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.