Behind the Camera on THE THIN MAN
Known as "One-Take Woody," Van Dyke often did not bother with cover shots if he felt the scene was right on the first take, reasoning that actors "lose their fire" if they have to do something over and over. It was a lot of pressure on the actors, who often had to learn new lines and business immediately before shooting, without the luxury of retakes, but Loy credited much of the appeal of The Thin Man to Van Dyke's pacing and spontaneity.
Van Dyke worked out Loy's now classic entrance (spilling onto the floor of the fashionable bar with an armload of Christmas presents) but in order to keep it fresh and spontaneous, did not tell her about it until right before they shot it.
For Powell's first scene (at the bar), Van Dyke told him to take the cocktail shaker, go behind the bar and just walk through the scene while the crew checked lights and sound. Powell did it, throwing in some lines and business of his own. Suddenly he heard Van Dyke say, "That's it! Print it!" The director had decided to shoot the scene without Powell knowing it so that he'd be as relaxed and natural as possible.
The scene of Nick shooting the ornaments off the tree was added after Powell playfully picked up an air gun and started shooting ornaments the art department was putting up.
Years later, Powell spoke of how much he loved working with Loy because of her naturalness, her professionalism, and her lack of any kind of "diva" temperament. "When we did a scene together, we forgot about technique, camera angles, and microphones. We weren't acting. We were just two people in perfect harmony," he said. "Myrna, unlike some actresses who think only of themselves, has the happy faculty of being able to listen while the other fellow says his lines. She has the give and take of acting that brings out the best."
Van Dyke paid attention to Powell and Loy's easy banter between takes and their obvious enjoyment of each other's company and worked it into the movie. The director often encouraged and incorporated improvisation and off-the-cuff details into the picture.
Van Dyke insisted that Louis B. Mayer and other executives at MGM view the first rushes of the picture to confirm that his casting choices were correct. And they were delighted to admit that Loy and Powell were perfect for the roles.
Loy said the biggest problem during shooting was the climactic dinner party scene when Nick reveals the killer. Powell complained that he had too many lines to learn and could barely decipher the complicated plot he was unraveling. It was the one scene when several retakes were necessary, which brought up an entirely new problem. The script called for oysters to be served to the dinner guests, and in take after take, the same plate of oysters was brought out under the hot lights. "They began to putrefy," Loy said. "By the time we finished that scene, nobody ever wanted to see another oyster."
Although she had great compliments for William Powell's charm and wit, Maureen O'Sullivan later said she did not enjoy making the picture because her part was so small and the production was so rushed.
Although Nick and Nora Charles have a fun relationship with their beloved terrier Asta, Loy recalled later that the actors were not allowed to interact between takes with the highly trained "Skippy," who performed his feats on the promise of a squeaky mouse and a biscuit. Loy also said the dog bit her once during the shoot.
by Rob Nixon