'Thin Man' on DVD: Highballs, High Spirits Warner Home Video has released all six Thin Man films from the 1930s and '40s in a boxed set of DVDs. Scott Simon talks with Christopher Orr, a contributing editor at The New Republic, about the movies.
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'Thin Man' on DVD: Highballs, High Spirits

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'Thin Man' on DVD: Highballs, High Spirits

'Thin Man' on DVD: Highballs, High Spirits

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"The Thin Man" is back, so to speak. Warner Home Movies has released a DVD box set of "The Thin Man" movie series. Six murder mysteries solved by that most winsome of couples, Nick and Nora Charles, who never met a martini they didn't invite in.

(Soundbite from "The Thin Man")

Mr. WILLIAM POWELL (Actor): (As Nick Charles) Oh, I'm a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.

Ms. MYRNA LOY (Actress): (As Nora Charles) Well, I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.

Mr. POWELL: (As Nick Charles) It's not true. He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.

SIMON: William Powell and Myrna Loy were the Charleses, the kind of people who could just as easily find themselves at a crime scene as in the middle of a Cole Porter song or in a Noel Coward play. The Charleses and their stashes of cash made life during the Great Depression and the war years look like an endless procession of highballs, high spirits and high adventures. Christopher Orr has written about "The Thin Man" movies for The New Republic. He joins us in our studios.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER ORR (The New Republic): Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And we should remember "The Thin Man" came from Dashiell Hammett's initial mystery in, I guess, 1934. Can you recognize much of Dashiell Hammett's book in the movies?

Mr. ORR: Less than you would expect. Dashiell Hammett obviously gets most of the credit for the films. In fact, the first movie opens with a shot of that book jacket of "The Thin Man," which is a photograph of Dashiell Hammett, who was himself quite slender and good-looking. But the book itself is very hard-boiled and dark. It's full of lechery and adultery and quasi-incest and child beating and so forth. It's much more like his other books than it is like the film version.

SIMON: How did Nick and Nora come to be portrayed the way they are, as high-spirited, ebullient, charming?

Mr. ORR: Well, I think a lot of it has to do with the director, W.S. Van Dyke, who wanted to do two things that the studio was concerned about when he took the project on. And the first was turn this rather hard-boiled book into a light-hearted comedy, which the studio had real reservations about. And the second was he wanted to cast William Powell and Myrna Loy, which the studio was also not terribly excited about. William Powell had been best known for playing villains for most of his early career and Myrna Loy was famous for playing sort of exotic temptresses, and neither one of them seemed to the studio to be entirely apt for the roles. But, in fact, it's one of the great on-screen pairings of all time. They starred in 13 movies together, which is a record that still stands today, seven other films in addition to "The Thin Man" movies. They're really one of the great on-screen pairings in cinematic history.

SIMON: Over the years, people have acquired the idea that Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman were somewhat the inspirations for Nick and Nora, but I gather we might be overlooking Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich...

Mr. ORR: Yes.

SIMON: ...who were the screenwriters.

Mr. ORR: They're the screenwriters, and it was W.S. Van Dyke who specifically wanted to get them to write the screenplay. They were a married couple who would go on to write "It's a Wonderful Life," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "Easter Parade," a number of famous film scripts as well as the stage version of "The Diary of Anne Frank"...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. ORR: ...for which they won a Pulitzer Prize. And the two of them, in many ways, seem to resemble Nick and Nora Charles more closely than Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman did. The two of them had, as far as I know, a very happy marriage that was apparently characterized by a lot of sort of playful banter and romance, whereas, Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman had an extremely fraught relationship full of infidelity and abuse and not much like Nick and Nora on screen.

SIMON: To state the obvious, I think one of the persisting charms of the film is that relationship, a couple who loves each other and kids each other and who are happy with each and really--I hate to sound sentimental--they really do find that the power of two in a happy marriage is greater than one.

