Saturday 4 June 2011

Fast and Loose (1939)

Director: Edwin L Marin
Stars: Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell

Even in Hollywood's so-called greatest year, they were still getting up to the same shenanigans they do today. Fast and Loose features William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles yet again, as they did many times after the success of The Thin Man in 1934. No, wait a minute, that's not true. Contrary to every expectation we have from the moment the film begins, with a note to the milkman asking for him to 'please leave one quart of aspirin tablets', Fast and Loose is an unashamed knock-off, the middle of three movies featuring Joel and Garda Sloane, who are Nick and Nora in everything but name. Sure, the cast is missing a wirehaired terrier and for this couple incessant partying mean that they have trouble making ends meet, but that's why they have to work for a living. Joel Sloane is a rare book dealer with a sideline in helping insurance companies investigate the theft of such things. In such ways are knock-offs born.

While the first of the three Joel and Garda films, the previous year's Fast Company, had Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice in the lead roles, this second instalment saw Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell take over. The stellar supporting cast from the first film isn't quite as stellar this time out, but it does include Reginald Owen, Etienne Girardot and Ian Wolfe, though surprisingly none of them seem to really get their teeth into their roles. It's rare for any of them to disappoint and they're all watchable here but they should have been better and I couldn't help but wonder why. Perhaps Edwin L Marin shot it as fast and loose as the title suggests. What's most surprising is that Montgomery and Russell breeze along well with the material, but were promptly replaced for the third film, Fast and Furious, made the same year, by Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern. When MGM can't keep the same leads over three films in two years, something is wrong.
Fortunately in 1939 even a film with problems is pretty palatable. The writer was Harry Kurnitz, a former journalist who, under the pseudonym of Marco Page, wrote the script for Fast Company and the source novel it was adapted from. He also wrote original screenplays for both the follow ups and obviously impressed someone because he was soon moved up to the series he knocked off. He wrote the screenplay for the fourth instalment in that series, Shadow of the Thin Man, one of the best sequels ever written, and co-wrote the story for the fifth, The Thin Man Goes Home. Kurnitz certainly understands what made Nick and Nora great, though he plays with the formula just a little and he's more blatant with Joel and Garda than he would be with Nick and Nora. His story here is roughshod in places but it speeds along nicely with an appropriate combination of complexities and plentiful helpings of clues, action and humorous dialogue.

Beyond Joel Sloane, who has convenient connections to almost everyone in the story, it revolves around a scrap of a William Shakespeare manuscript. It's owned by Nick Torrent, a rich collector who has found himself in financial trouble, for mysterious reasons. Another collector, the absent minded Christopher Oates, wants to buy the manuscript and he wants Sloane to handle the sale. When Sloane tries to find a way into the Torrent household, he finds that Dave Hilliard, Torrent's insurer, wants him in too. He hands him a first edition of Paradise Lost, apparently lost or stolen from Torrent's library but mysteriously without a claim. Already inside both Torrent's house and confidence is Phil Sergeant, something akin to Sloane's protégé, though mysteriously unhelpful. The mysteries add up, as do the corpses, though the most mysterious may be how the role of Torrent's son, the rich living Gerald, was given to someone with the name of Tom Collins.

Detailing much more of the story would spoil it, as this mystery isn't just about whodunit. There are a whole host of red herrings, so many that Harry Kurnitz was presumably experimenting with the things. Compared to your average TV show nowadays, in which my wife can invariably tell you whodunit within five minutes of the opening credits, Kurnitz piles twists on top of mysteries on top of complexities, but manages to keep a relatively slick story. We aren't confused at any point, though the armchair detectives in us are certainly kept busy. My wish was simply that the first red herring, Mr Wilkes, would have had more of a part. He's played by Ian Wolfe, a name not well remembered today, but who owned a face that every classic film fan would recognise, as he played many short but memorable parts from 1934 to 1990. I've enjoyed his work from as early as 1935's Mad Love and as late as 1990's Dick Tracy, his last film. He gets very little to do here.
Another perennial scene stealer is Etienne Girardot, perhaps best known to most as Dr Doremus, the coroner in a trio of Philo Vance movies in the mid-thirties. He's the absent-minded, perhaps senile, Christopher Oates, so really should have stolen every scene he's in with his fondness for sayings but inability to remember the last word of any of them. However like Wolfe, he can't get his teeth into the part for some reason and so becomes mildly amusing background. The Torrent family are background, as are their butler and business manager. Even Lucky Nolan, a local hood who runs a gambling palace and has his hooks into the Torrent household, is background, only Joan Marsh managing to elevate herself as Nolan's moll, Bobby Neville. At the ripe old age of 26, she wasn't too far off retirement, with over fifty films behind her and only seven more to go. She may have had the smallest feet in Hollywood, but she's pretty notable here.

For the most part it's difficult to focus much on anything except the intricacies of the plot and the charisma of the two leads. Robert Montgomery is a real go getter as Joel Sloane, more active than William Powell ever was as Nick Charles, but with just as dry a sense of humour. He drives much of this story, as much by his actions as by his character's connections to so many of the others. Rosalind Russell is a little more active than Myrna Loy's Nora Charles too. Though she tries and mostly succeeds in preserving Loy's unflappable calm, she does get a scream queen moment here that feels more than a little out of place. There's also a jealousy that goes beyond Nora's laconic wit and suggests at a little more than perhaps it should. Regardless of the quality of this pair of knock-off characters though, they're eminently watchable. No, they're not Nick and Nora, but they're watchable nonetheless and I should find the bookends to the trilogy.

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