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Spotlight on…”The Thin Man”

There are some people left – I hope – who still believe that you cannot have a truly great film without a truly great script. Hot chicks or CGI cannot replace an interesting tale and crisp dialogue. You can’t come up with a better example of this than “The Thin Man” from MGM in 1934. I always come back to what Tom Petty said about Brian Wilson’s mid-’60’s work: “I don’t think there’s anything necessarily better than that”. I love the simplicity of his statement. You can debate art all you want but there are some accomplishments that are beyond debate and even beyond ranking: maybe something is not the “best” but it is an example of “as good as it gets” and – as Petty says – it doesn’t get any better.

Such is the case with “The Thin Man”. There are so many things to recommend this film so let’s start at the beginning. Dashiell Hammett wrote the novel “The Thin Man” and also “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Glass Key”, both of which were made into notable films. Hammett’s hard-boiled work has a great mix of the seedy and the elegant. The gumshoe on the sidewalk and the socialite in the penthouse. Intriguing characters and brisk, genuine dialogue. This film also boasts one of my favorite casts. Not necessarily big stars in all the roles but the familiar faces of character actors you’ve enjoyed in other films. There’s always a comfort level in recognizing most of the actors in a film. William Powell and Myrna Loy deserve their own post. Powell plays Nick Charles. He’s a guy that we all want to be. He’s been a successful amateur sleuth for years, dealing with the seedy characters of the underworld and the speakeasies, the gutters. He gives that all up when, through some wonderful good fortune, he meets and marries a wonderful girl who’s father soon dies, leaving her a fortune. Now, Nick has risen to the penthouse – but he is still a guy from the alleys. Myrna Loy plays his wife, Nora. She’s an heiress, yes, but she is in awe of her Nicky and his world and would love to see him get back to work and solve some crimes. The thing is, Powell and Loy have such incredible chemistry and play this married couple with such sexy verve and romance that their interaction is a joy to watch. The lovely Maureen O’Sullivan plays Dorothy Wynant, a young girl concerned about her missing father. O’Sullivan is perhaps best known for her portrayals of a scantily-clad Jane in the Tarzan series of films starring Johnny Weissmuller. Also, she was married to film director John Farrow and is the mother of Mia Farrow and her sister, Prudence, for whom the Beatles’ song “Dear Prudence” was written. Actress Mia, of course, was married for a short time in the late ’60’s to Frank Sinatra. Maureen O’Sullivan, therefore, was at one time Frank’s mother-in-law (she was 4 years older than Frank). Little-known Edward Ellis plays the father. He is also the ‘thin man’ of the title. He is an inventor who closes up his shop to work secretly on an invention and is never heard from again. Ellis is actually a cool dude. His character is a straight arrow but at the same time something of a ladies man with a menacing streak. Ellis is excellent in the role. Nat Pendelton – with his cinder-block head – plays Lt. Gill who’s put in charge of the case and plays him well. His mug has shown up in many notable films. Harold Huber and Edward Brophy are more familiar faces, character actors playing two of the suspects. Brophy in particular is near and dear to me as he spent some time playing the sidekick of The Falcon. As if that wasn’t enough, Cesar Romero shows up playing a ridiculously suave gigolo-type. In only his fifth film role, the gloriously cool Romero brightens the cast just as he does in any of the films he has made. The only problem here is that his character’s name is ‘Chris Jorgenson’ – one look at the swarthy and handsome Romero and you know he’d never be mistaken for a guy with that name.

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“The Thin Man” is what is known as a “pre-Code” film. This means it was made before the Production Code went into effect. This Code restricted a lot of what could be said, done and depicted in Hollywood films. Now, this wouldn’t apply to things like language and nudity because there was never any fear of those things getting into films in the 1930’s but it did address things like double entendre and innuendo, the depiction of cohabiting and it also stipulated that bad guys must always be punished. This Code actually remained in effect until the late 1960’s when the rating system was adopted. Some of the things depicted in our film that may indicate it was made pre-Code are simple things like the depiction of the nature of Nick and Nora’s marriage. The sexual chemistry between the characters is plainly evident in their interaction. There is a moment near the end of the film, for example, when  Nick and Nora find themselves in the confines of a sleeper on a train. Nora off-handedly suggests that Nick put their dog, Asta, in bed with her. Nick only chuckles, tosses Asta onto the upper berth and bends down to kiss Nora. Even Asta knows what’s going on and covers his eyes with his paws. Young Dorothy, distraught over the thought that her father may be a murderer, decides to break her engagement to nice-guy, Tommy. She goes off with a middle aged lecher. She says she is about to make her “first false step”. This same lecher, in an earlier scene, is drooling over Dorothy and asks Nick who she is. Nick scoffs. “Oh, I used to bounce her on my knee”, he says to which the lecher answers “which knee? Can I touch it?” The police are late bringing one couple to the final dinner at which Nick will reveal who the murderer is. They are late, they say, because they “had to break the door down”. This is met with a look of mock disapproval from Nick. And there are certainly two or three outfits that Nora wears that The Code would have objected to. All these things seem like nothing today – so much so that you’re probably still waiting to hear what’s so objectionable. But such was the movie industry in the 1930’s.

Revisiting all of these scenes brings up the question of who wrote this wonderful script. Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich were a husband and wife writing team and “The Thin Man” was their first hit and was nominated for an Oscar. Makes sense that the Charles’ well-written marriage was written by a husband and wife team. Indeed, their script for “The Thin Man” was and is considered groundbreaking in it’s realistic and sprightly depiction of a vibrant marriage relationship. They went on to be nominated for three additional Oscars and wrote such favourites as “Father of the Bride”, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, “Easter Parade”, “The Long, Long Trailer”, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “The Diary of Anne Frank”, for which they won a Pulitzer Prize. In the case of our movie, their words had a particularly gifted interpreter. I like what Roger Ebert said: “(William Powell) is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he’s saying”. But even lesser mortals make these words dance. I wanted to share some examples with you but it’s no use, there’s so many. You really have to watch it. I’ll just leave you with a few teasers: “Yes. A case of scotch”, “What’s that man doing in my drawers?!”, “It’s not true. He didn’t come near my tabloids” and the party the Charles’ throw Christmas Eve is urbane comedy choreographed to it’s absolute finest. Actually, so is the whole movie.

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