Friday, December 4, 2009

After the Thin Man (1936)

The Plot: Nick and Nora track down Nora’s cousin’s lecherous, waywardly husband, who ends up murdered on New Year’s Eve; many laughs (and plot twists) follow.

The Thin Man was a surprise smash hit, so a sequel was quickly planned in order to capitalize on the tremendous on-screen chemistry between stars William Powell and Myrna Loy. That cinematic lightning-in-a-bottle was enough to convince screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett that the second film should include even more witty repartee for Powell and Loy. The one-liners come from everyone, not just the stars, and it’s staggeringly good stuff. This is the kind of dialogue we could never come up with ourselves, so we’ll just have to borrow the material that Goodrich and Hackett gave us. There are dozens of lines in the film that could be quoted in one’s day-to-day drudgery. We’ll refrain from quoting all the delicious dialogue because even those can act as spoilers to those who haven’t “imbibed” a Thin Man movie. But it’s too good not to mention a few great lines along the way.

“Come on, let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty.”

After the Thin Man is not just an immensely enjoyable mystery-comedy (better make that comedy-mystery, as the yuks are more plentiful this time around), but rather one of the greatest sequels ever made. It’s rare that a sequel comes close to equaling its classic predecessor, but After the Thin Man can be counted on that short list of great sequels. Credit must go to the aforementioned screenwriters, but also to perennial Thin Man director Woody Van Dyke for coordinating this cinematic endeavor. After all, film is the most collaborative of arts.

“Are you packing, dear?”

“Yes, darling. I’m just putting away this liquor.”

After the Thin Man (1936) takes place right after the events in the first film. Nick and Nora Charles, fresh off their triumph of the Wynant case are headed back to San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. Nick wants nothing more than to get some well-needed rest and to enjoy all the money he married Nora for. Upon their return to San Francisco, Nick and Nora are besieged in their own hilltop mansion—Telegraph Hill no less-- by a gaggle of partygoers, none of whom Nick and Nora even know! A wild, drunken swing-era party is in full…swing! There’s a small band, a singer performing “Sing Sing Sing” (which was the second half of the decade’s anthem), some dopey drunks lifting up one another to prove their manliness, and some silly dame with severe self-esteem issues who has to be “rescued” from a “burning” building! Nick and Nora escape to the kitchen, where the staff is hard at work with their harsh, working-class tones in full evidence. Then Aunt Katherine phones the Charles home and Nick is guaranteed no peace on New Year’s Eve!

That opening scene is but a sample of how fast and furious things get. It’s as though the filmmakers were stuffing everything they could for maximum entertainment value and it shows, too. Every aspect of After the Thin Man is pure gold. The “Swing Era” spirit is all over this film; 1936 was indeed something special. The 1934 movie opened with ten minutes of set up for the murder mystery and only afterwards did we receive our introduction to the suave, debonair hero. This entry opens with our glamorous couple westward bound for some much-needed rest after that strenuous Wynant murder case.

And will you get a load of the Charles’ San Francisco home? It’s an art deco masterpiece! MGM was the best studio for a reason, and Cedric Gibbons’ art direction is spectacular! This is my 1930s movie dream home! In the scene where Nick and Nora are chasing the clue-chewing Asta around the place, but I spend the time that scene takes absorbing the beauty of the house! The Cinema Style blog has pictures of this house.

As impressive as the Charles’ Deco home is, the Lichee (pronounced “Lye-Chee”) Club, the swankest Chinese restaurant in all history. It’s the premiere set piece in the film; the joint is jumpin’! The Lichee is certainly a far cry from the Chinese restaurants I’ve ever been to, where sullen workers speak in harsh, clipped tones and answer every question in one word or less. The Lichee Club has the patina of class, like a gilded lily, but there’s dirty double-dealings going on behind the scenes. The patrons are crazy drunk and play miniature novelty instruments. It looks like everyone is having a ball. The Great Depression is an unknown event at this swanky den of bawdy celebration! An interesting pop culture reference of the time is when Nick has commandeered a miniature saxophone and he quotes a hugely popular song of 1936, The Music Goes Round and Round, (Tommy Dorsey had a stellar version of this) a tune that is quoted by Curly Howard in a Three Stooges short, 1936’s Half-Shot Shooters.

