Friday, June 5, 2009

1934: The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)

Released: May 23, 1934

Director: W.S. Van Dyke; Screenplay: Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; Cinematography: James Wong Howe; Studio: MGM; Producer: Hunt Stromberg

William Powell (Nick Charles), Myrna Loy (Nora Charles), Maureen O’Sullivan (Dorothy Wynant), Edward Ellis (Clyde Wynant), Nat Pendleton (Lt. John Guild), Minna Gombell (Mimi Wynant Jorgenson), Porter Hall (Herbert MacCauley), William Henry (Gilbert Wynant), Cesar Romero (Chris Jorgenson), Natalie Morehead (Julia Wolf), Edward Brophy (Joe Morelli)

There have been numerous legendary onscreen couples throughout the history of Hollywood. A reasonable case could be made for Tracy and Hepburn, Bogey and Bacall, or Astaire and Rogers as the greatest leading couple ever to collaborate. Being able to definitively make such a bold assertion obviously would be impossible and as much as I love to declare things the “best” or “greatest” I’m not even about to try and choose a winner in that race. What I will say, however, is that as fantastic as the previously mentioned duos are to watch, none of them ever exceeded the chemistry displayed between William Powell and Myrna Loy. Anyone unconvinced (do such people really exist?) need look no further than the famed Thin Man cycle. Powell and Loy starred together in 13 films, but they were never funnier or more entertaining than in this first film in the series.

To go into a detailed review of the storyline would be unnecessary, as the caper at the center of the plot is secondary. But, for the sake of maintaining a complete review, I can at least sketch out the general details. Nick Charles (William Powell) is a retired detective who now survives on the large inheritance of his recent bride Nora (Myrna Loy). The two spend their days lounging, shopping, and drinking unimaginable quantities of alcohol. While impressing fellow patrons in a Manhattan bar, Nick becomes reacquainted with the daughter of a former client. The daughter, Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan), is concerned about the fact that her father has gone missing. Her father, Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), is a wealthy and eccentric inventor. The disappearance becomes front page headlines after Wynant is implicated in the murder of his former girlfriend. Everyone pleads with Nick to take the case and find Wynant, but the ex-private eye is clearly more interested in martinis than investigations. Only after Nora coaxes him into trying to solve the mystery does he become actively involved.

The amazing thing about The Thin Man is that what happened to Clyde Wynant or who killed girlfriend Julia Wolf almost becomes unimportant. The murder mystery is convoluted, some would even argue confusing, and as great as the final dinner scene is to see, the conclusion seems far-fetched and somewhat contrived. And yet it doesn’t at all matter. As absorbing as the mystery can be, the focus of the film is on the interaction between Nick and Nora. The two are so charming that their actions overshadow any intrigue created by the whodunit. Although it is based on a story by Dashiell Hammett, this is not The Maltese Falcon. The film is a true comedy that is only masquerading as a crime thriller. Powell plays Nick as a lovable lush, always with a sly grin on his face and a drink nearby. The amount of booze consumed by Nick is staggering and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s possible to get a buzz just watching it. Nora is his enabler, always nearby to supply a refill or, even more importantly, to lightheartedly antagonize him. The two are constantly teasing each other, joking back and forth about every episode in their lives.

What ultimately propels The Thin Man to being a truly great comedy is the fact that it is funny in a number of different ways. The dialogue is superb and at times quite dry, which is perfect for someone like me. There are no gut-busting punch lines, but rather cynical and witty comebacks and responses. Writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich were deservedly nominated for their adaptation of Hammett’s story (losing the award to Robert Riskin’s adapted screenplay for It Happened One Night). At the risk of sounding incredibly elitist, I think that the dialogue is far more intelligent than people ever discuss. Witness some of these hilarious exchanges:

Lt. John Guild: You got a pistol permit?
Nick: No.
Lt. John Guild: Ever heard of the Sullivan Act?
Nora: Oh, that's all right, we're married.


Nick: I'm a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.
Nick: It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.


Nora: All right, go ahead! Go on! See if I care! But I think it's a dirty trick to bring me all the way to New York just to make a widow of me.
Nick: You wouldn't be a widow long.
Nora: You bet I wouldn't!
Nick: Not with all your money...

