Before the Thin Man

Before MGM filmed “The Thin Man” in 1934, the studio made a similar film written by the same screenwriters (Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett) called “Penthouse” in 1933.  Instead of Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, Penthouse gives us Warner Baxter as Jackson Durant and Myrna Loy as Gertie Waxted.   Gertie, a call girl, teams up with Jackson to solve the murder of her best friend.  In the process, Durant and Gertie fall in love.  Although this pre-code film does not refer openly to Gertie’s profession, it doesn’t hide it either.

Myrna Loy as Gertie Waxted.

Baxter’s Durant is a rougher and less sophisticated version of William Powell’s Nick Charles; he tells off gangsters and throws punches when needed.  It seems pretty obvious to the police who killed Gertie’s friend, but Durant refuses to give up the case.  He continually enters the gangster lairs to unravel the mystery.  Eventually, Gertie helps with the case too, ensuring a tighter bond between them.  But it seems incongruous that Gertie and Durant would become a team so quickly.  In The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles were already married, so their detective partnership seems more real.

Even though Myrna Loy plays in both films, she doesn’t seem much like Nora Charles at all in Penthouse.  The director, W. S. Van Dyke, makes her less sophisticated, which makes sense since she’s a prostitute who works for gangsters.  But Myrna Loy projects such class that she almost seems like a society dame.  And the screenwriters provide lots of snappy dialogue for Gertie.  The Durant character, a talented criminal lawyer, is portrayed as a regular Joe.  Even though he successfully defends a noted gangster named Tony Gazotti, he refuses to take Gazotti’s money.  Gazotti’s gratitude and desire to bestow favors on Durant leads to a pivotal moment in the story.

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