As the new year approaches I reflect on the last twelve months and gather my hopes for those to come. Unlike most people I also think about The Thin Man, specially about William Powell and Myrna Loy who play Nick and Nora Charles in the memorable six-movie series released between 1934 and 1947.
When I saw that Steve of Movie Movie Blog Blog was hosting The Happy New Year Blogathon I chose to focus on Nick and Nora Charles right off the bat for several reasons, not the least of which is that there are few other people I’d rather celebrate with to close out the year. I rewatched the first two movies in the series, W. S. Van Dyke‘s The Thin Man and After the Thin Man both of which are centered around the holidays, Christmas and New Years to be specific. As I watched these movies I’ve seen many times before I began to think about why Nick and Nora are so enjoyable. Why is it that everything they touch is so entertaining? In trying to answer that I came to the realization that what they have is what everybody should have, a Charles kind of life, the kind of life where quips rule the day and love abounds and friendships glow and no one judges. And so I’ve put together the 10 things we all need in order to celebrate New Year’s like Nick and Nora Charles.
1. The Perfect Union
I begin with the obvious ingredient, the one without which the others would be for naught. This is common sense, but not easily obtained. What you need is a debonaire, detail-oriented husband who is as comfortable in intimate settings as he is in big crowds. This man is aces at feigning surprise, doesn’t mind that his wife gets her own Christmas presents, gets up to make her breakfast and can hold his liquor. AND HOW! The wife is just as important to this union, of course, She has to be beautiful and fashionable and must crinkle her nose on demand. Although Mrs. perfect union comes from high society she doesn’t mind – or rather, is excited by – the prospect of hosting suspected murderers for dinner and doesn’t mind getting her own Christmas gifts on behalf of her husband. As one of the coppers refers to her, Nora’s “a girl with hair on her chest.” Of course, Mr. and Mrs. perfect union must be perfect together, compliment each other and have the same goals in mind. For instance, Mr. and Mrs. Charles are each adept at physical comedy, they excel at fast-talking and self-deprecating humor and good-natured jabs, which are key to keeping things spicy in the marriage, and they both look great in fancy pajamas.
2. A Murder
Under most circumstances murder is grim and painful, but if you want to have a Nick and Nora experience during your New Year’s celebrations then…sorry…someone has to die by suspicious means. There’s just no way to get around that.
As you know, Nick Charles is a former detective who left the business upon marrying Nora. Since her father’s death Nick spends his time balancing drinking, romancing and running her businesses with the latter taking up almost no time at all. In truth, former detective Nick spends a lot of time detecting, trying to figure out who murdering low lives are as dead bodies have a way of falling at his feet. Nick’s talent and stellar reputation for crime detection ensure the police and past associates turn to him for assistance. Due to that the Charles celebration is always centered on crime in some way and there never was another couple who makes the best of the macabre happening. Not only does Nick thrive on solving the puzzles, but Nora is excited by his talent. Needless to say then, a murder is necessary as the driving force behind any and all holiday celebrations. Oh, and it helps if newspapers report the incorrect suspect or details of the crime.
3. Colorful Friends
This one’s simple. If you have no friends called Face, Fingers or Willie the Weeper, find them. There’s no way you can enjoy the festivities without a motley group. In fact, if possible find the establishment where these characters go and spend New Year’s Eve there. You can use the Lychee Club featured in After the Thin Man as a guide. Or…the investigation will lead you to the perfect place. A warning, though – the husband has to be flexible and easy-going enough to ignore remarks about his wife by these character, and the wife has to ignore the comments overall, but it will no doubt be a fun way to bring in the New Year.
4. A Rich, Snooty Family
We know Nora comes from money although she hasn’t a shred of snootiness. Still, her family is as snobbish and judgmental as they get, especially her Aunt Katherine (Jessie Ralph) who can’t even stand Nick. Still, I suggest you add at least a few of these old money types to your celebration. Not only do they provide an important contrast to Nick’s seedy friends, which is sure to add interesting goings on, but also because these rich people provide lots of opportunities for enjoyable fodder between the hosts themselves.
