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The Thin Man (1934)


Myrna Loy, William Powell and Asta
Myrna Loy, William Powell and Asta



'The Thin Man' is an American detective film comedy made in 1934, directed by W.S.Van Dyke, and starring Myrna Loy and William Powell, who play a sophisticated married couple who solve crimes whilst enjoying themselves by drinking and engaging in witty repartee.

The movie received 4 Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture, Best Actor, (William Powell), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (husband-and-wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hacket) but won none in the year that 'It Happened One Night' swept the board. The film was added to the United States National Film Registry in 1997, and is 32nd on the American Film Institute's 2000 list '100 Years...100 Laughs'.

The movie was based on a novel written in the same year by Dashiell Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective, and Nick and Nora were supposedly modeled on Hammett's relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman. Shot in 14 days on a low budget and intended as a B movie, this sparkling screwball detective story was released in May, 1934 to extremely positive reviews and was a box office hit, with special praise for the chemistry between Loy and Powell.

The film was one of the top-ten money-makers of 1934 and one of the biggest hits in the careers of William Powell and Myrna Loy. It grossed $1,423,000 and made a profit of $729,000. Not surprisingly it spawned five sequels between 1936 and 1947.

As well as spin-off radio and television series, the movie was the inspiration behind TV shows such as 'McMillan and Wife' and 'Hart to Hart'. It was also cleverly parodied in the 1976 spoof 'Murder by Death' with the husband and wife roles taken by David Niven and Maggie Smith.

Plot

Trying to make sense of the story gets in the way of what is genuinely important - the snappy banter full of covetable lines between the rich, sophisticated Nora and her sharp lush of a husband. Disarming an unwanted guest one night, the incident is reported in the morning news. "I was shot twice in the 'Tribune", says Nick, "I read you were shot five times in the tabloids," says Nora. "It's not true, he didn't come anywhere near my tabloids." Said with cast-off ease, the lines are funny without jumping out as such.

Nick may seem like an alcoholic, but he springs back and forth from relaxed giddiness to active sobriety in the wink of an eye. The couple's prodigious boozing seems to have little effect on their actions; it's more of an elegant prop - a vital element for a country just coming out of the Great Depression. The movie helped to set the tone and style of a new Hollywood genre which was just starting to emerge - the screwball comedy.

The plot has many twists and turns. Nick Charles , played by Powell, is officially a retired detective but he takes a personal interest in the disappearance of a crotchety inventor - the 'thin man' of the title. His body is found clutching his watch chain and his daughter, Dorothy, (Maureen O'Sullivan), is Nick's long-time acquaintance. The inventor's safety is thrown further into doubt when complications arise involving his suspicious mistress, grasping ex-wife, and her money-hungry husband (Cesar Romero).

With the addition of multifarious mobsters, cops, and molls, it seems the whole criminal world turns up at the Charles's luxurious hotel suite at one time or another. The movie ends entertainingly when Nick invites all the suspects to have dinner with Nora and himself and resolves the case in classic fashion, disclosing the real criminal.

Production

MGM paid Dashiel Hammett $21,000 for the screen rights to the novel. The screenplay was written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who had been married for three years. Director W.S. Van Dyke encouraged them to use Hammett's writing as a basis only, and to concentrate on providing witty exchanges for Nick and Nora.

Van Dyke was given three weeks for shooting this supposedly 'B' rated movie but managed it all in 12 days from April 9 to mid May. Not for nothing was he named "One Shot Woody."

Van Dyke was no fool. He paid attention to the teasing and bantering relationship between Myrna Loy and William Powell, and their obvious enjoyment of each other's company between takes and incorporated it into the movie. He encouraged improvisation and tried to include off-the-cuff details into the picture.

To dispel any confusion about the identity of the actual "Thin Man", the name refers to the character Clyde Wynant (part way through the film, Charles describes Wynant as a "thin man with white hair"). It was not until "The Thin Man Goes Home" film in 1945 that the title appears to refer to the lead character of the series.

Asta, the dog actor playing Nick and Nora's pet (real name Skippy), bit Myrna Loy during filming.

Main Cast

The chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell was so potent in the 1934 film 'Manhattan Melodrama' that its director, W.S.Van Dyke, cast the two again in the same year and they went on to appear together in fourteen movies in all. As Nick and Nora Charles, they are unique in the history of cinema. The first popular husband and wife detective team, they not only love each other, they actually like each other too without being insipid, disrespectful, or dull. The movie made a star of the popular Asta, who was actually several dogs,and also redefined the career of Myrna Loy, who is cast perfectly as the Depression era socialite heroine.

As well as their appearances in the other Thin Man films, Powell and Loy were paired in seven other movies: 'Evelyn Prentice' (1934), 'The Great Ziegfeld' (1936), 'Libeled Lady' (1936), 'Double Wedding' (1937), 'I Love You Again' (1940), 'Love Crazy' (1941), and 'The Senator Was Indiscreet' (1947).

William Powell ... Nick
Myrna Loy ... Nora
Maureen O'Sullivan ... Dorothy
Nat Pendleton ... Guild
Minna Gombell ... Mimi
Porter Hall ... MacCaulay
Henry Wadsworth ... Tommy
William Henry ... Gilbert
Harold Huber ... Nunheim
Cesar Romero ... Chris
Natalie Moorhead ... Julia Wolf
Edward Brophy ... Morelli
Edward Ellis ... Wynant
Cyril Thornton ... Tanner

Credits

Director ... W.S. Van Dyke
Producer ... Louis B Mayer
Production Company ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Story By ... Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
Screenplay By ... Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich
Format ... B&W
Initial Release ... 25 May, 1934
Running Time ... 91 minutes

Academy Awards

4 Unsuccessful Nominations:
Outstanding Production ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Best Actor ... William Powell
Best Director ... W.S.Van Dyke
Best Writing (Adaptation) ... Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett