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By Rory L. Aronsky | August 11, 2002

When something works for Hollywood, the industry will do it again and again and again until the box office returns run dry and there’s no reason to mount a production of the same material. It’s not only true today where there’s sequel after sequel and no doubt some executive right now is either conjuring up a sequel for “The Wedding Crashers” or some reteaming of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. It was around in the ‘30s too. The Tarzan films, for one. Another would be the “Thin Man” series, six films that became lesser and lesser in quality as the years wore on. Some creative decisions influenced that, but evidently, MGM still saw the appeal of pairing William Powell and Myrna Loy over and over. In fact, they made 16 films together and it was so right. They had a rapport in which they’d verbally play with each other. Each knew how the other worked and kept them alive and awake all the time they were on screen. In a Powell/Loy pairing, you know you’re going to have a good time. They had been with each other before “The Thin Man”, such as in “Manhattan Melodrama”, which also included director W.S. Van D**e who, after that film, had read “The Thin Man” by Dashiell Hammett and envisioned Powell and Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, he content with being a detective, of solving cases that baffle the police, and she an heiress with lots of money that enabled him to keep on doing what he did best. Van D**e fought to convince MGM that this was right to do and they agreed to pair Loy with Powell again, so long as Van D**e made the film within 18 days so they could put Loy in a film they felt would be better for her image. Van D**e agreed and made it in twelve days, and what resulted was one of the great comedy films of the ‘30s that still lasts today. Its value not only stems from banter between Nick and Nora, but also from the real unease in watching some of these shady characters.

The case in “The Thin Man” involves Clyde Wynant, a missing inventor, whose disappearance is brought up by his daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) and there’s even more concern from Mimi Jorgensen (Minna Gombell), or as much concern as she can muster what with a lack of money. She loves money, she needs it, she wants it. She’s ghastly and immensely unpleasant. Then there’s Gilbert Wynant (William Henry), a disturbing teenaged boy with his nose constantly in books, believing that he can solve the case. When the cops come to the Wynant house, he stares hard at them. It’s creepy and would very nearly be twisted if the attention wasn’t on Nick and his intention to solve this case. The banter between Powell and Loy in this one is absolute comedic artistry. At a well-to-do bar where Nora drops by after doing lots of Christmas shopping, she spots Dorothy Wynant and about a minute later, asks Nick who she was. Nick looks like he’s swimming against a mighty stream as he reaches the punchline gradually, telling Nora that Dorothy is really his daughter and how he was young and inexperienced in Venice. This leads to the well-known “father’s side” punchline, which is quite a laugh. This Wynant case takes place in New York and is indeed the best of the series. The rest go down in quality, because of overuse of what’s been done before.

After the Thin Man (1936)

A young James Stewart makes an appearance here as one of many suspects, as Nick and Nora go back to San Francisco in the hopes of getting some rest. But with it being New Year’s Eve, it’s not likely, especially with Nora’s cousin Selma (Elissa Landi) worried sick about her missing husband (Alan Marshal). Nora’s Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph) tries to shoo the entire situation away so it doesn’t sully the good family name, but it doesn’t help with Nick reluctantly on the case. Being a sequel, this continues Nick’s association with personalities he put in jail who are surprisingly friendly toward him and it becomes a tired running gag in later films. It’s also the second time that Nick has all the suspects in one room towards the end, though as it is proven, the dinner table sequence in the first one is the most well thought-out. In that one, no one is spread out as in this one and the tension gradually rises. Again, there are unsettling people here, including Selma’s psychiatrist, Dr. Adolph Kammer (George Zucco). All part of the formula’s game plan. This one is good not only for Stewart, but for moments such as the Charles’ dog Asta and his own problems with his family.

Another Thin Man (1939)

This one plants the Charles couple back in New York as well as with Nick, Jr. (William A. Poulsen), merely a year old. This time, a former associate of Nora’s father, Colonel MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith) wants protection from Phil Church (Sheldon Leonard) who sees murders in his dreams and spots MacFay’s own demise. The setting is appropriate for this one, in a foreboding mansion in upstate New York. Nick’s on the case again, naturally, and a host of suspects lie in wait for the same old business. The same just-out-of-jail characters recognize Nick, including Creeps who initially is gleeful at the jewelry find in the Charles’ hotel room, before realizing whose room it is. There’s more media and police coverage as always and wouldn’t you know it, another climax where all the suspects are in one room. Now we get to the point where the mystery doesn’t entirely matter so much anymore due to its convoluted nature. Try to watch, if you care. It’s still very much Nick and Nora’s show which is why anyone would be watching it and even the welcome Marjorie Main of the “Ma and Pa Kettle” movies makes an appearance as a landlady.

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)

Shall we go on the road to Buffalo or just back to the West Coast? It’s San Francisco once again and now to the horse track with a murdered jockey in the men’s showers. The beginning of “Shadow of the Thin Man” eschews the sophistication of the couple now and they lean toward an easy-going nature. Nick once again doesn’t want another case, but takes it in his own sly manner as Nora still thinks he isn’t doing the work that he does. There is an intriguing actor in here who also appeared in “After the Thin Man” named Sam Levene, who played Lieutenant Abrams. If you’ve ever seen Adam Ferrara in the TV series “The Job”, then consider Levene a kind of predecessor in cop work. He employs the same kind of expressions Ferrara uses in his work, such as surprise and amusement, but don’t jump to any assumption that he might have seen this movie. Beyond fans, it’s a wonder if anyone else even saw it. It goes from a pleasant opening to one heck of a boring time. It’s formulaic as always, with no interest invested in the case, and only notable for Donna Reed’s second film appearance, though Barry Nelson is agreeable at times as Reed’s fiancée.

