When people think of classic husband-and-wife detective duos, what probably first leaps to mind are Nick and Nora Charles, the loving, gin-sozzled and sophisticated pair so memorably portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy in six films for MGM, starting with The Thin Man in 1934 and ending with Song of the Thin Man in 1947. The series was so popular that others tried their hand at similar movies featuring chic couples involved with murder and mayhem. Powell himself was roped in for two enjoyable one-offs - Star of Midnight (1935) with Ginger Rogers as Powell's fiancee (not wife), and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (also 1935), this time with Jean Arthur as Powell's ex-wife, who always lures her exasperated hubby into solving crimes. Later examples include the 1942 film Mr. and Mrs. North (with Gracie Allen as Pam North!) and the later TV series of the same name (starring Richard Denning and Barbara Britton) - both based off the novels written by Francis and Richard Lockridge; and, in the 1970s, McMillan and Wife, featuring Rock Hudson and Susan St. James as a charming pair of married detectives, one of the hubs of the original NBC Mystery Movie wheel, alongside Columbo and McCloud. But there was one more short-lived movie series which arguably comes closest to capturing some of that old Nick and Nora / "Thin Man" magic: Fast Company (1938), Fast and Loose (1939) and Fast and Furious (also '39). All three feature the rare book seller-turned-amateur sleuth Joel Sloane, given assistance (and occasional hindrance) by his glamorous and playful wife, Garda, and all three were produced by MGM in the hopes of filling the gaps between their "Thin Man" films.
Unlike the "Thin Man" series, which managed to keep Powell and Loy coming back for each film over a 13-year period, the studio couldn't quite seem to make up its mind with the "Fast" movies, and each feature a different pair of leading actors - Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice in Fast Company, Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell in Fast and Loose, and Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern in Fast and Furious. The kind of effortless chemistry shared by Powell and Loy is rare indeed, and while the casting in these films can't reach those heights, all three pairings work well in depicting the sort of flirty, bantering, playful married relationship that many audiences doubtless aspired to.
Lt. James Flanner: [to Joel] "Langner tells me that you've worked on some cases of stolen books... that you've helped the insurance companies quite a bit."
Steve Langner: "Any favors he does we pay him for. There's not an altruistic bone in his body."
Garda Sloane: "Anything you want to know about my husband's bones, Lieutenant, you can ask me."
When shady rare book dealer and first-class slimeball, Otto Brockler (George Zucco), gets his head bashed in with a marble eagle in his office and the police's chief suspect is Ned Morgan (Shepperd Strudwick), Joel Sloane gets drawn into the case. Ned, earlier falsely accused of theft by Brockler and recently released after spending two years in jail, was last seen arguing violently with Brockler shortly before his death. Complicating matters is Brockler's daughter, Leah (Mary Howard), who's in love with Ned and was planning to marry him against her father's wishes. Sympathetic to Ned's plight, Joel starts to poke around the case and unearths several more suspects, including Eli Bannerman (Louis Calhern), a silent partner in Brockler's criminal enterprises; forger Sidney Wheeler (Dwight Frye), in cahoots with Bannerman; and Brockler's sexy secretary, Julia Thorne (Claire Dodd). Much to Garda's chagrin, Joel suspects Julia of knowing more than she lets on about Brockler's crooked business and starts spending some time cozying up to her in order to ferret out some clues (tough work if you can get it). Nosing around proves a dangerous game, and the closer Joel gets to the truth, the deadlier the threats grow - not just for Joel, but Garda, too...
As far as I'm concerned, if you can't get William Powell, Melvyn Douglas is a damned good second choice. The talented Douglas really excels at this kind of frothy, breezy fare, and he's wonderfully smooth and confident as Joel. He gets all manner of great lines, and is convincing not only at all the quick-fire romantic banter, but also in the rather surprising number of scraps and fisticuffs that pepper the film. Douglas had a long and storied early career in the 1930s and 40s before seeing work dry up during the HUAC Communist witch hunts of the 50s, but bounced back in subsequent decades, winning two Oscars in the process - one for Hud (1963) and another for I Never Sang for my Father (1970). One of my favorite Douglas roles is as Cary Grant's affable buddy Bill, always caught in compromising positions with Grant's wife Myrna Loy in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).