Mr. ORR: That's absolutely cor--I think the movie was somewhat revolutionary in two ways. The first, which is pretty common today, is that it mixed comedy with murder drama. At the time, that was more or less unheard of. And the other, which is uncommon even today, is its portrayal of marriage not as a goal or as a obstacle, but it's this sort of happy state of being, where two people enjoy one another's company and go on adventures, and they're not working out their problems all the time. It's not like, you know, Hepburn and Tracy who were a great on-screen pairing, but there are always sort of sparks flying and there was always the potential for a great battle of the sexes. Nick and Nora love each other desperately, and have a grand ol' time and solve mysteries while they're--you know, in their spare time.

SIMON: Let's listen now to a scene of Nick Charles indulging in his favorite pastime, mixing a drink.

(Soundbite from "The Thin Man")

Mr. POWELL: (As Nick Charles) Seemingly, the important thing is the rhythm. You must always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to a fox-trot, a Bronx to a two-step time; the dry martini you always shake to waltz time.

SIMON: There is an awful lot of drinking in these movies, unapologetic, nobody getting--nobody delivering a lecture that says, you know, `You really should cut down' or anything like that. I mean, quite uncommon in movies these days.

Mr. ORR: When you watch the movies today, it's, in a way, what's most striking about them, what seems most unusual. You know, the films came out shortly after Prohibition was repealed and just as the country was coming out of the Great Depression. And I think there was this sort of, you know, party atmosphere in the country. People wanted to see glamorous people saying witty things to one another while drinking champagne or scotch or whatever it was they could get their hands on at the moment. It's definitely not the kind of scene you see in contemporary films very often where people who drink happily tend to be high school students and collegians. And when adults drink on screen, usually it's to signify that they're lost souls somehow or it's a prelude to some terrible act of adultery or a car accident or a fist fight or something like that.

SIMON: The back story on Nick and Nora Charles is that Nick Charles, I think, was a former detective or crime investigator. He'd been on the New York police force, and he married well, whole wealthy San Francisco family, which was Nora's.

Mr. ORR: Yes.

SIMON: But he just wanted to retire. He just wanted to live off her money and travel around the world. But Nora was the one who became intrigued by crime fighting.

Mr. ORR: And had to prod him into crime fighting again. He basically just wanted to drink himself into oblivion.

SIMON: Let's listen to another clip if we can. This is the first one, "The Thin Man," Nick sends Nora off to Grant's tomb, right?

Mr. ORR: Yes.

SIMON: Wants to get her out of the way, OK.

(Soundbite from "The Thin Man")

Mr. POWELL: (As Nick Charles) How'd you like Grant's tomb?

Ms. LOY: (As Nora Charles) It's lovely. I'm having a copy made for you.

SIMON: Now over the years, and particularly after six movies, people begin to think "Thin Man" was Nick Charles...

Mr. ORR: Yes. Yes.

SIMON: ...as played by William Powell, but that's not the case.

Mr. ORR: Eventually, it more or less just became the case by default.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. ORR: But initially, "The Thin Man" is Clyde Wynant, who is the chief suspect in the first "Thin Man" mystery. And they tried to keep the idea that "The Thin Man" was not Nick Charles alive for a little while. The second film was entitled "After The Thin Man." But by the third film, which is called "Another Thin Man," which was supposed to be suggesting that Nick's young son, Nicky, was going to be another "Thin Man" one day.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ORR: By that point, they had pretty much given up on it.

SIMON: Were the sequels ever as good as the original?

Mr. ORR: No. No. They vary. They're a little up and down. A lot of people sort of think that they get progressively worse from two through six. I tend to think that the third one is perhaps the weakest, "Another Thin Man," and the other ones are a little better. But the first one is, without question, the best of the bunch.

SIMON: On the other hand, are the sequels ever really bad?

