Fast-moving, amusing-enough little Columbia "B." Sony's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Sony Pictures Choice Collection, which features hard-to-find library and cult titles from its Columbia Pictures' archives, has released Strange Affair, the 1944 comedy murder mystery, with a rare lead role for the marvelously funny Allyn Joslyn, and co-starring daffy, sexy Evelyn Keyes, Marguerite Chapman, Edgar Buchanan, and a host of familiar supporting faces. A poor man's Thin Man knock-off, certainly...but a pleasant time-filler, nonetheless. No extras for this good-looking transfer.
Ace Dean comic strip writer and illustrator―and seemingly professional smart-ass―Bill Harrison (Allyn Joslyn) has a certain way with women; as his wacky, sexy wife, "Jack" Harrison (Evelyn Keyes) says, they'll do anything for him. Bill also likes to play amateur detective, just like his fictional alter ego, a habit that annoys his wife as well as the local flatfoots, particularly growly Lieutenant Washburn (Edgar Buchanan) and his ticked-off sidekick, Sergeant Erwin (Frank Jenks). Bill will have plenty of time to exasperate all three when he suspects foul play at a benefit banquet for war-time refugees, when Dr. Brenner (Erwin Kalser), Jack's psychologist, has a patient drop dead of an apparent heart attack at the table.
Looking up the credits for the lead actors here, I noticed that Joslyn and Keyes had starred in a Columbia "B" the previous year called Dangerous Blondes, where they at least appear to be playing basically the same roles as they do in Strange Affair, with only their names and professions changed (I write "apparently" because I haven't seen Dangerous Blondes). Why this switcheroo occurred I don't know (any Columbia "B" experts out there email me, and I'll amend the review), but if Dangerous Blondes was as much light fun as Strange Affair, I can see why Harry Cohn would want to try and fashion Joslyn and Keyes into his own M-G-M Nick and Nora Charles low rent knock-offs. They're quite amusing together, even if their material isn't quite up to Thin Man standards.
Written by four talented writers―Oscar Saul (Affair in Trinidad, Major Dundee, The Silencers), Eve Greene (Tugboat Annie, Born to Kill), Jerome Odlum (Each Dawn I Die, The Fast and the Furious), and Jack Henley (among many short features, several Ma & Pa Kettle and Blondie entries)―and directed by veteran pro Alfred E. Green (Dangerous, The Jolson Story, Appointment in Berlin), Strange Affair does best when it concentrates on Joslyn and Keyes. Their romantic screwball comedy conventions may not be terribly inventive (because of the war effort, she rides a smoky little scooter; she leaves him wise-guy notes on his dictaphone), but Joslyn and Keyes have a certain way about them that's quite pleasant. Joslyn, a veteran Broadway performer playing against his usual cinematic type―the sniveling weakling, such as his most notorious role: the coward, dressed as a woman, getting an undeserved seat on the Titanic's lifeboat―gets to be a ladies' man here, and he pulls it off well, affecting a smooth, cool, bemused, sardonic tone that's an amusing contrast to his caricaturish face. Keyes, slim and pretty, does a good Lombard, alternately brash and slightly daffy, with a capability for knockabout slapstick that's refreshing; she's a scream fighting the handsy cops who want to lock her up (both actors are innately funny; watch them in the "doorman/hat buying" scene: nothing too terribly funny in the material itself, but the actors make it amusing). Where Strange Affair lags occasionally is in its tired wartime espionage story, where the intrigue isn't remotely interesting, and where any 8-year-old could tell you who the Nazi ringleader is among the supporting players. The supporting cast is fine (Jenks is funny as a bull-headed cop, and Chapman is slinky and sexy, but Shemp Howard―my favorite Stooge―belabors his bits), but whatever thin charms Strange Affair may have, most of them come from the delightful Joslyn and Keyes.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.