Stuff to know: Nick & Nora

True story: A young writer was in a meet-and-greet with a very smart, very talented junior exec.  (Yes, they exist.)  The subject of pets came up.  The exec had two cats, named Nick and Nora.  The writer had absolutely no idea how significant those names were.  Hardly a deal-breaker, but it would have been a great opportunity to show off some knowledge of studio film history.

Do you know Nick & Nora?  You should.  They’re the star couple behind The Thin Man franchise, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.  Nick Charles is a cocktail-loving ex-Pinkerton.  (Some credit the Pinkerton logo and their ominous motto, “We Never Sleep,” as the basis for the moniker “private eye,” but this is up for debate…)  Nick’s got a slew of underworld contacts and is still close to his cop pals.  But as the story opens, he’s retired from all that, and married to Nora, an heiress.  Naturally, a case comes up that only Nick can solve, and only with help from Nora, who is far more excited about the prospect of some excitement and danger than her husband.

The initial adaptation was a monster hit for Warners in 1934, and spawned a hugely popular series of films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, whose chemistry together is a big part of what drives the narrative.  The first movie is a must-see, and the sequel, After the Thin Man–which features a very young Jimmy Stewart–is worth watching, as well.

Up to this point, the crime genre was mostly of the hardboiled variety, as in famous gangster films like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy.  By contrast, The Thin Man films were fun and charming, with artful banter between the leads, a bit of action to keep the story rolling, and a peek at Nick’s new upper-crust lifestyle.

Keep in mind that these movies came out during the Great Depression, and showed a reverse Cinderella story: a streetwise tough guy landing a rich wife and living it up.  They got a lot of mileage from trotting out Nick’s underworld cohorts and dropping them into high society.  These are great lessons to keep in mind.  Not only is there the opposites-attract principal as applied to the leads, but it then reverberates across most everyone in the story.  It makes for memorable characters and memorable moments.  The formula was so successful that it was revived for radio, television, and remakes.

We should all be so lucky…

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