Thursday, October 24, 2013

Five Film Favorites: Screwball Comedies

by F.T. Rea

Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in "Sullivan's Travels"
Like lots of other film buffs I enjoy making up lists of good movies. Comparing lists and discussing the choices with friends is fun. But I try to avoid getting sucked into coming up with a list of the greatest films of all-time, or the most influential, etc. That sort of game can get to be about the credentials of the list-makers. Instead, I go for favorites. My favorites in a specific category.

To keep it moving, just five favorites. And, of course, such lists are always subject to change, depending on the mood of the moment. Which means my favorite Jack Nicholson movies list might not be the same this week as it was a couple of years ago. Today I’m in the mood for writing about my five favorite screwball comedies.

The golden age of Hollywood’s “screwball comedies” was during the 10-year run-up to World War II. Since that time many popular features have imitated the style of the screwballs -- a few quite effectively -- but the best, or perhaps the most authentic, screwball comedies drew upon the humor to be found in the distinctions of class that became so obvious in the midst of the Depression.

Then, too, the women in screwball comedies were quite independent-minded for the times and deliciously sarcastic. 

Screwball comedies were farces. Frequently, the plots were stretched across a battle-of-the-sexes bed. The screenplays depended on well written dialogue. Mostly, the formula used static cameras focused on witty, attractive stars delivering their wiseacre lines. With their roots in stage plays these wordy flicks thrived on mocking conventions. The dignity of the common man was often lauded.

No doubt, Depression era movie audiences enjoyed seeing fat cats portrayed on the big screen as fops and phonies who were clumsy in dealing with problems everyday folks coped with all the time.

Then WWII’s brutal realities suddenly jolted popular culture. It isn’t that Hollywood stopped making comedies, it’s that fashion shifted abruptly and styles changed. Laughing at class warfare was put on hold. Maybe society's old fashioned restrictions on females weren’t viewed as being as laugh-worthy as they had been before the war.

Movies after WWII moved toward depicting a more harsh reality. Postwar audiences liked action more than witty dialogue. Comedies became more physical, more predictable.  

Into the 1950s and 1960s the American comedies that borrowed from the template of the screwballs tended to be over-the-top with cuteness and more explicit in their sexual tension. Generally, they lacked the subtleties and timing of the classics. Therefore, no movies produced after the USA’s entrance into WWII are on this week’s list of five favorite screwball comedies:
  • "Libeled Lady" (1936): B&W. 98 minutes. Directed by Jack Conway. Cast: Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy. Note: The principle members of the cast were all at their best for this one. While the silly story about duping a spoiled socialite meanders hither and yon, it still works beautifully. Primarily known for the roles he played later in his career than this one, Tracy's youthful energy is striking.
  • "My Man Godfrey" (1936): B&W. 94 minutes. Directed by Gregory La Cava. Cast: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Eugene Pallette, Gail Patrick. Note: As usual, the suave Powell charms the pants off every female in the story. This feature is chock-full of belly laughs at class warfare absurdities. It’s also a nice variation on the old the-butler-did-it theme. Last but not least: Lombard is perfect in her role.
  • "Philadelphia Story" (1940): B&W. 112 minutes. Directed by George Cukor. Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, Roland Young. Note: Adapted from a play written for her, this picture provided Hepburn with a perfect vehicle for what seemed at the time to be a comeback for her. Although the typical screwball plot that pokes fun at the filthy rich isn’t all that unusual, the sparkling performances of the stars won high praise from critics.
  • "Sullivan’s Travels" (1941): B&W. 90 minutes. Directed by Preston Sturges. Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Damarest. Note: A movie director known for his light comedies wants to make a different kind of picture. So he poses as a hobo to see how the downtrodden live. Naturally, he gets into scary trouble and hooks up with a beautiful blonde along the way.
    Lionel Barrymore and Jean Arthur in "You Can't Take It With You"

  • "You Can’t Take It With You" (1938): B&W. 126 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Cast: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold. Note: Adapted from the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. A rich and well-connected guy falls for a middle class gal who lives in a house full of lovable but crazy characters. When the guy and his parents show up for dinner and meet the gal's eccentric family -- uh-oh!
“His Girl Friday” (1940), which was on my list the last time I wrote about screwball comedies, didn’t make the cut this time. Neither did “The Lady Eve” (1941). Couldn‘t put “The Devil in Miss Jones” (1941) on the list, because that might trigger a digression that would make me miss my deadline.

Next week a new list of Five Film Favorites will be published.

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