Corking Screwballs

We’re deep in screwball country. Has it been a week already?

Not everything rates a post of its own though. Here’s some I don’t quite have enough to say about.

You can’t launch into BRINGING UP BABY unless you’re bringing something new to the party, and I don’t think I am. I thought I might be able to until I saw it again — some insight into why it flopped in 1939.

You see, as a youngster I had an abortive viewing experience with this one, tuning out after the golf course and restaurant scenes, finding the whole thing annoying. But I’d since viewed most of the later stuff and, correctly, found it very funny. So my theory was that Hepburn’s character is too irritating in the first scenes, which seemed interminable as a result. Audiences, naturally starting at the beginning, may have become irate before the fun really started.

But this time, I felt no annoyance at all. So the opening scenes, less that twenty minutes in reality, sailed by, and also made me laugh a lot. It’s true that we haven’t met the amazing supporting cast yet, who enhance it so much (I’m coming to a new appreciation of Charles Ruggles — along with his brother, Wesley), and MAYBE the ripping of Hepburn’s skirt isn’t quite the right gag for her particular character? But really, quibbles.

Two things are really hard to frame-grab, and for the same reason — Grant-Hepburn by-play, and George playing with Baby. Too fast!

(This thing of getting annoyed by comedy — a friend had it with Laurel & Hardy, where he would get frustrated that they couldn’t solve their simple problems, the solutions were so easy and the accidents so inevitable. As a kid I also got it with the Mr. Muckle scene in IT’S A GIFT, too. The thing that has in common with Grant & Hepburn, I guess, is a character too timid to really forcefully point out what’s wrong with the situation he’s stuck in. Though Grant really tries, bless him.)

So I had a great time with BRINGING UP BABY, but not much to say about it. Apart from the above.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS is a good W.S. Van Dyke minor screwball with Joan Crawford (who made a surprising number of these) and a trio of wacky male friends, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable and the excellent Charles Butterworth (like Ruggles, a stand-out in LOVE ME TONIGHT). No prizes for guessing who gets the girl.

A risky plot — Montgomery has to behave like a cad without quite becoming the heavy — Gable spends the whole film not confessing his love — Butterworth is just light relief, droning helpless irrelevancies. Someone mentions a fan dance: “Oh, I saw a girl do that once with electric fans — it was horrible.” It begins with a wedding so there’s a reason for everyone to be drinking and in tuxedos and gowns and ELATED — James Harvey’s favourite word. Montgomery stands Joan up at the altar and runs off with another girl, but realizes it’s a mistake. He’s stuck with Frances Drake, who is a Gail Patrick type Other Girl — worse, she’s the one character in the film who doesn’t know she’s in a screwball comedy. She can’t understand why everyone is so bloody silly — it’s most annoying.

Her sullen effect is magical — she does kind of make you want Montgomery to have a chance with Joan again, even though you want, really, for him to wind up with egg on his face and for Joan to get Clark. Guess what?

A great screwball encapsulation — Gable, back from Spain, embraces Billie Burke and they cry each others’ names in joy. Then he crosses the room without her, throws open his arms — and they do it again. Why not, if it was good the first time?

I LOVE YOU AGAIN is the dream team of William Powell and Myrna Loy. (We also rewatched THE THIN MAN — nothing fresh to report but see here.) This one is an amnesia caper — boring skinflint Powell gets a knock on the head and realizes he’s actually a daring con artist. During his previous fugue state (result of a previous occiputal clonk) he’s married Loy, and she’s had time to become thoroughly bored with the man he previously was. Powell falls in love with her at (sort of) first sight, and has to convince her he’s changed — in the right way. A weird kind of plot — hardboiled comedy hand Maurine Dallas Watkins (author of the original play Chicago, a key work in the tough comedy genre) was involved. Frank McHugh and Edmund Lowe are along for the ride.

DOUBLE WEDDING, from grumpy old Richard Thorpe, is equally good, if less emotional. Businesswoman Loy is attracted to Bohemian Powell but can’t admit it. VERY funny supporting perf from reluctant Boho John Beal, clearly the squarest thing on two legs. “Aw, why do Bohemians have to stay up all night?” he grouches, a petulant child. A shame his talent for ridiculousness wasn’t exploited elsewhere.

