Ever resourceful, ever innovative, the Theater Group at City College will next stream a video production of a radio play adaptation of Dashiell Hammett‘s 1933 novel “The Thin Man.”
This reworking of the radio script originally broadcast in 1934 by Lux Radio Theater (in the 1930s, Lux vacuums rivaled Hovers in popularity, and Lux — later called Electrolux, then Aerus — sponsored the radio theater 1934-36, in New York, 1936-55, in Hollywood), is directed by Katie Laris, and stars Robert Allen, Brian Harwell, Rene Hooper, Jon Koons, Penny O’ Mahoney, Stuart Orenstein, Sean O’Shea, Van Riker, Jenna Scanlon, Ethan Scott, Leslie Ann Story, Matthew Tavianini, Laksmini Wyantini and Madison Widener.
The Theatre Group production will be performed as a live, radio drama with sound effects and commercials. The streaming starts April 21 and continues through May 8.
Tickets to “The Thin Man” are $15 general, $10 seniors and SBCC staff, $5 students, and will be good for household viewings during the streaming time period. Tickets can be purchased by phone from the Box Office, 805-965-5935, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays, or on line at the Theatre Group website https://www.theatregroupsbcc.com/.
Well-known is the disaster that befell many silent film stars with the advent of sound, suddenly unemployable when their voices didn’t match their looks; less appreciated is the tremendous boost talkies gave to the stars of the Broadway theaters and of the then-booming radio industry.
Many of the most popular movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s — especially comics like George Burns, Jack Benny and Bob Hope; and band leaders like Glenn Miller, Ozzie Nelson, Tommy Dorsey and Kay Kaiser — were stars on the radio, mainly based in New York, before they ever moved to Hollywood.
Come the 1950s, and television, many of the comics adapted their radio shows into successful sitcoms, in which they usually played radio personalities. The transition was not so smooth for the band leaders, although “Ozzie and Harriet” (Harriet had been the singer in Ozzie’s band) had a good long run, as did “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
The motion pictures which starred radio personalities often contained extended scenes recreating a live radio broadcast. (A modern motion picture, which tried to resurrect the interwar radio scene, “The Radioland Murders” (1994), was a manic, strident disaster.)
Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) was active in left-wing politics all of his life. He joined the Communist Party in 1937, and was imprisoned for a few months in 1951 for refusing to provide a list of contributors to an anti-fascist bail fund of which he was director.
He also testified before the Select House Committee on Un-American Activities (known as HUAC), and, though surly and uncooperative, was not prosecuted.
Fortunately for the fans of his detective fiction, his left-wing activism is all but completely absent from his novels — with the possible exception, which I do not endorse, of “Red Harvest” (there are characters who are members of the IWW — known as “Wobblies” — and other such organizations — but they are not treated with privilege, and are revealed to be driven by the same mixture of ambition, greed and desire as all the other characters).
If you have ever tried to read a novel by Upton Sinclair, for example, you will see precisely what Ernest Hemingway meant when he said, “All you can be sure about in a political-minded writer is that if his work should last you will have to skip the politics when you read it.”
With Hammett, you don’t have to skip anything.
Like most artists of any worth, Hammett was not a particularly admirable human being, nor was he particularly detestable. As a writer, on the other hand, he was extraordinary. Unlike Raymond Chandler, to whom he is often yoked in critical appraisals, he is utterly lacking in sentimentality or self-pity.
Chandler was, at bottom, a romantic; Hammett practiced the kind of modernism that came from a classical outlook.
“Put shortly,” wrote T. E. Hulme, “these are the two views, then. One, that man is intrinsically good, spoiled by circumstance; and the other that he is intrinsically limited, but disciplined by order and tradition to something fairly decent.
“To the one party, man’s nature is like a well, to the other like a bucket. The view which regards man as a well, a reservoir full of possibilities, I call the romantic; the one which regards him as a very finite and fixed creature, I call the classical.”
In “The Thin Man,” Nick Charles, formerly a private detective, has married a San Francisco socialite and has settled into managing her considerable inheritance.
The daughter of one of Nick’s former clients approaches him in a speakeasy (Prohibition still having a few months to run when the novel was written) and asks him to find her father (he is the “thin man,” incidentally, not Nick Charles).
