In one of my favorite scenes from The Thin Man series, Nick Charles pretends his wife is contagious for laughs. It made me think of outbreaks, and how they’ve been used to panic audiences—or amuse them. Somehow funny scenes so often result from mocking our greatest fears. So on the lovely actress’s birthday, here’s that scene—and another like it from many decades later—when the characters mess with the crowds around them for very different reasons.
Eliminating Suitors: Nora in Another Thin Man (1939)
Nora’s (Myrna Loy’s) considerable sex appeal is a joke in many of The Thin Man movies. Ex-cons can’t believe someone so desirable could be Nick’s wife instead of his mistress. Men follow her and hit on her constantly. Just look at her.
To clear them away quickly, he begins, “Now Mommy, you know better than to come to a place like this your first day out of bed. What if the health officers find out? They’ll put you right back in quarantine.”
At first, her expression suggests she may be annoyed by his ploy. But her response tells us otherwise: “I won’t stay in quarantine. I don’t care who catches it.”
The two are instantly alone. Whether this routine is a regular gag with them (it seems so practiced) or just a function of their quick-wittedness, the couple delivers it—as they do everything—beautifully.
Cracking Themselves Up: Sam & Carl in Ghost (1990)
We witness a smirk from Sam (Patrick Swayze) as soon as he and his friend Carl (Tony Goldwyn) enter the elevator of their business in Ghost. We know therefore whatever follows is a gag of some kind. Clearly, there’s some level of improvisation to their conversation, with each trying to outwit each other, and out-gross-out their unlucky audience.
Sam: “How you feeling? What did the doctor say?”
Carl: “He ummm said that it was contagious. That it was really—”
Yeah. “Yeah. He said that I shouldn’t even be coming in today.”
Sam: “What about the rash?”
Carl: “The rash?”
Carl: “The rash is ummm also incredibly contagious. He said that…will…spreading.”
Of course, it gets even grosser from there…and the two act like 10-year-old boys instead of grown men in enjoying their little joke.
I think I enjoy silly scenes like these because I know I would be far more likely to be the one decamping than the one making the joke. I would be the butt of the ploy, and can’t help but smile at how easily these characters would play me.