It’s Love I’m After (1937)

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The Taming of the Shrew

It’s Love I’m After draws many parallels to the earlier screwball comedy Twentieth Century (1934) with Leslie’s Howard’s Basil Underwood drawing a number of similarities John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe. Basil Underwood is an egomaniacal actor who is as big a ham off stage as he is on. Like Barrymore in Twentieth Century he can never describe something in a conventional matter but rather has to do it poetically with his constant references to Shakespeare, with Howard’s English accent making him sound all the more pretentious. He’s clearly a man of the theatre to the point that he doesn’t even know who Clark Gable is (yes they actually mention an MGM star in a Warner Bros movie when studios where keen to usually only promote their own contract players). Likewise his sparing with Bette Davis as his bride to be Joyce Arden is similar to the screaming and shouting between John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century, yet in a movie with Bette Davis Howard is still the bigger drama queen.

Although Basil is engaged to marry Joyce despite the two hating each other one minute and then are in a loving embrace the next, the real unforgettable dynamic is between Howard and Eric Blore. It’s implied throughout the film that Basil and the effeminate Diggs are gay lovers through much gay subtext (“Do we know anyone called Marsha West Diggs?”, “Not unless you’ve been cheating on me sir”). This occurs even though Basil is set to marry Joyce, thus is Joyce even aware of this and are they involved in a three way relationship or is Basil cheating on Joyce with Diggs? Why does Basil even need Joyce if he has the perfect partner in Diggs? Either way the dynamic between the entire cast of It’s Love I’m After is effortless.

Olivia de Havilland’s Marcia West is an early example of what we would now call fanboyism, having a fanatical love for Basil Underwood. Yet despite her bursts of hyperactivity and her ditzy manner, she does have a smarter side to her. She does cleverly get her way into Underwood’s dressing room at the theatre and even has the common sense to just talk to him about her feelings towards him then run off again and not to continue bothering him. It’s only when Basil deliberately turns up to her house does he feel the full wrath of her fanaticism.

Also contributing to the movie’s over the top histrionics is Bonita Granvillie as the chatterbox Gracie. I actually find her character quite disturbing with her spying through keyholes on other people’s business only to then tell the rest of the family about her discoveries. She reminded me the little girl who from These Three and its remake The Children’s Hour who ruined people’s lives with deceitful spying and her big mouth. Thus it came as no surprise when I learned she was the actress who played the little girl in These Three!

The cinematography of It’s Love I’m After is also a thing beauty, a perfect showcase the distinctive Warner Bros aesthetic of the 30’s and 40’s; particularly the lighting the of the dark theatre at the beginning of the film and those spellbinding close ups of Miss de Havilland. During the beginning of the film Basil and Joyce are playing Romeo & Juliet on stage. Howard had played Romeo the year before in MGM’s production of Romeo & Juliet which along with Warner’s A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream in 1935, had failed to garner much interest from film goers. I get the impression It’s Love I’m After reflects this when Spring Byington falls asleep to the production of Romeo & Juliet only to be waken and utters “Isn’t it so wonderful, Shakespeare is so elevating”.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

The Sweet Smell of Success

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Coen Brothers are hit and miss with me (I tend to have a preference more towards their comedy then their drama) but The Hudsucker Proxy is by far my favourite movie of theirs, a film which feels like it was tailor made for me. The Hudsucker Proxy takes place in its own unique universe; the acting style in the film is reminiscent of the 1930’s yet the film is set in the 1950’s. Likewise there appears to be a clash of fashion; the outfits are from the 30’s yet the cars or the beatnik coffee house which Norvillie visits are unmistakably 1950’s but I like this combination of two eras, two distinct time periods of Hollywood’s golden age wrapped into one. The Hudsucker Proxy is a movie with so many layers and homage’s to other movies (Sweet Smell of Success, Metropolis, The Apartment, The Producers, various Frank Capra movies); I’m sure with future viewings I will unlock even more secrets the movies holds.

The Hudsucker Proxy is a love letter to anyone who loves the aesthetic of classic Hollywood movies with set designs to die for such as Paul Newman’s office, an art deco fantasy land; yet the movie even injects some Terry Gilliam-esque cinematography with the scene in the mail room feeling like the world from 1985’s Brazil. Likewise this is a movie of drawn out colours, mostly greys in what I feel is an attempt to emulate the appearance of black & white.

