Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Notes from the Class and Alcoholic Struggle in a THIN MAN Marathon



TCM screened the entirety of the alcoholically fluent Thin Man series for New Year's Rawkin' Eve 2016. Naturally I hung around for it, glued, as one is, by the ever-deft blend of comedy and mystery, the natural charm of Powell and Loy as tipsy Nick and Nora, and the colorful thugs. The thing struck me most now for this --nth viewing (and maybe I gleaned this visiting my brother in Arizona over Xmas) is the way rich or upper middle class alcoholics often wind up with slightly lower rungs of friends and mates, the booze acting as a kind of leveler ("it makes you my equal" as Sinatra tells der Bingle in High Society), illuminating the scions of the rich's lack of interest in bourgeois sophistication as opposed to earthy vitality and color. Seen as a whole, in one glorious TCM New Years night, from MGM to my screen--seven (or eight? hic) films stretching from pre-code 1934 to post-war noir jazzbo 1947, we see this class struggle in action, but also the way the long term effects of copious drinking parallel the effects of censorship and WW2 on American life. There's a reason, in the end, for avoiding America's low-lifes-- no matter how Runyonesque they may be. Censorship ironically made us presume otherwise (fighting dumb social norms being an American obligation) but hang out with them long enough and the poor rub off on you until there's no going back, entirely. In your absence, the upper crust cracked open and all that's left of the mansion you left behind is Blanche Dubois, impinging on your booze and personal space. Follow that earthy Runyon flame too closely and the lowlife becomes your whole life; suddenly you're traveling in coach instead of a private car, then packed into the baggage car with barn animals, peasants, drunken bums... Maybe it's that there's a war on...

And then maybe you're the drunken bum...

Nora was definitely slumming when she married private detective Nick Charles, for she started out rich and to the manor-born, the alleged upper crust. But her side of the family all have a yen for the rough trade, as we see firsthand in AFTER THE THIN MAN. Dominated on the home front by upper crust tea-totaler patriarchs and great aunts who need eight servants just to get out of bed, naturally they'll run off with any man who's independent, tough minded and able to breathe life back into their half-suffocated sense of adventure.

In the original THIN MAN (1934) the 'actual' titular 'thin' man (Nick isn't the Thin Man--that's a common misconception), Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) is a successful crackpot inventor with terrible Gold Digger blonde-fakeness-roitin' up tootin' and powder-takin' feminoid chits with perma-waves fit to knuckle a Fred down low past the trotters and the truffles and all the googen plazas in betwixt. By which I mean, he lets a platinum wave undercut good common sense. Wynant was first married to Mimi (Minna Gombell) -a shrill, clipped uptight broad with whom he has a foxy young daughter Dorothy and a creepy-intellectual son Gilbert, and still supports them and also Mimi's gigolo second husband Cris (Cesar Romero). And then there's Wynant's secretary Julia Wolfe (Natalie Moorhead) who cheats on him, presumably, with the squat pug-like Morelli (William Brophy) and the dirty little rat Nunheim (Harold Huber).

The party Nick and Nora throw meanwhile indicates they too like to hang out with the lower dregs just as much as the Wynant family. Their Xmas party is packed with flea-bitten boxers, agents, dumb reporters who don't know what the word 'sexagenarian' means, and a stockpile of gold diggers and sobbing long distance bill-running mom-callers. The only sane sweet two girls in the whole rotten pack are brunettes: Nora herself (Myrna Loy) and Maureen O'Sullivan as Wynant's daughter Dorothy. The rest are hardbitten blondes (including Nunheim's 'frying pan juggler' and Chris' first wife).

I might come off as being snooty in pointing these differences out, but in fact I'm arguing that the variations of class stratified couples in this first film better situate the unique chemistry of our favorite drinking couple, thus answering the question: what would their romance be like if street kid Nick and debutante Nora's respective classes were reversed? And in later films, in a clear nod to MGM Andy Hardy provincial morality-flattering cleanliness, Nick's past is changed to indicate he's not from New York City but from a cute small midwestern town with a well-respected physician father and literally a white picket fence.

