Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Thin Man: Mystery with a Little Bit of Christmas

Today's favorite film of mine is not necessarily what you might consider a Christmas film, but, hey, it does take place during Christmas!  No, I'm not talking about "Die Hard."  (I already talked about that one, remember?)  No, today's film is the classic mystery "The Thin Man" (1934)!

Based on the great detective novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, it tells the tale of Nick and Nora Charles as they visit New York for a vacation.  Nick Charles used to be a detective there, before he married millionaire heiress Nora and moved to California.  When they visit his old city for the first time in four years, though, old friends and colleagues (and his noisy, curious wife) reluctantly drag him into the mysterious disappearance of another old friend Clyde Wynant.

Directed by W.S. "One-Take" Van Dyke, it stars the great movie duo William Powell and Myrna Loy in only their second film together.  Their first was "Manhattan Melodrama" (1934) with Clark Gable and also directed by Van Dyke.  He witnessed the great off-screen repartee and chemistry between the two while making "Melodrama" from their first meeting.  So when he heard MGM had the rights to Hammett's novel "The Thin Man," he knew exactly the couple to cast in the film.  At first, the studio refused to let him cast the pair, for they were not the big names we know now.  Luckily, Van Dyke won out and proved they were the perfect Nick and Nora, as the rest of the world fell in love with the duo.

Actually, Loy and Powell had such good chemistry between them that much of the public believed they were really husband and wife.  But that was never the case, not even close.  They never dated, but only became extremely good friends.  They enjoyed working with each other so much that the two didn't mind making twelve more movies together, including five "Thin Man" sequels ("After the Thin Man" (1936), "Another Thin Man" (1939), "Shadow of the Thin Man" (1941), "The Thin Man Goes Home" (1945) and "Song of the Thin Man" (1947)).  Van Dyke also directed the pair in a number of their following films, including the first three "Thin Man" sequels and "I Love You Again" (1940).

You might be asking, "Now, what makes this such a special movie?  Isn't it just another detective story?"  Oh, how wrong you are!  Van Dyke decided to focus more on the relationship between Nick and Nora than the mystery of the book (a relationship Hammett based on his on-again, off-again relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman).  He hired the married writing couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich to pen the script and specifically told them to play up the banter of the Charleses and make the mystery secondary.  What resulted was the first time in Hollywood history where a married couple were having fun, laughing with each other, and enjoyed being married.  This comedic detective story is actually credited with helping kick-start the screwball comedy genre, which includes such classics as "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) and "The Awful Truth" (1937).

And with the easy the two leads show with each other, who couldn't help falling in love with them and the comedy?  It's all real too, because as I mentioned earlier, Van Dyke's nickname was "One-Take."  That's right!  He was renowned for shooting everything quickly and always using the first, fresh take.  "The Thin Man" had a B-movie budget (only $230,000), and Van Dyke still managed to finish the film under time, in only twelve days.

Another character you shouldn't miss in "The Thin Man" is Asta the dog.  The wire-haired fox terrier steals every scene he is in, and rightfully so.  Really named Skippy, he became a star himself from the film's success.  Not only did he appear in some of the following sequels (other terriers played Asta later), he stole the show in other great films like "The Awful Truth."  Also, he created a terrier craze in the US (which sadly led to many puppy mills trying to crank out the breed to meet the demand).  However, as lovable as he appears on screen, neither Powell nor Loy were allowed to become friends with the dog, so as not to break his concentration during filming.  This was not a loss for Loy though, for Skippy evidently bit her once.

I truly love this movie!  Fall in love with the Charleses too on TCM this December 21st at Midnight EST/9pm PST.  It is also on DVD if you can't wait that long.  Have a wonderful week, everyone!  Be back Friday.

(Post-tidbit:  Now, contrary to popular belief, the "thin man" of the first film is not Nick Charles.  It is actually in reference to Wynant, the character everyone is looking for.  But people associated the title "The Thin Man" with Nick and Nora so much that the studio continued using the words in the sequels' titles, even though there is never anymore references to any "thin" men.)


  1. Nice. I'll have to rent this one or find it on netflix.

  2. I just watched it last night and totally loved it,absolutely agree with you and even wrote about it on my blog,what a treasure! And I loved Asta!

  3. Always nice to come across another Thin Man Fan!