Saturday, November 2, 2013

Last Night on TCM...: Screwball Friday Nights Part 1

The month of November, kicking off autumn with (hopefully) some chilly change of seasons, could do with some belly laughs to make the venture into the hibernation of winter more pleasant. Turner Classic Movies has stepped in to provide them, every Friday night, with a weekly spotlight on screwball comedy, that classic mode of hilarity that many have tried to duplicate since it went up in smoke after the Preston Sturges era (more on him later). Hosted by Matthew Broderick, an odd but somehow just right choice for the job, this is a series that is guaranteed to make your Friday nights this month much more fun.

Unwittingly, TCM has actually programmed a Friday night series that combines two comic genres and traces their beginnings from the 1930s into their demise in the 1940s: the screwball comedy and the romantic comedy. It's become commonplace for fans, scholars, and journalists to confuse the two; noted academic Stanley Cavell further complicates things with his branding of some films as "comedies of remarriage", several of which don't feature anything resembling remarriage in them. There are a few factors that make screwball and romantic distinctive from one another. Both were influenced by stricter enforcement of the Production Code, but in very different ways.

Screwball comedy is typified by the struggle between the classes. The best screwball's feature a madcap family of rich yahoos, or in Frank Capra's inversion in You Can't Take It With You (1938), a family of working-class yahoos. These ridiculous comic characters clash with a more reasonable and down-to-earth character(s), the audience stand-in who laughs at the comic rich. 1934 is generally regarded as the beginning of screwball, with Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century (broadcast later on in the series). It's no coincidence that screwball began the same year the Code banished sex, violence, drug use, and various other immoral behaviors from American movie screens. One of these sensitive subjects was criticism of American institutions, like the church, banks, the news, and politicians. Within the witty confines of screwball, ivory tower targets could still safely be pummeled to a Depression-era audience's delight. Where glamorous melodramas romanticized the idea of being in love and wealthy, screwball comedies made the rich and powerful the butt of the joke. And of course it must be noted that the entire reason for a comedy being labeled "screwball" is its pacing. Dialogue flies fast and furious, characters yell and talk over each other, and everything feels much more urgent and engaging.

Romantic comedy developed as more risque approaches to sex in comedy were jettisoned to avoid the censor scissors. These films generally seemed to feature two love interests from different social classes thrown together by some comic mishap, allowing for slight social commentary on the vanity of the rich, but also surrounding sexual pull between characters with comedy as a distraction from any potential questionable behavior. Unlike screwball, however, the emphasis in the romantic comedy is, of course, the romance. Laughs are important, but the guy and the girl getting together is the end goal. This is the chief difference between the two genres, making it slightly simpler to categorize them. Of course differentiating screwball comedies from romantic comedies is difficult; the two subgenres overlap so often that many films could be cited as examples of both. But it's important to note the distinct differences between them in any discussion of either genre. Some films labeled "screwball" are in fact better categorized as "romantic", and vice versa. In any case, when done right, you'll get priceless laughs whichever you choose.

All the comedies shown on the first night of the series were related to the newspaper business, as you'll notice during the rundown. TCM kicked off its November Friday night spotlight with It Happened One Night (1934), the grand-daddy of romantic comedy. The genesis of modern romance in comic scenarios is fully present in Frank Capra's little movie that could, a film that no one was very enthusiastic about while making it but swept the Oscars and made a fortune at the box office. Claudette Colbert was better known for her glamorous dramatic roles at her home studio of Paramount. Clark Gable was gaining momentum as a romantic lead at his home studio of MGM. Ironically, both stars won their only Academy Awards for loan-out work at Columbia, then one of the smaller studios in Hollywood really only known for its Capra features. It Happened features a central theme of screwball, namely social commentary on the over-privileged upper class elite, but it is slight compared to the core romantic development between a down-on-his-luck reporter and an heiress on the run. There isn't much more that can be said about this film that hasn't already, which richly deserves its classic status and then some. It's simply one of the greatest films ever made, still as fresh and funny as it was in the 1930s. Next year will be the film's 80th birthday, and it's mighty impressive that a film nearly a century old can make practically anyone and everyone who watches it fall in love with it. One for the permanent collection, and still a great date night movie.

