Category: Screwball Comedies


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An avalanche of rapid-fire dialogue, slapstick humor, and gags from start to finish barely scratches the surface of the madcap genius that is 1938’s Bringing Up Baby. The screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s are the golden era of pre-Woody Allen and post-Chaplin comedy, and Bringing Up Baby is surely one of the definitive films of that form. With stars Cary Grant (My Favorite Wife) and Katharine Hepburn (Woman of the Year) at the height of their comedic abilities, it is a non-stop laugh riot. And shy of Modern Times, I’d be hard-pressed to name a comedy from before the 1960s that’s as consistently hilarious as this Howard Hawks classic.

Humor in the purest sense of the word is derived from the unexpected and, like poetry, well-timed repetition. You expect one thing to happen to your heroes but, with expert timing, something else occurs. Say what you will about the non-intellectual nature of slapstick, but setting up the right series of physical gags and pratfalls takes perfect coordination of writer, director, and actor for it not seem contrived or silly. And what makes the screwball classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age so memorable is the ease with which its films transition in and out of hilariously painful physical humor, verbal ping-pong, and constantly escalating situational humor. And, from start to finish, Bringing Up Baby succeeds on every perceivable comedic front without ever having to resort to gross-out gags, foul language, or raunchy sex.

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Clumsy paleontologist David Huxley (Carey Grant) is a brilliant figure in his field but something of a nervous, put-upon mess. His fiancee, Alice (Virginia Walker), insists that they not have a honeymoon for their wedding which is only a day away and that David return immediately to his work, which involves putting the final bone in piece to a massive Brontosaurus skeleton, after their wedding. The pressure on David is compounded by a golf session with the lawyer of a rich woman who wants to give $1 million to David’s museum. And on that fateful golfing trip, after David hooks his starting drive, his life is changed when he meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).

Susan is a desperately ditzy and oblivious heiress. And, in her first meeting with David, she steals his golf ball (because it was on her fairway) and then, leaving the golf course, she drives David’s car without his permission so that it would be easier for her to get out of her parking spot later. And though David positively loathes Susan from first sight, she is struck head over heels for him and concocts increasingly zany schemes so that he will not make it to his wedding. From saddling David with her pet leopard Baby to dragging him to Connecticut on the promise to make amends on costing him his golf meeting with the lawyer, the adventures and laughs never stop once the pair are together.

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Ignoring the complete lack of sexual chemistry that Cary Grant ever seemed to have with any of his female co-stars (his rumored homosexuality not withstanding, he should be able to at least pretend it), Cary Grant is a deliciously funny comic performer. Yes, his dramatic turns in films like Penny Serenade are brilliant, but his sardonic and deadpan comic delivery are a wonderful delight. David is very much a reactive role as he has to respond to the various misadventures Susan (the meatier part) drags him into and with every sigh, roll of his eyes, and exasperated shrug, Cary Grant had me in stitches. Not to mention the verbal rhythm he established with Hepburn’s motor-mouth Susan.

But, let there be no question, this was Katharine Hepburn’s show, and she commands the attention of every scene. The performance is astounding, not just in a comedic sense (though she gets many of the film’s biggest laughs) but in the whole range that Hepburn draws from. Cary Grant is a handsome, charming man, but there’s nothing sexual about him. He never seemed attracted to Susan. And so while Katharine turns Susan into a tough, air-headed, scheming, scatter-brained brilliant mess, she also played Susan in the thrall of a gradual swoon towards David, and the romantic aspect of the film would have fallen apart were it not for her natural magnetism and vulnerability. With the exception of Diane Keaton and Irene Dunne, few female stars have been able to dominate a film as thoroughly as Katharine Hepburn.

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I harped on this during my introduction but Bringing Up Baby was an astoundingly flexible and multi-faceted comedy. It’s one of the talkiest screwballs this side of My Man Godfrey (the similarities between Katharine Hepburn’s character in this and Carole Lombard’s in that are eerie). But, the physical humor is just as expertly pitched and Buster Keaton would have been proud. Few films have ever made the consistent toppling of shelves, tables, and human beings so refreshing. Bringing Up Baby‘s instincts for when to have David or Susan take a spill are perfect. And, then of course, the gags are endless such as a moment at a fancy restaurant where Susan accidentally tears David’s coat and then David accidentally tears Susan’s dress and they have to waddle their way out of the restaurant to spare her dignity.

