Archive for James Harvey

Whistle, Blore

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2017 by dcairns

James Harvey, in The Romantic Comedy, tries to make sense of the various studios’ outputs during the screwball comedy years (1934-maybe 1941?).

Warners, who had been kings of the hardboiled comedy, were not particularly distinguished in the field of screwball comedy, perhaps because their tight factory approach to production didn’t translate readily into daffiness.

MGM were even more regimented, but Harvey argues that their commitment to gloss and sheen and class gave them a valuable angle on screwball’s tendency to locate dizziness in high places, plus they had Powell & Loy, and he gives credit to Woody Van Dyke also.

Columbia shouldn’t have had a hope, but they had Capra, who helped inaugurate the whole movement before backing away from it as rapidly as he could.

Paramount felt the allure of high-gloss spectacle, and was a flakey kind of studio with Lubitsch and Leisen to hand.

RKO had Fred & Ginger, their only real entree into the world of light comedy.

Fox was hampered by the kind of stars they had under contract — we just watched CAFE METROPOLE, which has a pretty clever script, but lovely as Tyrone Power and Loretta Young are to look at, they don’t deliver the kind of attack and sharpness the comedy needs, and even as able a farceur as Adolph Menjou is left high & dry by the flabby pace. Harvey suggests that director Gregory Ratoff never really got off the ground because he was stuck at Fox.

Well, we liked IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER much more than we expected — it’s Warners and it’s screwball, with what you would think would be unsuitable stars — Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Olivia DeHavilland and some pasteboard point-of-sale device as the fourth corner of the romantic rhombus — Patrick Knowles. Perfectly adequate, you know, and more handsome than most UK imports, but unmemorable even when he’s in front of you. The miracle is that the unsuitable stars prove to be just right, and director Archie Mayo keeps some of the pace that distinguished Warners’ pre-codes.

Bette and Leslie play feuding actors/lovers, finishing a run of Romeo and Juliet and constantly either breaking up or making up. He’s an incurable Romeo/Lothario and is worried that his moral bank balance is overdrawn. He feels the need for a good deed. Olivia is a starstruck teen smitten with him, and Knowles is her jealous beau, who approaches Howard and asks him to end Olivia’s mooning by turning up at her country seat and behaving like a boor.

The complications ensue when everything Howard does to make himself unappealing only deepens the girl’s affection. Knowles is beside himself, and then Bette turns up…

Of course, Bette as a fiery, tempestuous ham is perfect casting, and she did have comic flair as ALL ABOUT EVE shows. Howard proves to be a very nimble light comedian in the Rex Harrison mold. Olivia’s role is theoretically a lot less interesting, but she plays it like a maniac, making her character’s romanticism seem on the verge of lunacy. When Leslie tries being crude and rough, impersonating the villain from a play he’d triumphed in, she responds eagerly. “You don’t suppose I’ve aroused her ‘slap-me-again-I-love-it’ complex?” he worries.

Pleasingly, this screwball, though ritzy and upper-class in setting, nicely Wodehousian in some respects, does retain some of the best pre-code Warner style, notably a “whatever-works” approach to morality. It’s not specifically scandalous in any particular way, but it does require you to root for scoundrels and have genial contempt for “normal” people.

Oh, but best of all, as the film’s definitive portal into the heights of screwball, Eric Blore plays Howard’s dresser/valet, an ex-vaudevillian bird imitator, who still trills, hoots and squawks in moments of high emotion. Our guests for the evening were much taken with this thespian, and demanded second helpings, so we ran TOP HAT, which is Blore in full flow, and pretty definitive screwball even if it’s early and is also a musical.

Mad Love

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2017 by dcairns

Of my two recent film-critical acquisitions, James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy wins out over Ed Sikov’s Screwball in style and depth, but in terms of whose taste is closest to mine, Sikov wins out when the topic is Powell & Loy. Harvey’s analysis of what is so great about the couple is spot-on, illuminating, and evokes in the reader the same kind of charmed glaze that their performances as Nick & Nora produce. But he raves about Jack Conway’s LIBELED LADY and describes the same director’s LOVE CRAZY as almost unwatchable. (Jack RED-HEADED WOMAN Conway is the man in charge.)

Sikov has some skepticism towards LIBELED LADY, as did Fiona and I, and he calls LOVE CRAZY wildly underrated — possibly because of Harvey’s dismissal. We took a look. We found it VERY funny.

To begin with, we weren’t quite on its wavelength, perhaps. As Harvey says, we don’t want Nick & Nora to fall out, or to have their relationship tested, except in the sense that we enjoy seeing it rise above all tests, supreme. And so a Powell & Loy film in which they break up and he spends most of the film trying to get his wife back is always going to deprive the audience of one of the joys of this particular screen couple, their teamwork.

But the film works really hard to overcome this. It gives Myrna strong reasons to suspect William of infidelity, so we never lose sympathy with him. And it shows Powell as being so passionately committed to his marriage that, even if we’re not quite sure for much of the film whether he’s perhaps strayed a little, we can root for him to succeed but also get a laugh out of the many indignities he suffers along the way. These include being committed to an insane asylum and having to drag up to get into his own apartment.

