t’s Christmas morning. Detective Nick Charles is lying on the couch in his bathrobe, shooting ornaments off the tree with his brand-new air gun, using the bottoms of his slippers to aim.
“This is the nicest present I ever got,” he tells his wife, Nora, who’s sitting in a nearby chair, wearing a fur coat. Then, trying to aim using a mirror, he misses an ornament and shoots out a window, at which point he curls up into a ball and pretends to be asleep. He opens one eye to glance over at his wife. She just looks bemused and goes back to stroking her new coat. Instead of talking about property damage, they reminisce about the criminal who almost killed them the night before. And then they have another drink.
Inspired by a Dashiell Hammett novel, six Thin Man movies were made between 1934 and 1947. The fabulously urbane Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) were popular from the outset; during the Depression, no one wanted to watch The Grapes of Wrath. (As the famous Variety headline went, “HIX NIX STIX PIX.”) What audiences wanted was to see sophisticated, filthy rich grown-ups in sexually charged relationships. Actors like Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake and Henry Fonda played adults who liked each other and liked being married.
But after WWII, the nation became systematically de-Cosmopolitanized. Nick and Nora became an on-screen rarity. Marriage became linked to shiny new refrigerators and freshly mowed lawns. Anyone lucky enough to inhabit Manhattan had to be a virgin (Doris Day) or a lothario (Rock Hudson). Marriage could be gorgeous and twisted (Douglas Sirk, anyone?), but never smart and hot at the same time.
And for all the innovations in film since then, we’ve still never gotten back to that ’30s model of marriage, a giddy partnership of lusty equals. It would be great if today’s depressing relationship movies actually solved the problems they so clinically portray. But what do you get out of We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Unfaithful and The Secret Life of Dentists except confirmation that marriage is hopeless?
Judging by the popular perception of marriage as drudgery, you’d think we’d be clamoring for a little escapism. In
You’d think we’d be clamoring for a little escapism.
every second of daytime TV, you hear that marriage is "hard work" and, even at its best, "all about compromise." Between the Moral Majority and Dr. Phil, the institution is marketed less attractively than ever before.
Conversely, Nick and Nora are the epitome of Cosmopolitanism: smart, exciting, and extremely well-dressed. You can tell they have sex all the time, and not just because when they take trains, Nick flings their dog, Asta, into the upper bunk so he can share the lower one with his wife. He is always admiring her clingy clothes. They stay up late talking and throw the best parties in the world — glamorously lush affairs packed with ex-cons who admire Nick for how cleverly he captured them.
While Loy started out her career playing Asian vamps, she’s known for portraying the perfect wife. (After The Thin Man came out, "Men Must Marry Myrna" clubs popped up around the country). But even in her most wifely roles, Loy was never dowdy. She made it clear that fulfillment did not come from being a doting spouse, but rather from exuding intelligence and sexuality. Myrna Loy was her own kind of sexy. It wasn’t Jean Harlow sexy (Loy’s character actually teaches the bombshell a thing or two about men in The Libeled Lady), but instead a brand of smart-confident-arch sexy that’s now sadly out of fashion. Nora Charles, and so many of Loy’s other ’30s roles, were women who had power and were genuinely happy with their husbands (although you get the sense that they would have been happy single, too).
While Loy herself was divorced four times, she had a pretty great life (1905-1993), and an incredible career. A pre-feminist feminist who has yet to be rediscovered by the third wave, Loy demanded the studio pay her as much as William Powell. She fought for civil rights. She and F.D.R. had an extended, unconsummated romance. Spencer Tracey, Clark Cable and John Barrymore all pursued her. No actress of today, from Julia to Gwyneth
No actress of today radiates the sheer sexual wisdom of Myrna.
to Cate, radiates the sheer sexual wisdom of Myrna. No actor, from Jude to Tom to Ben, ever achieves the quirky lust she brought out in William Powell.
