There is no point in praising the 1934 film. Skinny person, which is often cited as one of the best films of all time. It has made several top AFI lists, and film critics and academics such as Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin, and Pauline Kael have given it high marks, and in some cases the highest. From the first screenings, audiences were dazzled by William Powell and Myrna Loy as wealthy socialites Nick and Nora Charles, and ever since the film was heartily urged to continue (Nick keeps insisting his detective career is over, but Nora keeps urging him investigate further), MGM agreed and gave moviegoers five more films in which Powell and Loy reprized their roles.
Received films –After a bad man, Another skinny man, The shadow of a thin man, Skinny goes homeas well as Song of a bad man– not to receive the same overwhelming praise as the film that started the series. For example, Leonard Maltin, who had good reviews for each of them, gave Skinny person its highest rating (four stars), then gave After a bad man three and a half, then three stars each for the next three films, and finally two and a half for Song. In his wonderful book Romantic comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to SturgesJames Harvey considered the series increasingly frustrating, describing Nick and Nora’s transformation into domesticated comedy characters.
Viewers can make their own assessment of the series, because all films with the exception of Skinny goes home at HBOMax. Harvey and other critics may have been too hard on the later films: the series as a whole is surprisingly consistent, having been in the making for thirteen years, and the sweet elements of the first classic continue into the rest of the films. There are other fun reasons to watch the movies—coincidentally, every even-numbered sequel has a cast of It’s a wonderful life– Jimmy Stewart in the second, Donna Reed in the fourth and Gloria Graham in the sixth. Only one of the films is so far behind the formula that it’s not worth wasting time, and more on that later.
In addition to the main cast (plus their dog Asta, played by a popular wire-haired terrier named Skippy), three other staff members from the first film returned for the first few sequels: director W. S. Van Dyke and writers (and married couple) Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Their involvement retained at least some of the original rhythm and dialogue from the original film. Nick and Nora had some of the greatest incessant jokes in Hollywood history, combining clever wordplay, romantic innuendo, good-natured sarcasm, and extremely dry observations of the world and the people around them. While every film had a mystery to solve, what made the films so compelling was the depiction of an incredibly pleasant marriage between two people so tender to each other that casual spats never had a chance to become serious. All the sequels get it right that this is a marriage that doesn’t evolve. Places change, a person is added, sobriety makes undesirable advances, but Nick and Nora maintain their loving relationship to each other without requiring it to intensify, deepen, or develop in any way. Because he is perfect the way he is.
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If a Skinny person masterpiece, then films two through four are not far behind. These are enjoyable detective comedies that allow us to hang out with Nick and Nora for 90 or so minutes at a time and take them to their posh parties and dangerous nightclubs. These are also four films by Van Dyke, who died in 1943. After a bad man begins with the pair heading to San Francisco, Nick’s old haunts, and are hired to find Nora’s missing relative. Jimmy Stewart, in his second year in show business, plays Nick and Nora’s merry fellow. The mystery leads to a nightclub, then to a gathering of old underworld acquaintances of Nick, then to an ending where Nick and Nora round up all the suspects and share their findings in search of a solution – standard elements of this series along with a useful twist. from Asta. The dialogue is amazing (Nick: “Did I ever tell you that you’re the most charming woman this side of the Rockies?” Nora: “Wait till you see me on the other side”), and the crime…disappeared relative led to a scheme blackmail and two murders. Nick explains all this to his colleagues and viewers, but no one remembers this part.
The film ends with Nora informing Nick that a baby is coming soon, which critics such as Kael and Harvey consider a major mistake for the series. Of course, the most carefree and interesting couple in the movies will be spoiled by the fun of having a baby and the work and responsibilities that come with having a baby. But without the resentment of Kael and Harvey, nothing on earth and in heaven could destroy the marriage of Nick and Nora. The baby showed up without adding any more stress or anxiety than a typical murder case.
Another skinny man introduces the public to Nicky Jr., an infant and thus someone who cannot speak and interrupt the parents’ banter. The Charles have returned to New York and are once again involved in a Long Island murder investigation; there’s a nightclub, a bunch of Nick’s underworld buddies (one of which is an uncredited Shemp Howard from The Three Stooges), a bit of Asta’s investigating, a lot of drinking, and a gathering of suspects at the end, all very nicely done, but it becomes obvious that Powell and Loy aren’t together as often as they were in the first film, and that the movie is never as good when they’re apart as they are when they’re together. Because when they’re in the same scene, you get lines like Nick’s “I wouldn’t want to wake up and find the fortune I married you for is gone” and the exchange of lines when Nick asks, “Mrs. Charles, how long have you been leading this double life? to which Nora replies, “Only since I got married.”
