Saturday, December 26, 2020

Stubs - The Thin Man

The Thin Man (1934) Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Minna Gombell. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. Based on the novel The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (New York, 1934). Produced by Hunt Stromberg Run time: 91 minutes USA Black and White Comedy, Mystery, Detective, Christmas

Dashiell Hammett was a private detective turned writer. Using his real-life experiences, he wrote hard-boiled detective novels and short stories. He is responsible for creating such well-known characters as Sam Spade from the Maltese Falcon and Nick and Nora Charles from The Thin Man. The latter novel was first published in Redbook in December 1933 before being published in book form by Alfred A. Knopf the following month. It is said Hammett based Nick and Nora's banter upon his rocky on-again, off-again relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman.

MGM paid Hammett $21,000 for the film rights to his novel. Director W. S. Van Dyke, a fan of detective stories, was very interested in the project and knew right away who he wanted for the lead roles. During the filming of Manhattan Melodrama (1934), Dyke had worked with William Powell and Myrna Loy and noticed the rapport the two actors had with each other on and offscreen. He thought that sort of relationship would work well as Nick and Nora. But MGM executives didn’t see it that way, at least not at first. There was an age difference; Powell was 43 and Loy was 28. And Loy had made a career playing dramatic roles. Powell, who had played villains in silent and early sound films, had also successfully played a private detective in a series of films based on the Philo Vance character developed by S.S. Van Dine. Louis B. Mayer agreed to go forward with the project on the condition the film be made in three weeks.

For the screenplay, Dyke worked with the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. He asked them to play up the couple's affectionate banter in their script and to make the mystery secondary. That was easy enough for the Hacketts, whose own marriage and personal style was supposedly very Nick-and-Nora.

MGM gave the film a B-picture budget of $226,408 and it was shot between April 9 and April 27, 1934. Dyke had the reputation of making movies quickly and was known by the nickname "One Shot Woody." After a press preview, they did one more day of retakes in mid-May and the film was released on May 24, 1934.

The film opens in the workshop of the eccentric, tall, wealthy businessman/inventor named Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), the "thin man" of the film title. We don’t know what he’s doing, only that he is angered when his assistant interrupts him and apparently ruins what he’s doing. He is fired on the spot even though he was trying to inform Wynant that his daughter Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan) was waiting to see him. Dorothy is there to inform her father that she and Tommy (Henry Wadsworth) are going to get married. The assistant is rehired so he can show Tommy around the lab while Wynant talks to Dorothy.

Wynant tells her that he is going into seclusion to work on an important new business idea and invention (because there's "no peace, no quiet, everybody interrupting me"). He refuses to tell her where he’s going but he promises that he would return for her post-Christmas wedding on December 30th to give her away.

On the way out, Dorothy discusses with Tommy about her parents’ recent divorce. When he asks why, she tells him that her father had a secretary.

Wynant puts his lawyer, Herbert MacCaulay (Porter Hall), in charge of his financial and business affairs while he’s gone.

Before he leaves on his trip, Wynant goes upstairs to his office and discovers $50,000 in government bonds that he’s earmarked for Dorothy are missing and questions his clerk, Tanner (Cyril Thornton), who helps Wynant suspect his mistress/secretary Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead) has taken them.

Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) is about to call the police on his mistress/secretary Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead).

Wynant storms into Julia’s apartment and is surprised to find her in the company of another man, Joe Morelli (Edward S. Brophy). He accuses her of two-timing him and pressures her to confess that she has taken the bonds and sold them. He threatens her with embezzlement and promises to turn her over to the police. He gets so far as calling them before Julia stops him. He learns that she only has half of the money and the other half is with an unnamed accomplice. He picks up the phone when it rings. On the other end of the call is a scar-faced man later identified as Arthur Nunheim (Harold Huber). Wynant suspects that he is the one who assisted her.

Three months pass. It’s Christmas Eve and in a fancy restaurant, Dorothy is dancing with her fiancée Tommy and expresses how concerned she is that she hasn’t heard from her father because he had promised to be back in time for their wedding.

At the bar, Nick Charles (William Powell) is giving the bartenders instructions on how to mix the perfect martini, recommending that they shake it to the rhythm of a Waltz. (Note: Per Nick, a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time and a Bronx to two-step time. For those not aware, a Bronx is a perfect martini with orange juice added.)