The loony bin stuff was a potential worry — would the film be offensive? Yes, is the answer — it’s deeply insulting and obnoxious to the psychiatric profession. Got a problem with that? The scenario (by David Herz & William Ludwig with Charles Lederer adding a polish) has Powell feign madness in order to forestall the divorce, and then being unable to convince the doctors (Vladimir Sokoloff & Sig Rumann as Klugle & Wuthering) that he’s NOT, after all, crazy. This isn’t that implausible — doctors are fairly good at spotting mad people pretending to be sane, but they’re not set up to detect sane people pretending to be mad. And they’re not really any better at spotting liars than the rest of us.

The only inmate we meet in the sanatorium is a kleptomaniac, and the movie organises things fairly sensitively so that the joke is always on the sane people trying to deal with her.

Powell puffs in THE THIN MAN.

So — screwball comedies strike different people differently — they tread on the edge of pure silliness and also cruelty, flirt with progressiveness and sometimes (not too often) duck back into the conservative or retrograde. This one might be worth your while trying, whatever Harvey says. There’s the cunning use of Jack Carson’s status as archery champion (“bow-and-arrower,” as Myrna calls him), which is BRILLIANT.

OK, quick spoiler: the movie seems to think Carson in his undershirt is hilarious, which isn’t quite true, but Carson as a champion athelete living in a swank apartment full of archery paraphernalia IS pretty amusing. Anyway, when Powell is incarcerated by the lunacy board, love rival Jack drops by the sanatarium to mock. Then he wanders off to practice his archery moves. Powell alerts the staff to the strange dude playing with an invisible bow and arrow just outside the fence, and Carson is seized as an escapee.

And there’s Powell’s drag act, which is 100% convincing — and which is used in strange and perverse ways by the movie… the final fade-out may cause levitation of the eyebrows…

Dunne Gone

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2017 by dcairns

These sentences that seem like they’ve finished. But then pick up again after the full stop. They’re a James Harvey tic, and I’m enjoying his Romantic Comedy book so much he’s gotten inside my head. So I’d best cut these out before they become annoying. To me!

(There’s a running gag in THE MORE THE MERRIER with Charles Coburn adding unnecessary modifiers to the end of sentences as afterthoughts, so he can never quite decide when he’s finished. Them.)

Anyhow, Harvey likes THEODORA GOES WILD better than we did, but we liked it a lot. Our disagreement is a mere matter of degree — I’m with Harvey when he says the first half of the film, once its premise has been set up (Irene Dunne has written a racy novel under a pseudonym and nobody in her snooty small town must know) is enjoyable but not quite satisfactory. I found it only just good enough to watch. Dunne is terrif, and Melvyn Douglas is slick as ever, but the stuff where he turns up in her town disguised as a hobo, romancing her and trying to get her to reveal her secret to the town, and also, creepily, blackmailing her by threatening to do so himself — it’s just so-so. As Harvey says, the woman should dominate in a screwball comedy.

But this slightly lackadaisical first half is just foreplay to the amazing second half, which fulfils the title and then some. Because (there I go again), Douglas also is a slave to respectability, albeit the big-city kind, so Theodora turns up in his life as a wicked woman, causing chaos and scandal and divorce suits (surprisingly, divorce is embraced as a sometimes-necessary solution here). Since we’ve seen via Theodora’s that this kind of life disruption is therapeutic, we can really sit back and enjoy the shoe being on the other foot — Dunne plays comic triumph wonderfully (THE AWFUL TRUTH) and seeing Douglas’s smoothy charm ruffled and discomfited is hilarious.

This is also where Dunne gets to wear fabulous, silly costumes by Bernard Newman — the first impression of her transformed persona is indelible, thanks to his black feathered glory. As Fiona noted, the costume is not only glamorous but hilarious because of how it MOVES — it keeps twitching, as if possessed of its own inner animation. It underlines and then undercuts what Dunne says and does, because as with nude ballet, not everything stops when the music does — each dramatic move she makes sets off little tremors and spasms in her plumage.

Some very elegant direction from Richard Boleslawski, apparently already suffering from the heart ailment that would kill him midway through his next film. With cinematographer Joseph Walker (Capra’s main man), he devises sweeping shots which manage to glide into the world of ritzy glam evoked by Theodora’s racy novel, without gliding OUT of the world of comedy. There’s just the right level of exaggeration to it all.

And there’s a dog. Dogs in place of children in screwballs, always. Hard to think of a single major screwball with kids in. (The minor but fun SHE MARRIED HER BOSS and IT’S LOVE I’M AFTER do have good monster brats, though.) Corky, as Jake the dog, is no Asta/George/Atlas/Mr. Smith/Skippy, nor is he as cute as the cutest puppy in the world in THE YOUNG IN HEART, but he’s pretty adorable, as is his film.