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From the current Winter 2017 Issue

How WILLIAM POWELL and MYRNA LOY became America's favorite detectives

THROUGH THICK AND THIN

By John J. May

 

During the 1930s and ‘40s, Americans flocked to the cinema to escape the grim realities of the Great Depression and World War II. Screwball comedies and detective thrillers offered viewers an emotional getaway from the pressures of those turbulent times. One of the most beloved and popular series of this era was MGM’s Thin Man series. Over a decade and six films, moviegoers followed the exploits of Nick and Nora Charles, two quirky socialite sleuths, a husband and wife with money to burn and singular tastes in cocktails, style and friends — ranging from high society to the underworld.

The Thin Man was the creation of hardboiled author Dashiell Hammett. Originally published in the December 1933 issue of Redbook, MGM quickly purchased the rights from Hammett for $21,000 and began production on the screen version of the novel in 1934.

While Hammett is said to have written the novel with himself as Nick and his lover Lillian Hellman as Norma, it was another husband-and-wife team — writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich — who were tasked with bringing the characters to the big screen.

For the role of Nick Charles, MGM cast leading man William Powell. Powell was no stranger to playing on-screen detectives, having already starred in four films as amateur sleuth Philo Vance. However, Powell’s initial popularity had cooled by the early 1930s and he needed a hit. As it happened, his portrayal of the wise-cracking, martini-loving Nick Charles would transform his career.

Despite producer Hunt Stromberg’s initial apprehension, the studio cast Myrna Loy as Nick’s wife Nora. Although she had been in movies since 1925, Loy’s early silent (and early talking) roles often had her playing a vamp, a femme fatale or a mysterious Asian/Eurasian, including a turn as the title character’s daughter in 1932’s The Mask of Fu Manchu. Luckily, Thin Man director W.S. Van Dyke detected a wit and sense of humor in Loy that her earlier, darker roles did not allow her to demonstrate.

It helped that Loy and Powell had worked together before, teaming up (with Clark Gable) in 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama. In fact, from the moment they began working together, both Loy and Powell knew a very special chemistry was at work.

As Loy later wrote in her autobiography, “From the very first scene, a curious thing passed between us, a feeling of rhythm, complete understanding, an instinct for how one could bring out the best in each other. In all our work together you can see this strange… kind of rapport. It wasn’t conscious… Whatever caused it, though, it was magical.”

For his part, Powell would later explain how “even my best friends never fail to tell me that the smartest thing I ever did was to marry Myrna Loy on the screen.”

On April 9, 1934, shooting for The Thin Man began on MGM’s backlot. Filming took less than 20 days, including two days of retakes in the middle of May. Such a pace was the hallmark of W.S. Van Dyke. Known as “One-Shot” Woody because he allowed few retakes, Van Dyke believed the first take showed the actors at their freshest and least mannered.

The first scene to introduce Powell’s Nick Charles takes place — naturally — in a bar. As the camera takes in a crowd from above, Powell, cocktail shaker in hand, shows the bartender how to make a martini. “You see, the important thing is the rhythm,” explains a slightly inebriated Charles. “You should always have rhythm in your shaking. A Manhattan you shake to a fox trot. A Bronx to a two-step time. A dry martini you always shake to waltzes.”

The scene then cuts to a flustered Mrs. Charles, wearing a length fur coat and a floppy hat, being dragged into the bar by Asta, the Charles’ beloved wirehaired terrier. As the wrapped presents Nora carries tumble around her, she trips over her feet and falls headfirst onto the floor. As waiters rush to her aid, Nick saunters over with a big smile, greeting his wife with “Hello, Sugar!” As the two meet on camera for the first time, audiences could tell that this was a couple in love — and they loved it.

Each Thin Man film followed the plot of the original: Nick and Nora are out having a drink. A murder, or murders occur. (In the case of the original film, a young woman — played by Maureen O’Sullivan — asks Nick to find her father, who is suspected of killing her stepmother.) Nick (usually with Asta in tow) reluctantly investigates, leaving Nora behind to come up with her own theories. Along the way, they meet friends, acquaintances and strangers from high society and low. (As Nora exclaimed to Nick in The Thin Man, “Oh, Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people!”) Finally, the suspects are gathered together and listen as Nick explains the solution to the mystery and outs the killer. As Nora explained a decade later in The Thin Man Goes Home, “it’s called payoff.”

The Thin Man was released in June 1934 (just a few weeks after Manhattan Melodrama) and went on to become one of the year’s biggest hits. Costing under $500,000 to make, it earned more than $2 million at the box office.

Besides making a healthy profit for MGM, The Thin Man earned positive reviews from critics. The New York Times praised Van Dyke, explaining how “one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors, has made an excellent combination of comedy and excitement.” The World Telegram informed readers that the film was “a picture you simply cannot afford to miss unless you want to cheat yourself.”

The film also caught the attention of the Academy. In addition to William Powell receiving his first Academy Award nomination for Nick Charles, The Thin Man was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Writing. Although the film lost out on Oscars, it was included among the National Review Board’s Top Ten Films of 1934.

