“You see the important thing is the rhythm. You must always have rhythm in your shaking. Now, a Manhattan, you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time. The dry martini you always shake to waltz time.”
As someone who loves shaking cocktails as much as I love watching movies, the first time I saw William Powell – playing Nick Charles – in the irresistible classic mystery comedy “The Thin Man” (1934) remains one of my favorite introductions to a character in cinema. Oscar nominated director W.S Dyke was famous for not shooting many takes because he enjoyed capturing the spontaneity of the first time an actor did things. He moved fast. In this particular case, he didn’t warn Powell that the cameras were rolling. There are dancers on the floor, and the camera cuts between them sneaking up on the actor whose back is to us – and he’s goofing around with the other actors playing the waiters and bartenders. He starts demonstrating the best way to serve his libations – and pours the shaker’s content into a martini glass, picks it up and drinks it. It’s one dazzling moment. I love the timbre of Powell’s voice – his baritone tones. From him – it immediately cuts to the back of Nora Charles, his wife – played by Myrna Loy – being forcefully pulled by their dog Asta, her arms full of presents. She falls flat on her face – boxes flying. The dog leaps into the boozy arms of Powell. “It was you he was after,” she comments. “He’s dragged me into every gin mill on the block.” And thus, you’re introduced to the most fun married couple at the movies who will frolic – deliver hilarious repartee – drink a lot – and solve a murder mystery.
“The Thin Man” was based on the novel by prominent mystery writer Dashiell Hammett. As a young man he’d worked as a detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. He wrote “The Red Harvest” (1929) and “The Maltese Falcon” (1930) where he introduced the detective Sam Spade. The work was adapted twice — in 1931 and in 1936. Then in 1941 came the best and most well-known version, written and directed in his debut by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart as Spade. “The Thin Man” was published in 1934, and it was a departure for Hammett. There’s a lighter touch to his writing, suffused with comedy. It was inspired by the novelist’s relationship with writer Lillian Hellman, and the character of Nora is fashioned after her. The success of the film spun five sequels – but Hammett never published another novel again – although he was commissioned by the studio to work on the scripts.
Nick has been in retirement from detective work for the past four years since marrying wealthy and fun-loving Nora. They’ve come from San Francisco to spend the holidays in Manhattan when a former client of his — Clyde Wynant — goes missing. His daughter – Dorothy – seeks Nick for help in locating his father’s whereabouts but he’s reluctant. The Wynants are an eccentric bunch. Clyde had divorced his wife and she’s now in need of money and gallivanting with a younger questionable character. Before his disappearance Clyde himself had been carrying on an affair with his secretary who was swindling money from him. She turns up dead. Added to the mix is also the youngest member of the family, Gil Tynant who is an amateur sleuth. “Well, I’ve been studying psychopathic criminology and I have a theory,” he states. “Perhaps this was the work of a sadist or a paranoiac.” Nora is determined to get Nick to solve the crime.
Nick is smart and suave – and Nora is elegant and fearless – and they’re always in an alcoholic daze. Director Dyke combines moments of hilarity with thrilling moments of real suspense. In one scene an intruder walks into their bedroom with a gun in the middle of the night – and Nick punches his wife sending her to the ground – distracting the assailant – using a pillow to knock the gun out of his hands. “You were in the line of fire,” explains Nick to a dizzy Nora.
There is one gorgeously shot section in which Nick takes Asta in the middle of the night in search of some answers. It is shot in fantastic noir fashion – with lots of deep pools of light and shadows and ambiguity. But it’s the pairing of Powell and Loy that keeps things singing along. Film critic Andrew Sarris explains that Nick and Nora “were the first on-screen Hollywood couple for whom matrimony did not signal the end of sex, romance and adventure.” It’s worth mentioning that their dog Asta is one of the most famous canines in Hollywood history. He’s a scene stealer – and gets to be part of the action. He also gets the very last laugh and the very last shot of this classic gem.
