Made in Berkeley: Shadow of the Thin Man

Nick and Nora Charles enjoy a day at Golden Gate Fields

Shooting a movie on location simply wasn’t necessary during Hollywood’s Golden Age—the period from the late 1920s through late 1950s when the studio system was firmly in control of American film production. Whether a film was set in the back alleys of Old Shanghai, the drawing rooms of modern-day London, or the dachas of Imperial Russia, there was a set on the back-lot—or at worst a location a few hours drive away—that could fill in and provide a reasonable facsimile of the real thing. Which makes it all the more surprising that MGM chose to film exteriors for the fourth of their popular Thin Man series, Shadow of the Thin Man, right here in Berkeley, U.S.A.

Dashiell Hammett’s novel “The Thin Man” became a bestseller as soon as it was published in January 1934, and MGM wasted little time snapping up the screen rights to the book. A film version immediately went into production and was released that May, and film-goers were instantly smitten with the film’s protagonists, Nick and Nora Charles, a married couple assisting police in their search for the titular character’s killer.

Portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy, Nick and Nora were a playful, loving, and comfortably (but not ostentatiously) well-off couple who provided aspirational dreams for Depression-era Americans. They were the screen’s first team of equal opportunity crime-solvers, and they also happened to have the cutest dog ever to grace the silver screen, Asta, as their animal companion. It was an unbeatable combination that we’ll all be appreciating even more come 2013, when a mooted remake of The Thin Man starring Johnny Depp is scheduled to arrive in local multiplexes.

In Shadow of the Thin Man, Nick and Nora are ensconced with their 4-year old son Nicholas (previously a new-born in 1939’s Another Thin Man) at San Francisco’s fictional St. Cloud Hotel. Though somewhat tamed and domesticated by parenthood, Nick reads the racing form to young Nicky when he should be reading him fairy tales, and when he spots tempting odds at an upcoming equine joust, convinces Nora to accompany him to the racetrack at Greenway Park.

Driving east on the then only five-years old Bay Bridge, Nick and Nora are pulled over for speeding, but the star-struck cop ends up giving them a police escort to Greenway—which turns out to be Berkeley’s own Golden Gate Fields. With Albany Hill in the background, Nick and Nora pull up outside the grounds just in time to get involved in the case of a murdered jockey, and there are some brief establishing shots of the Fields. Shadow of the Thin Man then departs the Bay Area and returns to the MGM backlot, where it stays for its remaining eighty minutes (though not without some decent glass matte and process screen shots mixed in to maintain continuity).

Though we don’t see any more of Berkeley itself during Shadow of the Thin Man, there’s one other constant reminder of it throughout the film: co-star Barry Nelson. Cast here as journalist and Charles’ family friend Paul Clarke, Nelson was born in San Francisco, grew up in Oakland, and graduated from Cal in May 1941. Spotted by a local talent scout in a senior-year production of “Macbeth” and signed as a contract player by MGM, Nelson later became the first actor to portray James Bond, in a 1954 CBS television production of Casino Royale. Produce doesn’t get much more locally grown than that, and home-town boys rarely make good in such spectacular fashion!

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  This is the sixth post in an occasional series by John Seal on “locally grown” movies . The other movies reviewed in the series are: ChangesHarold and MaudeTear Gas and Law Enforcement,The Assassination of Richard Nixon and The Graduate.

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  • Dan

    Isn’t Golden Gate Fields … (mostly) in Albany? The city limit cuts across the property just south of the racetrack proper; some stables and offices are in Berkeley, while the track and grandstands are in our neighbor to the north. Nick and Nora still had to drive through Berkeley, and past the then-malodorous tidal flats, to get there, though. (Also of note: “Shadow of the Thin Man” was filmed in the track’s inaugural year.)

  • Peter

    Berkeley movie buffs also may want to check out the classic film “To Catch a Thief,” starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, and “Plunder of the Sun,” an all-too-often-overlooked film staring Glenn Ford. Both films are based on novels by David Dodge — a Berkeley native.
    (Incidentally, the novels “Plunder of the Sun” and “The Last Match,” which was Dodge’s last book, were recently re-published in paperback. Both are readilly available).

  • @Dan — I was thinking the same thing!!