Maybe it's the booze talking, but Judge Bryan Byun thinks this sprawling seven-disc collection of Thin Man movies is just gr—(hic)...gr—(hic)...gr—(hic)...just peachy.
"The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking.
Now a Manhattan you always shake to foxtrot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a
dry martini you always shake to waltz time."
The Great Depression of the 1930s was a dark period for most of America, but it produced some of the sunniest, most likable films in Hollywood history. It was an era of wacky screwball comedies and breezy, sexy romances, all designed to lift the spirits of a nation in despair. One of the most enduring and beloved artifacts of that time is 1934's The Thin Man, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, a jaunty, witty mystery-comedy classic that spawned five sequels and gave birth to the "husband and wife detective team" genre. Countless TV shows and films, including Moonlighting, Hart to Hart, Arthur, Will & Grace, and even the Indiana Jones movies, owe much of their appeal to the brand of urbane, affectionately combative repartee made famous by Nick and Nora Charles.
Warner originally released The Thin Man in 2002; now, we get another pass at the same DVD (only this time in a keep case instead of the much-maligned snapper case), accompanied by all five of the other movies in the Thin Man series in a hefty box set that also includes a seventh disc of bonus features. For the first time, fans of the films can get the complete series in a single, lavishly supplemented collection. Murder, blackmail, and functional alcoholism were never so much fun!
Facts of the Case
The Thin Man (1934), based on the Dashiell Hammett's novel of the same name, introduces our high society heroes: Nick Charles (Powell), a rascally former sleuth spending his retirement working through an endless succession of martinis; his wife, Nora (Loy), a sophisticated, spunky dame who can match Nick drink for drink and quip for quip; and their cowardly canine companion, Asta. Despite the title, Nick's not the "thin man" of the movie; that's the wealthy inventor (Edward Ellis) at the center of the mystery. When the inventor, who's under suspicion in a string of murders, goes missing, Nick is drawn out of the first in a series of retirements to solve the case. Reluctant—and who wouldn't be?—to leave his life of luxury and boozing and go back to work, he's urged on by Nora, who's eager to play junior detective as Nick's sidekick. The mystery, though compelling enough, is mostly an excuse to showcase Nick and Nora's witty, frequently racy banter. (Nick: "I'm a hero. I was shot two times in the Tribune." Nora: "I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids." Nick: "It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.")
After the Thin Man (1936) picks up exactly where the first film left off, with Nick and Nora on a train from Manhattan back to their San Francisco home. The couple have barely made it back to their mansion, however, when they're drawn into a scandalous mystery involving Nora's family. It seems the no-good, philandering husband (Alan Marshal) of Nora's cousin, Selma (Elissa Landi), has gone missing, and when hubby—natch—turns up dead, Selma becomes a prime suspect, along with her former suitor (an early appearance by James Stewart), who's still holding a torch for her. Director W.S. Van Dyke (The Prizefighter and the Lady), and husband-wife screenwriting team Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (It's a Wonderful Life) all returned for this sequel, which continues the spicy repartee and boozy hijinks of the original (adapted from material Hammett excised from the original novel), and throws in a ribald subplot involving a cuckolded Asta's attempts to keep an unsavory Scottish terrier away from his doggie wife.
Another Thin Man (1939), the third and last of the entries by the series's original directing/writing team of Van Dyke, Hackett, and Goodrich, brings Nick and Nora (along with baby Nick Jr.) back to the East Coast, to the estate of family friend and business associate Colonel MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith). MacFay, spooked by a disgruntled former employee (Sheldon Leonard) who claims to be having dreams of the Colonel's untimely death, asks Nick to investigate this apparent threat to his life; when, true to the employee's prediction, MacFay is found dead in his bed, it looks like an open-and-shut case. Or is it? (Answer: no.)
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), directed again (and for the last time) by Van Dyke but written by Irving Brecher (Meet Me in St. Louis) and Harry Kurnitz (How to Steal a Million), finds the sleuthing couple back in San Francisco and off to the races for a day of gambling at the track. Alas, the fun is interrupted by the mysterious death of a jockey, and Nick—who apparently shares the definition of "retirement" held by Stephen King and Michael Jordan—is once again prevailed upon to investigate. Arriving right on the cusp of America's entry into the Second World War (a mere two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor), Shadow of the Thin Man would be the last Thin Man entry for three years, with Myrna Loy leaving for New York to join the war effort with the Red Cross.
