THE THIN MAN: Murder, Mirth And Marriage At The Movies – Part 4

Despite the behind the cameras departure of Hammett and the Hacketts, MGM was quick to produce the next Thin Man film, 1941’s Shadow of the Thin Man. This time director Van Dyke worked from a screenplay by Irving Brecher and Harry Kurnitz from Kurnitz’s original story. Kurnitz was a friend of Loy’s, having been introduced by writer and producer Collier Young and his wife Valerie. Kurnitz had also written I Love You Again (1940) for Powell and Loy.

The film opens with the Charleses back in San Francisco and with a variation of the dog-walking joke from the first two movies. Nick and Nora decide to take an afternoon at the racetrack. Unfortunately, the body of a jockey is discovered in the locker room and Lt. Abrams (Sam Leven reprising his After the Thin Man role) is soon pressing Nick into helping with the investigation. Despite his protests, Nick soon finds himself in the thick of things.

Joining the cast of Shadow of the Thin Man were several new comers including Barry Nelson in his first film role as reporter Paul Clark and Donna Reed in her second movie role as Paul’s love interest Molly Ford. Nelson would go onto earn a place in history as the first James Bond in the television adaptation of Casino Royale on the 10/21/54 episode of Climax!. The film also starred acting teaching guru Stella Adler makes one of her only three film appearances as Claire Porte.

The film was shot in August 1941 and released in November. There appears to be some second unit footage shot in San Francisco, but nothing using any of the film’s principals.

By this time though, William Powell was beginning to get a little discouraged with his career. He had only done six films since Harlow’s illness and in all but one of them (The Baroness and the Butler (1938) at Fox) he had co-starred with Myrna Loy. While he didn’t dislike his on-screen partner, he was itching to stretch himself in other directions.

This was to be Van Dyke’s last Thin Man outing, as he committed suicide February 5, 1943.

Although MGM was anxious to keep the series going, plans were put on hold as Loy had married John Hertz, Jr. of the rental car fortune, and had moved to New York City where she devoted herself to the Red Cross and helping with war bond drives. MGM would make occasional announcements that they were going to cast another actress like Irene Dunn in the part of Nora, but most people view this as a ploy to get Loy back at the studio. Finally, with her marriage to Hertz on the rocks, she was willing to make a quick return to MGM for The Thin Man Comes Home.

When Powell learned that Loy would be arriving in Pasadena by train, he borrowed the dog who played Asta and went to the station to meet her. As she stepped off of the train, Powell quipped that he was just arriving from Palm Springs and that it was an awful nice gesture for Loy to have traveled 3,000 miles to meet him at the station.

The reception that greeted Loy at MGM’s stage 9 was also warm with big signs stating “Welcome Home, Myrna” and “Don’t Leave Us Again, Myrna” hung inside. Shooting ran from May 8 to July 14, 1044.

Richard Thorpe had taken over the directional chores for this installment of the series. (Norman Taurog goes uncredited as the director of some reshoots that were done for the picture in August and September of 1944. Thorpe was unavailable, as he had already started on his next picture Thrill of a Romance.) Harry Kurnitz once again supplied the story, though this time it was adapted by Dwight Taylor and Robert Riskin. Riskin’s brother Everett Riskin took for production duties from the departed Stromberg.

In this outing Nick takes Nora to vacation at his parents home in the small town of Sycamore Springs. While all Nick wants to do is relax, the town is soon abuzz that the famous detective has arrived and may be working on a case. When a young artist is shot on his parent’s front porch while asking him for help, Nick has no choice but to start investigating some of the mysterious goings-on around the seemingly sleepy little town. In a nod to wartime liquor rationing, there is a subplot concerning Nick giving up drinking as his father disapproves of such things.

Harry Davenport and Lucile Watson are Nick’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Bertram Charles. Edward Brophy, gangster Morelli from the first film is back, but this time as a traveling salesman named Brogan who seems to be more than he appears to be. Also in the cast are veteran comic actor Donald Meek as the proprietor of an art supply store and an unbilled appearance by Edward Gargan who had a reoccurring role as Detective Bates in the Falcon series at RKO. The film was released on 1/25/45.

The series wound to a close in 1947 release of Song of the Thin Man, with Nick and Nora investigating the murder of a nighclub musician. While 13 years earlier Nick and Nora were the toast of the Manhattan nightlife, they now seem somewhat confused and bemused by the current jazz club scene. Nat Perrin and Steve Fischer’s script (with additional dialog from Harry Crane and James O’Hanlon) is functional, but the film is carried strictly by the force of Powell and Loy’s screen presence.

The cast for this last Thin Man film would feature comic Keenan Wynn as Clarence “Clinker” Krause, Jayne Meadows as Janet Thayer and a young Dean Stockwell as Nick, Jr.

While the box office receipts for Song were good, they weren’t up to the levels of the series’ previous entries, so MGM decided to discontinue the series. As Loy wrote in Being and Becoming, “The characters had lost their sparkle for Bill and me, and the people who knew what it was all about were no longer involved. Woody Van Dyke was dead. Dashiell Hammett and Hunt Stromberg had gone elsewhere. The Hacketts were writing other things.”