Dorothy recognizes Nick and inserts herself into his demonstration. She re-introduces herself to him and Nick remembers her as well, since her divorced father was once a client. She tells Nick about her concerns and her suspicions since her father is nowhere to be found. Nick suggests that Dorothy contact his lawyer, MacCaulay, to see if he’s heard from her father.

Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) joins husband Nick Charles (William Powell) at a bar.

Next, Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) arrives at the bar and makes a noisy and memorable entrance. Carrying Christmas packages and being dragged by their dog Asta, she ends up sprawled face-first on the floor. Joe, the headwaiter (Fred Malatesta), hurries over and asks that the dog be removed from the restaurant.

The Charleses try to dine but the headwaiter (Fred Malatesta)wants Asta removed first.

Dorothy and Tommy are introduced to Nora before they leave and Nick invites them to look them up again, since they were going to be in town for a while. They had come to New York from California, where they’ve lived for four years, for the Christmas holidays to celebrate their newly-wedded bliss with drinking, partying, sleeping late, and shopping.

It was obvious that Nick had been drinking heavily, and Nora wants to keep up:

Nora: Say, how many drinks have you had?

Nick: This will make six martinis.

Nora (to waiter): All right. Will you bring me five more martinis, Leo? And line them right up here.

Later, back in their hotel room, the couple is suffering from severe hangovers when the doorbell rings and Wynant’s attorney, MacCaulay enters. He complains about how Mimi, Wynant’s ex-wife, is always trying to get money out of him. He asks Nick if he’s been working for her.

Nick explains that he has quit the detective business after marrying Nora. He’s been managing the businesses she has inherited from her wealthy father after his death.

MacCaulay explains that even though he hasn’t heard or seen Wynant for three months, he sends word through his secretary, Julia Wolf. When Wynant needs money, MacCaulay gives it to her and she gets to him.

MacCaulay then receives a phone call from his secretary and is informed that Wynant has reappeared and is "back in town" and waiting to meet him. As MacCaulay hurriedly leaves, he wishes them a "Merry Christmas."

Mimi Wynant Jorgensen (Minna Gombell), Wynant's ex-wife, overhears
Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan)
 telephone conversation with Nick.

Having heard MacCaulay's call, Nick telephones Dorothy to let her know that her father has arrived back in town. Mimi Wynant Jorgensen (Minna Gombell), Wynant's ex-wife, overhears the conversation and demands to know where Wynant is. Mimi’s concerns are monetary. Having remarried to Chris Jorgensen (Cesar Romero), she’s worried that Wynant won’t be able to help support her. Dorothy chides her mother for only being after Wynant’s money.

Since she’s heard Wynant is back in town, Mimi calls Julia and arranges to meet her. However, when she arrives at her apartment, passing Nunheim leaving on her way in, Mimi finds Julia has been murdered.

Mimi finds Wynant’s watch chain in Julia’s dead hand and removes it, thinking she is protecting him.


There are five short scenes which add further intrigue. First, Mimi meets Nunheim in a restaurant and discuss money. In the second scene, a stocky-built man named Stutsy Burke (Walter Long) meets Joe Morelli at a bar and informs him that Julia Wolf had recently been "" Following that, MacCaulay expresses shock when he learns that Julia had been murdered. Next, a cleaning woman recounts the argument she’d heard three months ago between Wynant and Julia on the night he left town. Finally, MacCaulay is questioned by the police about his last contact with Julia. He tells them that he had given her $1000 only yesterday. Because there is no sign of the money, Police detective Lt. John Guild (Nat Pendleton) immediately suspects Wynant is Julia's murderer.

MacCaulay also asserts that his secretary received a phone call from Wynant arranging a meeting at the Plaza at 3 pm, but Wynant didn't show up.

At her apartment, Mimi is questioned by Lt. Guild about the murder scene and he asks her, "Did you see anything in Miss Wolf's hand?" Even though the Medical Examiner claims that someone had forced the dead girl’s hand open after she’d been killed, Mimi denies seeing anything or touching the body. As the police leave, Dorothy walks in on Mimi putting the watch chain in a wall safe. Dorothy is suddenly dismayed to think that her father might be the murderer.

