The Thin Man April 19, 2018
W.S. Van Dyke
1 Hr., 30 Mins.
he great wordsmith William Powell loved working with Myrna Loy. When asked about the actress some time after they’d begun their famous working relationship, Powell, on one memorable occasion, insinuated that she was the actor with whom he felt the most comfortable. Said Powell: "When we did a scene together, we forgot about technique, camera angles, and microphones. We weren't acting. We were just two people in perfect harmony.” He’d go on to praise her earthiness, her professionalism, her ease in front of the camera.
The two, 13 years apart in age yet so cohesive and electric when together
onscreen – he a likable, mustachioed jungle cat, she a quick-witted minx – collaborated a whopping 14 times in 13 years. Their affection for one another was so infectious that it became something of an event when they’d work together next. Like other indelible screen couples, from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, the draw of seeing their latest offering often had less to do with the movie in question and more with the excitement of seeing the dyad co-headline something hopefully as charismatic as they were.
While in the middle of their renumerative collaborative period, Powell and Loy never confined themselves to a particular genre (though most of their vehicles leaned toward soap opera, comedy, romance). Quality ebbed and flowed, and so did public interest, especially as the years went on. But enduring in the public consciousness is their second film together, the detective comedy The Thin Man (1934), which inspired no less than five sequels.
In The Thin Man and all its successors, Powell and Loy play Nick and Nora Charles, a perennially buzzed, uppercrust husband and wife team with a predilection for solving Agatha Christie-style mysteries. These films, with slightly diminishing success as the years progressed, were reliably witty and light caper movies – glamorous whodunits in which the humor, as well as the appeal of Powell and Loy, usually outshined the monkey business put forward by a daedal plot line.
By no means did anyone expect the original The Thin Man feature to become such a long-lasting hit. MGM provided it with a tiny $226,408 budget; Powell and Loy were respectively known for being typecast in exotic femme fatale and dry, gentlemanly parts; the director W.S. Van Dyke was so economic and over-concerned with staying on schedule that shooting was completed in just two weeks. It was a B-picture, designed to make money and promptly be forgotten about.
But critics and audiences wouldn’t let that happen. Reviews were glowing – Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called it “an excellent combination of comedy and excitement” – and the movie ended up making its budget back more than six times. It even garnered three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor.
Although I prefer the first sequel, 1936’s After the Thin Man, which features a more finely developed central mystery and a more lived-in rapport between Powell and Loy, the first Thin Man film is still an excellent showcase. It is a vital romp enlivened by its style and its depilating wit, and makes for a startling cinematic vitrine for its lambent stars. It is an introduction most prominently: the name of the game is getting to know the focal Charleses while getting tangled in a rather convoluted murder mystery involving the disappearance of shady businessman. It isn’t much more than that; think of it as a funnier, stretched-out version of a pre-Code, hour-long private dick movie with a vitaphone fetish.
Powell and Loy are so much fun here, though, it doesn’t much matter if the whodunit storyline eventually starts seeming more secondary than ancillary. Nick and Nora are such specific – and lovable – characters that we’re comprehensively enamored with them just as the feature gets going. Always with a drink in hand (they’re always exemplifying a new shade of inebriation) and always with a clever verbal jab marinating in their mouth, they as much seem to love every second of their lives as they appear to be a hell of a lot smarter than everyone else. They’re fashionable adventurers cum screwballs we want to hang out with. And are more interesting than everybody, and everything, else in the movie.
Stars like Powell and Loy are so exciting to watch that the tiresome “they don’t make them like this anymore” axiom seems begrudgingly applicable here. These are actors so skilled at what they do, we notice that anyone who’s come close to being as gifted as they were will always be an echo, never to come close to accomplishing what they did. The Thin Man would still be a congenial, smart farce without them. But with them, it becomes essential. A-