Monday, May 25, 2009

“By the way…my name is Nick Charles…”

Edward Copeland was kind enough to ask me to contribute an essay to his blog this week, knowing full well that such a decision could result in a great deal of embarrassment and possible ostracization in the cinematic blogosphere. He also suggested that I could cross-post the entry on both of our blogs, and while that’s a mighty tempting proposition for an individual who’s dedicated his life to making laziness the national pastime, I decided to do a companion piece…and here it is:

Seventy-five years ago today—for those of you who keep track of these things…or received a TCM calendar for Christmas— The Thin Man (1934) was released to movie screens; a delightful comedy-mystery that spawned a successful series of six films in total and made stars William Powell and Myrna Loy the celluloid epitome of “the perfect couple.” Based on the best-selling novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man later made a successful transition to radio, a subject I tackled several centuries ago here.

In the 1950s, as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer began to make inroads into television, one of the studio’s earliest offerings was a small-screen version of their popular film franchise—with contract player Peter Lawford in the role essayed by William Powell and the lovely Phyllis Kirk channeling her inner Myrna Loy. The show premiered on NBC on September 20, 1957 and lasted two seasons (totaling 72 episodes) before its cancellation on June 26, 1959—and for a time after that, reruns showed up on the network’s daytime lineup from September 1959 to February 1960.

For the most part, the series concentrated on the sophisticated couple’s misadventures in the world of crime, but there were also a few recurring characters that turned up from time to time. During the show’s run, the Charles’ contact on the police force was alternately played by Stafford Repp (as Lt. Ralph Raines) and Tol Avery (Lt. Steve King) until finally settling down with Jack Albertson (in one of his earliest television showcases) as Lt. Harry Evans (although he was introduced in a first season episode as “Edwards”). By season two, the show featured two of the Charles’ neighbors, Hazel (Patricia Donahue) and Mrs. Dukem (Blanche Sweet)…as well as a beautiful con artist named Beatrice Dane (also known as “Blondie Collins” and played by Nita Talbot) whose presence often raised Nora’s hackles.

A few months back I shrewdly brokered a deal with my chum Rodney Bowcock (proprietor of the late, lamented Comics and Stories blog) to obtain four volumes (four discs each) of this rarely-rerun series…and while I can certainly understand while this program hasn’t been given serious consideration for any kind of DVD release at the present time, that doesn’t make any less entertaining. I took out one of the discs last night and watched four episodes (including the first and second shows in the series) in order to get an idea of program’s overall quality.

The debut episode, “The Dollar Doodle” (09/20/57), is a particularly lackluster affair: an old Vassar classmate (Natalie Norwick) of Nora’s has taken to kleptomania like a duck to water, and Nick gets roped into investigating her odd behavior. As he delves deeper into the case, he learns that her use of the “five finger discount” is directly related to her being blackmailed by a pair of gangster brothers, one of which is played by OTR vet Ken Lynch. If this show was an indication of what was to come—the only bright spots are provided by Roy Glenn as a jazz musician and an uncredited Joe Flynn as a jewelry counter clerk—the series’ future wasn’t going to be particularly rosy, but the second entry, “Duke of Sing Sing” (09/27/57) is a bit more engaging: recently paroled Duke Martin (Robert J. Wilke) is out looking for Nick, and the word on the street is that he’s still holding a grudge (Nick sent him up) and looking to settle the score. Nick has decided to start making regular visits to the gym in order to get back into shape (and also to hold his own in any pummeling in which he might receive) and there’s a particularly funny moment when he pulls up in front of the Charles’ apartment building in a taxi with Asta wearing nothing but his judo “pajamas.”

“Double Jeopardy” (03/14/58) has a similar plot to “Sing Sing”: A thug (played by TDOY fave Edward Binns) is in New York looking to kill Nick, who had the gentleman deported sometime ago. While Nick is held hostage in the apartment by a protective cop (Harry Lauter), Nora keeps an appointment with a client of Nick’s…who’s being impersonated by Binns. But the best of the episodes I watched is “The Departed Doctor” (04/04/58), which finds our sleuthing couple out of their New York element (they’re vacationing in Arizona) and looking for the vanishing medico of the title. Dan “Hoss” Blocker plays a creepy hotel desk clerk and Three Stooges nemesis Kenneth MacDonald a deputy sheriff—but most of the laughs come from Nick and Nora’s attempts to blend in with the locals (introducing herself to a female saloon keeper [Mary Beth Hughes], Nora drawls: “Howdy…folks call me Montana…”).