Song of the Thin Man also turned out to be the last “official” screen pairing between Powell and Loy. Loy would reappear in a cameo in The Senator Was Indiscreet as Powell’s character’s oft-mentioned-but-not-seen-until-the-end-of-the-film wife.

The Thin Man was to be Hammett’s last novel. At one point, Hammett wrote to Lillian Hellman that he was planning on writing a book that was not to be a mystery, which in one draft was entitled Tulip. Although he made several attempts, he would not complete the project. Instead, he continued his declining Hollywood career.

Hammett also continued to encourage Hellman in her own writing, perhaps transferring his creative energies to her. He had already discovered the source material for what was to become Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour. He had passed the material to her, after determining that he wouldn’t be able to tell the story. He did, however, edit several drafts for her through out 1933 and 1934.

While Hammett’s career went into a decline after The Thin Man, the characters of Nick and Nora continued on with a life of their own, gaily solving mysteries. Besides the five film sequels and the radio series, there was also a television series based on the characters starring Peter Lawford as Nick and Phyllis Kirk as Nora. The show was set in New York and had Nick as a retired detective turned publisher. It ran for 72 episodes from September 20, 1957 to June 26, 1959 on NBC.

After leaving the Thin Man series, Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich continued writing for MGM, scripting Father of the Bride (1950) and it’s sequel Father’s Little Dividend (1951). Their greatest accomplishment came in 1954 when they penned the Pulitizer Prize winning stage play The Diary of Anne Frank.

The Thin Man continues on in filmgoers and filmmakers memory. It has been referenced in such diverse films as Get Shorty (1995), Poodle Springs (1998) and Free Enterprise (1998). The characters of Dick and Dora Charleston in Neil Simon’s Murder By Death (1976) also have a very familiar ring to them, in part helped by David Niven’s and Maggie Smith’s portrayal.

The playful bantering of Nick and Nora can also be seen in such TV series as Heart to Heart and Moonlighting. Another `80’s detective series Remington Steele – featuring the dapperly dressed Pierce Brosnan as a detective who frequently used his knowledge of old film plots to help him crack cases – even used The Thin Man’s dinner party finale. In the series’ second episode (“Tempered Steele,” air date 10/8/82) Steele, puzzling over a case, chances upon the movie during a late night screening. Inspired, he then stages his own dinner party to ferret out a killer.

On October 8, 1991 a musical version of The Thin Man entitled Nick and Nora opened for nine weeks of previews at the Marquis Theater on Broadway. Backed by such creative forces as Arthur Laurents (book), Charles Strouse (music) and Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics)- whose combined credits include Gypsy, West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Annie and Miss Saigon– the idea seemed surefire on paper. Execution turned out to be a different matter.

The production starred Barry Bostwick as Nick and Joanna Gleason as Nora. The story was changed dramatically from Hammett’s novel, being reset in Hollywood and involving the murder of a studio bookkeeper played by Faith Prince.

The show had a troubled preview period and finally opened to less than enthusiastic reviews on December 9th. It would close one week later on the 15th.

In an interview reprinted in Richard Koszarski’s book Hollywood Directors, Van Dyke talked about the lasting impact that The Thin Man made:

[It] did start a new cycle in screen entertainment. It proved that murder mysteries on the screen necessarily did not have to be morbid nightmares; that, with sparkling wise-crackery and a chain of kaleidoscope situations that keep an audience guessing to the last frame of the film, a murder mystery can be turned into pleasing, laughable entertainment and still retain every element of first class baffling mystery.

And later in Koszarski-

The picture shattered Hollywood traditions in several ways. It awakened the theater public to the truth that romance actually can exist happily among more matured married persons. There had been so many stories, novels and screenplays of puppy love that audiences sickened of the overdose. Romances among mature people are as old as the universe itself, but apparently they had been obscured by the petting parties of flaming youth on the screen. Mature romances need understanding. In them, the instability of youthful love affairs and quarrels have been overcome, all of the obstacles have been conquered and marriage progresses full sail. “The Thin Man” was the first example of the possibilities of happy mature romance.

Loy concurred:

What made the Thin Man series work, what made it fun, was that we didn’t attempt to hide the fact that sex is part of marriage. But it was deft, done with delicacy and humor. Then, too, the Charleses had enormous tolerance for each other’s imperfections.

In 1997, the film was placed on the National Film Preservation Board Registry. In 2000, it was listed on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Comedies at number 32.

While The Thin Man was not Powell and Loy’s first collaboration together, it was the one that cemented their image as a screen couple in moviegoers’ minds. Ultimately, they would star in 13 films together, making them the most prolific film team ever. (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers come in second with 10 films under their dance shoes.)

Between the years of 1933 and 1950, Hammett was to earn almost a million dollars off of the characters of Nick and Nora Charles. Ironically though, he never liked the characters that much. As he once wrote to Hellman, “Maybe there are better writers in the world, but no one ever invented a more insufferably smug pair of characters. They can’t take that away from me for even $40,000.”

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About Rich Drees 6950 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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