Ahh the 1930’s. Gershwin in the air. Giant frills and massive bows on silk dresses. Dark shadows play in the corners while luminescent hazy glows follow the women. Art Deco makes a bold statement in the buildings and furniture, and martinis mixed with wise cracks abound. This is the world of Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy).
Made in 1934, The Thin Man stars William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, the sophisticated but fun loving high society couple who have nothing better to do than drink martinis and gleefully tease each other. And if the fancy should catch them they solve murders with the help of their beloved and remarkably cute dog, Asta. By “they” of course I mean that Nora is curious about the murder, bullies Nick into investigating, tries to tag along with Nick and gets in the way, but ultimately helps inadvertently solve the crime and is a hero. Sorry, I might have just spoiled all 5 Thin Man films for you (Powell and Loy were first paired in Manhattan Melodrama in1934, a surprise smash hit that launched Powell and Loy into stardom. MGM immediately put Powell and Loy together again that same year in The Thin Man, and capitalized on the new found easy chemistry between of Powell/Loy by making five more Thin Man films, and 14 films total over the next 13 years). Oh well. It’s not like you were going to go watch them all RIGHT NOW anyway. Though you absolutely have my approval to do so.
The world of The Thin Man is filled with glamor and high society shin digs as well as some screwy mugs and goofy jailbirds, which allows the film to teeter back and forth delightfully between high and low comedy. One moment it tips into the side of slapstick and farce, then playfully corrects over to the side of biting wit, finally coming to rest in a refined balance before beginning the routine again. Only a few scenes in the film revolve entirely around solving the murder, but even in those infrequent but slightly more grave scenes, slapstick flirtation as background to the murder investigation acts to balance the scene.
The film has screwball comedy’s flair for the absurd scampering through the murder investigation, which, we must remember, is ultimately where the scattered plot lies (as opposed to an inherently screwball plot, such as in Bringing Up Baby, revolving around a mad cap heiress and a leopard in Connecticut). The result is a film mostly made of a quixotic blend of murder and hilarity. Not in the predictable and dependable twist of a Murder and Hilarity swirl cone, but more like the variety and surprise of Fudge Ripple ice cream with a ribbon of Murder through a base of Screwball ice cream. Wow, that sounds delicious.
This scrumptious treat of a film is often (banana) splitting (had to continue with the ice cream theme here, sorry…) the audiences attention with relevant murder information revealed on one side of the screen while Nick and Nora make faces at each other on the opposite side. While we are curious about the murder, the Nick/Nora flirtation is so enjoyable to watch that our eyes are unconsciously drawn to them even while we are keen to hear the newest development in the murder plot.
I love screwball comedies. And I can almost respect those who unfortunately cannot enjoy them. The main reason I have heard from those who suffer from this sad affliction (in relation to Bringing Up Baby, on the big screen no less) is, “It was ridiculous. It didn’t make sense. That would never happen.” One of the reasons The Thin Man was, and is, so popular (besides for the Nick and Nora alone) is that the characters are just ridiculous enough to make it screwball, but the satire of the humor as well as the somber tone of the mystery make it just grounded enough in our world to make it believable. After all, Fudge Ripple is not called Vanilla and Fudge. The Vanilla is not the focus, but just a vehicle for the Fudge. Likewise, Screwball is not the focus, but a vehicle for the Mystery, and this makes the film more palatable for those who do not understand or enjoy screwball comedies.
The element of truth in the satire of The Thin Man is that the high society reality of the 1930s hardly has to be exploited and exaggerated out of proportion to make it extravagant and ridiculous. While this exaggeration of high society is funny, the elements of sophistication that are associated with it are not necessarily from the comedy in the Nick/Nora sections, but from the mise en scene. The sets, props, costumes, lighting, everything that creates the scene we are watching and the world we are experiencing, function to make The Thin Man feel like a sophisticated comedy. This sense of sophisticated comedy, however, is misplaced. The exaggeration of high society is not truly functioning as satire because there is minimal social critique of 1930s high society. The true satire is found in the characters associated with the murder plot: the police, the thugs, and the suspects. The satire in The Thin Man is not of high society itself. The satire is of murder mystery novels and films; The incompetent oaf of a police detective who always picks the obvious (and innocent) suspect, the former convict Nick sent up the river who jokes with Nick and seems like a nice guy, the dinner party with all the suspects who at this point have become caricatures of suspects in an Agatha Christie themed vaudeville farce, these examples are true satire. The almost cartoonish nature of characters in the murder plot give the film the feel of low brow comedy, but in fact, the social critique of police, the justice system, and the way society views former convicts, is the high comedy of the film.
