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Friday, December 22, 2017

Lift A Glass, and Then Another Glass

Have Yourself A Merry Little Thin Man Christmas

Ladies First Was Emphasis of Thin Man Merchandising
I've seen it pointed out, but not enough, that William Powell is one of the most enduring of all Classic Era stars. But audiences must see him first, and there is the rub for viewers not currently situated at TCM. Powell's is the wit that does not date, even where story-situations might. He will beguile even those with most ingrained cooler-than-you attitude. But again, they must experience him first. Powell was a name unknown to a college class I took where the prof ran movies of his 30's youth. It was month long daily dose of double features, mostly 16mm rented from Films, Inc. To say this was heaven would be understating, as here were films I had but dreamed of seeing --- the Fredric March Jekyll and Hyde, Tarzan, The Ape Man, Fury, the list went on to thirty titles, all of which were received like "old" movies until came The Thin Man, which none of us had seen as of January 1973. Of all players our group was exposed to that month, accumulation of which you can imagine, there was but one to earn rank beside our so-highly developed sensibilities. William Powell and The Thin Man needed no allowance for dating back a then-thirty nine years. The laughs came on equal footing with any clever line uttered in current movies/TV. More so, actually, because nobody in 1973 had or would have anything like Powell's panache. He seemed modern despite pencil mustache, formal dress, and diction not to be duplicated in any corner of human experience. What I'll not forget is delighted surprise the class expressed for this man who was fun departure from balance of way-back folk they were obliged to sit patiently through.

It's forty-five years later and I submit Powell has the same effect on untried crowds. His humor stays somehow fresh as a daisy, more so even than Cary Grant to my estimate. Of course, the vehicle has to be right, and so then is The Thin Man, first and certainly best of that series of six. I watch it often, certainly around the holidays, as there's not a more pleasing ornament to hang. The Thin Man is a three days-of-Christmas story, the mystery unfolding on Yule eve, deepening on Xmas morn, then resolving with a dinner party the evening after. The holiday is constant backdrop, but not stressed. Nick and Nora Charles open their presents, then proceed with unwrap of killings that don't pause for Noel observance. The Thin Man is too caustic for caroling, a holiday film for those who don't like their Christmas force-fed. It never runs risk of Yule-exhaustion. Illustration in seminal book The Movies by Griffith and Mayer had Bill Powell shooting tree trims with an air pistol, which gave me childhood notice of The Thin Man as irreverent and not a Christmas story to miss.

I'd say the Thin Man series accomplished more than a generation's worth of marriage counseling. How many couples were persuaded by Powell and Loy's example to give their union one more try? The Thin Man was a best endorsement for mature wedlock offered by movies so far, and that should have got applause right along with comedy and mystery sold hardest. Ads did stress appeal for women and how "they took this romantic story for their very own." The Thin Man was a hypo for men and wives tired of it all, and specifically each other. They could do worse than go home and emulate Powell and Loy. Maybe there was positive influence in movies. Director W.S. Van Dyke wrote in 1937 (for Stage magazine) that "romance actually can exist happily among more matured married persons." Was this fruit of his own experience? (Van Dyke was wed twice, had three children) To Thin Man writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich he'd say, "I don't care anything about the story; just give me five scenes between those two people (Powell and Loy)."

If Any Movie Could Sell Cocktail Glasses, The Thin Man was It.

W.S. Van Dyke Directs a Metro Chorus Line
Van Dyke had come to movies from he-man background. Some accounts said he had been a "mercenary" on occasion. You could imagine from hard-guy studio portraits that maybe he killed a man once in some gold field dispute. Film school would be for sissies by Van Dyke reckoning. He built mythology around The Thin Man after it hit big, claimed it was "such a natural" that he'd pitch and instigate filming from the Dashiell Hammett novel. Van Dyke finishing in sixteen days, plus two for reshoots, is true enough. His need for speed took deepest root here, The Thin Man bespeaking hurry-up and avoid of Metro polish that could weigh down other of the company's output. Audiences came for the mystery, Powell a long-standing Philo Vance after all, but stayed for the mirth, which took The Thin Man into stratosphere of profit none of whodunits realized before. Van Dyke was right that detection details mattered not. The best mysteries would henceforth salt clues with comedy. Straight sleuthing was for B category, which the Thin Mans never sank to. The characters of Nick and Nora would not be played in features by anyone other than Powell and Loy. Remakes have been floated, only to collapse in pre-production. Maybe ones who aspired to Powell's part got a look at him and realized futility of measuring up.