If you don’t compare the TV version of The Thin Man to any of the six films in the movie series, you’ll pretty much be entertained by these unpretentious half-hours. My only quibble is that while Lawford and Kirk have a wonderful chemistry together, Lawford himself is miscast—his English accent is off-putting, almost like watching Ronald Colman as Nick. I also had to choke back a guffaw at the Charles’ “luxurious” New York apartment which, while certainly not approaching the level of a hovel, is a tad curtailed by the television budget. The Charles’ well-known predilection for strong drink is missing from the series (as is their son, Nick, Jr.) and without the martinis, Nick and Nora are pretty much indistinguishable from Jerry and Pam North.

The only “official” release of The Thin Man TV series is a second season episode entitled “I Loathe You, Darling” (11/21/58), which appears as an extra on the Alias Nick and Nora disc in The Thin Man Collection box set. I watched this one before the Bowcock discs and while it isn’t a bad entry it features Paul Richards as an annoying beatnik type who may be involved in two murders involving young, voluptuous women. (At the risk of spoiling this for everyone, the actual killer is a music publisher…played by The Man Would Be Flintstone, Alan Reed.) I’ve seen Richards in about a gazillion television episodes and not only is he not my particular cup of Earl Grey, watching him “do beatnik” is more painful than usual.

As I was watching the episodes I purchased from Rodney, I spotted a station identification superimposed over one which informed me that the origin of these surprisingly well-preserved Thin Mans (though I’d expect nothing less from Rodney and his partner-in-crime, Martin “The Isaac Asimov of OTR” Grams, Jr.) was KXLI-TV Channel 41 (St. Cloud, MN)/KXLT-TV Channel 47 (Rockford, MN), an independent station that was once known as “TV Heaven” when it showcased reruns like The Phil Silvers Show and Gunsmoke…then it found religion and became a PAX affiliate. (KXLI was the source of some “root peg” Our Miss Brooks episodes I discussed back in 2007.) Here’s a little promo I dug up on YouTube that promotes not only The Thin Man but Get Smart and the Alfred Hitchcock film Torn Curtain (1966):

And now—also through the magic of YouTube—you can decide for yourselves whether or not The Thin Man would be worthy of a DVD release. This first episode, from January 3, 1958, flashes back to the time when Nick and Nora courted each other and first acquired the wire-haired terrier known as Asta:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

And also for your edification, “The Art of Murder” from May 23, 1958 (the episode that introduces Jack Albertson as “Lt. Edwards”:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


Linda said...

I used to watch THE THIN MAN series way back in Rhode Island. I can't even remember which channel showed it...the RI PBS station? Channel 56 from Boston? Nowhere near as good as the movies, but fun for the time, and nice to see Lawford in his pride.

Anonymous said...

Robby the Robot (of Forbidden Planet fame) is featured in one of the Thin Man episodes, and that particular adventure can be found (not surprisingly) as an extra on the Forbidden Planet DVD - Philip Schweier

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Robby the Robot (of Forbidden Planet fame) is featured in one of the Thin Man episodes, and that particular adventure can be found (not surprisingly) as an extra on the Forbidden Planet DVDMy only response to those situations where I have opened my mouth and inserted my foot is "I sit corrected." Thanks for the clarification, Mr. S.

Scott said...

You put your finger on precisely why I've never been curious to see The Thin Man series -- Lawford's accent. The whole point of N&N is to mix the shabby gumshoe Nick, and his retinue of unfashionable and unsavory acquaintances, with the game, yet elegant, refined, and monied Nora. It's hard to imagine Lawford as some unglamorous, keyhole-peeping Continental Op, and impossible to picture him happily sharing his evenings with characters named "Face" and "Creeps." And don't get me started on the absence of constant and public intoxication, which is a deal-breaker all by itself.

Toby O'B said...

I've only seen one 'Thin Man' episode, and that's the Robby the Robot one (with Robert Cornthwaite). I think it may still be available via YouTube, which I saw through the Classic TV Show Business blog.

Had no clue that the 'Thin Man' anniversary was happening but brought along that movie as well as "After The Thin Man" and "Another Thin Man" for my vacation these past two weeks. (One of my co-workers loaned them to me ages ago and I saw this as an opportunity to finally catch up so that he could get them back.)

Another example of my serendipiteevee, movie edition.....

Anonymous said...

You guys, picky picky picky.the tv thin man with Kirk and Lawford was wonderful. Chemistry between them unbelievable. Very entertaining who cares about an accent? Relax and enjoy. I only wish they will release the 72 episodes on DVD soon. Moose