Sunday, May 15, 2011

Classic Movies of 1939 Blogathon: Another Thin Man

Today we remember 1939 as an extraordinarily action-packed year for a number of reasons. War was breaking out in Europe as Hitler made his mad dash for total domination, the American economy continued to totter on the brink of internal decay, and Hollywood was cranking out classics like tomorrow would never come. As I wrote on the subject in college, 
"1939 was a time of trouble and threat, danger and doubtfulness; the cinema, by contrast, was a place of safety and ease, security and confidence. It was an escape for the masses, a factory of dreams in which the cares and woes of the real world were sponged away by the faces of fictional characters played by real-time heroes. The actors were people to be esteemed; their movie conduct was to be emulated, their magnificently crafted dreams to be pursued."
This blogathon celebrates only a small fraction of those great films, which continue to delight today whenever and wherever audiences find them out. 
An original poster
advertising the film.
Another Thin Man was made as part of the enormously successful Thin Man Series, which spanned 13 years with 6 movies. It capitalized on the delectable pairing of William Powell with Myrna Loy, an on-screen couple who had set American movie-going hearts on fire. 

The combination was truly perfect. Powell's debonairness, distinguished good looks, incomparable voice, and jolly personality with Loy's sophisticated beauty, gut-instinct comedic timing, and quick wit gave audiences a pair who appeared to be the most genuinely in love, sincerely married, and perfectly matched couple in the history of the world. Under the direction of W.S. Van Dyke (mostly) with a fantastic screen play based on top rate literature, the Thin Man Series was a masterpiece waiting to happen.

Cropped screenshot of William Powell and Myrna...Image via Wikipedia
This particular entry, the third in the series, is one of the best, though it would be hard to say which entry isn't one of the best. Another Thin Man is essentially an exercise in misdirection, expertly done. The film opens with retired-from-detecting Nick and Nora (we know how long that will last) taking an apartment in New York with new baby, Nicky Jr. As usual, it isn't long before Nick has run into both some ex-con buddies of his and another murder. In this case the murder occurs on the remote country estate to which Nora has taken Nick for a quiet weekend of business. The murdered man is Colonel MacFay, the old business partner of Nora's deceased father, and manager of her millions.

Shemp Howard: what a face.
Marjorie Main: always animated.

                      A really delightfully solid supporting cast, including Marjorie Main and Shemp Howard, makes up a cloud of suspects and misdirectors: blackmailers, thugs, thieves, Cuban gangsters, dangerous women, double-timers, disgruntled employees, and opportunistic family members. Just try to guess who-dunnit in this tangled mess where evidence, testimonies, and even the camera are trying to point you in the wrong direction. 

I'm not going to give the solution away. That's just no fun. But I do want to discuss some noteworthy elements of the film's composition. One of those is the lighting. This is an element of filmmaking that we don't often pay much attention to because we're looking at the actors, sets, and wardrobes. There is something about the way this film looks, however, that belies its excellence in set lighting. When Nick, Nora, Asta, and the baby are en route to the Colonel's country estate, the dampness and coldness of the setting is palpable, even though it's not raining on set. This is the result of clever lighting and film editing which, when combined with the suggestive dialogue of the characters, produces a convincing effect. Lighting is everything in black and white, much more important than it is for Technicolor. In Another Thin Man it is done noticeably well. 

Thematically, the film is somewhat sordid. At least three people die unnatural deaths, and even the family pet meets a gruesome end. More than one throat is slit. Yet the film retains its charm because we are spared the blood and gore and graphic conversations that "entertain" us in modern television and cinema. 

Nick looks at a bit of evidence.
His hands often held a glass
of some sort. 
Nora steals the liquor cabinet keys for Nick.

The constant reference to Nick's drinking habit is continued from the previous films, but less of his drinking is shown on-camera or made an issue of, in spite of Nora's pick-pocket theft of the liquor cabinet keys from the Colonel. Picking up the slack from the lack of alcohol content in the film, however, is casual conversation about adultery. Nick is the kind of ingratiating character who wins your trust immediately, so even though he is unfailingly popular with the ladies we have no doubt that he remains faithful to Nora - not for lack of opportunity but out of preference. The other characters, however, (Nora not included) not only expect but encourage Nick to pursue adulterous relationships, laughingly. This is expressed on more than one occasion and, as it adds nothing to the film, becomes tedious. It is probably the movie's sole weak point. 

