The first of MGM's Thin Man films was a groundbreaking surprise money-maker directed by W.S. Van Dyke, whose 16 day shoot time helped earn him the nickname "One Shot Woody." Adapted by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich from Dashiell Hammett's crime novel of the same name, The Thin Man won high praise, both then and now, and established stars William Powell and Myrna Loy as a successful team in what was just their second film of an eventual fourteen made together. But this specific formula worked so well that MGM returned to it every few years making 6 Thin Man movies in all beginning with this 1934 gem and running all the way through 1947's Song of the Thin Man swansong.
For a film always remembered as one of the greatest sophisticated comedies of all time it's Powell and Loy who make it so. Together they raise The Thin Man above the more typical murder mystery films of the day and propel it to mainstream popularity. Indeed, The Thin Man was one of the top ten grossing films of 1934 and it has continued to find waves of new fans through it's release to the various home video mediums over the past 30 years.
While Manhattan Melodrama (1934) came earlier in the year for Powell and Loy The Thin Man would be the one which cemented them as a profitable team in those dozen movies to come. After having Gable with them their first time around they only require the presence of talented wire haired terrier Asta to prevent any potential dead spots between their witty banter in The Thin Man. In her autobiography, Being and Becoming, Myrna Loy writes:
After eighty-odd pictures ... The Thin Man finally made me. It put me right up there with the public and the studio. It inspired the press. From that time on they called me "the perfect wife" ... What made The Thin Man series work, what made it fun, was that we didn't attempt to hide the fact that sex is part of marriage. But it was deft, done with delicacy and humor.
The parts of Nick and Nora Charles are what were largely responsible for Powell and Loy being famously confused as a real-life married couple off the screen. It's no wonder considering how perfectly they mesh together even here just their second film together. While never a couple off-screen, their screen personas were made for one another.
Powell, with experience in the detective genre after previously having played Philo Vance four times for other studios, is Nick Charles, a retired detective whose past associates are bottom of the barrel, though often kindhearted, ex-cons, each of whom Nick has put away some time or another in days gone by (Face on Nick: Nice guy, sent me up the river one time.). Loy's Nora is a good humored socialite who beyond being perfect foil for Nick manages to complement him with her own deadpan sense of humor. When one of the couple wisecracks on the other, the response is rapid fire and it's often Nora who winds up leaving Nick's mouth agape.
But beyond the starring duo, whose charms are obvious and carry to the overall continued success of the entire series as a whole, it's the numerous minor characters of the original Thin Man which elevate it above other entries in the series. Filled with memorable character actors such as Nat Pendleton, Edward Brophy and Porter Hall, really everyone from Maureen O'Sullivan's third billed appearance straight to the bottom of the cast list have something to offer to The Thin Man.
We'll start with O'Sullivan's Wynant family whose patriarch Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) is actually the thin man of the title. We meet the wealthy Wynant at work in his lab where he rants and raves at an employee and manages to appear as an entirely unpleasant crank until daughter Dorothy (O'Sullivan) appears with her beau, Tommy (Henry Wadsworth). Wynant turns sugary-sweet to Dorothy and when he reverses himself in his firing of the previously put-upon employee we think the old inventor might be a decent chap, however his crankiness is confirmed in any later scene not involving O'Sullivan.
Wynant's main problem and the cause of all of his unhappiness are the women in his life. Ex-wife Mimi (Minna Gombell) is only concerned with prying as much money out of the old man as she can to uphold her extravagant lifestyle and support her sleazy new gigolo husband Chris Jorgenson (Cesar Romero). Meanwhile the current state of affairs for Wynant isn't much better as his girlfriend Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead) is shown with Edward Brophy's Morelli in her first appearance, hatching their own scheme at getting into Wynant's pockets.
It's no wonder that Wynant actually cools down some when Dorothy is on the scene as she wants nothing more than her father's approval for her marriage to the otherwise inconsequential Tommy. Wynant tells her he's skipping town for a bit in order to complete his work out of the way from prying eyes, but that he'll definitely be back in time for Dorothy's December nuptials.
The problems start when ex-wife Mimi pays a visit to girlfriend Julia, looking for money of course, and comes upon Julia's corpse. The murder brings Lieutenant Guild (Nat Pendleton) on the scene and Nick's past working relationship with Wynant slowly pulls him onto the case. Nora, who's yet to see her hot shot husband in action, urges him to get more involved all along until eventually, after rescuing Nora with a well-timed punch and disarming a crazed Morelli inside their bedroom, he's in all the way.
Up until the time that Morelli fires his shot Nick has spent most of the film in conversation with the growing string of suspects, highlighted earlier that evening at his and Nora's hilarious Christmas party where they played hosts to a roomful of Nick's old friends (Nora: Oh, Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people.). Once Morelli shoots Nick returns to full-fledged sleuthing (Nick: On it? I'm in it.) both sharing and withholding information from Guild before hatching it all in the famous reveal around the Charles' dining table where Nick quizzes his dinner guests until the murderer makes themselves known.
Powell and Loy are perfect throughout and Asta adds to their fun when on the scene. Maureen O'Sullivan, well her Dorothy changes from sweet to reckless in such short order that I'll just say I don't envy Tommy his future, but overall she's passable in a part that probably could have used a little more nuance inside the script itself. As Wynant's crime obsessed son, Gilbert, William Henry can be a bit overbearing but the role succeeds in providing its intended laughs. Minna Gombell is excellent as Wynant's ex and Cesar Romero is exceptionally sleazy as her new husband, Chris, despite their actual pairing seeming a little unlikely.
Brophy's Morelli shows his talents in the bedroom scene alone, his mouth moving a mile a minute from criminal desperation to reminiscing over mutual acquaintances with Nick. Nat Pendleton gives what's likely the best performance of his career in playing the Lieutenant straight without much of the usual foolishness foisted upon his characters. Porter Hall is typically effective as Wynant's lawyer MacAuley, Cyril Thornton is fine as the meek bookkeeper Tanner, and Harold Huber is standout as scarfaced Nunheim, a two-bit hood playing every side that he can in hopes of the biggest payoff.
Like I said earlier, Woody Van Dyke shot The Thin Man fast, but even this paid off in the end through the film's incredible pacing. This pacing along with just the sheer variety and number of characters littering The Thin Man leaves you mourning the end of a classic when it's over seemingly all too soon. Thankfully if you're left wishing for more afterwards all you need to do it pop on After the Thin Man (1936) and kick back for more mystery, action and, of course, comedy.