These lines are delivered very matter-of-factly and in many instances if an unsuspecting viewer were unaware of the context, they might not find them at all funny. It is for this reason that I think the banter between the characters, particularly Nick and Nora, plays as fresh today as it would have in 1934. I start laughing to myself just remembering that first example about the Sullivan Act. It is just incredibly clever interplay and is funny without being overstated.

At the same time, there are is also plenty of great physical comedy, primarily coming from Powell. With Nick always slightly inebriated (yet never appearing to truly be drunk or terribly affected by the alcohol), he seems to slide across the screen on unsteady legs. His body language is a performance in itself, with his glazed-eyed looks at Nora and nonchalance toward all other people. The episode that sticks out in my mind comes when Nick and Nora are sitting on their beds as local detectives search through their room for evidence. As an officer opens a dresser drawer, Nora calls out: “What’s that man doing in my drawers?” Shocked at the thought, Nick involuntarily spits up the drink that he poured for himself after getting out of bed. Looking back at what I just wrote, it reads nowhere near as funny as it is. Watching the scene, it is hilarious.

It is amazing to realize that The Thin Man actually was not originally envisioned to be a large-scale hit. Director W.S. Van Dyke had a reputation for working fast – it wasn’t for nothing that he was known as “One Shot Woody” – and it is said that the film was completed in just twelve days. This frenetic pace apparently set the perfect tone, as the film itself also moves at a delightfully quick tempo. If it feels as if I have short-changed director Van Dyke and the supporting characters, it is completely unintentional. It's just that I was so entranced by Powell and Loy that it was easy to overlook the other efforts. This is where I thank God for DVDs and the ability to re-watch great films like this. It is not necessarily a bad thing when a director recognizes that a film would be better served if he were to simply take a step back and allow the actors to shine. This is what Van Dyke does, and the Academy apparently recognized this in nominating him for Best Director. And while I may have overlooked them on first viewing, there are also excellent supporting performances. Maureen O’Sullivan is very good as Dorothy and Minna Gombell is always entertaining as her conniving mother and ex-wife of the missing Wynant.

The great thing about this Year’s Best countdown is that it’s causing me to reevaluate a lot of films and the way that I approach them. As I said in reviewing Trouble in Paradise, I’ve always operated under the assumption that I don’t care much for comedies of the 1930s. In going back through these greatest films of the decade, I’m realizing that I like them a lot more than I ever realized. The Thin Man is a timeless comedy and is funny when compared to films of _any_ era. It's another instance of a film just being irresistibly fun.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1934: This was another year that was basically a no-brainer for me. I just love The Thin Man so much that there really wasn’t another film close to supplanting it. Still, there are plenty of great movies from 1934. The only other film that really entered into consideration was Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante. It's a beautiful film in every way and it is amazing to think of how visually stunning it is for its time. I would imagine that It Happened One Night would be another popular choice for this year, but as I said in the article for 1933, I’m only crazy about a select few Capra films. Another one that I would expect to be picked by a number of people would be Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, but I have to admit to not caring for it at all. Consensus opinion seems to be that it is likely von Sternberg’s best, but it has never worked for me.


  1. My Own #1 Film of 1934: LES MISERABLES (Bernard)
    Runners-Up: IT'S A GIFT (McLeod)
    THE GODDESS (Younggang)
    L'ATALANTE (Vigo)
    HAPPINESS (Medvedkin)
    BABES IN TOYLAND (Rogers, Meins)

    Well Dave, I was never a big fan of THE THIN MAN, to be honest, but I don't in any way begrudge you your own affinity, much as it's a favorite for so many. As you note in your passionate consideration here, the pace, the tone, the tempo, the brisk dialogue, the chemistry between Powell and Loy have always been held up as penultimate craftsmanship by movie lovers far and wide. It just never really worked for me all that much. But it's far better than any of its sequels, that much I will say.

    Bernard's two-part work, based on Victor Hugo, is one of the great early classics of the cinema, and for me it edges out one of the greatest of all American comedies, IT'S A GIFT with W.C. Fields. I agree with you on the Vigo pushing close, and I would have to add both THE GODDESS and HAPPINESS as two films from abroad that are now recognized as masterpieces. Both are rightly part of my own collection. Yes, THE SCARLET EMPRESS is one 1934's best films, and I am simply loathe not to include a childhood love of my that has continued to the present day, the film otherwise known as THE MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS with Laurel and Hardy.