The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) replaced director Van Dyke (who passed away in 1943) with Richard Thorpe (Tarzan's New York Adventure) and writers Kurnitz, Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night), and Dwight Taylor (Top Hat). True to the film's title, this penultimate entry has Nick and Nora leaving the cosmopolitan locales of their earlier adventures for Nick's hometown in the country. You wouldn't think (unless, that is, you'd seen the previous four films) that murder and mayhem could follow Nick to this sleepy little Norman Rockwell burg, but sure enough, the famous couple's arrival stirs up the townspeople, who think Nick and Nora are in town to solve a case, and the formerly wild, now teetotalling (how far we've come from the first film!) pair soon find themselves squarely in the midst of a murder mystery.
Song of the Thin Man (1947) wraps up the series in familiar fashion, this time around with Nick and Nora pulled into a mystery aboard a gambling ship. True to the steadily increasing family-friendliness of the series, Nick and Nora are onboard the floating casino for a noble cause—it's a fundraising cruise for charity—but the night soon turns ugly, when the ship's nasty, much-hated bandleader (Philip Reed) is found murdered. Will Nick come out of retirement once again to solve the case? Will the murderer be revealed during a final-scene roundup of suspects? Will Nick ever take another drink? Yes, yes, and…well, you'll just have to find out for yourself.
Alias Nick and Nora is a bonus disc of supplemental features, including two substantial (but not directly related to the Thin Man series) documentaries, one on William Powell (narrated by Michael York), the other, hosted by Kathleen Turner, focusing on Myrna Loy. There's also an episode of a (deservedly) short-lived Thin Man television series, starring Peter Lawford as Nick, and a Lux Radio Theater broadcast of a Thin Man radio adaptation.
You can practically smell the alcohol fumes emanating from every frame of The Thin Man, the merrily besotted first—and finest—entry in the series. There's nary a scene with Nick Charles in which he's not either holding a drink, in a state of advanced inebriation, or recovering from the previous night's boozing (usually with a drink). If you're a fan of shows like Absolutely Fabulous, you'll appreciate the guilty, anarchic pleasure to be had in watching people give themselves up so completely and unapologetically to pure excess. Even so, the utter absence of judgment of Nick and Nora's Dionysian lifestyle feels scandalous in these sensitive times—at least on AbFab, the characters are routinely punished for their bad behavior, while Nick's outrageous indulgences don't seem to affect him in the slightest.
That breezy dismissal of anything resembling adult responsibility or moral consequences is key to The Thin Man's eternal appeal. This movie is Tom Sawyer for grownups, a celebration of bad behavior, and the ultimate escapist fantasy for Depression-era audiences. The film's most iconic moment has Nick and Nora lounging around their swanky Manhattan apartment on Christmas morning, an inebriated (of course) and bored Nick shooting balls off the Christmas tree with a pellet gun. That such a casual display of wealthy indolence charmed rather than enraged working-class Americans says much about the film's success, which hinges entirely on the appeal of its leads, Powell and Loy, and their good-natured chemistry. (Nick is so likable, after all, that even the crooks he sent off to prison remember him fondly.) Watching the pair flirt and one-up each other with the familiarity and ease of longtime lovers, it's hard to believe the pair weren't romantically involved in real life. And Nick Charles, as portrayed by Powell, is a complex and original character, melding Powell's debonair looks to the character's regular-joe background in a way that makes him seem simultaneously aristocratic and common. He may be a millionaire, but he's still one of the guys.
If The Thin Man had been simply a comedy of upper-class manners, that would have been fine in itself, but there's also a mystery to be solved, and the plot, while routinely upstaged by Nick and Nora's verbal sparring and screwball hijinks, more than holds its own. Although at times I forgot that there even was a murder mystery, it's an intricate storyline with a few genuinely surprising twists. When the culprit is uncovered, in the series's trademark finale in which Nick rounds up all the suspects, prods them into revealing their secrets, and lets the guilty party incriminate him- or herself in the resulting fray, the revelation feels a trifle arbitrary—I'm not sure if it's even possible to guess the killer's identity before the dinner party scene—but by that time, you're too vicariously soused to much care.