Nick Charles : “I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.”
Nora Charles : “I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.”
Nick Charles : “It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, DIRECTV, Watch TCM and to rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox and DIRECTV.
Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich
Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton and Minna Gombell
Bringing “The Thin Man” to the Screen
Director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke had a penchant for mystery stories, and when he found that MGM had bought the rights to Dashiell Hammett’s book “The Thin Man” for $14,000, he immediately requested it for his next assignment. The book was a best seller and well-reviewed; Alexander Woollcott had called it “the best detective story yet written in America.” The studio did not consider the story a valuable property. The public taste for clever tales of sleuthing seemed to be played out, and the book was not considered worthy of more than B-picture treatment. But because Van Dyke had a reputation for making pictures quickly and cheaply, they figured it wouldn’t hurt to let him have a shot at it. For the role of Nick Charles, Van Dyke immediately thought of William Powell, who had recently contracted with MGM after establishing his career at other studios. Studio executives had some concern about Powell in the role since he was already identified in the public mind with playing another well-known sleuth, Philo Vance; he had starred in the popular film series at Paramount between 1929 and 1933. In fact, Powell had played the part so often that one producer claimed theater owners were beginning to put the name “Philo Vance” on the marquee instead of Powell’s. But Van Dyke was convinced the actor was right for the role, and Powell felt he knew the character well and enjoyed the fact that Nick was more of a “regular guy” than the more socially connected Vance.
The studio also balked at Van Dyke’s choice for Nora. Usually cast as either exotic beauties, ethnic types or as “the Other Woman,” Myrna Loy had been laboring in more than 80 films over the preceding decade without making a huge impact. She read the script of “The Thin Man” and instantly liked it because it offered her the rare chance to do a comedy. But studio head Louis B. Mayer wanted the now largely forgotten silent star Laura La Plante. Van Dyke had just finished directing Loy and Powell together in “Manhattan Melodrama” (1934) and saw a chemistry there he could further develop. Van Dyke had a reputation as the studio’s most dependable and efficient director, one who could take any project and bring it in on time and on budget. So it was relatively easy for him to get what he wanted, and the production moved ahead with Powell and Loy in the leads. For the adaptation, Van Dyke turned to married couple Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who had also recently contracted with MGM. The two former actors had turned to writing for the stage several years earlier and came to Hollywood to pen the adaptation of their play “Up Pops the Devil” (1931), which featured Powell’s then-wife Carole Lombard. They signed with Metro in 1933 and showed their facility for creating witty, urbane dialogue and eccentric characters in such modest hits as “Penthouse” (1933, featuring Loy and directed by Van Dyke) and “Fugitive Lovers” (1934). Van Dyke instructed them to largely ignore the Hammett mystery and concentrate on the repartee and relationship between Nick and Nora. He also told them to build their script specifically around the talents of the two stars and to come up with no fewer than eight new marital scenes between them. According to Samuel Marx, head of the MGM story department at the time, two elements of the script “scared the hell” out of the producers: the fact that the murder story was being treated frivolously and with humor and that the central characters were a sophisticated married couple who always seemed to be mixing cocktails. (tcm.com)
About Screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich
Goodrich & Hackett began their enormously successful and remarkably prolific collaboration in 1928, a partnership that lasted 34 years. The privileged daughter of well-to-do parents, Frances Goodrich attended Vassar before beginning her career as an actress, first appearing on Broadway in 1916. By the time she met fellow actor Albert Hackett in the late 1920s she had already been divorced twice. Nine years the junior of his wife, Albert Hackett was the son of stage star Florence Hackett and brother of matinee idol Raymond Hackett. The Manhattan-born Albert first appeared onstage at the age of six to help earn money for his family after the death of his father. He eventually went on to study at New York’s Professional Children’s School. Like Goodrich, Hackett met with modest success as an actor, and their initial collaboration arose as a result of their mutual desire to leave acting in favor of playwriting. The two were married while collaborating on their first Broadway hit, “Up Pops the Devil.” Their success on Broadway eventually led to the pair being signed as a writing team by MGM, where they launched the popular “Thin Man” series. While there would be another Broadway production on the Goodrich/Hackett docket in the 1940s, “The Great Big Doorstep,” for the most part the couple devoted their time to screenwriting. They were particularly skilled at adapting the works of others to meet the restrictions and requirements of the movies.