The loving couple.
The emphasis on marital infidelity is contrasted by Nora's unwavering support of and loyalty to her husband, particularly when police investigators attempt to turn her against her husband by trumping up stories of his previous girlfriends. Nora is steadfast, as is Nick. The films leave you in doubt that it could ever not be that way. 

Loy and Powell made such a perfect couple on-screen, in fact, that it never occurred to the public that they might not be married in real life. On one notable occasion, the booking agent at a hotel reserved a single room for the stars to share, assuming that they were indeed a happily married couple. Needless to say, other arrangements had to be made when the two stars, never married, arrived for their stay. 

I wish they had been married. It would have been truly a triumph of wit and laughter and legend. Hollywood made a number of teams famous: Hudson and Day, Olivier and Leigh, Burton and Taylor, Bogie and Baby, Hepburn and Tracy. But none were as believable, natural, and right a combination as Powell and Loy. God bless them for the masterful performances they gave. 

Please visit the Classic Movie Blog Association homepage for links to more reviews of films made in 1939.
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Rick29 said...

While I like the THIN MAN series, I think some of the films are better than others. But I agree this is one of the best! The plot is fun and, as you pointed out, the supporting cast with Majorie Main and Shemp Howard is a delight. This was a fine review and a fitting choice for the CMBA's 1939 classic movie blogathon!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Priscilla, I am so pleased that Shemp got a prominent mention in your review because he's one of the reasons (among many) why Another Thin Man is one of my favorites in the Nick and Nora franchise. I actually prefer it to the previous entry, After the Thin Man, because it returns (in a way) to the environs of the first movie, allowing TDoY fave Nat Pendleton to reprise his role as Lt. Guild.

The only drawback with each subsequent "Thin Man" outing is that they sort of had to eliminate all the imbibing the Charles used to do once Nick, Jr. arrived on the scene...but there's a bit in this film that never ceases to break me up where Nora produces some liquor for her husband that he assumed was going to be hidden by the Colonel and Powell's reaction ("Mommy!") is falling-down funny.

Clara said...

The Thin Man series rock all the way...I love them all, maybe I love some of them a little more than the others, but it's a terrific saga anyway.

You're right when you say this one is a bit sordid, I remember I felt a bit unease with some of the deaths, but William & Myrna's charm can make anything bearable. Great post!

DorianTB said...

Priscilla, I loved your smart, entertaining, beautifully-written blog post about ANOTHER THIN MAN! The entire series is among my favorite films, as those who've read my blog TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED can attest. :-) I agree that this entry in the series had more violence, implied and otherwise, than previous THIN MAN films, but the great cast (we love supporting players Shemp Howard and Marjorie Main, too) and the chemistry between Powell and Loy always seems to balance things out, even when other characters seem to be pushing adultery on Nick. If you ask me, they're just jealous that Nick and Nora have such a great marriage! :-) I got a kick out of your caption about Nick and glasses, too. Great work, Priscilla!

Grand Old Movies said...

It's interesting to note that Another Thin Man was adapted in part from one of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories, so that may explain the more grim aspects that you highlighted about this film. Hammett's 'Op' tales are grittier, more violent than his Thin Man novel, but are very well-written.

I always love it in The Thin Man series when Nick runs into one of his old "pals" (usually a guy he sent to prison), and we get to see Nora's reaction. I also like the baby-party scene in Another Thin Man, w/Shemp rushing in and out of rooms laden w/infants. Thanks for your great article!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I like your observation here: "There is something about the way this film looks, however, that belies its excellence in set lighting. When Nick, Nora, Asta, and the baby are en route to the Colonel's country estate, the dampness and coldness of the setting is palpable, even though it's not raining on set. This is the result of clever lighting and film editing which, when combined with the suggestive dialogue of the characters, produces a convincing effect. Lighting is everything in black and white, much more important than it is for Technicolor. In Another Thin Man it is done noticeably well."

I think probably all old movie fans are sensitive to this aspect of classic films, but perhaps we do not often analyse or give enough credit for this effect. Thanks for a great post.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, Grand Old Movies, you make excellent points about the grimmer aspects of ANOTHER THIN MAN stemming from THE THIN MAN's origins in source author Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories. Hammett was one of the granddaddies of hard-boiled fiction, after all. For the record, I've loved both the THIN MAN films and the original novels since my teens, and I appreciate the differences between book and film (so many people don't, surprisingly).