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD pairs William Powell with Jean Arthur, which would work great if what they were given to do suited them. He’s fine, giving a great line reading — “INT-olerable!” — but in this THIN MAN knock-off mystery, she’s required to be manipulative, klutzy, dizzy — all things we don’t really want from the sensible Miss Arthur, whether she can do them or not.

You notice, with the MANY imitations of THE THIN MAN, any variation from the standard pairing tends to be a let-down. Inexplicable, Nick & Nora never fight, never misunderstand each other, and while she’s an heiress not a professional sleuth and so isn’t some improbably detecting genius, there aren’t really any jokes about her being out of her depth, either. Though fights, misunderstandings and struggles with unfamiliar problems are all perfectly sound dramatic fodder, they’re simply surplus to requirements when you have Powell & Loy or this kind of teaming. That, ultimately, is why TEMB disappoints, and why it’s hard to even remember who Powell’s partner is — and she’s only one of the greatest screwball stars of all time.

(All three of the above rely a bit too much on clonking Powell on the head multiple times, but at least in ILYA it’s central to the plot.)

Bingeing on Bill Powell, we rewatched MY MAN GODFREY, which of course we love but which bothered Fiona for the same reason as last time — the screwy family all get redemptive arcs, ESPECIALLY Gail Patrick who you go from despising to kind of loving in one scene. But Lombard is the same spoilt child she was at the beginning. I decided not to let it bother me, because she’s still Lombard. And La Cava films always have some irritation or discomfort at the end — it’s not a flaw, it’s a TRAIT. Rough with the smooth.

If you know La Cava you probably know this and BED OF ROSES, STAGE DOOR, THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH. I recommend FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, SHE MARRIED HER BOSS, UNFINISHED BUSINESS. I still have lots to see, but they’re outside the screwball domain.

THE AMAZING MR WILLIAMS has crime-solver Melvyn Douglas forever standing up Joan Blondell (so he’s a sap). It’s a little annoying but has plenty of invention — not one case to solve but a succession. Near the end, Blondell goes on the case herself and it gives the film just the boost it’s needed, a little like when Theodora actually goes wild in THEODORA GOES WILD. Old movies get virtue points for their moments of feminism — but screwball seems to DEMAND to have a woman throw off the shackles of society and blow a few male minds.

The ultimate glamour shot — Joan’s Deputy Sheriff badge, which she can’t keep from admiring, distracting her from Melvyn on their wedding night.

MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR stars Charles Ruggles, that central screwball supporting player, as a “deflector” — rather than detecting crimes after they happen, he deflects them before they happen. It’s nice to see a second banana promoted to a kind of superhero role, schtick intact.

This utter B-picture has charm galore, with the patented Ruggles dither partnered by the more abrasive but still cute Una Merkel, and Mary Carlisle, who is the last surviving Wampas Baby Star (Hello, Mary, you centenarian auto-Googler, you! Who else has spoken Preston Sturges’ words — in HOTEL HAYWIRE — and still walks the earth? Good work!).

Good flakey lines — when a cab driver wants to bail on Ruggles, our hero protests, “No, stick around. I like you. You’re refreshing.”

THE MOON’S OUR HOME is full of eccentricity and invention and disrespectfulness, but maybe because of Dorothy Parker’s input, lacking in charm — Parker was not sufficiently a romantic to really get us to invest in the central couple, who are pretty horrible — bratty writer Henry Fonda and bratty actress Margaret Sullavan (her regular tantrums in the movie don’t suit her style, though they seem to have been a major part of her real-life temperament and her real-life marriage to Hank). But there’s clever stuff including a faux-split-screen where we can see into the couple’s adjoining railway compartments before they’ve met, their dialogue with respective traveling companions bouncing off each other to form a revealing fold-in conversation. Also, as in THE LADY EVE, Fonda is tormented by perfume…

Fiona, a dedicated fumehead, was impressed by the tracking shot following the scent’s progress towards the Fonda nostrils, like something from OUTBREAK.

