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."


  1. 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.

    wwatched this one again over the summer. I actually thought the scenes with Brophy were amusing. Maybe because he was a familiar face from the first one. But I found what you wrote at the end even more hilarious.

  2. Anne Revere won her Suppporting Oscar for National Velvet, not Gentleman's Agreement. That was Celeste Holm.

  3. Didi: Glad I could amuse you! :)

    BF: Thanks for catching my error; I actually knew that! (note to self: proofread) :o

  4. Definitely not one of my favorites of the franchise. This film is actually one of the them that I've only seen once. Have a great week. Cheers!

  5. Wow, you are really THE MAN when it comes to reviews! Even if I was to have the complete opposite opinion of yours I would still laugh and read every word.

    I have the Thin Man Box myself, but I still haven't seen the last two films. I don't know why, but I guess I am to afraid of being disappointed. After all, the second film is not nearly as good as the first one! But I really liked The Shadow of the Thin Man, so maybe I should get going and see the rest!

    I can't believe why the studios chose to give Nick and Nora a child, and rob them from their characteristic everyday drinks! You can't mess too much with lovable character like them, it's inexcusable!

    About the overabundance of fabric, I've read a lot about women's fashion in the 1920's. In the 1930's it became modern with longer skirts, since the Depression made it a luxury. I bet it was the same thing with the WWII years - people couldn't afford too extravagant things, and therefore fashion with way too much fabric became popular. But this is just my own ideas, I have nothing to back it up with except for my 1920's and 1930's research!

  6. CK if possible could you shoot me an email re: a blog matter. My email address is on my profile page. Thanks so much.

  7. I'm enjoying your writings about the Thin Man series. This movie startled me when I first saw its version of Nick's parents, because in the book, Nick and Nora talk to Dorothy:

    "You like Nick a lot, don't you Nora?"

    "He's an old Greek fool, but I'm used to him."

    "Charles isn't a Greek name."

    "It's Charalambides," I explained. "When the old
    man came over, the mugg that put him through Ellis Island said Charalambides was too long ... and whittled it down to Charles.


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