This is the fifth post in a series in which I explore what classic film actresses in iconic roles can teach us — and, more particularly, my fast-growing daughter — about the seven classic virtues. These posts follow the order of the virtues that Dante encounters in his journey up through Purgatorio. The first post was on humility and Ingrid Bergman’s character in Casablanca. The second was “Jean Arthur and Virtue of Kindness.” The third post examined the power of meekness through Donna Reed’s character in It’s A Wonderful Life. The fourth post was “Katharine Hepburn and Zeal”.
In The Thin Man, Myrna Loy plays Nora Charles, a character who — in a somewhat more glamorous way — echoes Dante’s examples of charity on the fifth terrace of Purgatorio while offering one additional valuable insight: that genuine generosity is downright fun. At first blush, it may seem an odd assertion that Nora Charles is some great exemplar of charity. Is she not just a frivolous wealthy socialite whose only job is to parade around in fine dresses and drink cocktails? On the surface, it may appear that the answer is yes. Dante would remind us, however, that when it comes to charity, to be solely concerned with appearances rather than actions would be to turn away from generosity and, in fact, embrace charity’s corresponding vice, greed.
When the viewer concerns herself more with what Nora Charles does, these small, subtle actions show us a character whose life — far from being easily dismissed as morally insignificant at best, morally bankrupt at worse — actually provides many parallels to Good Fabricius, Saint Nicholas, and even Mary the Mother of God: Dante’s three examples of charity. Additionally, her actions, particularly with respect to her marriage, demonstrate how refraining from small, subtle acts of greed in favor of loving generosity unshackle a person to embrace a life of fun and joy.
Greed is the main driver of The Thin Man’s plot. Over the course of the movie, there are multiple murders which are committed for the sake of money. Nora Charles encourages her new husband Nick, played by William Powell, to pursue the case. Nick is a former detective who has retired from flatfoot work in order — as he says, tongue-in-cheek — to spend his wife’s money. Although doing so puts both her husband and her in considerable danger — not to mention into close contact with a pretty young woman who has a childhood crush on Nick — Nora continues to insist her husband take the case as well as become involved with the detecting herself.
Throughout The Thin Man, it is useful to look at Nora Charles in light of Dante’s three examples of charity: Good Fabricius, St. Nicholas, and Mary the Mother of God.
Gaius Fabricius Luscinus was a Roman civic leader from the third century B.C. He was known to be a dedicated servant of the Republic. He could have had all the ill-gotten trappings of a very important man, climbing the social/political ladder to impressive heights, yet he chose to forgo doing so entirely. He rejected bribes of wealth and accolades, choosing to live no better than his fellow ordinary Roman citizens.
Like Good Fabricius, Nora could have done a lot better for herself by marrying someone from her own social class with the right connections for further societal advancement. Instead, she marries Nick, an ordinary Roman citizen if you will, whose primary connections are with the uncouth working class and the criminal underworld. Rather than disdain Nick’s friends and contacts, she welcomes them with open arms and good humor and uses her inherited family wealth to offer hospitality to those on the lower rungs of society who continually come through her door.
In this way, she is a small echo of St. Nicholas, who also inherited a fortune and resolved to use it not to further his own interests, but to serve others. Nora effectively bankrolls the assistance she and Nick extend, from offering to take in a young woman whose family life is a bit of a mess, to paying for and hosting the climatic dinner where the last details of the case can come out and the murderer is revealed.
There are some who might look at Nora’s life from the outside and be tempted to demean her for either wasting her social capital on assisting so many undesirable characters, or criticize her for being nothing more than a pretty, privileged socialite whose actions are not worthy of consideration. Interestingly, Myrna Loy encountered similar criticism when she volunteered for the Red Cross and the U.N. during World War II. There was much cynical snickering over a glamorous movie star rolling up her sleeves and doing her bit. Nora Charles as well as Myrna Loy are easy targets for scoffers from multiple corners of society. Did this stop either the fictional or the real woman? Certainly not. Myrna Loy continued her volunteer work throughout her life, including her later advocacy for ending housing discrimination as a part of the Civil Rights Movement. As for Nora Charles, given her character, one can easily imagine her laughing good naturedly in the face of scurrilous gossip, pouring herself another cocktail, and then inviting her slanderer in to have one (or three) as well.
