Hef's Movie Notes: The Thin Man

By Hugh Hefner

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Hef introduces the classic, comic detective film.


Tonight: William Powell and Myrna Loy, with Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton and Cesar Romero in Dashiell Hammett’s sophisticated crime classic The Thin Man.

The Thin Man was Dashiell Hammett’s last novel. It was inspired by his romantic relationship with Lillian Hellman–the author of such literary landmarks as The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine.

Hammett’s reputation as a writer of hard-boiled detective stories had already been well established with such novels like The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key when he started writing The Thin Man in 1930.

He and Hellman were serious drinking buddies and he had to go on the wagon in order to finish the novel for publication by Alfred Knopf in 1932.

MGM bought the screen rights to The Thin Man for $14,000.

Director W.S. “One Shot Woody” Van Dyke read the novel and asked the powers-that-be at Metro if he could have it as his next project.

Neither Irving Thalberg or Louis B. Mayer liked the idea. They both considered it a “B” movie–not worthy of Van Dyke’s talents.

But he persisted and they relented.

Mayer objected to the director’s casting too.

William Powell was new to MGM. His career had begun in silent films–playing mostly debonair heavies and con men for other studios. He had played “Philo Vance” for both Paramount and Warner Bros–and, after 58 films, some felt his best years were behind him.

As for Myrna Loy, she had played so many Asian vamps that the studio had changed her real name–Myrna Williams–to “Myrna Loy” to better suit her exotic image.

She had already made an incredible 75 films–and in 1932, had actually played Boris Karloff’s sadistic daughter in The Mask of Fu Manchu.

It was Woody Van Dyke who saw the potential in William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man.

He had already directed them in Manhattan Melodrama–Powell’s first film for MGM and the film that John Dillinger died for–and Van Dyke was the one who recognized the chemistry and star quality in the pair.

The studio had actually wanted the older, sterner actor, Edward Ellis, to play Nick Charles.

When William Powell got the role, Ellis was cast in the part of Clyde Wynant, an eccentric inventor, the first murder victim, and the actual “thin man” referred to in the story.

The “thin man” in the novel isn’t Nick Charles, the detective. He’s the victim.

But the Thin Man title was so associated with the main characters in the story that the studio continued to use it in subsequent films.

The cast of The Thin Man also included Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow’s mother, best remembered as Tarzan’s mate in the popular series made with Johnny Weismuller in the 1930s. And the wire-haired fox terrier, Asta. “His name was really Skippy,” Myrna Loy recalled.

“He was trained to do all his tricks for a little squeaky mouse and a biscuit. He’d do anything for that reward,” she said.

He appeared in a number of screwball comedies in the ‘30s, including The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Woody Van Dyke saw potential in The Thin Man that no one else saw, and the studio agreed to let him make the movie his way, by his agreeing to make it for very little money on a two-week schedule.

Shooting began on my 8th birthday, April 9, 1934.

He asked Powell to walk through a scene once to check the sound and lights. Powell did as he was told and ad-libbed a line.

“That’s it,” Van Dyke said. “Print it!”

“What did you say?” Powell asked.

“Print it!” Van Dyke repeated.

And that’s the way he made the movie. Extemporaneously. With lots of energy.

The production wrapped on April 27–after just 16 days.

The exhausted cast got drunk at the wrap party. “Myrna Loy fell flat on her ass,” one co-worker remembered.

Two days of retakes were made in mid-May, after a press preview at Huntington Park.

The cast attended the preview and the reception came as a complete surprise to everyone.

According to Myrna Loy, “It stunned the MGM brass.”

They had anticipated a nice little picture and what they had was a blockbuster!

The Thin Man opened at the Capitol Theatre in New York on June 29th. Duke Ellington and his orchestra appeared on the stage prior to the film. What a night that must have been!

The picture cost just $226,000 and grossed $1,423,000–producing a net profit of $733,598. A return of over 300% on investment.

It garnered rave reviews and Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Powell for Best Actor, Van Dyke for Best Director and a Best Screenplay adaptation as well.

The Thin Man prompted five sequels and a countless number of imitations.

In 1957, MGM sought to revive the franchise by producing 72 half-hour episodes of a “Thin Man” TV series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk as Nick and Nora Charles.

A Broadway musical titled Nick and Nora opened in 1991 and died.

There was only one real Nick and Nora Charles and we’re going to see them tonight.

From 1934—

William Powell and Myrna Loy in

THE THIN MAN


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