Loy was arguably the most important actor on the show, as great as Powell was. There used to be sassy playboy detectives, but none of them married to Nora Charles, a combination of good manners, biting wit, glamour, at times goofy and warm-hearted. Harvey notes in Romantic Hollywood that Powell reacts to everything with a kind of polite detachment, but he really becomes fully alive and involved when he communicates with Nora. Nora Loya is the difference of the world, something that cannot be reduced to a cliché, a person who never gets bored. Viewers don’t need to explain this – we know exactly what Nick sees in his wife.
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By the time we get to The shadow of a thin manNicky Jr. is now a playful kid in short pants, and Nicky has noticeably reduced his drinking. The family is back in San Francisco and Nick is called in to help investigate the gambling ring. The jockey is shot, as is the journalist, and Nick (reluctantly) and Nora (impatiently) investigate. It was the first film in the series without Goodrich and Hackett as writers, and perhaps the dialogue isn’t as sparkling and the mystery is even more forgettable than usual. But it’s every bit as entertaining as the second and third films, with Nick taking the very elegant Nora to a crowded dirty wrestling match, with Donna Reed playing the role of the suspect’s secretary. Best of all, however, Shadow is one of Stella Adler’s few film roles, and her role as a dangerous blonde somehow fits perfectly with Powell and Loy’s deadpan but touched by playful buffoonery.
By that time Skinny goes home was filmed, Van Dyke left, Skippy retired, and even Loy took a break from Hollywood. There was a war going on and Loy helped her real husband run the Red Cross. The studio was going to continue with just William Powell and a replacement, Nora, but the fans wouldn’t let that happen, and MGM convinced Loy to return for what would be the series’ worst to date.
Skinny goes home takes all the elements that made previous films so enjoyable and throws them in the trash can. The action takes place not in a cosmopolitan city, but in Sycamore Springs, the small town where Nick grew up. Instead of sly and witty humor, there is a lot of unfunny farce and physical comedy. The haute couture outfits that Nora usually wears are just simple outfits here and even her hair looks bad. And instead of a marriage that exists outside of time and circumstance, Nick and Nora at some point seem to be fed up with each other, as if their wonderful marriage has actually stalled. Nick’s flask filled with apple cider—there’s no drinking in this film—seems to be symbolic of this film’s unfortunate replacement for the established pattern. Oddly enough, Nicky Jr. is completely absent from this movie. The only positive is that the mystery plot is a bit more inventive, involving a munitions factory worker smuggling blueprints disguised as paintings, which con artist Leon Ames then buys from a pawnshop and resells to scoundrels.
It’s the only film in the series that doesn’t need to be rewatched, but oddly enough, it was a hit and MGM released another one, 1947. Song of a bad man, which Harvey describes as the low end of the series, but is actually very good and invites you to get back in shape. The film begins in a river casino where Nick (in a tuxedo!) and Nora (in a stylish cocktail dress!) are enjoying a jazz band. We soon learn that the group is a nest of snakes: the leader of the group is deeply in debt to gangsters, the lead clarinetist, a mentally unstable alcoholic, and a beautiful singer (Gloria Graham) who wants to get out. The bandleader is shot, the young boat owner is blamed, and Nick and Nora step in to investigate with the help of another band member, played by Keenan Wynn. As if there were not enough actors in Hollywood, Leon Ames also starred in this film, playing a different character.
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Song good correction House, with the dialog returning to the form. After a final run-in with Nick’s underworld buddies, Nora describes them as “perfect gentlemen down to their fingerprints”, and Nick hopes for a quiet evening at one point, telling Nora, “Give me my pipe, my slippers, and a beautiful woman, and you can keep your pipe and slippers. Even Nicky Jr. (played by a very young Dean Stockwell (dunwich horror, Blue velvet, Married to the mafia etc.)) enjoys. When Nora says to a well-dressed Nick, “You look like an Esquire page!” their son mutters, “Not the page I saw.”
Another nice touch is the cinematography. The first two films in the series made good use of the dark interiors in which Nick is investigating and the misty haze of San Francisco evenings. The first film was directed by Oscar winner James Wong Howe. Song also beautifully composed shots of Nick wandering around the boat, now closed by the police. The cinematographer for this film was Charles Roscher, who doesn’t seem to have worked on many film noirs, but he certainly could.
Even though everything comes out strong on Song of a bad man, the film was the first in the series to fail. Maybe viewers thought it was too familiar. Maybe the eternal party that Nick and Nora’s wedding was really had an expiration date. Thirteen years of fun had come to an end, and while the Charlies never had such a high point as their first appearance, they had many good moments in the following years.