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Film Friday: «The Thin Man» (1934)

This week on "Film Friday" I am celebrating William Powell's 124th birthday by telling you a little bit about what is arguably his most iconic picture. Incidentally, this was the first William Powell film I ever saw and it remains my personal favorite. 
Theatrical release poster
Directed by W. S. Dyke, The Thin Man (1934) begins when Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O'Sullivan) announces to her inventor father, Clyde (Edward Ellis), her plans to marry Tommy (Henry Wadsworth). Shortly afterwards, Wynant goes on a secret business trip, but promises to be back in time for Dorothy's wedding. As the day approaches and Wynant fails to return, Dorothy worries, while her mother Mimi (Minna Gombell) is frantic that her ex-husband is unavailable to give her and her new spouse, Chris Jorgenson (Cesar Romero), more money. When Mimi visits Wynant's mistress, Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorehard), to ask for money, she finds only her dead body. Evidence points to Wynant as the prime suspect in the crime, but Dorothy refuses to believe that her father is guilty.

Meanwhile, sophisticated,retired detective Nick Charles (William Powell) and his wealthy, understanding wife Nora (Myrna Loy) have come to New York for the Christmas holidays. In the hotel bar, Nick becomes reacquainted with Dorothy, whose father is an old friend of his. Despite Nick's protests that he is no longer a detective, Dorothy persuades him into investigating Wynant's mysterious disappearance, much to Nora's amusement. One evening, Nick and Asta (Skippy), the Charles's terrier, discover the skeletonized body of a "fat man" in Wynant's laboratory. Police Lieutenant John Guild (Nat Pendleton) suspects that Wynant has committed another murder, but Nick soon realizes that the body actually belongs to a "thin man" Wynant because of a trace of shrapnel found in the leg. Nick and Nora then decide host a dinner party so they can invite all of the suspects as guests and finally uncover the real killer. There, Nick exposes Jorgenson as a bigamist, thus making Mimi realize that she will now be free to inherit Wynant's money. At that point, Mimi incriminates Herbert MacCaulay (Porter Hall), Wynant's lawyer, who had been embezzling from his client with Julia's compliance. Mimi had been aiding MacCaulay in exchange for money. With the real murderer apprehended, Nick and Nora, along with newlyweds Dorothy and Tommy, happily take a train bound to California.

Nora Charles: Oh, Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people.

The son of a Superior Court judge and a stage actress, W. S. Van Dyke started out as a child actor in a variety of roles in vaudeville and travelling stock companies. In 1909, at the age of 20, he married actress Zelda Ashford and the two then joined various theatre companies, before arriving in Hollywood in 1915. Through a chance meeting, he was offered a job as an assistant director to D. W. Griffith on the epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), although he remained uncredited. At Essanay Studios, Van Dyke got the chance to helm his first feature, The Land of Long Shadows (1917), which led to work directing serials for Pathé. In 1926, Van Dyke was signed by Irving Thalberg of MGM, where he established his reputation for ruthlessness and efficiency by rescuing the faltering production of White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) from director Robert Flaherty. When the film became a critical and commercial success, Van Dyke was assigned to several high-quality pictures, including The Pagan (1929), Trader Horn (1931), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Manhattan Melodrama (1934).

Van Dyke had always been a fan of detective novels and was convinced that "a murder mystery could be turned into laughable entertainment." As such, he brought Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man to the attention of Sam Marx, head of MGM's story department, who purchased the rights for $22,000. Originally published in the December 1933 issue of Redbook magazine, The Thin Man related the story of a murder investigation by the famous detective Nick Charles, who was accompanied by his loving wife Nora and their dog Asta. When it was issued in book form by Alfred Knopf in January 1934, The Thin Man became an instant success, selling 20,000 copies in the first three weeks and another 10,000 during the remainder of that year. Van Dyke was very enthusiastic about making a screen adaptation of what would become Hammett's last novel (although he lived until 1961). "While it was a good enough mystery story," the director later said, "there was something else about the book that struck me. Here was something new and fresh and charming, a romance between a man and his wife. It's a story of a couple of kids who understand each other, and have a blessed confidence in each other. Beneath all the casualness and all the wise cracking, there's a lovely wholesome relationship, something really deep and spiritual and inspiring."

