I feel like my filmic education is incomplete when I haven’t seen a movie like The Thin Man. When it comes to horror and comedy films of the ’30s and ’40s (and some of the ’50s), I have a fairly extensive knowledge thanks to repeated airings of these pictures on Sunday afternoons in my hometown during my childhood. Whole generations have come up since then who have no idea about movies from that era. Ask me about Ma and Pa Kettle sometime and I’ll give you an earful. Mention Ma and Pa Kettle to someone in their 20s and you’ll get a blank stare. Heck, ask someone in their 30s and you’ll likely get the same response. We lose touch with the pop culture of yesteryear the further we get from it and that’s kind of sad.
Not everything that was made a long time ago is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Just like today, Hollywood put out a lot of junk relative to the amount of good stuff and things that were popular in the ’30s, like The Thin Man, rub shoulders with other pop-culture artifacts that haven’t aged well at all. There is something timeless about a good movie, though, and that’s why something from 1934 can still speak to us with a fresh voice after the stars and the director and the writer and everyone else involved in the film are long dead.
In case it isn’t obvious by now, I liked The Thin Man. The first of six(!) movies about socialite detectives Nick and Nora Charles — and their wire-haired terrier, Asta, let us not forget — The Thin Man is a charming, breezy mystery story with standout performances, sharp comedic elements and a smart plot. While it does flirt with cliché at the very end — “Someone in this room is a murderer!” — that is barely a dent in what is an excellent bit of moviemaking.
Based on a novel by Dashiell Hammet that I sadly have not read, The Thin Man concerns itself with the sleuthing of the aforementioned Nick and Nora Charles. Nick, played with just the right amount of glibness by William Powell, is a former police detective who married extremely well. Nora (Myrna Loy), his wife, inherited a great deal of money, property and business from her late father and has no problem supporting her husband in a life that includes fancy hotel suites, parties and lots and lots of booze. One thing that The Thin Man has a lot of: drinking. There’s so much drinking that it’s part of the joke, with Nick charging up with alcohol while he’s still in his pajamas in the morning and Nora not far behind him. You will likely never see such a celebration of adult beverages as you get in The Thin Man unless, as I assume, the joke continues into the many sequels.