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Giving Thanks - The Thin Men

November 2018

There are 6 Thin Men movies, the original The Thin Man and 5 sequels. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced these films from 1934-1947. Rather than regale the reader with praise and impeccable particulars about any and all of these astonishingly funny and artistic films, I suggest the purchase of a Box Set of these Hollywood productions, based upon the following recommendations:

1. Actors who play the roles as if they were made for them. William Powell and Myrna Loy are the principal stars, but the supporting cast in each film proves the point that major actors need to be supported by the very best thespians on any movie set.

2. Costumes rarely seen nowadays except in celluloid form. Even the bathrobes look like evening gowns! The wardrobe designs, initially by Dolly Tree, and later by Irene; as well as the un-credited costume jewelry designs by Eugene Joseff — these glimmering, gorgeous details very nearly steal every show. The stylish glamour and suave duds don’t upstage the acting only because they fit so perfectly into the world of Nick and Nora and their rarified air in the San Francisco and the New York of a very-by-gone era.

3. The technical talents for The Thin Men were superlative craftsmen and craftswomen, typical of the factory town wherein the Golden Age of Hollywood thrived. In this unexpected series of smash hits, their brilliant efforts actualized with magnificence the truth that the sum of the parts was greater than each whole Thin Man.

One outstanding technician was Cedric Gibbons who performed the art direction of all of these films. Mr. Gibbons won the Oscar 11 times; he was nominated 38 times. In 1928, he was credited as the designer of “Oscar”. Mr. Gibbons just might have felt a personal kinship with that statuette! (You were made for me . . .)

For The Thin Man, the cinematographer was the incomparable James Wong Howe. The combination of the art direction by Gibbons and the photography by Howe created a luminous black-and-white film art in this first film that was not fully achieved in the subsequent Thin Men. The final sequel, The Thin Man Goes Home, received the photographic treatment by cinematographer Karl Freund and his inventive, ingenious placement of the recording camera. The results are technically innovative but, in my opinion, less aesthetic.

Each film in the Thin Man series does, however, achieve its own unique story design, an accomplishment that makes the Box Set a true ensemble in cinematic history.

4. Let’s start with the writing. Dashiell Hammett created the characters Nick and Nora in his detective novel, The Thin Man, which was published in 1933 in the magazine Redbook. Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich took these 2 characters and the basic storyline by Hammett, and they ran with them, composing dialogue that was snappy, sophisticated, subtly funny and stunningly comical. They worked on the first 4 films. New nuances can be discovered each time one of these movies is viewed.

5. The direction of W. S. “Woody” Van Dyke, in sequence, ensured a film that literally moves with the fast-but-steady pace of the plot. “One-Take-Woody” believed in shooting each scene efficiently, and quickly, without wasting time or money. He knew what he wanted, and he knew how to expertly realize his pictorial vision. The results were patently artistic for the four Thin Man films that he directed.

His suicide at the age of forty-three necessitated the direction of the last two Thin Man films by other directors: Edward Buzzell for The Song of the Thin Man, and Richard Thorpe for The Thin Man Goes Home. The screenwriting team of Hackett and Goodrich was replaced by a number of other writers in the later sequels. These changes did indeed affect the overall sensibility of these final Thin Man movies.

The later Thin Men are not as stylistically pure as the early ones, but the realities of the late 1930s and the 1940s demanded less glitz, glamour and gin in motion pictures. The protracted Great Depression and the American experience during World War II altered a lot of Hollywood scripts and settings. The Thin Man (who is NOT Nick Charles) came to feature a family man, swigging cider and saving martinis for only special occasions, like New Year’s Eve.

For me, the best aspect to each Thin Man film is the opportunity to venture into a world of stylish crime-solving wherein the crimes are not committed by the people who simply want to live life. There are villains who are flat-out stinkers, without apologies or apologists for their treachery. There are heroines who are not afraid to defend virtue, and they look fabulous!

There is love, and there is laughter, well-stocked in an imaginary world where you can forget for a while about the “real world” that seems to have gone crazy. These films invite escapism without any excuses, just the effervescence of enchantment. The Thin Men, all of them, provide the pure fun of a story marvelously and masterfully told. Murder is not a conspiracy but the deadly deed of a criminal.

Add to those sensational cinematic scenes, music that rings and sings — at least once we leave the annoyingly grating monotony of the 1920s music that lingers a bit too long in the first two Thin Men. The musical scores to the sequels more than make up for those ditzy ditties. The Song of the Thin Man offers music that is memorable, lively and lovely.

The Thin Men are half a dozen flicks that give thanks to a time and a place when it was more than okay to say:

Hooray for Hollywood!


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