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.


  1. Here are the comments from before I deleted the original entry:

    Amanda Cooper Wrote: :Hooray for Keenan Wynn! He's my favorite character actor - bar none. Anytime I see him in a movie, I automatically like it more.

    Poor Myrna. She kind of started to fizzle when the 1940's came around. : ( "

    John Wrote: "C.K.,

    It is not in the same class as the original (but then how many films are?) but it is decent and as your suggest one of the better in the series."

    Mythical Monkey Wrote: "I think you nailed The Song Of The Thin Man, it's good points and flaws. There's something a little sad about the notion that Big Band slang would befuddle Nick Charles. And the contrast between the Myrna Loy of 1934 and the Myrna Loy of 1947 is a little startling. Like bumping into an old school chum and realizing they've gone gray (although come to think of it, I think I'm the school chum who went gray).

    Not to mention I'm not even sure the murder or its solution really even makes sense.

    That said, I think I enjoy watching The Song of the Thin Man more than any in the series except for the first two. It's low key and comfortable like an old pair of shoes. I think a lot of that has to do with Keenan Wynn, who is very good here.

    I'm looking forward to reading your insights into the rest of the Thin Man series."

    The Rush Blog Wrote: "I agree. Myrna's age wasn't the problem at all. I think that after 13 years, she was bored with the role. During the same year as "SONG OF THE THIN MAN", she did "THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBYSOXER' with Cary Grant and Shirley Temple. And frankly, she was great in that movie. I think it featured one of her best roles. Three years later, she would do another great movie with Clifton Webb called "CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN"."

    Keith Wrote: "I think this franchise had run its course by then."

  2. I just watched this movie yesterday - and absolutely loved it. Granted, this was my first ever Thin Man movie - which I mean to rectify immediatlely by renting and/or buying the other five.

    It was corny, yeah, and I rolled my eyes a couple times, but all in all, I still enjoyed it. Thanks for the comprehensive review!


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