N is for Nick and Nora
It’s really no surprise that Nick and Nora Charles captivated audiences when the sleuthing couple tipsily arrived on screen in 1934 in The Thin Man. Prohibition in America had just recently been repealed; the nation was in the mood for a drink, and Nick and Nora happily imbibed. A lot.
They drink so much it’s a wonder they have time to do any detective work, seeing as they spend much of the film getting sloshed or nursing hangovers. Even their beloved terrier Asta seems on occasion the worse for wear.
Suave William Powell had played a detective before (Philo Vance), and had done some light comedies, but he was generally known for playing villains or smooth-talking cads. Myrna Loy, meanwhile, had played vamps, gypsies, slave-girls, and all manner of exotic lovelies during the Silent Era before graduating to serious parts. The two had been paired in Manhattan Melodrama (the movie John Dillinger went to see before being trapped and shot outside the cinema).
MGM struck gold when they went along with director W.S. Van Hyde’s hunch that the two should be reteamed again, but this time in a comic detective story, The Thin Man. It was such a huge hit that Powell and Loy quickly became MGM’s leading comic pairing of the 1930s, appearing together in a string of light farces marked by elegant clothes, well-appointed homes, and vats of alcohol.
The Thin Man is based on a Dashiell Hammett novel: Nick and Nora Charles are a pair of affluent, sophisticated boozers (the money is hers; he comes out of retirement as a private detective to find an old friend who has gone missing ). In all there were six Thin Man movies even though the thin man in question dies in the first one.
In any event, the case is of little importance. What audiences loved was the witty repartee between the handsome, rich, immaculately dressed couple.
After years in Hollywood, Loy quickly became a star adored by men and women.
She was an adroit and irresistible comedienne, with a dry-martini voice, calm and measured in the two-piece suits and hats that Adrian designed for her – silly hats like saucers cocked over one eye. She was seldom in the kitchen or even by the fireside: perfect wife she may have been, but more for exchanging barbed comments in the Oak Room at the Plaza … her appeal lay in the fact that she was more chic and more sophisticated than any real wife could be.
David Shipman, ‘The Great Movie Stars’
As for Powell, he seemed born to be in white tie and tails, mixing drinks and merrily crossing swords with Loy. For some critics he was too smooth.
Mr Powell is a little too immaculate, his wit is too well-turned just as his clotes are too well-made, he drinks hard but only at the best bars; he is rather like an advertisement of a man-about-town in Esquire, he shares some of the irritating day-dream quality of Lord Peter Wimsey.
Graham Greene on ‘The Thin Man’
Powell and Loy also reprised the roles on radio.
Nick and Nora Charles were revived on TV in the 1950s with Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.
The formula of wealthy sleuthing couple was later rebooted as Hart to Hart.