It's been a long time since the holiday parties Nick and Nora Charles throw in the 1934 Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man became associated in my mind with the Christmas season. So much so that every year when December arrives, I start scouring the television listings for showings of the forever-amusing flick or any one or more of its sequels.
So far this season, I've discovered none, but something maybe even better has come along, and needless to say, I fell upon it like a parched man spotting an oasis in the desert. I'm talking about Return of the Thin Man (Mysterious Press, 256 pp., $25), a volume no fan of Hammett's, of Nick and Nora Charles, of The Thin Man series should even think of doing without for another minute.
What does it contain, you die-hard aficionados long to know? It doesn't herald, as the title might imply, a recently unearthed sequel to the best-seller that instigated the first film in which William Powell and Myrna Loy -- both of them already respected stars -- turned themselves into celluloid immortals. Nope. Hammett swore he'd never write another novel about any thin man and stuck to his word.
(N. B.: It can't be repeated often enough that though the public insisted on regarding Powell as the title character, the reference in the first book is to lean scientist Clyde Wynant around whose disappearance the original plot spins, Yuletide-top-like.)
What Hollywood -- and MGM in specific -- seduced Hammett into doing, however, because the money was just too good to turn up his ex-Pinkerton snoop's nose at was to jot down not one but eventually two stories ("After the Thin Man" and "Another Thin Man") from which Goodrich and Hackett could draw follow-up films to the unexpected box-office click. And those stories, never before published are now available for the gobbling up before, after and possibly even during the seasonal turkey dinner.
For any of us familiar with the scenarios, they won't necessarily be new. Or maybe they will.
When I think of my viewings, I can't say I remember the twists with any accuracy, and I have only a vague recollection of the murders, the suspects.
Quite the opposite. While I may recall who done it -- and not always that (was Jimmy Stewart one of the villains? Not certain), I almost always find most of what occurs has slipped my mind. Furthermore, I couldn't say in which of the movies Nora takes Nick to her family gathering where snooty relatives dismiss Nick as just another flatfoot. I can't say in which of the movies Nick's low-brow friends spring a surprise birthday bash for Nick Jr. complete with wailing toddlers they've commandeered.
There's a good explanation for my lapse. The ins-and-outs of Hammett's tales may be intricate, but they aren't the real come-on. Nick and Nora are the main attraction and possibly because his soigné affinity for society's bottom-feeders and her position in high society have an opposites-attract appeal.
More importantly, the magnet is that in the most crucial way, the two of them are not opposites at all. Their wits operate on the same wave-length. Their sense of play is exactly alike. They both understand that their knack for kidding each other is a bond distinguishing them from others while making them perfect for one another.
In contemporary terms, they "get" each other, and as a result are an example of a happy marriage. It may be that in all of film history there is no better example of two people so completely at connubial ease. Maybe Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn hit the mark in one or two of their movie duets, but no more successfully than Powell and Loy in their convivial pas de deux, their folies a deux.
When Nora takes issue with Nick, it's usually over his drinking. (Is it a coincidence that the cocktail-heavy Thin Man was released in 1934 and in 1935 Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous?) Over the years Nora got her way, of course, but it's undoubtedly likely she wasn't doing the censoring so much as the established, Hollywood-monitoring institutions whose mandate it was to complain loudly.
(Remember that Hammett did model his debonair protagonists on himself and inamorata Lillian Hellman. She wasn't so thrilled with what he was doing to his health, nor did she fully sympathize with his womanizing, a trait Nick doesn't share.)
It's all here in this edition edited by Hammett authority Richard Layman and Hammett granddaughter Julie M. Rivett. In tandem, they also supply informative notes on the makings of the subsequent two films -- Hammett's often tense dealings with studio execs, dates the stories were submitted, Goodrich-Hackett changes from the stories to the finished films, et cetera. They also generously toss in "Sequel to The Thin Man," an eight-page story Hammett also turned out against his better judgment and which was never filmed, according to others' better judgment.
Since Hammett didn't regard himself as writing a novel but only providing the barer bones of the story, he's not committed to polishing his prose, nor did he feel it incumbent on him to put in every detail. For instance, he notes the particulars of a dress being described by a woman using a public phone Nora wants to access that "[they] can be written much more accurately by Miss Goodrich than by Mr. Hammett."
No mention yet in this review of Asta. Not to worry. He's here with his own family. And it's explained -- something I'd never picked up on -- that it's Nicky Jr. to whom the title "Another Thin Man" is intended to refer.
Now, Thin Man lovers, open the book and imbibe it along with your eggnog, spiked or not spiked.