Among their most famous film credits were adaptations of Owen Wister’s “The Virginian,” S.N. Behman’s “The Pirate,” Edward Streeter’s “Father of the Bride,” and the musical version of Stephen Vincent Benet’s “Sobbin’ Women,” released as “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Goodrich and Hackett were also among the many writers who toiled on Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Writing the stage version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” was the achievement of which both Goodrich and Hackett were most proud. The job of adapting the diary had originally been offered to Lillian Hellman, who turned it down, saying that if she wrote the play “It would run one night because it would be deeply depressing.” She, in turn, recommended Goodrich and Hackett because they possessed a “lighter touch.” It took the couple two years and eight rewrites before they came up with a draft which pleased Otto Frank, Anne’s father. The original Broadway production received the 1956 Tony Award for Best Play, and the script received the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Goodrich and Hackett also adapted the play for the screen in 1959. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett remained married until her death in 1984. Albert Hackett passed away in 1995. (writerstheatre.org)
About Author Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett was born on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1894. The second of three children, he dropped out of school at the age of thirteen. He worked a succession of low-paying jobs including freight clerk, railroad laborer, messenger boy, and stevedore. In 1915 he began working on and off as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency. In less than ten years he would be turning these experiences into some of the most popular detective stories of his time. Unlike the intellectualized mysteries of earlier detective novels, Hammett’s less-than-glamorous realism transformed the genre into a serious response to the urban culture of the times. Hammett spent his early twenties working as a detective in San Francisco before enlisting in the army during World War I. He became a sergeant in the Motor Ambulance Corp, where he contracted tuberculosis. Upon returning from the service, he realized that his ailing health made it impossible to continue as a detective. Quitting the agency, he tried his hand at writing. His first story was published in 1922 by the upscale society magazine “The Smart Set.” His new gritty style of detective story, however, was better suited to the pulp crime magazines of the time. In 1923, one of the most popular, “Black Mask,” published his story “Arson Plus.” For the next several years Hammett would hone his skills as a storyteller in the pages of “Black Mask.” There he introduced a nameless character referred to only as “the Continental Op.” This down-to-earth operative working for the Continental Detective Agency was the antithesis of the glamorous all-knowing investigators that made up much of the detective genre. The “Op,” with his rough speech and matter-of-fact attitude, was incredibly popular.
In 1928 he wrote a full-length novel with the “Op,” incorporating much of what he had seen at the Pinkerton Agency. “Red Harvest” was a psychological thriller narrated in a voice both penetrating and off-the-cuff. It was the raw, unadorned style of “Red Harvest” that would come to be known as “hard boiled.” Within a year Hammett published his second book, “The Dain Curse.” By 1930 he had built a strong following, and decided to branch out with a new character. For his next novel, Hammett created Sam Spade, a rough and solitary man who worked outside of the law. This independent detective made his first appearance in what was to become Hammett’s most famous book, “The Maltese Falcon” (1930). A story of greed and betrayal, “The Maltese Falcon” went into seven printings in its first year. In the 1941 movie version Humphrey Bogart played a reluctant, yet idealistic detective who epitomized the “hard boiled” hero. He tackled society’s corruption with an unyielding search for the truth, and a lack of concern for what it took to find it. Hammett followed “The Maltese Falcon” a year later with “The Glass Key,” a story of political intrigue focused on the social relations of the rich and the corruption of power. The New York Times described it as combining “the tradition of Sherlock Holmes with the style of Ernest Hemingway.” His new-found fame brought him into contact with a number of writers, including Ernest Hemingway. That same year he began a tempestuous affair with the playwright, Lillian Hellman. Hellman was strong, witty, intelligent and socially connected. Their affair introduced him to the thrilling new world of high society. To Hellman’s dismay, Hammett continued his life-long habits of excessive drinking and womanizing. Though their thirty year affair was often rocky, the two remained friends throughout Hammett’s life. By the mid-thirties Hammett was at the height of his fame. No longer struggling to pay the rent, he moved to Hollywood and lived within the exclusive world of the Hollywood elite.
