Quint on THE THIN MAN (1934) Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?
Published at: April 22, 2009, 7:07 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the first of a special run of reviews focusing on THE THIN MAN films from the ‘30s and ‘40s as a lead-up to the kick off of my new column: A Movie A Week.
THE THIN MAN series, following socialite detectives Nick and Nora Charles (and their dog Asta) as they booze up, verbally abuse each other and solve whodunits, seems to have been circling me for a long time.
I grew up loving Neil Simon’s MURDER BY DEATH, watching it over and over in my teenage years. I even bought a 35mm print of the movie I love it so much.
MURDER BY DEATH is a spoof of Detective movies and murder mystery books. You have Peter Sellers as the Charlie Chan-ish Sidney Wang, James Coco as the Hercule Poirot-ish Milo Perrier, Elsa Lanchester as the Ms. Marple-ish Mrs. Marbles, Peter Falk as the Sam Spade-ish Sam Diamond and, finally, David Niven and Maggie Smith as the Nick and Nora Charles-ish Dick and Dora Charleston.
I always thought Niven and Smith were funny together and now having seen the first THIN MAN film, I see the innuendo with the characters in MURDER BY DEATH was a true homage and not put in for comedy’s sake. “Oh, that’s tacky. That’s reaaaallly tacky.”
And as a special bit of trivia, apparently the makers of MURDER BY DEATH actually approached the then 72 year old Myrna Loy to play Dora Charleston, based on her Nora Charles. She refused saying it’d be ridiculous for Myrna Loy to play Myrna Loy… and also that she didn’t want her “ass pinched by David Niven.”
Have I gotten to how much I love Myrna Loy yet?
Not only was she strikingly beautiful in her prime, but I swoon for her sense of humor and that cute smirk she does. Loy somehow is able to be bitingly sarcastic without coming off as bitchy. There’s an innocence to her that makes me fall for her unconditionally.
I first noticed this when, during my AMAD run, I saw 1936’s LIBELED LADY (click here to read my review) where she is again paired with William Powell. LIBELED LADY is also what turned me on to the wicked chemistry Powell and Loy have.
If any of you are thinking of doing a Thin Man marathon I can’t suggest strongly enough Netflixing or buying LIBELED LADY to add to the marathon. It almost feels like an unofficial THIN MAN movie. And if you’re going that far, grab up MURDER BY DEATH to cap it off. That’d be a helluva run.
Anyway, THE THIN MAN doesn’t refer to Nick and Nora at all. Much like THE PINK PANTHER the title refers to the MacGuffin of the film. In THE PINK PANTHER, it was a diamond that was stolen. In THE THIN MAN, the title character is Clyde Wynant (played by Edward Ellis) a lanky, wealthy scientist who disappears.
We begin the film with him, actually. We don’t meet Nick and Nora until a good 10-12 minutes into the movie, but his introduction is perfect. Nick Charles is first seen, back to us, at a busy bar teaching the bartender how to properly make various forms of drinks, what kind of shaking to do for a Manhattan vs. a dry martini, etc. This is a ritzy joint and Loy comes running in, arms loaded with Christmas presents and their dog, Asta, tugging at his leash.
The maitre d’ runs up, asking her to leave and Powell says to him that it’s okay. It’s his dog… oh, and his wife. The maitre d’ nods and walks away as Loy says, ‘Well, you might have mentioned me first on the billing…’
And so begins the amazing back and forth that this series is famous for. I don’t know who to give the credit to… it’s either the screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich or the original author, Dashiell Hammett. Everybody deserves some credit, especially Loy and Powell for throwing their chemistry behind the words to actually make ‘em work.
I’d be lying if I said this film hasn’t aged and plays just the same today as it did when it was released, but to me that’s the charm of the movie. Post-prohibition, everybody getting drunker than they should because they can and the black and white photography is so rich and beautiful.
While you can feel the era, it’s not a stiff movie. You know a lot of film from this era, even great films, still have that theatrical quality, where it feels like you’re watching a play, not a movie. Not this one. Loy and Powell’s chemistry and performance is not only lively, but surpasses even modern day romances. I can’t tell you if I’ve seen this kind of repartee handled better as the art of filmmaking has progressed. There’s a lovely sense of lightning in a bottle with this picture.
What helps is that Nick and Nora are surrounded by great characters. William Henry’s Gil is my favorite. He’s the bookworm brother of Maureen O’Sullivan’s character and son of The Thin Man. He’s obsessed with the macabre, but only from the clinical, literary point of view.
The best scene to highlight a lot of these crazy characters is an awesome drunken Christmas party filled with a giant baby of a man bawling about his mother, suspects popping in and out, the press demanding to know if Nick is on the case… he keeps denying it while every other second another person involved comes through the door. It’s a great juggling act of a scene. There are 4 or 5 stories being told and Nick and Nora jump from one to another with a trapeze artists’ ease. Somehow the viewer sails right along with them, not getting confused.
The scene ends with a kiss as Nora proclaims sarcastically, “Oh, Nicky. I love you because you know such lovely people.”
The flick ends with a dinner party where Nick assembles all the suspects to find out who the killer is. His front is that he knows who done it, but he really doesn’t know and is just trying to use that confident image to force the killer to do show himself.
But honestly the murder mystery aspect of the movie isn’t the most interesting thing. The real focus is on Nick and Nora as personalities and there’s enough going on with them to propel this movie into classic status.
Final Thoughts: THE THIN MAN is just as great, funny and envelope pushing as I heard it would be. Myrna Loy has gone from a crush to full on ready-to-build-a-time-machine-so-I-can-propose. The innuendo (I swear to God Powell refers to his nuts, calling them “tabloids”, in the movie) is so sublime, but the love between the two feels authentic and natural. All the jabs and put-downs back and forth are their version of pillow talk and don’t come off as mean-spirited at all. It’s a great love story and one I can’t wait to follow for another 5 films!
Tuesday, April 21st: AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936)
Wednesday, April 22nd: ANOTHER THIN MAN (1939)
Thursday, April 23rd: SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN (1941)
Friday, April 24th: THE THIN MAN GOES HOME (1944)
Saturday, April 25th: SONG OF THE THIN MAN (1947)
See you folks tomorrow for the next outing for Nick and Nora Charles: AFTER THE THIN MAN!
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