At the Charles' festive Christmas party, news of the Julia Wolf murder is heard on the radio.

Later, at the Charles’ festive Christmas party, news of the Julia Wolf murder is heard on the radio. In the kitchen, Nora recommends that Nick take the Wolf case because it sounds interesting. He reminds her that he’s not coming out of retirement.

She tried to entice him with the intriguing murder case, now that the inventor had been accused of a crime: "Girl mysteriously murdered, nobody knows who did it, they haven't found any clues, no gun, no fingerprints." Nick asserted that he wanted to hear nothing more from her about the case.

Dorothy arrives at the party, she is terribly distressed and begs to speak to Nick alone. She confesses to Nick that she shot Julia, but Nick immediately sees that she’s trying to protect her father. Soon after, Mimi arrives and also asks Nick for assistance in finding Wynant.

Nick doesn’t want to get involved in the case in any way. However, during the party, he receives a call from Nunheim wanting to talk to him about Julia Wolf, but the call gets cut off.

Later that night after the Christmas party, in their bedroom, in separate beds, Nick is still adamant about not taking the case even though Nora asks him to get involved.

After discussing Christmas presents, Joe Morelli, a stranger to the Charles’, is at the door. Nora lets him in and he enters their bedroom with his gun drawn. He needs Nicks help. Morelli thinks that he’s being fingered by Nunheim for Julia Wolf’s murder. Nick tries to convince Joe that he’s not a suspect and that he should talk to the police to clear his name.

The police arrive and bang on the door. Joe reacts and takes out his gun again. Thinking quickly, Nick knocks Nora out so that she’ll be out of the gunman’s line of fire and then throws a pillow at Joe before lunging at him. Nick gets a slight wound when Joe’s gun goes off. The police break down the door and subdue Joe.

The police harass Nick with questions, but he doesn't offer clear answers. When a plainclothes cop finds the unregistered pistol Dorothy had claimed to have used in his dresser, they want to question him further the next morning, after he’s had a chance to recover.


Nick practices shooting with a popgun/air pistol he had received as a Christmas present from Nora.

The next morning, Christmas Day, Nick practices shooting with a popgun/air pistol he had received as a Christmas present from Nora. Nora answers the phone and announces that MacCaulay was on his way up to their room.

Nora reads a telegram they have received from Philadelphia, allegedly from Clyde Wynant asking Nick to take charge of the Wolf murder investigation and to coordinate with MacCaulay. MacCaulay arrives and tells them that he has heard from Wynant. After reading the telegram, MacCaulay asks if Nick will help but he’s still not interested. When MacCaulay asks if it would help if Nick met Wynant, he says it might. MacCaulay says he and Wynant have a secret code that he can place in an ad in the paper to arrange to meet.

Just then, the police telephone for MacCaulay, and after he hangs up, he tells Nick and Nora that Wynant's tried to commit suicide and the police want him to go down and identify him.

Nora expresses her disappointment that Nick wouldn't be able to solve the mystery, but then, he suddenly decides to take up the case. He explains that he has a hunch that Wynant wasn't the killer.

Outside on the street, they talked to Lt. Guild again, who informs them that Wynant's suicide was untrue. He theorizes that Wynant went to Julia's apartment and found Morelli there. A fight ensues and he doesn't pull anything on account of Morelli. He then lets his lawyer go ahead and give her money so that she'll think it's all blown over. Then, when she isn't expecting it, Wynant kills her.

Nick lets the police lieutenant know that according to Morelli, Arthur Nunheim has been hanging around Julia. The lieutenant suggests questioning Nunheim.

Nora thinks she’s going with her husband, even though he wants her to stay. However, she jumps into the taxi she thinks they’re taking, only to be fooled. Nora is alone in the cab and Nick tells the driver to take her to Grant’s Tomb.

The two surprise Nunheim in his apartment, who is there with his girlfriend Marion (Gertrude Short). The lieutenant accuses Nunheim of lying about his familiarity with Julia, and of running after Julia. Nunheim claims his innocence, but his girlfriend mocks his answers. When asked about his whereabouts the afternoon Julia was killed, Nunheim is reluctant to answer and ducks out on them through the back bedroom window and down the fire escape.

