Monday, November 30, 2009

Poll Results: The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music 27 (57%)
The King and I 8 (17%)
Oklahoma! 5 (10%)
Flower Drum Song 3 (6%)
South Pacific 2 (4%)
Carousel 1 (2%)
State Fair 1 (2%)

Was anyone really surprised? I wasn't. Julie Andrews treated the competition to a real rear-end kicking as her The Sound of Music thrashed the other Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptations. Yul and Deborah tried to muscle in on the nun and her kids, but had to settle for a distant second place. I was disappointed that South Pacific didn't fare better because it has so many great songs in it. Carousel must've been hampered by there being two versions of the film made at the same time! The next poll is already up and it's one many of you will like to mull over.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Another Thin Man (1939)

Another Thin Man was Big Bill Powell’s return to films after a lengthy absence. In March, 1938 Powell had surgery for colon cancer and a second operation in January, 1939. Powell had already been grieving over the death of fiancée Jean Harlow in June, 1937. MGM even had business concerns regarding William Powell’s mortality, so they attempted to quickly fabricate another hit sleuthing couple series. Melvyn Douglas was cast as a dapper, Nick Charles-like character in two potential franchises (That bit of intrigue is covered at length in Replacing the Thin Man). Another Thin Man began filming began in July, 1939 with a weakened Powell determined to tough it out and get back to work. He had already “settled” for an $8,000 a week (for 40 weeks) contract with MGM after the studio rejected Powell’s demand to be paid $200,000 a picture. Remember, this is late-1930s dollars we’re talking about here.

Powell's Thin Man co-stars kept busy in the years after the second film's completion. Myrna Loy made five films in-between Thin Man assignments, including the crowd-pleasing Test Pilot (co-starring Clark Gable) and Double Wedding with Powell.

Canine superstar Asta was just as active during Powell’s absence, as the pooch had scene-stealing roles in The Awful Truth (nailing the role of “Mr. Smith”) and Bringing up Baby (charming moviegoers as “George”). Asta was a bona fide movie star in the 1930s and he made sure his handlers got him plum parts in all the big movies.

The Plot: Nick and Nora Charles are called to Nora’s (late) father’s business associate, the crotchety and in-need-of-killing Colonel Burr MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith). The Colonel is convinced that someone is trying to kill him, so the old grouch calls Nick and Nora—with infant Nick, Jr. in tow-- out to his secluded New York estate to help him.

What could have been a huge misstep in the series turns out to be one of the darkest--and strongest--entries in this franchise. The labyrinth plot is the most engaging of all the films. There’s a somewhat serious tone throughout the film—minus a ridiculous sight gag in the film’s opening--and Powell’s performance has a subdued vibe to it that is absent from the other entries. Perhaps his state of mind was such after having endured two terribly difficult years of his life after having risen to such great career heights in 1936. Whatever the case, Powell gives an assured performance here but with a streak of seriousness that makes me wonder what he could have done with the kind of dark material that Cary Grant took on in his Hitchcock films Suspicion and Notorious. Many chalk up Powell’s on screen demeanor as a man weakened by serious illness. He doesn’t look frail, but I’m sure he felt like Hell.

The plot is probably the most engaging of the entire Thin Man franchise. I was more interested in whodunit as well as “howdunit” because the latter was handled in a clever manner. I never used to hold Another Thin Man in as high regard as the first, second, and fourth films but having watched it in preparation for this post has made it a much more worthwhile movie.

The set used for Col. MacFay’s estate is impressive; dark, ominous, and full of foreboding. It’s isolated enough so that a killer could move about without fear of detection. Of course someone’s going to die here! Set Decorator Edwin B. Ellis and cinematographers William Daniels and Oliver T. Marsh succeed in immersing the viewer in a vividly detailed environment.

It’s uncertain whether the event of Powell’s return to the series inspired MGM to craft a more serious mystery or whether they were attempting to recapture the 1934 film’s atmosphere. The black and white cinematography is the best of all the films and that’s saying something since James Wong Howe, who was on the first film, is a legend of the craft. Maybe the film elements were in better shape; Another Thin Man looks gorgeous.

Even if one discounts the off-screen misery that William Powell went through in the months just prior to this film, we can still see that this proud new papa is protective of his family. Nick Charles’ personality has changed. When gangster and all-around bad guy Phil Church (Sheldon Leonard) threatens the Charles brood via his “dreaming” when something always bad happens to those he dreams about, Nick quietly stands up and decks the guy.

But Another Thin Man isn’t without the comedic touch we’ve come to expect from this series. After a suspect is gunned down by police, there’s a hilarious exchange between Nick and a dopey cop:

Cop: “What were you shootin’ at him for?”

Nick: “I wasn’t shooting at him; he was shooting at me.[pauses] Why were you shooting at him?”

Cop: “Well, everybody else was!”

The most notable set piece in Another Thin Man is set at the (fictional) West Indies Club, where Nick gains some vital information about the murder and Nora attracts a dozen dashing men! I love nightclubs as seen in the movies. There’s nothing like the world they create and the glamour they perpetuate. The West Indies Club is infinitely superior to the crappy Mario’s Grotto eatery from Shadow of the Thin Man (who could forget that dirt floor?) There’s a fine dance number in this sequence. Renee and Stella, who were real-life headliners at New York's Havana-Madrid Club, do their mesmerizing act here.

The Supporting Cast: Great job as usual as one might expect from MGM. Nick deals with two different policemen:

Otto Kruger (Murder, My Sweet; High Noon) is the assistant D.A. Van Slack, who casts a wary eye on Nick and goes so far as to hint that Nick could be a suspect. When the action shifts to New York City in the second half of the movie, we are treated to Nat Pendleton (Lt. Guild), who made a great second banana to Powell in the first movie. Pendleton’s screen time isn’t as long as before, but he makes the most of his scenes with Powell, including a bit when Guild thinks Nick is “stepping out” with other dames.

C. Aubrey Smith does his usual routine, retaining the persona which made generations of Americans believe that that was how all old British men behaved. The old jerk even ordered the liquor cabinet locked so Nick would be clearheaded enough to think. Thankfully, Nora circumvents that ill-advised move with some trickery of her own. Yes, Colonel MacFay is annoying as heck and a large part of me didn’t mourn his character’s murder.

Tom Neal (Freddie) is MacFay’s secretary and Neal does his best Clark Gable characterization. I found myself impersonating his impersonation long after the film had ended. In 1945 Neal would appear in his career-defining role in the film noir Detour, one of the bleakest in the classic noir era. Neal’s life was a real-life film noir and I know I wouldn’t want to get on his bad side. Neal, an ex-boxer, walloped Franchot Tone in a 1951 fight over actress Barbara Payton. Tone would end up with a fractured cheekbone, broken nose, and a concussion. Years later, in 1965, Tom Neal would later be sentenced to fifteen years prison for involuntary manslaughter for the shooting death of his third wife, Gail Bennett. Neal blamed his troubles with the law on women. No kidding.

Marjorie Main has a small but memorable role as land lady “Miss Dolley.” She gets physical with Nick during an amusing but important plot development. You know her voice and you’ll love her character. Main was one of the great character actresses of all time.

William A. Poulsen (Nick, Jr.) Sure, he’s just an infant and this was his one and only known screen appearance. He doesn't annoy or anything. Mainly, he just lies in a dresser drawer and gets stolen. Poulsen would die in 1973, aged 34. I’ve been unable to find out how.

Virginia Grey (Lois MacFay) has film and TV credits are as long as Nick Charles’ bar bill. I was unfamiliar with her until I saw her here, but she worked in countless films and TV shows for decades; I’ll be on the lookout for her in other films. She plays Col. Macfay’s adopted daughter.

Sheldon Leonard as ex-engineer Phil Church is suitably menacing. This no doubt aided him tremendously during his subsequent career as a big-shot television producer (The Andy Griffith Show; The Dick Van Dyke Show; Bewitched; I Spy, etc.). Leonard plays his part with equal parts menace and even some vulnerability, as he comes off as a tough guy who’s also a real sap for a dame.

