Ah, can you smell the Spring in the air? I know it is rather hard to detect because of the snow, but gosh, what a wondrous time of the year! And it certainly makes one nostalgic. I am not immune to Spring’s charm and that has made me nostalgic for the Golden Age of Hollywood! No, not the one in Florida, I meant the one in California!
It was a time of glitz and glamour! A time of stars and the studio system! A time for whimsy, nonsense, and utter make believe! A time for the legends of the silver screen and more scandals than you can shake a stick at! (Thankfully, at least that part has remained constant over the intervening decades…)
Nowadays we complain and whine about the fact that movies today show nothing new. However, here’s something else that that isn’t new: studios making franchises and sequels! See? Back then was no different from today, where everything is a sequel, a prequel, a reboot, a franchise, a reimagining. You might ask, “Where’s the originality?” Sadly, even if you ask that question, you aren’t being very original.
Back in that Golden Age, the movie factories cranked these things out at an incredible rate. Horror sequels, western series, and comedy franchises were all sent out on the assembly lines that the studios provided. This resulted in seven Francis the Talking Mule films, ten Ma & Pa Kettle films, and Blondie and Dagwood having 28 films. (Yes, twenty…freaking…eight of them. Ye gods…)
Mystery series were incredibly popular as well. Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes snooped on screens for years, with Mr. Moto, Mr. Wong, Philo Vance, and others all jockeying for the crumbs of cases that were left behind. Which in my ham-fisted way brings us to today, where we shall look at the first follow-up for one of the most popular of the crime-solving sleuths, Nick Charles and his lovely wife, Nora. Oh, and there’s a dog too.
Oh, and spoilers too. It’s been 85 years. It’s time. Grow up.
The Sequel: After the Thin Man (1936)
Original Movie: The Thin Man (1934)
Key Cast/Production Staff Returning from 1st Installment:
|William Powell||As Nick Charles|
|Myrna Loy||As Nora Charles|
|W.S. Van Dyke||Director|
|Cedric Gibbons||Art Director|
To Start With:
Nick Charles: “Did I ever tell you that you’re the most fascinating woman this side of the Rockies?
Nora Charles: “Wait till you see me on the other side.”
Dashiell Hammett is a name to be reckoned with amongst great mystery writers of the 20th Century. He might not have been as prolific as his contemporaries or those that followed in his wake, but not only did he write some landmarks in the genre but also created some rather memorable characters. The hardboiled Continental Op pitting gangs against each other in Red Harvest. Sam Spade investigating a string of murders and international thieves in The Maltese Falcon. Love and murder and friendship all up for grabs in The Glass Key.
Early on, Hollywood saw the potential in Hammett’s stories, releasing a pre-Code version of The Maltese Falcon in 1931. (Yes, without Humphrey Bogart! But with Bebe Daniels and Thelma Todd, which is quite an upgrade or two in my opinion.) In 1934, Hammett wrote what turned out to be his last published novel, The Thin Man. The book with married protagonists Nick and Nora Charles was a success. MGM had the rights for the film version, decided it would perfect for their B unit, and got it out that same year.
The resulting film established William Powell’s Nick Charles and Myrna Loy’s Nora as a screen team par excellence. With solid direction from W.S. Van Dyke, a great script by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, a top-notch supporting cast that had Maureen O’Sullivan, Edward Brophy, Nat Pendleton, Porter Hall, and Cesar Romero, and one of the best movie dogs of all time, Asta, as played by Skippy, The Thin Man was a success, being nominated for four Academy Awards, eventually grossing almost $1.5 million. (Yes, only MGM could make a B movie that would earn huge boatloads of cash and nominations…)
Impressed with the hit it had, MGM decided to spin the wheel again and see if a sequel to The Thin Man would be successful as well. So, in 1936, with Powell, Loy, Van Dyke, Hackett, Goodrich, and Hammett all back for round two, After the Thin Man, which came out after The Thin Man, was released.