What is interesting to note about both the high and low comedy in The Thin Man is that neither are necessary for the plot, but they do make the film interesting to watch. We could just have a good ol’ murder and everyone would be happy. But this is where it is important to remember what studio we are dealing with: MGM. It was Warner Bros. that was known for the hard hitting mysteries and gangster films featuring James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, Humphrey Bogart, and in 1941 another film made from a Dashiell Hammett story, The Maltese Falcon. MGM is not trying to replicate a hard hitting Warner Bros. type mystery film with The Thin Man. What MGM did better than any other studio was to create magnificent films full of glamor and big movie stars. The studio slogan was, “More stars than there are in the heavens!”
And stars are what you get in The Thin Man, an unmistakably MGM film. The mystery is in fact so irrelevant to why I watch the film that I always forget who did it. I think I know, but I can’t quite remember. This does not say much for the plot, but I do not hold this against the film because 1. A good mystery should not be completely coherently put together and easy to solve 2. I do not watch Thin Man films for the mystery. I watch for Nick and Nora. Here are a few reasons why.
In The Thin Man, murder is funny, mystery is whimsical, and we can enjoy a romance without conflict or false suspense. We are not waiting the whole film for them to get together (which come on, we know will happen, because they are stars and that is what happens…Casablanca being just about the only exception), and that is a relief. From the beginning of the film we are shown a marriage/romantic relationship with such clear friendship it is wonderfully refreshing.
Nora doesn’t just put up with Nick’s games. She takes them to the next level. She is a lady, a good person, a strong woman, and Nick’s full time partner in shenanigans. In a film where she could have just been the glamorous and somewhat silly little wife, Myrna Loy holds her own in an affable partnership that does not reek of dependency, but instead, touching devotion.
Nick treats everyone equally and without judgement. Carefree and drunk one moment and telling it to you straight the next, he doesn’t hold grudges or get even. No, he just brushes it off and laughs pointedly (but not maliciously) at one person or another. Had Nick been played by someone less charming and less willing to look silly than William Powell, Nick very well could have come off as quite an ass. But because Nick is so jovial and so adoring Nora, we know his teasing is never malicious.
Because The Thin Man is held together solely by Nick and Nora, most of the shots have both of them in it and we are carefully shown reaction shots. When Nora says “Line them up, right here” to catch up with her husband in the number of martinis he has had, we see not only Nora’s lighthearted determination but Nick’s delighted and mischievous reaction. They are so wonderfully devoted to each other. But not dependent on each other. Constantly keeping each other on their toes and enjoying life together.
However, once you take away the playful and loving Nick and Nora, whose chemistry fuels the film, The Thin Man is very thin indeed. It is a Dashiell Hammett story thrown into the body of a screwball comedy that keeps winking at the newly enforced production code of 1934 and drinking martinis shaken to the beat of a foxtrot.
This film has everything a good mystery should have: coverups, fake evidence, missing people, found bodies, a dinner party to reveal the murderer. The film starts with a shadow on the wall in a mechanical and scientific room, a scene with just enough of a noir feel to it to give the film a dark edge. And oh boy, is the list of suspects ever a doozy. There is the beautiful daughter, played by Maureen O’Sullivan (ok, so we know right away it wasn’t her). The Fiancee. The wife. The Lawyer. The shifty-eyed nervous office worker. And just for laughs, the head cop who of course is completely incapable of solving the mystery.
Sure, the one real clue scavenging scene is pretty good. Nick’s sleuthing is surprisingly suspenseful.
But that’s it.
So enjoy that one scene.
The Thin Man is rather brilliant that way. It gives you a mystery without actually giving you a mystery, just by having the most confusing and preposterous plot ever and not giving the audience any information about it, which ends up functioning as a satire of mysteries. But don’t worry about that. You wont mind. You will be much too entertained my Nick and Nora to care. And if it does start to bother you, just have a martini. I hear gin makes everything better.