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Ann Sothern and director Busby Berkeley were beginning their contracts at MGM while Franchot Tone was ending his in the last of three films depicting the adventures of husband-and-wife book dealers who kept getting involved in murder. Though the tale of homicide at a beauty pageant was not in the same league as such classic 1939 releases as The Wizard of Oz or The Women, it still had the kind of breezy good humor that made the B-movies of Hollywood's golden age so much fun.
Joel and Garda Sloane first sleuthed in Marco Page's 1938 story Fast Company. At the time, the studio was looking for insurance in case the popular Thin Man series folded. Star William Powell had been off-screen for a year, first mourning the death of fiancÈe Jean Harlow, then recovering from cancer surgery. His on-screen partner, Myrna Loy, was in the midst of one of her many battles with the studio, so executives started looking for a new team that would click with fans. Originally, they planned to make a Thin Man film with Melvyn Douglas and Virginia Bruce, but fearing a bad audience reaction, they decided to try another series instead.
So MGM hired Page - under his real name, Harry Kurnitz - to adapt his story. The first Sloane mystery, Fast Company, starred Douglas and Florence Rice in 1938. With decent audience response, MGM picked up another Page story, Fast and Loose (1939). This time they changed the cast, teaming Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell, with the latter showing the first inkling of her talents for comedy. Again, the film performed respectably, but with no more original stories to adapt, Kurnitz created a new adventure for Fast and Furious, and once again, the studio changed the casting.
Franchot Tone had been with MGM since 1932, but the studio had never given him the kind of build-up it takes to make a major star. Though he had scored an OscarÆ nomination for Best Actor in 1935's Mutiny on the Bounty, he was mainly used for supporting roles in big-budget films and leads in Bs. By 1939, he was ready for a change and declined to renew his contract. Fast and Furious completed his commitment, and he returned to the stage, with only occasional film roles from then on.
By contrast, Fast and Furious was Sothern's second film as an MGM contract player, after ten years of working her way up from the chorus. Although she had starred in musicals on Broadway under her real name, Harriet Lake, it had taken her a while to establish any kind of screen presence.
Fast and Furious marked a reunion for Sothern and director Berkeley. In her early Hollywood days, she had been in the chorus of some of his Warner Bros. musicals, most recognizably in the "Shanghai Lil" number in Footlight Parade. Berkeley had left Warner's for MGM in 1938. After staging the finale for Jeanette MacDonald in 1938's Broadway Serenade and directing Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in 1939's Babes in Arms, MGM gave him a shot at a non-musical film with Fast and Furious. It wasn't too much of a stretch, however, as the film's beauty pageant scenes gave him a chance to draw on the skills he'd used staging chorus girls and boys in the past.
But it would be the end of the road for the Sloanes. By changing the leads in each film, MGM had kept audiences from developing any connection to the characters. And with Powell and Loy back at work on more Thin Man films, a second husband-and-wife mystery series seemed superfluous.
Producer: Frederick Stephani
Director: Busby Berkeley
Screenplay: Harry Kurnitz
Cinematography: Ray June
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Daniel B. Cathcart
Music: D. Amfitheatrof, C. Bakaleinikoff
Principal Cast: Franchot Tone (Joel Sloane), Ann Sothern (Garda Sloane), Ruth Hussey (Lily Cole), Lee Bowman (Mike Stevens), Allyn Joslyn (Ted Bentley), John Miljan (Eric Bartell).
By Frank Miller