The holidays are a time of homecoming, family, tradition, and libations.
Unless you’re Nick Charles, who believes in getting far away from family to spend Christmas Eve with criminals he had sent to prison during his days as a policeman. Naturally, the libations part is still essential.
William Powell as Nick Charles, retired private detective
New York City, Christmas 1933
Film: The Thin Man
Release Date: May 25, 1934
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Wardrobe Credit: Dolly Tree
The big screen’s introduction to Nick Charles is one of my favorites. We have already met the “Thin Man” himself, Clyde Wynant, during the film’s opening scene. (Despite Powell’s slim frame, he actually is not the “Thin Man” of the title) We then cut to a big Christmas party at a bar – drinks, dancing, fun. Clearly people are still celebrating the end of Prohibition which, according to the film’s storyline, had been only weeks earlier.
We search through the party and, naturally, find William Powell standing at the bar, shaking a cobbler shaker vigorously “to waltz time”. He strains into a tiny martini glass and, ever the gentleman, places it on the waiter’s tray. He then turns back to the waiter, accepts his drink with a polite smile, and enjoys his first onscreen Martini. Or the sixth, according to him.
What’d He Wear?
For an evening of holiday carousing and intoxication, Nick chooses a dark three-piece suit with very narrowly spaced pinstripes. It’s a great choice for looking sharp at any time of year but would add a special spark of formality to your holiday proceedings this year.
The jacket is fitted nicely, complimenting Powell’s physique but giving him space to move, and the 3-button front looks good both buttoned and unbuttoned. The single-breasted jacket also has peak lapels, a combination very popular in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The single-breasted, peak-lapel jacket had a brief reemergence in popularity during the 1970s, but the width of the latter era’s lapels didn’t do justice to the original, more elegant look.
The welted breast pocket is home to Nick’s white linen pocket square which, due to its more puffed appearance, probably serves more use as an actual handkerchief than as a decorative pocket square. There are two straight flapped pockets and a small ticket pocket on the right side. Like many suit jackets of the era, it is ventless.
Underneath his jacket, Nick wears a matching 6-button waistcoat with a notched bottom and welted hip pocket on each side. He wears his “double Albert”-style watch chain across and through the vest, keeping the watch itself in his left pocket.
Nick’s suit trousers are not seen very clearly, but they appear to have plain-hemmed bottoms rather than cuffs or turn-ups. A belt is never seen and was not too fashionable at the time, especially with a three-piece suit, so Nick probably wears suspenders.
The color of the suit is unknown to me since the film is black and white and I can’t find any colorized photos or footage of these scenes. I would guess that Nick’s dark suit is a navy blue or charcoal. Contemporary illustrations from posters and promotional artwork seem to agree with the dark navy theory.
Like many men’s dress shirts of the 1930s, Nick’s shirt is white, crisp, and clean with a large point collar and double French cuffs, through which he wears a set of oval-shaped cuff links with a dark setting.
The necktie is two colors in American right-down-to-left stripes. The base color is very dark, apparently darker than the suit itself. The slightly thinner stripes are much lighter in color. Posters from the era reflect a dark navy ground with yellow or light green stripes.
Finally, Nick wears a pair of dark patent leather oxfords with thin dark silk socks, de rigueur for the era. Not even a cheeky joker like Nick Charles wears his Santa socks for a Christmas party, so neither should you. (Also, do you see any snowmen on that tie? Didn’t think so. Leave it at home. In fact, don’t even own one in the first place.)
Go Big or Go Home
Nick Charles is a great husband, detective, host, and – most importantly to him – drinker. He enjoys life and, best of all, he is good at living it.
Let’s address each of these in order.
Unlike many other “heroes” of this blog (James Bond, Don Draper, Hank Moody, Sidney Reilly, etc.), Nick sets an example as an ideal, faithful husband. He loves his wife Nora, who matches him with her banter, drinking, and overall class. And, since she is played by Myrna Loy, who wouldn’t love her?
Although he teases her:
I’m much too busy seeing that you don’t lose any of the money I married you for.