Myrna Loy and William Powell
Having noticed the chemistry and light-hearted rapport between them on the set of Manhattan Melodrama, Van Dyke recommended William Powell and Myrna Loy for the leading roles of Nick and Nora Charles. Producer Hunt Stromberg agreed completely, but Mayer challenged both choices. In his view, Powell at 41 and with his popularity waning was too old to play Nick (who was supposed to be 31 in the original novel), while Loy lacked the sophistication and comic timing for Nora.

From her debut in What Price Beauty (1925), Loy had played a succession of exotic vamps, most recently at MGM in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) roles that made it difficult for Mayer to imagine the 29-year-old actress as Nora Charles. Van Dyke, who also directed Loy in Penthouse (1933) and The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933), told Mayer that he had auditioned her for the part of Nora by pushing her into his smimming pool and she had "aced the test," displaying the game spirit he wanted for the character. Whether this story was true or not, it finally convinced Mayer to let Van Dyke use Loy in The Thin Man so long as she would be free to start her next film, the World War I drama Stamboul Quest (1934), three weeks later.

Powell's story was much longer than Loy's; by the time of The Thin Man, he had been a major star for several years. After graduating from high school in 1910, he moved on his own to New York City to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He then had several successful experiences on Broadway, before director Albert Parker offered him a small role as a henchman of Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes (1922). There followed steady work in silent pictures, in which he mostly played villains, until Paramount cast him as amateur detective Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case (1929). The film's success led to two sequels The Benson Murder Case (1930) and The Kennel Murder Case (1933) the latter produced by Warner Bros. instead of Paramount. In early 1934, Powell was brought to MGM for Manhattan Melodrama by producer David O. Selznick, at a time when the studio badly needed to enlarge its supply of leading men. It was the public's identification of him with Vance that ultimately convinced Mayer that Powell was a plausible choice for the role of Nick Charles.

Myrna Loy, William Powell and Skippy
in a publicity still for The Thin Man
To compose the screenplay for The Thin Man, Van Dyke relied on the husband-and-wife writing team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who also recently contracted with MGM. The two former actors had turned to writing for the stage several years earlier and came to Hollywood to pen the adaptation of their 1930 Broadway play Up Pops the Devil for Paramount. They signed with MGM in 1933 and wrote the aforementioned Penthouse, as well as The Secret Madame Blanche (1933) and Fugitive Lovers (1934), before Van Dyke approached them about The Thin Man.

Hackett and Goodrich were initially hesitant to take on the assignment, as they felt that the material was wrong for them. "Neither of us had even read a mystery story, so we didn't know that to do," Hackett later recalled. "And Van Dyke said, 'I don't care anything about the mystery stuff just give me five scenes between Nick and Nora. [...] Forget about the mystery, let that come in when you want." Goodrich was far negative than her husband about the project, writing to her agent that she hoped Stromberg would decide to scrap the idea of turning The Thin Man into a film because the book "stinks." Nonetheless, the duo completed the script in only three weeks. While some have suggested that Nick and Nora were modeled on Hammett and his longtime lover Lillian Hellman, friends and relatives of Goodrich and Hackett have claimed that the characters' relationship more closely resembled that of the screenwriters.

Van Dyke was a no-nonsense director, who was know as One-Take Woody" because of the speed and economy with which he made a picture. The Thin Man was no exception; he shot the film in a brisk eighteen days in April 1934, at a bargain cost of $231,000. Van Dyke often did not bother with cover shots if he felt the scene was right on the first take, reasoning that actors "lose their fire" is thet had to do something over and over. He also valued spontaneity and encouraged improvisation from his actors. For instance, Van Dyke decided to shoot Powell's first scene, which is set at a bar, without the actor knowing it so that he would be as relaxed as natural as possible. He instructed Powell to take the cocktail shaker, go behind the counter and walk through the scene while the crew checked lights and sound. Powell did just that, throwing in some lines and business of his own, and suddenly heard Van Dyke say, "That's it! Print it!" Similarly, the director did not tell Loy about her now classic entrance falling on the floor of the same bar with an armload of Christmas presents until right before they shot it, in order to keep it fresh and spontaneous.

