Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Thin Mania!

Recently finished a binge watching the vintage Thin Man movies. These 1930's and 1940's mystery movies are all derived from the work of Dashiell Hammett who wrote the stories on which two of them are based including of course the first one from which the series gets its titles. That aside, the true power of these little epics from MGM is the dynamic acting duo of William Powell and Myrna Loy who appeared together on screen well over a dozen times, six of them as Nick and Nora Charles in these Thin Man movies.

The first movie in the series from 1934, titled simply The Thin Man adapts Hammett's novel of the same name and introduces us to the well-heeled and well-lubricated sleuthing duo of Nick and Nora Charles. Nick Charles (Powell) is a retired private detective who seems to have been quite popular with all sectors of the criminal classes as well as the minions of the law. His wife Nora (Loy) is an heiress and so they lack for nothing, but instead seem to revel in one another and the pleasures of the world, especially drink. They are in New York City among Nick's old pals when the daughter of a former associate (Maureen O'Sullivan) goads Nick into looking into the disappearance of her irascible father, the title Thin Man. When his girlfriend turns up murdered, the old man becomes a suspect in absentia and finding him becomes the focus of the last half of the movie. While on the prowl we are greeted at every turn by old chums of Nick's as he and his lovely wife Nora  (new to this world and fascinated by it) seek the answer to the mystery. The answer is revealed of course in the movie's payoff which involves the classic erudite explanation of all aspects of the mystery as well as a violent reveal of the true culprit.

The movie is a top notch entertainment. frothy and briskly paced. Powell, though of questionable handsome looks is charming and witty and even occasionally wise as you can almost see him mentally assemble the loose ends of the plot, even though he projects that he's perplexed. W.S. Van Dyke was a director who by all accounts was fast and wasted little time in fashioning his projects. That energy appears to shine through this movie which trots along with scene after scene of New York at Christmas time as gaggles of memorable faces and voices tumble through the yarn.

Two years later in 1936 due to the incredible success of first film we get Nick and Nora back in After The Thin Man. This one set only days after the first movie uses New Year's Eve and San Francisco as its setting. This time we meet the family of Nora as Nick is picked by the dowager empress of the family to investigate the disappearance of the wastrel who had married Nora's cousin Selma. The stuffiness of the family presented here as an academy of very old and tired folks is a delightful counterpoint to the frolic we encountered in the first movie, though Nick and Nora too do find their way to a few night clubs before it's all said and done. The mystery is pretty decent one, when the lout ends up shot and we have a nice cavalcade of suspects to choose from, with a cast that included the likes of George Zucco, Paul Fix and even Jimmy Stewart. I'm always surprised by the ending of this one.

It would be 1939 before we get another movie in the series, this time title Another Thin Man. William Powell had had quite a bit of tragedy since the last outing, losing his love Carole Lombard and himself facing a cancer scare. When he returned he seemed a bit long in the tooth against the still vivacious Myrna Loy, but their chemistry was undeniable. In a movie derived from Hammett's "The Farewell Murder" the two are again in New York, this time in the wilds of  Long Island as the crotchety old man who managed Nora's wealth comes under threat from an old business partner. This one has some really grim scenes, the darkest and most peculiar of the series with a properly good mystery. Again solid acting from the likes of C.Aubrey Smith and Sheldon Leonard makes this one hum along neatly. Nick and Nora have a baby now, but they keep him pretty much out of everyone's hair most of the time.

W.S. Van Dyke had directed all the Thin Man movies to this point and his final one titled Shadow of The Thin Man was the fourth released in 1941. Nick and Nora have a kid now, a boy and the domesticity weighs upon the light-hearted nature of the series. They become embroiled in a rather ho-hum murder mystery at a California racetrack and despite some solid acting from the likes of Barry Nelson and Donna Reed are not able to elevate this one above its potboiler limits. The fact that they are a for true family now brings a new dynamic to the mix, one which might not have the sparks we've come to expect.

In 1945 came The Thin Man Goes Home and Nick and Nora head back to Nick's rustic hometown of Sycamore Sprints in New England. This new setting does offer some fresh spins on the couple's renowned party nature, though Nick now looks just as comfortable in a hammock drinking cider as he does in a night club slinging Manhattans. The series, now over ten years old is not running on fumes, but the fuel tank is exceedingly low. The mystery here is elaborate and takes some time to get up and running but does deliver as we find Nick's hometown to be filled with all sorts of rather deadly denizens. Still and all, Powell seems far too old to be playing this part of returning scion still seeking his father's approval. Myrna Loy is especially good in this one though, bringing some of the spice the movie needs.

The series wraps up with 1947's Song of The Thin Man which has the duo again back in an urban setting, this time a distinctly older couple in the up and coming world of jazz music. If the intent was to showcase just how far the two had come since their heyday nearly fifteen years before as the pups who pull down the establishment to now becoming rather staid pillars of that establishment, it does a nifty job. Cast against a collection of musical hipsters Nick and Nora feel like old fogies for certain, unable to grok the lingo and casting a gloomy eye on the kids who pursue this lifestyle. Keenan Wynn and Jayne Meadows are among a top-notch cast of characters who give this story a lift, though the mystery seems an especially complicated affair.

I haven't mentioned Asta. Asta is the dog who appears in all of these flicks, with varying degrees of effectiveness. As comedy relief Asta is fine, and in some movies the gags are really funny. But I have to confess the presence of the animal seems weird most of the time and a detective prowling the night dragging along his barking mutt makes little sense. But audiences of the time seemed to love the annoying little fox terrier. 

The Thin Man movies are fun to watch, spirited mysteries with enough twists and turns to keep you involved. But it's the acting which keeps you honed in, from Powell who spouts witty and near-witty dialogue at a drummer's pace with Loy chiming in on cue to keep it spicy. The interplay between them is the heart of this movie, and of course just as any movie is a sliver of time, as these movies keep progressing we see that interplay become more relaxed and less full of vinegar as the pair become increasingly easy with one another. We see their marriage become a seasoned one, with less fire but steeped with ready coals. There's something heartening about that.

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  1. I've definitely watched the first two, I should try and find the rest because as you say the interplay between the stars is the best part.

    1. I caught them on Turner Classic Movies. They play there a lot, and I've caught them as a complete set there at least twice. The drop off between the first two and the rest is pretty plain to see though, the whole nature of movie making seem to change while this series was underway.

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    2. Hmm. I'd be very interested to see you expand on that thought. I don't know that I have a clear sense of 30s movies vs. 40s movies. Certainly, the heyday of "screwball comedies" was certainly the 30s but they were still making them in the 40s too.

    3. The movies of the 40's have a smoothness that the 30's flicks often lack and I prefer the more hectic and somewhat raw nature ofthe 30's movies. By the time of the later Thin Man movies the look and veneer of the movies was smooth and mainstream. There's a raucous celebratory aspect to the drinking especially in the first few which gets simmered down quite a bit, though the third one still has a lot.

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