Film Flick Friday: The Thin Man

Friday, March 9, 2012

“It wasn’t a conscious thing. If you heard us talking in a room, you’d hear the same thing,” Actress Mryna Loy once explained about the chemistry of her on-screen relationship with William Powell. W.S. Dyke, who often directed them, agreed, “They played beautifully because Powell was just Powell and Loy was just Loy, both of them wisecracking all the time, and clowning through the picture.”

Though it seems obvious in retrospect, that Powell and Loy are the perfect combination to get you a hit movie, when the film, The Thin Man , came out, hardly anything about it- not even its two leads- screamed blockbuster. As Roger Eberts describes it, The Thin Man is “essentially a drawing room comedy with dead bodies.” Mixing murder and mayhem with comedy and laughs seemed like a risk. It was only because of the low budget and a promise to have the movie in the can within three weeks that The Thin Man ever got produced. It was slated as a B-movie, meant to be attached as the second feature to another, more promising Hollywood offering. It ended up one of the top grossing films of the year, even scoring a nomination of Best Picture (which is lost to It Happened One Night , another dark horse of the 1934 awards season).

The plot is labyrinth, and just barely makes sense. Really though, you’re not in this film for the whodunit. You’re there for Powell and Loy. Though it revived both’s careers and led to a total of 14 collaborations together, including 5 more Thin Man sequels, the other characters are also a draw. The Charles’ Wire Fox Terrier, Asta (my favorite kind of dog), saw so much success from this film that  his stage name was changed to Asta, and he set a rage for Fox Terriers as a pets.  Other supporting characters have delightfully strange personalities that you can just tell the actors had a ball portraying.

Based on Dasheill Hammett’s novel of the same name, the Thin Man is the story of Nick and Nora Charles, an urbane, married pair. Their playful banter and wisecracking (supposedly based off of a relationship author Hammett had with playwright Lillian Hellman) translated into the first truly modern married couple on screen. The two seem to do nothing but joke, hold extravagant parties and drink, drink, drink. Since its a comedy, no one seems to mind the constant alcohol; the most it ever seems to effect the characters is giving them something to do with their hands. So when a case lands in former detective Nick Charles lap, he wants nothing to do with it; it will put him behind in his drinking! Nora, intrigued by the intrigue, convinces him to take on the job. Eccentric inventor Clyde Wynant, has gone missing, except for the occasional wire for more money. When the inventor’s girlfriend turns up dead, everyone from the police to Wyant’s strange family are on the look out for the tall, thin man. The show ends with perhaps the first screening of that 1930s’ cliche- a denouncement at a dinner party where all the guests are suspects. With all of this, who could resist murder as the second course?

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