In June 1934 Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios released what was assumed to be another in a long string of B-pictures- a murder mystery based on a best selling novel starring a pair of actors who were playing against type. No one, from the MGM brass on down ever suspected the kind of response that The Thin Man would generate – earning four Academy Award nominations, creating one of the most beloved screen pairings of all time and launching a franchise that would spin off to both radio and television.
Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Thin Man first came to the attention of MGM Story Department head Samuel Marx, who took it to producer Hunt Stromberg. With the only adaptations of a Hammett novel being the unsuccessful 1930 film Roadhouse Nights (Adapted from Red Harvest, directed by Hobart Henley) and the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon (Directed by Roy Del Ruth) no one at the studio was sure what approach to take with the material. Stromberg finally went to director Woodbridge Strong “Woody” Van Dyke, promising to buy the story if he would take on the film.
Born in San Diego, CA on March 21, 1889, Van Dyke came to the motion picture business after working in such rugged professions as gold miner, lumberjack and railroad worker. He started in Hollywood at the end of the Silent Era, cutting his teeth working as both Assistant Director and as a bit player in D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). (He was also partnered on that film with another assistant director, Tod Browning, who would go onto to film the classic version of Dracula.) Making the transition to Talkies, Van Dyke’s biggest success to date had been another series launching film, 1932’s Tarzan, The Ape Man with Johnny Weismueller.
After reading the book, Van Dyke told Stromberg that he would do the film but as a lighthearted, sophisticated mystery and he wanted William Powell and Myrna Loy in the lead roles of Nick and Nora Charles. Studio head Leo Mayer was unsure of Van Dyke’s vision however. He thought that Powell and Loy were considered by the public to be heavy, serious actors that wouldn’t be accepted in lighter roles. It was also felt that Powell was too old for the role and that Loy was better suited for “The Other Woman” type of roles.
Van Dyke knew differently. He had just finished directing the two in their first screen pairing, and Powell’s first film at MGM since leaving Warner Brothers earlier that year. The film was Manhattan Melodrama and Van Dyke immediately saw the potential in their natural chemistry from their first day together on the shoot.
When Loy first reported to the Manhattan Melodrama set there had been no time for her to be introduced to her co-star Powell. Their first scene together- shot at night on the studio’s backlot- required Loy to jump into a cab that was already occupied by Powell. At the completion of the shot, Powell turned to her and dryly said, “Miss Loy, I presume?” Easy confidence for an actor who was still nursing some insecurities after being recently dumped by girlfriend Carole Lombard for a younger man.
Their playful bantering continued off screen as well. It was something Van Dyke would recall when presented with The Thin Man project.
As Loy comments in her autobiography Being and Becoming:
From that very first scene (in Manhattan Melodrama), a curious thing passed between us, a feeling of rhythm, complete understanding, an instinct of how one could bring out the best in the other. In all our work together you can see this strange- I don’t know what. . . a kind of rapport. It wasn’t conscious. If you heard us talking in a room, you’d hear the same thing. He’d tease me a little and a kind of blending emerged that seemed to please people. Whatever caused it, though, it was magical and Woody Van Dyke brought it to fruition in our next picture (The Thin Man)- perhaps the best remembered of my hundred and twenty-four features.
Casting Powell was considered a risk by some. He had just come over from the Warner Brothers Studio where the prevailing thought was that the actor was beginning to dry up. His last few films at the studio hadn’t been very memorable and the Warners’ brass had decided not to renew his contract. MGM’s David O. Selznick didn’t agree with his colleagues at Warners and snatched Powell up with a one picture tryout contract for Manhattan Melodrama. It was Powell’s work on that film- as well as Van Dyke’s insistence to have him as Nick in The Thin Man– that earned Powell a full contract at the studio.
Van Dyke argued to Mayer that Powell and Loy as Nick and Nora would be droll, urbane and sophisticated while in the dangerous business of catching criminals. Mayer finally acquiesced and brought the film rights from Hammett for $21,000- $4,000 less than what Paramount had just paid for Hammett’s The Glass Key.
With Van Dyke’s mandate that Nick and Nora be witty and urbane, husband and wife screenwriting team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich set to work transforming Hammett’s novel into a script.
At the time of its publication in the first months of 1934, The Thin Man had caused quite a stir. Many were outraged at some of the wanton behavior found within. Nick never hid his attraction towards other women and Nora would often step out with other men like the Larry Crowley character. The marriage between Harrison and Alice Quinn is less than exemplary with Harrison’s open affair with Dorothy Wynant. It’s hard for the reader to feel pity for Alice when she tells Nick, “What do people think about me staying with Harrison with him chasing everything that’s hot and hollow? You know I’m only staying with him for his money, don’t you?”
The biggest controversy in the book dealt with the scene in which Nick wrestles with Mimi in her apartment. When Nora hears of the incident, she asks:
“Tell me something, Nick. Tell me the truth: when you were wrestling with Mimi, didn’t you have an erection?
“Oh, a little.”