I've always liked to believe THE THIN MAN is really a kind of Hammett-to-Chandler cross-over BIG SLEEP sequel. The wry humor and quick back and forth of Bogie and Bacall in SLEEP seems like a prequel to Loy and Powell's Nick and Nora--the class differentiation is just right. Marlowe isn't just a gumshoe, he "went to college and can still speak English if the situation demands it." So by moving into a life of crime-solving she mingles with the dregs, and he mingles with a rung or two down and as a couple they act as go-betweens between these two worlds. Nick knows the night-spots and the thugs; Nora knows their prey, the shattered effete scions, skittery cousins, and blackmailable aunts.

Natalie Moorhead / Edward Ellis
For a contrast, we have the dysfunctional slumming dating pattern of Wynant (he dates downward, and so do the women he dates, making him the Nora in his class divide-crossing relationships). He reminds us, so painfully, that to be rich and successful is to need either a personal assistant, a detective ("Rutledge should hire you permanently to keep those girls of his out of trouble"), or a 'present' parent (like Sebastian's mom in Notorious) to screen out the riff-raff, do background checks, and otherwise make sure you're not sleeping with or getting rooked by any blackmailers, gold diggers, vamps, hookers, or greedy two-timers just because they remind you of some dame in Kansas City. Wealth does not often equal a clue when it comes to dealing with its accompanying social parasites. As a result the wealthy hire detectives to get rid of them without getting their names dragged through the papers. In marrying the detective, Nora in a sense keeps her own wealth immunized.

And in the end maybe what started out as bored jetset thrillseeking on Nora's part (if say, Nick was hired by Nora's late father in the past to shake a grifter off her tail) turns to love that's somehow the ultimate measure of class, the difference that separates the cool rich (the kind we love) vs. the snobby airheads (the targets of our scorn). William Powell is perfect casting for Nick Charles, since as in My Man Godfrey, regardless of what class he plays he has an elegance and charm that is like a beacon, not just great to drink to but to aspire to. For it's also this classiness that magically roots out the con artists and moochers. Even some of the mugs he sent of to prison still like him, and surely there is no higher recommendation than that.

Even so, at the dinner party denouement (of the first film) he articulates a priori animosity towards an as-yet-unmet sleazy lecher for Dorothy (they're interrupted from boarding a train together, perhaps crossing state lines and allowing her to make "first false step.") The guy she's meant to be with is a young dope of amiable quality: Tommy (Henry Wadsworth), who tells her to "pack some clothes and (her) skates" to come with him to his parent's cabin in the country (the addition of the 'skates' is so sharp, detailing all sorts of character traits I always use it as an example of the importance of specific detail in writing, letting us know from a single noun that Tommy comes from good family, is clean-cut, and knows her very well, letting us admire the youthful earnestness of their pairing even knowing absolutely nothing else about him, contrasted with the louche "first false step" guy, who basically has a kind of whiny fey sneer in his voice (he gets one line and gets slugged). Of all the people in the film, it's this one guy Nick isn't nice to, even though, aside from being a scuzzy lecher, he hasn't really done anything wrong. But that lets you know too Nick is above all chivalrous, and maybe even a bit of a prude when it comes to premarital sex. After all, he does live at MGM.


AFTER THE THIN MAN (1936) plunges us into more of a 50/50 mix with the (K)nobb (Creek) Hill types of San Francisco, replete with goggle lensed alienist (George Zucco) keeping doe-eyed debutante Selma (Elissa Landi) strung out pills and, like Mimi (or even Nora), so under the sway of some handsome grifter husband (Alan Marshall) she shuns the respectable slime pails in her class (like Jimmy Stewart).

But unlike Nora's love of cogent Nicky, Selma's obsessive doting over this cad is yet another valuable window into a possible facet/outcome of the rough trade/gigolo gold-digger (male) symplex which we see time and again in the series, putting us in the odd position of realizing money is in its way an amplifier for trouble in ways middle class folks don't usually need to worry about (the really slick operators are going to be hunting richer quarry). In AFTER, the domineering matriarch Aunt Katherine (Jesse Ralph) is clearly underwriting Selma's case of nerves, amplified still further by quack shrink Zucco's undoubted regimen of mind-altering drugs. She's so dominated and overprotected her aunt indirectly forces her into marrying such a swine.

