Monday, December 31, 2012

Observations — New Years Eve And The Festival of the Thin Man

At least once a year, I watch all six Thin Man movies.  It is my own little festival.  I have a comfortable chair and a relatively large flat screen TV in my small apartment in San Francisco. I am the only festival attendee, so it’s just me and a bottle of Cabernet.   I don’t come to this subject with any particular expertise, no deep knowledge of Dashiell Hammett.  It’s as much nostalgic as anything else. When I was young these films were on the late-night movies that followed the local news.  A shamelessly self-promoting Indianapolis used car salesman who called himself “The King” hosted the program.  He stood in front of a blackboard (as high-tech as it got in those days) slashing prices on various automobiles as he yelled, “The King don’t care.”  Then we would go back to a grainy but charming Nick and Nora Charles and that wonderful blend of suspense and comedy, bright wit and dark shadows, the high life and the low life.  If that wasn’t the birth of my love for private eye stories, it certainly enhanced it. Such was the life of the young me in a hide-a-bed, with the black and white television flashing noirish shadows on the wall.

New Book From Mysterious Press
This little festival of mine seems particularly appropriate as we usher in 2013 (Year of the Snake, incidentally).  A book of the previously unpublished Thin Man stories written by Hammett has just been published by Mysterious Press —Return of The Thin Man.  What some might not know is that The Thin Man was the last novel Hammett wrote. That lone book was the basis for the popular film that launched five sequels, none of which were based on novels.  However, as we discover now in this new book, he did write two pieces, the editors call “novellas,” that relate to the next two Thin Man films, After The Thin Man and Another Thin Man. My guess is that these pieces weren’t meant as standalone anything, but rather as story maps for the studio to take advantage of the popularity of the first film to create a franchise. There was money to be made for everyone at a time when it was difficult to make money.  The book’s editors, Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, imply this.  The Hammett novellas are essentially treatments.  Fascinating nonetheless.
Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett

For some, the editors’ introduction to the two short pieces will add to our understanding of this stage of Hammett’s life. Surely the Continental Op was most reflective of the famous author’s early Pinkerton days.  And Spade was a loner.  Nick, on the other hand, had found his Nora when he embarked on The Thin Man.  And it doesn’t take a genius to see how Dashiell Hammett and his relationship with Lillian Hellman, however fictionalized and idealized it might be, inspired the hard partying, devil may care Nick and Nora idea. The editors also reveal the studio, writer, actor relationships, including the contributions made by the great screen writing team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett as well as director W. S. Van Dyke, the people responsible for the first three, and possibly best Thin Man films.

Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nora and Nick
The year 2013 is also the year The Thin Man was to be remade, though it may not happen. Johnny Depp, who was to play Nick, has a complicated life — all sorts of projects and apparent personal issues.  The remake was to go into production in November, I read, after Depp wrapped up his new and apparently expensive Lone Ranger film.  It could still happen.  The search is still on for an actress to play Nora. Another thought, perhaps a descendant of Eddie, from the TV sit-com “Frasier” could play Asta.  After all, the real Asta was a schnauzer, not a wirehair fox terrier as the dog is portrayed in all six films. So what would be wrong with a Jack Russell terrier taking he part?  This is Hollywood.

If you want to have your own festival, here are the Nick and Nora Charles films in the order they were made, noting that Hammett had decreasing influence on the final cut and virtually none for the last couple.

The Thin Man — This is the one that started them all, the one based on an actual Dashiell Hammett novel and made William Powell as Nick Charles and Myrna Loy as Nora Charles one of America’s favorite film couples.  The film has a Christmas-New Year’s holiday theme, though I’m happy to say, it’s in the background.  Maureen O’Sullivan plays the only sane member of a crazy family and a young and debonair Cesar Romero plays a gigolo. What else?  The film is a fantastic reflection of the times.  We get a glimpse of post-depression, post-prohibition 1934.

After The Thin Man — This is one of my favorites.  One of the reasons is that the lovely couple return to San Francisco and also because it takes place on New Years Eve.  Perfect for tonight.  Jimmy Stewart co-stars. Look for the usual brawls, a few red herrings, a great nightclub in Chinatown, and glimpse of the city’s bustling Market Street of 1936.

Another Thin Man — Baby makes three.  Sheldon Leonard plays the heavy in this film set in Manhattan and Long Island. A creaky old mansion and creaky old people, says the creaky blogger, as well an elaborately designed murder and a slew of petty ante gangsters inhabit the whodunit.  Watch for the big production number.

Shadow Of The Thin Man — We’re back in San Francisco and off to the races. Donna Reed, Stella Adler and Barry Nelson are in the cast of this mystery featuring such characters as Spider Web and Rainbow Benny (they may be the same person, I’m not sure). Pay attention to the wrestling match scene.  Nice twist at the end.   This time the big brawl is at an Italian restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf.

The Thin Man Goes Home — Maybe because it’s the small town backdrop.  Maybe it’s because Nick has given up his martinis for apple cider and it seems to have turned him into Ozzie Nelson.  Whatever the cause, this is my least favorite.  While all the films offer some wonderful silliness, this one just seems contrived without redemption of a knowing wink.  If you had to cut one from this list, this would be it.  Otherwise, it’s worthwhile just to know you saw them all. 

Song Of The Thin Man — It’s nice the series didn’t end on a low note. This one bounces back. New producers, directors and writers. Though the last couple of films were only based on “characters created by Dashiell Hammett,” this one finds the formula. The film also benefits from a great supporting cast that includes one of my favorites from the “B” picture cast of characters, Gloria Grahame, plus Keenan Wynn, Jane Meadows, and a very young Dean Stockwell as Nick and Nora’s son.  We are treated with ‘40s jazz, a floating casino and nightclub (Shades of Mr. Lucky), wet, foggy nights, and a telltale necklace.  One of the pleasures is to see the stylish couple thirteen years after the first film, still elegant, still funny.

If you are so inclined, think about a Thin Man Weekend Festival. Light-hearted, celebratory and certainly old lang syne.

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