The Thin Man series is one of the minor miracles of Hollywood filmmaking. These six movies, produced between 1934 and 1947, are among the most effortlessly entertaining, smart and sophisticated films to come from Hollywood’s Golden Age. William Powell and Myrna Loy starred as frequently inebriated investigator Nick Charles and his wife/partner-in-crime Nora. Powell and Loy made plenty of other movies together, many of them quite good, including 1936’s Libeled Lady. But Nick and Nora would prove to be their most enduring collaboration, coming to represent witty repartee and undeniable romantic chemistry at its best.
We tend to think of sequels (or, to use the abominable current phraseology, franchises) as a relatively modern phenomenon. But today’s studios are positively restrained compared with their 30s and 40s forebears. It’s impressive that the Fast & Furious movies are still packing ‘em in at seven-going-on-eight entries. But Vin and crew have a ways to go before they catch up with Blondie (28 movies between 1938 and 1950) or The Bowery Boys (48 between 1946 and 1958 and that’s not even counting earlier iterations like The East Side Kids).
Of course, one big difference between today’s franchises and yesteryear’s long-running series was the budget. Back then, movies series were typically the domain of Poverty Row studios like Monogram. Even if they started life as A-pictures, like the Charlie Chan series, they’d eventually be discontinued by the majors and picked up elsewhere.
The Thin Man movies were unique in this respect as well. The six movies were spaced out over a number of years (most series back then would cram as many as three or four entries into a single year) and retained their prestige and relatively high budgets. And if none of the sequels can quite match the sheer perfection of the original, they are all at the very least entertaining.
The third entry, 1939’s Another Thin Man, introduces what should have been a surefire series killer. After two movies of unencumbered marital bliss, drinking their way from port to port, the Charles family finally produces an offspring: Nicky, Jr. Surprisingly, this has almost no effect on Nick and Nora’s demeanor or behavior. Nora stays a bit more sober in this installment but that’s about it. Child-rearing duties are pretty much handed over to a nanny (Ruth Hussey) who’s hired on the spot without so much as an interview, much less a background check. At this point, Nicky Jr. has less impact on the story than Asta, the Charles’ faithful dog.
This would be the last film in the series based on a Dashiell Hammett story, albeit one that did not originally feature Nick and Nora. This time, Team Charles is summoned to the Long Island estate of Colonel MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith), an old friend of Nora’s father and the manager of her vast inheritance. Strange and troubling accidents had been occurring around MacFay recently, accidents he believes are the work of a man named Church (Sheldon Leonard). MacFay let Church take the fall for some illegal business dealings, so naturally Church is out for revenge. But when MacFay is actually killed, the case becomes a lot more complex than it first seems.
The great pleasures of these movies are obviously the sparkling dialogue and easy banter between Powell and Loy. But in the three movies based on Hammett stories, the mystery is every bit as clever and nuanced as the characters. I’ve never been one to actively try to solve mystery plots while watching or reading them. If my mind is engaged on that level, it means something else in the story isn’t working and I’m not engaged elsewhere. If a mystery plot doesn’t work, then I’ll notice and have a problem. Another Thin Man is fun because while it may not be the most plausible story ever told, it makes just enough sense to be believable.
It’s also a pleasant surprise that motherhood hasn’t dulled Nora’s instincts. At one point, Nick ditches Nora, worried that it’d be too dangerous for her to come along. A lesser movie would have her throw a tantrum and stay behind with baby. Not Nora. Within 60 seconds, she fields a phone call and heads out on her own adventure, potentially even sketchier than the one she was being protected from. It’s hard to pinpoint who deserves credit for moments like this, although I suspect husband-and-wife screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett had a lot to do with it. Not to mention the fact that it’s virtually impossible to imagine an actress as vibrant and exciting as Myrna Loy being sidelined for long.
For years, a Thin Man remake was in development that would have starred Johnny Depp. While I feel like Depp’s gotten a bit of an undeserved bad rap lately, his recent turn in Mortdecai didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that he’d make an ideal Nick Charles. Since the film series ended, the characters have returned on TV, radio and on stage. I’m certain they’ll be back yet again, either on film or elsewhere. But William Powell and Myrna Loy will always cast a huge shadow over these roles. It isn’t that you can’t imagine anyone else playing them. You absolutely can. But why would you want to?
Another Thin Man is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.