At once primitive and shockingly modern is one way to describe the 1934 classic, The Thin Man. It seems creaky and hopelessly old-fashioned in the way it sets up its crime story. Then we get to the heart of the film, which isn’t the plot at all, but the relationship between Nick and his wife Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy). If you’ve never seen it, stick with the murder story even through the awkward rhythms of the plot and the acting of the rest of the cast. They are standard (most of the women and all of the men), with a bit of overintensity from Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane in the early sound Tarzan films and mother of Mia Farrow).
Thrown together in less than two weeks, the film was not considered anything other than an ordinary quickie. But those two marvelous leads and their even more marvelous chemistry led to four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, and to such a successful run that it spawned five sequels. And the chemistry is still delicious. These two not only love each other, but enjoy each other immensely, and consider it part of the marriage contract to be as witty and engaging as possible with one another at all times. (Personal side note: I remember my mother telling me that seeing this film was her first insight into the concept that for some people, being married could be fun.)
Powell, a consistently underrated and too-soon-forgotten actor, owns the film with the more extroverted performance. Today we are more sensitive to the incredible amount of drinking he does, and that can cut into our enjoyment of his work. But it’s worth putting that aside to enjoy the physical and verbal humor of the actor. He completely and delightfully possesses every scene he’s in in a way that few actors do.
Equally as good is Myrna Loy as his wife, who supports, loves, and cajoles her husband. She is his equal partner in every area of their lives, and her naturalness and connection with her husband feels more fresh than most of today’s cinematic relationship. It’s something of a crime that Loy was never nominated for an Oscar. She certainly should have been for this. Yes, her work makes Powell look better. But she does far more than that, adding spice, stability and a mental quickness to the role that isn’t necessarily in the script.
(1934, in fact, was in year in which the Academy got a lot wrong. Bette Davis, who should have won for Of Human Bondage, wasn’t even officially nominated that year, and became a famous write-in nominee, which led to her win the next year. Claudette Colbert won for Best Actress in 1934 in the unprecedented sweep of It Happened One Night. She was fine, but Loy and Davis were better.)
The cinematography of The Thin Man was by the legendary James Wong Howe, Oscar winner for The Rose Tattoo and Hud in his later years. The print I saw was fine but not full restored, and I’m sure some of the blacks were less murky in the original. But some of the scenes were as deliberately dark as The Godfather, Part Two, a daring move in the early sound years.
The film also just barely gets away with some questionable lines that probably would have not gotten past the censors even later that year. They are not only funny to us now, but the film lets us know that everyone involved is in on the jokes. Think “drawers” and “tabloids.”
The Thin Man is a great visit to the past. If you want to see what a quickly made film looks like from the early sound period, this is a great example. If you want to see two great performances involving some of the best marital chemistry in film history, this should be your next stop.