Anything Done Better than the Original?
“Come on, let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty.”
The connection and chemistry that William Powell and Myrna Loy had in The Thin Man is even more of a treat the second time around. After being introduced to these characters from the first film, here they are given a chance to breathe a bit. And that Powell and Loy were completely comfortable with each other and trusted each other’s choices for the roles is readily apparent. Portraying a healthy marital relationship between the Charles couple was key to the success of the series and in After the Thin Man, Powell and Loy are firing on all cylinders.
Their banter, their concern for each other, and their showing of obvious love for each other made Nick and Nora the highlights of the series, with the plots taking a backseat along the way. They teamed up for 14 movies from 1934 to 1947 and no matter what the film, they were always a highlight.
Anything as Good as the Original?
Nick Charles: “You see, when it comes to words like that, an illiterate person…”
Polly Byrnes: “What do you mean “illiterate”? My father and mother were married right here in the city hall!”
A nice array of good character actors makes the second entry a solid one. Say what you will about the studio system, they managed to fill their lower rungs on the cast list with some reliable faces. For those of us who are fans of films from this era (and if you aren’t, how sad for you), a veritable Who’s Who of “Those Guys” and “That Gals” can be seen throughout. Penny Singleton, George Zucco, Jessie Ralph, Paul Fix, and Joseph Calleia all do some great work here, carving out some memorable roles.
Special mention to Sam Levene as Lt. Abrams here too. He plays off Powell and Loy rather well and comes across very likable indeed. His character would return in 1941’s Shadow of the Thin Man.
And no, your eyes are deceiving you, that is not Joe Pesci showing up to play Casper, the shifty lawyer. I can disprove this by saying that Joe Pesci would have been -7 years old at the time of release, hardly old enough to play a lawyer, let alone a lawyer that seedy. Also, the role was played by Teddy Hart, whose name turns out to be spelled rather differently than Joe Pesci’s name. I did the checking.
Oh, and some guy named James Stewart is in this too. I think he did some other movies but I’m too lazy to look that up right now. More on him later…
Anything Not-So-Good as the Original?
Nora Charles: “I love to watch you sleep. You look so cute. Nicky, have you any pictures of yourself taken as a baby?”
Nick Charles: “No.”
Nora Charles: “Aww, that’s a shame. I want to see what you looked like.”
Nick Charles: “I’ll have some taken in the morning.”
The Thin Man delivered a nice little mystery, established a wonderful acting duo in signature roles, and got four Academy Award nominations, all in 91 minutes. After the Thin Man delivered a nice little mystery, fortified a wonderful acting duo in their signature roles, and got 1 Academy Award nomination, all in 112 minutes. Yes, I’m taking a long time to say that the film is too long.
It really could stand some trimming. Yes, we’re glad to see Nick and Nora again, but does everyone in San Francisco have greet them when they return? Do we need two full musical numbers? Do we need all that whimsical canine interaction and drama over infidelity involving Asta and Mrs. Asta? In a carefully chosen word: no. To add another very carefully chosen word to the first one: hell, no.
When that stuff is onscreen, I want to know who in their right mind wanted less Powell and Loy in the movie. Then I remember, this is MGM, and they loved to meddle with anything that became a success, thinking they knew best.
Just look at the later Marx Brothers movies or the early sound career of Buster Keaton to see that MGM really wasn’t that good at the whole overbearing suggestion game.
Anything Far Worse than the Original?
Nick Charles: “How do you do? I’d like to get this gal out of the woman’s tank.”
Prison Matron: “Oh, yes. Is this the one that was doing the fan dance?”
Nick Charles: “Fan dance?”
Prison Matron: “Yes.”
Nick Charles: “Well, if it is, she’s been holding out on me.”
