The Thin Man

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USA, 1934

Director: W. S. Van Dyke

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Picture Corp.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 91 minutes. Released June 1934. Filmed during 12 days (some sources list 16 days) of 1934 in MGM studios.

Producer: Hunt Stromberg; screenplay: Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich, from the novel by Dashiell Hammett; photography: James Wong Howe; editor: Robert J. Kern; sound recordist: Douglas Shearer; art director: Cedric Gibbons; music: Dr. William Axt; costume designer: Dolly Tree.

Cast: William Powell (Nick Charles); Myrna Loy (Nora Charles); Maureen O'Sullivan (Dorothy Wynant); Nat Pendleton (John Guild); Minna Gombell (Mira Wynant Jorgensen); Porter Hall (MacCauley); Cesar Romero (Chris Jorgensen); Henry Wadsworth (Tommy); William Henry (Gilbert); Harold Huber (Nunheim); Natalie Moorhead (Julia); Edward Brophy (Morelli); Edward Ellis (Clyde Wynant); Cyril Thornton (Tanner); Thomas Jackson (Reporter); Ruth Channing (Mrs. Jorgensen); Gertrude Short (Gloria); Walter Long (Study Burke); Clay Clement (Quinn); Rolfe Sedan (Kellner); Bert Roach (Foster); Creighton Hale (Reporter).



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* * *

The Thin Man is one of the brightest and most sophisticated comedy/mysteries of the 1930s. Based on Dashiell Hammett's novel of the same name, the film combines the elements of a classic detective story with overtones of the screwball comedies that had their heyday during the Depression. The result is a lighthearted murder mystery featuring perhaps the most engaging married couple in Hollywood's history: Nick and Nora Charles.

Screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett capture both the wit and the style of Hammett's original story. As is true of all good mysteries, strong character development is central to The Thin Man's success. In the wealthy, fun-loving Charleses, film-going audiences soon discovered something that was quite new by Hollywood standards—a husband and wife who thoroughly enjoyed their marriage. The reverent tones with which the film industry had previously addressed the institution of matrimony had left little room for the playfulness and high spirits that mark Nick and Nora's relationship. For them, marriage is clearly an extended love affair, and the film conveys the enviable combination of companionship and romance that sets the pair apart from their staid counterparts in other films.

Dashiell Hammett is said to have modeled the Charleses on his own long-standing relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman, but for film enthusiasts the characters have become inextricably tied to the performers who brought them life. For both William Powell and Myrna Loy, The Thin Man represented a critical career milestone. Each had worked extensively in silent films, Powell playing dapper villains and Loy finding herself cast repeatedly as exotic vamps. The film's popular success, however, established Powell as a wisecracking, debonair leading man, while Loy's delightful portrayal of Nora was the beginning of her reign as Hollywood's "ideal wife." Over the next decade, the two would recreate their roles in five "Thin Man" sequels, and although none of the subsequent films ever quite equalled the effortless charm of the original, Powell and Loy remained perfectly paired throughout the series.

Goodrich and Hackett's script must share credit for The Thin Man's breezy style and rapid pacing with the direction of W. W. "Woody" Van Dyke. Although Van Dyke's work has not won him a place alongside the John Fords and Howard Hawkses of the American cinema, he enjoyed a reputation during the 1930s as a highly professional director whose films generally proved popular at the box office. His efficient, no-nonsense working earned him the nickname "One-Take Woody," and he completed The Thin Man in a remarkable 12 days. Given its tight shooting schedule, it is no surprise that the finished film reflects a heady sense of energy and élan.

In the years since its release, The Thin Man has spawned a number of imitators, including several successful television series. Connoisseurs of the genre, however, return again and again to Nick and Nora—and their faithful Airedale, Asta—drawn by the appeal of a film that remains fresh and original after 50 years.

—Janet E. Lorenz

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The Thin Man

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