The success of The Thin Man restored William Powell’s fledgling career and catapulted Myrna Loy to leading lady status. She became one of MGM’s top female stars and demanded a salary of $3,500 a week, which made her one of the top-paid actresses in Hollywood. Powell and Loy weren’t the only ones enjoying new recognition; the couple’s wirehaired terrier Asta became so popular that sales of this breed soared after the film’s release.

The studio hoped to build upon the success of The Thin Man and quickly clamored to start work on a sequel. In October 1934, MGM contracted Dashiell Hammett to write the screenplay. Unfortunately, the author spent most of his time hitting the bottle and wrote little. When Hammett finally did work out a synopsis, the Hacketts were called in and managed to re-work it into another comedy-mystery.

Finally, in 1936, After the Thin Man was released. In a way, the title was deceptive, as the “thin man” of the original novel actually referred to a murder victim. However, audiences who had not read the book mistakenly believed the title referred to main character Nick Charles. Rather than go out of their way to debunk that belief, MGM kept the title alive for subsequent films.

More of a continuation than a sequel, After the Thin Man picks up where the first film left off, with Nick and Nora stepping off the train in California. For this outing, the murder is set amongst Nora’s society family. (Among the suspects is a young James Stewart.)

After the customary gathering of suspects and the naming of the culprit, the film ends in the same fashion as the original, with Nick and Nora traveling by train. This time, however, there’s one major difference; as Nick sits in the compartment watching Nora knitting a baby’s bootie, he slowly realizes she is pregnant. In one of the film’s best and most tenderhearted lines, Nora says, “And you call yourself a detective.”

The decision to make Nora a mother stemmed from the love-hate relationship Goodrich and Hackett had with the characters. The writers envisioned After the Thin Man to be the final outing for Nick and Nora and explained, “giving the Charleses a baby to care for might put and end to their adventurous life.”

The writers apparently considered an even more extreme measure: “We wanted to kill both of them at the end just to be sure,” Goodrich wrote later. Of course, MGM executives quickly nixed that idea.

Despite being 22 minutes longer than the original, and costing twice as much to make, the film became one of MGM’s biggest hits of the year, earning over three million dollars.

Ecstatic with the enormous success of the first two Thin Man films, executives at MGM recognized they had a lucrative franchise on their hands. The studio planned to release a new film in the series every two years, and pre-production immediately started on a third installment.

Unfortunately, in 1937, William Powell was diagnosed with colon cancer and would not appear any more films for nearly 21 months. Surgeons were able to remove the cancer and after radiation treatment, Powell’s colon was restored to its natural functioning. “I was one of the lucky ones… They caught it in time,” Powell explained later.

Powell’s health was not the only setback during pre-production; MGM also had problems getting a script for the third film. Though the studio paid Hammett $2,000 a week to write the screenplay for the third Thin Man outing, Hammett once again disappointed them, spending most of his time drinking and writing little usable material.

The studio looked to the Hacketts for a third time to develop a workable script. Unable to get anything legible from Hammett’s work, the pair borrowed from “The Farewell Murder,” another Hammett story featuring his Continental Op character, to create the third film in the series, Another Thin Man. This screenplay marked the end of the Hacketts’ work on the series; physically and mentally exhausted from the pressures of Hollywood, the couple packed up and headed for New York. In 1956, they won a Pulitzer Prize for their stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Powell’s health finally allowed him to start shooting in July of 1939. Later, he told a reporter that walking onto the set the first day of shooting was “like coming home again. Myrna and Woody are wonderful. If they had been sentimental or emotional about it – I don’t think I could have stood it, I was so choked up. But those two knew. All they said was, ‘Well, Powell at last — and late again!’”

Released in late 1939, the tone of Another Thin Man differs from the first two films. The couple returns to New York with Nick Jr. in tow. With the addition of a child, Nick and Nora spend less time drinking and more time settling into the routine of raising a family. Gone is the couple’s hedonistic, carefree lifestyle, replaced instead with the challenges of parenthood.

Thankfully, the baby is not an integral part of the plot, which has the couple investigating a murder on a Long Island estate. In fact, Nick Jr.’s role in the film can be summed up in Nick’s response to a question about his son: “We had a dog, and he was lonesome.”

Not all critics praised Nick and Nora’s third outing. Time magazine was cool, noting Nick and Nora “take the pandemonium that passes for their domestic life with the same unquenchable good humor, poise, charm, and thirst. But the spontaneity seems a little forced, the pace, jokes and charms a little grimly predetermined.” Despite tepid reviews, audiences loved Another Thin Man’s snappy dialogue and Powell and Loy’s natural chemistry.

MGM immediately made plans for a fourth film. With Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett on the other side of the country, the studio brought in the writing talents of Henry Kurnitz and Irving Brecher. (The latter, who would later create the radio series The Life of Riley, had worked on movies ranging from The Wizard of Oz to the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus.)

For 1941’s Shadow of the Thin Man, Nick and Nora get tangled up in a racetrack murder. The supporting cast includes future stars Barry Nelson and Donna Reed; however, the film was the weakest one yet. Without the Hacketts providing the screenplay, the jokes seem forced and the plot too predictable. The weak script neglected to expand on the couple’s pithy one-liners, and the concluding “gathering of suspects” sequence appears labored and uncertainly paced.