What happened to Tim Robbins? He was on such a hot streak of films during the first half of the 90’s, just after this he was in The Shawshank Redemption (one of the best two film streaks ever?); since then, not so much. The character of Norvillie Barnes is a Preston Sturges hero trapped in a Frank Capra story; although due to Robbin’s resemblance to a young Orson Welles the character comes off to me as someone who has the look of Welles but has the personality of Gary Cooper; a young entrepreneurial go getter with a wide eyed innocence who is not fully in tune with reality, or at least hasn’t been subjected to it yet. When he first arrives in New York and tries looking for a job, the word “experience” is plastered all over the frame, oh the reliability.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is a revelation here; channelling Rosalind Russell, yet I can still detect elements of Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanywck and Jean Arthur in there. The coordination of her gestures is perfect and I’m also fascinated by her character dynamic in which she becomes insecure about her femininity or lack therefore off at Norville’s comments of her trying to be one of the boys. Although it’s never resolved, this still gives her character another layer of depth. Paul Newman on the other hand rarely ventured into comedy but he pulls of the cigar chomping, “you’re fired!” type boss with ease.

The film’s combination of numerous elements from various genres is also carried over in its humour, from dry jokes to more overt, fast talking screwball antics. The gag with the circle drawn on the piece of paper followed by the uttering of “you know, for kids!” never gets old, even if the movie’s poster somewhat spoils the joke. While the sequence detailing the creation and distribution of the Hula Hoop, I don’t think I could you ask for a better fast paced quirky montage. Likewise the (almost literal) Deus Ex Machina ending could have easily come off as a copout but I feel is rescued from being so from the plot element of the blue letter; I completely forgot that even existed until the angel of Warren Hudsucker reminds a suicidal Norville about it; now that’s a sign of an engaging film.

It’s a Wonderful World (1939)

It’s a Wonderful Life…I Mean World

The first 10 minutes of It’s a Wonderful World is just rather dull set up for an incomprehensible murder mystery, but when Stewart becomes a fugitive on the run trying to prove his innocence and Claudette Colbert enters the picture it’s all smooth sailing even with the largely impossible to understand plot.

James Stewart is Guy Johnson, a hardboiled detective who often has a cigarette hanging at the end of his mouth like he’s Phillip Marlow. The role is a very different change of pace for Stewart but he pulls it off showing he could have easily slipped into a noir/detective thriller. Stewart even channels Clark Gable at times; with even the way he talks to a dog shouting at it to go away is very Gable-like. On top of that, at one point he admits to Colbert’s character that he thinks “all dames are dumb and all men ain’t” and how she has changed his philosophy on women; don’t tell the feminists. I also have to ask does this movie contain Stewart’s only ever black face moment in a film? So yes, the on screen personification of a boy scout is now literally poking fun at boy scouts and even tying them up. Claudette Colbert on the other hand plays an overly trusting eccentric poet who states throughout the film, “I swear by my eyes”. What does that even mean?

It’s a Wonderful World offers a genre mix of screwball comedy, murder mystery and even some elements of Hitchcock with the plot of a fugitive on the run to prove his innocence. Likewise many of the solutions’ the character’s use throughout the film feel like they could be used in a Hitchcock movie such as Colbert lighting the newspaper on fire to escape from the car. No surprise that the film’s co-writer Ben Hecht would be a future Hitchcock writer.

Libeled Lady (1936)

The Front Page

The opening credits of Libeled Lady are not your typical list of screen names, instead we get footage of the four main stars walking arm in arm very happily as their names come on screen one by one. Four heavy weights in roles which play to their strengths, giving some of the best dialogue the screwball comedy has to offer. Libeled Lady is my favourite newspaper comedy, a world in which journalistic ethics are nonexistent and people struggle to make relationships and careers in journalism mix. Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) is so preoccupied with his job as the managing editor of a paper he has missed his own wedding several times, so no surprise Jean Harlow gives a very comically angry performance throughout most of the film.

William Powell’s Bill Chandler has such cool and confidence, he even draws his own contract which will bring him back to the paper he was sacked from as he knows Warren Haggerty will come looking for him following a scandal. Powell gets the chance to show the full range of his comic abilities, not only as a master of words but also gets showcase slapstick comedy similar in vain to Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin during the film’s fishing scene. The subplot of Bill Chandler learning to fish would be the basis of Howard Hawk’s comedy Mans’ Favorite Sport?. Despite how incredibly fast he picks up the ability to fish like an expert it doesn’t feel contrived.