The whiplash-inducing dialogue of Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940) ensures you can't watch this film any old time. It's a film that requires your full attention, or you'll miss some true comic gems of dialogue as characters speak lines over each other and under their breath. Once it gets going, it never lets up, making for an exhausting but hilarious viewing experience. Pairing Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as a divorced couple, he an unscrupulous newspaper editor, she a gutsy newspaper reporter trying to retire and remarry milquetoast Ralph Bellamy, was a stroke of genius. One can't imagine anyone else playing these parts so perfectly, and having such divine chemistry as they trade barbs and outwit each other. In fact, the entire picture is splendidly cast. Hawks always had affection for character actors, so he populates the news and press rooms with the perfect people to handle his lightning-paced script. It all takes place in one night, which seems insane to consider when you think about everything that happens in the picture. Grant works overtime to keep Russell and Bellamy apart, Russell rushes around the press room trying to juggle a pip of a story and her fiancee's whereabouts, and surrounding the pair are a mentally unfit death row convict with a gun (John Qualen), his misunderstood lady friend (Helen Mack), a gang of the funniest reporters you've ever heard (Roscoe Karns, Regis Toomey, Ernest Truex, Frank Jenks, and Cliff Edwards), the sheriff (Gene Lockhart) and the mayor (Clarence Kolb) trying to cover their incompetence, a mischievous gangster (Abner Biberman), and a goofy delivery man (Hal Roach favorite Billy Gilbert, stealing every scene he's in). I credit the cast because they deserve attention.

MGM, a studio more at home with glamour than comedy, actually made one of the best, yet underrated and underseen classics of the genre, Jack Conway's Libeled Lady (1936). Clearly influenced by the runaway success of It Happened, this is a film that still manages to stand on its own as a breezily paced masterwork of 1930s romantic comedy. The star power certainly helps to blur the similarities, too. The studio "with more stars than there are in the heavens" delivers on its promise, casting four of its biggest names perfectly: Spencer Tracy, engaged to feisty Jean Harlow, accidentally publishes a slanderous newspaper piece claiming socialite Myrna Loy is cheating on her fiancee, so to avoid a lawsuit he hires world-wise reporter William Powell to woo her into infidelity. It is a situation ripe for comic mishaps and, of course, the opportunity for romance to bloom amidst the laughs. In fact, love did blossom between two of the stars, Powell and Harlow, who had a well-publicized affair before her untimely death a year later. By 1936, Powell and Loy were an established dynamite team thanks to the Thin Man films, and they would continue to make beautiful magic together in several films into the 1940s. In my opinion, Tracy was always a better comic actor than a dramatic one, and this is one of his funniest performances.

David O. Selznick, after proving his mettle in the studio era working for the roaring lion of Louis B. Mayer at MGM and the odd-man-out major studio RKO, struck out on his own with Selznick-International, the first major independent film studio of the sound era. Determined to make a big splash from the get-go, Selznick pulled out all the stops to produce two lavish Technicolor films, at a time when color films were still quite uncommon. Nothing Sacred (1937) is the first (only?) color screwball comedy, and the added tones and hues don't have much to do with its laughs. Now, I've never been a huge fan of Nothing Sacred. As a small town girl incorrectly diagnosed as terminally ill who capitalizes on public sympathy by becoming the darling of New York City, Carole Lombard is simply not as good as she was in the previous year's My Man Godfrey, an Oscar-nominated performance. Fredric March, better known for his dramatic work, especially his Oscar-winning Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the 1932 film version, feels miscast at times as the reporter who brings Lombard to the city and splashes her face all over the front page. I initially thought it was because all of the public domain versions of this Technicolor marvel look like they've been used as toilet paper and then transferred to DVD, but having now seen it from a Library of Congress restored print at Film Forum and the new Kino transfer aired on TCM, I'm still not enamored of Wellman's comedy. Its sister film, A Star is Born (1937), is very different, but far more satisfying. Sacred is not without its moments of charm and hilarity, but it's also a film you almost can't wait to be over. One of the tricks of screwball is making traditionally unlikable characters acceptable enough to an audience to want to follow and laugh at or with them. Friday is able to do this. Sacred isn't.