    Again you have informed your subject with a worthy, informative and enthusiastic essay.

  2. I also agree with you thast IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is one Capra that can rightly be left off. I never was a fan, although on a previous thread I vowed to forever value LOST HORIZON, MR. SMITH, MR. DEEDS, BITTER TEA and WONDERFUL LIFE as American masterpieces.

    I saw what John wrote back me about "agreeing to disagree" and that's fair enough. We'll agree much of the time, but inevitably there will be instances where we won't connect.

  3. Dave, another excellent article and a great choice. I agree with you that it is the charm of Nick and Nora and the wonderful dialogue that make this film such a winner. I love the throwaway style humor that is bantered throughout.

    Along with “The Thin Man”, I would include “It’s a Gift” and “The Black Cat” one of Universal’s great atmospheric horror films.

  4. Thanks for the comments guys... The Thin Man seems like a film that people seem to like, but not quite to the point of picking as the top movie for a specific year. I just think it's hilarious.

    For some reason, Sam, I just have never been able to get into The Scarlet Empress. I had high hopes for it, but each time I try it the entire thing seems very contrived.

  5. Yep, John, THE BLACK CAT is a very good choice for a runner-up. i agree with you.

  6. Here's a vote for It Happened One Night, though I won't disparage those who disagree. On the subject of Catherine the Great, I feel strange saying I liked Paul Czinner's film for Korda better that Scarlet Empress, especially for Fairbanks Jr's underrated turn as the mad tsar. If we can bring It's A Gift and The Black Cat into the discussion (and why not?), how about Tarzan And His Mate?

  7. Yet another great review, Dave - I haven't seen 'The Thin Man' films as yet (this whole project has made me uncomfortably aware how many classic films I still need to see, though I will enjoy doing so!)

    I think 'Of Human Bondage' is a great film from 1934 with an astonishing performance by Bette Davis. I also love Howard Hawks' 'Twentieth Century' with John Barrymore - and yes, I'd agree with Samuel about 'Tarzan and His Mate', since the Johnny Weissmuller films are probably the first black and white films I ever loved as a child. Judy

  8. No worries, Judy... I know for a fact that many readers here are more well-versed than me in classic cinema. There have been some films listed by others such as Sam, Samuel Wilson, John, and yourself that have not even been considered by me simply because I haven't seen them. There are huge gaps in my experience, but I'm going with what I know for the countdown!

  9. I must really start watching more of 1930's movies sometime (not counting Chaplin that is).

  10. Shubhajit -

    Definitely give this one a shot... and for possibly my favorite film of the 1930s (or at least my favorite comedy of the decade) Trouble in Paradise. Definitely some great films for the 30s.

    Also, anybody who reads this, my pick for 1935 will be coming later tonight.

  11. It's great to see someone pick this as the best movie of its year -- as you say, it's so often dismissed as light, inconsequential fare. And it is, I guess, but it's just so funny, so charming, that I fall in love with these characters more every time I watch it. The first film in the series remains the best, though the sequels have their moments. Powell and Loy were a perfect onscreen couple, with that crackling chemistry and witty line delivery. And each of the films was generally packed with amazing supporting performances. These films are like a character actor parade.

    I also have to second the recommendations above for The Black Cat, probably the best Karloff/Lugosi film, and a surprisingly sophisticated low-budget horror piece.

  12. Agreed completely, Ed... in fact, since you've revived this review, I think I might actually watch this one this afternoon. It's always good for a laugh and the more I watch it, the more sophisticated a lot of the comedy seems to me. "Sophisticated" might be too strong a word, but what I mean is that certain lines and jokes (like the Sullivan Act quip) need certain context or knowledge to make them funny, but if "get" them they are hilarious.

  13. Another trio, this time comedy instead of musical: Twentieth Century, which grew on me in retrospect; It's a Gift; and It Happened One Night, which is actually my second-favorite Capra and the only one that I can consider alongside It's a Wonderful Life. It's just a wonderful, almost mythic portrait of Depression-era America's self-conception...and quite funny too.