The Thin Man Goes Home (1944)

Having seen some of Nora’s family, Nick’s shouldn’t be a problem. Sycamore Springs is the destination of this always-in-motion couple and a quiet town it is too, where Nick’s parents’ live. Nick’s father (Harry Davenport) doesn’t approve of his son’s profession, so that becomes part of the film’s intent, to find some way to make papa proud. Being such a quiet town, you’d think nothing went on here and indeed Daddy thinks the same way, but where there’s silence, there’s rats running around. Reporters mistakenly think Nick’s arrived to do some investigating on a case and everything rolls into a massive snowball from there, ending with it going off a cliff, or rather someone murdered right at the Charles’ doorstep. Stranger than that is the beginning where Nick and Nora are in a cramped passenger car on the train to Sycamore Springs. Either something sucked a good portion of the money away, such as the Great Depression or World War II, or the train didn’t have those kind of amenities available for the couple. Or maybe it was MGM’s way of looking respectable in a time of war; something done to observe what was going on. Even moreso, this being the fifth film in the series, it obviously wasn’t the most crucial piece of filmmaking for the company, what with “Meet Me in St. Louis” also on the slate for that year. But it somehow worked for the series to reach number five, and the case involves a painting with secrets in it, odd local personalities and the awful acting of Gloria DeHaven as Laurabelle Ronson who claims to be studying drama and shows it too, but even when she gives up the act and turns serious, it still looks like she’s doing the same thing. There’s even some of World War II worked in here as a featured gun in the case-solving climax is one that was used by Japanese snipers in the South Pacific. Going home to Nick’s folks certainly doesn’t make it a good movie.

Song of the Thin Man (1947)

The last Thin Man movie doesn’t even go out with a whimper. It just walks out silently. This time, Nora tries to reclaim her societal respectability by taking Nick on an outing on the S.S. Fortune gambling ship. The murder of bandleader Tommy Drake fouls up the night and subsequent days, though due to this film being a brief 86 minutes, Nick is much more agreeable to taking on this case than all the others, except for the Wynant case in the first “Thin Man” which he just fell into. There’s a lot of jazz lingo in here as a pack of musicians make for some suspicion as well and Nick and Nora try to catch on to what they’re saying, but with no success. The suspects once again are loaded with money, Asta does more detective work with Nick and to care about all of this by the end makes any brave soul much stronger than I. Powell and Loy try gamely to work their magic and wit, but it’s no use anymore.

Even with the shrinking quality of the films, Warner Bros. proves itself once again as an excellent guardian to MGM’s decades-old catalogue. A bonus disc, “Alias Nick and Nora” contains documentaries on William Powell and Myrna Loy, the former narrated by Michael York and the latter from 1990, hosted by Kathleen Turner and directed by film critic Richard Schickel who kicks up far too big a concern about Nick Charles’ drinking through Turner’s narration in that it was taken too lightly. That was actually the point when the movie’s a comedy, emphasis on the meaning of the word. Both documentaries are quite enamored of both stars, and Schickel is content on using lots of film clips, some extremely valuable, to highlight the work of Loy. When he directs documentaries and doesn’t speak a word except through the scripts, Schickel makes compelling cases. His admiration toward Loy is so strong, so eloquent that you might be swayed to like her after it’s over. It’s also richly detailed. That wouldn’t be enough for an entire 7-disc set, however. A few cartoons are spread throughout the discs, the worst being “Happy Harmonies” by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. This one, “The Early Bird and the Worm” sings about just that as a bird gets up early to chase a worm all the way to an illogical ending. Another of Harman’s “The Bookworm” has characters in books come to life as the Raven of Poe’s writing is dispatched to find a worm for witches making a brew. There’s not much entertainment value in this one either though fortunately, relief comes mighty quickly.

On the “Shadow of the Thin Man” disc, a cartoon called “The Goose Goes South” bears the names and mark of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera as a bird doesn’t bother flying South with the rest of the flock but instead tries to hitchhike his way there. Even better are two Tex Avery cartoons, with wacky and outlandish humor, which changed what animation was. In “Screwball Squirrel”, an orange squirrel changes the outline of an entire cartoon by questioning what’s going to happen and ends up being chased by a dog, an atypical chase at that. “Slap Happy Lion” is about a lion afraid of a mouse. Once the king of the jungle, he gets respect there, and each roar is just as hilarious. Elsewhere, there’s a few short films, a comedic piece by Robert Benchley on how to be a detective and another in which he’s on a radio quiz show. Benchley is pleasant enough, and it’s understandable as to why he was featured at the movies, providing a good time with his work.

On the “Alias Nick and Nora” disc, there’s a 1958 episode of the “Thin Man” TV series which starred Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk as Nick and Nora. Watch as Hollywood perverts the whole Beat Generation movement ridiculously within 20 minutes. It’s a murder in the Village in New York that gets Nick and Nora on the case, though Peter Lawford’s Nick simply takes the case, because the kind of chatter that William Powell and Myrna Loy fostered to such great success simply cannot be had here due to a truncated running time. Phyllis Kirk doesn’t even make a sensible Nora. In fact, I wonder if she even knew she was playing Nora at all during the show’s run. It was most certainly a weak attempt by MGM to put something in the TV market at the end of the ‘50s. Two Thin Man radio shows from 1936 and 1940 are also included, great pieces of history to show not only how Hollywood was well into the radio medium, but how they used it, especially in advertising.

As it always goes with bad movies, many will buy this not only for the first movie. As screwy as I’d like to think those people are, they’re definitely smart for the value that this DVD set contains. It’s another great success.

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