MGM clearly knew a good thing when it saw it, and the success of the original movie led inevitably to a string of sequels. It's probably unrealistic to expect the follow-up films to sustain the Bacchanalian frenzy of The Thin Man, and while the first sequel, After the Thin Man, retains most of the bad-boy appeal and blithe wit of the original, it dials down the naughtiness a few degrees. The story is lively and perhaps even more elegantly constructed than in the first film, and has the added benefit of Jimmy Stewart, cast here in a supporting role before his rise to stardom. (Here's a fun game for classic movie buffs: try to spot a cast member of It's a Wonderful Life in each film.)
From there, though, the series begins to lose steam. Another Thin Man suffers from an overly long setup, and a murder victim so stuffy and unlikable that it's hard to really care who killed him. The spark between Powell and Loy, however, remains undiminished, and the bad guys (especially Muriel Hutchinson, playing the disgruntled ex-employee's girlfriend) are creepily effective in their defiant sleaziness. There's also a sharply hilarious scene at a nightclub that has all the sardonic wit of the original, and a raucous scene involving a birthday party for Nick and Nora's baby, thrown by ex-cons (including an uncredited Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges) nabbed by Nick in his sleuthing days, that's the comedic centerpiece of the film.
There's a good reason why MGM made these films two or three years apart; watching them one after another, their inherent sameness is harder to take. By the time the fourth film, Shadow of the Thin Man, rolls around, the running jokes have worn thin. Once again we see the famous Nick Charles mobbed by admirers and hounded with questions about whether or not he'll return to detective work, something that was agreeable enough in the first sequel, but feels grating and self-congratulatory here. The obligatory roundup of suspects at the end comes off as just that—obligatory—without even the semblance of trickery that made the same scene in the first film seem so clever. By now, they're just grabbing the suspects and hauling them in. It's a little reminiscent of those James Bond films in which Bond's biggest challenge, as a world-famous secret agent, is finding some place in the world where he isn't instantly recognizable.
The Thin Man Goes Home continues the downward trend, thoroughly neutering Nick's character (he doesn't even drink), albeit to mildly comic effect, and replacing much of the sexy, suggestive banter of earlier films with inoffensive domestic squabbling. There's some novelty in the drastic change of location from the big city to the quaint country atmosphere of Nick's hometown, and the smalltown setting makes for some bracing corruption-beneath-the-wholesome-surface social commentary (it would be interesting to know if David Lynch was at all influenced by this film when he made Blue Velvet, which echoes this film in many ways), but unfortunately it's married to a plot that's perhaps the weakest of the six films.
The final film, Song of the Thin Man, is a definite improvement over its predecessor, but still feels like a thin retread, recycling the usual gags and situations. The jazz-tinged storyline offers up a predictably convoluted mystery that feels cribbed from a standard book of mystery plots, with little of the distinctive style that Hammett brought to the first two films. The excellent cast, which includes Keenan Wynn (Stagecoach) and a radiant Gloria Grahame, definitely elevates the proceedings, and Nick and Nora are as charming as ever (though Nora by this point has become a tad matronly), but all in all it's probably just as well that this was the series's swan song.
Warner has given each of the six films in this set an excellent transfer; although there hasn't been any extensive restoration of the prints, they all look nicely cleaned up, with a luminous clarity beneath the noticeable but not distracting age-related wear. The years have been hardest on the first film, which shows the most damage, and there's a fair bit of speckling and fading on the others, but when they look good, they look very good. Sound, presented in Dolby Digital mono on all of the discs (the first three offer French audio tracks in addition to English), is uniformly clean, not bad at all for their age.
Taken together, there's a wealth of extra features spread out across the seven discs. For the most part, the extras are divided between live-action short films, cartoons, and radio broadcasts; the seventh disc, Alias Nick and Nora, offers two documentaries, on Powell and Loy respectively, and an episode of a short-lived Thin Man television series.
The documentaries are the centerpiece of the extras, and are well worth watching for anyone unfamiliar with the Thin Man stars. William Powell: A True Gentleman (30 minutes) is a cradle-to-grave overview of Powell's life, with an emphasis on his work on the Thin Man series. With interviews featuring film critic Leonard Maltin and others who have studied Powell's career, this documentary packs a lot of good information into its relatively short running time. Powell, a man of average looks who nonetheless managed to create a suave, debonair screen image that was the envy of males of the time, isn't as well-known today as some of his younger co-stars, so this recap of his career is a welcome supplement to the movies.