When Bringing Up Baby was first released, it was something of a critical and commercial flop but it has been vindicated by the annals of history as the classic it truly is. Some old films age poorly, but the best seem as fresh today as the did 75 years ago. Bringing Up Baby has lost none of its pleasures. Proving my long-held belief that real comedy is timeless, I can’t imagine anyone stepping into this world and not finding themselves rolling in the aisles when all is said and done.

Final Score: A

 

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I might be wrong, but I think, at this point, the only directors that I have reviewed for this blog as often as the Coen Brothers are Woody Allen and David Lean. It’s not an intentional decision by any means; these directors have just made an exceptionally large number of films and they were almost all critically acclaimed. I’ve reviewed so many Coen films at this point that I would have to open up my list of every movie I’ve reviewed (all 360 or so) just to pick them all out. I bring this up because, despite their occasional flaws and pretenses as filmmakers, the Coens are arguably the most versatile and multifaceted writer/directors of the modern era, and their early screwball classic, Raising Arizona, is ample proof of why.

Raising Arizona is arguably the closest the Coens have ever come to doing a straight comedy. Although I think that The Big Lebowski is the second greatest American comedy ever made (behind Annie Hall), it twists and turns in its post-modernist nihilism and genre-bending so much that no one could ever call it a straight comedy. But Raising Arizona is classic screwball and slapstick in the vein of My Man Godfrey or The Philadelphia Story. Relying on the insanity of its characters and a constantly escalating series of mishaps that snowball towards the film’s climax, Raising Arizona is a loving (if subversive) throwback to the classic comedies of yore, and honestly, nobody has made them like this since.

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H.I. McDunnough (Adaptation.‘s Nic Cage) is an unrepentant bandit. Robbing gas stations (with an unloaded gun to avoid armed robbery charges), H.I. is in and out of prison with an astonishing regularity. However, when he catches the eye of ex-cop Ed (Jesus’ Sons Holly Hunter), he vows to get his life back on the straight and narrow. The two two marry and move into a trailer in the middle of the Arizona desert. H.I. gets a job at a sheet metal factory, and everything seems to be back on the up and up, until H.I. and Edwina decide to have a baby. But, when Ed discovers that she’s incapable of getting pregnant, their lives begin to fall back apart.

Potential salvation comes in the form of news that a local furniture salesman, the titular Arizona, has had quintuplets with his wife. Getting it into their head that the Arizona family now has more children than they can manage, Ed and H.I. believe that they’ll be doing the Arizonas a favor if they take one of the babies off their hands. And, so, H.I. kidnaps little Nathan Jr. and he and Ed hope to raise the baby as their own. But when two of H.I.’s old cell mates break out of prison (including an excellent John Goodman) and show up on his doorstep, their plans immediately spin out off control and the arrival of a psychotic bounty hunter only make things worse.

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Although part of me suspects that Raising Arizona has some very minor pacing problems (during its 90 minute running time, there were little moments here and there where my mind began to wander), the movie is still, then, thankfully full of classic comedy bits. Whether it’s early in the film when H.I.  is trying to decide which of the Arizona quints to steal as they start scattering all over their house, or a gas station robbery gone horribly, horribly south, or any other of a number of gag-fueled scenes, Raising Arizona earns its reputation as one of the true cult comedy classics of the 1980s by keeping the laughs coming consistently from beginning to end.

I’ve brought this up so many times now for this blog that it almost seems dumb to say it again, but here goes. Nic Cage has completely destroyed any credibility he had as an actor this last decade or so, but Raising Arizona reminds me of why he should have been one of the biggest stars of his time. He has a natural comic timing, and he has inhabited so many zany and eccentric characters over the year that it’s a shame he decided to play an endless series of the same type of character in mainstream action duds. Holly Hunter was also hysterical as the appropriately emotionally hysterical Ed, and I’ll actually be watching another Holly Hunter classic later this week, The Incredibles. So, I’m excited for that.

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I could go on at length about how this film is also a perfect snapshot of 1980s Americana and a commentary on the economic angst of Reagan’s America, but I’m hungry so I’m going to draw this review to a close. If you’re looking for a witty and endlessly clever comedy to whittle away the hours today, I’m not sure if you could do much worse than Raising Arizona. It was one of the films that shot the Coen brothers onto the map, and while it may not be one of my favorite films of theirs (it’s impressive that a film as great as this doesn’t crack the top 5 for a director), it’s still one of the best comedies of the 1980s.

