Revisiting The Thin Man: The Class, The Wit, the Style

The Thin Man, 1934. MGM

 
The Thin Man is the kind of film you get lost in. Because it’s a class act. “Its fresh dialogue, witty situations, and tricky turns of fate perfectly captured the martini era.” But it’s not the plot, a fine concoction of screwball comedy and detective story, that gets your upper interest, but the characters. Nick and Nora Charles, played by William Powell and Myrna Loy, are a sophisticated couple, pretty much equal, resolutely independent but who feel so much better together. They are married, and they are funny and fun to be around. The Charles showed, for the first time on screen, that life could be like that within marriage. “Humour, patience and the sexiest sparkle of perpetual courtship”, is how it was best described in the documentary Myrna Loy: So Nice to Come Home to. “Of course, a little danger helps, too.”

Based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man, directed by W.S. Van Dyke, was the first in a series of six films with William Powell and Myrna Loy in the leading roles. They starred in ten more movies together, the most prolific partnership in the history of cinema. “We weren’t acting, we were just two people in perfect harmony,” William Powell described their perfect compatibility on screen, especially in The Thin Man. William Powell had a very attractive screen persona and infused his roles with a sure sense of purpose and innate elegance. Witty, sophisticated and debonair, he knew how to dress and how to carry himself. And we just have to watch him as detective Nick Charles, sharp, charming, and always with a drink, often a dry martini, in his hand, to realise that there is more to attraction than looks. His attraction came from the way he projected that wit, style, and self-confidence. An Oleg Cassini quote comes to mind: “You must have manners of the heart.”
 

The Thin Man, 1934. MGM. Myrna Loy is wearing a black coat with a voluminous
dark fur collar and cuffs, with lace jabot, designed by Dolly Tree.

 
And if Cary Grant was the Last Gentleman, as Richard Torregrossa concluded in our interview, William Powell was most certainly one of his companions back in the day. “Style is as much about the inner as well as the impeccable persona. In business as well as in his personal life, manners were important. So was a high standard of quality in all things and a fairness towards others. I think we’ve lost that today.” No detail was unimportant for William Powell either, not a button nor a tie clasp, yet everything was understated.

The way you dress is one of the first things people notice about you, so why not present yourself to the world in the best possible way? I think we’ve lost that today, too. The sartorial part is one of the great appeals of The Thin Man. And it was the suit, a well crafted suit – with a clean, unobtrusive cut, accentuated only by a casually folded breast-pocket handkerchief and one half of inch of shirt cuffs extended from his jacket sleeves – that best expressed the kind of man that William Powell was. The suit was also, most probably, provided by Powell himself, as for much of the classic Hollywood era, male actors were expected to supply their own costumes. People should keep watching William Powell, not for following those exact dressing rules in the present, but for appreciating good manners, a firm shake of hands and a natural sense of style, and for learning from a man who “dignified his profession by striving for perfection without pretention”, as Michael York brilliantly put it.

And that can apply to both his work and style. In The Thin Man, the humour and the prodigious drinking may seem to prevail over any other kind of action, but just then, when you least expect it, William Powell so effortlessly springs from light-headedness to active sobriety and professional skill in an instant. He’s not into it just for the fun of it. He is always processing what’s happening with great restraint, while balancing the act of having no restraint in drinking. Are you familiar with the anthology of essays and articles from the early golden age of the Gatsby, beautifully titled Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, and Swells, showcasing great writers in search of how to live well in a changing era? Well, William Powell seems like a character in search of how to live well in a changing era.
 
 

“I never enjoyed my work more than when I worked with
William Powell. He was a brilliant actor, a delightful companion,
a great friend, and, above all, a true gentleman.”

Myrna Loy

 
 

The Thin Man, 1934. MGM

 
It wasn’t just the believable romanticism of Nick and Nora Charles that was novelty to the silver screen in the 1930s, but Myrna Loy herself. This is how Richard Schickel rounds up her portrait in the aforementioned documentary: “She was something new in the movies. She wasn’t a vamp, a vixen or a victim. She wasn’t a screwball, and she wasn’t a siren. She was, of all things to find in the movies in those days, a grown-up woman. Shrewd without being sharp, funny without being silly, decorous without being stuffy, and sexy but in the subtlest, loveliest ways. She represented the distilled essence of her own character.” As Nora Charles, Myrna was radiant, smart, beautiful and wisecracking, fun to be with, and so nice to come home to. It’s easy to believe that she didn’t change her manner at the close of the working day.
 

The Thin Man, 1934. MGM

 
As a Hollywood star, Myrna played a dual role: as the movie star the studios had created and as the character in the movies. Her costumes had to fit both the personality of the actress and the role. Myrna’s wardrobe is downright fabulous in The Thin Man and I am surprised that it has been so overlooked over time, just as the work of the designer responsible for it, Dolly Tree. Born in England, Tree was an illustrator, actress and costume designer, first for the English stage during the ’20s, then as the first woman to design for the Folies Bergère, and, finally, as one of Hollywood’s major screen designers who dressed the likes of Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Rosalind Russell and Judy Garland. Before the process of film costume began in the 1920s, actresses wore their own clothes on screen, just as actors still did in the 1930s. But by the late 1920s, every major studio had a designer and a wardrobe department. Dolly Tree worked for Fox Studios at first, then moved to MGM (1931-1942), where she was one of the studio’s top designers, alongside Adrian.

Film costume has a certain goal and culture, but in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the primordial elements were timelessness, vivacity and glamour, without forgoing the synergy of costume, character and individual star. “Hollywood films of the 1930s have that timelessness, perpetually in style whenever glamour is wanted,” as Christian Esquevin notes in Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label.

One particular dress in Nora’s wardrobe – a classic 1930s bias cut evening gown in stripped chiffon in cascading ruffles and layers – is a show-stopper and incredibly modern. The underlayer stripes go in the opposite direction creating a checked look and a beautiful visual impact, especially if you watch how it moves in the film. The rest of the wardrobe is glamorous, yet not cluttered with fussy detail, and the most suggestive example for that is the black cire sheath evening dress. Dressed in Dolly Tree’s costumes made Myrna’s image on screen very relatable and her clothes accessible to many. Myrna Loy admitted that Dolly Tree had “a greater affinity to her own taste for simplicity and modernism,” as stated by Gary Chapman in the book Dolly Tree: A Dream of Beauty, and she considered Adrian “a little more flamboyant and theatrical, a style that would not have been perfect.”

But beyond the glamour, there is something else that stands out: it’s the easy elegance, spontaneity and liveliness, an authentic spirit and the worldliness of the wearer.
 

The Thin Man, 1934. MGM
Myrna Loy is wearing the black cire sheath evening dress designed by Dolly Tree.

 
 
Nick: “Have you got a nice evening gown?”

Nora: “Yes, I’ve got a lulu.” (referring to the black sheath dress in the image above)

Dressing up was a serious affair, even in the intimacy of your home.
 
 

The Thin Man, 1934. MGM

 

Editorial sources: Dolly Tree, A Dream of Beauty, by Gary Chapman / The documentaries “William Powell: A True Gentleman” and “Myrna Loy: So Nice to Come Home to” / Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label, by Christian Esquevin / Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, and Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair, edited by Graydon Carter

 

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