Nick and Nora Charles

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Nick and Nora Charles
(William Powell and Myrna Loy in the 1939 film Another Thin Man)

Nick and Nora Charles are fictional characters created by Dashiell Hammett in his novel The Thin Man. The characters were later adapted for film in a series of movies between 1934 and 1947; for radio from 1941 to 1950; for television from 1957 through 1959; as a Broadway musical in 1991; and as a stage play in 2009.

Synopsis[edit]

As elaborated on in the highly successful film series, Nick and Nora are a married couple who solve murder mysteries while exchanging sharp and smart repartee. The tremendous popularity of the characters made them a media archetype, as the bantering, romantically involved detective duo has become a well-used trope in literature, stage, screen, and television ever since.

Novel[edit]

The characters first appear in Dashiell Hammett's best-selling last novel The Thin Man (1934). Nick is an alcoholic former private detective who retired when he married Nora, a wealthy Nob Hill heiress. Hammett reportedly modeled Nora on his longtime partner Lillian Hellman,[1] and the characters' boozy, flippant repartee on their relationship. (The novel also mentions that Nick was once a Pinkerton detective, as was Hammett.) The novel is considered one of the seminal texts of the hard-boiled subgenre of mystery novels, but the chief innovation distinguishing it from previous Hammett works such as The Maltese Falcon or The Glass Key was its relative lightness and humor. It is nearly as much a comedy of manners as a mystery, and the story tumbles along to the sarcastic banter of Nick and Nora as a reluctant and jaded Nick is dragged into solving a sensational murder, cheered on by the fascinated thrill-enjoying Nora.

Films[edit]

The film adaptation of The Thin Man was a resounding success. Although Hammett never wrote another novel with Nick and Nora Charles, five movie sequels were produced, two of which were adapted by Warner Brother's writers from two original Hammett works written after the success of the first film.

The film followed the plot of the novel quite closely, but the Nick Charles character, described in the book as overweight and out of shape, was portrayed by the slim William Powell. Nora was portrayed by Myrna Loy. The title of both the book and the film referred to the suspected murderer and fugitive in the mystery, but producers referred to "The Thin Man" in the titles of each of the sequel films for branding purposes. As a consequence "The Thin Man" was eventually elided by the public into an alias for the character of Nick Charles. So strongly were Powell and Loy identified with the characters of the Charleses in the public mind that many mistakenly assumed the actors were a couple in real life as well.

The on-screen chemistry between Powell and Loy, who often improvised on the set, was key to the wild success of the series and quickly became a defining feature of the characters. The films revolutionized the screen portrayal of marriage - previously earnest, virtuous, and staid - invigorating it with youth, irreverence, and sex appeal. Taking their cue from Hammett's humorous dialogue and comic elements, the movies moved even further from the traditional hard-boiled approach. In another departure from Hammett, the dog Asta - an integral character both the book and movies - was a male wire fox terrier, rather than the novel's female schnauzer.

Over time a child, Nick, Jr., was also introduced, and elements of the Charleses' back story fleshed out. Nick was revealed to be the son of a medical doctor from the fictional small town of Sycamore Springs in upstate New York. The novel's references to his being the child of an immigrant from Greece were ignored, and Nick was now the black sheep of a respectable WASP professional family who turned his back on the family profession of medicine because of his passion for detective work. Detail was also added to Nora's background. She is shown to be the sole child of a deceased mining magnate from San Francisco modeled on the "kings" of the Comstock Lode. Now diversified into lumber, railroads, etc., Nora's fortune is apparently vast and is managed for the couple by her father's former partner who lives in an estate on Long Island's North Shore "Gold Coast". Nora is also shown to have a network of blue-blood relatives and friends in San Francisco society, while Nick is a beloved celebrity among the criminal classes and those who associate with them (such as police, athletes, nightclub owners, etc.)

Hugely popular with audiences, the films employed the common murder mystery trope—familiar from English detective stories such as Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express—of assembling all of the characters for the climactic revelation of the culprit. The first film appeared the year after the repeal of Prohibition, and the series is also notable for the extensive and casual use of alcohol by the main characters.

Titles[edit]

Subsequent adaptations[edit]

  • Radio: The popularity of the film series spawned a radio program based on them, The Adventures of the Thin Man. It successfully ran from 1941 to 1950, starring Claudia Morgan as Nora, with Les Daman, Les Tremayne and David Gothard all giving voice to Nick, depending on the season.
  • Television (Series): The Thin Man ran two seasons from 1957 to 1959 starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk as Nick and Nora. The series transplanted the couple to New York's Greenwich Village, updating the 1930s big band glamour to the 1950s beat generation. There were 72 episodes.
  • Television (Movie): In 1975, Craig Stevens and Jo Ann Pflug starred in the made-for-TV movie Nick and Nora, part of the Wide World Mystery series of TV Movies.[2]
  • Stage (Musical): In 1991, a Broadway musical, Nick & Nora with a book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., and music by Charles Strouse was based on the characters. Barry Bostwick played Nick, Joanna Gleason played Nora. The chief innovation of this incarnation was to introduce strife and resentment into the relationship. After one of the longest preview periods in Broadway history, the show opened to poor reviews and closed after nine performances.
  • Stage (Play): In 2009, the City Literature Theatre, a Chicago repertory company, mounted a stage production of the original Hammett novel adapted by Terry McCabe.
  • Film: In 2011 it was announced that Johnny Depp would star as Nick Charles in a remake of The Thin Man to reach theatres in 2013.[3]

Homages[edit]

  • Neil Simon's 1976 movie Murder by Death parodied Nick and Nora as Dick and Dora Charleston, with their dog Myron.[4]
  • Jack from David Ives' 1990 play Ancient History refers to himself and his girlfriend Ruth as Nick and Nora.
  • Donald Strachey and his partner Timothy Callahan in the Donald Strachey novels are called the gay Nick and Nora.[5]
  • A pair of dogs in the comic strip The Middletons are named Nick and Nora Charles.[6]
  • The 2008 young adult novel, and later film, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist pays homage to the duo.[7]
  • The long running suspense series In Death, created by Nora Roberts under the pseudonym of J.D. Robb, pays homage to Nick and Nora through the banter of NYPSD Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her rich husband Roarke. Also, in Conspiracy in Death (April 1999) Roarke makes a pointed comment about playing Nick to Eve's Nora.[8]
  • Nick and Nora Charles are mentioned in Jonathan Franzen's short story "Two's Company" as "the funniest married couple" and "hopeless drunks." [9]
  • The characters of Frank and Sadie Doyle in the Thrilling Adventure Hour's Beyond Belief segment are based in part on Nick and Nora Charles.[10]
  • In an episode of Mathnet, mathnetters Pat Tuesday & George Frankly posed as Nick & Nora Chuck (a spoof of Nick & Nora Charles) to catch a jewel thief (James DePaiva).
  • In Philip Kerr's mystery novel, If the Dead Rise Not (Penguin, 2009), set in 1934 early Nazi Germany, the hard-bitten detective hero, Bernhard Gunther falls in love with an American Jewish writer, Noreen Charalambides, (who has an alcoholic but loving husband, Nick). Nick Charles' family name in the Hammett novel was Charalambides.

References[edit]