In 1934 he published “The Thin Man,” which portrayed an ex-detective reluctantly investigating a disappearance. At the center of the story was a couple living a liquor-soaked open marriage. Scandalous for the times, “The Thin Man,” was repeatedly censored, but remained Hammett’s greatest commercial success. After “The Thin Man,” Hammett worked for the major studios re-writing other people’s scripts. Though he would continue to write for radio during the forties, “The Thin Man” was to be his final novel. For the remainder of his life, Hammett dedicated himself to left-wing political involvement and the defense of civil liberties. During World War II, at the age of forty-eight, Hammett enlisted as a private in the army. Three years later he was honorably discharged as a sergeant. Leaving the army, he began to teach writing in New York at a Marxist institute. It was then that Hammett’s political integrity would be challenged. As the president of New York Civil Rights Congress, Hammett had posted bail for a group of communists on trial for conspiracy. When they jumped bail, Hammett was jailed for refusing to give the names of the sources of the bail money. After serving five months in prison, he was let out, only to find that the IRS was charging him with one hundred thousand dollars in back taxes. Hammett spent the last ten years of his life in a small rural cottage in Katonah, New York. No longer at the center of the literary world, he continued to drink heavily in isolation. In 1955 he suffered a heart attack, and died six years later in New York City. Though his output was limited to only five novels, Hammett remains one of the most influential writers of his time. His introduction of the “hard-boiled” genre has had a profound effect on both television and the movies, and his uncompromisingly vernacular prose has influenced generations of writers as diverse as Raymond Chandler and William Burroughs. (pbs.org)
About Director W.S. Van Dyke
W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke is credited with directing 90 motion pictures from 1917 to 1942. He was twice nominated for the best director Academy Award, for “The Thin Man” (1934) and “San Francisco” (1936). Frank Capra won the awards in each of those years, for “It Happened One Night” (1934) and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936). Van Dyke also directed and acted in the 1933 “Eskimo” (also known as “Mala the Magnificent”), which won the first Oscar for film editing. A native of San Diego, Van Dyke was a vaudeville child actor, on stage almost as a baby, and played legitimate theaters as a juvenile. When he was 17, in 1907, he joined a construction gang and helped build a trail in the remote Canadian wilderness. He returned to vaudeville and plays and began trying his hand at writing plays. After service in the armed forces in World War I, he returned to the theater and soon devoted his full time to motion picture direction.
Among the films he directed were “White Shadows in the South Seas” (1928), “Trader Horn” (1931) and “Laughing Boy” (1934) and other productions filmed in far places of the Earth. He is perhaps best remembered for directing Myrna Loy and William Powell in the “The Thin Man” and three sequels. A major in the Marine Corps Reserves, Van Dyke was active in recruiting for the Marine Corps until ill health forced his retirement. He was a member of the Explorers Club, International Adventurers Club, a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society of London and belonged to dozens of fraternal, professional, athletic and honorary organizations. He was a cousin of Henry Van Dyke, a philosopher, writer and U.S. ambassador to The Hague. After his death at 53, Hedda Hopper, wrote in the Times, that Van Dyke “never failed to help what some call the little people. I prefer to think of them as the gallant ones — those who ran into hard luck, many of them picture pioneers. (projects.latimes.com)