(1934) Directed by W.S. Van Dyke
In all of cinema, there’s no more defining introduction to a screen couple than that moment when we first meet Nick and Nora Charles. Nick is dancing in the Art Deco bar of the ritzy Normandie Hotel with his first love—a silver martini shaker. “The important thing is rhythm,” he instructs the bartenders. “With a dry martini, you always shake to waltz time.” Nick (William Powell, for whom the term “dapper” was coined) waltzes his way into a five-martini haze just before Nora (Myrna Loy, a svelte Kewpie doll with heavy-lidded but sparkling bedroom eyes) arrives. Not to be outdone, the game gal orders six see-throughs of her own. “She wants to catch up,” Nick explains with grudging admiration.
This charming scene conveys almost all we need to know about Nick and Nora. Their witty banter is part of that one-upmanship battle in which only true lovers can securely engage; they are comfortable with the best of everything; and they aren’t shy about lapsing into tasteful lushdom, shaken or stirred. We find out later that between shopping trips and cocktail parties, the clever pair enjoys solving the occasional murder mystery.
As movie formulas go, a husband and wife crime-solving team blessed with stunning good looks and downright physical marital bliss seems like a no-brainer today, but in 1934 it was a fresh and daring prototype. The picture also wedded the detective genre to screwball comedy, and the ceremony took place in a glistening realm of privilege and pranks that existed only on the silver screen. Though it may be impossible now to fully appreciate the effect of screen fantasies on Depression-era audiences, the spectacular world that the best of such pictures render is still a joy to behold.
Nick and Nora live in a kind of giant, monochrome Monopoly set, and all the playing pieces have come to life and funny money is tossed about like ticker tape, not to mention top hats, limousines, and even a feisty wire-haired terrier (Asta: as dapper as his master, but with the good sense to hide under the bed when the shooting starts). Not that there’s much shooting; the story may be taken from Dashiell Hammett, but the bad guys are mostly can’t-shoot-straight, comical mugs straight out of Damon Runyon or O. Henry.
At 75-plus years of age, this landmark film has lost none of its MGM sheen or witty aplomb, even if it is old fashioned in spirit. Cinematographer James Wong Howe provides the sheen; writing team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett supplies the wit. Make that husband-and-wife writing team, which explains why the banter between Nick and Nora, as stylized as it is, has an authentic tone, and there is never any doubt that these deco detectives are in lust with each other. More important, they are intellectual and emotional equals, as their respective sophistication (tempered by innate childishness) trumps any notion of bland domesticity. They are in love and in the money, but each is manifestly independent.
Then there’s the business of just how great they look and how spoiled they are. Nick’s declaration, “I’m going to have a party and invite all the suspects” indicates that his particular brand of crime solving is nice work if you can get it. Just wait until you see what Nora, hostess/sleuth extraordinaire, wears to the to-do. Christmas morning at the Charles penthouse (it’s lavish, but they call it home) is a holiday designed specifically for curing hangovers, trying on the furs that Santa delivered, and shooting ornaments off the tree with Nick’s new air pistol. Asta gets a personalized fire hydrant. They have a lot of what it takes to get along, and in the midst of such suave splendor, it’s easy to forget there’s a murder to be solved. More to the point, it’s easy to forget there’s a Great Depression, and that may explain why Nick and Nora’s popularity (there were five sequels) was no mystery at all.