Curiosity about the lifestyles of the poor has long been an obsession of the rich - and during prohibition especially the two were dependent on one another for their very social survival; when Nick says "that man is here," it means their delivery service bootlegger has come by. A variation of that exists today for other illegal drugs like cocaine especially. The last few parties I went to have been at my rich ex-roommate's with all his high roller and top shelf model friends. And in each right around two AM the "call" is made, and some sketchy dude shows up to sell the gathered eight balls of cocaine in a different room (which I never go to--for I hate the wretched stuff with every fiber of my body, mind, and soul). Once said sketcher sees the hotties to be had at my ex-roomie's soiree he calls his buddies and within minutes there's a sketchy hoodrat hanging on a willowy model in every corner of the room - it's an old dance, Monkey Nipples, and it goes back to prohibition in the 20s-early 30s, and when the arrival of a certain package made an ordinary gangster delivery boy become the apple of every thirsty girl's eye.


Now me, I've not only struggled with alcoholism but with my own snobbiness for I've learned to be the bemused hip wingman rather than the worrywart aunt of sulky ectomorphism when it comes to monitoring my friend's and family's mate choices. The amount of suffering I had to undergo to make it to this sketchy truce of peace was/is astronomical. I dated a Cherry Hill NJ girl five years without ever overcoming it. Looking back, I loved her folks, they were great people, but at the time, my indignant snob hackles rose. She later told me they sensed that, but were amused by it. Man oh man, the middle class is a tricky place to be.

What does money have to do with love maybe you ask? It's character, pure and simple, that overrides culture? Yeah it does. A rich family might live poorer than a poor one; a rich house in Princeton might look at first like a rustic cottage, its austerity reflecting--only as we learn later--some early colonial debt of honor to family tradition. Meanwhile a huge mansion next door might be packed with gaudy statuary and uncleaned pee stains from amok puppies while the owner chomps a cigar and insults Mr. Merrill in back by the pool.  Class may not be just about money but in the words Loreli Lee, my goodness doesn't it help?

Right as I wrote that I hear Nora behind me on the phone, noting that they had a wonderful time on their cross country trip: "Nick was sober in Kansas City!" as if that's in itself a rare and precious thing instead of a shameful waste of Kansas City's withering flatlands, of which drunkenness is the only sane artistic response.

By the time of the third film, ANOTHER THIN MAN (1939) with Colonel McFee the family lawyer harrumphing that they drive out to his remote LI estate to help him, the drinking was sidelined at best--a child has landed. They find his compound swamped with security guards but there's "good air for the baby" and overlapping needy characters cramming their way into the smaller and smaller, simpler, and progressively more spartan apartments, bearing pages of red herring exposition like trays of hardboiled eggs. By this third edition, the rogue's gallery giving the gladhand after Nick sent them up the river is kind of cliche, as is the dour humorless upper crust relative / uncle who first summons Nick-o-lass and little Nora to his or her remote mansion, and the MGM treacle seeping over the Breen line ("Gee, boss... a cute widda baby!")--even if that damned baby is goddamned Dean Stockwell, saints forgive him--is an unwelcome intrusion. Even if they do have a nanny, the writing is on the wall.

Muriel Hutchison

The unique selling point to ANOTHER--not later duplicated in the series--is the startlingly touching romance between red herring grifters Sheldon Leonard and Muriel Hutchison. When she pulls a pistol out of her garter belt the whole series grinds to a turntable scratch halt-in lesser hands this skeezy pair of crooks would be quite forgettable, but here they wind up as the second coolest couple in the whole series, further blurring the class lines. Now that there's Nazis in the works and boot strap tightening to ration card to victory bond, well, there's no longer magic in the contrast between rich and low class settings. The way Hutchison says "okay" when he asks her if she wants to play for keeps and make it a duo is like an oasis of sexual vulnerability, streetsmart brass and spritely comedic wit, perfectly fused to Hutchison's Frances Farmer meets Judy Holliday sexual persona. As the patient daughter of the rich colonel, Virginia Grey; Tom Neal (DETOUR star later convicted of murder) is chemist. And in't that WB B-movie gumshoe Patrick Knowles? It might not mean much in terms of charm and acting--all top notch--but it's clear we're beginning to drift off the A-list.

