Nick and Nora Charles
Created by Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)
Nora Charles: "I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids."
-- from The Thin Man (1934 film)
The adventures of Dashiell Hammett's retired private eye NICK CHARLES and his rich, beautiful (and not quite as ditzy as you'd think) wife, NORA, proved to be just what people wanted. They established a formula that film, television and fiction are still trying to duplicate.
Don't believe me? Check out Moonlighting, The Late Show, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, etc... There was even a great send-up on the detective duo in Neil Simon's 1976 Murder By Death, where David Niven and Maggie Smith playing Dickie and Dora Charleston), and in the 1990's there was even a highly-anticipated musical, Nick and Nora. Unfortunately, it flopped, closing after little more than a week's worth of performances.
Originally, Nick (a Greek-American whose father had changed his unpronounceable last name upon his arrival at Ellis Island) served as an ace operative for the Trans-American Detective Agency, but upon marriage to Nora, he retired to a life of leisure, content to manage Nora's rather sizable dowry.
Nick and Nora first appeared in Hammett's 1934 novel (his last, in fact) The Thin Man, and it was filmed and released later that year. Both novel and film were quite popular, although the film was played for far more laughs. Oh, there was humour in the book, and a certain amount of dry wit, some whispers of sex and plenty of drinking, but nothing like the films, which had a field day with the material. Bolstered by a solid script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, actors William Powell and Myrna Loy took the playful interplay between Nick and Nora to a whole new level.
Especially after the films started coming out, folks started assuming (incorrectly) that Nick Charles, as portrayed by Powell, was the Thin Man. In fact, the Thin Man is actually the murder victim in the novel.
Still, that first film was the start of one of the most popular film series of all-time, even if the later films weren't as strong as the first few. 1939's Another Thin Man, the third film in the series, introduced William A. Poulsen as Nick Charles, Jr. and saw the end of Hammett's involvement with the series.
But then, Hammett always seemed to have had a love/hate thing going on with the Charleeses, resenting their popularity even as that popularity no doubt kept the bar tabs paid off for years. After having ground out story treatments for the second and third films, he sold his rights to the Charleses for $40,000 (a couple of million in today's market) and boasted that "Maybe there are better writers in the world but nobody ever invented a more insufferably smug pair of characters. They can't take that away from me, even for $40,000."
A radio show appeared in 1940, with a succession of actors taking on Nick's part, while Claudia Morgan held steadfast and true as Nora. Each week, listeners tuned in to "Pabst Blue Ribbon presents the new adventures of The Thin Man with Nick and Nora Charles, the happiest married couple in radio. Claudia Morgan as Nora and Les Damon as Nick star in tonight's adventure of The Thin Man called "The Adventure of the Passionate Palooka" (or whatever). And each show closed with Nora calling "Good night, Nickeee..." Hammett was supposedly even coaxed into writing several of the scripts to "set" the series.
Parker Fennelly, who often offered comic relief as the sherriff, later became famous on the Fred Allen show and, in the 1960s, became known to another generation as "Pepperidge Farm" spokesman. His Maine accent was unmistakable as he signed off, "At Pepp'ridge Faaahm, we remembah."
There was even an attempt to bring the detecting duo's popularity to television, with Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk playing the Charleses for three seasons, starting in 1957. Light fare, to be sure, but supposedly quite enjoyable, due to the easy-going chemistry between the two stars.
Since then there's been that previously mentioned ill-fated musical, Nick and Nora (1990) and in 2011, it was announced that actor Johnny Depp had expressed a desire to bring Nick and Nora to the big screen once more.
-- Nick's cocktail shaker advice, from the first film
-- Eddie Muller, in Cocktail Noir.
-- Vince Emery, The 14 Best Private Eye Novels of All Time (2012)
Subsequent to the success of MGM's The Thin Man in 1934, the studio hired Hammett to write screen stories, which would be adapted and turned into screenplays by other writers. It kept Hammett in booze money for a while, anyway. They've appeared in various places over the years, and they were finally collected in the 2012 volume Return of the Thin Man.
The two hard-to-find screen stories featuring Nick & Nora Charles, finally collected together.
All six of the Thin Man movies were finally made available on DVD in 2005 in one sweet seven-disc set, featuring The Thin Man, After The Thin Man, Another Thin Man, Shadow of the Thin Man, Song of the Thin Man, and The Thin Man Goes Home, plus a slew of tasty extras, including documentaries, comedy shorts, classic cartoons, a radio show with Powell and Loy and even an episode from the subsequent TV series episode starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.
ALSO OF INTEREST
The original cast recording of the short-lived Broadway show, featuring the vocal talents of Joanna Gleason and Barry Bostwick as Nick and Nora Charles, as well as Christine Baranski, Thom Sesma, Remak Ramsay, Chris Sarandon and Jeff Brooks.
Story of real-life married screenwriting couple Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett who together wrote It's a Wonderful Life, Easter Parade, Father of the Bride, Naughty Marietta, The Diary of Anne Frank and the first three Thin Man movies. Written by their nephew.
The Thin Man movies have become so associated with alcohol that there's even a a cocktail glass named after the heroes of the films. The "Nick and Nora" is actually a pretty basic glass, esentially a 5 or 6 ounce mini-elongated goblet or tulip glass, recommended by Mixology Diary's always fascinating Barware Glasses--Getting Started page, that adds a definite touch of swellegance to any home bar or cocktail joint. It's just the perfect vessel for serving martinis, manhattans, Rob Roys or even the Bronx Cocktail, made famous in the original film, which is essentially a traditional gin and vermouth martini, with orange juice tossed in and shaken, as Nick recommends, to a two-step time. Hell, the Bronx cocktail was voted third in "The World's 10 Most Famous Cocktails in 1934."
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