The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett, W.A. Dwiggins & Allan MacDougallMonday, December 26, 2011
This blog will take me from a recent viewing of W. S. Van Dyke’s 1936 film After The Thin Man, with William Powell, Myrna Loy and in the end a most villainous James Stewart to a photograph of former head of Raincoast Books, Allan MacDougall that had me blackballed from a local publication for a while.
After enjoying After the Thin Man, just as good as the earlier The Thin Man and before the series deteriorated into three more in what we would now call a film franchise, I decided to take a book out from one of my nicer living room bookcases. The book in question, probably one I purchased at a bargain in one of the long defunct W.H. Smith bookstores (were I also purchased a collection, also leather bound, of Raymond Chandler's novels illustrated by Paul J. Crompton), is a volume that includes the five novels that Dashiell Hammet wrote. It is called Dashiell Hammett – Unabridged – Red Harvest – The Dain Curse – The Maltese Falcon – The Glass Key – The Thin Man. It is a red leather bound (quite handsome) 1980 edition by Avenel Books, New York. A pristine version of this is worth only $14 in Abe Books. The forward (April 1, 1965) by Lillian Hellmann reveals that: “ We had met in 1930, but I was to see the writing of only one novel – The Thin Man."
The charm of those first two Thin Man films is the repartee between Nora and Nick Charles (Myrna Loy and William Powell). But the fact that William Powell seems to act the part of real alcoholic is one that perhaps would not transfer with humour to our contemporary times. My granddaughter Rebecca would wonder why they occupy adjoining single beds if they are married. I went to the first pages of The Thin Man:
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 at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory. "Aren't you Nick Charles?" she asked.
I said: "Yes."
She held out her hand. "I'm Dorothy Wynant. You don't remember me, but you ought to remember my father, Clyde Wynant. You--"
"Sure," I said, "and I remember you now, but you were only a kid of eleven or twelve then, weren't you?"
"Yes that was eight years ago. Listen: remember those stories you told me? Were they true?"
"Probably not. How is your father?"
She laughed. "I was going to ask you. Mamma divorced him, you know, and we never hear from him--except when he gets in the newspapers now and then with some of his carryings on. Don't you ever see him?"
My glass was empty. I asked her what she would have to drink, she said Scotch and soda. I ordered two of them and said: "No, I've been living in San Francisco."
She said slowly: "I'd like to see him. Mamma would raise hell if she found it out, but I'd like to see him."
"He's not where we used to live, on Riverside Drive, and he's not in the phone book or city directory."
"Try his lawyer," I suggested.
Her face brightened. "Who is he?"
"It used to be a fellow named Mac-something-or-other--Macaulay, that's it, Herbert Macaulay. He was in the Singer Building."
"Lend me a nickel," she said, and went out to the telephone. She came back smiling. "I found him. He's just round the corner on Fifth Avenue."
"The lawyer. He says my father's out of town. I'm going round to see him." She raised her glass to me. "Family reunions. Look, why don't--"
Asta jumped up and punched me in the belly with her front feet. Nora, at the end of the leash, said: "She's had a swell afternoon--knocked over a table of toys at Lord & Taylor's, scared a fat woman silly by licking her leg in Saks's, and's been patted by three policemen."
I made introductions. "My wife, Dorothy Wynant. Her father was once a client of mine, when she was only so high. A good guy, but screwy."
"I was fascinated by him," Dorothy said, meaning me, "a real live detective, and used to follow him around making him tell me about his experiences. He told me awful lies, but I believed every word."
I said: "You look tired, Nora."
"I am. Let's sit down."
Dorothy Wynant said she had to go back to her table. She shook hands with Nora; we must drop in for cocktails, they were living at Courtland, her mother's name was Jorgensen now. We would be glad to and she must come see us some time, we were at the Normandie and would be in New York for another week or two. Dorothy patted the dog's head and left us.
We found a table. Nora said: "She's pretty."
"If you like them like that."
She grinned at me. "You got types?"
"Only you, darling--lanky brunettes with wicked jaws."
"And how about the red-head you wandered off with at the Quinns' last night?"
"That's silly," I said. "She just wanted to show me some French etchings."
After reading that first chapter I understand the charm of The Thin Man films. They keep the wit of Dashiell Hammett.
I went to the last page of The Thin Man and beyond to a strange (in the context, perhaps of more modern times) named A Note On The Type.
The text of this book is set in Electra, a typeface designed by W (illiam) A (ddisson) Dwiggins for the Mergenthaler Linotype Company and first made available in 1935. Electra cannot be classified as either “modern” or “old style”. It is not based on any historical model, and hence does not echo any particular period or style of type design. It avoids the extreme contrast between “thick” and “thin” elements that marks most modern faces, and is without the eccentricities which catch the eye and interfere with reading. In general Electra is a simple, readable typeface which attempts to five a feeling of fluidity, power and speed.
W. A. Dwiggins (1880-1956) was born in Martinsille, Ohio and studied art n Chicago. In 1904 he moved to Hingham, Massachusetts, where he built a solid reputation as a designer of advertisements and as a calligrapher. He began an association with the Mergenthaler Linotype Company in 1929, and over the next twenty-seven years designed a number of book types, of which Metro, Electra, and Caledonia have been used very widely. In 1930 Dwiggins became interested in marionettes, and through the years made many important contribution to the art of puppetry and the design of marionettes.
In 2000 The Globe & Mail hired me to photograph the head of Raincoast Books, Allan MacDougall. When I got to MacDougall’s office he informed me, “My office is extremely boring.” But I had an idea up my sleeve. I took his picture in his sparse office and left with copies of his firm’s most successful books. I then went to visit typographer, designer, etc Jim Rimmer, at his Granville Island shop and borrowed some real metal type. There were few, if any places then and more so now in Vancouver where one could fetch such items. Rimmer lent me some tools of his trade and I went home to take pictures of a table top scenario (on my living room floor) featuring the books, the type and a picture of MacDougall that I pasted on the back of one of the Raincoast Books to resemble an author photo.
The photograph was beautifully rendered by the Globe in living colour on the Tuesday, November 28 edition. They never noticed (to my delight) my name in backwards type on the right hand corner! There was another personal item of mine in the picture. It is my lovingly kept Esterbrook fountain pen from my high school years.
In 2002 The Georgia Straight asked me to photograph MacDougall. This time I photographed him in his warehouse next to a pile of books. Just for the hell of it I picked a pile of then obscure novels by by Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Nautical Charts. Again for hell of it and for no other motive of all except for its racy title I inserted a book called Weird Sex & Snowshoes. I did not connect in any way that the book was authored by Vancouver Sun writer Katherine Monk.
When I sent the slide to the Straight I was met with some anger. It seems that Katherine Monk represented the Vancouver Sun and therefore it was in direct competition to the Straight. There was no way the Straight would publicize one of her books. So the folks at the Straight Photoshopped the offending book and replaced it with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. For a couple of years I did not get further assignments from the Straight.