She laughed and got up from the floor. “If you aren’t a disgusting old lecher,” she said.
Publisher Knopf took advantage of the commotion to run an advertisement in The New York Times. Signed by Alfred Knopf, it read: “I don’t believe the question on page 192 of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man has had the slightest influence upon the sale of the book. Twenty thousand people don’t buy a book within three weeks to read a five word question.”
The book ultimately went on to sell more than 34,000 copies in its first year and a half in print.
In deference to the Hayes Office, the Hacketts were understandably forced to tone down several aspects of the book. The couple was able to sneak one thing past the overly strict board- In order to enliven a scene that merely consisted of Nick, Nora and Detective Guild (Nat Pendleton) discussing Nick’s progress in unraveling the mystery, the Hacketts decided to have the couple and the police officer walking Asta. As the scene progresses, they stop several times, presumably for the just off camera Asta to releave himself against passing fire hydrants and trees. Albert Goodrich once stated, “We got the idea from seeing people walking dogs in New York and pretending so politely not to know them [the dogs] when they stopped.”
It is reported that Van Dyke had also instructed the Hacketts to tailor the screenplay to Powell and Loy’s talents and asked for no fewer than eight romantic scenes between the two.
Nick Charles as portrayed by Powell is a much more polished person than Hammett’s rough-around-the-edges detective. The novelistic Nick is more in the tradition of Hammett’s other tough guy protagonists. Although initially reluctant to investigate the disappearance of Professor Wynant, once on the trail of the solution, Nick plows along not caring whose feelings may get hurt in the process. When Alice Quinn asks Nick what people must think of her for staying with her philandering husband he bluntly responds, “You’re like everybody else: some people like you, some people don’t, and some have no feeling about it one way or the other.”
The cinematic Nick is much more considerate of those around him and is always ready with a quip. Although quite at ease with his comfortable surroundings and elevated status, he is still able to rub elbows with residents of the seamier side of the tracks.
Nora Charles makes off rather well in the transition from book to screen. In the novel, Nora is fairly unessential to the plot once she nudges Nick into investigating Wynan’s disappearance. Hammett sets her to the side for most of the rest of the narrative.
But with the lightening up of Powell’s Nick, Myrna Loy’s Nora is brought forward as his comic foil, matching him quip-for-quip and drink-for-drink. As the couple’s alcohol consumption gets downplayed in subsequent films in the series, Nora’s importance to the plots grow until by the end of the series, she is virtually an equal partner in Nick’s sleuthing.
In the novel, the character of Dorothy Wynatt is a sexually frustrated man chaser who is infatuated with Nick. For the film, these traits simply disappear. As portrayed by Maureen O’Sullivan (best known as Tarzan’s Jane from the series launched by Van Dyke), Dorothy comes off as a society debutante who is happily on the road to the alter with Tommy, until the murder of Julia Wolf and the apparent involvement of her father in the crime turns her world sideways. It is only after being taken to Nick’s apartment with the other suspects that she begins to suspect that she and her children-to-be are infected with “Killer Genes.” Distraught, she then leaves her fiancé and takes up with Harrison Quinn.
There are some points though, where The Thin Man’s Nick Charles is a bit of a departure for Hammett. Whereas the heroes of his previous best sellers do not so much restore order as mete out justice according to their own personal moral code, Nick Charles hands the killer over to the police in a neatly tied bundle.
Hammett’s heroes before Nick Charles were focused men, whose sole aim was to get the job done allowing for no interruptions from their private lives. So it was for Hammett also, who would cease his drinking and carousing when working on a novel. The character of Nick, however, is a bit of a harbinger of Hammett’s own work habits to come. Nick goes about his sleuthing reluctantly, only prying himself away from a bottle and a party at the insistence of others. This is a foreshadowing of Hammett’s own relationship with Hollywood when his absence from meetings and missed deadlines due to drinking would become the norm.
Having drawn on his own experiences as a Pinkerton for his earlier plots and protagonists, Hammett seems to be examining his own current celebrity and lifestyle with The Thin Man. Hammett frequently admitted that his relationship with Hellman was the model for the literary Nick and Nora. Hellman’s own inquiries about Hammett’s past as a detective were passed directly into Nora’s mouth.
In a 1969 interview with Joyce Haber for The Los Angles Times Calendar, Hellman stated:
Mr. Hammett had once been a detective long before he was a good writer, and I used to nag him to go back to work as a detective- chiefly so, in my mind, I could follow him around and see what would happen. He’d grow very angry at the idea. But it also gave him something to write about.
In addition, Nick and Nora’s excessive drinking has been seen by some Hammett biographers as a self-parody of his and Hellman’s own excesses.
While there is much evidence to support that Hammett based Nick and Nora on his own relationship with Hellman, it’s clear that he idealized it as well. Hammett and Hellman were never married, were often separated for long periods of time and would have tumultuous arguments. Hammett was certainly not known for his fidelity in their relationship. The Hacketts, meanwhile, were known as a happily married couple, who playfully sparred with each other. They were the perfect choice to adapt the Charleses to the big screen.
