Tuesday, December 15, 2020

GlamAmor-ous Holidays - Merry Christmas from Nick and Nora Charles in THE THIN MAN (1934)

In celebrating the holiday season through the lens of Old Hollywood, you can't do much better for style than William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934). It was based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, an author whose crime fiction would become much of the backbone of 1940s noir with other films like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Glass Key (1942). The Thin Man happened to be an unexpected Pre-Code hit for MGM. Because it was a murder mystery mixed with comedy, the studio was never sure how it would go over with the public. As a result, there was not a lot invested in the production and it was shot at breakneck speed in only 18 days (including retakes) by director W. S. "Woody" Van Dyke. Audiences' absolute adoration for Powell and Loy as the detecting duo stunned studio heads who promptly capitalized on their popularity by producing five more Thin Man movies. But that series starts here with the cosmopolitan married couple solving a couple murders during their Christmas holiday in New York. 

Much of the pleasure of watching the film comes from its dashing leading man William Powell. Powell embodies the smooth sophistication, confidence, and charm we love about actors of the Art Deco era. Whether he was working for Paramount, Warner Bros., or MGM, he was a perfect partner for all his leading ladies - including Kay FrancisCarole LombardJean Harlow, and of course Myrna Loy. His delicious dialogue was often filled with sexy double entendres, such as his work with Kay in Pre-Code classics like Jewel Robbery (1932). Despite coming from the Midwest, he always seems urbane and worldly onscreen. You get a sense that there isn't a situation this man can't handle, like the steady stream of criminals he put behind bars (and yet somehow keeps as friends) as detective Nick Charles. 

Though Powell was once married to Carole and deeply in love with Jean before she died, Myrna truly seemed to be his silver screen soul mate. From the moment they met on Manhattan Melodrama (1934), they had an easy affectionate rapport; Myrna described her relationship with Powell as "magical" in her autobiography. Their chemistry and playful nature with one another was evident both on and off the screen, so Van Dyke recommended they take on the roles of Dashiell Hammett's famous married couple. MGM head Louis B. Mayer immediately approved of Powell since he had already played detective Philo Vance, but he had a hard time envisioning Myrna as a comedienne at this point in her career. There were many battles over the decision behind the scenes, and it ultimately took Van Dyke sharing a story of pushing Myrna into a pool to get Mayer to take a chance. The gamble paid off and then some. They would appear in fourteen films together, but Powell and Loy are still best known for playing the libatious Nick and Nora Charles.

Much of the appeal of The Thin Man is certainly sartorial thanks to costume designer Dolly Tree. Like Irene Lentz Gibbons, she started in the industry as an actress (at only 16-years-old) but shifted to costume design after a few years. She became very successful in her native England designing for musical revues as well as the famed Folies Bergère. Broadway was next, including designing for Mae West and her original stage production of Diamond Lil. Not surprisingly, Hollywood soon came calling. Dolly's film career began at Fox in 1929, but she would become best known for her time at MGM. Along with Adrian, she was responsible for much of the studio's sophisticated style in the 1930s. Tree moved to Metro in 1933 and was quickly assigned to Myrna Loy, a partnership both women enjoyed. The actress had worked with Adrian on some of her earlier films, but Myrna really felt a design kinship with Dolly. The Thin Man was a fun assignment for both of them. Since the characters of Nick and Nora were very wealthy, the costume designer could basically do as she pleased in creating the most luxurious looking ensembles. Myrna, for example, was frequently floating around in bare bias cut gowns as evening wear - one in striped chiffon and another in black silk. That sensuality is carried through to the glamorous silk charmeuse robe Nora wears at night that features dramatic winged sleeves trimmed in fur. Fur is found in many of her day looks as well, including a full-length mink coat as a Christmas gift. In fact, Nora makes her entrance at the Ritz tripping and falling on the floor wearing a coat with a flattering fur portrait collar. And in keeping with one of the era's (and studio's) most popular trends, ruffles are found as feminine accents on multiple costumes.