Hollywood Remembers: Myrna Loy—So Nice to Come Home To (45 minutes) is a decent overview, hosted by Kathleen Turner, of Loy's fascinating Hollywood career. At the time of The Thin Man, Loy was best known for playing exotic, dangerous beauties, a far cry from the easygoing gal she portrayed as Nora Charles. Though Loy is not an obvious choice for the role, director Van Dyke, who noticed the playful off-screen bantering between Loy and Powell while on the set of Manhattan Melodrama, convinced MGM to give her a shot. Like Powell, Loy is one of those Hollywood legends whose star has faded over the years, and viewers unfamiliar with Loy will find this affectionate tribute interesting and informative.
The live-action shorts are a mixed bag; I was most disappointed by the films by Robert Benchley, the legendary humorist and Algonquin Round Table regular, whose absurd, literate wit doesn't seem, at least in these examples, to translate well to the silver screen. How to Be a Detective, a faux guide to sleuthing, and Why Daddy?, a send-up of radio quiz shows, are painfully unfunny and awkward, most of the gags falling flat, and Benchley himself clearly trying too hard to milk laughs out of stale, stale jokes.
A pair of non-Benchley shorts, the musical Love on Tap and A Really Important Person, a preachy drama starring a young Dean Stockwell (who played Nicky Jr. in Song of the Thin Man), aren't much better; Love on Tap, which offers some dancing and a mini-romantic melodrama, is cute, but nothing special, and the ponderous A Really Important Person, about a kid who writes an essay about an important person (who turns out to be, yep, his dad), manages to pack a veritable mountain of schmaltz into a few brief minutes. A 20-minute adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, directed by then-neophyte noir director Jules Dassin (The Naked City), is probably the best of the short subjects, offering up some genuine tension and a creepy, suspenseful retelling of the familiar story.
The Alias Nick and Nora disc also contains a Lux Radio Theater adaptation of The Thin Man, and while it's fascinating as a historical document, it's tough to actually listen to. The sound is muddy and tinny, and it's hard to make out some of the dialogue. The After the Thin Man disc features a Lux Radio adaptation of that film that's in somewhat better condition, and is much more listenable. Accompanying that broadcast is a brief Leo is on the Air radio promo showcasing MGM soundtrack music (including music from After the Thin Man).
The bonus disc also includes "Darling, I Loathe You," an episode of the Thin Man TV series that aired briefly in 1958. Again, it's much more valuable as an artistic artifact than actual entertainment. Starring a sounds-good-on-paper but ultimately miscast Peter Lawford as Nick, with a severe-looking Phyllis Kirk playing Nora, the Thin Man series updates the story to the Fifties and recasts Nick and Nora as wealthy hepcats. Unfortunately, the pair have zero chemistry, and none of the appeal of the "real" Nick and Nora, making the whole thing a charmless bore that, at best, is good for some cheesy ridicule.
Rounding out the extras are several MGM cartoon shorts, including a pair of Tex Avery classics, "Screwball Squirrel" and "Slap Happy Lion," as well as a pair of Hugh Harman musicals, "The Bookworm" and the rather weird "The Early Bird and the Worm." There's also an early Hanna-Barbera cartoon, "The Goose Goes South."
All in all, it's an enjoyable, if uneven, set of extras. It's clear that some thought went into the assembling of these features—the overall approach of each disc is to convey something of what it was like to spend an evening at the movies, back in the '30s and '40s, before the television era.
As solid as the writing and acting are throughout this series, there's really only one reason to watch these films, and that's Nick and Nora. While the quality of the individual films may vary overall, the chemistry between Powell and Loy doesn't diminish a whit; in the best and in the least of these films, the pair is an absolute delight to watch, and while none of the later films matches the insane brilliance of The Thin Man, they're all consistently entertaining from start to finish. For the price, this set is an amazing bargain, and a must-buy for any fan of classic cinema.
The Complete Thin Man Collection is hereby placed on probation, pending completion of an alcohol rehab program.
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