solving. He was 43 when Nick Charles came his way, 14 years Loy’s senior, but the age difference doesn’t show on film because Nick is capable of being just as youthful as Nora.
Loy was just beginning to find her way out of exotic vamp roles—her sense of humor permeates every scene she adorns in “The Mask of Fu Manchu” (one of the nine films she made in 1932). She said later that she and Fu Manchu co-star Boris Karloff used to break each other up with that movie’s over-the-top dialogue and histrionics. When she finally started landing roles as modern young women, she discovered her niche and stayed there.
Powell and Loy remained a popular screen team—friends always off screen—through “Song of the Thin Man” in 1947. She pops up in an uncredited cameo later that same year in the Powell satire “The Senator Was Indiscreet,” but they never acted together again and Powell retired after “Mr. Roberts” in 1955.“The Thin Man” works well on several levels: as screwball comedy, as detective story, as adaptation from a novel, and as pairing of two performers who liked each other and presented a marriage that most couples can only dream about. It is essential American cinema.
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originally posted: 07/25/05 11:16:03
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