He is always loyal to her and manages to sneak in compliments with his wisecracks:
Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.
Nick Charles sets a fine example of showing how to be a faithful husband and still be a cool, compelling hero. Take note, Draper.
I don’t know how to be a great detective. Go to police school, I guess. You shouldn’t be consulting a blog about how to be a good detective anyway. Not how it’s done.
On Christmas Eve, Nick is instructed by the charity of his good heart to host a party for criminals and lowlifes, many of which he put behind bars years ago and now have no place to go for the holidays. It’s either the charity of his good heart or his strong desire to avoid his family or his in-laws, whom he meet in The Thin Man Goes Home and After the Thin Man, respectively.
Truly, to be a Nick Charles-level host is easy. Make plenty of cocktails – Nick prefers and serves gin Martinis and whiskey-and-soda – and keep ’em coming! This satisfies fans of both clear and brown liquor. These days, people would probably flock to a cheap flavored vodka and a spiced rum… while I prefer gin and whiskey myself, as long as all parties are satisfied enough to participate in a sloppy rendition of “O Christmas Tree”, you’ve done your job.
To top it off, have some universal options as well such as a few bottles of red and white wine and a case or two of beer in the fridge.
There’s nothing less satisfying at a party than being told “Oh, we have plenty to drink! LOL!” and then seeing their “stash” of three bottles of flavored vodka, a six pack of Coors Light, and a small sampler bottle of rum given to them by someone who went to the Caribbean four years ago. Please don’t be this kind of host, I beg of you.
This segues us to the next and most essential of Nick Charles’ skills: drinking.
What to Imbibe
Highballs and cocktails… the long and short of it!
If you’ve been following this blog from the start, you know how to make Roger Thornhill’s Gibson Martini and James Bond’s Vodka Martini. But what about the one that started it all? The classic dry Martini.
The Dry Martini
The basic ingredients: Gin and dry vermouth. While the Martini name has been bastardized and cheapened by chocolate-tinis, appletinis, and other drinks designed to steal women’s money and virtue in the same night, the classic Martini is never more than gin and dry vermouth. This beloved mixture has inspired many artists and writers, with H.L. Mencken describing it as “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet” and Dorothy Parker stating that “I like to have a Martini, two at the very most. Three, I’m under the table. Four, I’m under my host.”
The modern and most delicious ratio is 5-to-1. Most fans of the drink agree that the less vermouth, the better. Noël Coward mentioned perfect Martinis as “filling a glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy.” Hyperbole aside, too much vermouth will kill the drink.
The next step is one of the most controversial topics ever. It can be more divisive at parties than religion and politics… To shake or not to shake?
Everyone is familiar with James Bond’s “Shaken, not stirred” mantra. However, Somerset Maugham prescribed that “a Martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another.” Maugham’s preference for stirring is mirrored in barmaster Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930. On the other hand, Nick Charles believed that the shaking was the most essential part:
The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.
Let’s go with Nick on this one. Shake for about ten seconds to waltz time, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, add an olive (or lemon twist), and enjoy six of them.
As the film is in black and white, we have a lot of speculation on how to match Nick’s look. However, it also gives us plenty of room to match Nick’s style:
- Dark navy pinstripe wool suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 3-button suit jacket with sharp peak lapels, welted breast pocket, flapped straight hip pockets with flapped ticket pocket, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Single-breasted 6-button suit vest with two welt pockets and notched bottom
- Pleated trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms
- White dress shirt with a large point collar and double/French cuffs
- Dark/light-striped necktie with right-down-to-left stripe pattern
- Pocket watch with long “double Albert” chain and fob
- Black leather balmoral/oxford shoes
- Black thin silk dress socks
- White cotton boxer briefs
The gentleman’s gentleman, Nick completes his look with a white linen handkerchief in his breast pocket.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the entire film series.
It’s hard to pick just one, but to sum up Nick Charles’ demeanor and outlook…
Nick: I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.
Nora: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.
Since I cheated and threw as many quotes as I could in this post, it’s obvious that Nick Charles is immensely quotable. Check out more for yourself.