The disappearance of The Thin Man (1934), Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis), and the suspicion that he is responsible for several murders, brings his friend, former police detective Nick Charles(William Powell) out of retirement. His wife, Nora (Myrna Loy) and their dog Asta come along to assist in the investigation.
The reasons this film is listed as an Essential (Jeremy Arnold The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter) are the two stars. The interactions between Ms. Loy and Mr. Powell are phenomenal. Their banter is clever and loving; it sparkles like the champagne they drink. It's easy to understand why the public thought them a happily married couple - they play the part so perfectly. As Jeanine Basinger said, "Loy and Powell know how...cooperate without losing individuality. They're Fred and Ginger OFF the dance floor" (I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies).
Ms. Loy had spent most of her career playing exotics. This role completely changed her image, and she would eventually do 14 films with Mr. Powell, six of which were part of The Thin Man series. She wasn't the first choice for the film - Louis B. Mayer wanted silent film star Laura LaPlante to play Nora, but director Woody Van Dyke, who had worked with her and Mr. Powell in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), insisted on Ms. Loy, and won the argument (TCM The Big Idea). She gives Nora an intelligence that, in lesser hands, would have made the character seem like a ditz.
Much of the credit for the success of the film goes to director Woody Van Dyke. He wanted the two actors to re-team, recognizing their easy relationship from his prior experience with them. He also encouraged his actors to be more spontaneous - when William Powell started shooting balloons off the Charles' Christmas tree with an air gun off-camera, Mr. Van Dyke just worked the routine in the the picture (TCM Behind the Camera).
Maureen O'Sullivan as Dorothy Wynant, the only appealing person in that family, didn't particularly like the film because her part was very small. She also disliked Mr. Van Dyke's fast shooting style - the film was completed in between 12 and 18 days (TCM The Essentials). Authors Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich modified the character of Dorothy from the original Dashiell Hammett novel. Dorothy was far less appealing - "a rather silly, heavy-drinking girl" (Mystery Classics on Film: The Adaptation of 65 Novels and Stories by Ron Miller). This change works well, as it gives the audience someone who cares about the missing inventor with whom we can sympathize. Claude Wynant is not all that pleasant, and the rest of his family are distasteful. That we sympathize with Dorothy makes it more palatable that Nick would continue the investigation.
Thankfully, Nat Pendleton (Detective John Guild) gets to play a police officer who is good at his job. Sure, he's not brilliant like Nick, but he's smart enough to realize that he has the help of an outstanding detective, and he uses his colleague's skills with gratitude. We liked Detective Guild, and his easy relationship with Mr. Powell.
The film has the advantage of a number of excellent character performers. While all are pretty disagreeable characters, the actors give the right bite to their parts - Porter Hall as Lawyer MacCaulay, Minna Gombell as the unreliable former Mrs. Wynant (Mimi), and a very young Cesar Romero as her current husband, Chris Jorgenson.
William Henry, who Dorothy's odd brother Gilbert, would go on to have a long and varied career - the quintessential working actor. He appeared in films from 1925 until 1971 (in later years, often uncredited). In 1951, he added television to his credits, appearing in shows like Rawhide, Bonanza, and The Six Million Dollar Man (his final role). He died in 1982, at the age of 67.
While the ending is a bit convoluted - Mr. Powell complained that he was having trouble sorting out the complicated plot - the audience doesn't really care who did the murder, we are more interested in watching Nick figured it out. The popularity of the film, besides generating 5 more Thin Man films, also resulted is a spate of films that dealt with married sleuths like those found in There's Always a Woman (1938), Dangerous Blondes (1943), and A Night to Remember (1942). None of the copies were as good as the original.
The Thin Man received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Adapted Screenplay. It also created a craze for wire-hair terriers (though Myrna Loy said that Skippy, the dog who played Asta, bit her) (TCM The Thin Man).
The New York Times review by M.H. (Mordaunt Hall) called the film "an excellent combination of comedy and excitement," and other critics have also praised the film (TCM Critics Corner).
Mr. Powell and Ms. Loy recreated their roles for a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on 8 Jun 1936. From 1957 to 1959, Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk starred in a TV series, The Thin Man. It even generated a musical play called Nick and Nora, starring Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason, which opened on Broadway on 8 Dec 1991 (but closed on 15 Dec 1991) (AFI Catalog).
Since then, it has appeared on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Laughs (#32). It was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1997.
This is a must-see movie to add to your list. We'll leave you with the trailer: