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."
The first (and best) film in the series, Fast Company was based on a novel written by Harry Kurnitz (under the pseudonym Marco Page). In adapting the book for film, Kurnitz changed the main couple's last name from Glass to Sloane, but otherwise kept fairly true to the plot of his novel. Kurnitz was brought to Hollywood to adapt Fast Company and ended up carving quite a niche for himself in the industry, penning scripts for a number of interesting movies, including Adventures of Don Juan (with Errol Flynn), The Inspector General (with Danny Kaye), the wonderful Agatha Christie adaptation Witness for the Prosecution and the less-wonderful but undeniably spectacular Land of the Pharaohs. He also provided the story for Hatari! and wrote the stage play on which A Shot in the Dark (far and away the funniest Inspector Clouseau film) was based. His work on all three "Fast" films must have impressed the MGM brass, as Kurnitz was also assigned to work on the original inspiration behind Joel and Garda Sloane, writing later entries Shadow of the Thin Man and The Thin Man Goes Home.
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).
Florence Rice is also terrific as Garda, feisty, sexy and quick to step in and save Joel's bacon when the going gets tough. Rice had the looks and could deliver the goods on screen, but by the early 40s her career had sadly petered out. Two of her more notable roles were in the Marx Brothers' vehicle At the Circus (1939), and, with Myrna Loy, vying for William Powell's affections in Double Wedding (1937).
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.
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