Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Thin Man (dir by W.S. Van Dyke)


Last night, I rewatched the classic 1934 mystery-comedy, The Thin Man.

And you know what?

Nick and Nora Charles should be everyone’s relationship goal.

Technically, The Thin Man is a murder mystery and it’s actually a pretty good one.  While I was rewatching the film, I was surprised to see that the whodunit aspect of the plot held up far better than I remembered.  But, ultimately, the movie is really a portrait of the ideal romance.  Every couple should aspire to be like Nick and Nora.

Nick Charles (William Powell) is a retired private detective, an unflappable gentleman who speaks exclusively in quotable quips.  Nick is the type who can apparently spend every hour of the day drinking without ever getting stupidly drunk.  He has beautiful homes on both coasts and a list of friends that would make anyone jealous.  Whether cop or crook, everyone loves Nick.

Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) is Nick’s wife.  She’s independently wealthy.  She’s beautiful.  She’s always chic.  She is always the smartest and funniest person in the room.  And she’s probably the only person who can outquip Nick.  Nora loves Nick’s lifestyle, whether they’re throwing a party or literally shooting ornaments off of a Christmas tree.  As Nora says at the end of one crowded party, “Oh, Nicky, I love you because you know such lovely people.”

And, of course, there’s Asta.  Asta is their terrier.  If Nick and Nora are the ideal couple, Asta is the ideal pet.  Asta is just as quick to investigate a mystery as Nick and Nora.  Asta may be a playful dog but he’s also remarkably well-behaved.  No insistent yapping.  No accidents on the carpet.  No growling at visitors.  As I’ve mentioned many times on this site, I’m not a dog person but I love Asta.

It’s not just that Nick and Nora are obviously in love and, in this pre-code film, they’re actually allowed to express that love.  And it’s not just that they say things in The Thin Man that they wouldn’t be allowed to get away with in the film’s sequels.  (If you have any doubt that this is a pre-code film, just check out the scene where the police are going through Nora’s dresser.  “What’s that man doing in my drawers?” Nora demands while Nick does a double take.)  It’s that Nick and Nora seem to be having so much fun.  They’re wealthy.  Other than to themselves, they really have no commitments.  (Nick only comes out of retirement because Nora say she thinks a mystery sounds like it would be fun to solve.)  They have no children to worry about.  Even if you don’t want to be either Nora or Nick by the end of this film, you’ll still definitely want to hang out with them.

The Thin Man is a murder mystery.  In fact, it’s probably one of the most enjoyable movies ever made about a double murder.  Dorothy Wynat (Maureen O’Sullivan) asks Nick to help find her father (Edward Ellis), the thin man of the title.  The investigation leads to a rather complicated mystery, one in which everyone that Nick and Nora meets is a suspect.  I have to admit that, with my ADD, I always have a hard time following all of the clues.

Of course, so does Nick.  That truly is part of the appeal of The Thin Man.  Nick is often confused about what it all the clues and evidence add up to but that never seems to upset him.  He and Nora are too busy enjoying themselves to get upset. That’s one reason why, even after you know who the murderer is, The Thin Man is a movie that’s enjoyable to watch over and over again.  The Thin Man is less about the mystery and more about the way Nick and Nora manage to throw the perfect dinner party even as they reveal who the murderer is.

1934 was a good year for comedy.  The Thin Man was nominated for best picture but it lost to another charming little comedy, It Happened One Night.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Skippy (dir by Norman Taurog)



Oh my God, they actually killed the dog…

That was my main reaction, this morning, as I watched the 1931 film Skippy.  Skippy aired on TCM earlier this morning and I set the DVR to record it because, long ago, Skippy was nominated for best picture and, for quite some time, it has been my goal to see and review every single film ever nominated for the best picture.

And I have to admit that for the first hour or so, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually be able to get all the way through Skippy.  Skippy is very much a film of the early 30s and you never known how much you appreciate jump cuts, tracking shots, and even the occasional hand-held camera shot until you watch a movie that features none of them.  It’s definitely a different style of story telling and I sometimes found myself struggling to adjust to it.

Add to that, Skippy was a film about children and, while the film’s star, 9 year-old Jackie Cooper, was a natural before the camera, the other child actors often seemed forced.  There was a lot of overacting that, if nothing else, made me appreciate even more Jacob Tremblay’s subtle performance in Room.

There were a few things that I did appreciate about Skippy.  As I’ve stated on the site before, I love history and Skippy was definitely a time capsule.  The film follows 6 year-old Skippy (Jackie Cooper) as he leaves the safety of his upper class home and explores the poor side of the town and the film does a good job of contrasting Skippy’s sheltered home with the nearby neighborhood of Shantyown.  It’s while wandering around Shantytown that Skippy meets and befriend Sooky (Robert Coogan).  Skippy and Sooky accidentally break a windshield that belongs to the evil dogcatcher, Mr. Nubbins (Jack Rube Clifford).  Mr. Nubbins retaliates by taking away Sooky’s dog and demanding that the boys pay him 3 dollars for the dog’s freedom.  Though it’s a mighty struggle that involves many comedic schemes, the boys manage to raise the 3 dollars.  Mr. Nubbins takes the money, says that he’s going to use the money to buy a new windshield, and that he’s going to kill the dog anyway.  So, Skippy and Sooky have to raise three dollars more just to discover that Mr. Nubbins has already shot their dog.

As Sooky sobs, Skippy fights back tears and asks if they can at least have the dog’s body so they can give it a proper burial.

“It’s already been disposed of,” Mr. Nubbins snarls.

And, at this point, I was just sitting there and thinking, “What the HELL!?”  Seriously, I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a child in 1931, watching this film (which was based on a comic strip that all the kids probably read every day), laughing at jokes that were probably quite funny back then, and then suddenly being smacked in the face by Mr. Nubbins announcing that not only was the dog dead but his body had been cremated.  I can only imagine that amount of tears that were shed in those 1931 theaters!

(Making things even worse is the discovery that the town’s rules for dealing with stray dogs were written by none other than Skippy’s father.)

And as I thought more about it, it occurred to me that this is one thing that would never happen in a movie today.  You don’t kill the dog, unless you want Keanu Reeves to show up and kill you.

Sooky breaks into tears as soon as he hears that his dog has been killed.  Skippy manages to hold back until he gets home and then he breaks into sobs.  (According to Jackie Cooper, director Norman Taurog threatened to kill the dog in real life unless Cooper gave him authentic tears.)  Fortunately, all is eventually resolved by both Skippy and Sooky getting new dogs and Skippy’s dad beating up Mr. Nubbins.  Yay!

Anyway, for the most part, Skippy is one of those films that will mostly be interesting to Oscar completists for me.  However, I will always be stunned by the fact that, in the film, Mr. Nubbins actually killed that dog.