Sunday, March 1, 2009

Husband and Wife Detectives


Ever since I saw The Thin Man I’ve been fascinated with the concept of the “Husband and wife sleuthing team.” It’s probably my number one “Silver Screen Dream”, to exist in an ongoing, never-ending Thin Man movie. For those who don’t know, William Powell and Myrna Loy perfected the genre in that first Thin Man entry, which was adapted from the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name. Hammett based his novel on the tippling and banter of he and paramour Lillian Hellman. The original movie was a surprise hit largely due to the sparkle between the two stars. MGM had the making of a hit movie series. In all, Powell and Loy would play the roles in six Thin Man films.

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.



In Dreams: William Powell & Carole Lombard would've made a great onscreen detective team.

20 comments:

  1. I love the Thin Man and the Myrna Loy/William Powell team. You really can't go wrong with the combination of romance, humor, and mystery. It would sort of be nice if there was a new movie like this but I think the time period it is set is part of it's charm, so maybe a movie like this set in the 1930's would be fun. It might also get more people interested in watching the Thin Man series.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great thread! I am big Thin Man fan and I love the non-tortured private eyes. I would recommend the Lux Radio adaptations of the first two Thin Man movies. Also, STAR OF MIDNIGHT (1935), teaming Powell with Ginger Rogers is worth hunting for. It isn't commercially available anyone (only released on VHS) and TCM hasn't shown it for at least 2 years. If all your readers could email TCM, maybe we could get another airing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. C.K. - An excellent article. I am a big fan of “The Thin Man” series too. Powell and Loy are a perfect couple. Another film in the same sub-genre in "A Night to Remember" with Loretta Young and Brian Adherne as a husband and wife who get involved in investigating a murder. Not in the same class as "The Thin Man" but enjoyable. There is also Mr. and Mrs. North, which began as a series of mystery novels, became a movie (with Gracie Allen minus George Burns), a radio series and a TV series. A more modern version is Woody Allen's "Manhattan Murder Mystery" which I have a soft spot for and have to watch at least once a year..

    ReplyDelete
  4. While I grew up in the 80s with Hart To Hart (which I liked alot) I also "grew up" watching the Thin Man movies in the 90s. I love Powell and Loy! They are wonderful together and even possessed great comedic skills in films that were not apart of the Thin Man series (see: Libeled Lady and Love Crazy) and good dramatic chops to boot (Evelyn Prentiss). I saw The Ex Mrs. Bradford a couple of years ago and was a bit disappointed. I loved Powell in that film and loved him more interacting with the great character actor Eric Blore, but I absolutely could not stand Jean Arthur in thst film. She was no Myrna Loy and possessed a vocal chord prowess that was more annoying than Mia Farrow playing Daisy in The Great Gatsby back in the 70s.

    My husband also loves all of the above. It was something he said to me about Hart To Hart once when we were dating that still sticks with me, that Hollywood actually showed an equal partnership between two people who loved one another and cared for one another very deeply without the drama. It is very rare for them to show this, I agree.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The Thin Man series are a delightful collection of films. I thoroughly enjoy the witty banter. I have yet to see the "Fast..." films and will certainly have to check them out.

    ReplyDelete
  6. You, "fascinated" with the concept of the “Husband and wife sleuthing team" is putting it mildly. That is mind boggling that you devoured all those books movies...you truly must have been taken by Nick and Nora.

    I have never heard of the Fast series till you tipped me out on that. Thanks Dex, I mean, there are only six Thin Man films and a man gets kinda lost after that.

    ReplyDelete
  7. STAR OF MIDNIGHT airs next on TCM on April 8, 2009. :)

    I love the FAST movies...my favorite is Montgomery-Russell. It's especially curious that they kept changing the leads as the movies were released within a very short period of time...all 3 came out in a span of just 15 months! As I wrote here, what's even stranger is that Melvyn Douglas had a completely different two-film husband-wife detective series going at the same time, with two different actresses playing his wife in that one.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    ReplyDelete
  8. Kim: You're right when you say that the time period is part of the series' charm. I wish they made movies for grown ups in Hollywood these days, as this kind of movie would be great to see again.

