Archive for Romantic Comedy

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…

Newshounds

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2017 by dcairns

“Whatever made Eddie Buzzell think he could direct?” mused Groucho Marx, a thought captured by the eager pen of Steve Stoliar in his essential memoir Raised Eyebrows. Like it had been bothering Groucho for thirty-plus years since making AT THE CIRCUS and GO WEST and he finally had to give voice to it.

I’ve been more inclined to give Mr. Buzzell a pass — he did some OK films with some nice shots in them. But looking at the original LIBELED LADY, which Buzzell remade as EASY TO WED, does make me feel a bit less charitable. Neither film is great, both have enjoyable moments, but Buzzell’s tends to miss the joke a lot of the time.

(You can expect a lot of late-thirties / forties stuff for a while as James Harvey’s book Romantic Comedy causes me to look up films that have passed me by.)

Sleeves by Dolly Tree.

Of course, Jack Conway doesn’t have a huge directorial reputation either, but he knew his business, I reckon. And he has the unbeatable William Powell and Myrna Loy to work with instead of Esther Williams and Van Johnson, and Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy in place of Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn. And best of all, he doesn’t have Ben Blue anywhere his version. Hate is a very tiring emotion, so somebody please name a film in which Ben Blue wasn’t a repulsive, unfunny bore so I can let go of this hate for him which is eating my soul.

“I didn’t think Spencer Tracy could do this kind of fast-talking newspaper thing,” said Fiona early on.

“Well, he can talk fast. I don’t know how funny he’s going to be,” I pondered.

“Oh he’s not FUNNY,” clarified Fiona.

But he’s not too bad. Outclassed by Wm. Powell, of course.

“I*am* too funny!”

Buzzell got the help of Buster Keaton for his main bit of visual comedy in EASY TO WED, as he had done for GO WEST. Conway and Powell work it out alone, and their gags aren’t as smart but Powell’s playing is a joy. The main fun in this, though, apart from Dolly Tree’s outlandish costumes (she mainly runs amuck on Harlow) is Loy, introduced with her back to the camera but instantly recognizable, and instantly FUN. Esther Williams could certainly be fun, but being a swimmer rather than an actress, she wasn’t as resourceful at finding the fun.

On paper, everyone in this story is kind of awful. Spencer Tracy stands Harlow up at the altar then makes her marry Powell for business purposes. Powell is trying to frame Loy on an adultery rap to kill off her libel suit against his newspaper. Loy ought to be sympathetic, but she and dad Walter Connolly (Cecil Kellaway in the remake) are terribly rude to Powell, BEFORE they know what a rat he is.

As you’ve never seen them before

What we have is the offspring of the hardboiled newspaper comedy and the screwball — unlike in THE FRONT PAGE and its offspring, nothing is really at stake here (the wellbeing of a muckraking newspaper doesn’t count) but the abrasiveness owes more to Hecht & McCarthy’s acerbic spirit than to the usual romantic comedy. In fact, Maurine Dallas Watkins, one of the writers, wrote CHICAGO — she has a bigger claim to inventing the newspaper comedy than anyone else. As the movie gets away from the newsroom and into the haunts of the wealthy, it does introduce a little more sweetness, but as the rich folks have been introduced as pretty tough, deceitful and boorish, we carry a lot of that sour feeling with us.

In both versions, the jilted bride is harshly treated and seems the most blameless figure. There are the usual dumb blonde jokes — when Powell marries Loy while still married to Harlow, her keen legal mind pounces: “That’s arson!” But her being dumb or common doesn’t justify any of the loutish treatment she gets from Tracy and Powell. It’s a colossal relief when Myrna is nice to her (as Harvey points out, Loy is always sympathetic to other women, always projects a sense of companionship rather than judgement). Sympathy may be the enemy of drama, as Alexander Mackendrick warned, but if you build a drama without any bonds of sympathy between the characters… you’re David Mamet.

Loy – instantly recognizable ESPECIALLY when incognito.

What I’m saying is that this is a rare case where I disagree with James Harvey, who likes this film more than we did. But the good news is, the original CHICAGO is playing at Bo’ness. THAT one I like!