Monday, November 17, 2014

'Another Thin Man' Helped Depression-Era Audiences Escape

Nora (Myrna Loy): How did you find me here?

Nick (William Powell): I saw a great group of men standing around a table. I knew there was only one woman in the world who could attract men like that. A woman with a lot of money.

For the third time in five years, movie audiences were treated to William Powell and Myrna Loy as the wisecracking detective spouses, Nick and Nora Charles, in "Another Thin Man," which premiered on this day in 1939.

Powell and Loy made six "Thin Man" movies together, but they were paired in 14 movies all told. Well, to be accurate, they were co–stars in 13; the last one was Powell's movie, and Loy made a cameo appearance. Even so, without a doubt, they were one of the big screen's most prolific couples.

In a way, I think the "Thin Man" movies proved what a great actress Myrna Loy was. I guess you have to put her performances as Nora Charles up against her performances in other movies with other leading men to see what I'm talking about but try to stay with me here. Powell was a center–of–attention kind of guy, and Loy tailored her performance to let him do his thing. For want of a better label, she was Powell's straight man.

In her other movies, she had different personae to complement her leading man, be he Fredric March, Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable. Each brought different strengths and weaknesses to their roles, and Loy was always able to be whatever she needed to be to make it work.

Now, I liked the original "Thin Man" movie (which was based on a Dashiell Hammett novel), and I liked the sequel that was made two years later, too. In some ways, I liked the sequel better — because it did the things that a good sequel ought to do. It expanded on themes that were introduced in the original, and it even had a surprising twist at the end. Can't ask for more than that from a sequel.

In some ways, though, I felt the story was getting a little tired by the third installment. It was aptly named, but it needed a question mark to be correct, I suppose, and maybe an underline — Another Thin Man?

The third movie came out three years after the second one so it was only right to wonder what Nick and Nora had been up to. Well, as the audience discovered early, they had been fruitful and multiplied. The audience was already familiar with the Charleses' pet terrier, Asta, from the first two movies; now, there was a fourth member of the group, 8–month–old Nick Jr.

I am still not sure how I feel about that addition. In hindsight, it sort of strikes me as the kind of thing the writers for TV shows do when their programs are running out of gas. They insert a new character or they transport the cast to a new setting, hoping to open up new story lines and revive a sagging audience.

On TV, this tactic usually only buys the series a little more time, perhaps another season or two, at best. But it didn't seem to hurt the "Thin Man" franchise. It went on to produce three more movies in eight years.

It was a formula that happened to work very well. It was like some TV series that continue to thrive even after adding new characters. It was that way with Happy Days, which added characters and even a phrase to the popular vocabulary that defined desperation ("jumping the shark") yet continued to thrive.

Audiences knew what they were getting with Nick and Nora. The plot of the movie only existed to give the audience what it wanted.

It was strictly entertainment, nothing Oscar–worthy about it. And, in fact, "Another Thin Man" received no Oscar nominations — unlike the original "Thin Man," which received four Oscar nominations five years earlier.

Well, 1939 was an especially difficult year for movies to get popular attention, but I don't think "Another Thin Man" really deserved any nominations that year. It was just good escapist fare for Americans who were still trying to free themselves from the grip of the Great Depression.