Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Four from Russell and Montgomery

This must be the week I "discover" Robert Montgomery. After enjoying Mr and Mrs. Smith and particularly Montgomery as David Smith, I went on to watch four films from Rosalind Russell and Robert Montgomery that were shown on TCM late last night. I can thank a summer cold for my inability to sleep and stay up through four movies in a row. It was either guzzle Dimetapp or watch a Russell/Montgomery-athon. Ever the dedicated blogger, I decided to forgo the cough syrup and enjoy Roz and Monty.

The screen couple were paired together for five films: Forsaking all Others (1934) in which they had second billing to Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, Trouble for Two (1936), Night Must Fall (1937), Live Love and Learn (1937) and Fast and Loose (1939).

The most well-known and best-regarded of these movies, is Night Must Fall which casts Montgomery against type as Danny, a charming but deadly sociopath and Russell as Olivia, a neurotic spinster who is attracted to him despite suspecting him of murder. Night Must Fall was not a box-office hit when it was produced but has gone on to be frequently shown on late night television and the like. This is probably owing far more to the fact that its a taught thriller along the lines of Wait until Dark, than the fame or accomplishments of the leads. Montgomery uses the incredible charm that was his meal-ticket throughout most of his career and turns it against the audience. The viewer finds themselves, like Olivia, drawn to him against all reason and judgement. Montgomery was nominated for an Oscar for the film, but lost to Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous. Russell's job in the film was no less difficult. She frequently acts against all reason when she chooses to risk being Danny's next victim rather than lean too heavily on her long-suffering boyfriend, played by adorable Olivier-look-alike, Alan Marshal. Dame May Whitty is great as usual as Olivia's crochety old aunt who falls for Danny's charms. Montgomery is wonderful in his scenes with Whitty, and though you know their friendship is all play-acting on Danny's part, you can't help but feel anyone who has that great a talent in making an unbearable person bearable must have some redeeming qualities.

Trouble for Two is the first movie that paired Russell and Montgomery together as leads and it was one of Russell's first starring roles. The movie is an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Suicide Club" which makes for a fun, costume drama twist on the romantic couple as sleuths. Think of it as the The Thin Man with riding boots and corsets. Montgomery is dashing as a disguised prince on the loose in London sowing his wild oats who gets caught up in a suicide club. Russell plays a mysterious, noirish siren for the first third of the film, a role in which she's a bit clumsy, but she aquits herself nicely when she falls into her more familiar Gal Friday persona when she teams up with Montgomery.

Fast and Loose is the last pairing of Russell and Montgomery and if Trouble for Two references The Thin Man slightly, than this movie is an out and out rip off. The Thin Man formula is evident from the opening scene which shows the couple hung over in their elegantly upholstered twin beds to the final scene in which Mrs. Sloane takes potshots at the killer and winds up hitting her husband right in the classified ads. Yet, despite its derivative nature, the movie is still entertaining.

My favorite of the Russell/Montgomery pairings was the lamely-titled Live, Love and Learn. This was a fun screwball comedy about a bohemian painter who marries a society dame. It was again overshadowed by another Loy/Powell film which came out two weeks earlier called Double Wedding. It was also about, you guessed it a bohemian painter who marries a society dame. Both films even have bit parts for character actor Barnett Parker. It's a small world over there at the MGM lot apparently. As much as I love Double Wedding, I'd have to choose Live, Love and Learn simply because it has Monty Woolley and really, pretty much every movie with Monty Woolley rocks.

1 comment:

kda0121 said...

Fast and Loose is my favorite pairing of Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. Although Night Must Fall might be their best pairing in critical circles, it was never a movie I cared for. I actually like typecasting and always thought Montgomery, as well as Russell were better suited for comedy. As to Fast and Loose being a Thin Man rip-off, it certainly is that and it does an excellent job of it. Bob and Roz have a wonderful screen chemistry and play off one another well as man and wife in this comedy whodunit.

As to rip-offs, even William Powell, alias Nick Charles ripped himself off in a few pictures. His Star of Midnight opposite a Ginger Rogers and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford with Jean Arthur were obviously influenced by The Thin Man.

In fact, Fast and Loose was actually the second in a series of three films featuring Joel and Garda Sloane. The first was Fast Company, starring Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice in the leading roles, made a year earlier. The series finished up with Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern as the sleuthing couple. Talk about a schizophrenic series! And to think that MGM, the studio that produced the Thin Man series also put out these three, which meant they were actually competing with themselves in the married couple detective field. As Dr. Phil would say, "What were they thinking?!"

Regardless any unoriginal studio thinking, Fast and Loose is a fine little movie. Not the least because of the great repartee between the two leads.