Warner Home Video presents
The Complete Thin Man Collection (1934-47)
Nick: I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read that you were shot five times in the tabloids.
Nick: It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.- William Powell, Myrna Loy
Stars: William Powell, Myrna Loy
Other Stars: Maureen O'Sullivan, Cesar Romero, James Stewart, Stella Adler, Donna Reed, Keenan Wynn, Dean Stockwell, Jayne Meadows
Director: W. S. Van Dyke, Robert Thorpe, Edward Buzzell
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 09h:49m:04s
Release Date: 2005-08-02
DVD ReviewHollywood generally likes its detectives hard bitten and tending toward the lone wolf; when we think of great on-screen pairings, mysteries and thrillers aren't the genre that comes to mind, especially when it comes to the sparks flying between the sexes, the stock in trade of romantic comedies. But the Thin Man movies defied those conventions, and created a charming, sly and winning pair at its center: Nick and Nora Charles are happily married and enjoy nothing so much as one another's company, though coming in a close second is a good stiff drink, and then a nice old-fashioned murder mystery to solve. William Powell and Myrna Loy absolutely sparkle as the Charleses, the template for all the wisecracking couples that have followed; but none cracked as wise nor could hold their liquor as well as these two, and this marvelously fun boxed set brings together all six of Nick and Nora's adventures. Prepare your favorite libation and spend some time with some of the very best company in Hollywood history.
Audiences first encountered the dynamic if drunken duo in 1934, in an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel. The setup is pretty standard fare for a murder mystery: the brilliant but absent-minded Clyde Wynant, an inventor, is off on a mysterious journey. He won't reveal his destination to anyone, but there are many who know that he'll be out of town—his newly engaged daughter and her fiancé; his money-hungry ex-wife; his equally money-hungry girlfriend; his attorney; his laboratory assistant. Even before Wynant leaves town, he knows the double cross is on—somebody has lifted the $50,000 in bonds he kept in the office safe, which was to be his wedding present to his beloved daughter Dorothy. His destination remains shrouded in mystery, as does his return—where is Wynant, and has something untoward happened to him?
That's the question that Dorothy asks Nick Charles, whom she encounters—surprise!—at a hotel bar; he and his wife are just in town after four years in California, living the high life courtesy of Nora's inheritance. The particulars of the mystery aren't what captivate us; the byplay between Nick and Nora is where the action is. She's the sort of woman who needs six martinis just to warm up, and willingly pays the price next morning, wearing an icepack as a surprisingly stylish little bonnet; he can find the joke in anything, even if it's at the expense of himself or his lovely wife.
They're a couple that can't really be replicated, though goodness knows many have tried; the alcohol in our twelve-step age has something to do with that, for they've got bars and cocktail shakers absolutely everywhere, including their bedroom. (Putting aside any morality about drinking, it's hard to imagine how anyone could even stand up, let alone solve a murder mystery, after the amount of alcohol they ingest so merrily.) But more than that, the movie is so delightful because of the ineffable chemistry between Powell and Loy. He gets more to do—for a good portion of the second half, she's relegated to the suite at the Normandie, while he's hot on the trail—and Powell has an extraordinarily expressive face, and has charm to burn; he's a lush, sure, but there's no one you'd rather have a cocktail with. Except perhaps for Loy, who is sprightly and dishy and knowing all at once—they're so perfectly matched, and depending on your preference, it's hard not to be a little in love with one, while being a little jealous and also wanting to pal around with the other.
Notable here in the supporting cast are Maureen O'Sullivan, as Dorothy; and Cesar Romero, as a slimily opportunistic boyfriend. And let us not forget Asta, the terrier who accompanies the Charleses, a sweet little pooch with whom crossword puzzlers everywhere are intimately acquainted. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of the contrast between the Charleses' high style and the cops and gangsters they come into contact with; it's early Hollywood moviemaking at its best, climaxing in a delightful j'accuse dinner party, to which Nick and Nora have invited all the suspects, and at which they plan to solve the crime.
The success of the first film spawned a sequel two years later—in After the Thin Man, Nick and Nora take the Sunset Limited from New York back to their beloved San Francisco, where, shockingly, murder and hijinks ensue. The Charleses are welcomed back as old friends by all the people of the Bay area as well as by the audience, and with good reason, for it's always nice to catch up with old friends—they're already obviously a cultural sensation, and getting at least as much glory is Asta. The little scamp re-acquaints himself with his own family, only to see that it looks like the wife has been stepping out on him with the schnauzer from down the block.
The main event, though, concerns Nora's cousin Selma, whose ne'er-do-well husband Robert has disappeared. Selma knows that only Nick and Nora have the skills to bring him back; also on the case is Selma's former fiancé, David, thrown over by Selma for Robert, to the chagrin of all, especially since David is played by James Stewart. But most of the fun of the movie comes from the disparate worlds in which Nora and Nick have traveled alone, and the unease of each crossing over into their spouse's universe. Aunt Katherine is the dowager of Nora's family, and she despises Nick; the feeling is mutual, and there's just as much love between Nick and his wife's many aunts, uncles and cousins. Nick's circle, by contrast, is populated with gangsters and gun molls, cops and robbers, most of whom don't know what to make of the society dame on their buddy Nick's arm.
