This has always been one of our favorite films. We probably watch it at least twice every year, not only as a longstanding part of our Christmas cinema catalog but any time we want a fast-paced, witty film to lift our spirits. Nick, Nora and Asta never grow old, and W.S. Van Dyke’s direction is fresh and nearly perfect. Every scene advances the plot, except for the Christmas morning scene with Nick in his pajamas shooting out balloons on the Christmas tree with his toy rifle and Nora stewing in her new fur coat. This improvised episode helps demonstrate the rich relationship between this husband and wife that gives the whole Thin Man series its abiding interest.
Clyde Wynant is planning to leave town to work on a new invention, not letting anyone know where he is going but promising his daughter to be home before Christmas in time for her wedding. Before leaving he realizes that his mistress and someone else have been stealing money from him. Three months later, on Christmas Eve, retired detective Nick Charles and his rich wife, Nora, are in New York for the holidays when Wynant’s daughter asks Nick to find her missing father. Two murders quickly follow: Wynant’s mistress and a thug who was blackmailing her murderer. The evidence points to the vengeful Wynant, but when a third body shows up Nick, working with the police, stages a post-Christmas dinner party to expose the real murderer.
NEW YORK CONNECTION
Nick and Nora are visiting New York for Christmas, but there are no true Manhattan exterior shots. There is a gritty New York vibe to the whole movie, and it ends on board a train (a nice companion to Lady on a Train) as Nick and Nora head back to California.
The main action of the movie opens on Christmas Eve, and there are extended scenes of decorating the tree while nursing a hangover, a boisterous Christmas Eve party in the hotel suite, and the hilarious Christmas morning with the array of gifts: Nick’s toy gun, Nora’s fur coat and Asta’s fireplug.
Pat Flaherty has a short, silent role as the young prize fighter at the Christmas Eve party in the Charles’s hotel suite. Before his lengthy career as a character actor, Flaherty had served in the military in World War I, played minor-league baseball, and played professional football. In 1929, before beginning his Hollywood career, he married Dorothea X. Fugazy, the daughter of a famed boxing promoter, so there was a bit of typecasting in this role.
Edward Brophy, who plays the small-time gangster Morelli, appears in several films on our Christmas in New York watchlist, including Larceny, Inc. (1942) and It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947).
Maureen O’Sullivan, who plays the daughter, Dorothy Wynant, had already had her most famous role as Jane in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) when she made The Thin Man (1934). She had a long career including roles in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races (1937) and Laurence Olivier’s Pride and Prejudice (1940).
Nat Pendleton, who plays Lieutenant Gill, had a long Hollywood career, often as a bumbling policeman. He appeared in It’s a Wonderful World (1939), played strong man Eugene Sandow in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) — which also starred William Powell and Myrna Loy — and the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers (1932).
Minna Gombell, who plays Wynant’s first wife, Mimi, appeared in the original version of The Lemon Drop Kid (1934), High Sierra (1941), and as queen of beggars in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Perhaps her best-known later role is as Mrs. Parrish in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
Porter Hall, who plays the lawyer Herbert Macaulay, will show up in another film on our Christmas in NYC list: Miracle on 34th Street (1947). He also had roles in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941).
Harold Huber, who plays the stool pigeon Nunheim, had roles in Beau Geste (1939), The Good Earth (1937) and Reckless (1935), which also featured William Powell as well as Powell’s future fiancé, Jean Harlow.
Cesar Romero, who plays Chris Jorgenson, had a long Hollywood career, including two Shirley Temple films — Wee Willie Winkie (1937) and The Little Princess (1939) — and Ocean’s 11 (1960). His best-known role was perhaps as The Joker in the Batman TV series.
Edward Ellis, who plays “the thin man” Clyde Wyant, appeared in such films as the dark tragedy I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and the Shirley Temple musical Little Miss Broadway (1938).
Cyril Thornton, who plays the bookkeeper Tanner, was D.B. Norton’s butler in Meet John Doe (1940), which is one of our Christmas cinema essentials.
Asta appeared in nearly a dozen films, including two Cary Grant screwball classics: The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). He also appeared briefly with William Powell in the Philo Vance mystery The Kennel Murder Case (1933). And, of course, he was a key part of the whole six-film Thin Man series.
Cesar Romero was a dancer in New York early in his career and appeared at a supper hour dance during a ballroom benefit at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for the Junior League on January 20, 1928. Fred Astaire, along with many other Broadway stars (including George Gershwin), attended the benefit.
Harold Huber appeared in Astaire’s film Let’s Dance (1950).
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
William Powell, Myrna Loy and Asta! Christmas in New York!
WHAT WE NOTICED THIS TIME
Wonderful cinematography by James Wong Howe. Amazing camera angles in several scenes (love the low shot in the bar when we first meet Nick and Nora) and delicious use of shadows. He will be behind the camera in another of our Christmas in New York films: Bell, Book and Candle (1957).