ClassicBecky said...

Excellent assessment of the Thin Man series and this particular movie, Priscilla. I love those movies! Perfect casting, great character actors, mood and setting created perfectly, as you described with lighting as such an important element. I think it's hilarious that the hotel thought Powell and Loy were really married! The power of film! You have made a really wonderful contribution to the blogathon!

Page said...

I'm glad you picked this film to review. While the original Thin Man is my favorite because it was so darn funny I enjoyed Another Thin Man as well.
This was a really enjoyable review in that you brought up the differences which made it equally as good as the original and you've made me revisit the film after reading your great assessment of it.

Caftan Woman said...

Wonderful thoughts on a wonderful movie. I just happened to have re-watched it last night after more years than I would have expected. Now that I've read your article, I might just watch it again tonight!

I was quite taken with Muriel Hutchison as "Smitty" who also appeared as Mary Haines maid who gave the rundown of the couple's breakup in "The Women". It's a shame her career didn't continue the way it began.

R. D. Finch said...

Priscilla, I find all the Thin Man movies wonderfully entertaining, but I do think the three made in the 30s are the best, with the very first one the best of all. Powell and Loy were simply one of the great screen couples, right up there with Fred and Ginger and Tracy and Hepburn. As well as the supporting players you mentioned, I also liked C. Aubrey Smith and the lovely Virginia Grey. Your analysis of the lighting and photography in that scene (and your absolutely spot-on comment about how much more important lighting is in b&w than in color) was a particular standout in this most enjoyable post.

DorianTB said...

You know, folks, after reading Priscilla's post about ANOTHER THIN MAN and Page's post about THE WOMEN, I'm wonderful why the beautiful and versatile Virginia Grey didn't become a bigger star. She was certainly lovely and talented enough!

FlickChick said...

A very interesting post about one of the very best of the Thin Man series. Well done and most enjoyable. And, yes, I echo the appreciation of the inclusion of Shemp. Go Nick, Go Nora, Go Asta, Go Shemp!

Classicfilmboy said...

I need to rewatch "The Thin Man" series films. It's been so long, and your post made me want to see them again. That's the mark of a job well-done! It seems fitting the decade ended with one of the great onscreen pairs of the 1930s in a delightful outing.

Priscilla said...

Thank you all sincerely for your edifying, interesting, and gracious remarks! I can't wait to read the rest of the Blogathon posts, as they are written by such knowledgeable and perceptive authors as yourselves. I count it a blessing to be a part of CMBA.

A special thanks to Page and Becky for organizing this. You guys really did a fantastic job.

The Lady Eve said...

Priscilla...I'm a fan of the Thin Man series, even the lesser entries, but "Another Think Man" is one of the best. I probably like the entire series because of the wonderful combination of Powell & Loy &, of course, Asta. What a team. Great choice, and great piece.

Anonymous said...

I love these movies, although I'm still working my way through the box set. I used to work for a retail movie store and we had this box set in stock. One time some people asked if we had The Thin Man and I said only the very expensive set. To my surprise they bought it, which led me to think there must be something to those movies. And here we are.

Bit Part Blogger said...

A great post! And I agree with the others that this film is one of the best of the series.

Let's not leave out the rest of the wonderful Bit Actors who make these films so great. In addition to Shemp Howard, Nat Pendleton and Marjorie Main, we also see Sheldon Leonard (Nick the bartender in It's a Wonderful Life), and even Doodles Weaver in a small part. Where would Spike Jones have been without Doodles? (Plus, Asta!)

Many of the Bit Actors were players in so many films of the era. They all fit their parts perfectly, and that is why we all love these classic films.

DearMrGable said...

Wonderful post. I am a huge Thin Man fan and this is one of the best ones by far. So many great lines!

Brandie said...

Wonderful review! This is my second-favorite of the entire Thin Man series (after the first one). Loy and Powell are one of the best screen teams, hands down. There's true affection between them that really shows up in their movie partnerships--probably one of the reasons why people were so eager to believe that the actors were just as happily married as their cinematic counterparts!

Caroline said...

What a beautifully-crafted and insightful review. I haven't seen this film but I love your discussion of how the lighting contributes to the overall theme. I also like how you compared and contrasted the film to some of the others in the series, and discussed how influential the teaming of Powell and Loy was. Great job!

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