Robert, a sentimental fool, agrees to leave Selma for good if David will come up with $25,000. All the action is compressed into a day or so—New Year's Eve into New Year's Day—and it's riotous with flatfoots and button men, showgirls facing down blue bloods. As with the first film, the story is less the point than the style, and there's no shortage of that.
Next, it's on to that most storied year in Hollywood history, 1939, for Another Thin Man, and baby makes three—Nick and Nora's blessed event, Nick Jr., is just days away from his first birthday, and mother, father, child and Asta arrive in New York for the occasion. Spoiling the fun of their return is a phone call from dotty old Colonel MacFay, Nora's late father's former business partner, and the manager of her financial affairs; he demands that they come to his Long Island estate immediately, where, once again, hijinks ensue. Turns out that the Colonel is being threatened by a former employee, just out of prison, a fellow called Church, who demands extortion money and promises violence and to light out to Cuba; also in the mix are Lois, the Colonel's daughter; Dudley, his right-hand man; and a house full of servants and suspects.
The plot of this one is especially dizzying and hard to follow; in large measure, that's because so many of the actors look so much alike. (If you can distinguish all the men with slicked-back hair, pencil moustaches and double-breasted suits from one another, you're one up on me.) It's so hard to find good help these days, and Asta proves to be Nick Jr.'s most reliable nanny; of course, somebody turns up dead, and a pack of stupid cops try to outsmart our Nick. (Good luck with that, boys.) Like a moth to a flame, Nick Charles is drawn to murder and nightclubs, and this story doesn't disappoint, with more than its fair share of corpses and rhumbas.
Nora wants to get in on the action, too, though she's not exactly incognito in her fur-trimmed gold lamé cape. The questions all get answered in the necessary final scene, though the best sequence happens just before, when Nick and Nora host a hotel suite full of gangsters and their toddlers to commemorate Nick Jr.'s birthday.
The presence of World War II is evident if only in the credits of Shadow of The Thin Man, for here the director is billed as "Maj. W.S. Van Dyke II, " but the story is, literally, off to the races—bad things happen, like jockeys turning up dead, when Nick and Nora decide to spend the day at the track. The newspaper is full of reports of a jockey confessing to throwing a race, and he's subsequently been rubbed out by the mobsters with whom he was colluding—how useful to have Nick Charles on the scene when an unsolved murder turns up!
This one leans pretty heavily on the Charleses at home; many of the gags have to do with Nick taking Junior out for a walk and then being almost magnetically drawn to the sound of a cocktail shaker. Again, not to get all moralistic, but it's a bit shocking to see Nick down three drinks before lunch, and then get behind the wheel of a car—he's even pulled over for speeding, but the traffic cop is a pal, and happily provides an escort. You can feel the formula winding down here, really; Nick as drunken daddy doesn't mesh too well with Nick as organized-crime buster, and the machinations of the plot keep Loy and Powell off screen for far too long. Noteworthy here are two of the supporting players: professional sweetheart Donna Reed plays a Mob receptionist passing secrets to her journalist boyfriend; and Stella Adler, later doyenne of the Stanislavski method at her eponymous acting studio in New York, makes for a smashing, crafty gun moll. Her scenes with Powell, a couple of operators going at it, may be the best reason to watch this one.
Van Dyke has jumped off as director for the fifth installment, replaced by Robert Thorpe, when The Thin Man Goes Home, and we learn—gasp!—that Nick Charles has parents. He and Nora have left Nick Jr., now in kindergarten, at home, as they journey to Sycamore Springs, Nick's home town, creating an opportunity for him to work out some daddy issues. That is, the good Dr. Charles has long been disappointed that his boy Nick didn't follow in his footsteps and go into medicine, traveling instead in much more unsavory circles; there's nothing like a good old small-town murder, though, for Nick to prove his moxie to the old man. The glamour is long gone in this one, starting with the journey home—with Asta in tow, the Charleses are forced to travel with the luggage and farm animals.
Nick and Nora out of their element somehow aren't Nick and Nora. Sharing screenplay credit on this one is the redoubtable Robert Riskin, Frank Capra's writer of choice, and the city mouse/country mouse stuff seems borrowed from Riskin's own script for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town—Sycamore Springs is a small town that gives up its secrets slowly, even to a onetime hometown boy like city swell Nick Charles. The necessary elements of the formula are here, but it feels, well, rather too formulaic; you can feel the series running out of gas, even if Powell and Loy are always welcome company.