Mr. ORR: The third one is the one that I don't think quite works. I believe it was adapted from a story that Hammett had written that was not originally a Nick and Nora Charles story. And it's a little bit dark and Gothic. It takes place out in the country on this big estate, and when Nick and Nora are not in a glamorous, cosmopolitan city like New York or San Francisco, they just don't quite work, I think. So some people would disagree. I think that one is the one that really doesn't work. The others I think are all a pleasure. I mean, they're very light, simple and, particularly by the last one, formulaic. But I think they're still great fun.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the partnership between William Powell and Myrna Loy. And by way of doing that, we're going to introduce another clip where Nora decides she has to call Nicky into the house.

(Soundbite from "The Thin Man")

Ms. LOY: (As Nora Charles) He's up on his feet! He's headed this way.

Unidentified Woman: Ma'am, did he hear that or did he smell it?

Ms. LOY: (As Nora Charles) That's Mr. Charles, isn't it?

Unidentified Woman: Yes'm.

Ms. LOY: (As Nora Charles) This is a cocktail, isn't it?

Unidentified Woman: Yes'm.

Ms. LOY: (As Nora Charles) They'll get together.

Unidentified Woman: Yes'm.

SIMON: Just shake the martini pitcher and Nick will follow. What made them so effective on screen?

Mr. ORR: I think the fact that they were good friends. People often think--in fact, at the time, it was widely believed that they were not only involved together but married when the second film was being made and they had to go to San Francisco for some location shooting. The hotel actually booked its best suite for William Powell and Myrna Loy, and it was a problem when the hotel discovered that they were not in fact married, and the rest of the hotel was full. And I think William Powell had to sleep, you know, in the basement somewhere. But I think that that's really it. They were good friends. They enjoyed each other's company. There was none of the tension that you might find in an actual couple that was involved the way you might have, for example, with Hepburn and Tracy. They were just two people who enjoyed one and another's company and invited us to do the same.

SIMON: These films stand up pretty well these days?

Mr. ORR: I think they do. I mean, the first one in particular. Again, they're not classics in the sense that they don't have tremendous weight or emotional resonance; they're pure entertainment. But I think that they're pure entertainments that are still tough to beat.

SIMON: Is there something that contemporary filmmakers can learn from the success of "The Thin Man" characters in those films, do you think?

Mr. ORR: One thing I think they can learn, and I think it's a little bit related...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. ORR: ...I think it's the need for dialogue that has no purpose beyond itself. The wonderful thing about Nick and Nora is a lot of the films--it's just the two of them bantering and shooting the breeze. And the dialogue isn't intended to reveal somebody's hidden motivations or to push the plot along. People just take time to have fun with one another, and you see that on occasion in films. I think the early Tarantino movies, for example, one of the things that was a real pleasure about them was they'd have these funny, wonderful, discursive conversations where two hitmen on the way to kill somebody would talk about, you know, what a Big Mac is called in France or what the erotic implications of a foot rub are. But for the most part, you don't see a whole lot of that, of that just sort of conversation for conversation's sake.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Orr, thanks very much for being with us and for talking about this.

Mr. ORR: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Christopher Orr writes the home movies column for The New Republic online. He joined us in our studios.

(Soundbite from "The Thin Man")

Mr. POWELL: (As Nick Charles) Gorgeous gal, a cocktail, seven winners this afternoon. Am I in a rut?

Ms. LOY: (As Nora Charles) Hmm, seven winners. Let's see if you can pick one winner for me right now.

Mr. POWELL: (As Nick Charles) What? A dress? Oh, Sugar, winners are what I pick nothing else than. 'Course, there you are right there. That's my favorite.

Ms. LOY: (As Nora Charles) Oh, Nicky, that's a nightgown.

Mr. POWELL: (As Nick Charles) It's still my favorite.

SIMON: And you can see William Powell and Myrna Loy's chemistry for yourself and clips on our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)



SIMON: I better go now. I'm Scott Simon.

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