Fast Company, along with having the best script and most polished production of the three "Fast" films, also boasts the best supporting cast, with memorable villainous faces like Zucco, Calhern, Douglas Dumbrille and even Dwight Frye (so famously fidgety as Renfield in the Lugosi version of Dracula). Also look for the always-welcome Nat Pendleton (memorable as the cop on the case in The Thin Man) as a big slab of mob muscle who holds Joel captive. Claire Dodd also registers strongly as a very sultry, mysterious femme fatale. Director Edward Buzzell shows a light hand with both the comedy and mystery elements; aside from helming the Marx Brothers movies At the Circus and Go West, he also directed the final Nick and Nora Charles pic, Song of the Thin Man.
Fast and Loose
Garda Sloane: "My husband may not look very bright, but he's really very good at this sort of thing."
Kurnitz's screenplay keeps the comedy still in a nice balance with the mystery here, with the plot treated pretty straight (albeit wrapped up rather abruptly), in this, at 80 minutes, the longest of the three films. The movie starts out leisurely by introducing Joel and Garda in bed after a rough night of carousing (complete with unlikely but cute close-ups on handwritten signs, one outside their door that says "Milkman: Please leave one quart of aspirin tablets" and another on the bedroom nightstand which says "Dear Telephone: One peep out of you and we'll cancel all agreements.") They're woken up by a call from absent-minded, wealthy book collector Mr. Oates (Etiene Girardot), who has learned that Nicholas Torrent (Ralph Morgan) is in financial straits and is planning on selling an original piece of a Shakespeare manuscript, which Oates is interested in buying. Somewhat in financial straits themselves, the Sloanes agree to negotiate a fair price on Oates' behalf and end up as guests at the Torrent estate.
Once again, Joel is shown to be no slouch in the fighting department, getting the drop on Nolan in one cool scene, and handling his goons (or even thieving punk Gerald Torrent) with aplomb. There's a fun reference to Joel getting shot in the posterior from the previous film, with Garda breaking out his inflatable donut seat cushion as a sort of warning flag to not take too many risks. But when the violence and danger escalate, Garda refuses Joel's request to be whisked off to the safety of her mother's house in the country - she's in the thick of it, right there with him, and won't back down. That said, when the inflatable donut comes back in play at the end, she's the one who's directly responsible.
Montgomery and Russell were both pretty big stars by this point in their careers, and command the screen with ease. Despite his patrician looks and thin frame, Montgomery was often surprisingly convincing in tough guy roles, not only as the aforementioned Marlowe, but as the palooka given a second chance in Here Comes Mr. Jordan and as John Wayne's superior officer in John Ford's great WWII film, They Were Expendable. (In fact, Montgomery had a commendable service record in the war, achieving the rank of Commander in the U.S. Navy.) Montgomery was multi-talented, directing independent films such as Lady in the Lake, Ride the Pink Horse and Once More, My Darling, producing television series such as The Gallant Hours, serving on the boards of several big companies, and serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild (twice). He was also the father of Elizabeth Montgomery (of Bewitched fame).
While all the plot elements in Fast and Loose don't quite fit together perfectly by the somewhat rushed (yet funny) ending, it's almost as good a film as Fast Company, and director Edwin L. Marin keeps things moving along at a brisk clip, with some nice noirish touches, including a very effective nighttime car crash (which results in both Joel and Garda getting matching shiners). And at least the central mystery is taken fairly seriously, something which the third, and final, film in this brief series can't really claim.
Fast and Furious
Garda Sloane: [Finding a tape measure that she suspects will be used on beauty pageant candidates] "And what were you going to measure with this, Mr. Sloane?"
Joel Sloane: "High tide."
The world of rare and antique books doesn't factor at all in the final film in the series. It's smack dab in the sweltering dog days of August in NYC, and Garda (Ann Sothern) is determined to persuade Joel (Franchot Tone) into heading somewhere cooler for a well-deserved vacation. This coincides with a visit from Mike Stevens (Lee Bowman), an old college buddy of Joel's who's stopped by to ask him to kick in $5,000 to help promote a beauty pageant being held in Seaside City. To pay him back for his help, Mike invites Joel and Garda down for the event, all expenses paid, which suits Garda just fine - until she finds out that Joel has been appointed one of the pageant judges. Mike is working for Eric Bartell (John Miljan), a sleazy promoter in hock to gangster Ed Connors (Bernard Nedell). The no-good fink Bartell plans to skip town with all the profits from the pageant, leaving everyone else high and dry. When an incensed Mike finds out, he goes to confront him, but finds Bartell dead, shot in the back and his safe empty of the cash. The cops lock Mike up, but Joel quickly establishes some additional viable suspects, including Bartell's secretary and spurned lover, Lily Cole (Ruth Hussey); statuesque pageant contestant and Bartell's latest squeeze, Jerry Lawrence (Mary Beth Hughes); Jerry's ex-boyfriend, reporter Ted Bentley (Allyn Joslyn), there to cover the event for his paper; and racketeer Connors, who Bartell still owed $15,000 in gambling debts at the time of his death.
