SPOTLIGHT: Lovely Pre-Code Loy (VII)

Welcome to another Film Friday (and our 250th post)! Today, we’re concluding our series of posts on the Pre-Code work of Myrna Loy, one of M-G-M’s sharpest and glamorous stars of the ’30s and ’40s. Though her greatest successes would come during the Post-Code era, the films of Loy’s early career demonstrate her versatility and the slow appropriation of what would become her niche — the sophisticated dame who could make audiences both laugh and cry. The films we’ll be covering over these next few weeks — and we will NOT be going chronologically — are all very different: in some we’ll see Loy as merely a supporting player; in others, she’ll be our leading lady. As one of the busiest actresses of the Pre-Code era, these posts will examine the way in which a second-tier actress grappled with defining her image into something that, though strangely Pre-Code, would soon take off and make her a major star in the immediate Post-Code years to follow. So far we’ve covered Penthouse (1933),  Transatlantic (1931), The Animal Kingdom (1932), Love Me Tonight (1932), Manhattan Melodrama (1934), and Night Flight (1933). Today, The Thin Man (1934)…

 

The Thin Man (1934)

The Thin Man

A husband-and-wife detective team takes on the search for a missing inventor and almost get killed for their efforts. Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Nat Pendleton. Screenplay by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke.

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The first in a series of six motion pictures (that also launched a two season television comedy/drama) featuring Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, The Thin Man is the quintessential murder mystery film of the 1930s — combining grim and gritty reality with romance, wit, alcohol, sex, and dozens of laughs. It would be impossible to track exactly how influential this film has been in shaping the mystery/comedy genre, and parodies abound (including one on The Carol Burnett Show). With a brilliant script, an intriguing premise, and an electric cast, The Thin Man is absolutely essential viewing — for anyone and everyone who loves well-made films.

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“Soon after Dorothy Wynant announces to her inventor father that she plans to marry, he goes on a mysterious business trip, promising to return in time for Dorothy’s wedding. As the day approaches and Wynant fails to return, Dorothy worries, while her mother, Mimi, is frantic that her ex-husband is unavailable to give her and her new husband, Chris Jorgenson, more money. When Mimi goes to see Julia Wolf, Wynant’s mistress, to ask for money, she finds her dead body clutching Wynant’s watch chain. Meanwhile, sophisticated former detective Nick Charles and his wealthy wife Nora have come to New York for the Christmas holidays and become enmeshed in the case, despite Nick’s protests that he is no longer a detective.

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“Nora enthusiastically encourages Nick, and one evening he and Asta, their terrier, discover the skeletal remains of a body in Wynant’s laboratory. The police suspect that Wynant has committed another murder, but Nick realizes that the body must be Wynant’s because of a trace of shrapnel found in the leg. Nick and Nora give a dinner party, to which they invite all of the suspects as guests. [SPOILER ALERT] There it is revealed that Mimi had been aiding MacCaulay, Wynant’s lawyer, in exchange for cash. When Nick exposes Chris as a bigamist, thus making Mimi realize that she will now be free to inherit Wynant’s money, she incriminates MacCaulay, who had been embezzling from Wynant with Julia’s compliance. Finally, Nick and Nora and Dorothy and her new husband Tommy are on a train, happily bound for California.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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It is much easier to talk about a faulty film than one that is about as close to figurative perfection as any film can get. I have no nitpicks; the picture is that extraordinary. Credit must first go to the story. Man goes missing, his mistress is found dead, and a mildly alcoholic former detective (along with his witty wife) decide to investigate. Credit must then go to the script itself, which, in addition to allowing the mystery to sustain (and at times gain) momentum, designs an assorted host of unique characters, each of which have possible motives.  This is essential for a murder mystery, for we really have no idea who the murderer is until the final exhilaratingly infamous (and spoofed) dinner scene in which Nick gathers all the suspects together. The suspense is tantalizing, and that wouldn’t be possible without these wonderfully rich characters.

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Speaking of wonderfully rich characters, the most memorable thing about The Thin Man series, and this film in particular, are Nick and Nora Charles — the most delightfully playful and bantering detective duo that Hollywood has ever produced. The script is superb, to be sure, outlining multi-dimentional characters who can handle the drama, and the much needed comedy. (There are many laughs in this picture.) But Nick and Nora would be nothing without Powell and Loy, who, in addition to being individually excellent performers, have a firecracker chemistry that pretty much carries this series throughout the six films. There’s little else to say — it’s sheer magic for us to be able to watch them on screen.

As I said above, it’s difficult to write about a film that’s almost perfect, so you can imagine that I’m at a loss for words about The Thin Man. Just know that it is the first and BEST (because it’s the only one of the films that is Pre-Code, and therefore, is the grittiest, the funniest, and most thrilling of the series) in this string of films. The cast is breathtakingly good; the script is even better. See this film. I repeat: See this film.

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Come back next Friday for the start of a new series of films! And tune in tomorrow as we begin a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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