Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thin Man, The (1934)

Immediately upon completing the filming on Manhattan Melodrama, director W.S. Van Dyke would take two of the key actors from the film and turn around to produce his following picture quick and cheap for MGM. With lesser known actors William Powell and Myrna Loy at hand fresh from the previous sets, Van Dyke in his classic manner would shoot out yet another film, The Thin Man, which too became a success making Van Dyke one of the most effective directors for MGM Studios. The Thin Man molded together the drama of a detective story with the whimsy of a comedy, creating in it a film that becomes most enjoyable thanks to the work of the stars and director.

The Thin Man is a detective comedy about a retired investigator who is pulled back into sleuthing due to the mysterious disappearance of an old friend surrounded by a murder case, as he uses his wit and intelligence to solve the incident. Nick Charles (William Powell) is retired from his days as a detective and enjoys his many recreational drinks to help pass the time. At his side is his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) who flirts, antagonizes, and encourages her husband to solve the mystery of his missing friend, Wynant (William Henry), while they happen to be in town. Wynant’s daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) is desperate for Nick to solve the mystery as it is believed Wynant is the prime suspect in the death of his former girlfriend. Through cunning thought and witty banter with Nora, Nick comes up with the plan to solve the case at a fancy dinner party where he invites everyone that played major roles with Wynant in the days leading to his disappearance. After revealing that Wynant was in fact dead and framed for the murder, Nick reveals in his own cunning way that the true assassin at his own dinner table.

The picture is a fun detective story to enjoy. Even with the unbelievablity of a silly alcoholic such as Nick Charles has the skill to solve a complex murder case the story is amusing to follow along. William Powell and Myrna Loy create a great chemistry that entertains us as we walk through the playful minds of the couple. Nora is Nick’s muse, putting him on the case and ultimately aiding him to solving it. Their flirtatious banter is entertaining and rarely slows down the story. Simply put the film is quick, smart, and entertaining, everything one can want from a good old movie.

As mentioned before, this film was a direct continuation of a working relationship between director Van Dyke and actors Powell and Loy, fresh off the sets of Manhattan Melodrama. So fresh off the previous movie’s sets that The Thin Man would release just three weeks following its predecessor. The Thin Man was produced so fast that it was released just five months after the book it was based on was published. Van Dyke lived up to his reputation of being quick and cheap filming the picture in twelve days over a two week time period with a budget of less than a quarter million dollars. “One Take Van Dyke,” as he would be nicknamed, would not skimp out on the quality though, as this film looks far better than the time and budget of the production says. Enjoying the chemistry of Powell and Loy, Van Dyke teamed the couple up again in this film helping to further establish the two into bona fide stars for MGM, shedding them of their less successful images. This was film number two of fourteen pairings of Powell and Loy through their careers.

The film was a quick and easy shoot. Made with shock actors the budget that may have been low, but it paid off handsomely. The cast included characters actors such as Edward Ellis, who was in fact the “thin man,” Wynant, the title referred to, and a young Cesar Romero as a villainous character accused as a possible murderer. Maureen O’Sullivan, best known as Jane from the Tarzan films, is seen here as the daughter of the title character, and is refreshing to see fully clothed and not flying through the jungle. This picture would help her find better parts outside of her Jane character that made her noticeable to audiences in the first place.

The Thin Man would build quite the legacy, creating high marks for Van Dyke, making stars out of Powell and Loy, and spawning a franchise of films for MGM. Five Thin Man sequels would be produced, all starring Powell and Loy, but only the first three with Van Dyke at the helm. The term “the thin man” was meant to refer to the man missing in the picture, but came to be understood as the Nick Charles character, a confusing aspect of the titles beyond this first feature. The film is regarded as one of the best comedies of all time according to AFI’s 2000 list of the top comedic films, coming in at #32. The story would be remade, copied, and satirized in many other manners, including film, television, and radio, creating a special mystic for this film, which is preserved as one of America’s best in the National Film Registry. It goes by so quickly, but The Thin Man is one f Hollywood’s finest films for such simple reasons.


  1. I did the same thing as you did, so there are at least two of us. Took me about five years. When I got to The Thin Man what stood out to me was the cheerful depiction of drinking coming just after Prohibition had been ended as a first-agenda item of the new Roosevelt administration.

    If you watch Stella Maris (1918) you can see some anti-drinking pre-Prohibition rhetoric, then The Affairs of Anatol (1921) has an early-Prohibition reference, The Freshman (1925) makes a joke of it, The Strong Man (1926) give a rare pro-Prohibition message, and The Public Enemy (1931) provides anti-Prohibition propaganda. The Thin Man (1934) coming just after Prohibition repeal was like a victory lap renouncing the Temperance movement as old-fashioned.

  2. A very interesting point, a a good reason for us to do this kind of thing. You kept in mind what people were going through at the time they would have gone to the theater to watch this movie, which is very important when building a proper perspective. I applaud your added observation.

    Add to your list Horse Feathers (1932), the Marx Bros mock prohibition there as well. That goes along with the mockery of college football being a dirty game even then.

    This was my fist Thin Man movie ever, so I am actually interest what the future holds for me as I move on to possibly seeing the sequels and how the characters are revisited and evolve.


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