"Have you made any New Year's resolutions?"

"Not yet; any complaints or suggestions?"

"A few."



"All right, shoot."

"Well, you don't scold, you don't nag, and you look far too pretty in the mornings."

"All right, I'll remember: must scold, must nag; mustn’t be too pretty in the mornings."

The sequence leading up to Robert’s murder is well handled and beautifully atmospheric. I don’t think they filmed this on location in San Francisco but the art direction is a world unto itself: foggy, cold, dark, and foreboding. Black and White photography excels at chronicling the darkness of the moment. There’s effective editing which cuts back and forth between the numerous suspects until the final moment of rotten Robert’s short-happy life.

After the Thin Man boasts a wonderful extended, wordless sequence, which takes place when Nick is snooping around a suspect’s apartment. This goes on for about six and a half minutes. I seriously doubt any filmmaker would do that today, given the attention span of the average viewer. The wordless sequence is punctuated by an excellent use of sound effects, culminating in the sharp crack of gunfire as Dancer takes aim at Nick Charles. Tell whomever you’re with to pipe down during that scene because it casts quite a spell on the attentive viewer, or rather, listener.

The Supporting Cast: It’s a large one this time around. The supporting players are a fine blend of character actor stalwarts, obscure bit players, veteran character actors, and one bona fide movie legend. Every single actor in this film gives terrific support. Some of the notables:

James Stewart: Yes, it’s that James Stewart. He plays David; a former boyfriend of Selma’s who sticks around out of loyalty to her, even after her marriage to Robert. You can hear those Jimmyisms in several of his lines and in a short time, Stewart would emerge as the biggest star of anyone in this film. He’s his usual, enjoyable self here although he himself apparently didn’t think much of this early performance.

“When he gives you the sack, let me know, will ya?”

“I certainly will!”

Jessie Ralph: Aunt Katherine is, in Nick’s words, “an old battleaxe.” She lets anyone and everyone have it with both barrels blazing. Nora’s family is certainly eccentric bunch still back in the Victorian Era. Jessie Ralph has played a variety of roles and she’s so convincing as the crotchety Aunt Katherine that it’s amusing whenever I see her playing a nice character in other films like Double Wedding. She’s a hoot in After the Thin Man.

Sam Levene: Lt. Abrams’ first appearance. He’s over-the-top and I love it! He desperately needs Nick’s expertise and relies on whatever Nick gives him. The idea to have a colorful cop Nick helps is a valued element in the first four films. The last two lack this rapport, which Powell and either Levene or Nat Pendleton (Lt. Guild in the first and third movies) providing a fun interaction during the mystery. A running gag with Lt. Abrams is that Asta doesn’t like him; Abrams is the only character who can claim this dubious honor.

Penny Singleton aka Dorothy McNulty: She plays nightclub singer Polly and is quite a character! She’s best known as the voice of Jane Jetson in that futuristic cartoon show, but she’ll always be Polly to me. She warbles a ditty called “Smoke Dreams”, a crappy but catchy song she performs in her Lichee Club act. She’s also part of a blackmail scheme and maybe even…murder! Polly fires off some great one-liners and she steals every scene she’s in.

Paul Fix: Plays Phil, who is Polly’s…just watch the movie and find out. Fix is quite young here and he would go on to become one of John Wayne’s crusty cronies in many of The Duke’s movies from the 1940s to the 1960s. He also played the worthless sheriff in The Rifleman TV show.

Joseph Calleia: Calleia is Dancer, the shady owner of the Lichee Club. He has a passing resemblance to William Powell. His character’s supposed to be Irish, but his accent comes and goes like a deadbeat dad. However, Dancer is as mean as a rattlesnake and one of the nastiest people Nick Charles ever dealt with. Good performance by Calleia.