CAFÉ METROPOLE has skilled farceurs Adolphe Menjou and Gregory Ratoff (who also wrote) but it stars Tyrone Power and Loretta Young — consequently it never quite takes flight. The two, lovely to look at, don’t have the speed, bite or lightness to let the comedy take flight, and together they’re in nearly every scene. Veteran director Edward H. Griffith seems to be encouraging even Menjou to play it slack. There’s one scene, near the end, where suddenly Loretta is in a hysterical rage, and the very funny Helen Westley is involved, and it’s too much, but it’s much closer to the pitch the whole film should have been at. There’s no sensible reason for the sudden frenzy, so it just seems like a lack of control. James Harvey seems to be right about Twentieth Century Fox — they didn’t have the right stars, and so the good films Gregory Ratoff might have made in the screwball style never came together. A shame, because this one has a very nice plot, and Power’s entrance, drunk at his table in the posh restaurant, demanding to be brought a roast eagle, is the right kind of business.

 

IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD is entertaining if unoriginal — I liked it better than Fiona did. It’s a Hitchcockian chase thriller done in screwball mode, with detective Jimmy Stewart reluctantly paired with poetess Claudette Colbert (and at one point handcuffed together, as in THE 39 STEPS). There’s some quite inventive situations, but somehow they don’t reach critical mass and convince you that you’re watching something you haven’t seen before, and the central relationship doesn’t quite warm up enough, though Ben Hecht restrains his sexism, channeling it into Stewart’s character and then forcing him to overcome it. Which is nice.

 

THE GILDED LILY from the TRUE CONFESSION team of director Wesley Ruggles and writer Claude “Buttercake” Binyon. Curiously likable and engaging despite an almost total absence of funny lines or situations. A good part of this is down to Claudette Colbert being supported by Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, who give you a nice variety of lightweight, breezy charm. A funny drink-ordering scene, and Colbert’s night-club act, where she simply walks around narrating her inability to remember her song, and her inability to really sing the bits she does remember. As often with Hollywood comedies, this is marred by the fact that the night club audience is supposed to find it implausibly hilarious, and their laughter is so far ahead of ours that it becomes grating and unbelievable. But Colbert — whose appeal Harvey equates to her straightforwardness and honesty — is the right person to do this, for sure.

The same writer-director team brought us TOO MANY HUSBANDS, from a play by that, er, master of screwball, Somerset Maugham. Jean Arthur marries Melvyn Douglas while Fred MacMurray is lost at sea, and the return of husband no. 1 provokes comic chaos. Or at least discomfort. The trio all prove wonderful at evoking different levels of embarrassment, confusion, anger… and then Arthur starts looking like the cat who’s got the cream.

LOTS of gay stuff, along with the expected troilism gags, when the husbands are forced to spend the night together in the frilly spare room (the only decent solution, until this can be straightened out), most of it MacMurray taunting Douglas, but it all gets surprisingly near the knuckle — and what a knuckle! Too bad they can’t sort it out in a satisfactory way — having enjoyed the upsetting of societal norms, we don’t WANT a conventional resolution, but as a comic “problem play” we still require a resolution of some kind. The ending feels like it goes on a scene too long, even though it deserves points for spectacularly doing what the Hays Code specifically prohibits — rendering marriage ridiculous.

Buttercake Binyon, quoted in The Screwball Comedy Films  by Duane Byrge & Robert Milton Miller ~

“Writing for motion pictures is so simple, and the reward is so great, that one wonders why no more than several hundred persons have chosen it over cab-driving as a career. Of course, it is admitted that a cab driver meets more interesting people, but a motion picture writer may work for good pay during the day and pretend to meet interesting people at night.

Everyone knows that in the average picture a boy will meet a girl, and they will fall in love, have a dilly of a spat, then become reconciled. Why doesn’t everybody write it? Is it simply laziness on their part? The weekly pay ranges from over $100 a week to thousands. Just for that: just for putting on paper about the boy and the girl.”

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21 Responses to “Corking Screwballs”

  1. The husband and I saw “I Love You Again” and “Double Wedding” as a double feature at the beloved Theater 80 St. Marks back in the day. Myrna Loy was there and sat behind us. When it was over she turned to the friend she had come with and said “Oh I’d forgotten how great Bill was.” She then stood up and took thunderous applause from the crowd.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    I used to live just round the corner from Theatre 80 St Marks. I assume it is no longer there? My abiding memory is a double bill of BLACK NARCISSUS and THE VIRGIN AND THE GYPSY. All that repressed passion…it gives me vapours to this day!