Next, we see Nunheim on the phone, blackmailing someone for $5,000 more to "play dumb" and leave town. While attempting to collect the money, Nunheim is killed by an unknown assailant. The same gun that killed Julia is used in his murder.

Nora calls Nick at the police station from Mimi's place: She tells him that she has done her own detective work and has found out that Chris Jorgensen, Mimi's new husband, has disappeared. Mimi defends Chris, pleading his innocence. She hands the lieutenant her ex-husband's watch chain that she took from Julia's hand after the murder. This leads the police lieutenant to conclude Wynant is the murderer.

Newspapers pick up the story with headlines that read:

Wynant's Ex-Wife Gives New Murder Evidence.

Double Murder Laid to Wynant.

Wynant Now Wanted in Second Murder Case.

A $5,000 reward is offered for Wynant's whereabouts.

With their dog Asta, Nick searches Wynant's workshop. Asta senses something under the floor with a sharp sense of smell. They discover the remains of a body buried in the basement. An intruder holds a gun on Nick and we learn he's Wynant's bookkeeper, Tanner.

Tanner tells Nick he believes Wynant murdered Julia because she stole $50,000 worth of bonds. The bookkeeper fears Wynant is out to get him too, since he had embezzled some money. He’d come back to fix the books so he wouldn’t be the next target.

Shortly after, the police arrive and question Tanner. They determined that the body in the basement had been buried there for at least a few months and was badly decomposed and unidentifiable, having been buried in lime. The lieutenant, however, makes quick assumptions about the body and how Wynant is involved. Nick, however, isn’t ready to make any conclusions.

Nick asks the coroner if he could look at the body himself and while examining the body's X-rays, he notices an old shrapnel wound in the corpse's leg - a crucial clue necessary to solve all the murders.

Newspaper headlines continue to sensationalize Wynant as a serial murderer:

Horror Murder Leads to Wynant.

Victim of Wynant Buried in Basement.

Wynant hunted in 3rd Murder.

A large-scale, nation-wide manhunt was orchestrated to find Wynant. Nora wants him to stay and find Wynant. Nick surprises her with the revelation that he already has. The body in the floor of the lab was Wynant’s and he therefore couldn’t be Julia’s or Nunheim’s murderer.

Nick invites all of the murder suspects to his home for a formal party.

Nick hits on a brilliant idea and invites all the murder suspects, some with the help of police warrants, to a large, formal dinner party at his home. The guest list includes Lawyer MacCaulay; Wynant's ex-wife Mimi; Mimi's "slick gigolo husband" Chris Jorgensen; Mrs. Jorgenson; Morelli; Nunheim's girlfriend; Tanner, Wynant's bookkeeper; Wynant's daughter Dorothy; son Gilbert (William Henry) and Tommy. White-jacketed waiters at the dinner are actually undercover police in disguise.

Nick offers that Wynant didn’t kill Julia or Nunheim or anyone for that matter. He adds that he saw Wynant last night. Mimi offers that she, too, saw him the night before, though she has some difficulty substantiating it.

Nick accuses Mimi of lying and then explains about Wynant's war leg wound and how his body was hidden and buried in the basement so it would look as if he was a prime suspect. Nick then tells the invited guests: "The murderer is right in this room, sitting at this table." Step by step, he explains and unravels the mystery, crime by crime.

To begin with, Julia was robbing Wynant, and splitting the money with Tanner. Wynant went after the person he thought was cheating and robbing him. That man killed Wynant.

After the murder of Wynant, the murderer wired MacCaulay using Wynant's name and told him to close up the inventor's shop. Then, he destroyed all of Wynant's clothes but kept his watch chain. He made it look as if the clothes on the body in the basement looked like those of an old enemy of Wynant's.

The murderer wrote letters to MacCaulay (and also telephoned him), signing Wynant's name so payments would continue to be sent to Julia so that they could be split between them. Wynant's money was being embezzled with Julia's compliance.

Julia was killed by her co-conspirator, afraid that she would betray him to Mimi as the murderer of Wynant. The murderer left Wynant's watch chain in Julia's dead hand.

Then, the murderer killed Nunheim because he was a stool pigeon and knew too much. [Nunheim heard the shots and saw the murderer leave after killing Julia Wolf.] When Nunheim threatened to blackmail a second time, he was murdered too.