Powell wears his costumes extremely well, too, and was a model of men's style for the Art Deco era. His six foot frame and broad shoulders carried the decade's popular double-breasted suits better than many of his contemporaries. His innate sophistication made them seem natural. As Nick Charles, even when he was done up in a three-piece suit or tuxedo, something of a uniform on screen in the 1930s, he looked as comfortable as he does in his (custom made) robes and silk pajamas. It's worth noting that Nick's wardrobe also includes a trench coat and fedora - along with a gun - which he wears at night while searching for the missing Clyde Wynant. This was years before 1940s icons like Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd did the same, making The Thin Man an inspirational proto-noir in addition to a Pre-Code classic.

Dolly Tree also decked out the supporting actresses, such as Maureen O'Sullivan (as Dorothy Wynant) and Minna Gombell (as Mimi Jorgenson), in equally stylish costumes that completely communicated their characters. Minna, in particular, wears a couple show-stopping gowns. She enters the film in a black skin-tight satin dress with winged sleeves trimmed in ermine. She ends the film in a modern minimalist sleeveless gown with an envelope neckline, a design that seems to be an inspiration for Tom Ford's famous white caped gown for Gwyneth Paltrow at the 2012 Academy Awards. The Thin Man's extensive elegance and ongoing influence in fashion are all the more remarkable considering that Tree had a much tighter costume design budget on this film than many others. Again, this was originally conceived as a quick B-picture for MGM, not one of the more lavish productions the studio was known for during this decade and beyond.

So pour yourself a favorite cocktail or two (or six), get cozy, and join Nick and Nora Charles on the first of their many stylish adventures together. Happy holidays!

Our introduction to Nick Charles - 
at a bar with drink in hand, of course

Then Nora Charles makes her grand entrance 
chasing after Asta chasing after Nick

The elegant family with Nora in her fur-collared coat and Nick in a dark double-breasted suit
while chatting with Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O'Sullivan) about her missing father

Nora pays the price for keeping up with Nick -
six quick martinis means one heck of a hangover

Already embroiled in a mystery,
Nick calls Dorothy to say he thinks her father is safe

Dorothy's mother Mimi (Minna Gombell) is always scheming for money, 
we first see her in a silk gown with white fur-trimmed winged sleeves
followed by a smart suit with fur stole and muff to visit her ex-husband's lover

Unfortunately Mimi arrives too late 

Nick and Nora throw a holiday party for his friends,
many of whom are ex-convicts he sent to prison during his days as a detective

Nora in a striped silk chiffon bias cut gown with ruffles everywhere and
Nick in his usual pinstripe suit, silk tie, and pocket square

Nora in an elegant silk charmeuse fur-trimmed robe 
with winged sleeves for one of their loving late night talks in bed

A late night visitor threatens the couple

Nora flies around the room to help once Nick is shot (with sleeves floating behind her),
but it's nothing a drink can't handle

Christmas morning with Nick and Nora

Nora watches Nick play with his Christmas toys
as she sits sweltering in her new mink coat

Off to follow a lead in the investigation -
Nick in a trim wool coat, silk scarf, silk shirt, and silk tie
and Nora in her Christmas present (mink coat) over a plaid skirt and matching hat

Back at the Wynant household acting as referee to all the family fighting

Dorothy keeping her chin up in a trim skirt and cropped jacket

Nora, in an elegant sheer robe over a black bias cut nightgown, worries when 
Nick throws on his trench coat to do more investigating at Wynant's warehouse at night

The cinematography of James Wong Howe, one of my all-time favorites, 
really sets the scene when Nick hears an intruder go bump in the night

Elaborate ruffles on Nora's blouse underneath an equally elaborate silk coat
as the couple discusses the case and its clues and plans a dinner to find the murderer

The couple's secret weapon at a dinner party to find the murderer -
Nora in her "loo loo" of a black silk halter gown with strategically placed brooch 

The suspects are equally outfitted, and I especially envy Mimi's gown (above)
with its envelope neckline and brooch fastened opposite a slightly gathered shoulder

Nick at the head of the table in a tuxedo as he works out the murderer

Dorothy reacts to news that her mother was helping 
(and sitting next to) her father's murderer

On a train heading home to San Francisco for more adventures during New Years' Eve
in After the Thin Man (1936)

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