  3. He WAS great, as was she — and together, boy!

    I mean, Astaire & Rogers are wonderful when they’re just acting, but take off into an Olympian realm together when they dance. Powell & Loy are there in that realm when they just look at each other.

  4. Someone should write about the Code as a major force in producing screwballs. What makes them wonderful and horrible is a divorce from reality — reality barred from movies, thanks to the Hays Office.

  5. David: You mentioned Warner Brothers as a studio ill-equipped for screwballs — I’d add that Warners was a reality-based studio (even after the Code). Reality and screwball comedy may be… natural enemies?

  6. The short, stubby stars of Warners — a taxonomy of mooks — looked more like the movie-going public than Robert Montgomery. Screwballs tend toward the extreme end of the Whiteness Scale. Warners was swarthy.

  7. If you think about screwballs strictly in terms of appeal — in this case, to a middle-class white (riding hard toward BLOND) aesthetic — then they’re, well, Evil. Muahahaha!

  8. Hepburn, Hepburn Uber Alles!

  9. James Harvey looks at the prehistory of sophisticated comedies around 1930 with movies like Laughter and sees their merging with the Front Page school of tough comedy as the partnership which birthed screwball.

    This explains why, away from MGM at least, screwballs DO delve into social problems (My Man Godfrey, It Happened One Night, Sullivan’s Travels) even if they can’t quite figure out what they want to say on the subject. They’re certainly more politically conservative than Warner pre-codes, less confrontational, less unsettling. But then, everything is.

    Where they score is over the later forties and fifties comedies, which really ARE conservative — and a lot less funny.

  10. But “pre-history” is a dead giveaway.

  11. chris schneider Says:

    It’s been my contention, at least since seeing SUSAN AND GOD, that Crawford had no gift for comedy, that she needed other performers to place her in a comic context (see THE WOMEN) for the comedy to be effective. Of course, I haven’t seen FORSAKING ALL OTHERS. How’s the performance there? One should probably put in a word, in any case, for producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose hand was on both this and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Also another Crawford that I haven’t seen, LOVE ON THE RUN, which sounds decidedly screwball-ish.

  12. bensondonald Says:

    Female high school classmate to another: “She goes around saying, ‘Oh, I’m crazy’, and she is crazy, but not the way she thinks she’s crazy.” MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR, if it was intended as comedy throughout, might be described thus. I remember a particularly cringe-inducing murder method and a WTF interlude involving a train wreck and a gorilla.

    Maybe a companion piece for the more aggressive horror of MURDERS IN A ZOO, where Ruggles again provides loose comedy while jealous husband Lionel Atwill dispatches his wife’s lovers using various nasty creatures. Atwill’s first and last scenes are epic pre-code moments.

  13. Crawford was built for bitter-sweet comedy. FORSAKING ALL OTHERS is amazing, and she’s amazing in it.

  14. She’s practically French in POSSESSED.

  15. A far more profound presence than Davis…

  16. Forsaking All Others doesn’t really require Crawford to carry the laughs — she’s straight man to Montgomery and Gable, who in turn are straight men to Butterworth. So it works well.

    Love on the Run is kind of tiresome, and Gable’s casting as a newsman accompanying a runaway bride calls up altogether too many memories of It Happened One Night.

    But I hear good things about Live, Love and Learn, another Joan, with Eric Blore as a hairdresser.

    I like Susan and God — Crawford IS the joke, and she probably knew it, but she maintains a perfect facade of not being in on it.

    The gorilla bit, and Snowflake’s turn, are not high points of Private Car, but it was tonally more consistent than Zoo. But I agree the sadism in both is striking.

  17. Crawford’s face is mask-like. As far as I know, she’s never been asked to “carry the laughs”, which would be a bizarre choice. I’d say that her charm in romantic comedies has a special kind of beauty, which is different than “having no talent for comedy.” Gene Tierney is a good example of a mask-like beauty amounting to zilch much of the time. In late Silents, where she’s molded into a kind of forced “charm”, Crawford still manages to charm, sort of — and she’s almost always inadvertently hilarious when she dances.

  18. Sorry to keep saying “charm” — but it’s the nature of those roles; it’s what she’s asked to do.

  19. She got boffo laughs in interviews when she was older. Great story-teller. Salty too.

  20. I guess I’m arguing that Crawford had comic intelligence — and was pretty subtle in creating *opportunities* for laughs.

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