The only weak link - Wynant - had not been seen physically. The real murderer paid off Mimi with cash to say that she had seen Wynant alive. Mimi was the only one who knew the identity of the murderer. Mimi was led to believe that keeping Wynant "alive" would mean that she would continue to be paid off - a clear bribery/blackmail scheme.

Wynant's lawyer, MacCaulay, drew up Wynant's will to cut Mimi off if she remarried. But under the law, Mimi was never legally married to Chris Jorgensen. Jorgensen's "ex-" wife (Ruth Channing) admits that she was still married to him, thereby making Jorgensen an unlawful bigamist. Therefore, Mimi is still Wynant's rightful heir. Rather than continuing to receive a small amount of blackmail money from the murderer, Nick argues that she should reveal and incriminate the murderer - and be the rightful heir to Wynant's larger fortune.

This forces MacCaulay’s hand and he threatens Mimi with a gun under the table. MacCaulay is subdued before he can harm her.

The film ends on a westbound transcontinental train, Nick and Nora are en route back to California, sharing an adjacent cabin with newlyweds Dorothy and Tommy. They finally adjourned to their respective rooms late into the night. There were upper and lower bunks in Nick's and Nora's room. Nora asks that Nick put Asta in her lower bunk with her for the night. Nick laughs "Oh, yeah?" tosses Asta up onto the top bunk, and joins Nora in the lower one. The last thing we see is Asta covering his eyes with his paw.

Released on May 25, 1934, the film was a huge success, making $1,423,000 worldwide. $818,000 came from the US and Canada and $605,000 from the rest of the world. It made a profit of $729,000. The film was so successful that it spawned a series of films: After the Thin Man (1936); Another Thin Man (1939); Shadow of the Thin Man (1941); The Thin Man Goes Home (1945); and Song of the Thin Man (1947). The Thin Man, which was the Wynant character in the book and film, became synonymous with Nick Charles, somewhat in the same way Frankenstein became synonymous with the monster rather than the doctor who created it.

There was even an hour-long broadcast of Lux Radio Theatre on June 8, 1936, with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall, William Henry, and Thomas Jackson reprising their roles from the film. A TV Series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk in the title roles ran from 1957 through 1959.

“Myrna Loy as Nora, Charles's wife, aids considerably in making this film an enjoyable entertainment.”

The reviews were also very positive. Mordant Hall, writing in The New York Times opened his review with “Out of Dashiell Hammett's popular novel, "The Thin Man," W. S. Van Dyke, one of Hollywood's most versatile directors, has made an excellent combination of comedy and excitement.” Hall seemed to really like the film with everyone coming for praise, including “Myrna Loy as Nora, Charles's wife, aids considerably in making this film an enjoyable entertainment.” And, “Maureen O'Sullivan is attractive as Wynant's daughter and Henry Wadsworth is capital as her fiancé. Among others who serve the film well are Mr. Pendleton, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall and the wire-haired terrier.”

The film also received four Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Best Writing, Adaptation.

Despite Mayer’s reluctance to cast them, it is hard to imagine anyone else playing Nick and Nora Charles. The difference in their ages is never apparent in the film and the two do seem to have a genuine chemistry. They would appear in a total of 14 films, though one was more a Powell vehicle in which Loy appears in a cameo, The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947). Besides the Thin Man series, and Manhattan Melodrama, they would star together in Evelyn Prentice (1934), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Libeled Lady (1936), Double Wedding (1937), I Love You Again (1940), and Love Crazy (1941).

Even if you’re not a fan of mysteries, then there is a lot to like about The Thin Man. I’ve seen the film several times and would be very happy to recommend it. The base of the film is the screenplay which is full of very witty dialogue, usually between Nick and Nora. And since this is pre-Code some of that dialogue would be considered too risqué for films only a couple of years later. And the ending of the film, which hints at the married couple spending the night in the same bed, would not be depicted as such either.

The murder investigation takes a backseat to the solving of the mystery and the relationship between the two main characters. You almost get the impression that they are learning about themselves as you are learning about them as well.

This is a film for grown-ups with a wry sense of humor. If this is you, then this is a film you will most likely fall in love with as much as I have.

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