Ruth Hussey is is the criminally underused character here. She plays Nick, Jr’s nanny, Dorothy Waters. Hussey was one year away from her Oscar-nominated role in The Philadelphia Story yet I wonder if MGM ever knew what to do with her. She should’ve done more substantial films. Incidentally, Hussey was fresh off her appearance in a Thin Man wannabe movie, Fast and Furious, starring…that’s right, Franchot Tone, the gent who got his face pushed in by Tom Neal. And seeing as Miss Hussey worked with both men, perhaps she should’ve warned Franchot about Tom’s furious temper and ability to knock a guy out.

I’ve come to enjoy Another Thin Man more than in past viewings because the plot is consistently interesting and not nearly as convoluted as other Thin Man murder mysteries. I was initially put off by the darker material (a dog dies, for cryin’ out loud; thankfully, not Asta) and Nick Charles is not as happy-go-lucky as he was in the first two entries. This is the first time I was more involved with the actual storyline than with the witty Nick and Nora interaction. Now that I see the film with that mindset, I can place Another Thin Man in the upper echelon of the Thin Man series. I should mention that “upper echelon” means the first four movies…

American Royalty: The Thin Man Family, 1939.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)

1941 brings the fourth film in the Thin Man movie series, Shadow of the Thin Man. This one has the occasional attack of the cutes, but Nick and Nora Charles are still crackling with their wit, charm, and nonpareil chemistry. There’s a ton of great dialogue—none of which I’ll quote here, ironically enough-- and things do go by fast and furious in terms of funny banter. Shadow of the Thin Man is the last great Thin Man film. I don’t honestly remember, but this may have been the first one I saw. It seems like Nick and Nora have been a part of my movie watching life forever instead of just eight years. But will you get a load of that poster! They do no favors for Myrna Loy on it; she looks like a gassy frat girl looking for her next beer keg and funnel. C’mon, MGM, this is one of your top moneymakers and most popular female star! And to think that some people actually have this poster hanging in their bedroom!

In keeping with the east coast/west coast back-and-forth theme, Nick and Nora are presently in their San Francisco digs, not the same one that was their splendorous art deco abode of the second movie, but the nicely situated St. Cloud Hotel, located in a scenic area of the MGM lot.

I mean, “Scenic area of San Francisco.”

The plot in this one is the most complex, or if you’re not into plots, then it’s the most convoluted. I’ve seen this one twenty times or more and am only now just getting a handle on what’s going on. That’s why Nick Charles is the world’s greatest detective—he figures these things out immediately.

Briefly: a horse jockey is murdered at Nick’s favorite racetrack and he happens to be there just after the murder is committed. Then there are a few more murders and things get really interesting.

The Charles family is quite happy and domesticated here, as Nick, Jr., (Dickie Hall) is about four and dressed in military uniform—you could tell that Nick and Nora aimed to keep the unwelcome lad away from further interruptions of their ongoing booze binge. In fact, director W.S. Van Dyke II was also in uniform, as he’s credited here as “Major W.S. Van Dyke II.” Something that’s always interested me is the timing of the movie’s release. I’ve never been able to confirm if Van Dyke joined the service before the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941 or if he signed up afterwards and subsequent prints of the film were altered to reflect the patriotic atmosphere of that time. Shadow of the Thin Man was filmed in August, 1941 and had its New York opening on November 21, 1941. Just over two weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack. Considering the quick filmmaking style and no-nonsense approach that Van Dyke had, I wouldn’t be surprised if he changed the credits to make note of his new title of Major.

This would be the last hurrah for director W.S. Van Dyke, who would be diagnosed with terminal cancer and commit suicide in 1943. Van Dyke was a Christian Scientist and refused medical treatment for his condition. Coincidentally, the Thin Man series took a nosedive when he was no longer in the director’s chair.