    Brian: I would've included Star of Midnight---but I've never seen it! I'm not sure that Ginger plays Powell's wife in it.

    Better yet, maybe everyone who reads this can vote to put these movies on DVD over at TCM.com!

    John: Big Woody Allen fan here and I love MMM. So many great one liners in that one.

    Didi: I've heard that about Jean Arthur, but I'm one of those who actually likes her voice! I'm pleased to see that she's getting some attention around the blogs lately.

    Robby: I think you'll enjoy the FAST series; they're way up on my DVD wishlist, BTW.

    Nik: Thanls for commenting. I find that many of my fascinations are, as you put it, "mind boggling." I just hope there are people out there who share them. BTW, I was never a fan of Hart to Hart growing up, but listed it here for completion's sake. Wouldn't mind seeing them as an adult, though.

    Laura: Ah, I remember finding your writeup on the FAST series before I began blogging. You and Carrie from Classic Montgomery were *the* sources for these films. Thanks for the tip on "Star", as I'm getting TCM back in my life as of tomorrow! I need to get that Tony Thomas Busby book, too...

    ReplyDelete
  9. Love the Thin Man movies. I wish there were more happily married couple in films in general.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I really love the Thin Man movies. They were fantastic. They are some of my favorite classic movies. I thought that Powell and Loy were wonderful together. They had great chemistry. They worked so well as a husband and wife team in those movies. It would be interesting to see something along these lines today, but I'm just not sure it would work out as well as this. Cheers!

    ReplyDelete
  11. You know how much I love Nick and Nora! The chemistry Powell and Loy had was out of this world. They're good in anything they did together...but in the first few Thin Man movies they were pure cinematic magic.

    (For pure fun/chemistry I also recommend James Cagney in his films with Joan Blondell...not quite so brilliant, but lots of fun.)

    Lovely article. I think I'll need to shake something in foxtrot time tonight in celebration.

    ReplyDelete
  12. In Star of Midnight, Rogers plays a woman who wants to marry Powell. You are right - technically it doesn't fit - but it is obviously modeled on the Thin Man formula.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Interesting you brought up Hart to Hart. I recently watched the Ben Affleck-directed Gone Baby Gone, which, if you haven't seen it, features a boyfriend/girlfriend sleuthing team (they might be married—not sure). Anyway, I was listening to Affleck's commentary, and he points out that in the apartment where they live, there's a framed picture of Hart & Hart. They added that detail to imply that it was kind of an "in" joke with the couple. I thought that was a well-placed allusion.

    Nice blog. I'm a fan of movies like these, and your analysis is thorough. Glad to see you've become a fan of my site. Thanks for reading. I'm adding you to my blog roll.

    ReplyDelete
  14. An insanely great post! Now I have lots of films I need to see! And I love William Powell.

    ReplyDelete
  15. "Laura: Ah, I remember finding your writeup on the FAST series before I began blogging. You and Carrie from Classic Montgomery were *the* sources for these films. Thanks for the tip on "Star", as I'm getting TCM back in my life as of tomorrow!"

    Happy I could provide useful info then and now! :) Congrats on having TCM -- enjoy!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    ReplyDelete
  16. Didn't think much of the Gable and Lombard book -- but I let Carole "speak" for me as she confronts Baxt in the afterlife. It's one of the funniest entries I've ever written:
    http://community.livejournal.com/carole_and_co/50359.html

    ReplyDelete
  17. Just came across your blog and think it's wonderful! I love Nick and Nora too and will have to try out some of your other husband and wife detective movie suggestions!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Margaux: Do you get Turner Classic Movies? If so, be sure to watch Fast and Loose (1939), starring Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. It's a Husband and Wife detective movie that airs at 8am on May 25 (EST).

    ReplyDelete
  19. I noticed you didn't mention the tv predecessor to Hart to Hart, which I liked better. It was called "McMillan & Wife" and the husband was a police commissioner and his wife helped him solve the crimes. It starred Rock Hudson and Susan St. James as the couple with supporting roles by Nancy Walker and John Schuck. I'd love to see all those air in sequence on TV Land!

    ReplyDelete
  20. LN: Shame on me for omitting McMillan & Wife! I love the show and the excellent chemistry between Rock and Susan.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.