W. S. Van Dyke directing Myrna Loy and
William Powell in the dinner party scene
Loy has said that the biggest issue during shooting was the climatic dinner party scene wherein Nick reveals Wynant's killer. Powell complained that he had too many lines to learn and could barely decipher the complicated plot he was unraveling. It was the one sequence in the film that required several retakes, which created an entirely new problem. The script called for oysters to be served to the dinner guests and, in take after take, the same plate of oysters was brought out under the hot lights. "They began to putrify," Loy recalled. "By the time wee finished that scene, nobody ever wanted to see another oyster."

Years later, Powell spoke of how much he loved working with Loy because of her naturalness, her professionalism and her complete lack of "diva" temperament: "When we did a scene together, we forgot about technique, camera angles, and microphones. We weren't acting. We were just two people in perfect harmony. Myrna, unlike some actresses who think only of themselves, has the happy faculty of being able to listen while the other fellow says his lines. She has the give and take of acting that brings out the best." For her part, Loy noted, "Bill was so naturally witty and outrageous that I stayed somewhat detached, always a little incredulous." Between them, she added, was a sense of complete understanding, "an instinct for how one could bring out the best in the other."

The Thin Man premiered on May 25, 1934 and put in general release the following month at the Capitol and Loew's Metropolitan theatres in New York. The film was a huge success among audiences and critics alike. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times described it as "an excellent combination of comedy and excitement," while the World Telegram called it "a picture you simply cannot afford to miss unless you want to cheat yourself." Louella Parsons, who was then a reviewer and not a gossip columnist, wrote, "Dashiell Hammett's original story is by no means as clever as the film version. That's because of the amusing subtlety of the film delineations, the delightfully amusing portrayals and the smart dialogue. Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, adapters, come in here for our congratulations." At the 7th Academy Awards held in February 1935, The Thin Man earned nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Powell), Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, but did not win in any category: all four awards went to Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, written by Robert Riskin.

Myrna Loy and William Powell
Because The Thin Man was such a massive hit for MGM, it served as the basis for a lucrative series of five sequels, all of them starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. Hammett wrote a detailed outline for the first two sequels, After the Thin Man (1936) and Another Thin Man (1939), which were both scripted by the Hacketts and directed by Van Dyke, who also helmed Shadow of the Thin Man (1941). The other two were produced after Van Dyke's untimely death in 1943 and included The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), directed by Richard Thorpe, and Song of the Thin Man (1947), helmed by Edward Buzzell. 

After Another Thin Man, Hammett declared that he was "bored" with the franchise and decided to sell to MGM the screen rights of the Thin Man title as well as the characters of Nick and Nora for $40,000. He commented that no one had "ever invented a more insufferably smug pair of characters. They can't take that away from me, not even for $40,000." Hammett ultimately earned $1 million dollars in royalties from the novel and its spin-offs, which besides the original film and its five sequels included a radio show called The Adventures of the Thin Man (1941-1950) and a television series broadcast by NBC between 1957 and 1959, starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk as Nick and Nora. In addition, Hammett's story inspired a television film entitled Nick and Nora (1977), with Craig Stevens and JoAnn Pflug, and a musical play of the same name, which ran on Broadway for just one week in December 1991, starring Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason.

Dashiell Hammett and the Movies by William H. Mooney (2014) | It's a Print!: Detective Fiction from Page to Screen edited by William Reynolds and Elizabeth Trembley (1994) | Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood by Ron Backer (2012) | Myrna Loy: The Last Good Girl in Hollywood by Emily W. Leider (2011) | Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir by Gene D. Phillips (2012) | The Real Nick and Nora: Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Writers of by David L. Goodrich (2004) | William Powell: The Life and Films by Roger Bryant (2006) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) |
The New York Times contemporary review by Mordaunt Hall


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