Okay, here we go: my biggest problem with the film is the murderer. Yes, I know that Jimmy Stewart is a Hollywood legend. Yes, I am quite aware of his resumé. Yes, I know that he was up for Academy Awards not soon after this, even winning one for The Philadelphia Story because he should have gotten it for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington the previous year. But everyone must start somewhere, usually doing earlier roles they’d rather forget.
Compared to the completely unassuming Porter Hall, whose revelation as the killer is a big surprise in The Thin Man (Bonus Spoiler! HAH!), Stewart goes into full on crazy mode when confronted by Powell. I think this is a tad outside of Stewart’s comfort zone as an actor, especially at that time. Yes, I’m all for an actor stretching their wings, but here it careens off into the world of overacting with a bit of scenery chewing. (And he’s sharing a room with George Zucco, so that’s saying something! Actually…now, that I’m thinking about it, having Zucco as the killer would have been more apropos…)
Now I might be projecting Stewart’s later career choices onto this earlier role. That’s a fair point to make and there is some truth to that. It is hard not to see the guy from Rear Window, Harvey, and Anatomy of a Murder in this performance. But I think that if Stewart underplayed it a bit and laid off the raving, he’d come off a bit better in my eyes. Remember he goes crazy in Vertigo too, but we feel sorry for him, as we should. I do feel sorry for Stewart here, but that’s completely because of how he played the scene.
Nick Charles: “Have you made any New Year’s resolutions?”
Nora Charles: “Not yet. Any complaints or suggestions?”
Nick Charles: “A few.”
Nora Charles: “Which?”
Nick Charles: “Complaints.”
Nora Charles: “All right, shoot.”
Nick Charles: “Well, you don’t scold, you don’t nag, and you look far too pretty in the mornings.”
Nora Charles: “All right, I’ll remember: must scold, must nag, mustn’t be too pretty in the mornings.”
Oh, there were most certainly follow-ups! Nick and Nora Charles had the pleasure of gracing screens in four further sequels. I’ve been trying to call them The Thin Men films, but so far there have been no takers.
In 1939, William Powell, after a successful bout fighting cancer, joined back up with Myrna Loy and director W.S. Van Dyke for Another Thin Man. (I suppose After After the Thin Man would have been too complicated a title.) The film also introduced baby Nicky Charles, Nick and Nora’s son, thereby establishing a road bump for further sequels as they were now handcuffed to having a kid in the mix. As if having Asta wasn’t enough. Still any mystery that managed to get a bounteous character actor cast list of Otto Kruger, Sheldon Leonard, Tom Neal, Ruth Hussey, and the legendary Shemp Howard can’t be all bad and it isn’t. Sadly, this was the last entry in the series that author/creator Dashiell Hammett had any direct involvement with regarding the story. Another Thin Man was also the final Thin Man screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
Shadow of the Thin Man followed in 1941 and for me, it was the last relatively good entry. That’s probably due to W.S. Van Dyke still being at the wheel for direction. Loy and Powell are great as always but including more of Li’l Nicky in the story is not a plus. Also having definite second tier character actors doesn’t help the situation. After the Thin Man’s Sam Levene is back as Lt. Abrams and is quite welcome. But Donna Reed and Barry Nelson and Henry O’Neill don’t exactly set the world on fire. I was happy to see the uncredited Tor Johnson and the even more uncredited Sid Melton just because I was so starved for variety from this otherwise rather bland assortment of studio contract faces.
Series director W.S. Van Dyke sadly passed away in 1943 and that might explain why the two remaining Thin Man sequels weren’t exactly the best. I’d even make the argument that The Thin Mans were released in order of best to worst. This should tell you how I feel about 1945’s The Thin Man Goes Home. One plus for this entry was that Nicky is nowhere to be seen. On the other hand, the story just isn’t that great. Powell and Loy are always reliably entertaining, and it is always good to see Edward Brophy, Donald Meek, Harry Davenport, and Donald “Jumping Butterballs!” MacBride in supporting roles. But having Nick dealing with his parents and hometown ins and outs takes a bit of the shine off the character, even though William Powell handles this with his usual skill.
