The Thin Man and its sequels

The entire series of Thin Man movies should be made available digitally.  Having just the first three movies on iTunes and Amazon doesn’t cut it for me.

The Thin Man and its five sequels are one of my cherished holiday traditions.  I pick a day between Christmas and New Year’s and curl up on the sofa in my pajamas, indulge in homemade cream of wild mushroom soup, sugar cookies and hazelnut caramel macchiatos, and spend 9+ hours watching Nick and Nora run rings around the crooks, the cops – and each other.

The original film, The Thin Man, was loosely based on a book by Dashiell Hammett.  Its heroes are Nick and Nora Charles, a ‘retired’ private investigator and his heiress wife, played by the wonderful William Powell and Myrna Loy, along with their Fox Terrier Asta.  Nick spends his time telling people that he can’t investigate a murder because he’s too busy seeing that Nora doesn’t lose any of the money he married her for.  Nora spends her time maneuvering Nick into investigating the crime.   The film is now listed on the National Film Registry and recognized as a classic by the American Film Institute.  Pretty impressive for something filmed in less than two weeks and meant to be just another “B” movie production utilizing two of the studio’s popular actors.

(For the five people out there who may not already know this, Nick Charles is not the Thin Man of the title.  The Thin Man is actually a character introduced early in the film who turns out to be the victim of a murder, although we don’t discover that plot twist until quite late in the movie.  The studio kept the title in the sequels to make it easier to attract viewers.)

Powell and Loy are Nick and Nora Charles.   They snark, snipe, crack jokes, drink, play tricks on one another and the police and, somehow, in the middle of all that fun, they manage to solve a crime or two.  Yes, the movies are a bit formulaic.  The supporting cast tends towards stereotypical characters (misunderstood gangsters, stuffy socialites, clueless detectives).  Occasionally an actor doesn’t just chew the scenery, he or she devours it and spits it back out.   The characters (especially Nick and Nora) spend an awfully lot of their time drinking.  And every movie ends with the traditional murder mystery trope of the ‘gathering of the suspects’ – where something someone says or does provides Nick with the last clue needed to solve the crime.

But it’s the lines, the interspersed character scenes that provide a setting for Powell and Loy’s comedic timing and wonderful chemistry to shine and make these films pure fun.  The first movie takes off at the Charles’ New York holiday party, filled with gangsters and reporters, socialites and sportsmen.  There’s a cute bit where a crying gangster tells Nick he wants to call his ‘Ma’ – then uses the Charles’ hotel line to call San Francisco because he doesn’t have a nickel.  A trunk call to San Fran back in the ‘30’s was – expensive.  Contrast that light-hearted soiree with the nervous but still funny dinner party at the end, where Nick manages to confuse the police and all the suspects gathered at the table.  “Waiter, will you serve the nuts?  . . . I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts,” says Nora, after one of Nick’s more shocking pronouncements.

The tone stays constant throughout the sequels.  In After the Thin Man, the pair return to California to find that opportunistic partygoers have invaded their home on the pretext of giving them a welcome home party — only no one actually knows Nick and Nora.  Meanwhile, poor Asta has been two-timed by Mrs. Asta.  The evidence?  A black Scottie puppie in a litter of tricolor Fox Terriers – and the neighbor’s Scottie crawling under the fence for a clandestine visit.  During this movie, Asta works as hard to protect his home from that Scottie as Nick does to dodge Nora’s exceedingly stuffy relatives and friends, including Jimmy Stewart!

By Another Thin Man, they’ve added toddler Nicky Jr. to the mix.  The family pays a visit to the man who’s kept Nora’s fortune safe, her father’s old business partner.  This installment features so many wacky characters — the gangster who says he dreams of people dying and they do, the housekeeper who responds to all problems with “Oh that’s all right think nothing of it!”  And while Nick’s gangster pals throw a crazy birthday party for Nicky Jr., Nora’s busy doing some detective work of her own – getting the scoop on Nick’s former girlfriends!

I haven’t, as yet, purchased these three movies in a digital format, because movies 4 through 6 are only available on DVDs.  When I want to watch Nick and Nora, I want to watch all of Nick and Nora, without having to switch formats midway through the marathon.

Shadow of the Thin Man revolves around a race track murder.  This movie has one of my favorite scenes from the whole series — Nicky Jr. putting his father on the milk wagon, loudly demanding that his father “Drink Milk!”  “Drunk dear?”  Nora asks as he chugs the glass of ‘awfully white’ stuff.  “I keep seeing purple cows,” he responds.  The dairy industry missed an advertising opportunity there.  Nick and Nicky Jr. ride a carousel while Nora passes Nick notes on the case.  Nick, now dizzy after numerous trips in a small circle, staggers off the carousel and hugs a nearby lamppost.  Asta hugs the fire hydrant.

In The Thin Man Goes Home, we finally get to meet Nick’s parents, a respected doctor and his good-hearted wife (in the book, Nick’s a self-made son of a Greek immigrant).  Poor Nick has some relationship issues to work through with his father, not to mention a crime to investigate that could impact his father’s livelihood.  I crack up every time Nick tosses Nora to the wolves at a fund-raising dance, while he runs off to investigate.  And I love Nora’s soliloquoy before the gathered suspects of the ‘payoff’ at those gatherings, where someone usually tries to shoot up the room while she ducks and hides.  Plus there’s the priceless look on two of Nick’s shady friends when Nick’s mom offers to make them cocoa!

Finally, the last film, Song of the Thin Man, set in the mid-40’s era of jazz bands.  Nick and Nora pick up a musician sidekick to help them solve the crime — his nervous reactions to everything that happens contrasts beautifully with Nora’s confidence in handling criminal events, after all the experiences she’s had with Nick as a husband.  There are over-the-top scenes of a wake for a murdered bandleader and gatherings where the Charles’ attempt to pose as musicians.  The series ends in style, as Nick and Nora host a gathering on a high-class gambling ship with all the suspects and Nora provides the crucial clue to solve the crime – but not until after she mistakenly thinks that Nick’s considering buying her a fabulous diamond necklace!

TCM could make a fortune selling these films and so many others to us in an MP4 format that could then be imported into our players of choice.  Price them reasonably, throw in the trailers, and they might just cut back on some of that ‘illegal’ downloading they’re so worried about!  Meanwhile, I’ll keep hoping to see a complete series available sometime soon, while safeguarding my discs for this year’s holiday viewing.

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