The Long And The Short (Series) Of It on… The “Thin Man” Series

Well, now that we’ve looked into all six of the individual movies, it’s time to take a look at the Thin Man series as a whole!

Famous for his detective stories, Dashiell Hammett finished off his novel-writing career with his late 1933/1934 novel The Thin Man. MGM bought the film rights, much to the happiness of director W. S. “Woody” Van Dyke, who wanted to take on the project himself. However, the studio really didn’t think the property would be that popular with audiences, figuring they were tired of all the various sleuthing movies that had been made about that time. They really only let Van Dyke take a whack at the property due to his reputation for getting movies done quickly and under budget. Van Dyke wanted William Powell for the role of Nick Charles, much to the objections of the studio executives, since he was already known for playing the detective Philo Vance (but, the director obviously got him). Having seen the way that William Powell had gotten along with actress Myrna Loy both on- and off-screen when he directed them in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), Van Dyke made a pitch to get her for The Thin Man. The studio executives were reluctant to cast her as well, and only relented on the condition that all her scenes be shot within three weeks so that she could start shooting Stamboul Quest (1934). Of course, Van Dyke managed to get not only all of her scenes shot within that time, but also the rest of the film, too. He also had convinced married couple Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett to help adapt the novel for the big screen, and pushed them to focus more on Nick and Nora’s relationship than on the mystery (which wasn’t too hard for them, as their own marriage was quite similar to Nick and Nora’s). Of course, the results on The Thin Man (1934) at the box office spoke for themselves, with audiences making the film a big hit (with Powell even getting nominated for an Oscar).

Of course, being such a big hit meant that the MGM executives were eager to follow it up with even more! So, they gave the filmmakers a bigger budget to work with (and weren’t quite so stingy as to their requirements about how quickly the film had to be made). With the bigger budget, they were able to do some location shooting in San Francisco itself. Van Dyke and his screenwriters from the first film were brought back, with original author Dashiell Hammett brought in to write an all-new story for the film. The new film was intended to take place on the train almost immediately after the first film (albeit without the couple portrayed by Maureen O’Sullivan and Henry Wadsworth). That was their aim when they decided to give it the title After The Thin Man (1936), but, even though the “Thin Man” of the title was the murder victim in the first film, audiences came to associate it with William Powell’s Nick Charles, and “Thin Man” was retained as part of the title for the remainder of the series.

However, in spite of the series’ success at the box office, trouble was starting to creep in behind-the-scenes. The success of the second film meant the MGM executives wanted another film, but William Powell was hit with a double-whammy when his fiancée, Jean Harlow, passed away unexpectedly in 1937, followed quickly by his diagnosis of rectal cancer, which he underwent an experimental treatment for. The treatment was successful, but he had to take it easy while he recovered. In between his grief and his recovery, he didn’t take on too many projects for a few years, mainly working on the Thin Man series and a few other films with Myrna Loy. After they wrote the third film, Another Thin Man (1939) (based on another Dashiell Hammett story), Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett had had enough, and refused to come back for another series entry, so the screenwriting duties for the fourth film were passed along to Harry Kurnitz (who wrote the story) and Irving Brecher. After Shadow Of The Thin Man (1941), Myrna Loy left Hollywood, first to spend time with her then-new husband (John Hertz, Jr.) and then, when that marriage fizzled, she spent her time helping with the war effort. Tragedy struck when series director Woody Van Dyke became ill from cancer and a bad heart, and later committed suicide (since, as a devout Christian Scientist, he refused medical care). So, for The Thin Man Goes Home (1945) and Song Of The Thin Man (1947), they had two different directors. The Thin Man Goes Home did well enough at the box office, but Song Of The Thin Man lost money and effectively ended the series (not to mention Myrna Loy’s contract with MGM).

Of course, the series’ legacy is hard to deny. As Hollywood has always done, the success of the first film spawned a group of imitations all trying to cash in on the concept, with varying degrees of success. In fact, William Powell starred in two of these clones (Star Of Midnight from 1935 and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford from 1936) before he signed a new contract with MGM (and did the first sequel, After The Thin Man). Even with the Thin Man film series finally ending in the late 1940s, the franchise still enjoyed some popularity, resulting in a half hour TV series (1957-1959) starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk (with one episode included as an extra on the Blu-ray for the first film). The characters would continue to be referenced and spoofed, including in the 1976 comedy Murder By Death (with Myrna Loy reportedly being offered the chance to play Dora Charleston, although she declined).

As I’ve essentially indicated in each of my reviews, these films were all quite new for me when I first got the chance to see them in preparation for writing those reviews. As you can see from those reviews, I enjoyed the entire series. As I indicated in my review of the second film, I do really prefer the first film, not only for its mystery, but also for some of the pre-Code humor they were still able to get away with in that film. That being said, the first three are all really enjoyable, and when the series was at its best. I think that, within the last three films, The Thin Man Goes Home manages to come the closest to recapturing the magic of the first three, if only because it feels like it knows that the series has gotten formulaic, and is able to make fun of that. Admittedly, the last three films do seem to lose their way a bit, particularly with regard to the character of Nick, Jr., since he seems to disappear partway through the fourth film (and, outside of a brief mention as to why he isn’t there, he is completely out of the picture for the fifth film), and returns for the sixth film (albeit with a different child actor taking over the role), which just leaves me with the feeling that they didn’t really know what to do with him past the third film. Regardless, it’s still a very enjoyable series from start to finish (particularly if you’re smart enough not to binge-watch the whole series in short order). For that reason, I have no problem recommending this series for those who love a group of good mysteries/ screwball comedies (especially since they all look fantastic now with their new restorations for Blu-ray)!

All six movies are available individually on Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection.

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The Thin Man (1934)

Film Length: 1 hour, 31 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

After The Thin Man (1936)

Film Length: 1 hour, 52 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

Another Thin Man (1939)

Film Length: 1 hour, 43 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

Shadow Of The Thin Man (1941)

Film Length: 1 hour, 37 minutes

My Rating: 9/10

The Thin Man Goes Home (1944)

Film Length: 1 hour, 41 minutes

My Rating: 9/10

Song Of The Thin Man (1947)

Film Length: 1 hour, 27 minutes

My Rating: 8/10

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