James Wong Howe At Left With Camera as W.S. Van Dyke (seated) Directs

Van Dyke's disdain for multiple takes (as later confirmed by Myrna Loy) made The Thin Man seem like life being lived rather than studied performance. I don't know a film with action so spontaneous. The Thin Man was released just ahead of strict Code enforcement. A few months later would have taken ginger out of it, sequels an attest to that. There were revivals and an early 60's reissue. Was there at any time Code-cuts made? I'd hate to think what we're seeing is in any way incomplete. One forfeit had The Thin Man come later would be its drinks consumed to almost farcical excess. Nick and Nora take alcohol for every meal, in fact drinks instead of meals. He only mentions eating once, when they phone down for suite service "with lots of onions." The Thin Man is no encouragement for problem inbibers; in fact, it argues against any sort of moderation. There is no consequence for over-use past a mild hangover Nora has, and for which Nick prescribes a cocktail as cure. The Thin Man was timed perfectly to let off steam of deeply unpopular Prohibition that finally had been lifted. People got a crucial freedom back and they liked to see their favorite stars enjoy it. Movies had never given up the drink habit, but now it could be something other than basis for crime, or as forbidden fruit among private partiers. How refreshing it must have been for first-run patronage to open with Nick Charles having multiple quaffs at a crowded hotel bar. The Thin Man as influence to both movies and private life cannot be overstated. Along with It Happened One Night, it led 1934's biggest impact.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

"Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?"

Love it.

6:19 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Thanks for the pleasant reminder to include THE THIN MAN in the Christmas rotation. You're absolutely right about William Powell. We were watching STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER and wondered if there was anyone else besides Clifton Webb who could play John Philip Sousa as written in the screenplay. The only candidate we considered was William Powell.

Your "three days of Christmas" observation reminds me to recommend another Christmas-Eve-into-Christmas morning detective story: ALIAS BOSTON BLACKIE, with Chester Morris and George E. Stone visiting a prison on Christmas Eve and being implicated when an inmate escapes. The plot is resolved on Christmas Day.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Love the shout out to William Powell and THE THIN MAN! Love him, love Loy, love the picture!

Much is always made of Dashiell Hammett's relationship with Lilian Hellman as the model for Nick and Nora, but read the book, then see the movie. I think much of the spark, the humor and the fizz we associate with the lead characters must have come from those wonderful married screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. This couple routinely made romance between longstanding partners sound mature, funny and sexy in stuff like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, EASTER PARADE, FATHER OF THE BRIDE as well as the early Thin Man pictures. No knock on director Van Dyke to say a lot of that fun that ended up on the screen was right there in the script before an inch of film was shot!

9:33 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Can't add anything else to your observations, so I'll go in a slightly different direction. The Thin Man must have had an effect on Warren Williams' Perry Mason movies. One of them -- can't remember which one -- opens with Perry dead drunk under his bed, and continues with him drinking to excess for much of the movie, only without Powell's charm.

12:26 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Few could equal William Powell; none were better.

The Wolf, man.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Brother Herbert said...

One story I've heard about the making of this film is that there was an actor who actually dropped dead on set while shooting a scene, and Van Dyke, not wanting to interrupt his schedule, wouldn't let the body be removed until he'd set up the next shot, and then insisted that the dead man's coat be left behind. I read this story in the first of Bill Givens' FILM FLUBS books and have never seen or heard it told anywhere else, so it may be just a story, but it does fit in nicely with the mythology that Van Dyke was evidently trying to create around this film.

1:28 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Most of the changes as the series continued centered on Nora. She's introduced as a hot little heiress who matches Nick drink for drink. Then, by degrees, she becomes the good-natured, maternal grownup, never a nag but keeping Nick code-compliant.

The early Perry Masons were clearly inspired by the Thin Man, but Warren William was no imitation. He played genuine SOBs and flamboyant rogues with equal flair, and his Perry Masons are much more fun that the safer entries that closed out the series. Nick Charles would quietly turn serious when actually detecting. William's Mason gleefully collected opportunities as well as clues.

More blatant is RKO's "Star of Midnight", which cast Powell opposite Ginger Rogers as a suave detective and a hot little socialite wearing down his resistance.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Dave G said...

Wonderful write up of one of my all-time favourites. Points well made about Powell's timeless charm and the audience appeal of Nick & Nora's relationship. Whenever I periodically revisit the film, one of the first thoughts to cross my mind is invariably, "I wish my marriage was as much fun as theirs!"

4:07 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

If you have a drink every time Nick has a cocktail, you just might wake up in a jail in Mexico City. The Wolf, man.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The first time I saw THE THIN MAN was on the CBC in Canada after midnight on a Sunday. I was exhausted, could not keep my eyes open when it started. Why I watched it I don'y know now but within seconds I was wide awake.

It has been a favorite ever since.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Writing in the New York Times in 1963 about which movies worked on television and which didn't critic Hollis Alpert singled out William Powell: "Mr. Powell holds up marvelously. His air of humorous aplomb, his debonair humor and comic timing appeal to present-day audiences almost as much as they did in the past.''

7:47 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Very glad you shared this, Lou, for it sure mirrors the audience response I witnessed in 1973.

7:57 PM  

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