Monday, January 4, 2010

Nora Charles is No One's Mother!

I've mentioned before how much I disliked the writers making Myrna Loy's Nora Charles character a mother-to-be at the end of the otherwise brilliant After the Thin Man (1936). Screenwriter Albert Hackett was quoted a saying: “We thought the second Thin Man picture would be the last when we hinted they were going to have a baby . . . but the reviews [said] there must be a third picture planned, because they were going to have a baby. We just made it doubly hard on ourselves.” William Powell was also against the idea and was concerned at how old junior would make him and Loy appear on screen as the child grew up.

I believe that there was more to making "Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man" parents than just the screenwriters trying to end the series. Remember that MGM's studio chief, Louis B. Mayer, was known for his love of America and its cherished institutions. MGM series like the Andy Hardy films (starring Mickey Rooney) with its idealized vision of America and the all-American town of Carvel was the kind of entertainment Mayer loved. A favorite movie of this blogger is The Human Comedy (1943; also starring Rooney), a paean to small-town virtues and values that chronicled the effect of World War II on the U.S. homefront. The Human Comedy isn't so much a motion picture as it is a series of propagandistic vignettes glorifying the American Way. Both the Andy Hardy films and The Human Comedy are among Hollywood Dreamland's favored films, so it's not the concept itself that is the problem, but rather foisting motherhood on a character who was as far removed from the staid characterization that was imposed on Myrna Loy.

Nora Charles was based on author, playwright and all-around "troublemaker" Lillian Hellman, who was Thin Man author Dashiell Hammett's constant companion. Hellman, as far as I know, never had children and any character based on that firebrand was sure not going to be the mothering type! When one learns on whom Nora was based, the very idea of Nora Charles--tippling heiress and wisecracking wife--being anyone's mother all the more laughable.

Myrna Loy, despite her four marriages, never had any children, either. Nor did Ginger Rogers, another star at the peak of her popularity in the 1930s-40s. Other than Bachelor Mother (1939; aka "Get a blood test!") Ginger's characters never were mamas, either. Maybe making Myrna the "Perfect Wife" was the only thing that MGM could think of to reinvent Loy's screen image. Perhaps they feared that she was getting too old to play such a feisty character anymore. Loy was 29 during the first Thin Man movie but by 1936 they had her ready for motherhood at her character's expense. It's easy to assign the blame to the on-the-record screenwriters Hackett and Goodrich, but they get their marching orders from producers and Louis B. Mayer.

Mayer's taste in such wholesome content would eventually be his undoing, as he was ousted as MGM's head in 1951 by Dore Schary, whose preference for "message" films disgusted the old-fashioned Mayer. The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was made despite Mayer's disapproval. But in any business, money talks, and Mayer just wasn't getting the job done anymore. Changing tastes and more sophisticated fare came to Hollywood in the form of Crossfire (1947), Battleground (1949) and countless Films Noir to MGM and Hollywood in general.

All of this probably will elicit a big "So what?" but the declawing of Myrna Loy was a big blow to a great character and while Nora Charles still could crack wise with the best of them, she would not have the same punch she did in the first two Thin Man films.


  1. Superb post, Dexter! Thanks for the insight! And I, too, think it was a fatal mistake to make Nora Charles a mother. But I guess post-code Hollywood didn't know how to handle a tough, independent character like her.

  2. Maybe Nora was not the mothering type, but being a mother does not necessarily "declaw" a person. I know that for a fact!

  3. Lolita: Thanks! You remain one of my best fans.

    KC: You are, of course, absolutely correct. My post was meant to refer to the "tenor" of the times.

  4. Agreed. I was watching 'Shadow' last night and the kid is just in the way.
    I'm all for kids and the Mayer type movie. (Oh how I could go on) But for these characters it's like putting My Little Pony on Ben Hur's chariot. There's just no place for it.

  5. I couldn't agree with you more. As a huge fan of the first two Thin Man films and an even bigger fan of the Powell/Loy team, I was really disappointed by the lukewarm treatment of the films following After the Thin Man.

    Though I definitely like to see growth and character development, I also don't think that things should be fixed when they're not broken, especially the perfect union of Nick and Nora Charles. (And we can't forget Asta!)


  6. I really enjoyed reading your post! I just watched the first two Thin Man movies for the first time and loved them, but thought making Nora pregnant was a really lame and uninspired ending. It honestly makes me less interested in watching the other films, because whenever a child is added to a series it usually shifts the focus, and I wouldn't want to see Nick and Nora's excellent dynamic changed too much.

  7. Ooops on Ginger. She was a mother at least 2x on film. Tender Comrade (gag-worthy sentimental tosh throughout, I'm afraid) and Kitty Foyle are the ones I know. Oh, and at least one film in the 50s...can't remember the name of it.

    I know what you mean, however. Nick Jr. certainly took the sparks out of things!

  8. Let me get this straight. Only women who are not mothers are tough. Is that it? There is nothing wrong with being a mother. I just don't think one should become a mother because society deems that should be your fate. Then again, I don't think one should AVOID being a mother, because feminist sensibilities or society deems it as a sign of weakness.

    Follow your heart. That's my motto.

  9. So Im a little late to the party but just wanted to mention that Ginger was also a mom in Tender Comrade, Teenage Rebel and almost in Kitty Foyle.

    I'm glad you posted this. I just started watching the Thin Man movies and couldnt figure out what happened to the kid!


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