NOV / DEC 2011: BY MEGHAN M. GORECKI
The pull of mystery and solving crimes have intrigued movie audiences for decades. Even in the silent-film days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton (comedians that they were) a bit of sleuthing was received with much applause and box office sales. Over the years, as America has progressed at warp speed, so has its films. There were foreign intrigue films peppering the theater marquises from time to time, Red Skelton sleuthing series and a few Nancy Drew films starring Bonita Granville in the 1940’s. Some of the most well received sleuthing films from Hollywood’s golden era were the six Thin Man films, based on Dashiell Hammet’s popular mystery novel, first published in 1931. Film buffs remember with wry fondness these films and their stars from the 1930’s and 1940’s. MGM proved yet again how versatile they were in creating dynamite films to divert America’s attention from their troubles during the Great Depression and WWII. Each film kept the public wanting more, and the studio provided them with a six-film series over a span of thirteen years. There is yet a mystery to be solved within these movies…what kept the audience guessing? Was it the dynamic acting, the witty dialogue or the impossibly clever mysteries?
Thin Man films follow a formula audiences flocked to in impoverished times: the life of the wealthy. Nick Charles (William Powell), a retired detective with ties to shady characters, has been thrust into the social scene of the idle rich after marrying Nora Charles (Myrna Loy). A glamorous setting, evening cocktails, and the decadent gowns worn effortlessly by the leading lady sets the pace after the opening credits as the Charles’ find themselves entangled in a crime scene… typically featuring some of Nick’s not-so-reputable pals from his old sleuthing days. There’s expected gunfire throughout, as well as the Charles’ third member of the family, wire haired terrier Asta, uncovering a clue or two. Nick figures out the mysteries in the only way he can, by reverting back to his detective instincts, while Nora comes up with her own theories. This power couple banters flirtatiously, further endearing them to viewers, while a classic dinner party scene at the end reveals the murderer in a roomful of suspects and witnesses.
Glittering gowns, tuxedos, cocktails and cigarettes were all foreign luxuries for the average American when the first Thin Man premiered in 1934. Throw in a few dashes of gunshots, chases and a dead body—not to mention some witty banter from the detective and his wife, and you’ve got yourself a hit. MGM filmed the Thin Man films in quick succession in spite of the actors’ hectic schedules—the first in 1934, the last in 1947. Audiences flocked to each one, even if they were a bit predictable. When you love something so much, you become almost emotionally invested in the characters. This is one of the biggest reasons these films are remembered today. Another is the larger-than-life actor who not only fit into the role of Nick Charles, but personified it forever.
William Horatio Powell set out to become an actor at a mere eighteen years old—leaving home to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. He grew successful in old time vaudeville, the place to make it in 1910, before moving pictures became popular. Even in his silent-film roles, he played a unique mix of characters, like a sinister henchman in a John Barrymore Sherlock Holmes film, and a bitter army general in the award-winning The Last Command. This led to his first starring role (incidentally, a small-time sleuth) in the 1929 The Canary Murder Case. Powell quickly became known for a resounding speaking voice and love of droll humor in dialogue. His most successful years on the screen were the 1930’s. His most famous role is in The Thin Man series. He played Nick with gusto and a swagger that earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
The phrase “Behind every great man stands a great woman” rings true for not only Nick and Nora Charles but also for Powell and his equally iconic female costar. Myrna Loy had an even bigger career than he did, though their backgrounds are similar. She too started out on the stage and originally aimed to become a dancer. Loy was a small town girl from Montana before she went to New York for fame and fortune. Eventually she switched paths and was cast in a few minor roles in silent films, typically as a “vamp” or exotic women. Today, she is remembered for having starred alongside some of the biggest actors of her time, such as Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.
The roles she is known for are comedic and mothering characters. Though she gave plenty of spunk to each of her characters, whether an heiress or long suffering wife, her most comedic roles were in the 30’s and early 40’s. My personal favorites happen to be three of the mother characters: The Best Years of Our Lives, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Bells on Their Toes; in the latter two she plays a mother of twelve rowdy, redheaded children. She was truly an inspiring, amazing leading lady of old Hollywood. Not only did she have a remarkable film career, but she was held up as a style icon. Myra was on the tall side of average, of a slim build, and a redhead. Knowing who she was, she carried and presented herself accordingly with confidence but not arrogance. She also held a passion for the Red Cross during WWII, all but completely putting off her career for those four years, and she had a big heart for those in America who were publically discriminated against. She worked hard at these causes all her life, and though she never won an Academy award, Myrna Loy is truly a woman of class and substance to be remembered.When Thin Man director D.S Van Dyke first saw her, he pushed her into a pool at a Hollywood party! Strangely enough, he wanted to test her reaction and her aplomb and easygoing wit in handling the situation made her perfect for the role of socialite wife, Nora Charles. Louis B. Mayer (the controlling father figure at MGM) refused Van Dyke’s request for Myrna Loy to play Nora Charles at first because he saw her as more of a dramatic actress. Obviously, Mayer relented, but on the terms that the film would be shot and completed in a mere three weeks in the sound stages and back lots of Culver City.
William Powell took to his role of Nick Charles with a characteristic enthusiasm, and the subtle chemistry between the two fictional characters of Nick and Nora and their actors Powell and Loy is unmistakable. MGM knew a power-couple when they saw one, and ended up casting Powell and Loy together in twelve more films after the box office smash hit ended. Many people think of The Thin Man as the first pairing of Powell and Loy, but less than a year before, they starred alongside a very young Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama. It goes without saying that The Thin Man proved to be much more of a smashing success. Their coupling of William Powell and Myrna Loy is one of the most prolific pairings in Hollywood history, proven still today by a loyal fan base and box office returns from yesteryear…and to think it all started with The Thin Man.
In their own, black and white glory, the Thin Man films are classics. Not only do they still provide quality entertainment for the mystery-lover today, they set the bar for the mystery film genre for the other studios of the era, and for the filmmakers of today. Sure, the plots are in some ways similar, the “mysteries” err on the side of absurdity, and the scripts are filled with sometimes corny wit… but when you watch one or all of these classic films I promise you won’t come away disappointed. ■