Part of the fun of watching one screwball comedy after another is recognizing the rich community of character actors that made classic Hollywood films so much more special. Smart alecky Roscoe Karns is seen back-to-back as the cackling bus passenger in It Happened... and then as a wisecracking reporter in Friday. He's great in everything. In supporting the stars, some of these familiar faces threatened to steal the show out from under the big guns. Case in point: Charles Winninger in Sacred, as the boozy doctor who misdiagnoses Lombard. Don't confuse him with Gene Lockhart, another rotund uncle type who is so bumbling and funny as the sheriff in Friday. In Sacred, you will also recognize snooty helium-voiced Walter Connolly from two films shown earlier tonight, It Happened... (playing Colbert's desperate father who turns over a new leaf in the finale) and Libeled Lady (as another rich father, this time to Loy). If a film couldn't feature Connolly as a put-upon comic foil, his mirror image, lovable bullfrog-voiced Eugene Pallette, would typically turn up in the role (as in My Man Godfrey and The Bride Came C.O.D.). A general piece of advice when watching screwball or romantic comedies, or any studio-era picture: pay attention to the supporting players. You will be startled and delighted to see familiar faces who become reliable old friends during your journey through classic movies. Pallette practically feels like my great-uncle at this point.

Barbara Stanwyck, soon to become a screwball/romantic comedy legend for Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve (both 1941, a good year), actually kicked off her genre appearances with the unjustly neglected The Mad Miss Manton (1938), a film that also paired her with Lady Eve co-star Henry Fonda for the first time. In a wildly different scenario from the Sturges film, Stanwyck plays the title character, a flighty socialite who stumbles upon a body late one night that mysteriously vanishes when the police arrive. She enlists her gang of giddy high society do-gooders to investigate the crime, much to the frustration of dedicated newspaperman Fonda, who finds himself falling for the amateur sleuth. This is no lost screwball classic, but it has enough zingy one-liners and delightful characters to make it well worth your time. Stanwyck never gave a bad performance, ever, but it's always a surprise to see her in a role like this. Her self-possessed confidence would seem to threaten her chances at successfully playing a slightly goofy lady, but she imbues Miss Manton with both strength and vulnerability, a rare feat considering the nature of the character. Fonda, often looking uncomfortable in comedies, seems looser and to be having more fun here than usual. It must be that Stanwyck-Fonda connection. While not as full of great character actors adding welcome giggles to the proceedings (other than Friday's Qualen), Hattie McDaniel, a year before her Oscar win for Gone with the Wind, is the funniest, sassiest maid you've ever seen in a classic Hollywood film. No warm-hearted Mammy this Hattie!

The evening concluded with the weakest of the bunch, The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). A film pairing Warner Brothers' two biggest and best stars, Bette Davis and James Cagney, should have been dynamite. Of course, while Cagney had demonstrated his ability to jump from gangster action flicks to tap-dancing musicals, and everything else in-between, Davis was practically untested in the comic genre. By 1941, she had won two Oscars for her dramatic work, so C.O.D. must have seemed like a nice departure for the actress, who was always clamoring for more challenging work at her home studio. The influence of It Happened... is still felt almost 10 years later, as commuter plane pilot Cagney kidnaps eloping heiress Davis to return her to her father. Sound familiar? Just wait, it gets more obvious. The plane crashes and the two have to hit the road together. The undefinable chemistry between Gable and Golbert just isn't there for Cagney and Davis, and it's no surprise. The two had worked together previously on the B-movie cheapie Jimmy the Gent (1934) and were not terribly fond of one another. Ironic, considering both went on strike at Warners in protest against the shabby roles they were being given. Maybe they were just too similar to get along. That delightful screwball comedy blowhard Pallette is perfectly cast as Davis' father, and is easily the best thing about the movie. Warner Brothers' premier handsome character actor of the 1940s, Jack Carson, is also memorable as Davis' bandleader fiancee, but like Pallette, he was always a guaranteed casting slam dunk. So were Harry Davenport and William Frawley (even before "I Love Lucy"), trying to keep things lively and stealing scenes from the stars almost effortlessly. In fact, everyone comes away from this mess pretty nicely except for Cagney and Davis. The same year as this misfire, Davis gave two of her best performances in William Wyler's The Little Foxes and Edmund Goulding's The Great Lie. The following year, she made Now, Voyager and In This Our Life; Cagney won the Oscar for Yankee Doodle Dandy See those instead.

Next Friday, TCM's screwball comedy series continues with a group of films featuring what I'm going to call "marriages of misunderstanding", including another near flawless classic of the genre, The Awful Truth (1937), Hitchcock's very good and oft-neglected Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), and more Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Powell-Loy, and Ginger Rogers romantic comedy gems.