sovay: (Claude Rains)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-11-24 03:08 am
Entry tags:

I stole those books for him and I expect to get paid

Pleasant surprise of the evening: Dwight Frye in an otherwise undistinguished B-movie I was watching for the curiosity value. [ profile] teenybuffalo and [ profile] gwynnega, take note.

Although I recognize that they sound from their titles as though they should feature turbo-charged cars, splendidly diverse casts, and slash potential that goes up to eleven, Fast Company (1938), Fast and Loose (1939), and Fast and Furious (1939) are a weird little trio of light mysteries that exist for a reason so bizarrely specific, I waited a week of interlibrary loan just to see what they were like: they were made by MGM explicitly to provide a fix of married, witty amateur detectives during the three-year hiatus between the second and third Thin Man pictures. Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice star as Joel and Garda Sloane, married rare book dealers who run a sideline in recovering stolen rare books for insurance agencies.1 They're no William Powell and Myrna Loy, which they must have known, but to be fair their material's not exactly Dashiell Hammett. Their bantering chemistry works about half the time—they seem to get a charge out of playing boss and secretary, including in front of a visibly uncomfortable insurance investigator—but the remainder gets closer to sniping than I enjoy, even when repeatedly assured by the script that the characters love one another to distraction. The plot revolves around the murder of Otto Brockler (George Zucco), a miserly but prominent dealer who almost certainly framed his daughter's suitor for theft two years earlier; newly released from jail, Ned Morgan (Shepperd Strudwick) is the obvious suspect, but the dead man's daughter believes in his innocence and so does Joel Sloane, who sets out to clear his friend's name by finding first the real murderer and secondly the supposedly stolen books. Glamorous secretary Julia Thorne (Claire Dodd) plainly knows more than she's saying, deflecting Joel's questions with cool shutdowns like "Pardon me, do you take dope?" Smooth-talking, well-tailored Eli Bannerman (Louis Calhern) has a broad, confident smile and no qualms about cheating one of his criminal associates, setting up the man up for murder, and then killing him anyway. The police are exasperated by the constantly teasing Sloanes, but seem to need them for leads; Ned's lawyer doesn't believe his story of drunkenly stumbling onto the murder scene and then bolting in a panic; a pair of thugs are hired to take Joel out of the picture and Garda envies the latest fashions. There are some nice one-liners and some surprisingly suggestive exchanges, but further developments are best described as "machinations." This film runs less than an hour and a half and I was wondering by the fifty-minute mark how it even lasted that long.

Fortunately for my attention span, Fast Company supplies one real redeeming feature in the presence of Dwight Frye as one of the supporting criminals, a counterfeiter of rare books who is justifiably proud of his first-edition Leaves of Grass. With his octagonal glasses and his sideways-falling hair, Sidney Wheeler has a clerkish, geeky look, but he cleans up nicely to threaten his contemptuous partner with a gun he wasn't supposed to be carrying ("Put down that bottle and get your hands up—quick! Sit down. Rest yourself. Why don't you hit me now?") and take a girl out on the town with a wallet of stolen money, knocking back his nth shot of the night while the wide-eyed blonde breathes admiringly, "Boy, can you take it!" Especially in light of Frye's horror-maniac typecasting, it's fun to see him in a role that only calls for ordinarily bad judgment, like getting into the rare book racket with sharks like Bannerman and Brockler in the first place. Sidney is high-strung but not hysterical, happiest when disheveled and underslept, showing off his handiwork at the end of a long night; he grips the unfamiliar gun so tightly that his hand jitters, but at point-blank range it won't matter. He takes a fall like pantomime, toppling out of shot for seconds before he drops. I'm not sure he looks good in a bowtie, but it's cute on him. He gets four scenes before the plot catches up with him and I am profoundly grateful he was in the picture at all; Frye wasn't credited on the back of the box or in the opening titles, so it wasn't until the dramatis personae that I realized I had him to look forward to. I might well have bailed otherwise. Not surprisingly, I lost interest somewhat after he exited the script. Douglas and Rice are trying their best, but the failure mode of sparkling wit is a vague feeling of embarrassment for all concerned. Claire Dodd fares better by virtue of being the bad girl; her cold-blooded calculation makes her one of the more intelligent figures in the plot, since she at least can plan for the future. I suppose it's unfair to Shepperd Strudwick that I expected him to turn out crooked in some kind of twist. The selection of films in which I have previously seen Louis Calhern is peculiar.

So I had three quite good movies to write about, including the silent war epic I saw on Sunday, but I seem to have devoted this space instead to a 75-minute oddity created with only the most mercenary motives in mind. I may even subject myself to the sequels, although I do not expect them to contain surprise Dwight Frye.2 This distraction sponsored by my indulgent backers at Patreon.

1. In future outings, the characters will be played first by Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell, then by Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern, which is one of the reasons these films have fascinated me since I ran across mention of them. The writer in all three cases is the same, Harry Kurnitz, who had also written the original novel Fast Company under the name of Marco Page. The directors vary again, however, with the last being Busby Berkeley. I freely admit I want to know how that went down.

2. They don't. I checked IMDb. Alas. I would be tremendously entertained by a series of movies in which Dwight Frye appeared in small roles and met a different bad end each time.
kore: (Beth Gibbons - music)

[personal profile] kore 2015-11-24 05:42 pm (UTC)(link)
Thought you'd like this - Maddy Prior singing Undoing World

[identity profile] 2015-11-24 01:49 pm (UTC)(link)
"Boy, you can take it!" The sheer hard-drinkingness of the culture being yet another characteristic of Thin Man-type movies that seems truly alien in hindsight, from the perspective of a generation familiar with liver disease. Although...that's not quite right either, really; as my recent trip through The Winter Family confirms, people had been aware that career alcoholism would kill you for at least a hundred years, at this point. They just tended to think you were a pussy for complaining about it.

[identity profile] 2015-11-24 06:06 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah! I mean...I know for myself, daily drinking is pretty much an impossibility on a bodily level, without even factoring in the sheer amount of mistakes I'd make on an emotional/career level if I tried to keep it up. But in these films, it's nothing but a social lubricant, or maybe a pre-emptive strike against existential post-bellum dread: Let's numb our souls before the next World War breaks out, honey! Europe had Dada; Hollywood had martinis.
gwynnega: (Ernest Thesiger)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-11-24 07:23 pm (UTC)(link)
You know, I think I saw the Dwight Frye portion of this film on TCM a couple of years ago! I tuned in, happened to see Dwight Frye, and watched until he was bumped off.

My favorite surprise Dwight Frye appearance so far is in one of the later Universal Frankenstein films--The Ghost of Frankenstein, I believe--in which Frye pops up in a mob of angry villagers and yells that they should blow up Frankenstein's castle. I thought that made a lot of sense, since bad things always happen to Dwight Frye in castles.
gwynnega: (coffee poisoninjest)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-11-24 07:41 pm (UTC)(link)

I will see what I can do!

[identity profile] 2015-11-27 03:11 pm (UTC)(link)
Claire Dodd fares better by virtue of being the bad girl; her cold-blooded calculation makes her one of the more intelligent figures in the plot, since she at least can plan for the future.

What an amusing intersection of badness and prudence.

a counterfeiter of rare books who is justifiably proud of his first-edition Leaves of Grass. --Nice. And regardless of the success or failure of the bow tie, the octagonal glasses sound like a win.

[identity profile] 2015-11-29 04:20 am (UTC)(link)
Excellent--you're amazing.