After Julia Wolf, the missing man’s secretary, is found murdered, the daughter and her mother come to the Charles’s apartment for a conference. The mother, Mimi, with whom Nick had a brief affair years before, says to Nick, “I mean you were pretty fond of Julia Wolf, weren’t you?”
Nick says: “I liked her well enough.”
Mimi says: “You’re the damnedest evasive man! Did you like her as much as you used to like me, for instance?”
To which Nick replies: “You mean those couple of afternoons we killed?”
All five of Hammett’s novels have been made into motion pictures, some of them many times. “The Maltese Falcon” had been filmed three times before John Huston made his definitive version in 1941, starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet.
Hammett’s personal favorite, “The Glass Key” (1931) was filmed in 1935, directed by Frank Tuttle, with George Raft and Edward Arnold, and in 1942, directed by Stuart Heisler, with Alan Ladd, Brian Donlevy and Veronica Lake.
The 1990 Coen Brothers movie, “Miller’s Crossing,” was overwhelmingly a remake — with all the proper nouns changed — of “The Glass Key,” though Hammett is nowhere mentioned in the credits. (The novel, incidentally, proves Hammett, notwithstanding my statements above, was capable of rank sentimentality, for all that it is mostly one of his strongest books.)
Despite the possibilities suggested by Coburn in the role of the Continental Op, the nameless detective who is the protagonist of scores of Hammett’s short stories, as well as the novels “The Dain Curse” and “Red Harvest” (1929), the film is a shapeless disappointment, more interested in parading its immaculate period clothes than in telling its story.
“Red Harvest” has the most interesting history of all, with respect to motion pictures. It has never been filmed under its own title, though for many years Alain Resnais (“Last Year at Marienbad,” “Stavisky,” “Providence,” “Mon oncle d’Amérique”) cherished the notion of filming it, and even prepared a shooting script.
Alas, the money never came through — but, under various titles, it has probably served as the basis for more movies than all the other Hammett novels combined: e.g., Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” Walter Hill’s “Last Man Standing,” etc.
Which brings us to “The Thin Man.” Published at the end of 1933, it was turned into a radio serial and made into a motion picture in 1934. Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Skippy (as the Charles’s wire fox terrier, Asta), the movie was a tremendous hit, and spawned five sequels with the original three principals.
Powell played variations on the Nick Charles character throughout the 1930s. Before he was cast in “The Thin Man,” he had played S.S. Van Dine‘s sleuth Philo Vance, three times.
After “The Thin Man,” he continued to play in different versions of the Nick-Nora menage in comedy-mysteries — with Ginger Rogers in “The Star of Midnight,” Jean Arthur in “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford,” and so on. (What is “My Man Godfrey,” after all, but a stylized version of how Nick and Nora — in this case, Carol Lombard — became a couple?)
Pauline Kael once observed that, when John Huston filmed “The Maltese Falcon,” he simply used the novel itself as the screenplay. This points to the reason why Hammett’s work is so easily translated into other media.
The novels and stories are not written in script form — Hammett only started writing screenplays after he stopped writing novels — but his descriptive passages are confined to what you would see if you were watching the scene knowing nothing about the characters, and his dialogue is streetwise and entertaining, as in:
“[Effie Perine] was a lanky sunburned girl whose tan dress of thin woolen stuff clung to her with a effect of dampness. Her eyes were brown and playful in a shiny boyish face. She finished shutting the door behind her, leaned against it, and said: ‘There’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly.’
“’I guess so. You’ll want to see her anyway: she’s a knockout.’
“’Shoo her in, darling,’ said Spade, ‘Shoo her in.’” (“The Maltese Falcon”)
“Green dice rolled across the green table, struck the rim together, and bounced back. One stopped short holding six white spots in two equal rows uppermost. The other tumbled out to the center and came to rest with a single spot on top.
“Ned Beaumont grunted softly — ‘Unh!’ — and the winners cleared the table of money.” (“The Glass Key”)
“I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me. She was small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or her body in powder-blue sports clothes the result was satisfactory. ‘Aren’t you Nick Charles?’ she asked.
“I said: ‘Yes.’” (“The Thin Man”)
Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), author of ‘The Thin Man’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon.’