As Commonwealth summed up on November 28, 1941, “Perhaps we are a bit weary of the series for this newest item doesn’t seem to come up to the others, or perhaps the humor strains too hard at sophistication and tells too much of the famous detective and his love for downing cocktails and solving complicated crimes instead of letting him get into action.”

The Shadow of the Thin Man arrived in theaters just two weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It would be the last entry in the series until after the war. At the start of World War II, Myrna Loy walked into the MGM executive office and announced she would not make any more movies for the duration of the war. Instead, Loy resolved to devote all her time helping the war effort as a volunteer for the Red Cross.

During Loy’s absence from the screen, the series suffered a major loss. Battling both terminal cancer and heart problems, Woody Van Dyke committed suicide on February 5, 1943 at the age of 53.

“He was one of Hollywood’s best, most versatile directors,” Loy wrote. “Perhaps that very versatility is the reason they haven’t started honoring him yet. Critics and commentators, whoever makes those judgments, seem to go for genre directory — it’s easier. But they’ll get around to Woody one of these days.”

In 1944, Loy, caving to public pressure and MGM executives (who threatened to replace her with Irene Dunne), returned to the studio to shoot the fifth film in the series, The Thin Man Goes Home.

The studio filled Van Dyke’s chair with Richard Thorpe, an immensely prolific director who churned out more than 186 films during his 45-year career, including a number of the studio’s early Tarzan films.

In addition to having a new director, producer (Everett Riskin) and screenwriting team (Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor), The Thin Man Goes Home eschewed the New York and California settings of the first four films in favor of Nick’s small hometown of Sycamore Springs. While visiting Nick’s parents, the couple are once more forced to investigate a murder. Producers felt the change of setting would allow the characters to interact more.

That wasn’t the only big change: Due to wartime liquor rationing, Everett Riskin eliminated Nick and Nora’s penchant for heavy drinking, which had become a trademark of the series. For this film, Nick Charles was reduced to drinking cider out of a flask.

Critics were not impressed with The Thin Man Goes Home. Although Variety praised Thorpe’s plotting, they declared that the production “lacks much of the sophistication and smartness which characterized the early Thin Man films. Deficiency is mainly in the dialog and other business provided for the two leads.”

Despite negative reviews, the public clamored for more Thin Man films, and in early 1947, Loy and Powell paired up one last time for Song of the Thin Man.

For many of the people involved in the film, it was obvious that the sixth film in the series would be Nick and Nora’s swan song. Loy later wrote that she “hated” making Song of the Thin Man: “The characters had lost their spark for Bill and me, and the people who know what it was all about were no longer involved. Woody Van Dyke was dead. Dashiell Hammett and Hunt Stromberg had gone elsewhere. The Hacketts were writing other things.”

The plot of Song is not dissimilar from the earlier films — this time, Nick must investigate when a bandleader is murdered — but the tone is far removed from the original. Nick and Nora are no longer the hard-drinking party couple audiences met in 1934. Instead, the pair spends most of the film attempting to discipline Nick Jr., who the producers unfortunately returned from boarding school. According to Loy, it was “a lackluster finish to a great series.”

Even though The Song of the Thin Man earned more than $500,000 upon its release, the studio decided it was time to close the curtain on the Thin Man franchise.

William Powell continued making films into the next decade, but retired without any announcement after 1955’s Mr. Roberts. Retiring to his home in Palm Beach, California, he spent the next thirty years out of the spotlight. Powell died on March 5, 1984, at the age of 91. In its obituary, Daily Variety called him “the personification of sophistication and class.”

Myrna Loy eulogized her long-time friend, stating, “I never enjoyed my work more than when I worked with William Powell. He was a brilliant actor, a delightful companion, a great friend and above all, a true gentleman. I shall miss him more than I can say.”

Loy also continued acting after the Thin Man series (reuniting with Powell for the 1947 comedy The Senator Was Indiscreet) but spent most of her time pursuing charitable causes. She became a member of the U.S. National Commission (UNESCO) and later became co-chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing.

In 1991, the Academy presented Loy with an American Honorary Award. Accepting the award via camera from her home in New York, she stated simply, “You’ve made me very happy. Thank you very much.” Myrna Loy was 88 when she passed away in New York City on December 14, 1993.

Over the years, numerous attempts to resurrect the Thin Man franchise — including a brief stint on television, an ill-fated musical, and actor Johnny Depp’s stated desire to bring Nick and Nora to the screen once more — have met with little success.

The truth is that the Thin Man series can never be recreated. The success of these films was the result of the screenwriting genius of the Hacketts, the directing skill of W.S. Van Dyke, and the chemistry of William Powell and Myrna Loy, all coming together at exactly the right time. Subsequent generations may try to emulate it or pay homage to it, but like the era from whence they came, that magical mixture can never be recreated.



Tune in to Those Were the Days on March 18 to hear William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Lux Radio Theatre productions of two Thin Man movies — and join us for a look at the other films Powell and Loy made together in the Spring issue of Nostalgia Digest!

 

 

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