THE COMPLETE THIN MAN COLLECTION (1934-1947). We tend to think of sequels as a modern innovation, but the truth is that Hollywood's been fond of them almost from the start. The 1930s were packed with all manner of long-running film franchises: Tarzan, Andy Hardy and Bulldog Drummond were just some of the familiar characters who enjoyed enduring popularity with audiences of the day. Among the most successful of the bunch was the Thin Man series, with its enticing mix of comedy and mystery and a screen couple so compatible that they were repeatedly paired in other projects as well.
The Thin Man (1934), based on Dashiell Hammett's novel, introduces us to happily married couple Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) and their dog Asta. Nick's a former detective (and ladies' man) who has settled down with heiress Nora and her money; he's content drinking himself into oblivion, but when the father of a former acquaintance (Maureen O'Sullivan) appears to be mixed up in murder, Nick (prodded by Nora) reluctantly agrees to crack the case. A major box office hit and the recipient of four Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), the movie clicks on all cylinders: deft direction, sharp dialogue, a compelling mystery and, most importantly, beautiful chemistry between its two elegant leads.
After the Thin Man (1936) finds the jet-setting pair visiting Nora's family, several of whose members can't stand the wisecracking Nick. But when it appears that Nora's cousin (Elissa Landi) has cold-bloodedly gunned down her no-good husband, it's up to Nick to ferret out the real killer from among a wide range of suspects (including one played by a young James Stewart). The movie gets a lot of mileage out of comic bits that would prove to be recurring gags throughout the series, including Nick's insatiable boozing and his reunions with crooks that he had once sent to jail (all of whom admire him too much to hold a grudge!). The film concludes with the announcement of Nora's pregnancy, which leads directly to...
Another Thin Man (1939), which finds the couple now with an infant (Nick Jr.) in their care. This time, Nick and Nora travel to the estate of a business associate (C. Audrey Smith); when the old man turns up dead, everyone's a suspect, including Nick. As in the first two films, the mystery holds together and leads to the unmasking of a killer whose identity will catch many off-guard -- a far cry from today's crop, in which the climactic plot twists can be figured out within the first 30 minutes (Twisted, Hide and Seek, Secret Window, etc.). This entry benefits from a strong supporting cast, including an unbilled Shemp Howard (later of The Three Stooges) as a bumbling ex-con.
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) switches the action to the race tracks, where Nick and Nora investigate the slaying of a crooked jockey. The comedy quotient and mystery angle are still humming, and it's a kick to see rising star Donna Reed and legendary acting coach Stella Adler in supporting parts. But the elements that would eventually help cripple the franchise become more prominent. The addition of Nick Jr. proves to be an unnecessary distraction, while Asta the dog (who emerged as a star in his own right) has started earning too much solo screen time for his "cute" antics -- he's the equivalent of Cheeta the chimp from the Tarzan films, only not half as funny or interesting.
The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) finds Nick and Nora returning to his small hometown to visit his folks (Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport). Nick's arrival triggers panic among the burg's less scrupulous characters (everyone assumes he's in town working on a case), and this in turn leads to the murder of a local artist. The movie's an agreeable lark, if not especially distinguished.
The series ends with a thud thanks to Song of the Thin Man (1947), a lumbering and occasionally embarrassing swan song in which Nick and Nora try to pick up the hip jazz lingo of the era as they investigate the murder of a bandleader. Nick Jr. is now played by 11-year-old Dean Stockwell, and Gloria Grahame appears in one of her patented femme fatale roles -- beyond these Trivial Pursuit asides, there's not much to recommend. You know the series has abandoned its roots when Nick opts for coffee over alcohol!
DVD extras on the various discs include cartoons, comedy shorts and theatrical trailers. The boxed set also includes a seventh disc that features documentaries on Powell and Loy, an audio presentation of The Thin Man radio show (with the original stars) and an episode of the short-lived TV spin-off (1957-1959) starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.
The Thin Man: *** 1/2
After the Thin Man: *** 1/2
Another Thin Man: *** 1/2
Shadow of the Thin Man: ***
The Thin Man Goes Home: ** 1/2
Song of the Thin Man: **