By now Nora is on her way to being totally ditzy but still gets out good lines, tossed off 'yes-and' improv intuitiveness, following Nick's lead to get rid of the pesky romeos at El Morocco: "I won't stay in quarantine! I don't care who catches it!" That shit is awesome, BUT then she doesn't know to look at the maraca player onstage for her contact instead of falling into trite Lucy Show-style mistaken identity-brand comedy with an excitable gigolo. Come on, writers! She's not Lucille Ball... she's goddamned Myrna Loy! She's goddamned NORA!

THEN CAME THE WAR

The weird boilerplate fascism accruing in the dregs of the slumming cocktail seires almost heralds the second world war in itself, as if all the decadent art design and detailed underworld flavor of the first two films has to be sanded down so now the crooks aren't drunks themselves but racial stereotypes borrowing babies for a baby party, with no sense of one another as characters or actors, like they all just met on the G train out of Brooklyn, or are lining up at boot camp, the endless blank white surfaces behind them reflecting a utilitarian minimalism in the set design with which the wall of an LI mansion becomes the wall of an NYC hotel with just a change in a single wall hanging, and none of the lived-in wealth of grime vs. swank in the first film, some of which survives into AGAIN WITH THE THIN MAN but by SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN is just vapor.

And the thrill of drinking while dodging bullets, and enjoying a marriage with a wife comfortable with both, was gone, of if not gone, certainly put away for the moment, eased into storage alongside the west coast Japanese-American population and pacifist humanism until the end of the war, when noir artisans like Siodmak and De Toth would de-mothball the exoticism that Welles and Von Sternberg had previously overdone, the way someone who eats too much of a certain food never wants to eat that food again, at least until, say seven years or a war have passed.

Two things MGM couldn't overbake with Fordian hick Christian small town provincial weepy moralism: the drinking, and the idea of an underworld itself --both essential staples to the series, and both posed their moral hand-wringers a problem. The grifters might now all look like they'd been transplanted in front of walls as phony as a Woolworth painted family Xmas portrait backdrop, but they were there nonetheless. The glorious mansion of the second film, or ritzy apartment of the first, even the visit to relatives in the third, is supplanted. though, in favor of a nanny, a maid and domesticity galore, Nick is even goaded into drinking a glass of milk to appease his demanding son. SIr, that's carrying supplicated wholesomeness too far!

Good bits in SHADOW OF A THIN MAN (1941): Nora summoning Nick from a bench in Central Park, just by shaking up a cocktail shaker near their fourth floor window across the street! But the minimal sets and tedious MGM homespun shit, coupled with Nick's dime store penchant for playing the ponies, seems like their millions are long gone. More than a drinker, Nick's portrayed as a chronic gambler (that might explain it), loafing around in an upper middle class boilerplate (i.e. they're now the Muensters not the Addams Family). The younger mirror to Nick and Nora this time include Barry Nelson (the hotel manager from THE SHINING) as part of an intrepid allegedly good crime solving couple, but the writing coasts on lazy coincidence of the sort that would make Dashiell Hammett ashen: Nick just "happens" to just be where crimes "happen" rather than being swept up in the naturalistic flow realistic to a big city life that brought Dorothy into a hotel bar over Xmas at the sight on Nick, who once worked a case for her father and with whom she had a childhood crush, etc.

In other words, the believable chain of involvement that separates good writing from bad in the mystery game, is gone, replaced by the kind of lazy B-movie mystery writing where murders just happen wherever the detective happens to be. The one interesting saving grace in all that is that the writer is smart enough to use the detective's own fame as the trigger. If you're already paranoid about some devious deal your pulling or pulled years ago during a mysterious hotel fire, the sudden arrival of a Charles or Chan onto your scene might trigger an outburst of blackmailer/witness silencing, and 'threatening note wrapped in a rock' window-throwing --that is believable as an explanation why these sleuths find such ornate murders wherever they go. Thus as Chan might say, famous detective never runs out of crime to solve, for fame causes new crimes to cover older unsolved crimes, like an artist sneaking into museum at night to fix flaw only recently noticed in old masterpiece.

