Archive for The Lady Eve

Corking Screwballs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by dcairns

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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The Sunday Title: Snake Oil

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , on April 30, 2017 by dcairns

Well, you can’t really have a Screwball Week AND and a Sunday Intertitle, can you? There aren’t really any intertitles in screwball proper, it being a genre mainly of the late thirties and early forties. We might allow some early thirties stuff in too, but that still lets out the intertitles, which appear very occasionally in talkies up to about 1931 but rarely thereafter.

So here are some titles. The above and below are from Preston Sturges’ THE PALM BEACH STORY, and they almost qualify in that they come at the close of the title sequence, which is a mini-adventure all its own, and therefore they’re a piece of bridging narrative, not just an intro. The camera pulls back THROUGH them, which is a very neat trick. Motorised track? Double exposure? This fanciness could be seen as necessary precisely to make the effect seem modern and not a throwback to “old-fashioned” intertitles.

The other title I have for you is the animated opening of Sturges’ other bona-fide, according-to-Hoyle screwball, THE LADY EVE. Both Ed Sikov’s Screwball and James Harvey’s Romantic Comedy (my two uber-texts) remark on the phallic imagery, with the serpent of Eden wriggling through the O of PRESTON and getting his waistline stuck. But I believe I can expand on the mythological and cultural connotations.

First, the tipsy-looking snake retrieves THREE apples from the bushes. Each is inscribed with one word of the main title. Why? You could just as easily get the whole title on one apple and ask the snake to hold it closer to the lens. I believe the reason we need three apples is to evoke the golden apples of Greek myth.

The myth with three apples is the one about Atalanta, defeated in a foot race by Melanion, who distracted her by dropping the apples, which were a gift from Aphrodite. None of this quite fits the plot of THE LADY EVE except for the appearance of a love goddess. The couple eventually got turned into lions, which might fit with the metamorphoses Barbara Stanwyck undergoes here, but not very convincingly. But I think the overall themes — the battle of the sexes, and not fighting fair — are kind of relevant.

There’s also Hercules stealing the apples of the Hesperides, and the apple of Discord, which is addressed “to the fairest” — which also makes me think of the poisoned apple in Snow White, which does go to the fairest one of all… Discord is certainly a Sturgesian trope.

The apple is from the Tree of Knowledge in the Bible, right? That phallic snake suggests that it’s sexual knowledge. In Sturges’ film, Fonda is bamboozled with a lot of false knowledge and he still isn’t wised up at the film’s end. But we’re promised that he is finally going to be enlightened — the film ends on a Lubitschian closed door, and the snake reappears on cue. Oh, the snake also gets beaned with an apple, recalling Newton — his “Eureka!” moment about gravity. Fonda has a lot of slapstick run-ins with gravity and I guess they are all going to lead to his own personal eureka.

Complicating things even more, Fonda is an ophiologist (“Snakes are my life, in a way,”) and his snake is female, unlike the biblical reptile or the cartoon version here. A rival for Stanwyck — bring in the Biblical serpent’s qualities of temptress, trickster, and apply them to her. Stanwyck is going to supplant snakes in Fonda’s affections — she hates and fears them. She’s brought together with Fonda by his pratfall (gravity) and the broken heel of her shoe (she tripped him) — the Bible tells us that, after the Fall, Woman will loathe the snake and seek to crush in beneath her heel.

You see what we can get out of that snake and apples once we get past the dick joke? I bet you can offer more, too.

The Sunday Intertitle: Wodehouse Playhouse

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2013 by dcairns

No sooner had I finished turning one of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s literary intertitles into an actual graphic, than I stumble upon another story with an intertitle in it, this time PG Wodehouse’s Pigs Have Wings (a Blandings novel). The relevant bit goes —

If she had appeared, looking as she was looking now, in one of the old silent films, there would have flashed on the screen some such caption as:

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The missing comma that makes the second sentence read very awkwardly, is of course deliberate satire. It’s 1952 and he’s making fun of silent movie title writers. One of the remarkable things about Wodehouse is that his failure, or refusal, to move with the times does not harm his work, or hardly at all. No doubt facilitated by the fact that he never returned to England after WWII, he went on writing a world that never advanced socially from the 1930s, and indeed has much of the early 1900s about it. But because his particular comic universe simply had to be insulated from the darker things in life anyway (other comics thrive on darkness: Wodehouse can only use the tiniest grain of it), this time-capsule effect isn’t a problem at all, except when some glancing reference to modern events creeps in. When Roderick Spode, Wodehouse’s devastating parody of fascist Oswald Mosely, returns in the very last Jeeves & Wooster book, there’s some mental confusion created in the reader about when this is all happening — it can’t be 1974, when the book was published, but when is it? Spode has given up on fascism some time back, it seems, but WWII is not mentioned — it simply couldn’t be (WWII was a painful subject for poor Plum).

Wodehouse engaged with the cinema quite a bit, or tried to, but apart from the excellent A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, co-scripted by him from one of his own books, little of his work has really succeeded on the screen. This is odd, since filmmakers have been trying since 1915. Wodehouse had success on the stage; his dialogue is exquisite, if protracted (Hollywood tried to get him to cut it down, which rather ruins the effect, since circumlocution and repetition are such major tools in his comic armoury); his plots are ingenious; and he had a handy sideline as lyricist, though the movies didn’t exploit that much either, apart from the sublime song Bill appearing in all three versions of SHOWBOAT.

Piccadilly Jim, Wodehouse’s first big bestseller, was first adapted in 1919, and again in 2005. I had a look at the 1936 version. It keeps the characters and throws out the whole story. Well, arguably the story is a bit too convoluted, and has some tricky backstory coming in from a previous novel. Charles Brackett had a hand in the new plot, and dialogue is courtesy of Samuel Hoffenstein (of the very mildly Wodehouseian country house comedy CLUNY BROWN) and Lynn Starling (ditto HE MARRIED HIS WIFE). Robert Montgomery and Frank Morgan are well cast.

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So why does it seem so strained and unfunny? Precisely the quality that a Wodehouse piece has got to not have. I think it’s because they’re trying to write funny dialogue for the characters. Witty dialogue. This is a fairly major misunderstanding of Wodehouse, whose characters are rarely witty on purpose. Like the best comic characters, they’re funny in spite of themselves, just by being so openly and helplessly themselves. When the Jim of the novel asks for a job, he doesn’t get laughs intentionally, but by stressing how he really doesn’t mind what he does as long as it isn’t work. Work would be a waste of his talents. But he’s sunnily certain he’ll be a great success in any position which doesn’t require him to exert himself.

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Glancing through Between Flops, James Curtis’s biography of Preston Sturges, I was pleased to find Sturges, in a letter, expressing supreme admiration for Wodehouse. And it occurred to me that THE PALM BEACH STORY is a Wodehouse type of story, filtered through the brasher Sturges sensibility. It’s a comedy about the deserving poor trying to get into the pockets of the frivolous rich, by various impostures and lies.

Then I read Wodehouse’s Uncle Dynamite (Uncle Fred may be mu favourite Wodehouse character: too bad he’s in so few stories), and it seemed to me that the influence worked both ways. The novel, written in 1948, opens with a young man on a train being embarrassed by an impromptu welcoming committee waiting for him at the platform — a situation Sturges introduced in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO. And the young man is just back from a trip up the Amazon, like Henry Fonda in THE LADY EVE.

Did Wodehouse borrow lightly from Sturges on this occasion? It would be nice to think so, and certainly Sturges would have been flattered.