A portion of the story is spent trying to find William Powell with telephone, telegraph and radio as their means of communication. Outdated aspects like in old movies always intrigues me and makes me ponder if stories like this could be told today. With the internet and other modern communication devices they could have been able to recall those newspapers at the start of the film. Likewise publications today are no less obsessed with covering the escapades of socialites and people famous for being famous; but Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) is not a typical socialite. She is down to Earth, has an image distorted by the media and can even outwit the paper. It’s appropriate this role would be played by Myrna Loy; the so called only good girl in Hollywood.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Another Philadelphia Experiment

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the beginning of The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant pushes Katharine Hepburn to the ground by putting his hand in her face. With any other actor this would be a vile act against a woman but because it’s Cary Grant, it works and thus showing the power of these three acting titans, Hepburn, Grant and Stewart. The Philadelphia Story gives an insight into the lives of the rich and famous, something which would be harder to pull off in later decades not to come off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. I do find myself trying to figure out why this is? Could it be the incredibly high standards of writing and filmmaking craft on display here and the love of these performers; even more so when compared to the poor standard of romantic comedies today?

Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is not a ditzy socialite. In this role written for Hepburn it’s clear that she is a symbol of first wave feminism; wearing pants and an emasculating suit and being an influence on her younger tomboy sister but more importantly it’s not to be undermined the complex characterisation of Tracy Lord. Like in Holiday, Grant and Hepburn share some very poignant and hard to decipher dialogue in which he tells her about her standing as a goddess and her lack of human frailty. Despite her ego, she claims in a sincere manner “I don’t want to be worshipped, I want to be loved”. Under the surface of the usual Cary Grant charm and elegance, C.K. Dexter Haven is one the darker characters Grant ever played. Apparently he “socked” Tracy on occasions, destroyed the cameras of multiple photographers on a boat and is a recovering alcoholic. This is Cary Grant at his most knieving with no remorse and enjoying it, displaying the darkly comic side of The Philadelphia Story.

However this is Stewart and Hepburn’s film. Macaulay Connor is the moral, do gooder James Stewart is known for (at least at the beginning that is); objecting to having been given the assignment of snooping in on the wedding of a Philadelphia socialite, as opposed to something with more journalistic integrity. He is appalled by the rich and their lifestyle but unlike Jefferson Smith he throws this out the window when he falls in love with Tracy; a piece of subtle cynicism on the movie’s part? I also really appreciate the relationship he shares with his work partner Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Her character is very cynical throughout most of the film but later reveals her more idealist side. She shares a platonic friendship with Macaulay but there are hints they have deeper feelings for each other. Virginia Weidler on the other hand is a real scene stealer. Just look at her speaking French in an overdramatic manner then singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady by the piano; a pointless scene but funny.

I can’t call The Philadelphia Story a predictable movie as I couldn’t see where the story was going at the end. I could have sworn she would end up with Jimmy but at the last minute and totally out of nowhere she goes with Cary and with it coming off as contrived. Likewise a drunken Stewart carrying Hepburn in his arms while singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow is surely one of the greatest things ever caught on celluloid.

Sex and the Single Girl (1964)

Natalie & Tony & Henry & Lauren

A mainstream movie with sex in the title, even pre code didn’t do that. I could only find two films which precede Sex and the Single Girl; Sex (1920) and The Opposite Sex (1956). Although I imagine after this a movie having with “Sex” in a movie’s title wasn’t such a big deal but here they sure take advantage of it with the animated opening which puts alot of emphasis on the word ‘SEX’ in big capital letters. Perhaps the movie may have something interesting to say on its subject with Natalie Wood playing a psychologist who is a 23 old virgin (which characters in the film viewed as a compliment) or something about sleazy journalism but the movie becomes too dull to bother deciphering.

From what I’ve seen I get the impression that Richard Quine is a lousy director. He’s done a number of movies with great casts and interesting premises but are let down by flat, uninspired direction. The opening scene of Sex and the Single Girl is a gem with 1930’s comedy actor Edward Everett Horton giving a speech on how proud he is of his publication becoming “the filthy rag it is today”. Sadly it goes downhill from there. Even with the movie’s madcap finale it is hard to care what’s going on.

Henry Fonda was ashamed of this movie stating in an interview that he agreed to star in the film as a comprise to do a box office picture so he could indulge in doing movies which interested him such as 12 Angry Men and The Ox Bow Incident. There are worse movies you can do but why did he hate it so much? I doubt he would have an issue with appearing in a sex comedy as he himself starred in the sexually charged comedy The Lady Eve years earlier or is it because of the movie’s sleaze factor? Who knows…

Although I would be lying if I didn’t say I still got some superficial enjoyment out of the film. I am a sucker for the 60’s aesthetic with the bright, colourful sets (the stocking factory is very amusing) and the cool, breezy music by Neal Hefti. Likewise I do like the contrast between two generations present between Tony Curtis & Natalie Wood and Henry Fonda & Lauren Bacall. Sex and the Single Girl could have been a neo-screwball gem. In the end it’s a movie which looks appealing from the outside but is hollow on the inside.

Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964)

Can You Smell What the Rock Is Cooking?

Man’s Favorite Sport? would have to be my favourite neo-screwball comedy (does such a term already exist or can I claim to have invented it?), and perhaps the last screwball directed by one of the original masters of the genre, Howard Hawks.

The factor which by far most surprised me in Man’s Favorite Sport? was Rock Hudson. My previous encounters with the actor left me unimpressed, leaving me classify him as one of classic Hollywood’s duller leading men. However the fact that I not only enjoyed his performance in this film but found him hysterically funny was such a shock that I was demanding answers. Did Hudson acting abilities improve by 1964? Is he better than comedy than drama or had he just grown on me? It just goes to show that there are very few classic Hollywood stars who can’t impress me in at least some small way or another, even if my previous impression of them where not very good. Paula Prentiss is also entering my books as a one hit wonder actress; I’ve yet to see her in another film in which she is as joyous and energetic as this. Being a semi remake of Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby, the two leads could have just done impressions of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn but the avoid doing so and make the roles their own but like Grant and Hepburn, their chemistry truly is electric.

This movie exemplifies in the early to mid 1960’s aesthetic with its fashion, the cars and overall appearance showcasing the final days of old Hollywood glamour. I want to know who the set designer in this film was; the revolving bar alone has to be one of the most unabashedly 60’s sets ever. Even the less “out there” sets such an office, or a fishing shop, have a certain beauty to them. The film’s colorful visuals help give it the appearance of a live action cartoon, partly due to the fact that many of the outdoor scenes take place on obviously fake sets but then again isn’t a live action cartoon one of the definitions of screwball comedy. I also don’t normally go for those cheesy opening credit songs from the 50’s and 60’s often sang by the likes of Doris Day but this one if dam catchy.

Unlike the manic intensity of its sister film Bringing Up Baby, Man’s Favorite Sport? is surprising a very relaxing film to watch, aided by lake side resort setting and Henry Mancini’s music score, which is so mellow. I just love the juvenile innocence of the gags present in this film, such as a bear riding on a motorcycle to many variations of William Powell’s fishing scene from Libeled Lady. The common screwball comedy theme of crises of masculinity permeates the film. Hudson’s Rodger Willoughby (a name which feels straight from a 1930’s comedy) is an icon of masculinity from writing books about fishing, yet he is secretly a phony who has never fished in his life and completely fails at his attempts at his attempts at outdoor living while being made the foil of two hyperactive women. Man’s Favorite Sport? shows by the 60’s it was still possible to make these kinds of movies with the same velocity they had back in the 30’s.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Me and Miss Jones

The Devil and Miss Jones may be the best Frank Capra film he didn’t make and one of the last depression era comedies making it one of the last of its kind – a screwball comedy attacking the rich who caused the great depression. The film presents a fascinating and shocking look at the treatment of workers in a department store during the final days of the depression, themes which would become obsolete with the US entry to the war.

The owner of the department store is J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn). With this character the movie shows the rich aren’t all bad people at heart. They’re just cut off from common people and their reality, unaware of the common man’s struggle and surround by advisors who think they know what’s best. Heck, J.P. doesn’t even remember what stores he owns! He brings himself down to his employee’s level by going undercover as a store worker in order to identify those who are trying to form a union. J.P. has the advantage that no one in the public knows what he looks like as his picture hasn’t appeared in a newspaper for 20 years, also no internet in 1941 would also be an advantage.

I don’t how if the treatment of the workers is realistic or exaggerated; just how relevant is this movie today? In one scene a store supervisor criticises a new worker (unaware it’s the store’s owner going undercover) in a bullying nature for their poor intelligence level test score. In another scene the department store addresses their workers at the end of the day as they stand in unison like a military dictatorship, threatening to fire anyone and preventing them from working in any department store in the city if they speak out against the company or associate with anyone who does. Next many of the workers have a secret union meeting on top of a building, like a band of rebels coming together to take down a oppressive regime. The leader of the cause played by Robert Cummings states the company is letting employees go after 15 years when their salary is higher than a new employee and that they expect a quarter lifetime of loyalty to the one employer. At one point Jean Arthur even speaks during one emotionally rousing speech about how working “25 years for only two employers” as unacceptable –  I know those days have certainly passed us. The art deco department store itself is a beauty and offers a nostalgic look at the days before automation, when people had to be employed to do every task without the aid of computers.

Robert Cumming’s character is more a product of the 1960’s, a radical protester who is against the establishment; the type of person who would protect his country against its government. In one pivotal scene at a police station he takes on abusive, power hungry cops and escaping charges by reciting the Constitution and then the Declaration of Independence at lightening fast speed to remind the officers of their rights; a real bad ass. A scene like this just goes to show you how people are unaware of their rights.

Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn are a superb and unconventional pairing. Yet you get two great romance plots for the price of one – old love and young love; Charles Coburn & Spring Byington and Jean Arthur and Robert Cummings. Like Frank Capra’s works, The Devil and Miss Jones is full of incredibly intimate, powerfully sentimental moments as two characters talk to each other as the rest of the world ceases to exist, such as the beach scene with Arthur and Cummings or the moment on the train with Coburn and Byington are all incredibly moving. Yet the intimate moment which strikes me the most is Arthur and Coburn’s discussion on love. Jean Arthur’s monologue on love feels so true; stating that two people can look at each other and see something way deep inside that no one else can see and distances her love from that seen in movies of love songs. She doesn’t think herself or her boyfriend are the greatest people in the world, yet doesn’t know if she’d care to live or die if she would never see him again. When this moment begins the sound effects of people talking in the background becomes increasingly faint and then loud again as other people enter the scene – it’s perfect. In terms of just pure comedy, just look the scene in which Jean Arthur dives across the table; an explosion screwball comedy in its purest form.

The More The Merrier (1943)

Three’s a Crowd

The More The Merrier represents the screwball genre adapting for the war years however this was at the end of the genre’s original run. I wonder why there was not more screwball comedies made during the war period? Did people become more cynical with the war or perhaps the genre was simply made for the depression era. Instead of taking on the establishment like the genre screwball did during the depression, The More The Merrier is supporting it. It is refreshing to see a propaganda film from the war years which is less gloomy and shows how common folk got on with their daily lives during the war.

My main flaw with The More The Merrier is Joel McCrea. He’s fine but that’s the problem, he’s only just fine; a serviceable actor who doesn’t leave a great impression. He’s the weak spot of a trio of characters who could have been much stronger with a more charismatic actor. Granted this was during the war and most of Hollywood’s big male leads where off in Europe kicking Hitler’s ass. Could Cary Grant have played the role instead, but perhaps a big star like that couldn’t play a role in he doesn’t show up until half an hour in. The trio of characters still manages to be fun with Jean Arthur playing the straight man and Charles Coburn as an immature and conniving old man who still seems like a kid at heart; while the romance between Arthur and MrCrea is still believable and handled very well as they spend the final third of the film quietly denying their feelings for each other.

Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn are one of the more unconventional screen pairings in Hollywood starring in three films together, just look at the morning schedule scene; comic choreographed brilliance and by far my favourite part of the film. When McCrea enters the picture though I feel it is never as strong. Also after you watch this movie you may find yourself saying “dam the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”, alot.

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The Old English Definition of Gay

I had a period in which I was infatuated with the greatness that is Fred Astaire & Ginger Rodgers. Prior to this I often heard of them but I was occupied with later film musical of the 50’s. When I checked them out for myself I got it, oh boy did I get it. When together dancing or not, Fred and Ginger are in a world of their own and everyone else ceases to exist. Just look as Night & Day (my favourite Astaire and Rodger’s number), what could be more spellbinding? The Gay Divorcee is my favourite Astaire & Rodgers picture. This was their first film together as lead and yet a feel it gets everything right and I consider it a much better film than Top Hat which itself I find overrated.

I find the humour of The Gay Divorcee is more creative than that of Top Hat. Take the sequence in which Astaire finds Rodger in London by near impossible luck, then the two engage in a car chase into the country side (how often do you get a car chase in a 30’s musical), and then in a wacky races type moment he goes ahead or Rodgers and gets road closed sign out of nowhere in order to stop her. Astaire’s stalker attitude could come off as creepy but he is charming enough to get away with it, making this moments morbidly funny. This whole sequence is so surreal and plays like a live action cartoon, as if the filmmakers are making fun of the film’s own highly improbably mistaken identity plot. This is much more clever than the handling of the mistaken identity plot in Top Hat. I don’t mean to completely undo Top Hat, I think it’s a good movie, just whatever Top Hat did I can’t help but feel The Gay Divorcee did much better. I’ve always championed Astaire’s unsung abilities as a comedian. His timing and line delivery is easily on par with the likes of Cary Grant; I wish he could have appeared in some non musical comedies. Ginger Rodgers usually had a female companion throughout the series and I think Alice Brady is the best of them all with her histrionics; the sound of her voice alone cracks me up.

The Gay Divorcee may have slipped through the recently instated production code. If not then it certainty feels like a pre-code film, with sexual tension throughout and an air of scandalousness to the whole thing.

Fred and Ginger, they where gods!