After The Thin Man
Author: Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett, who also has story credit here. Screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who wrote the first one.
Other Data: December 25, 1936, according to IMDB. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke.
Cast: William Powell and Myrna Loy as The Thin Man and wife, Nick and Nora Charles. Elissa Landi as Nora’s cousin Selma Landis, and a young Jimmy Stewart as her Romeo. The incomparable Jessie Ralph as Aunt Katherine, who could freeze an army with her gimlet eye, and, as always, a host of recognizable minor players like George Zucco and Sam Levene. And one Dorothy McNulty as nightclub singer Polly Byrnes, about whom more below.
About this film:
Happy new year!! Which is, as it happens, important. I am writing this on New Year’s Day and TCM cleverly showed this last night as one of a cluster of films that contain a New Year’s Eve party. In this interesting mystery, the fact that it is New Year’s Eve is more important than in the other films of the evening — it’s a clue, or part of one. And it would be necessary to the plot to be aware that January 1 is an American national holiday.
Of course, having just discussed The Thin Man Goes Home the other day, I was sensitized to Thin Man films and PVRd this one for later, but ended up watching it live. I’ve seen this film a handful of times and came to this viewing with the intention of checking my perception that there was something fishy about the details of the mystery’s solution that made it a bit of a sell, so I had a notepad beside me.
As I mentioned in my immediately previous review of the other film, this is one of the “family” mysteries. The first leisurely minutes of this film are devoted to character development and making the viewer chuckle; we only start to meet the family about half-an-hour into the action. I will try to discuss this without giving away the answer, but I was watching for a specific line that happens at the 0:30 mark. For those familiar with the plot, or for those who are prepared to spoil their enjoyment if they haven’t seen the film yet, I will say that if you listen very carefully to a line that contains the phrase “given a few days to think about it”, you will come to the same conclusion as I; although the solution sounds plausible, there is a different way in which events could logically have been arranged so as to vitiate the chain of logic through which Nick runs at the end of the film, and this line is the key to it. The sequence of events doesn’t have to be as abbreviated as Nick suggests, and the key point about New Year’s Day isn’t so perfectly conclusive as he asserts.
In an interesting segue, literally a minute later at 0:31, a nightclub singer swings into a lively tune called “Blow That Horn” at the beginnings of the New Year’s Eve party sequence. This is a classic mystery technique; if you’re looking to make people forget that they’ve just heard something, cut to a scene with lots of action and noise and give them things to distract them.
The nightclub appears to be some weird combination of a Chinese restaurant that has a full-on floor show. The blowsy brunette singer is listed in the credits as Dorothy McNulty, and I remarked, as I have upon previous viewings, that she dances well and enthusiastically, and has an earthy vitality and charm about her, although perhaps not the greatest singing voice, such that I would have expected to see more of a film career for her. The actress takes her role and tears into it with both hands, in much the same vein as Lesley Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria. (And she utters what I think is the best line in the entire six-film Thin Man series, about which more deservedly later.) She has an interesting speaking voice with a bit of brass to it that is ideal for the low-class “chantootsie” whom she’s playing and, I have to allow in retrospect, had a tinge of familiarity about it. But I wasn’t really familiar with anything that she’d done before or since. Ah, though, the wonders of the internet provided information immediately — after two more undistinguished films, in 1938 she began to be credited as “Penny Singleton”. Oh, my, God. This is not only the woman who played Blondie Bumstead in a double handful of Blondie movies, this is the voice of Jane Jetson. I was in fanboi heaven.
Near the end of the movie, as noted above, she utters a truly, truly classic line. All the dialogue in this movie is good, some of it is fine and occasionally it is superb. My second-favourite line of the series is Nora to Nick in #1, after returning from a wild goose chase upon which she was sent involuntarily by Nick. “How did you enjoy Grant’s Tomb, baby?” “It was lovely. (pause) I’m having one made for you.” (baleful glare) But Penny Singleton gets the prize for this lovely sequence at 1:47 (during the final blow-off; yes, this is a long film for the day). Nick asked her to spell the word “married”, and she comes up with “M-A-R-R-Y-E-D”. “You see?” says Nick. “An illiterate person would have written this note differently.” “Whaddaya mean, illiterate? My father and mother were married right here in the city hall!”
Speaking of the blow-off, which starts at about 1:40, there is one additional small problem and one big one. Again, no details, but a clue that depends upon a physical feature of a corpse should be in a movie that is capable of showing us that corpse’s face long enough that we can confirm for ourselves what we see. (And this is not a movie that refused to take chances with what it shows us. Believe it or not, it is not common to be able to see a dog’s penis in films of this era; Asta, in an extended comedic sequence with “Mrs. Asta”, shows us fairly clearly that he is indeed male — and very, very clever and obedient.) If we did see the corpse’s face in a quarter of a second as it tumbled out of a laundry basket, I seem to have missed it. So that was a bit annoying.
The big problem, though, is that the ending depends upon the murderer having been secretly insane for most of the film. The actor/actress concerned gets to foam at the mouth for a few moments with a good deal of accuracy, and give us as best s/he can a full-on nutbar performance, but I am rarely convinced by such sudden revelations and this is no exception. Upon first viewing, of course, this is fine. But the actor/actress in question puts across his/her history (up to the revelation of a long-standing case of virulent insanity) with a good deal of sincerity and acting talent. In short, I believed that this character’s actions in the plot were motivated, as they seemed to be, by his/her stated motives. More to the point, s/he did not act outside them — there is a good deal of clever writing involved in putting this across, and there is one major plot point that is beautifully reversed at the end (the final location of the gun) that is a pleasure to see how beautifully it was buried earlier. But all things considered, this is a real character who is seen to do what you think s/he would do in the circumstances, and it’s a bit of a sell to have that character’s motivations change completely due to a case of “instant insanity”. At one point, a psychiatrist (George Zucco, in a small role that he makes his own) says contemptuously that the murderer is crazy. In the final moments of the film, he is hilariously shocked to realize that he’s been correct. But a psychiatrist who specializes in such matters was completely shocked at this character’s insanity — it really, really does come quite out of the blue, and is rather hokey.
But then, I take it that the audience for this — remember, it came out on Christmas Day, so audiences would be seeing it in the lead-up to, yes, New Year’s Eve parties — was more interested in the broad streak of gentle humour that runs through the film. (At one point, Powell appears to crack up an extra playing one of his uncles-in-law, and I imagine the contemporary audience would have made more of the radio reference than I did.) This movie invests its time wisely in building rounded characters and then making you laugh by how they react to circumstances way, way beyond their control. There are showgirls in scanty costumes, at least three musical numbers (I’m counting the “specialty solo” at Nick and Nora’s impromptu welcome-home party) and the antics of Asta, the smartest dog in the movies. I suspect that the number of people who would have been sitting in the audience trying to figure out the mystery would have been small indeed, and that is probably as it should be.
Although there is some excellent dialogue and plotting in this film, I could only give it a high B-plus; it is not as good as the first film or some of the other sequels, but it is a first-rate second-rate movie. I cannot help but feel that a little bit of work would have made the mystery air-tight in its small details, but a lot of work would have been required to change the unsatisfying “he was crazy all the time and hiding it beautifully” ending.
But it was nice to have a New Year’s Eve party about which to write on New Year’s Day!!
Notes For the Collector:
Copies of the film are readily available and I believe, without troubling to confirm it, that the original trailer is available via archive.com as being in the public domain. As I noted above, Turner Classic Movies showed it recently and re-runs it perhaps once a year. There is a boxed set of all six Thin Man films and I recommend it to your attention; all six are worth your time and the first in the series is a masterpiece.