Nick and Nora Charles

Created by Dashiell Hammett
(1894-1961)

Nora: “I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.”
Nick: “Not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”
— from The Thin Man (1934 film)

The glitzy 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 caught up in the Great Depression wanted. The debut in Hammett’s 1934 novel, The Thin Man, established a formula that film, television and fiction are still trying to duplicate.

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 heiress Nora, he retired to a life of leisure, content to manage Nora’s rather sizable dowry.

FILMS

The 1934 book was an instant bestseller, and a film version from MGM, The Thin Man, soon followed later that same 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. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, and bolstered by a solid, whip smart script by real life couple Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the chemistry between actors William Powell and Myrna Loy took the book’s playful interplay between Nick and Nora to a whole new level.

After The Thin Man followed in 1936, with Jimmy Stewart added to the mix. It was followed Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) and Song of the Thin Man (1947).

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 franchises of all time, even if the later films (significantly the ones not scripted by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett) 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 beginning of Nora’s descent into domestic ditzyness, and 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 negligible 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.”

Still, Hammett or no, Nick and Nora’s popularity continued, and soon spread to other media.

RADIO

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.”

TELEVISION

There was even an attempt to bring the detecting duo’s popularity to television in 1957, with Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk playing the Charleses for two seasons, starting in 1957. Light fare, to be sure, but I’ve heard people argue that it was quite enjoyable, due to the easy-going chemistry between the two stars, while others have chided it for being superficial fluff, that missed out completely on the charm or wit of its source material, and was slightly better than Mr. and Mrs. North, an obvious clone.

But Nick and Nora’s influence, and the romantic idea of a mismatched couple solving crimes together while swapping banter continues to spread to this day, be it on television (Moonlighting, The Late Show), film (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Murder By Death) or even on stage (1990’s highly-anticipated musical, Nick and Nora). As recently as 2011,  Johnny Depp had expressed a desire to bring Nick and Nora to the big screen once more.

Of course, Hammett was also the creator of Sam Spade, Brad Runyon (The Fat Man), The Continental Op, Robin Thin and a slew of others.

THE EVIDENCE

  • “The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. A Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.”
    — Nick‘s cocktail shaker advice, from the first film

UNDER OATH

  • “Nobody made getting loaded look more glamorous.”
    — Eddie Muller, in Cocktail Noir.
  • “If you want to skim its surface, this is a fun read. But for those who look beneath, this book has hidden depths. Donald Westlake said it well: “When I was fourteen or fifteen I read Hammett’s The Thin Man (the first Hammett I’d read) and it was a defining moment. It was a sad, lonely, lost book, that pretended to be cheerful and aware and full of good fellowship, and I hadn’t known you could do that: seem to be telling this, but really telling that: three-dimensional writing, like three-dimensional chess. Nabokov was the other master of that.” A book I reread at least once every year.”
    — Vince Emery, The 14 Best Private Eye Novels of All Time (2012)

NOVELS

SCREEN STORIES

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 awhile, anyway. They’ve appeared in various places over the years, and they were finally collected in the 2012 volume Return of the Thin Man (below)

  • “After The Thin Man, Parts 1 and 2” (1986, The New Black Mask, Nos. 5 and 6)
  • “Another Thin Man” (2012, Return of the Thin Man)

COLLECTIONS

  • Return of the Thin Man (2012) Buy this book Kindle it!
    The two hard-to-find Hammett-penned screen stories featuring Nick & Nora Charles.