The film opens with Nick Charles, Asta, and Nick, Jr. having a stroll in the park. Nick, Jr. has Asta on a leash and Nick has sonny boy on a leash. And the Boomers thought that they invented this over-protective concept! Nick is “hard at work” trying to figure out which horses he’s going to bet on later that afternoon. It’s sort of a secret, though, since the “racing foam”—to use Nick, Jr’s vocal styling—is wedged between the pages of the kid’s fairy tale book. You see, Nick doesn’t really want to spend time with his screenwriter-imposed child, so he’s taking his mind off that ill-advised concept by focusing on his gambling. I joke, because Nick, Jr. really isn’t that horrible. He is a terrible idea, though. Thankfully, Nick Jr. is limited to three scenes not related to the plot. One of which is actually amusing: when Nick Charles, Tippler Extraordinaire, is made to drink…milk!

Nora can summon Nick no matter where he is by merely throttling a cocktail shaker. As she’s doing this, Nick suddenly knows that booze is being prepared for him. These psionic powers of his are just one more reason why Nick Charles is the world’s greatest detective. It’s also another example of the broader comic style the series was taking. The sophisticated couple of the first film would become even sillier, as evidenced in the final two films. In looking at the publicity stills for the 1940s-era Thin Man movies, it’s difficult to find evidence of the sumptuously sophisticated sleuthing couple of the first two entries. In fact, I’m of the view that the 1940s were a lot more “square” than the 1930s ever were.

Those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Thin Man series or may confuse the films may remember Shadow of the Thin Man as the one with Nora’s “screwy-looking hat.” The hat is pasted to the side of her head and cocked at such a strange angle. I’m not big on 1940s styles, but even then this thing got negative attention back then! This is also the film when Nick takes Nora to see a wrestling match. The funny thing about that is how unchanged the “sport” is, even back then. It was phony in 1941 and it attracted the same kind of brutish, intellectually-vacant dopes it does today. And I’m sure it made money then, too! But as H.L. Mencken wrote: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

"Mario’s Grotto" is a theme seafood restaurant with an interior like the HMS Bounty and a dirt floor. Yes…a dirt floor. I’ll bet the dames loved going there and having their feet sink up to their ankles in dirt. Plus, there’s that overbearing waiter who strong arms everyone into ordering Sea Bass. Even when Nick holds fast and wants broiled lobster, the waiter tricks him into saying the words "Sea Bass", which at Mario’s (dirt floor) Grotto, is apparently the same as ordering it. And also like in the first film, Asta is allowed into this exclusive eatery and to roam at will. The pooch even starts a free-for-all brawl when he gets underfoot, causing a waiter to spill a tray full of drinks on a pug’s head. Luckily, the sixty-year-old cops who populate all 1940s films show up to mop up the riff raff. Later on Nick, Nora and friends have turtle races at the bar.

Now, on to the notable supporting cast!

Sam Levene returns as Lt. Abrams and he’s a welcome presence here, because he was a comic delight in the second film in the same role. The fact that continuity was maintained is another plus in this movie. He gets some great one liners and his rapport with William Powell is impressive. I first saw Sam Levene in 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success, where he played the manager of Martin Milner’s jazz guitarist character; believe me, that doesn’t sound nearly as bad as it reads.

Donna Reed is her usual beautiful self and she’s playing the “Good Girl” again, even if she is the secretary to a man with more than shady dealings. Donna gets to be the girlfriend of reporter Barry Nelson, who gets framed for a murder by the real killer of this film. However, Donna Reed isn’t the beauty of Shadow, that honor belongs to…

Stella Adler. The legendary acting teacher in one of her rare on screen roles plays Claire Porter, a suspect in the case. Adler is subtle and mysterious at first but reveals more of her character as the movie goes on. She has some great scenes with William Powell and two absolutely hilarious one liners in the usual gathering of suspects. Adler’s performance may not immediately get your attention but it’s an excellent one that you’ll find rewarding through repeat viewings. She has wonderful comedic flair.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the Thin Man series in order and may catch this one running on Turner Classic Movies, Shadow of the Thin Man wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It’s got enough of the series’ fun banter and amusing characters to hook newbies and despite the domestication of the Charles family, there’s still enough of what made the series so much fun for veteran Nick and Noraphiles to count Shadow of the Thin Man as one of the better entries in this memorable movie series.