Though much was done by the Hacketts to bring several of the characters more in line with what the Production Code would approve, they still managed to keep extremely faithful to the storyline of the novel. Several scenes, including gangster Morelli’s assault in the bedroom, play very faithfully to their literary counterparts. All told, it only took the Hackett’s three weeks to turn out their script.
Meanwhile Mayer, perhaps still trying to dissuade Van Dyke from using Myrna Loy, informed the director that he could only have Loy if she were finished with the picture in time to start filming Stamboul Quest with George Brent and director Sam Wood.
This was no problem for Van Dyke, who had come by the nickname of “One Take Van Dyke” rather honestly. As Loy recounts in Being and Becoming:
If he could get it the first time, he wouldn’t even bother with a cover shot. “Actors are bound to lose their fire if they do a scene over and over,” he said. “It’s that fire that brings life to the screen.” He wanted spontaneity, and speed ensured it. Of course, he had us going like crazy, but by that time I could come in, look at new lines, and do them. You had to in those days, because they changed scripts overnight. Often you would study the day before; often you couldn’t. Woody demanded extraordinary deeds and you need the discipline to go along with it or you couldn’t work with him. He ultimately became too fast; it became an obsession. But his pacing and spontaneity made The Thin Man.
This drive served Van Dyke well, as he completed the film in between sixteen and eighteen days, complete with retakes.
Another asset in the quick filming was the fact that both Powell and Loy seemed to know instinctively what to give to their director. For her entrance at the beginning of the film, the script called for Loy to enter a hotel bar laden with packages and being dragged by Asta. Van Dyke asked her to trip and fall at the end of the shot, landing on her face. He merely gave her a mark and positioned a camera on the floor. Loy, a former dancer, did the shot in one take with no rehearsal.
Unfortunately, not all the filming went smoothly. Loy has reported that the stars weren’t allowed to make friends with the several wire-haired terriers that played Asta over the years (lest it would break the dog’s concentration) and that the first one, Skippy, even bit her once during filming.
During the climactic dinner party scene, Powell had a large amount of dialog to deliver. While he is doing so, waiters come out and serve the cast oysters on the half shell. Unfortunately, Powell kept fumbling his lines, as the speech was long and convoluted. As they continued to reshoot the scene, no one bothered to change the oysters, which began to putrefy under the hot studio lights.
The first inkling that anyone at the studio had about what a huge hit they had in the film was during a sneak preview at Huntington Park.
“It was a night of great jubilation on the Huntington Park sidewalk after the preview,” recalled Sam Marx in Loy’s Being and Becoming. “That first preview was a thermometer that told us how much heat this team was generating. It was automatic that you would continue to put them together.”
Critical reception to the film was overwhelming. Mordaunt Hall in the July 30th edition of the New York Times called it “an excellent combination of comedy and excitement. It is another of those murder mysteries wherein the astute criminologist has many opportunities to chuckle over the work of the police and, as usual, it is virtually impossible for the onlooker to pick out the murderer.”
The film was an immediate hit with the Depression-era audiences, earning over two million dollars in its initial release.
But audiences weren’t the only ones taken with the film. Academy members nominated it for four Oscars that year- Best Actor (Powell), Director, Writing, Adaptation and Picture. Surprisingly, Loy wasn’t nominated. With the Academy being flooded with complaints about the oversight, along with others who were upset that Bette Davis’s performance in Of Human Bondage had been similarly passed by, they suspended their voting rules that year to allow write in candidates. Ultimately, It Happened One Night would sweep the four categories it shared with The Thin Man and One Night star Claudette Colbert would take the Best Actress Oscar.
In the face of all this success, the MGM brass were quick to order up a sequel. Though not involved with the production of the first film, it was decided that Dashiell Hammett’s involvement in developing the second installment was a must. In late September, 1934, MGM’s Culver City office requested that the New York office negotiate a contract with Hammett to write new story material for a follow up. On October 1st, the New York office advised Culver City that Hammett was unreliable and that it would be difficult getting work from him. Louis B. Mayer himself wrote to the head office from New York on the 19th warning of Hammett’s “irregular habits.” Nevertheless, Hammett is signed to the studio on October 23rd for $2,000 a week for ten weeks, commencing on his arrival in Hollywood. Hammett immediately left for Los Angeles by train, reporting to the studio on the 29th.
Arriving in Hollywood, Hammett immediately slid into the flamboyant lifestyle he was well known for. He rented a six bedroom penthouse at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for $2,000 a month. On his first day there, he wrote to Lillian Hellman, telling her that he had a nice office, met good people and that he missed her. He also spent much of his time going out on the town with old friends.
On the 31st, he wrote to Hellman that “We’re going to make a picture with all the surviving members of the first cast- which won’t be silly if I can devise a murder that grows with some logic out of the set up we left everybody in at the end of The Thin Man– and I think we can. We may title it After The Thin Man.”