The Thin Man: How I Learned to Love Nick & Nora Charles

Powell Loy

Myrna Loy and William Powell 1944

Long before McMillan and Wife and Hart to Hart graced the TV airwaves, William Powell and Myrna Loy ruled the roost at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios with a series of movies based on the Dashiell Hammett detective novel, The Thin Man.

When I was first introduced to the Thin Man movies, I used to think that the series got it’s name because William Powell was so skinny. As it turns out, that wasn’t true. The first film in the series was about a case involving a “thin man,” played by actor Edward Ellis, who was actually the murder victim. Oh, darn – did I give it all away?

William Powell (bio) always looked quite proportionate on screen and not skinny at all but I think the real reason I thought he was the Thin Man was fostered by a 1938 Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon called Have You Got Any Castles?, which depicted Powell so thin that, when he turned sideways, he almost disappeared.

Nick and Nora Charles were the ultimate screen couple, husband and wife detectives, always in step and never missing an opportunity to outwit one another as they solved each crime, which they did just in time for the movie’s ending. Myrna Loy (bio) was a fantastic Nora, the ideal wife and considering she made 14 movies with William Powell, she made it look like they were really married… really! The Thin Man movies, all six of them, played like very sophisticated screwball comedies more than murder mysteries and their comic banter enhanced the proceedings, made even funnier because they were always drinking. Martinis were everywhere, morning, noon and night, and in one favorite scene from the original movie, Nora says to Nick, “Is that my drink over there?” Nick asks, “What are you drinking?” When Nora answers, “Rye,” Nick swigs it down and says, “Yes, it was yours.”

Their little wire-haired terrier, Asta, quite often stole the scene as he helped sleuth out the guilty party. He was a great little actor and rumor had it that away from the Thin Man movies, Asta was really Skippy. However, the six Thin Man movies credit this cute pooch as “Asta.”

Another thin Man

Another Thin Man (1939)

Although each movie succeeded in rooting out the murderer in similar fashion, all six of the movies were very different. The overall production value of these slick little comic mysteries varied from movie to movie but they looked real good and the first of the series, The Thin Man, was actually nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture of 1934. The second movie from 1936, After the Thin Man was also nominated for an Academy Award, for Best Screenplay.

The most popular consensus says the first movie is the best one of the six but every movie in the Thin Man series has so much to offer, it’s difficult choosing one over another. They are all loveable but my personal favorite is Another Thin Man from 1939. This one has an unusual assortment of character actors who blend beautifully together, regardless of acting background. Can you imagine that between takes, C. Aubrey Smith might have spent time chatting with Marjorie Main or Otto Kruger having lunch with Shemp Howard? Well, I said it was an unusual assortment. Possibly, Sheldon Leonard and Abner Biberman might have had a burger together — who knows?

The story is easy going enough as we find Nick and Nora back in New York when they discover their old family friend has been murdered. Naturally, the audience knows from the get-go that the kindly old gent is going to get bumped off but that’s all part of the fun. There’s blackmail, lots of guns and knives, old girlfriends, greedy relatives, seedy hotels and the general run of red herrings throughout, including a hood named Dum-Dum — but what makes this one different is Nick and Nora have a baby — hence the title, Another Thin Man, get it? Aside from the murder mystery that Nick is trying to solve, it seems that all of the former criminals that Nick has been responsible for incarserating through the years are all out of the clink now and have become fathers themselves. They collectively decide that Little Nicky should have a birthday party and as luck would have it, with all of those babies in one apartment, Little Nicky goes missing. Of course, one of the former cons took him home by mistake and left his kid behind so it all ends happy.

One more charming element that adds color to this series, and one that enhances the fun through repeated viewings of this great little movie, is Nick’s friendly relationship with the crooks and thugs who weave their way in and out of the film, actually in all of the Thin Man movies. Ever wonder why all of those shady characters are always being so protective of Nick and Nora whenever they meet? It’s probably a central ingredient from the original Dashiell Hammett story where the crooks can’t help but respect the genius of the guy who nabbed them, and that Nick is savvy enough to keep close tabs on members of the underworld so they might come in handy, should the need arise. Nick’s propensity for being friendly with unsavory types does not go unnoticed by Nora, who often says, “Oh Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people.”

If you’ve haven’t yet experienced seeing these two cinema legends work their magic, watch the trailer for The Thin Man Goes Home and join the fun. You’ll be glad you did!

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Jerry Frebowitz, president of Movies Unlimited, started selling movies for home use in 1975. First, as a hobby, then by 1978, through a small direct mail catalog, which eventually grew into the big 800-page version seen today. Jerry is an avid movie fan and collector and particularly enjoys classic films from the 30s, 40s and 50s.