And finally, though they're still charming, they're kind of running on fumes in Song of the Thin Man, the final entry in the series; Edward Buzzell directs this last lap, which begins with Nick and Nora on a ship in New York harbor for a charity benefit casino night. There's great intrigue among the boys in the band; the band leader is at odds with the lead clarinetist, and of course there's a girl involved. She's played by a young and lovely Jayne Meadows, who as Janet Thayer is a society heiress with a boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks, even if he is a charmer; things take a necessarily nasty turn when Tommy Drake, the bandleader, ends up dead, with a ship full of suspects, among them the mob boys to whom Tommy had some huge gambling debts. Buzzell doesn't have the subtlety and facility as a director that Van Dyke had; clues are underlined with dramatic close-ups and musical stings, so there's no chance of missing the point.
The best parts here, unsurprisingly, are with Nick and Nora, though early on she gets less screen time than even Asta. Nick is a pushover of a father; Nick Jr. is played by an adorable young Dean Stockwell. Our favorite couple spend a lot of time on the case with the hepcats at jam sessions; when Nick and Nora aren't stompin' at the Savoy, they're paying their respects to the patients of a Poughkeepsie sanatorium, where all the best clues are housed. This is probably the weakest entry of the six Thin Man pictures, though it retains a certain charm, and Powell and Loy wisely said farewell with us to the Charleses before their company became anything even close to tiresome.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: B
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: The first film in the series looks pretty ratty, actually, full of scratches and shaky frames; it may make you uneasy about what's to come, but things level off. After the Thin Man has more than its share of scratches as well, as does The Thin Man Goes Home, which has some blotchiness to boot. These aren't glorious transfers, but they're adequate.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: The first two films have mono tracks in English and French; the rest in English only. Limited dynamics, but not so bad.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 153 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
6 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Box Set
- shorts and cartoons (see below)
- two radio adaptations (see below)
- TV pilot
After that, it's a grab bag of shorts and cartoons, and other 1930s ephemera. After the Thin Man offers a lesson from the ever droll Robert Benchley on How to Be a Detective (08m:46s), along with a cartoon about a spirited but not very skillful flying fellow after his breakfast, in The Early Bird and the Worm. Cecil B. De Mille is your host for the Lux Radio Theater broadcast (59m:10s), condensing the movie into just under an hour, with commercials; Powell and Loy are on hand, and we're told that "you don't really need a detective to figure out that Lux is the answer to your household problems. " There's also an MGM radio promo for a slate of their pictures for the same year, as Leo is On the Air (14m:24s).
Another Thin Man offers up Love on Tap (10m:45s), a backstage melodrama of a musical short highlighted by rousing Stompin' at the Savoy with the Merriel Abbott Dancers. There's a cartoon, too—The Bookworm (08m:22s), in which a caterpillar is trying to get some reading done.Shadow of the Thin Man includes what may be the box set's most intriguing extra: a version of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart (19m:42s) directed by Jules Dassin, whose credits include Night and the City and Rififi. There's a cartoon here too: migration is a tough business for one little bird looking to hitch a ride as The Goose Goes South (06m:14s)Robert Benchley is back on The Thin Man Goes Home, doing battle with a child on a radio quiz show called Why Daddy? (09m:22s). Also, a cartoon (07m:23s) directed by Tex Avery, in which a Screwball Squirrel, crazy for acorns, goes paw to paw with a hound.
Avery handles the chores again on the short on Song of the Thin Man, in which a Slap Happy Lion (07m:25s) returns from the circus to the jungle; and little Dean Stockwell shows up again, looking for some help with his homework as he searches for A Really Important Person (10m:48s).
There's even a bonus disc, too, called Alias Nick and Nora. First up is William Powell: A True Gentleman (31m:17s), tracing his life and career, from silent pictures up through Mr. Roberts; it's filled with stills, clips, and interviews with film historians. His leading lady gets at least equal time: Kathleen Turner hosts Hollywood Remembers: Myrna Loy—So Nice to Come Home To (46m:08s), following a similar arc.
Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk try to fill their shoes in a 1958 TV episode (25m:43s) of a Thin Man series that seems more Dragnet than Hammett. And here's where you'll find the Lux Radio Theater broadcast (01h:00m:00s) of the first film; Powell and Loy star, and it's hosted by the film's director, W.S. Van Dyke. And we're reassured about the title sponsor: "Lux toilet soap—the beauty soap of the stars. "
The menus on the first feature are static, while the rest are animated; all the films come with optional subtitles in English, French and Spanish, and the first feature offers subtitles in Portuguese as well.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsWilliam Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles are one of the great screen couples—rakishly charming, with devilish senses of humor, a deep love for one another, and a well-chilled cocktail shaker always at the ready. They are delightful company in these deftly told mysteries, though it's the journey more than the destination that you will find rewarding. The dialogue still sparkles, and the martinis remain bone dry; isn't that what life's all about? Highly recommended.
Jon Danziger 2005-09-29