FILM

  • THE THIN MAN Buy this DVD | Buy this Blu-Ray Watch it now!
    (1934, MGM)
    Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
    Screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
    Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
    Producer: Hunt Stromberg
    Starring William Powell as NICK CHARLES
    and Myrna Loy as NORA CHARLES
    Also starring Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Minna Gombell, Cesar Romero, Natalie Moorhead, Edward Ellis, Porter Hall, Henry Wadsworth
    It was made on a budget of $250,000 and had a shooting schedule of just sixteen days, appearing less than six months after the book made its debut. MGM didn’t have big hopes for it, but it went on to be one of the top grossing films of the year, spawned five sequels and was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (William Powell), Best Director (W.S. Van Dyke) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • AFTER THE THIN MAN | Buy this video Buy this DVD Watch it now!
    (1936, MGM)
    Based on an original story by Dashiell Hammett
    Screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
    Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
    Producer: Hunt Stromberg
    Starring William Powell as NICK CHARLES
    and Myrna Loy as NORA CHARLES
    Also starring Jimmy Stewart, Joseph Callelia, Elissa Landi, Jessie Ralph, Alan Marshall, Asta
  • ANOTHER THIN MAN Buy this video Buy this DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
    (1939, MGM)
    Based on an original story by Dashiell Hammett
    Screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
    Directed by by W.S. Van Dyke
    Producer: Hunt Stromberg
    Starring William Powell as NICK CHARLES
    and Myrna Loy as NORA CHARLES
    Also starring William A. Poulsen, Virginia Grey, Otto Kruger, C. Aubrey Smith, Ruth Hussey, Nat Pendleton, Patric Knowles, Tom Neal, Asta
  • SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN Buy this videoBuy this DVD  Watch it now!
    (1941, MGM)
    Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett
    Story by Harry Kurnitz
    Screenplay by Irving Kurnitz and Harry Kurnitz
    Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
    Starring William Powell as NICK CHARLES
    and Myrna Loy as NORA CHARLES
    Also starring Barry Nelson, Donna Reed, Sam Levene, Alan Baxter
    Screenwriters Goodrich and Hackett are gone, and so is much of the sharpness and wit, while Nora gets denigrated to ditz.
  • THE THIN MAN GOES HOME | Buy this video Buy this DVD Watch it now!
    (1944, MGM)
    Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett
    Story by Robert Riskin and Harry Kurnitz
    Screenplay by Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor
    Directed by Richard Thorpe
    Starring William Powell as NICK CHARLES
    and Myrna Loy as NORA CHARLES
    Also starring Lucile Watson, Harry DavenportGloria DeHaven, Anne Revere, Helen Vinson, Leon Ames, Donald Meek, Edward Brophy
  • SONG OF THE THIN MAN | Buy this video  Buy this DVD  Watch it now!
    (1947, MGM)
    Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett
    Story by Stanley Roberts
    Screenplay by Steve Fisher and Nat Perrin
    Additional dialogue by James O’Hanlon and Harry Crane
    Directed by Edward Buzzel
    Starring William Powell as NICK CHARLES
    and Myrna Loy as NORA CHARLES
    Also starring Keenan Wynn, Dean Stockwell, Gloria Grahame, Patricia Morison
    The last film in the series, not quite a return to form, but Nora gets some of her mojo back, and there’s some fun pre-Beatnik Beatniks.

ALSO AVAILABLE

  • THE COMPLETE THIN MAN COLLECTION Buy this DVD
    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. in 2019, they finally got around to releasing it on Blu-Ray.

RADIO

  • LUX RADIO THEATRE: THE THIN MAN
    60 minutes
    Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
    Writers: Dashiell Hammett
    Starring William Powell as NICK CHARLES
    and Myrna Loy as NORA CHARLES
  • LUX RADIO THEATRE: AFTER THE THIN MAN
    (June 17, 1940)
    60 minutes
    Based on a story by Dashiell Hammett
    Writers: Dashiell Hammett
    Starring William Powell as NICK CHARLES
    and Myrna Loy as NORA CHARLES
  • THE THIN MAN
    AKA “The Adventures of the Thin Man,””The New Adventures of the Thin Man”
    (1941, NBC; 1946, CBS; 1948, NBC; 1950, ABC)
    15 and 30 minute episodes
    Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett
    Writers: Dashiell Hammett, Milton Lewis, Eugene Wang, Robert Newman, Louis Vittes
    Director/Producer: Himan Brown
    Starring Les Damon as NICK CHARLES
    (later replaced by Les Tremayne, Joseph Curtin, David Gothard and Bill Smith)
    and Claudia Morgan as NORA CHARLES
    Also featuring Parker Fennelly as Sherrif Ebenezer Williams

TELEVISION

  • THE THIN MAN
    (1957-60, NBC)
    72 30-minute episodes
    Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett
    Writers: Devery Heilweil, Phil Davis, Charles Hoffman
    Directors: Bernard Gerard, Bretaigne Windust
    Producer: Edmund Beloin
    Starring Peter Lawford as NICK CHARLES
    and Phyllis Kirk as NORA CHARLES