Elissa Landi: Landi is Selma, Nora’s tormented and emotional cousin. She’s being two-timed by her rotten husband and Aunt Katherine is always on her back like a bad boss. Is it any wonder that the poor thing is on the verge of a complete mental collapse? Notice how she’s about the same age as Nora but she’s dressed in stodgy Victorian clothes, whereas Nora is the picture of 1930s modernism. Actress Elissa Landi was a tragic figure in real life, dying of cancer in 1948, age 44. According to Charles Tranberg in Murder over Cocktails, Landi was only told that she had a “chronic condition.” Perhaps that was the medical industry’s modus operandi.

Mrs. Asta: We don’t get Nick, Jr. in this one, but we do get a sub plot about Asta’s “wife” who’s taken up with a Tom Jones-like Scottish terrier. One of Mrs. Asta’s pups looks just like the scoundrel and don’t you doubt for a second that Asta doesn’t notice this.

*Sighs Wearily*

This is the kind of material that would bog down future Thin Man efforts. The scene is understandable given the pooch’s enormous popularity, but his thespian brilliance is put to better use in the amusing clue-chewing sequence.

The movie's lovely is none other than Myrna Loy. She's at the peak of her beauty, brilliant line delivery, on-screen magnetism, and career peak. I've gone on and on about how William Powell had such a great year in 1936, but Myrna matches him every step of the way. She even got voted "Queen of Hollywood" in a nationwide poll of moviegoers.

“I don’t care whose wife she is! I don’t like a dame that gets noisy after she’s had a few snifters!”

After the Thin Man concludes with the gathering of suspects in a room which gives the viewer one last chance to guess whodunit. But that’s even handled brilliantly here, as each character gets a choice piece of dialogue to throw out there for our benefit. It’s been mentioned that Goodrich and Hackett believed this to be the final Thin Man movie and perhaps they wanted to pack it full of great dialogue. The plan to emphasize William Powell and Myrna Loy’s crackling chemistry can be typified in this film, too. I can’t quite say that this is their finest collaboration, but it’s probably the best dialogue they’d ever have to speak in any movie they did together. Another hint that this was perceived as the last Thin Man film would be the final scene, where Nora is knitting baby booties.

“And you call yourself a detective.”

The Thin Man novice could do a lot worse having After the Thin Man as their initial foray into Nick and Nora’s world as it’s the most comedy-oriented and a fun way to get into this most entertaining of series from a studio that knew--note past tense--how to make ‘em.


  1. Hey honey! I have an award for you over at my blog. Kori xoxo

  2. Speaking of "Blondie," wouldn't Penny Singleton be better known for playing that famed comic-strip character in a series of "B" movies?

    Otherwise, great entry.

  3. Blondie: Thanks loads! You made my day!

    VP81955: Well, she's best known by me as Jane Jetson! Thanks for stopping in; you're presence classes up the joint! :)

  4. You are so right to focus on the snappy dialogue from this movie! It makes me grin to see those lines again. This one was definitely one of my favorites, mostly because the nightclub scenes crack me up. Nice review!

  5. Bonjour! Congratulations on Kori's award. THis is my first visit and I'm so glad I stopped by. You have a fabulous blog and I'll be back again soon!

  6. KC: There were several more quotes I wanted to include here but I'll let those who haven't seen the movie yet hear it directly from the source!

    BonjourRomance: I'm glad you stopped by! You're welcome back anytime. :)

  7. Great post! I think this was the first Thin Man movie I owned (that is, on VHS - I didn't buy the first film until DVD). I love this one. Also, great choices on the quote selections!

  8. I love this series you're running on the Thin Man movies. Nicely done. I got to see the first film projected in Washington DC a couple of months ago and it's amazing how well it holds up after 75 years. Long live Nick and Nora.

  9. I'm really enjoying your series on the Thin Man series.

  10. Great post! This was the first Thin Man film I saw, and still remains one of my favorites.

    Jimmy Stewart was escellent in this. Even though he had a small role.

    By the way, I just love that second-to-last photo of Myrna you posted. She was so gorgeous!

  11. Hey there. How are you today? I hope you've been enjoying the weekend. Take care. Have a great week ahead. Cheers!


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