Written by: Kimberly Pierce, CC2K Associate Editor
This week, CC2K turns our attention towards the third entry into “The Thin Man” series, 1939’s Another Thin Man. The series’ previous film, After the Thin Man hinted at some large changes coming to the lives of Nick and Nora Charles in the form of a baby. As the franchise reaches its midpoint, how does it handle this forced character evolution? All at once, the series seems to be struggling for the first time and somewhat lost for purpose.
This third installment into the “Thin Man” franchise opens more than a year after the last film. The daring detective duo Nick (William Powell) and Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) are now a threesome with the birth of their son Nicky. The Charles’ are unexpectedly called to the country on business matters with Colonel MacFay (C. Aubrey Smith). As per their usual routine, murder and chaos ruins what should be a relaxing holiday. Patric Knowles, Tom Neal, Sheldon Leonard and Virginia Grey co-star. W.S. Van Dyke once again directs the movie from a script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
Another Thin Man is the first of the series to feature Nick and Nora as parents. The previous two installments allowed us to follow the always likable couple in all their unhindered drinking, partying and murder investigating ways. The only ball and chain Nick brought was Nora, and ultimately, she’s often more excited about facing down danger than he is. However, in a moment of questionable writing decision-making (perhaps when viewed through a contemporary lens) returning writers Hackett and Goodrich decided adding a baby seems like a good-decision.
Another Thin Man hit theaters over the holidays in 1939. In an article dated November 24 of that year, the New York Times reviews the (then) brand new feature. Critic Frank Nugent’s take on the story is largely positive, but it’s evident sequelitis is gradually setting in. Nugent writes, “Some of the bloom is off the rose. A few of the running gags are beginning to show signs of pulling up lame. All this is bound to happen when a “Thin Man” leads to “After the Thin Man” and develops “Another Thin Man”…. there is a limit to everything”.
For the second film in a row, Nora is an afterthought in Nugent’s review of the series. This time out though, the language has changed. She’s described as Nick’s “almost too perfect helpmate”. Interestingly, the change in language reflects a much more critically positive response to Nora, who was called “underfoot” the last time around. Is this change representative of the fact she’s now confirming to socially acceptable, Depression era gender roles?
While the addition of Nicky is an interesting arc in terms of a forced evolution for these two fun-loving characters, it isn’t treated that way in the scope of the narrative. Rather, the baby is disposable, feeling more like an accessory or plot point rather than a person. When it’s convenient for the story, Nick and Nora are fun and adoring parents. The movie features a light-hearted scene where the couple play with the baby in their bedroom. The moment is a great one for the growth of the couple as we see them alone in this relatively new set-up. Powell is particularly good, showing the unease of a new father while at the same time conveying his delight.
However, Another Thin Man just as quickly forgets about the baby when it serves as a hindrance to the story-telling. For much of the movie, the couple employs a nanny (Ruth Hussey) so it’s at least believable Nicky is being taken care of. However, midway through the second act, the care-giver takes off into the night. It is after this sequence when Nick and Nora head out to investigate the case, leaving the infant at home with… someone? Nicky is little more than a hat Nora forgets to unpack. This metaphor seems surprisingly accurate, as for much of the story Nicky sleeps in a dresser drawer.
With the advancement of Nick and Nora’s narrative as parents, most of the cultural change is heaped on Nora as the baby’s mother. While Nora begins the series as a feisty partner for Nick, her character feels forced into an unwilling (?) evolution beginning in After the Thin Man. Through most of that feature, Nora seems to be preparing for her upcoming role as a mother. She babysits her family, sitting by and patiently accepting her role while Nick runs off to do the fun stuff.
With the new film, the story is somehow even more insecure in what it wants Mrs. Charles to be. For much of Another Thin Man, Nora is a young, first time mother. Her attention is focused single-mindedly on the baby. Nick himself is keenly aware of this. In fact, he uses it to his advantage midway through the second act when he distracts Nora by telling her the baby is crying. In the moment, Nora gives a quiet “Ooh!” and sprints to the baby’s room with a far-away look in her eye. The only problem, Nicky isn’t crying. It seems “Mommy” has lost herself in the last two movies.
Furthermore, there is a growing sense that Nora’s independence from The Thin Man has largely disappeared by this time out. In the earlier movies, it is made clear Nora is the rich spouse. The narrative begins with the Charles’ on vacation. However, a call from Colonel MacFay pulls them back into reality (as happens in both previous films) and they must travel to the elderly man’s mansion. MacFay and Nora’s father were business partners, and it is mentioned Nick works with MacFay in matters of Nora’s estate. Suddenly, the passivity in Nora’s character feels particularly surprising, though likely accurate to the period.
On the other hand, Nora gets to have a bit more of the fun which was absent in After The Thin Man. Towards the end of the second act, she finally manages to break free of the hotel (sans baby, but we aren’t talking about that right now) when she receives a phone call meant for Nick about a potential clue. The scene is a fun one as the couple run into each other at a nightclub. In fact, the sequence is an empowering one for Nora. When she wasn’t babysitting her adult relatives in After the Thin Man, she found herself trapped out of helping in the narrative when she’s locked out of a phone booth. While she’s “Mommy” for most of this film, as she enters Nick’s line of sight, she’s once again an object of his desire. Nora wears a spectacular evening gown and is ringed in by excited suitors. She’s calm, collected and completely in control of her sexuality. The scene is a fun one, serving to further build Nick and Nora as a couple. They share fun banter, reminding us of where the Charles’ started out in The Thin Man.
Loy made her screen debut in 1925 and by this point seems well on her way to establishing the star persona for which she is known among film historians today. However, in 1939 she was still five years away from some of her most iconic roles in movies like The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, The Best Years of Our Lives and Red Pony. Would audiences of this period have picked-up on this drastic change in Nora’s character? Or is this simply a result of looking back at her roles with knowledge of her developing star persona? Unfortunately, it’s difficult to judge a period without having lived it.
Another Thin Man features some fascinating character performances, further enhancing the narrative. Aside from the always entertaining Smith, the delightful Sheldon Leonard plays his usual character, a very, very young Tom Neal plays distractingly against type, and the adorable Patric Knowles comes off as a bit bland and under-utilized.
Another Thin Man shows the downside of forced character evolution. As the third film in “The Thin Man” franchise gets going, Nick and Nora didn’t need to mix anything up with a baby. The strength of these movies is the chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy as leads. While it is difficult to critique history without having lived it, ultimately this series is at its best when Nick and Nora play off each other as equals and partners, not husband and wife.
Another Thin Man is widely available on DVD.
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.