Stella Adler
This time the stealth actor in the bunch is none other than Stella Adler. Watch her big scene with Nick and dig the way she feints forward while he questions her, as if about to kiss him before a serpentine back slither over the word "threaten" until it's practically an admission that Nick's a snake charmer and she's under his sway. But meanwhile Nora is getting daffier and daffier, relegated to all sorts of half-baked in-betweenism of ditzy harebrained derogatory MGM backwards wartime non-feminist clutziness. She's developed a real knack for stumbling down lazy screenwriter shortcuts towards new inadvertent clues, sussed out of the monochrome sets and cardboard cutout characters and spilled in her lap so the little lady can feel involved... aww, MGM back to its old conservative tricks.


THE THIN MAN GOES HOME (1945)
(END OF THE WAR)

"C'est la guerre" - Nick says, almost like compared to the swank hotel compartments they had in earlier films, this overcrowding train coach riding reflects a loss of comfort or privilege, ala DR. ZHIVAGO's, a kind of Communist style MGM would only allow during the actual war (there's not a lot of folk in uniform in this 1945 film, though - Nick's too old by now, or something).

This HOME they go to is also an MGM wartime sentiment Andy Hardy softsoap backpedal. Up to now we though Nick a savvy big city detective, but suddenly his urbane cool is funneled into a Spielberg middle class small town-ism. Look! He's wistful over the old windmill as it passes by in the train window. While in the baggage car with Asta they're sitting by boxes of "Limburger cheese" and many goats.... i.e. cheap hick sitcom laughs, though I love the family sticks with the dog rather in the freight car rather than just letting the group be separated, and no little Nicky, where the hell did he go? Military school? Goood.

But the series surprises with a good thing for every bad, and this time Loy, with her petit bowler hat, is suddenly a whole new mature kind of gorgeous, way above the curve for her or any age. Powell on the other hand looks like he's been a little booze-battered. He seems much older than last we saw the Charles's, also cross-eyed, glossy, complaining about his stomach lining and bearing a flask full of "(non-alcoholic) cider," mirroring maybe Fields' Never Give a Sucker" scene in the ice cream parlor. We do learn he's been working making high fees as a detective, and that family fortune seems apparently gone. Class is gone, too. The war and its propaganda engine have elevated the common man and dissolved the classes in ways which seemed patriotic at the time, but would be considered red commie propaganda as soon as the war ended, and that's the weird thing with Russia. You were patriotic when promoting Russia during the war, and an enemy of the state immediately after. Make up your mind, America! Give Nick back his stomach lining and first-class compartment!

And the lighting, so layered and rich in the original, has been slowly fading away into spacey country light, so bleached out that a person wearing a dark color or sporting a noir shadow would be committed to a mental institution. So now Loy is rattling Nick's town's skeletons hoping a crime will break out as a result "so [Nick] can show his father what a wonderful detective he is." Are we hearing this right? The "only you darling, lanky brunettes with wicked jaws" has morphed to this sober corn pone. "You might get all sweaty and die," Loy cautions wryly. She's aged way better than he has. Did I mention that?

the only other hottie is a muscular little Mary Lou Retinal scan of a blonde (Gloria DeHaven - left) who quotes Shelly while thesping around the first cool set in the film, her mansion, and then we remember the Tennyson quoted by Edward Brophy (in the "I'm the fella who wrote this picture, screwy idea, wasn't it?" bushes dweller role) and we get the feeling that, hey, them what wrote this went to college and wants as we should know. Ann Revere appears in a red herring role as a crazy local wanderer, as if small towns were all apocalyptic Lynchian Godard's WEEKEND cool with genuine links to the founders wandering wild in the weeds rather than suffocated in the "Curse of Arthur Freed" crib. (Deep in the Heart of Texas refrains as Nick suits up).

But the end, the final round up exposition, is as deliriously convoluted as we'd like, with the small town maid-playboy adoption and the Bruce Partington Pants, but there's also Nick popping two buttons that day as a lad who finally earns his dad's admiration for solving it all AND using dad's kind of highbrow medical jargon along the way.

The brush, son... the brush.