The American Family, Circa 1941.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Thin Man Goes Home (1944)

1944: World War II rages on. Sugar, butter, rubber, and gasoline are all rationed and “Is this trip really necessary?” becomes a well-worn phrase in World War II-era America. With that as the backdrop, the Thin Man series rolls on.

The Thin Man Goes Home finds the nationally famous, loved-by-the-press detective Nick Charles along with his droll, wisecracking heiress wife Nora, and their wire-haired terrier Asta on their way to visit Nick’s parents--via excruciating train trip--to Nick’s hometown of Sycamore Springs. It’s located just south of “Anytown” and “Your Town, USA”; this is the movies and that’s how we know this. Of course, there just happens to be a murder while Nick is there, so we get ourselves another mystery and it’s one related to the war effort, as there’s a defense plant in town. The mystery in The Thin Man Goes Home is actually well-handled and relatively easy to follow. But as usual, I’m not too concerned with the plot of a Thin Man film. It’s more interesting to observe the characters and how they interact with one another. Call it continuity, or the lack thereof. If the writers make Nick and Nora speak or behave in a manner inconsistent with the original film—aka The Template—I take notice.

The Thin Man Goes Home was made three years after the fourth film in the series, The Shadow of the Thin Man, and while that previous entry was a continuation of the successful formula, the irritating addition of Nick, Jr. must have rubbed moviegoers the wrong way, because this time around Nick and Nora don’t take him out of kindergarten because he loves it so much. Oh, sure! Nick and Nora would’ve kept the boy there for life if they had their way! Nick was largely indifferent to the boy outside of a weird bonding scene in the third film and Nora was in no sense of the word a doting mother (neither was Myrna Loy, who never had children). The Nora I choose to remember is the one in her 1930s prime, before a screenwriter-imposed pregnancy and subsequent motherhood sapped her joi de vivre and ability to out drink anyone. This is not the same Nora Charles who had the barkeep line up five Martinis so that she could catch up with Nick’s binge drinking.

The advent of Nick, Jr. was a painful reminder that the 1930s with its hardboiled sensibilities and glamorous sets was the long-gone apex of the Thin Man series. Now Nick and Nora are stopping off in Sycamore Springs, a Louis B. Mayer-approved facsimile of Andy Hardy’s Carvel, with its perpetually chipper view of an America that never existed except in our darkest moments of wishful thinking.

I get a laugh out of Nick and Nora neglecting to bring Nick, Jr. to see his grandparents, yet they still bring Asta, who’s the couple’s real “child.” I like to think that Nick, Jr.'s blatant absence was a slap at the idiotic idea of making Nick and Nora parents. I still gag at the thought of that scene in Shadow of the Thin Man when Nick, Jr. utters the immortal line: "Nick, why don't you put da book down an weed da racing folm?" in the most absurd dialect of cutese I've ever heard.

I view this film depiction of Nick's hometown as a "perfect" representation because it's such a puritanical hellhole! Seeing it in this film let me know right away just why Nick never goes back home all that much; Sycamore Springs stinks! Even Nick's childhood memory of the windmill gives him the willies.

Other changes: Nick has quit drinking liquor and now guzzles cider out of a Texas-sized flask he keeps in his coat pocket. Ostensibly Nick’s stopped nipping at the hooch because his puritanical and emotionally constipated father—Dr. Bertram Charles (Henry Davenport)—disapproves of his son’s drinking. The good doctor also frowns on Nick’s career path of world-famous detective. I guess ol’ doc Charles would rather his son be a crotchety and judgmental small-town drip like him. Can you tell I don’t like Nick’s father? Nick’s mother (Lucile Watson), however, is a genuine sweetheart. She’s well aware of the father-son friction but her disposition is so wonderfully charming that it’s easy to see where Nick gets his personality. Anyway, back to the drinking: I think that the reason Nick becomes a teetotaler here is because of the war years; with its rationing of most goods; it wouldn’t look like those same restrictions applied to movie characters and as we know, the propaganda machine was going full tilt in support of the war effort (the total opposite of today’s Hollywood). So if Nick Charles “sacrificed” his need to keep a buzz on, then John Q. Public should follow suit.