    • SEASON ONE
    • “The Dollar Doodle” (September 20, 1957)
    • “Duke of Sing Sing” (September 27, 1957)
    • “The Angel Biz” (October 4, 1957)
    • “Come Back Darling Asta” (October 11, 1957)
    • “Paris Pendant” (October 18, 1957)
    • “That’s the Spirit” (October 25, 1957)
    • “Acrostic Murders” (November 1, 1957)
    • “Dead Duck” (November 8, 1957)
    • “Fatal Cliche” (November 15, 1957)
    • “Ring Around Rosie” (November 22, 1957)
    • “Angels in Paradise” (November 29, 1957)
    • “The Fashion Showdown” (December 6, 1957)
    • “Dead Giveaway” (December 13, 1957)
    • “Unwelcome Alibi” (December 27, 1957)
    • “Asta Day” (January 3, 1958)
    • “The Scene Stealer” (January 10, 1958)
    • “Damone Dilemma” (January 17, 1958)
    • “Unlucky Lucky Number” (January 24, 1958)
    • “Man on the Bridge” (January 31, 1958)
    • “Pre-Incan Caper” (February 7, 1958)
    • “Murder Is Where You Find It” (February 14, 1958)
    • “Ship Shakedown” (February 21, 1958)
    • “Robot Client” (February 28, 1958)
    • “The Mystery of the Missing Murders” (March 7, 1958)
    • “Double Jeopardy” (March 14, 1958)
    • “Bookworms” (March 21, 1958)
    • “Jittery Juror” (March 28, 1958)
    • “The Departed Doctor” (April 4, 1958)
    • “The Tennis Champ” (April 11, 1958)
    • “The Delinquent” (April 18, 1958)
    • “The Painted Witnesses” (May 2, 1958)
    • “The Saucer People” (May 9, 1958)
    • “The Carstadt Man” (May 16, 1958)
    • “The Art of Murder” (May 23, 1958)
    • “Kappa Kappa Kaper” (May 30, 1958)
    • “The Valley Forger” (June 6, 1958)
    • “The Screaming Doll” (June 13, 1958)
    • SEASON TWO
    • “Scene of the Crime” (October 24, 1958)
    • “Housewarming” (October 31, 1958)
    • “Pack My Gat, Beulah” (November 7, 1958)
    • “Lost Last Chapter” (November 14, 1958)
    • “I Loathe You, Darling” (November 21, 1958)
    • “Human Bomb” (November 28, 1958)
    • “Plague of Pigeons” (December 5, 1958)
    • “Design for Murder” (December 12, 1958)
    • “Murder in Mink” (December 19, 1958)
    • “Lady on the Lam” (December 26, 1958)
    • “Beauty and the Bath” (January 2, 1958)
    • “The Case of the Baggy Pants” (January 9, 1958)
    • “Maine Thing” (January 23, 1958)
    • “Outrageous Lady” (January 30, 1958)
    • “The Big Holdout” (February 6, 1958)
    • “Perfect Servant” (February 13, 1958)
    • “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Morgue” (February 20, 1958)
    • “Black Wind and Lightning” (February 27, 1958)
    • “Holiday for Hazel” (March 6, 1958)
    • “Lady Frankenstein” (March 13, 1958)
    • “Mayhem to Music” (March 20, 1958)
    • “La Sabre Invecta Est?” (March 27, 1958)
    • “Gory Road” (April 3, 1958)
    • “Anonymity Anyone?” (April 10, 1958)
    • “That’s Gratitude” (April 17, 1958)
    • “The Cat Kicker” (April 24, 1958)
    • “Bronze Bonze” (May 1, 1958)
    • “Requiem for a Recluse” (May 8, 1958)
    • “Nora Goes Over the Wall” (May 15, 1958)
    • “Hamilton Hollered Help” (May 22, 1958)
    • “Dear Dead Days” (May 29, 1958)
    • “Cold Cargo” (June 5, 1958)
    • “Bat McKidderick” (June 12, 1958)
    • “Cherchez La Sexpot” (June 19, 1958)
    • “Paradise Discovered” (June 26, 1958)

THEATRICAL ADAPTATIONS

  • NICK AND NORA
    (1990)
    Based on characters created by Dashiell Hammett
    Music by Charles Strouse
    Lyrics by Richard Maltby
    Book by Arthur Laurents
    Recording: Nick and Nora (Original Broadway Cast) Buy this CD
    Debut: Marquis Theatre, Broadway, December 8, 1991 (9 performancess)
    Original cast: Joanna Gleason and Barry Bostwick as NICK & NORA CHARLES
    Also starring Christine Baranski, Thom Sesma, Remak Ramsay, Chris Sarandon, Jeff Brooks, Faith Prince, Kip Niven, Michael Lombard, Yvette Lawrence, Debra Monk, Hal Robinson, Tim Connell
    Although highly anticipated, Nick and Nora unfortunately flopped, closing after little more than a week’s worth of performances.

    • Musical numbers included:
    • “Overture”
    • “Is There Anything Better than Dancing?”
    • “Everybody Wants to Do a Musical”
    • “Max’s Story”
    • “Swell”
    • “As Long As You’re Happy”
    • “People Get Hurt”
    • “Men”
    • “May the Best Man Win”
    • “Look Who’s Alone Now”
    • “Entr’acte”
    • “Class”
    • “Let’s Go Home”
    • “A Busy Night at Lorraine’s”
    • “Boom Chicka Boom”
    • “Married Life”

FURTHER INVESTIGATION

  • The Nick and Nora Cast Recording Buy this CD
    (1997, Jay Records)
    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.
  • The Real Nick and Nora (2001, by David Goodrich) Buy this book
    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.
  • Nick & Nora Glasses Get a pair!
    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 Startedpage, 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.”
  • My Scrapbook: A Seasonal Greeting Card from the Charleses
    MGM publicity still for the release of Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
  • Married to It!
    Hitched! Married Eyes and Their Spouses…
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Sean Wright and Dennis Bendy for the heads-up. Ah’ll remembah. Also, David Goodrich, the author of The Real Nick and Nora.

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