>> Wednesday, September 16, 2009
The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails
by Charles Tranberg
©2008 BearManor Media
In the realm of classic movie series, the Thin Man films stand alone in terms of quality. Unlike B-programmers like the Charlie Chan, Saint, or Boston Blackie films, the Thin Man pictures starred A-list actors, had comparatively large budgets, and had stories and screenplays by the best writers in the business. They also weren’t cranked out in quick succession, as was the general rule for popular films with series potential. Only six Thin Man pictures were ever produced, with a two to three year interval between series entries.
The Thin Man (1934) and its sequels also had a greater influence on popular culture than other series films. The witty, tipsy, husband and wife team of Nick and Nora Charles, as played by William Powell and Myrna Loy, were an instant hit with audiences. It was only natural that a sequel would follow, which eventually spun into a string of periodic reunions of the actors as the sophisticated (yet down-to-earth) soused spouses. William Powell and Myrna Loy set the standard for sleuthing couples, and the elements that made the series great--sparkling banter, playful sexuality, labyrinthine mysteries, and copious cocktails--were imitated again and again, with and without the names of Nick and Nora attached.
Considering the impact that the Thin Man series of the 30’s and 40’s had on film, radio, and television history, it is astounding that it took until 2008 for someone to produce a book entirely devoted to the series. Nick and Nora had received a handful of chapters in film references such as Tom Soter’s Investigating Couples: A Critical Analysis of The Thin Man, The Avengers, and The X-Files (2001) and in James Harvey’s outstanding and essential Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges (1987). However, author Charles Tranberg and small press publisher BearManor Media become the first to commit an entire tome to Nick and Nora’s forays into film with their release of The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails.
The book begins with concise, chapter-length biographies of series stars William Powell and Myrna Loy. The only other actor to appear in all of the films, Skippy, who played Asta, the Charles’ Wire-Haired Terrier, doesn’t rate a chapter of his own. However, the dog does receive a brief bio and is the subject of anecdotes later in the book. Following the biographies are individual chapters on each of the six films in The Thin Man series. Each of these chapters follow the same format--1) Cast and production credits; 2) An in-depth synopsis of the story; 3) A representative line or two of witty dialogue; 4) Brief biographies of key members of the production staff, such as the director and writers; 5) Behind-the-scenes stories of the production of the film; 6) Additional biographies of several members of the supporting cast; 7) And finally a selection of excerpts from reviews of the picture. Each chapter contains a few film stills or advertising materials from the specific film discussed, and the book wraps up with a photo gallery of character actors that added color to the series.
Fans of The Thin Man and its sequels have been waiting for a book like this for a long time, but after reading The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails, they will probably wish they had a book “like this” rather than the actual book that they hold in their hands. All-in-all, the book is unexceptional. Charles Tranberg fulfills his meager goal of providing a guide to the six movies in the popular series, without really giving readers a feel for what set the films apart or for the impact they've had on motion pictures and entertainment as a whole.
On the positive side, one comes away from the book feeling that they have truly gotten to know Powell and Loy through the biographical chapters and anecdotes scattered throughout the book. Tranberg has also gathered together many amusing behind-the-scenes stories from a variety of previous publications and interviews. Finally, film fanatics are bound to appreciate the capsule biographies of the series’ supporting cast members, including many of the greatest character actors to ever appear on celluloid, such as Edward Brophy, Sam Levene, Joseph Calleia, George Zucco, and Marjorie Main. Most of these familiar faces have not rated full-length biographies of their own, so these mini bios are appreciated. However, the cast and crew biographies also prove to be a liability, because they represent about half of the volume’s 307 pages. Many readers will grow weary waiting for the author to get back to the actual Thin Man films, as they wade through pages of acting and production credits from the films’ participants.
Another failing of the book is that Dashiell Hammett, the author of the novel upon which the series was based (as well as the writer of the storylines of the first two sequels) doesn’t receive much coverage. The personalities of Nick and Nora, as well as many of the best lines in the original film, were lifted directly from Hammett’s novel; so both the pulp master and his novel deserved more exposure in Tranberg’s film guide. Thin Man fans would have been interested in an exploration of the similarities and differences between the novel and the 1934 film, as well as a discussion of details about the characters that were left out of the movie (such as the fact that Nick Charles is the son of a Greek immigrant and that his real last name is Charalambides). Readers also would have likely been interested in the fact that Hammett’s story for the first sequel, After The Thin Man (1936), has been published (1986, The New Black Mask, Nos. 5 and 6), but his story for Another Thin Man (1939) has yet to appear in print. One comes away from the book wondering how much Tranberg actually knows about Hammett, as he refers to the author’s series character, the Continental Op, multiple times as “the Continental Ot.”
“The Continental Ot” is likely a typo, which is another mark in the book’s negative column. Throughout The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails there are examples of poor editing. In addition to misspellings, there are missing words, bits of contradictory information (for example, Another Thin Man is described as both Sheldon Leonard’s “film debut” and “his fourth film”), and inaccuracies (character actor Lloyd Corrigan is misidentified as Edward Brophy in a photo from The Thin Man Goes Home). While most of these errors are minor, they cast doubt on the accuracy of other information in the book.
Finally, and most disappointing, is the fact that the book displays little feeling for the impact that the Thin Man films had upon pop culture. Apart from a single paragraph in the foreword--which mentions that the film spawned movie imitations, led to a brief two-year Thin Man television series, and went on to influence TV shows such as Hart to Hart--the book sticks strictly to the six films in the movie series. It is surprising that a book celebrating the Thin Man films would fail to mention that William Powell and Myrna Loy reprised their roles as Nick and Nora in Lux Radio Theater adaptations of the first two films or that the movies inspired a radio series with other actors entitled The Adventures of the Thin Man, which enjoyed a nine-year run (1941-1950). There is also no mention of the Dick and Dora Charleston parody in Neil Simon’s Murder by Death (1976); the failed Broadway musical, Nick & Nora (1990), which ran a dismal nine performances; the sleepwear company that adopted the names of the tipsy twosome; or the homage to the Charles’ in the title of the recent film Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (2008).
All of these quibbles aside, I ultimately have to recommend The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails for die-hard fans of The Thin Man and its sequels. Fans of Nick and Nora are likely to find information in Charles Tranberg’s book that is new to them, and they won’t want to miss the amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes concerning the making of one of the most satisfying film series in movie history. It’s just a shame that Charles Tranberg’s book isn’t nearly as satisfying as the films it celebrates.
The Thin Man: Murder Over Cocktails (Trade Paperback)
The Complete Thin Man Collection (The Thin Man / After the Thin Man / Another Thin Man / Shadow of the Thin Man / The Thin Man Goes Home / Song of the Thin Man / Alias Nick and Nora)