During the Great Depression, Hollywood offered two primary forms of escapism for the poor and weary: propulsive crime dramas and glamorous fantasies about the rich and star-crossed. A few movies blended both genres, though none as successfully as MGM's hit series about Nick and Nora Charles. Dashiell Hammett's final novel, The Thin Man, introduced them as an oddball couple: he a hard-drinking but natty former cop and brilliant celebrity detective, and she as his pampered but game society bride, fascinated with his work and perpetually trying to get involved. The 1934 screen adaptation The Thin Man was the first of William Powell and Myrna Loy's six Nick and Nora films, all of which are gathered in the seven-disc box set The Complete Thin Man Collection. The filmmaking teams and the tone changed over 13 years, but Powell and Loy's light, witty, unflappable characterizations became the unwavering backbone of a terrific series.
The films never address how the characters met or married; The Thin Man opens with them recently wed and well into a routine of light banter and playful one-upmanship. Everywhere Powell goes, cops and lowlife riff-raff alike jostle to shake his hand and ask if he's on a case, but he insists he's retiring to manage his wife's money. Still, when his old acquaintance Edward Ellis disappears, Powell gets dragged into an extremely twisty murder mystery closely involving Ellis' large, fractious family. Protesting all the while, Powell solves the case, though his casually insightful gumshoeing takes a back seat to red herrings and repartee, as he and Loy lounge in stylish settings and costumes, slug back booze, needle each other, and watch their talented terrier Asta react to it all. Eventually, they gather the suspects for a hilariously dysfunctional fancy dinner party where cops hold the twitchy suspects in check while Powell unmasks the killer.
The film's breakout success cleared the way for director W.S. Van Dyke to helm three more sequels, all of which aped the original's title and story, reducing it to a formula of screwball dialogue, dizzyingly complicated crime setups, comedy setpieces with Asta (or later, the Charles' son, Nick Jr.), frequent liquor jokes, and ultimately, a climax in which all the remaining characters are gathered so Powell can implicate almost everyone before revealing the killer, who confesses, then whips out a gun. By the series' fifth installment, even the characters have caught on to the pattern, which Loy spells out in detail; when Powell suggests the police take the suspects' weapons, she even protests that he's deviating from formula by precluding a shootout.
Of the Van Dyke films, After The Thin Man (1936) makes the most of that formula by setting Powell's razor tongue free on Loy's pompous, overprivileged relatives, who sneer at him but still beg him to find a runaway family member before the scandal hits the papers. Jimmy Stewart makes a striking early-career appearance. Another Thin Man (1939) takes a more serious turn, with Powell, Loy, and their newborn son visiting Loy's embattled business manager, C. Aubrey Smith. For the first time, the formula feels strained, due to excessive baby/dog humor and not enough Powell/Loy interaction. The Van Dyke era ended with 1941's significantly livelier, lighter Shadow Of The Thin Man, in which murder follows Powell and Loy to the horse-track.
Van Dyke committed suicide in 1943, but the series continued two years later with The Thin Man Goes Home, directed by MGM workhorse Richard Thorpe. Due to wartime liquor rationing, this installment had Powell swearing off booze while visiting his small-town folks. The banter runs thinner, the tension ebbs, and the stakes are lower than usual, but the film mines comic gold out of the skeleton-filled closets of Powell's wholesome hometown. And in 1947, MGM squeezed out one last installment, the tepid Song Of The Thin Man, which needlessly "modernizes" the series' scintillating '30s style. Dragged through bebop parties in search of a bandleader's killer, Powell and Loy are barraged with hepcat slang and derided as squares, and for the first time, they enter environments where they seem uncomfortable and self-conscious. It's a sad and belittling end for two characters whose unbreakable insouciance became such a winning trademark.
The Complete Thin Man Collection is packed with features, from MGM shorts, cartoons, and trailers to an awful installment of the late-'50s Thin Man TV series to gushy bio featurettes on Powell and Loy. What it mostly lacks is liner notes, or an attempt to put the films into any historical Hollywood context. But in spite of diminishing returns, the set would be a terrific bargain with no extras at all. Powell and Loy don't need explanation: Through 14 films together over two decades, they were a screen team who spoke for themselves, usually cleverly and with unforgettable charm, aplomb, and zest.