IT may not top the lists of greatest movies of all time, but the sparkling 1934 comedy-mystery The Thin Man was undoubtedly one of the most important films of its time. Not only did it introduce one of the screen’s most popular comedy partnerships in the elegant shapes of William Powell and Myrna Loy, but it also helped launch the screwball comedy which quickly became the defining genre of the decade. Yet, at the same time, its look (it was shot by cinematographer James Wong Howe, one of the greats) and its convoluted murder plot paved the way for the film noirs of the 1940s.
It was the first film to show a modern marriage, and one of the last films to get
away with overt sexual references before the censors clamped down in the mid-1930s. Its characters had fun, whether socialising, bickering or – and this was unprecedented – solving a murder. It was a film very much of its time, and yet, in the States, Thin Man parties – in which revellers drink to keep up with the hero and heroine – are still something of a cultish institution.
Based on a novel by Dashiell “The Maltese Falcon” Hammett, The Thin Man effortlessly blends mystery with comedy as ex-detective Nick Charles (Powell) is lured out of his luxurious retirement with his socialite wife, Nora (Loy), to track down a missing inventor. Dead bodies start to turn up, and the film climaxes in a dinner party at which Nick and Nora – aided and abetted by cops dressed as waiters – play host to the motley crew of suspects before revealing whodunnit.
The Thin Man moves at a brisk pace – only slowing down long enough for Nick and Nora to order their next cocktail, discuss their next cocktail, mix their next cocktail, drink their next cocktail or recover from the cocktails they put away the night before. It was directed by WS Van Dyke, known as One Shot Woody, because he was so economical, and shot in a staggering 16 days – half the time generally allotted to MGM’s movies. The script – by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who went on to write It’s a Wonderful Life – is snappy and packed with witty banter delivered, often at high, His Girl Friday-like, speed, by Loy and Powell, wisecrackers par excellence.
One of the most striking aspects of the movie – which will surprise anyone who thinks that the older the film the less likelihood there is that there will be any reference to sex – is the risqué nature of the dialogue. In one exchange, Nick and Nora discuss the newspaper coverage of his recent brush with a bullet.
Nick: “I was shot twice in the Tribune.”
Nora: “I read that you were shot five times in the tabloids.”
Nick: “He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids!”
Occasionally, the film likes to remind the audience that this couple is legit. When cops barge into their hotel bedroom and find a pistol, one of them asks: “Do you have a licence to keep a gun? Haven’t you heard of the Solomon Act?”
“Oh,” quips Nora, “that’s okay – we’re married!”
The fact that Nick and Nora start the film married was a novelty in the early 1930s. As Samuel Marx, the head of MGM’s story department, said years later: “Even that was a risk because in those days you got married at the end of a movie, not at the beginning. Marriage wasn’t supposed to be fun.” Nick and Nora had a playful, flirtatious relationship. Not only was it fun, but it was also a marriage of equals. They bickered and bantered and played tricks on each other but everything they did was underpinned by their obvious mutual respect.
The other constant in this marriage was booze and if there’s one aspect of The Thin Man which – after the twentieth martini – makes for rather uncomfortable viewing, it’s the amount of alcohol consumed. As Samuel Marx pointed out, the relaxed attitude to drinking must have been “a jolt” to audiences still uneasy about social drinking in the months following the repeal of Prohibition.
And yet, drink is a key feature of the movie. Nick is first seen standing at the Ritz bar, giving the bartenders a lecture on mixing a martini – “A Manhattan you shake to a foxtrot, a Bronx to a two-step, but a dry martini you should always shake to waltz time.” When Nora turns up, she is also somewhat the worse for wear. Dragged into the bar by the couple’s long-suffering terrier, Asta, she exclaims: “Oh there you are. He’s dragged me into every gin mill on the block.” Nick replies: “I had him out this morning.. ” When it’s not martinis, it’s Scotch – and variations on the “he’s working on a case – of Scotch” gag crop up in The Thin Man and all of its five sequels.
As for the hangovers, well, Nora’s appearance with the ice pack on her head was probably the first time in Hollywood movies a woman had been shown paying the price for a night on the tiles. Tipsy women were to become a staple of the screwball comedy, a genre which The Thin Man – along with two of 1934’s other big comedies, It Happened One Night and Twentieth Century – helped sire.
But the greatest legacy of The Thin Man was the birth of the comedy team of Powell and Loy. The pair had worked together on the crime movie Manhattan Melodrama earlier in 1934 and its director WS Van Dyke had witnessed them trading banter between takes. Seeing their potential as a screen couple who wouldn’t have to work at creating chemistry, he immediately decided that they were his Nick and Nora. The two stars went on to headline nine more comedies together; the spark they ignited in that original Thin Man film lasting throughout their screen partnership.