5. A Brilliant Pet
It doesn’t matter if the husband or the wife or both are at the top their game where quips and looks are concerned. The situation will always be improved by an intelligent, funny pet. The Charles are uniquely lucky in that their pet is wire-haired terrier scene-stealer Asta (played by Skippy). Asta is hilarious, has perfect timing and adds oodles to the Charles’ exchanges whether they’re at home relaxing or he accompanies Nick to an investigation. Asta completes the Charles trifecta and it’s doubtful whether another trio comes close to these three in style and grace. I admit, however, that this might be the most difficult of the ten ingredients to obtain, but you will not likely have the same kind of heightened continuous fun if you don’t have your own Asta-esque pet. Consider that this pet must be an integral part of the family, he/she must hide when you expect him/her to attack an intruder, he/she must eat a piece of a clue if the opportunity arises and has he/she to be judgmental like when Nick and/or Nora are not present, Asta supplies the double take.
6. Comebacks at the Ready
I know most of us don’t have writers we can count on to ensure every single word we utter is witty and spot on, but you gotta try. I think that if you are paired with the perfect match this becomes easier. Having a similar sense of humor will help as will all of the other ingredients mentioned in this list. For instance, if you find a partner who is from a completely different world then, as mentioned, that in itself is food for fodder. Here are a few examples of what you should aim for:
Nick Charles: Come on, let’s get something to eat. I’m thirsty.
Reporter: Say listen, is he working on a case?
Nora Charles: Yes, a case of scotch. Pitch in and help him.
Nick Charles: I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora Charles: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.
Nick Charles: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.
Nora Charles: Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?
Since the mood we’re aiming for is comedy with mystery overtones, you’ve got to set up your lighting so that there’s plenty of shadow to enhance the drama. Mr. Charles is often encased in shadow himself thanks to his detecting interests, but you can set up the “whodunnit” mood and ensure the colorful characters previously mentioned feel at home. For instance, shadows in stripes on a wall to mock a jail cell might do the trick. Or, you can give flashlights as party favors and not turn on lights at all. You can use The Thin Man as your guide, but know that the bar is set quite high by a master of noir lighting, James Wong Howe.
8. Dim Policemen
Part of the fun in The Thin Man is supplied by the great Nat Pendleton who plays Lt. John Guild who’s in charge of the murder investigation. As Guild, Pendleton is not the brightest bulb in the deck – or however that goes. Guild brings Nick into the investigation semi-officially, which highlights just how talented Mr. Charles actually is. Lt. Guild is usually days behind the now retired investigator and he even goes by the papers for facts about his own case. In the final dinner scene where all of the suspects are invited, Lt. Guild is as in the dark as the rest of the guests, which is fun in itself. All you need to do in this case is make sure than one or two of the dumber people you know surround you during these celebratory times. Dumb people tend to be happy and the fact that they automatically give the host a sense of superiority can’t hurt.
9. A Gathering
There’s hardly a reason for any of these ingredients to come together unless there’s a final gathering to look forward to. Mr. and Mrs. Charles always bring together the motley crew for a get-together during which Nick shows off his superiority with flare. Nora assists with perfectly timed comments and fashionable, if snooty looks of her own to add to the festivities. The surrounding must be of the highest order with just a touch of street-level guise coupled with the air of mystery.
10. A Train
Nick and Nora take trains between destinations (and after both the Christmas and New Years celebrations) and I think everyone else should too. I get that the Thin Man stories were produced many decades ago when travel on trains was necessary and in vogue, but man, after a good old-fashioned party where your colorful friends are drunk and mingling with your snooty relatives I can think of no better way to unwind. Not to mention that the likelihood that the close quarters will make Mr. and Mrs. perfect union even more perfect is high. Then there are the close quarters, which will no doubt help in the laughs department with your intelligent pet in tow. If you’ve paid attention and have secured every single ingredient mentioned here then Mr. and Mrs. perfect union will remain fashionable, blissful, will be able to laugh about her snooty family and his colorful friends, and there will no doubt be some mystery just around the corner.
Be sure to visit Movie Movie Blog Blog and The Happy New Year Blogathon. Then go off and enjoy life like the Charles. Here’s hoping you and yours have a happy and healthy 2018.