As Nick and Nora, they bring something rare and precious to bear on marriage: a sense of humor. He makes her swoon with the wise figure he cuts, and makes her laugh with wry lines like, “This case is putting me way behind on my drinking.” One time at a New Year’s Eve party, the lights go out and when they come back up, Nick is kissing someone else. “Ahem,” Nora says. Nick tips his hat to the other woman and apologizes for his mistake, then resumes kissing his wife. Every time they run into an old friend of Nick’s, the friend assumes the beautiful Nora is his mistress and Nora, amused, doesn’t correct him.
I remember reading an Anna Quindlen column many years ago about the difference between boyfriends and husbands. She says she’s always liked boyfriends better, so when she married, she picked a boyfriend type. It’s the difference between security and freedom. And ’30s screwball comedies like The Thin Man are all about the latter. Nora understood that it’s important to be the wife and the mistress at the same time. Nick understood that it’s important to be both the husband and the boyfriend.
The Charleses refuse to settle into domestic complacency; they realize the security aspect of marriage is way overrated. As Merle Oberon says in That Uncertain Feeling, “Your husband should remain a kind of stranger to you, someone whose acquaintance you’d like to renew every day.”
In fact, all these old comedies are packed with marital advice (and often Marxist politics; see My Man Godfrey). Here’s the gist:
1) Lying is okay.
In Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, Barbara Stanwyck, quite possibly the sexiest actress of all time (see the debauched 1933 Baby Face, in which she sleeps her way to the head of a bank) pretends to be a British princess to get back the ornithologist she fell in love with while trying to steal all his money at poker. The lie works, naturally, and when she tells him in the end, he doesn’t mind one bit.
2) No whining.
In The Libeled Lady, when Myrna Loy wants to know if the man she’s in love with is already married, as she’s heard he is, what does she do? Does she snoop through his little black book? Does she act coy and hope this will make him realize how much he wants her? No, she proposes. He accepts, ecstatically, and they sort out the details of his other "wife" on the honeymoon.
3) Be a good sport.
During the Christmas Eve break-in of The Thin Man, Nick punches Nora to get her out of the way of a stray bullet. Her reaction is not anger at being decked by her husband, nor gratitude at having her life saved. Instead, in her fur-trimmed silk negligée, she pouts. He asks her what’s wrong. “I knew you were going to take
Maybe it’s time to restore a little impracticality in marriage.
him, but I wanted to see you do it,” she explains.
“That’s some woman,” observe the cops now swarming the bedroom.
When Nora arrives at a bar, she asks her husband how many drinks he’s had (five).Then she tells the bartender, "Five martinis, please. Just line them up right here." And she taps the table five times.
Okay: let’s make a concession to reality. It’s adorable in the movie, but probably, in real life, these rich drunks would get on our nerves. One would have cause to worry a little about Nicky, Jr., growing up spoiled in a house with parents who drink all day and fraternize with armed ex-convicts. And sure, most of us don’t have piles of money, fur-lined neligées, a fabulous Park Avenue apartment, a comical wire-haired terrier or such a casual attitude toward attempted murder. Nick and Nora’s marriage is both fantastical and impractical.
But maybe that’s what’s great about it. Maybe it’s time to restore a little fantasy and impracticality in marriage, or at least for films to stop portraying marriage as death.
And maybe, just maybe the masses are ready for it. This summer, two of the Sexiest People Alive, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, are portraying that rarest of cinematic characters: a hot married couple, in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Ironically, of course, the tabloids have been speculating that the (hot) on-screen marriage between Brad and Angelina is what split up the (pretty unexciting) marriage between Brad and Jennifer off-screen.
Not that our hearts don’t bleed for Brad and Jen, but wouldn’t it be great if the fantasy of the deviant marriage to a woman who makes out with her brother and drinks blood — or whatever it is Angelina does when that sullen kid of hers is in bed — killed off the woefully-childless-celebrity-marriage fantasy?
At the end of the day, do you want to look in the magnifying mirror and see every microscopic blemish, or do you want to grease up the lens and, just now and then, see your life and spouse in soft focus? n°
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Nerve consulting editor and Babble editor-in-chief Ada Calhoun has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, a contributing editor and theater critic at New York magazine, and her softball team’s MVP.|