Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
When MGM got William Powell on loan from Warner to make The Thin Man with Myrna Loy, the studio anticipated they had just green-lit a quick B-movie. Director W.S. Van Dyke was known to be able to keep to his deadlines and they managed, incredibly, to shoot the film in two weeks, with only a few days’ extension. Perhaps it was due to the spontaneity of Loy and Powell, the cinematography by James Wong Howe, perhaps is was partly because it was a passion project for Van Dyke. But far from being a throwaway comedy, it went on to secure four Oscar nominations and spawn five sequels, three of which were directed by Van Dyke himself. (MGM was never a studio to give up a lucrative formula).
The film’s portrayal of marriage is, in itself, ground-breaking. Matrimony, for its characters Nick (Powell) and Nora (Loy), is pure fun and romance. Unencumbered by any responsibilities or troubles, they seem such a perfect match on screen that people kept thinking they were a couple in real life too (they were not). A crime film merged with a screwball comedy was also a novelty, but it proved the perfect escapism for Depression-era audiences.
In this first The Thin Man film, based loosely on the novel by Dashiel Hammet, Nick and Nora Charles investigate the disappearance of Clyde (Edward Ellis), an old client of Nick’s. While the duo tipple and banter merrily away, the plot thickens. But, as so often with films like these, the (frankly preposterous) plot is hardly the point. Powell seems born to play Nick, a retired detective and man about town, determined to enjoy the party lifestyle, have fun, and lots (lots!) of drinks. Loy is easily his equal, in charm, good humour and spirits, both figurative and literal. They are accompanied by their adorable dog Asta (dog actor Skippy, later of Bringing up Baby fame). Together they are so joyful and charming, with not a hint of the dark depression-era, they make life seem like a delicacy to be savoured. Apart from their wonderful banter, the film isn’t short on physical comedy either.
When we meet Nick, he is at a party, explaining to the bar staff how to mix a drink: “The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.”
We then see Asta comes in dragging Nora, her arms full of Christmas presents, and she takes a spill, scattering the packages all over the club. After some banter, she suspects her husband is sozzled and asks: “How many drinks have you had?”
“This will make it six martinis” says Nick.
“Will you bring me five more martinis?” Nora asks the waiter, “and line them up. Right here.”
While the Hays Code was being seriously enforced by 1934, and though The Thin Man is not as cutting-edge as earlier pre-Code films, it retains some of the breezy feel of those comedies. Its light touch, its banter and its joie de vivre hold up well, although Nick and Nora’s dipsomania registers as more problematic today (and raised eyebrows with the Production Code, even at the time). The film, however, is pure escapism and, as such, unconcerned with such ponderous matters. Life is an adventure, a huge party, and even today it is irresistible to join Nick and Nora in the festivities.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.