1947 -- The War's over now, and the Noir can safely begin, set to smoldering jazz on boats three miles out-ish, though I presume we're not meant to think Prohibition's still in effect, is that for the gage? Bring on the finale, la SONG OF THE THIN MAN.

w/ Keenan Wynn as the 'young hep cat' they adopt,
or who adopts them
But before the jazz, and the hep lingo, it turns all bullshit sterile, with Nora turned into the exacting old bitter battleaxe she stood against in the earlier films, demanding Nick spank Nick Jr. because he wants to pitch ball instead of lumbering along with his bourgeois piano practice, acting like she's the height of hipsterdom for letting Nick bust out his "last" bottle of Scotch to celebrate the--what was it?--no one who hasn't decided their Scotch is their "last" can remember or think what the hell that is. By now it's Nick Jr. who's cool, not his drab parents, with Nora's spanking obsession and Nick's jet black dyed hairpiece making him seem bloated and old, and why not? You'd be too if you drank like Nick Charles for the last 20 years... wait, its only been like 13! That's booze for you- and is exactly how long I drank like that too. Anyway, he plays off his non-alcoholic cider like it won't effect his jubilant ease-in-his-own-skin debonair airs, but where are they?; his alcoholic métier never quite recovers from his character's booze-related health issues, the inevitable age of his character and the actor, the previous films' wartime home front belt-tightening mirroring his slow backsliding out of the upper class, dragging Nora and her family fortune down with him until he's just another Bukowski-esque bum at the dog track.


If you've been drinking all the way up and including this last film in the series here during this lovely New Years TCM marathon, then maybe you'll wonder if Nick's just permanently woozy. Now the drinking is all done by salty sailor types cuz by now a man can not be a dad and still be a lush, aye now there may be something in what all that is about and we must like that the real time between these cases is allowed to accrue, so each time the folks look further aged.

 By contrast imagine if James Bond in that TV BBC Casino Royale stood in for the real Bond instead of making him a perennial youngster and including the same Moneypenny, Lois Maxwell, so that he needed a cane fur crime solvin' while she stayed kinda hot til late in the game, but there you go because the jazz lingo is all about the Jacksons and 'button button who got the McGuffin' and there's a bullshit detector I got when that shit is like strictly Abe Kabibble and Pops under glass, and da bunk and the Jacksons are all out on the MGM lot with the reeds and the Freeds, but the diggity is strictly like from the non-squaresville camp. Like hey the writing has copped to the censorial small town rubric but the noirscape has taken effect anyway, like the profs never stepped all over the straight shit from out the dance floor in good old Hawksian the SONG IS BORN with Gary Cooper instead of Danny Kaye, I mean BALL OF FIRE not soul of the southern song, like strictly from Memphis, "that don't sound like the old Hollis Juice" - and with most of the film taking place in a series of jazz boats and joints (and even Nora picking up the lingo that giving the gal the 'fuller' means "the brush," son). "The brush."

Gloria Grahame

They're still "the squarest bunch of hipsters I've ever seen" notes the young Gloria Grahame, looking Veronica Lake type-ish in what would be her definitive scene-stealing performance if she wasn't stealing scenes even more valuable all through subsequent decade and Nick Ray's flea-bit pocks, er.. pockets. By which I mean the 50s, Asta, the 50s.

Last thing to mention, a really gone (white) Charlie Parker type checks into an alcoholic rest home--one of the first we've seen though they were all the rage in the pages of Chandler. The doctor notes of this suspect that "His mind has been completely shattered by alcohol." As a clearly pre-recorded clarinet solo wails in the background on the rest home grounds, dig the fine line between insanity and just cookin' on yon olde axe.

And compare too the awful ground, only a few feet by some, between the high steppin' livin on 1934's original and 1947's now. Barely 13 years--you took no notice, old VERTIGO redwood slice-- but a whole nation's concept of alcoholism was won and lost as if in an MGM backlot dice game between Charlie Parker and Bing Crosby vs. Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Technicolor Dreamcoat Stalin. And best of all, surprising the hell out of me, Keenan Wynn is their jazzbo mascot, gamely helping shepherd them through the jazz joints like a mix of Johnny Staccato and Charon.

The last image of the entireTHIN MAN series, and maybe my entire life: ASTA sneaking out from under Nick Jr's sheets to not get busted by the Nick and Nora for sleeping in his bed and moving back up through the sheets to the pillows almost immediately as the lights are off.

Positively tha same dog.



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