One of the first things you realize watching 1939’s Another Thin Man – the third of six popular film mysteries starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as crime-solving couple Nick and Nora Charles – is that the mystery hardly matters.
A domineering, rich old man (C. Aubrey Smith) has been getting death threats. Soon enough, he’s murdered. The list of possible killers is extensive – a Cuban gangster, the housekeeper, members of the man’s own family – and the plot so twisty you need a flow chart to keep up with it.
Don’t worry if it doesn’t track all that well. Watch the Thin Man films for their sophisticated humor and the superb banter between stars Powell and Loy.
The original Thin Man back in 1934, based on a Dashiell Hammett novel, was one of the year’s biggest successes, with Oscar nominations for best film, best director (W.S. Van Dyke), best actor (Powell), and best adapted screenplay.
The M-G-M brass were happy to keep giving the public what it wanted. And what it wanted was more Nick and Nora.
Thanks to Nora’s family money, private eye Nick is free to take only those cases that interest him. He spends most of his time pouring and drinking cocktails, leading to some hilarious sight gags and memorable lines, such as Nora’s announcement that “We had had a lovely trip. Nick was sober in Kansas City.”
The thing is, the more Nick drinks, the more charming and perceptive he becomes. According to the late Roger Ebert, Powell "is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he's saying."
There’s a delicious exchange in Another Thin Man when Nick, looking for clues at a vaguely disreputable New York nightclub, is approached by the maître d.
Maître d: “Mr. Nick Charles, is it not?”
Nick: “It is.”
Maître d: “You are alone?”
Nick: “The good are often alone.”
Maître d: “I fix it so you will not be good long.”
This is a good time to address one of the biggest misconceptions about the Thin Man series. Originally, Powell’s Nick Charles was not the “thin man.” In the first film, the “thin man” was a murder victim. The M-G-M marketers, not taking any chances with confusing the fan base, made sure that the phrase was included in the titles of all subsequent films about Nick and Nora: After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (’39), Shadow of the Thin Man (’41), The Thin Man Goes Home (’45), Song of the Thin Man (’47). Naturally, moviegoers began thinking of Powell’s character as “the thin man,” and by the time The Thin Man Goes Home came along, the studio was encouraging that misperception.
As good as he is, Nick rarely solves a mystery on his own. Nora – a bit of a ditz on the outside and all brains on the inside – invariably comes up with some gambit or theory that rips the case wide open. And then there are the contributions of the pair’s wire-haired fox terrier, Asta, a charismatic pooch who, simply by doing doggy things, often plays a major role in exposing the villain.
Another Thin Man also introduced Nick and Nora’s infant son, Nicky Jr., who would become a regular in latter episodes of the series.
"This third of the trademarked Thin Men takes its murders as jauntily as ever,” raved Frank S. Nugent in The New York Times, “confirms our impression that matrimony need not be too serious a business, and provides as light an entertainment as any holiday-amusement seeker is likely to find."
Powell, a 1910 graduate of Kansas City’s Central High School (he grew up just a few blocks away from the home of the future Jean Harlow, with whom he would have a torrid affair), specialized in sophisticated drollery. He began acting in silent films, was nominated for three best actor Oscars – for The Thin Man (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), and Life with Father (1948) – and ended his film career after playing Doc in Mister Roberts (1955). He died at age 91 in 1984.
While Powell was already a “name” before the first Thin Man movie, Loy’s career was turned around by the franchise.
Early on she was typecast as vamps, often of Asian or Eurasian origins. The M-G-M front office thought of her as exclusively a dramatic actress, but director Van Dyke believed she had comedy potential and fought to cast her as Nora. Overnight she became an A-list star.
Asta the dog was played by Skippy, an incredibly talented canine who appeared in only the first two Thin Man films before retiring. But by that time his owners had a kennel full of fox terriers ready to step in.
While most dog actors earned $3.50 a day, Skippy/Asta pulled down $250. But he was worth it. Audiences went crazy for the dog, and thanks to Asta wire-haired fox terriers became the most popular breed in America. Even today “Asta” can be found occupying four-letter words spaces in crossword puzzles.
“Woody” Van Dyke, who directed the first three films in the Thin Man series, wasn’t much of a stylist. But his ability to shoot quickly and cleanly made him an invaluable M-G-M asset, and earned him the nickname "One-Take Van Dyke." In addition to the Thin Man series he directed titles in the Andy Hardy series, and helmed six of the filmed operettas starring singing sensations Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. He also directed 1936’s San Francisco, which culminated in a still-impressive recreation of the 1906 earthquake; he earned his second directing nomination for that film.
Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Crime Stories”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- July 5: Another Thin Man (1939) Not Rated
- July 12: Each Dawn I Die (1939) Not Rated
- July 19: Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) Not Rated
- July 26: The Roaring Twenties (1939) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com.