Written by: Kimberly Pierce, CC2K Associate Editor
“Sequelitis” is a common problem in Hollywood. While you can’t throw a rock without hitting a popular franchise today, the number of sequels which live up to the first entry is few and far between. Last month, as part of a birthday tribute to stars William Powell and Myrna Loy, we examined the popular 1934 mystery, The Thin Man now we turn our attention to the 1936 follow-up, After the Thin Man. Does the second film fill the first’s large shoes?
After The Thin Man begins shortly after the end of the first installment. Nick (William Powell) and Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) return home to San Francisco after the action of the previous feature. While the couple aims to crawl into bed “for a month,” nothing is ever quite that simple. They are quickly pulled into more drama and intrigue when Nora’s cousin Selma (Elissa Landi) confides to them that her ne’er-do-well husband (Alan Marshal) is missing. Complicating matters is David (Jimmy Stewart), an old flame of Selma’s who is still in the picture.
After The Thin Man hit theaters Christmas of 1936. The film is the second “Thin Man” movie as well as Powell and Loy’s sixth feature together. The two paired on multiple (un-Thin Man related) occasions between 1934 and 1936: Evelyn Prentice, The Great Ziegfeld and Libeled Lady. Each were well-received, particularly 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld. The lavish biopic of showman Florenz Ziegfeld received five Academy Award nominations and took home three awards, including Best Picture.
A critical examination of After the Thin Man is interesting. Since its release, After the Thin Man gained an easy reputation as the best of the Thin Man follow-ups. At writing, the sequel logs a 100 on Rotten Tomatoes as well as an impressive 7.7 on IMDB. Meanwhile, The Thin Man brings a 97 on RT and an 8.1 on IMDB so, essentially, both features are equal.
The New York Times reviewed the mystery, publishing an article in their Friday December 25th, 1936 edition. Like the contemporary response, critic Frank Nugent’s write-up is largely positive. He calls After the Thin Man “not quite the delight” as the first film but in a surprising moment of history ringing true in contemporary culture, he continues, “Sequels are commonly disappointing and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was borrowing trouble when it dared advance a companion piece to one of the best pictures of 1934.” At this point, the movie industry had barely existed in Hollywood for twenty years and the Academy Awards began only nine years before, yet sequels were seen as disappointing even then. Apparently, some things never change.
As the movie opens, one thing becomes immediately clear: this is Nick and Nora’s story. The Thin Man opens with Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan) as the primary source of audience identification. Nick and Nora don’t enter the film for almost ten minutes. They serve as almost secondary characters in their own narrative. However, as After the Thin Man begins, we’re immediately dropped in with the titular couple. As their train car chugs into San Francisco, the audience finds themselves in close quarters with Nick and Nora. Even Nora calls out this lack of intimacy as she tucks a negligee into her suitcase. “How do they expect a woman to have any mystery left for a man?” This, it seems, can be applied to not only Nick, but the audience as well.
Perhaps most interesting is the casting of a pre-everything Jimmy Stewart as David. While Stewart is now widely acknowledged as a legendary actor, MGM signed him a year before making this movie. As such, Stewart’s “aw schucks,” nice-guy persona isn’t in place yet. However, the film makes a definite (and smart) use of the earnest likability which later became vitally important to his career
After the Thin Man struggles most with structuring its rather convoluted mystery. Everything is tied up neatly in the now standard climactic scene as Nick talks through the crime in front of the many suspects, waiting for one to make a slip. The conclusion feels abrupt, perhaps a testament to Stewart’s complete likability. Considering some of the supporting performances (particularly Joseph Calleia as “Dancer”), David is most certainly “the one you least suspect.” He turns virtually on a dime from an adorable juvenile leading man to a vicious, psychopathic killer. It is well acted by Stewart, but the conclusion isn’t set-up throughout the story and feels jarring.
Meanwhile, the narrative pulls back on some of the progressive gender work the series initially laid. There are four named female characters in After the Thin Man with two (Nora and Selma) ranking in the primary cast. In the first film, Nora stands out in her equality with her husband. She matches him not only in verbal sparring, but drink for drink. Myrna Loy establishes herself as one of the best of the leading ladies to come out of this legendary era; she easily places herself alongside titans like Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. Unfortunately, After the Thin Man walks back the development which allowed Nora to stand out in The Thin Man.
In After the Thin Man, there’s a general sense of there being somewhat less of Nora. All the same banter is present and Loy brings her traditionally top-notch chemistry with Powell. Her subtle character shift begins early as Nick and Nora return to San Francisco. Leaving the train station, they move through a hoard of newspaper reporters, all asking unending questions about “The Thin Man” murder. Mrs. Charles couldn’t wait for her husband to pick up the case in the last film; however, she’s the first to respond: “He’s not going to take any more cases!” As the narrative continues, while Nora still brings the same razor-sharp wit from the previous story, she just does…less. She exists primarily to fill a maternal role. She desperately wanted to help in the first movie, but this time out her aim is more subdued. Nick sends her to deal with her high maintenance family, particularly the often hysterical Selma. This (often) is simply to get rid of Nora, but this time she remains silent as she misses a good deal of plot points. This is not the same Nora viewers saw in The Thin Man.
Nugent’s review is equally dismissive of Mrs. Charles. Early in his criticism, he describes the couple as: “Nick, the amateur sleuth, Nora his understanding, but frequently underfoot wife.” This is a prevailing and time-period accurate point-of-view. She’s not equal and she’s not trying to help; rather, she’s annoying and “under foot.” It’s this perspective which is responsible for the de-evolution in Nora’s character.
As the 1930s turned into the 1940s, visions of femininity changed. A mere two years after this movie, the Independent Theater Owners Association ran an ad in The Hollywood Reporter, criticizing performers labeled as “Box Office Poison.” Luckily, Powell and Loy avoided connection with the (now infamous) list; however, the choice of stars remembered is telling: Kay Francis, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. Each of these women is remembered for their spirit on-screen, the fiery leading ladies of the 1930s. Suddenly, with “Box Office Poison” attached to their reputations, many found themselves required to rework their personas to get work. Isn’t it interesting that while men were attached to the famous ad as well, they aren’t as well-remembered.
The final scene in After the Thin Man implies that more changes are on the horizon for Nora Charles. As the film ends, a stunned Nick notices his wife knitting a baby bootie. The discussion of gender roles in the series will likely continue as the thirties come to an end and World War II edges ever closer.
Historical analysis shows that while the critically acclaimed After the Thin Man is not only a fun one to watch but is equally as enjoyable as its first film, it falls in a period of transition. Hollywood found itself evolving and changing as the 1930s concluded, and this evolution is apparent in After the Thin Man. The movie avoids falling into a case of “sequelitis,” but with certain changes on the horizon, will the popular series remain so lucky?
A film historian for as long as I can remember, I juggle my passion for classic Hollywood with a hobby of reviewing contemporary movies. 1/4 of Citizen Dame (on your favourite podcasting site). When I’m straying out of the classic realm, I’m a sucker for geek/nerd culture. My tastes are wide ranging from Firefly to Doctor Who and even Marvel.