Sunday, May 17, 2009

Q&A with Charles Tranberg on The Thin Man

1) This is the first of our film series books. Why did you choose "The Thin Man" over some of the other film series?

Many of the film series of the ‘30s and ‘40s were wonderful and a lot of fun - THE SAINT, BLONDIE, CHARLIE CHAN, SHERLOCK HOLMES, the list goes on and on - but in my mind the classiest of them all were the THIN MAN films with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Many of the film series were produced by the studios’ "B" units. THE THIN MAN films were given "A" budgets by MGM and had two big stars in them and the best of the character actors. Unlike some of the other film series (like BLONDIE), which would produce four or five entries per year, THE THIN MAN films came out every 2-3 years.

There was anticipation for these films by their fans. If Myrna Loy had her way, though, it would have been longer. She didn't want to work in films at all during the war because she wanted to devote herself to Red Cross work. But MGM was under public pressure for a THIN MAN film and in the end, between the studio and probably Bill Powell, they persuaded her to come back in 1944 to do THE THIN MAN GOES HOME. My guess is that they persuaded her by telling her what a great gift it would be for the country at a time of war to have a break from all the war news for an hour and a half to enjoy Nick and Nora. As a side note, MGM seriously considered replacing Myrna during that time as Nora and went as far as to consider such actresses as Irene Dunne, Marsha Hunt and even Lucille Ball. But they were wise enough to eventually understand that the public would never accept anybody except Myrna as Nora.

2) Powell and Loy had perfect chemistry. How did they come to be cast in THE THIN MAN?

We can thank a wonderful and woefully neglected director named Woodridge Strong Van Dyke, better known as Woody, for teaming them. Van Dyke was really an early booster of Myrna Loy. He put her in a picture called PENTHOUSE, where she was able to be something other than a villain or femme fatale which many of her earlier films cast her as. He saw her, really, as the all-American girl. Following PENTHOUSE, he told MGM to stop misusing her and give her roles which emphasized her humor and down-to-earth presence.

Well, Van Dyke was assigned to direct a Gable picture called MANHATTAN MELODRAMA. Gable played a criminal and Bill Powell was loaned out from Warner Brothers to play the district attorney and they were boyhood friends. That story has been filmed numerous times. Myrna was cast as the girl who comes between them. The picture is fine, but it really crackles when Bill and Myrna share the screen. Their first scene together, sharing a taxi, is worth the price of admission and Van Dyke saw the immediate chemistry between them and felt that they would be perfect as Nick and Nora Charles in the THIN MAN film he would be directing next.

By the way, Van Dyke was known as "One-take Woody" because he liked to print the first take. He felt that the actors were more relaxed on the first couple of takes and if you kept redoing a scene, it would lose its spontaneity. It worked for him because he directed some wonderful pictures. In addition to the first four THIN MAN films, he directed TRADER HORN, TARZAN, THE APE MAN, ROSE MARIE, SAN FRANCISCO, and a wonderful little picture called JOURNEY FOR MARGARET, which made a star out of Margaret O'Brien.

3) You mentioned some of the great character actors to appear in THE THIN MAN films, but didn't some future stars appear in them as well early in their careers?

Yes, and the most famous, of course, is Jimmy Stewart, who appeared in the second film, AFTER THE THIN MAN. And he is really quite good in that film. He already had a natural appeal in front of the camera. The other two stars to emerge were Donna Reed, who appears in SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN, and Gloria Grahame, who is in the final film, SONG OF THE THIN MAN.

But those great character actors truly add a lot of color to the films. One of the things I'm happy I did with this book was to include career profiles of the great character actors who appeared in the films. I do complete chapters on William Powell and Myrna Loy and then each of the films gets a separate chapter and within those chapters I profile many of the character actors in that particular film. It isn't just a small profile, either. I don't think anybody gets less than a page devoted to them and several of them, like Maureen O'Sullivan, Cesar Romero, Keenan Wynn, Dean Stockwell, Porter Hall, Marjorie Main, Edward Brophy, Sam Levene, get 2 or 3 or more pages devoted to their careers.

4) What else does your book include?

I also profile the creative people behind the pictures, such as the directors, writers, the creator of the THIN MAN, Dash Hammett, and even cinematographers Jimmy Howe Wong and Karl Freund. I think they are just as responsible for the quality of the films as the actors and deserve their due. I also provide a back story on each film, which includes trivia and how the film got put together, and fun little anecdotes on each film. I also give contemporary reviews of the films as they appeared not only in the New York Times or Variety, but in smaller papers from around the country as well. I do give synopses of the films, along with some of the witty dialog, but I do not give away the endings; I don't tell the reader "whodunit," as I want them to watch the films and experience that for themselves if they have never seen the films before or if it has been a while and they can't quite recall who the murderer was.

5) Do you have a favorite THIN MAN film?

They are all wonderful. The last one holds up well, in my opinion, and it was made 12 years after the first. But, all in all, I think the wittiest is the first film, the funniest is the second film, AFTER THE THIN MAN. The first twenty minutes of that picture are pure comedy -- wonderfully played by two of the best, Bill Powell and Myrna Loy. In some ways, the best mystery is in the third picture, ANOTHER THIN MAN. I think the four directed by Woody Van Dyke are probably the best, especially the first three, which were written by married screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who put a lot of their own relationship into the pictures, I think. Woody Van Dyke, when he discussed the script of the first THIN MAN film with the Hacketts, said to them, "Just give me five good scenes between Nick and Nora" - and they did! And it is that chemistry between the stars which makes the films so memorable, even today.

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