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.


  1. I haven't seen this one yet, but I'm looking forward to it even more after reading your review.

    I agree: Ruth Hussey wasn't given enough good material throughout her career. In my opinion, she steals each of her scenes in The Philadelphia Story - and everything else I've seen her in.

  2. If I had to pick, I would say that this is my favorite of The Thin Man entries. It was actually one of the first Thin Man films I ever saw at the end of my Freshman year of high school in 1996. I must love the dark material because this one I can watch over and over again. Then again I also love film noir and Detour is one of my favorite films, so it is no surprise I admire this one, dark or not.

    The scene at the West Indies Club has got to be my favroite Nick/Nora interaction. I just love how classy Nora is with all the "boys" surrounding her. It's awesome. It is the scene that makes me want to be Mrs. Charles.

  3. My old man LOVED the thin man flicks! Guess it's time for me to start watching em'! Awesome post. Thanks!


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