Monday, June 1, 2009

Review- The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails

Charles Tranberg, author of the highly-praised I Love the Illusion: The Life and Career of Agnes Moorehead, has turned his attention to the Thin Man film series with The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails. It’s a well-written and well-researched work, and when considering the paucity of material and interviewees available, it’s a valiant effort, too. In writing a book about Nick and Nora’s screen adventures, Tranberg has to compete with the sad reality that the internet has made books like this largely superfluous. For instance, there’s a lot of substance in Rich Drees’ excellent Thin Man article from Film Buff Online of some years ago. There’s plenty of information for an extended online article, but not necessarily for a three hundred page book. However, I’m glad that there’s even a Thin Man book available in this day and age. It’s informative, and reading this information in a book is preferable to being hunched over the computer screen’s sinister glow, but it isn’t as focused on the film series per se. It’s most likely that there just isn’t all that much Thin Man information around.

The set up in Murder Over Cocktails is simple: Tranberg lays out a brief plot synopsis, adds some memorable quotes from the film, and includes a precious handful of anecdotes about the behind-the-scenes goings on, many of which have appeared in Jon Tuska's (highly-recommended) Jon Tuska’s The Detective In Hollywood and Myrna Loy’s autobiography, Being and Becoming. The rest of the chapter is a compilation of blurbs from various press sources of the day, extolling each movie’s virtues. There's also a rundown of the supporting players’ career highlights. In fact, so much space is dedicated to actor biographies that I found myself impatiently flipping ahead in the dim hope that I’d find something else—anything—on the movies themselves. The index wasn’t any help—there isn’t one! Curse you, Bear Manor Press! However, these actor and technician profiles may prove to be the best thing about Murder Over Cocktails. But while it's nice to have a performer’s career highlights at one’s fingertips, I’d prefer that there be more about the actual Thin Man movies, even if it were just photos, extended dialogue, or publicity materials. It’s also unfortunate that Tranberg didn’t dedicate some time on the actual era in which the series was made, instead of merely listing the personnel’s film credits. Was Nick Charles the ideal American male? Was Nora the feminine ideal? What about those other Sleuthing Couples? The book includes a decent selection of photos, some of which I hadn’t seen before, and instead of an index, there's a supporting actor portrait gallery, which varies in quality; some actors’ photos are from much later in their career; Sam Levene’s (Lt. Abrams in the second and fourth films) picture looks like it was taken in 1971 rather than 1941.

Despite my own mild disappointment with Murder Over Cocktails, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book to someone just getting interested in The Thin Man movies, as it would serve as a good primer in learning about the actors and behind-the-scenes technicians involved. And there’s something to be said about any book getting published about Nick and Nora Charles; for that alone I'd give this book five stars! This volume is #1 in the Film Series Series. Redundant title aside, I hope there are more volumes in this new series, as it would be great to have future volumes cover the Andy Hardy, Blondie, Bowery Boys, and Charlie Chan films. For the longtime fan there’s nothing here we haven’t already read before, but I guess I’ll have to accept the fact that there’s a finite amount of Thin Man information out there. Whatever the case may be, count me as grateful that a publisher even put this book out there.

Left To Right: Maureen O'Sullivan, William Powell, Producer Hunt Stromberg[?], Director W.S. Van Dyke, Myrna Loy, and actor Ronald Colman on the set of The Thin Man (1934). Note Loy's beautiful dress, worn in the film.


  1. Thanks for the review. I have my copy but not the time to read it yet. See you at the Lounge.

  2. Well, C.K., I suppose I'll have to link to your review here when I reach this year in my Year's Best Countdown, because I'm not seeing any films topping this one for 1934. Great work, truly an outstanding review.

  3. I remember hearing once about the Hays Code (or maybe about a book about cocktails) on NPR, and the guy used the Thin Man movies as his case in point. Here was a happily married couple who couldn't have sex, had different beds, but drank like a fish. That kind of cultural analysis I love!

    Oh, and did you see my review of Love Crazy?

  4. Great review. I might have to get myself a copy of it.

  5. Ronald Coleman's presence in the picture seems a bit random, but then I remember he and Bill were great friends. :D


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