In Like Thin: Looking Back At “The Thin Man”

Jim Brymer looks back at that most mirthful of mysteries, The Thin Man:

The comedy/mystery The Thin Man was the first to feature Dashiell Hammett‘s characters, and the success and popularity of the booze guzzling high society pair spawned no less than five sequels. All of the sequels featured a variation on The Thin Man, even though the original thin man was only a character in the first movie. But you could be forgiven if you thought that the title character was referring to Nick Charles.

Nick and Nora Charles are a parody in and of themselves. Before I ever saw The Thin Man, I saw Neil Simon‘s Murder by Death, which featured parodies of several famous detectives, but in particular was a parody of the Nick and Nora duo, with David Niven and Maggie Smith playing Dick and Dora Charleston. It wasn’t until I saw the original characters that I realized just how exquisite Niven and Smith’s parody of them was.

Dashiell Hammett’s main claim to fame was undoubtedly the character of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, but I would think that the Charles duo would be a close second. And much of that is due to the excellent efforts of Powell and Loy in the film roles. In fact, to quote Roger Ebert in a review he did of this same film “William Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance.” And Myrna Loy is no slouch either, although she is at her best when she makes those cute little faces at Powell rather than a witty response.

But despite all this, the real star of the film is Skippy, the terrier who plays Asta, their pooch. This dog is a scene stealer from the get-go. This mutt is a bigger camera hog than his contemporary, Terry, who played Toto in The Wizard of Oz.

There you go. Now that you have been introduced to the stars of the show, on with the show.

The Thin Man (1934):

Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan) comes to her father’s workshop to announce her engagement and impending wedding to Tommy (Henry Wadsworth). Her father, Clyde (Edward Ellis) is an eccentric inventor who works in a laboratory designing new devices. Dorothy learns that Clyde is on his way out of town but she exhorts him to be back in time for her wedding, which has been scheduled to occur in three months.

Within the first 15 minutes of the movie we discover that not only does Clyde’s secretary have a secret lover on the side, but that she has been trying to bilk Clyde out of money for her own security. Not only that, but Clyde’s ex-wife, Mimi (Minna Gombell) wants more money than she got from the divorce. She has a gold-digger husband (played by Caesar Romero in an early role) who also lurks at the fringe wanting more money. There is a lot of skullduggery going on early in the film, and a lot of red herrings are thrown at the audience, but it’s all in fun, because the real stars haven’t come on the scene yet.

Enter Nick Charles (William Powell), who in his first appearance is trying to show the bartender how to mix drinks. His style is to mix them, based on the contents, to a rhythm of a dance number. (Wonder if James Bond knows about this…) Nora (Myrna Loy) shows up with Asta and the repartee begins. One of the first funny bits is when Nora asks Nick how many martinis he’s already had. When he replies six, Nora tells the bartender to line up five more for her. These are two lushes who are competing with each other, but instead of doing it for superior ranking in ability to hold their liquor, they are doing it out of love. (Whether that’s a good thing or not is debatable).

Dorothy, whose father it turns out was an old client of Nick’s from his days as a professional private detective, approaches him to find out what has happened to her father. It seems he has not been seen since that meeting three months earlier and no one seems to know what has happened to him. But circumstances crop up almost immediately. His secretary/mistress turns up dead and the guilty finger seems to point at Clyde. She had been sponging money off him for some time. Which didn’t set too well with the ex because she wanted to keep dipping her finger in the pie. In fact, it was she who discovered the body of the mistress. Hmm…

The suspicions abound as to who is more deeply involved in the affair than they are letting on, but police lieutenant John Guild (Nat Pendleton) is convinced that Clyde is the culprit and is intent on locating him. When another dead body turns up, the fingers still point primarily to Clyde, but Nick is convinced of his innocence, enough so that he constantly presents a two to one bet with Lt. Guild that Clyde is innocent and that someone else will eventually come to the fore as the guilty party.

At Clyde’s laboratory a secret basement is discovered where a skeleton is discovered. Due to the clothes that cover the skeleton, it is deduced by Lt. Guild that the body is that of a man that had been blackmailing Wynant, the same case that Nick had been working on for Wynant several months back. And once again, the outcry is that Wynant is the guilty party. All except for nick who still insists that Wynant is innocent.

The finale of the case is revealed in the quite Agatha Christie-ish like fashion, all of the suspects are gathered at a dinner party where Nick finally solves the case. Of course, it’s probably no surprise to any one familiar with these types of movies, but Nick is correct in his prediction that Wynant is innocent of any of the murders. What is surprising is the details of where and what Wynant had been doing in the preceding three months. No spoiler alerts here; watch it for yourself. If nothing else for the comic parts. As a detective story it is lacking, in my opinion, but the comedy makes it worth a view.

Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.

  • Bryan Ruffin

    I have all 6 in my collection, and have enjoyed them many times over the years! The comedy, the mystery, the fact that she was such a good looking red-head! They did a good job pairing these 2! I am told several often took them as a married couple in real life! They were very talented as actors in their own right, together, they were an un-beatable duo. But, that’s just my opinion.

  • Tom

    I love thismovie, and one can see why it received some nice Oscar nods. One of my favorite lines is at the aforementioned dinner party, when the butler presses cocktails on two of the suspectss, rather menaceinglly, and the blonde says, “I guess he WANTS us to have a cocktail!” AReading this gives no hint as to the fun and funny-ness of the line and the scene. Also the scene about the “drawers!” LOVE the whole series.

  • Julie Elandt

    I own the series of these Thin Man movies.I love Myrna Loy and I love love Skippy. However when it comes to William Powell, I am his number one fan, love him to pieces. I never get tired of these films and catch something new every time I watch them. Powell was also good in the Kennel Case Murders and I own that one as well. My very favorite movie of Powell’s is the 1940 movie, “Till We Meet Again” with Powell and Merle Oberon, and Pat O’Brian. Would like to know when it will become available on DVD? I have been waiting what seems like forever for this film to become available to purchase. Please do it soon, I am 68 and not a lot of time before I meet them in person! Just a little humor! There isn’t a movie of his or Myrna Loy’s that I don’t like. They don’t make actors the way they use to. I just have fallen in love with Hollywood 1930 – 1960 circa.