Six Damn Fine Degrees #116: After The Thin Man

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer realised they had a hit on their hands with 1934’s The Thin Man, it was inevitable that they’d demand a sequel. Two years later, they got it with After The Thin Man. The title references the fact that the action takes place directly after the first film. That had ended with the two leads boarding a train in New York for their home in San Francisco. The sequel starts with them arriving. This title went on to become effectively the brand for these films; four more were to follow with Thin Man in the title.

In this it shares a peculiar feature with The Pink Panther movies: where a series of movies adopts a title that only really relates to one aspect of the first film that isn’t the defining feature of the franchise. While Inspector Clouseau was to move forward in films long after the pink panther diamond has disappeared from the scene, so the absence of the actual “thin man” – the murder victim in the first film – didn’t stop it becoming the overarching title to a series of murder mysteries solved by married amateur detectives, Nick and Nora Charles.

In the end they made six Thin Man films, with the lead actors William Powell and Myrna Loy starring in all of them. As m’colleague Julie described in her feature on the first film they’re always a charismatic and entertaining double act. They both share a gift for comedy, and their affection for each other on screen is so convincing that audiences at the time would frequently assume they were married in real life. It’s a charm that carried them through all six films, and still makes them watchable.

But the other interesting aspect of binging all six these days is that as a film series they represent a period of time as the US film industry emerged from prohibition and saw the Production Code steadily impose its ideals on cinema. It’s hard not to watch the first film, made as it was just over a year after the ending of prohibition, as a glorious celebration of drinking alcohol. Both leads drink throughout the film, and when they’re not drunk they’re lamenting the fact. And their dialogue as a couple is risque, full of an innuendo that makes no-one watching doubt the depths of the love – and lust – they have for each other.

And best of all, they are clearly a team in the first film. From the outset when Myrna Loy’s Nora Charles finds her husband drunk, her first thought is to order enough drinks to catch up. Mrs Charles is a wealthy socialite, who has clearly married William Powell’s successful private detective in part because of the excitement of his life on the edge of criminality. And she embraces the investigation in this film, because it’s exciting.

It’s a spirit that carries on into the sequel. There’s another murder, another cast of suspects – including a young and gorgeous James Stewart – and a fun solution. Its mix of comedy, irrelevance and genuine crime is a successful formula that still powers successes like Knives Out to this day.

But this film ends with a new revelation: Mrs Charles is pregnant. And this, for me, is a bit of a turning point. The Hollywood of the Production Code begins to shape the type of story that can get told. Over the next four films, through mysteries variable in quality, the dynamic changes. Powell becomes the endearing irresponsible husband, drunkenly solving the crimes, while Loy becomes the cliche of the sensible wife, eyerolling at her husband’s latest foolishness. His links to crime become a problem for her because she wants a respectable family.

By the final film in the series, 1946’s Song Of The Thin Man, the series has become stuck in its ways. Myrna Loy apparently hated the film and audiences had grown tired of the formula: it’s the only film in the series to make a loss. Which all seems a bit harsh: Powell and Loy still make it watchable, and the appearance of a very young Dean Stockwell as Nick Charles Jr is a curio.

Given just how much subversive fun is in the first film, it can’t help to end on a bit of a damp squib. There’s no shame in that, many a great franchise has terminated on worse films. However, there is one way to get around this. Binge the series in reverse. Start out with a traditional, slightly tired but fun Hollywood murder mystery – and end with a glorious ‘30s masterpiece. Create a drinking game to go with it – drink everytime someone recognises Nick Charles – and you’ll be suitably sozzled by the time you get to After The Thin Man and can enjoy this great film as the Charles’ would have wanted you to.

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