Before I became enamored with Nick and Nora’s adventures, I was a Film Noir devotee and routinely dismissed what I saw as “lightweight” detectives like Nick Charles and other “non-tormented” characters. I was big on tormented protagonists; in fact, I still am. However, when I became obsessed with the 1930s, Nick Charles became my new hero. He was cool, calm, collected, and always ready with a glib remark. In other words, everything most of us are not. He didn’t want to be a private detective anymore, especially since he married Nora, the inheritor of her wealthy industrialist father’s fortune. Comfortably well off Nick and Nora drink to excess (it is the recurring gag in the first two films, reflecting the nation’s joy at the repeal of prohibition). The couple crack wise with one another, play the ponies, dine at the finest restaurants, stay at the best hotels, and generally act as though there is no Great Depression. Nora meets and is amused by the many colorful characters from Nick’s days as a detective and chides him for the dubious company he kept. What’s more, the crooks that Nick “sent up the river” have nothing but affection and admiration for him! In the middle of all this revelry and amusement, Nick solves the occasional murder. Nora is Nick’s catalyst, often urging him into action, asking about his previous adventures and pestering him about taking on another case, which is never for payment but rather to assist the police, who are always too happy to have his help. Oh, and they have a delightful wire-haired terrier, Asta, (female in the novel, male in the films), who is practically a partner in the Charles’ adventures.
The Thin Man series is a rarity in that it's one of the few times in film that a couple is shown in the “ever after” stage of the romance. Nick and Nora are a happy, confident, and well-adjusted couple who enjoy one another's company; it's not a concept that Hollywood has embraced--then or now-- with any degree of regularity. Subsequent attempts to replicate this formula have been marginally successful and Nick and Nora remain the exception to the rule; they remain the model for the concept. William Powell would appear in a film that attempted to replicate the magic he had with Myrna Loy, 1936’s The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, which featured Powell alongside Jean Arthur. In it Powell is a doctor whose ex-wife drags him into yet another murder case, which was the reason he divorced her!
After devouring the Thin Man movies multiple times, my quest for similar crime fighting couples grew. My search for similar fare led me to upon Joel and Garda Sloane of the Fast series, written by Harry Kurnitz. The characters appeared in three movies produced by MGM during 1938-39 and featured three different couples as the rare book dealer turned detectives:
Fast Company: Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice. Married book-dealers Joel and Garda Sloane try to clear a friend in the murder of a rival book-seller.
Fast and Loose: Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. Joel and Garda Sloane investigate the killing of a noted collector.
Fast and Furious: Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern. The couple get mixed up with murder during a beauty pageant.
Why MGM didn’t sick with one couple is a mystery in itself. Perhaps it was because the search for another couple with Powell-Loy style chemistry proved elusive. All three films have their charms, and I regularly bounce back and forth between which is my favorite, with the present frontrunner being Fast and Furious, as Tone is a delight and Ann Sothern is…irresistible! The men play Joel Sloane in varying degrees: from a dry and subtle wit (Melvyn Douglas), to more obviously comedic (Bob Montgomery & Franchot Tone). The various Gardas are alternately silly, meddlesome, and unlike the supercool Nora Charles, jealous of the attention their husbands receive from the lovely young ladies. It’s unfortunate that a regular duo wasn’t used. We’re still waiting for the Fast films to appear on DVD.
A "novel" twist on husband-wife detectives is the series of mystery novels by George Baxt. Baxt (1923-2003) employs famous movie couples as the protagonists. The intriguing concept is perhaps best realized in his last novel, The Clark Gable & Carole Lombard Murder Case. Amateur detectives Gable and Lombard are in pursuit of a kidnapper of movie star babies amid the backdrop of Gone with the Wind’s premiere, though the plot is also a nod to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932. Lombard’s Screwball persona and Gable’s wisecracking propels the tale, which is best read for its atmosphere of the era and allowing the on screen personas of the two stars to be the focus. George Baxt had previously written The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Murder Case, with its Cold War-era intrigue in Moscow and early 1950s Hollywood, and The William Powell & Myrna Loy Murder Case. Not husband & wife teams, but the public saw them that way, even though the stars were “just good friends.” The Powell and Loy mystery has the duo investigating an infamous Hollywood madam’s death, and the actors are buoyed by their experience as a silver screen sleuthing team! I just wish that Baxt had just written the "Continuing Adventures of the Thin Man", but give him credit for trying something different.
Television has tried its hand at husband and wife detectives as Nick and Nora Charles would re-emerge in a 1957 TV series, starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk. But it just wasn’t the same having Nick and Nora amid bongo-playing beatniks and Nick sans the fedora. Lawford possessed zero comic ability, though Phyllis Kirk wasn’t bad as Nora. The last gasp would appear to be the 1979-84 TV series Hart to Hart, starring Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers, with 1930s character actor Lionel Stander as their butler. The Harts also had a dog, “Freeway”, though he wasn’t a wire-haired terrier. The series was successful and was clearly patterned after Nick & Nora. The show’s been off the air for over twenty-five years, so is that all? Are there no more crime solving couples out there? Is the genre dead? Perhaps it’s time for another crack at making funny, sophisticated married couples “hip” again. If not, we’ll always have William Powell and Myrna Loy’s Nick and Nora.