Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, and starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, The Thin Man follows a retired detective and his wife as they pursue the trail of a missing inventor.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, which was released in January 1934. Hammett’s writing was inspired by his experiences as an investigator and strike breaker for the notorious Pinkerton agency, for whom he worked between 1915 and 1922. His job took him to Butte, Montana during the infamous miners’ strikes; his experiences there left him disillusioned, likely contributing to the left-wing activism he pursued for the rest of his life. Beginning in 1923, he sold detective fiction to pulp magazines like Black Mask, before publishing a series of successful novels – Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929) and The Maltese Falcon (1930). Hollywood took notice, and he was hired as a script doctor by Paramount, and later MGM. It was on the MGM lot that he met script reader (and later celebrated playwright) Lillian Hellman. The two would go on to have a tumultuous and storied relationship that would span the rest of Hammett’s life, and on which he based Nick and Nora’s marriage.
MGM paid Hammett $21,000 for the screen rights to the book, and assigned the screenplay to married couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who worked closely with Hammett to produce the movie’s signature snappy dialogue. The pair had only recently arrived in Hollywood, signing a contract with MGM in 1933, and would go on to write acclaimed screenplays for It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1955).
Director W. S. Van Dyke began his career as an assistant to D.W. Griffith on Birth Of A Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), before establishing himself as a reliable director for MGM. Prior to The Thin Man he made Tarzan The Ape Man (1932), starring Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller, which earned him further favour with MGM by becoming their most successful release of the year.
Van Dyke was certain he wanted to cast Powell and Loy in the lead roles, but executives at MGM – including Louis B. Mayer – weren’t convinced. In the studio’s eyes Powell, then aged 42, was considered too old, and – having recently made four very successful movies for Paramount and Warner Bros as hard-boiled detective Philo Vance – too typecast to be believable as an investigator in a comedy film. They also thought that Loy, who had made her name as a serious actress in the previous decade, was too well known as a femme fatale for audiences to accept her as the wife of a detective. Van Dyke persisted however, eventually getting his way, and the two leads embodied bright, quippy Nick and Nora better than MGM might ever have hoped.
William Powell’s career had its origins at the beginning of Hollywood. He started out as an actor in vaudeville and stock productions, before moving into silent pictures with Sherlock Holmes (1922) starring John Barrymore. He was already prolific by 1934, having appeared in more than fifty films; his first starring role was in The Canary Murder Case (1929) as the aforementioned Philo Vance, after which he became one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.
Loy, whose career had also begun in the silent era, had started out as a dancer at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Her film appearances in the late 1920s and early 1930s were marked by what she describes as an “exotic non-American image”, often appearing as Asian characters, as in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). Alongside these she also appeared in a number of early Technicolour musicals, but a slump in their popularity coincided with the slowing of Loy’s own work. It was one month in 1934 that would truly alter the course of her career.
It was a bumper month for Loy and Powell alike, as May 4th saw the release of crime drama Manhattan Melodrama (1934), the first movie in which they appeared together. They starred alongside Clark Gable, and the film was hugely profitable for MGM, gaining notoriety after gangster John Dillinger was shot to death during a screening. The newspapers were full of speculation that Loy had been his favourite actress. A few weeks later, on May 25th, The Thin Man was released to great critical fanfare and box office success, propelling its two leads into superstardom.
Powell and Loy weren’t the only cast members whose careers benefitted from the film’s success – their on-screen dog Asta (played by canine actor Skippy) was a big hit with audiences. When the second film in The Thin Man series premiered, he had a billing to rival his human co-stars. Skippy would go on to star in two screwball comedy classics, The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938).
Such was the popularity of The Thin Man that it spawned five sequels – released between 1936 and 1947 – each starring Powell and Loy. Its appeal has endured throughout the intervening decades, and it regularly appears on lists of the best movies of all time – and for good reason. The pairing of Myrna Loy and William Powell was a golden one, and the two made fourteen films together in total. The Thin Man was a pioneer of the fast-paced dialogue which would become a signature of screwball comedy, and established a gold standard for the films that had to follow it.