Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 2, 2019)
One of the big screen’s most enduring franchises launched in 1934, as The Thin Man would eventually spawn five sequels and a 1950s TV series. It seems surprising that no one has apparently attempted to revive the franchise since then, but maybe that’s a good thing, as it leaves the classic team of William Powell and Myrna Loy intact in viewers’ minds.
Absent-minded inventor Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) works on what he calls an important idea and plans to leave town to think about it. His daughter Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) gets engaged to Tommy (Henry Wadsworth), but he should return before the post-Christmas wedding more than three months in the future. Wynant won’t reveal his destination to anyone.
Before he leaves, Wynant tries to recover $50,000 in bonds. He accuses his secretary Julia (Natalie Moorhead) of taking them. She admits this but defends her decision. This doesn’t satisfy Wynant, who implies he’ll do something to get back at her and leaves.
The film jumps to Christmas Eve and reveals Dorothy’s increasing fears due to her father’s disappearance. She runs into hard-drinking detective Nick Charles (William Powell) at a restaurant and expresses her concerns to him. He helps look into Wynant’s status.
He learns that Wynant apparently has returned, but the mystery deepens when his ex-wife Mimi (Minna Gombell) gets involved. She seeks more money from Wynant. To that end, she goes to see Julia but finds the secretary murdered. Mimi finds some evidence that implicates Wynant in the killing but she withholds this from the police.
Everyone thinks Nick should take on the case, but he claims to be out of that business. At a Christmas party, Dorothy comes to “confess” to him. He quickly sees through her story, though.
Intrigue increases when Mimi storms into the party and creates a commotion. Eventually Nick agrees to take on the case, largely due to the encouragement of wife Nora (Myrna Loy). She wants to see him in action and also becomes part of the investigation. The movie follows his work.
Despite a few minor disappointments, The Thin Man remains a memorable film, and I can see why the franchise endured for so long. Much of the credit goes to the leads, as Powell and Loy form a delicious pair with great chemistry. They play off each other exceedingly well to create a wonderful dynamic that ignites the film whenever they appear together.
I will admit I wish Loy had more to do with the story, though. I don’t think I’d seen Thin Man or any of its sequels before I got the old DVD, and I went into it with the preconceived notion that Nick and Nora were a detective team.
That’s most definitely not the case, at least not in the first flick - perhaps in future films she’ll take on greater responsibilities, but now Nora exists mainly as a comedic foil. That’s fine, but it would have been nice to see her as a more active participant in the tale.
Comedy often doesn’t age well, especially when it focuses so heavily on verbal gags. That’s what Thin Man emphasizes, but I’m happy to report the jokes have held up nicely over the last 85 years.
The banter maintains a solid zing and we get plenty of amusingly quirky little moments. For instance, when a drunk hits on Dorothy, Nick states that he used to bounce her on his knee.
The drunk replies, “Which knee? Can I touch it?” Granted, that line doesn’t translate well into print, but it comes out of nowhere and adds a delightful twist.
Thin Man comes chock fill of similar moments, all of which make it a consistent gas to watch. The mystery takes a back seat at times, though the film goes with an unusually strong focus on it for its first act. Indeed, we don’t even meet Nick and Nora for quite some time.
Hmm… I mentioned “disappointments” earlier, but I guess Nora’s lack of responsibility is really the only aspect of the film I didn’t particularly like. Otherwise, I can find very little I’d change about The Thin Man, so it deserves its status as a classic.