“Waiter, will you serve the nutsI mean, would you serve the guests the nuts”.
–Myrna Loy's Nora, hosting a party for the murder-suspects
In l934, the most popular of the Oscar-nominated films was MGM's comedy-mystery, “The Thin Man,” which made William Powell and Myrna Loy big movie stars and also role models for many married couples across the nation.
The first installment of what became known as “The Thin Man” series was a surprise smash success. “The Thin Man” combined two vastly different genres, murder mystery and screwball comedy, creating a new hybrid genre which no film had used before. Made on a very low budget, filmed in just three weeks, “The Thin Man” grossed a whopping $2 million dollars.
Nick is a private eye with a gallery of colorful characters for friends, and Nora is an heiress who enjoys slumming. Together, theyre delightful, though they tend to drink too much. The mystery plot concerns a murdered inventor, but the film gets its lift from the Charles' repartee, the invention of writer Dashiell Hammett, who supposedly modeled the couple on himself and companion-playwright Lillian Hellman.
“The Thin Man” was rushed through production in only 16 days, because studio head Louis B. Mayer had no faith in the material and treated it like a B movie. The title character, played by Edward Ellis, appears only in the first one. The cinematography by James Wong Howe, and the cast includes Maureen OSullivan, Nat Pendleton, Cesar Romero, Porter Hall, and Skippy, the Terrier who plays Asta.
The stars of “The Thin Man,” William Powell and Myrna Loy, who became famous after the 1934 movie, stayed with the series throughout six total films. They played amateur sleuths, Nick and Nora Charles, who were happily married to each other. Powell and Loy had appeared together previously in 1934's “Manhattan Melodrama.” The film's director, W. S. Dyke, liked Powell and Loy together and convinced a leary Louis B. Mayer to use them in “The Thin Man.” Over the years, Powell and Loy came to be called “Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man,” although the “thin man” of the film's title was just a minor character in only that first film (the “thin man” was murdered in the first film).
Nothing quite like the Charles' relationship had been seen before. In “The Thin Man,” Hollywood introduced for the first time a wisecracking, affectionate married couple. Their comical, yet pleasant rapport was one of the films' top attractions for their fans.
The believable relationship that Powell and Loy created on the screen was written by the married team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, based on a Dashiell Hammett story. Goodrich and Albert Hackett used their own relationship as an inspiration for “The Thin Man.” George Oppenheimer once complimented the duo for being “the most devoted and friendliest couple in Hollywood, a town noted neither for its monogamy or affability.”
They met in the 1920s when they were both actors. After they became writers, they worked together for the rest of their lives. In 1946, they wrote, “It's a Wonderful Life,” for Frank Capra, and in 1955, they won the Pulitzer Prize for their play “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Goodrich said of “The Thin Man”: “Dashiell Hammett had written those wonderful characters and their relationship, and we took it from there.”
The relationship of Powell and Loy was imitated by the film's viewers in their daily lives. Moviegoers wanted to be Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man. They went so far as to imitate Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man's ownership of a spunky terrier named Asta by buying their own terriers, or other dogs, and sometimes naming them Asta after the Hollywood dog. In fact, Asta the dog became a big movie star due the appeal of “The Thin Man” series. Asta also appeared in “Bringing Up Baby” and “The Awful Truth.”
Other elements about the “The Thin Man”'s house in the film were also often copied by fans. William Powell represented an ideal male image to Americans: A faithful yet worldly husband. This was the first time that viewers saw the male model of a suave man who stuck together happily with his wife.
“The Thin Man” also made Myrna Loy into a movie star. In 1937, she was named the Queen of the Movies, alongside Clark Gable, based on a New York Daily News public poll. Loy was reportedly the favorite movie star of mobster Dillinger, who was shot down outside a Chicago movie theater after going to see one of her films.
Loy represented an ideal female image to Americans, and was called the “Perfect Wife” of Hollywood. Loy's Nora was humorous and flexible, supportive of her husband, and also able to “hold her own” with his sleuthing activities. People enjoyed the equal footing to her side of the relationship. Andrew Sarris has poignantly observed that Nick and Nora Charles were “the first on-screen Hollywood couple for whom matrimony didn't signal the end of sex, romance, and adventure.”
“The Thin Man” finally made Loy a movie star, after a long apprenticeship of over seventy films. Loy followed “The Thin Man” with successes on her own in “Whipsaw” (1935), “Wife vs. Secretary” (1936), “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936), “Libeled Lady” (1936), “Test Pilot” (1938), and “Too Hot to Handle” (1938). Loy interrupted her wartime committee work, including working for the Red Cross, to make “The Thin Man Goes Home.”
In retrospect, one unfortunate message that “The Thin Man” sent to American couples was that excessive drinking is an important part of a healthy marriage. The drinking habits of Powell and Loy in this film are indeed amazing to today's viewers. Powell and Loy drink enormous quantities of liquor in this film.
The Thin Man series was of a high quality in general. The sequels were spaced by two and three year intervals. All of these films were quite successful with the public. There was eventually a “Thin Man” TV series, and of course multiple TV and film imitations of the original series, including “Mad Holiday” in 1936, and the “Fast Company” film series, which starred Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice.
Of the six films in the series, two were nominated for Oscars: The first and the second, “After the Thin Man” (1936).
The film was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay, winning none.
In 1934, for the first year in Oscar's history, one film, “It Happened One Night,” also a comedy, swept all the top awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay. William Powell came in third in the three-man race won by Clark Gable; Frank Morgan came in second for The Affairs of Cellini. Director W. S. Van Dyke was a second-place finisher, after Frank Capra. Goodrich and Hackett also placed second after Robert Riskin.