And finally, as there always is a finally, the final William Powell/Myrna Loy Thin Man feature came in 1947. Despite efforts from Marx Brothers collaborators such as writer Nat Perrin and director Edward Buzzell, Song of the Thin Man is certainly the least of the series. There are some bright spots due to appearances by Keenan Wynn, Gloria Grahame, and Marie Windsor, but the story is a mite dark for a Thin Man movie and doesn’t really come together. The idea of a murder investigation on a cruise ship is always fun, but when the film chooses to leave the ship, it breaks the atmosphere. Although Song made money, certainly due to Powell and Loy coming back, the sixth entry was the end of the series.
There was also a Thin Man radio series from 1941-1950 that was a success despite not having Powell and Loy. And I how could I go on without mentioning the 1957-1959 TV show that starred Phyllis Kirk as Nora and former Rat Packer Peter Lawford as Nick. Eh, it turns out I could have on without mentioning it. Never mind.
Should I even bring up the TV show Hart to Hart, which copied some of The Thin Man formula with Robert Wagner as the Nick part, Stefanie Powers as the Nora part, and Lionel Stander as the human version of Asta, even though there’s a real dog on the show too? Nah, I’ll skip it.
There have been several one-off attempts to bring Nick and Nora to either the stage or the silver screen again, but none have had any staying power. They were parodied brilliantly in 1976’s Murder by Death, with David Niven and Maggie Smith delightfully playing Dick and Dora Charleston. They play the roles so well, I would have enjoyed them being spun off in their own follow-up film.
Nick Charles: “Who was that?”
Nora Charles: “Oh, you wouldn’t know them, darling. They’re respectable.”
William Powell and Myrna Loy proved to be an unbeatable combination, starring in 14 movies together. My personal preference dips into their Thin Man movies as being their best, but, please check out the other films where they are paired off together, you won’t be disappointed.
I would be so beyond remiss that I would have to remiss again if I didn’t mention that Powell had some great films on his own, including Star of Midnight, My Man Godfrey, and Mister Roberts, among others. Not to mention Loy, who was in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, The Best Years of Our Lives, and a rather good episode of Columbo, where sadly, she didn’t help investigate with the good Lieutenant, providing witty banter along the way.
By the way…Nick Charles, despite the studio’s intentions to the contrary, was never intended to be the Thin Man of the titles. The first movie’s main victim, an important-to-the-plot thin man, was the title character. After the Thin Man takes place…after the first movie. The 3rd movie’s victim was another man who was thin and the 4th movie’s title had the thin man’s shadow, whatever that meant. It was with The Thin Man Goes Home, the 5th film, where the studio messed up, cementing the idea that the Thin Man was Nick Charles. It simply isn’t so. Just a nit to pick, I know, but I picked it anyway.
Nick and Nora Charles provided the template that I decided to follow if my wife and I ever found ourselves in the midst of having to investigate a murder or two. Granted, I’m not that urbane, most little details elude me, and we don’t own a dog, but I like to think that the camaraderie of a healthy marriage combined with some crisp, delightful dialogue would smooth out any bumps or suddenly discovered corpses of character actors along the way.
After the Thin Man was a worthy sequel at the end of the day. After this entry, the next sequels suffered from the losses of the original author, the screenwriters, and the director. The mystery here was pretty good, and the cast was solid for the most part, although what about Don Ameche instead of Stewart? Hm? Or Robert Young? Robert Montgomery? Anyway, above all else, there was the welcome presence of both William Powell and Myrna Loy, one of the screen’s greatest team-ups. And if you have them, who could want anything more?
Nora Charles: “I suppose we ought to decide where we’re going.”
Nick Charles: “Why, do you care?”
Nora Charles: “No, but I haven’t any clothes.”
Nick Charles: “Well, what’s the difference? Saves you the trouble of packing. And I don’t need anything in the world, darling, but you… and a toothbrush.”