Friday, June 3, 2011

Husband & Wife Detectives: Fast and Loose (1939)

Fast and Loose (MGM, 1939; Director: Edwin L. Marin) is the second of three entries in the sleuthing saga of husband and wife rare book dealers Joel and Guarda Sloane. This one stars Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell as the sleuthing couple. The studio was still trying to replicate the success of their Thin Man series with a similar-themed married detective duo when their star, William Powell, was out of action for two years while undergoing treatment for Cancer (all of which is chronicled in Replacing the Thin Man.)

Note: Forgive me when I interchange the actors’ names and that of their characters. Joel=Bob; Guarda=Roz. We’re also spoiler free as always, these reviews merely splatter some scattered thoughts and impressions of the movie seen.

The Story: Joel and Guarda Sloane are in an expensive line of work, but seeing as there’s a Depression on, they’re finding themselves in dire financial straits. Luckily, they get the chance to sell a Shakespeare manuscript, but when its owner winds up dead, Joel and Guarda find themselves working another murder case.

The fact that the Sloanes have creditors nipping at their heels doesn’t stop them from engaging in Nick-and-Nora like revelry as Fast and Loose opens, with the camera panning along the floor with various undergarments strewn about the room and finally settling on our heroes sleeping off their hangover—in separate beds, naturally. They also have “cute” signs hung on their front door, like “Milkman, please leave 1 quart of aspirin tablets”, things that would appear in later Thin Man movies, when that series’ sophisticated banter occasionally gave way to attacks of the cutes. More Nick and Nora-style witticisms continue as Joel and Guarda’s phone rings, with the couple “talking” to it as if that will get it to stop. It’s all Thin Man by association as well as execution.

Montgomery has an amusing bit when he talks to his bleary-faced reflection in a gorgeous Cedric Gibbons-designed bathroom set, with the round mirror and Deco shower stall being quite impressive; it’s a shame we only see it in that one scene and the shower stall only in passing!

“I don’t know who you are my friend, but if you stand still I’ll shave you.”

Robert Montgomery is quite good in Fast and Loose. Bob in light comedy mode is always a treat and he’s fun to watch here. He avoids any comparisons to William Powell’s Nick Charles and inhabits the Joel Sloane role with his own pleasant style (and he wears a porkpie hat, too). Montgomery has several impressive scenes, all in keeping with the breezy tone of this “light” murder mystery.

Rosalind Russell’s Guarda Sloane, however, is a bit too much like Nora Charles, only with a jealous streak. In fact, Roz’s speaking tones in the film’s first half hour are very much like those of Myrna Loy’s. It’s as if Russell is aware of the limitations of her character and that it’s all been done already—by Myrna Loy. That doesn’t keep us from enjoying her go at this role. Only in the scenes where she plays things with a broader comic range does she emanate her trademark Rozness. It’s also interesting to note that she wears low-heeled shoes in Fast and Loose, because the 5’8’ Russell towers over Montgomery!

Montgomery and Russell have solid on-screen chemistry, though they have comparatively little screen time together. The bit where Guarda is tying a ribbon into the brainstorming Joel's hair is amusing.

The Supporting Cast: All are quite good, despite my never having seen most of them before. The entire group is paraded early on in the film, giving the viewer a chance to see a bunch of contract players act guilty. Most notable are Etienne Giradot, who plays the absent-minded Mr. Oates. One of the ongoing jokes in Fast and Loose is Guarda’s correcting Oates’ mangling of clichés. She has more time with Oates than she does with her own husband.

There’s also a fine performance by Sidney Blackmer (Lucky Nolan), the mob boss who’s a combination of polished villainy and menace. Nolan’s the kind of bad guy who’s smooth and calculating but isn’s above slapping a dame in her yap for mouthing off. Blackmer would later enjoy a long career in several TV guest appearances, including Robert Montgomery Presents, appearing in that program three times. Blackmer gets the best line in the movie: “May I have the pleasure of your absence?”

One cast member of particular interest is the role of Phil Sergeant, played by Anthony Allan (though credited as “John Hubbard; that’s Hollywood). Allan looks like he could work as Bob Montgomery’s stand in or stunt double, as the two look alarmingly alike! They even have similar-styled hair. There’s a shot of the two standing face to face and they resemble mirror images of one another. Bob even says (as Sergeant is hauled away as a suspect): “There goes the only protégé I ever had!” Is that an in joke?

“I worry when someone shoots you.”

Other Thin Man-style touches include the Lucky Nolan gambling den scene, where many comedic shenanigans occur. Joel performs an amusing hidden coin trick on one of Lucky’s thugs which he punctuates with a bored “Ho hum.” Joel says that twice in the movie, as if they were trying it as a catchphrase. After a violent fracas injures our heroes, the couple sport matching steaks for their matching black eyes. Guarda mentions that her appetite is intensifying as she’s got food on her face.

The murder mystery element takes a turn for the brutal when one of the suspects is murdered and found stuffed inside a standing suit of armor that all wealthy people in the ‘30s had.

I love how in 1930s and ‘40s films, the cops look like cops and the thugs look like thugs. Nowadays, they’re apt to resemble those ivory-fleshed teen vampire people that have addled the brain of a generation.

All in all, Fast and Loose is a fun seventy-five minute distraction from the present day, with enough star power and charisma from the two leads to make it all worthwhile. None of the three “Fast” movies are yet available on DVD, but it looks like an ideal project for the Warner Brothers Archive. These would make a fine addition to my growing collection of Husband and Wife Detective movies.

A special thanks to Carrie of
Classic Montgomery for providing some of these pictures.


  1. I love this movie, but then the stars are my two favorites. (I also adore Powell & Loy). I think Bob Montgomery is always at his best with Roz Russell. Too bad they didn't star in the whole series.

  2. Speaking of detectives, just stumbled upon a Nero Wolf detective book from the library's buck a bag sale. I love it. Have you read any?

  3. I'm only somewhat familiar with Nero Wolfe, though I understand he's married to gourmet cuisine and orchids rather than a wife. :D


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