Minus the cocktails, this kind of attitude would put Nora Charles in good company with Mary the Mother of God. Like Mary, Nora lives her life without seeming to give two hoots as to what the outside world thinks of her. When Mary willingly conceived Jesus as an unmarried woman, she effectively relinquished her standing in her community. There was no social payoff later on in Mary’s life; she received no bragging rights for being the mother of a man who consorted with all sorts of undesirable company. Her son then grew up to be the most despised and rejected of men, a failure by the world’s standards. Yet Mary willingly took on this lowly life without a thought to her own social capital and how it might diminish her in the eyes of others.
While Good Fabricius, Saint Nicholas, and Mary were satisfied with looking outside of their own gain and image in favor of service to others, the greedy turn inward towards their own interests, forever wanting more, dooming themselves to a life of perpetual dissatisfaction. Among the examples that Dante gives are Pygmalion and Midas, both kings who, despite their vast wealth, are not content. In both cases, by seeking to add to their already considerable wealth, they either gained nothing or tragically sacrificed that which they truly loved.
Greed does not always manifest itself in such outsized ways. Dante provides three biblical examples of greed where ordinary folk simply skimmed a little off of the top. After Achan pocketed a few spoils of Jericho rather than turning over everything to God, he was stoned to death and his family and possessions were all burned. Sapphira and Annanias sold all their possessions and kept a small portion for themselves, rather than giving it all for distribution to the poor. Finally, there is Heliodorus, who went to collect money from the temple in Jerusalem which the king erroneously believed he was owed. These small acts of greed are severely punished in all three cases. Generosity is meant to be total, a sum of all our actions great and small, with nothing held back because we think we need it or are in some way entitled to it.
In The Thin Man, this all-in generosity is apparent in Nora’s marriage to Nick. There are numerous scenes in which Nora might choose to be just a little greedy, eliciting words of reassurance or apology from Nick because she believes she is entitled to them, but instead, in her good humor she is unfailingly generous.
In Myrna Loy’s first scene of the movie, Nora encounters her husband in a bar talking to the young, pretty Dorothy. Without a hint that she suspects her husband of flirting with another woman, Nora asks who the pretty girl is and Nick starts to make up an amusing tongue-in-cheek story about Dorothy being the daughter of a long-ago affair. Without missing a beat, Nora joins in the repartee of Nick’s wit and then promptly orders five more martinis to catch up to her husband. She could have sought reassurance of her husband’s affections, but it is clear that such self-serving insecurities are incompatible in a marriage where husband and wife are having too much fun with one another, much preferring to nurse another drink than a grudge.
In a later scene, Nora walks in on Nick and Dorothy embracing. Having seen what came just before, the audience knows there’s nothing untoward about the moment in which Nick exhibited fatherly concern rather than flirtatious interest in the girl, but it could have easily been uncharitably interpreted by Nora. Instead, Loy portrays Nora as completely unphased immediately — and correctly — assuming the girl needed sympathy and does not issue her husband a suspicious reprimand. Husband and wife charmingly make silly faces at each other and a moment that could have caused a rift only serves to further display their affection for one another. By not keeping score, by not trying to win points and skim a little off the top or keep in reserve to build one’s own self-esteem, husband and wife are completely free to laugh, skip, crack jokes, pull pranks, and serve one another with nothing but loving admiration and affection. Every step of the way through the movie (and the subsequent Thin Man movies), even during times of mortal danger, the two are having fun together, which is only possible through their complete connubial generosity.
Greed can never be satisfied, it will only demand more, sucking the joy and good humor out of life. We will never be rich enough, powerful enough, or secure enough in our relationships if we are constantly seeking to take back a little for ourselves because we think we deserve it or need it. Nora Charles was born into privilege, but she did not greedily augment her socio-economic standing. Rather, she practiced joyful generosity at which some may look askance, but not any who can recognize her actions in the examples of Good Fabricius, St. Nicholas, and Mary. To truly love is to be truly generous, and oh, how liberating it can be! Rather than be controlled by an imperious ledger of what we think we are entitled to, we are invited by Fabricius, St. Nicholas, Mary, and Nora Charles from The Thin Man to let go of the chain that binds us to our greed and give freely of the gifts we have been given without a thought to how it may profit us or how it may look to others. Raise a glass to Myrna Loy and to all of those who show us that generosity is not only possible, it’s also immensely enjoyable.
Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman in the Hudson Valley who has had an odd assortment of jobs and education.