By gosh, that Nick Charles is a patriot!

Another continuing gag is that despite being alarmingly stone-cold sober, everyone attributes Nick’s pratfalls and injuries—including getting his head bashed in with a metal, stand-up ashtray—to his usual boozing! If he was going to suffer those indignities, he should’ve kept the stopper off the liquor bottle!

An element of the series that is awkwardly kept alive in Goes Home is the inclusion of Brogan (Edward Brophy; who had a role in the first film) who was “sent up the river” by Nick but is now out of stir and a traveling postcard salesman. He sticks around in this film, being found by Nick in the bushes—twice--doing God-knows-what. I’m not sure if there was a crude joke intended or whether standing in the bushes was a short-lived national fad, but it’s bizarre.

The scene in Goes Home that will get your eyes rolling is when Nick spanks Nora in front of his parents. This occurs after a local reporter asks Nora if Nick is in Sycamore Springs on a case. When Nora tells the reporter to draw his own conclusions, he takes that as a “yes” and the story becomes big news. As Nick is popping her fanny with a rolled-up newspaper, he says “That’ll show you the power of the press!” Dr. Charles laughs at the entire humiliating scene and Nora is embarrassed beyond belief. This scene is something that never would’ve happened in the 1930s Thin Man films. Nick and Nora’s wonderful marriage is rendered idiotic in this scene and I can’t tolerate jokes made at the expense of a Nick and Nora’s character. They’d kid and joke with one another, but would never ever humiliate one another in such a grotesque way.

Nick and Nora do get a couple of nice scenes together, like when Nick is reclining in a hammock in his parents’ front lawn, wearing his Sycamore Springs High School shirt and reading Nick Carter: Detective. The couple also shares some of that trademark banter we’ve come to expect, such as this exchange:

Nick: "A couple of weeks on this cider and I'll be a new man."

Nora: "I sort of like the old one."

Nick: "Why, darling, that's the nicest thing you've said to me since the time I got my head caught in that cuspidor at the Waldorf."

There's another bit that is reminiscent of earlier Thin Man efforts, like when Nick maroons Nora at the local dance with an overzealous sailor, who proceeds to dance with her and flipping her around like she were a pair of nunchakus! It looks to be a Myrna Loy stunt double in most of it, but William Powell's facial expression when he sees his poor wife whirling like a top is quite amusing.

The supporting cast is dependable, and there are several familiar faces, though they—particularly the men--get little more to do than act guilty or stupid. The art dealer, Willie Crump (Donald Meek), is a slow-witted dope; his inability to comprehend even the most basic of expressions makes me wonder how manages to wake up on his own every morning. Too bad there wasn’t enough murder to go around to include him! He plays his role to perfection, I’ll give him that.

Gloria DeHaven is this movie’s lovely. She plays melodramatic drama student and ingénue Laura Ronson who amuses with her artsy pretensions and airy voice. She’s quite the beauty and was a mere teenager when Goes Home was made. DeHaven plays her part with such aplomb that when I first saw this movie, I hoped that she wasn’t the killer! She’s likable, funny, and all-too underused here; I’d like to see more of her movies. DeHaven is also quite the fashion plate, a most-welcome sight because Nora dresses in some truly horrific outfits. What was the deal with the overabundance of fabric in the 1940s, anyway? Was it a reaction to the streamlined look of the 1930s? Whatever the reason may be, Joan Crawford and her eyebrows would thrive a few years longer because of it.

Anne Revere as “Crazy Mary” Revere was nearing the peak of her career when she appeared here. She would continue to build on this, appearing in a fantastic run of roles: National Velvet (1944); Fallen Angel (1945), Dragonwyck (1946); Body & Soul; Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). Revere’s film career was stomped out after she was blacklisted in 1951. She would not appear in any film for the next twenty years; I’m sure not a day went by that she didn’t mention HUAC in her nightly prayers.