While the slightest of the three films, Fast and Furious is still a hoot, with the delightful, sexy Sothern coming off especially well. The "Fast" series faded away after this third film, but Sothern found success with her long-running "Maisie" series of B-movies, and finished out her career in style alongside Bette Davis, Lillian Gish and Vincent Price in The Whales of August (1987). Franchot Tone is good here, too, plenty suave and quick with a quip, if lacking the hard-boiled edge that Douglas and (especially) Montgomery brought to the role. Ruth Hussey is somewhat wasted in the small part of the frosty Ms. Cole; her best work, in films like The Uninvited and The Philadelphia Story, lay a few years ahead of her. Coincidentally, the busy Hussey was also a supporting player in Another Thin Man (also 1939). Mary Beth Hughes is given even less to do than Hussey but smolders effectively, and Allyn Joslyn is another of those familiar "Hey, it's that guy!" faces from countless classic films, including Only Angels Have Wings, The Great McGinty and Heaven Can Wait.
It's interesting to note not only the similarities to the "Thin Man" series, but the differences. Unlike the Charles', the Sloanes are far from filthy rich, but obviously enjoy a swanky enough life for audiences to still envy. While Nick Charles is a retired detective, always reluctantly brought in to solve murders, Joel Sloane seems to be fairly renowned for tracking down stolen rare books and doesn't shy away from such work, and in fact seems to derive most of his income from investigations for various well-paying insurance companies (a little like a less smug Banacek). Nora Charles is always enthusiastic in spurring on her "Nicky" to get involved in various cases, but Garda Sloane is the more reluctant partner, concerned that, by tangling with murderers, Joel might come to some serious harm. There's also the running gag where every murder case Joel sticks his nose in seems to involve a hot blonde or two somewhere along the line, with whom Joel seems quite happy to spend some quality time kibbitzing (purely in the interests of solving the case, you understand), much to the jealous Garda's dismay. This is all played for laughs, with no doubt as to where Joel's true affections lie, but it's much more to the forefront here than in the "Thin Man" series, where jealousy rarely rares its ugly head; the only reaction such shenanigans arouse from Myrna Loy's uber-cool, self-possessed Nora is an amused, arched eyebrow. By the last film, Fast and Furious, Garda almost starts to come across as a scold (luckily, Ann Sothern's bubbly charm keeps things light and sparkly rather than tedious).
In the end, while not in the same league as the original The Thin Man, the Joel and Garda Sloane mysteries hold their own pretty dang well when measured against the later "Thin Man" entries; the Sloanes were made early and close enough together to not fall prey to the more mellow, "old married couple" vibe that takes the teeth somewhat out of the last few Nick and Noras. The "Fast" films are just the ticket for those looking for fun, sophisticated whodunnits with lots of smart dialogue, which show that not only can crimebusting be a glamorous lark, but that the romantic spark doesn't have to go out when a couple walks down the aisle.
This post is my contribution to the Sleuthathon, hosted by Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently. Please point your magnifying glasses, deerstalkers and trenchcoats over there to peruse more fun posts on all manner of amateur sleuths, crusading reporters and private eyes.
DVD Note: These three little comedy/mystery gems were largely forgotten for years until recent airings on Turner Classic Movies, and now the Warner Archive Collection has done fans a true service by releasing all three on one Made-On-Demand DVD. The transfers aren't pristine but generally look very nice indeed. A slight warning, though, which may or may not hold true for others: I've had occasional problems with some Warner Archive DVD-Rs freezing or skipping in my (usually highly reliable) Oppo DVD player, and this is one of them (only Fast and Loose gave me slight hiccuping problems; the other two films played perfectly). However, I was able to play the film just fine on my computer.