Believe it or not, The Thin Man Goes Home is the sequel that wins my personal “Most Improved” award! It used to be my least favorite of the series, but there’s enough of Nick and Nora’s still-great rapport (minus the spanking scene) coupled with the welcome absence of Nick, Jr. that acquits the film of any previous charges I leveled against it. Seeing Nick’s hometown reminds me of what a poor fit he was for the place but the glimpse into Nick’s long-ago drives the point home about how much more suited he is in his usual New York City and San Francisco stomping grounds.

There's No Place Like Sycamore Springs: I doubt Nick would ever call it "Home."

Friday, November 6, 2009

Song of the Thin Man (1947)

[I accidentally deleted the original entry, so here I am, posting it again. The Thin Man Goes Home will be up tomorrow.]

In this series of musings on the Thin Man movies, I thought it’d be best to start at the end, because then I’ll have the superior, earlier movies to discuss last. It’s a form of delayed gratification which no doubt shows how mature I've become. I get talkative when it comes to the Thin Man, so hang on!

They should've called it SWAN Song of the Thin Man.

Song of the Thin Man (1947) is the sixth and final entry in the legendary adventures of husband and wife detectives Nick and Nora Charles. It came three years after the last entry, 1944’s The Thin Man Goes Home.

I don’t like to summarize plots and they’re really not important to my enjoyment of a Nick and Nora epic, but Song of the Thin Man is this: Big Band leader and all-around jerk Tommy Drake is murdered on a ship where his orchestra is playing a charity benefit. Drake was possibly murdered over money (what’s new?). Nick and Nora are there as guests and are pulled into the case when their friend, Phil Brant is named the suspect. Phil and his fiancée Janet (Jane Meadows, later Mrs. Steve Allen) come to the Charles’ swank NYC apartment and after Phil asks Nick if he saw the paper someone takes a shot at Phil, Nick calls the cops ostensibly to keep the “guilty” Phil behind bars, but really so that Phil will be kept safe in prison from future murder attempts. Nick knows that Phil couldn’t have done it, so he’s on the case!

The running gag that doesn’t work for me is how Nick and Nora are portrayed as being out of step with hip big band Jazz musicians and their crazy slang. It just emphasizes how this series has run out of steam. Just to put this in a pop culture context, big band music was taking it on the chin in 1947, as this was during the time when Bebop was leading a musical revolution, even becoming a national fad! Here we had Nick and Nora struggling to comprehend big band Jazz musicians who were already on the decline in terms of popularity. Orchestras were getting smaller because big band leaders like Benny Goodman and Count Basie had to cut costs to keep their operations in circulation. Even the great Duke Ellington had to scale back, and he’d play any gig.

And speaking of music, there’s a catchy song called “You’re Not So Easy to Forget”, which figures in the mystery and gets performed often. In fact it gets played so much that I found myself making up my own lyrics. When you watch the movie and the song comes on, sing the line “You are a moron Tommy Drake” instead of the title and it’ll stay in your head for days. Why you’d want to do that is anyone’s guess, but it amused me…what’s even more amusing is Gloria Grahame, who’s dubbed warbling the tune before her character…well, let’s just say she moves her lips to the song and that GG’s part in this is tragically brief.

That’s what I love about old movies: the cast is often rife with up-and-comers, crafty veterans, and ubiquitous performers whose names you can never remember.

Keenan Wynn plays Clarence “Clinker” Krause, a clarinetist who helps out on the case. I adore Keenan Wynn. Many of us younger weasels remember him as the voice of “Winter” in the Rankin-Bass production of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970) or the big business tycoon Alonzo Hawk in 1974’s Herbie Rides Again, where Helen Hayes and that Volkswagen bug rip ol’ Keenan a new one. Wynn isn’t blustery like he would become in the 1960s and 70s, so it’s a refreshing change of pace to see him toned down in Thin Man land. I like the Clinker character assisting Nick and Nora, especially when he helps the Charles’ navigate all of that preposterous 1940s slang, but when you can remember those Thin Man films of yore when all Nick needed was a stiff drink and Asta by his side to crack a tricky murder case. But his continued presence is a reminder of something that often happens in TV: give the established leads “help” and “energy” by providing them with a shoehorned-in sidekick or unwanted new character. There’s no policeman as in previous entries, so Clinker fills that role to a degree.

Don Taylor plays tormented clarinetist and composer Buddy Hollis, whose mental health makes Montgomery Clift look as controlled as Klaus Von Bulow. Buddy’s emotional state runs the gamut from screaming lunatic to half-crazed delusional madman. It was against the Production Code to have him an out and out junkie, but he sure acts like one here. Don Taylor would later go on to marry Elizabeth Taylor’s character in 1950’s Father of the Bride.

The beauty quotient in Song is filled by Patricia Morison, whose entire career can be defined by the word “Underused.” Miss Morison is lovely to gaze upon and she gets to have a big scene in this, but her career never materialized as many thought it should. Morison, unlike Gloria Grahame, was a singer, but she doesn’t sing in this film. Another brunette has a small role here, Marie Windsor, whose appearances in several Film Noir thrillers during the late 1940s and early-50s made her a familiar face on screen. You’ll recognize her immediately, though she has nothing to do but look great.

The weakest link in Song of the Thin Man is unfortunately Mrs. Charles herself, Myrna Loy. Yes, it’s sad to admit, but Loy displays none of the energy, mischief, or on-screen charisma that moviegoers loved during the 1930s. She looks a bit older, but none the worse for wear. Gone are the cherubic features of the first two Thin Man films and Loy’s features looks thinner and more angular. However, her appearance is not the problem, but her vacant and tired expressions and lifeless delivery of her lines that gets me. Whereas in previous films her dry wit worked well with her delivery but now it’s as though she were just sleepwalking through the role. Even her character’s motivations have changed. The Nora of the first four films urged Nick to take on the murder cases, but in Song all Nora wants to do is go to bed and get some sleep! Maybe Myrna’s changing public persona as the ideal wife cut into the adventurous spouse of the 1930s. It’s a depressing alteration of identity of one of the 1930s greatest stars.

There’s some effective cinematography and set design here, as the gambling ship has a Film Noir quality about it. MGM did a fine job creating a dark, foggy, and ominous atmosphere. When Nick and Asta sneak aboard the ship for a look, you’d think that you were watching a crime drama from RKO or Universal, not something from high-gloss Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Impressive! It’s the best scene in the entire film, even if it is reminiscent of a similar sequence in Shadow of the Thin Man and the original 1934 film. I also like the set that serves as the Charles’ home. They’re back in New York again, in keeping with the alternating west coast-east coast locales of each movie, excluding The Thin Man Goes Home, which takes place in the Midwest. The Charles place isn’t as great as their smashing art deco digs in After the Thin Man (1936) but there’s a huge skylight in their entry hall that’s worth noting. They still sleep in separate beds, as was the real-life custom of the time--yeah, right!

After the mystery is solved, Nick and Nora return home where this final exchange occurs:

Nick: “Now Nick Charles is going to retire.”

Nora: “You’re through with crime?”

Nick: “No, I’m going to bed.”

Song of the Thin Man isn’t awful. It’s not even sub-par. It’s actually a breezy ninety minutes and if it were any other series with other actors, I’d probably enjoy it even more. But this is The Franchise, The Template for The Husband and Wife Detective genre. If it weren’t for Myrna Loy’s tired performance, this final entry in the series would rate a lot higher, but there’s nothing worse than a disinterested performer in a role they no longer like, and Myrna Loy fits that description here. The Thin Man films succeeded because of the fantastic and witty rapport between Powell and Loy, and we don’t get much of that here. Jon Tuska’s book The Detective in Hollywood even goes so far as to claim that the two stars weren’t even on speaking terms during this time!

I’ll admit that I would’ve preferred William Powell and Dean Stockwell solving the case themselves and leaving Nora at home, since that’s where she wanted to be during the course of Song of the Thin Man. Now isn’t that most un-Nora like?

Look Ma, Squares: The Charles family in its final incarnation.