Final Score: A-

 

Before comedies had to rely on shocking amounts of obscenities or gross out humor, writers and directors were confident enough that their creation of absurdist situational humor and zany characters could deliver all the laughs they needed. I’m not dissing well-done raunchy humor. Judd Apatow remains the best thing to happen to movie comedies since Harold Ramis. But there was a day where comedies may have been significantly simpler but there were no less funny. And of course, the best Hollywood comedies of the classic era were the screwballs like Bringing Up Baby or It Happened One Night. 1936’s My Man Godfrey is a classic comedy in the screwball vein, and while it may not be as great the iconic films I just mentioned, it brings the laughs with a refreshing regularity.

In the waning days of the Great Depression, Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard), the daughter of a wealthy businessman, enlists the help of an intelligent and well-mannered homeless man to win a socialite scavenger hunt. After seeing the homeless man, Godfrey (Life With Father‘s William Powell), bullied by her wealthy peers, she invites him to come back to her home to be the new butler. Needing a job and eager for a chance to prove himself, Godfrey accepts the position but it becomes quickly apparent that the Bullock family  are a few cards short of a full deck. And when the audience discovers that Godfrey is actually the heir of a wealthy family himself, we join Godfrey on a ride as he tries to teach his condescending and eccentric bosses a lesson or two about life and humility.

Much like every William Powell role I can think of from this blog (Life With Father and How to Marry a Millionaire are the two that spring to mind), he  runs away as the best part of the whole film. Much to the opposite of one’s usual expectations, despite being the literal straight man of the film when matched against all of the crazies in the Bullock household, Powell still manages to get many of the best laughs. His only real competition is Eugene Pallette as the beleaguered head of the Bullock household. Powell simply has a pitch-perfect deadpan delivery, and like many of the best comedians, he can get deep chuckles with a simple wiggle of his eyebrow. That’s not to diminish the performance of his costars, especially Carole Lombard as the scatterbrained heiress who takes him in and develops an almost stalkerly crush on Mr. Godfrey.

The best screwball comedies pick up momentum like a rolling stone collects moss and My Man Godfrey is no exception. From the minute that Irene’s overbearing sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) shows up at the dump to find Godfrey to the film’s non-stop series of revelations in the film’s final moments, My Man Godfrey gathers steam and rarely slows down the whole film. It’s very much a “talky” screwball and virtually every character except Godfrey speaks like they’ve just done a couple lines of speed (particularly Irene and her mother). Whether it’s a tea party that turns into an unexpected engagement celebration or Irene faking a fainting spell to get Godfrey’s attention, the film has gags and jokes aplenty and thankfully few fall flat.

Continuing my current trend of watching films that got really bad DVD transfer jobs, My Man Godfrey‘s transition to DVD was obviously (and sadly) not a labor of love. It looks bad and the audio is a mess. However, those small quibbles and the occasional moment here and there where the film doesn’t hit its comedic marks shouldn’t discourage fans of classic comedies for giving this film a spin. For a film that I was not anticipating enjoying, I found myself laughing out loud plenty of times throughout the film, and it’s another example of how classic comedies age better than classic dramas. I can only hope that when I inevitably watch the 1950s remake someday, it makes me laugh half as often.

Final Score: B

 One of the key questions that any real movie buff eventually has to answer is Audrey or Katharine Hepburn? Do you want Audrey’s grace and elegance or Katharine’s fire and intensity? While I without a doubt feel that Audrey was more beautiful than Katharine, I would choose Katharine without even having to think about it. She is one of cinema’s earliest and most influential feminist figures and she brings a certain wit and feistiness to every role she plays. I just finished 1942’s Woman of the Year which she starred in with her long time love Spencer Tracy, and while the movie was kind of boring and slow, it re-affirmed my love of Katharine Hepburn.

Woman of the Year is a romantic comedy about two journalists, Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) and Tess Harding (Katharine Hepburn). Sam is an old-fashioned sports journalist while Tess is a fiery leader of the feminist movement and one of the paper’s political columnists. When Tess insults our national past time on national radio, a war of words begins between Sam and Tess in the op-ed pages of their newspaper which ultimately blooms into romance and then marriage. The conflict of the film rests in Sam’s desire for a normal quiet life against Tess’s ambition and career.

Films that are often scandalous or controversial for their time really tend to age poorly 70 years later. This film is a perfect example of why. When Katharine Hepburn first burst on the scene, she was a non-stop controversy machine. She smoked. She drank men’s alcoholic drinks. She’d show her legs. She wore pants (for shame!). The character of Tess is very sexually aggressive towards Sam. I’m sure this was boundary-pushing material in 1942 but when most of the story rests on the shock of some of the gender reversing nature of her role, the film loses a lot of its impact when that isn’t shocking anymore. Thank god that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn had such great chemistry and that Tracy could evoke so much emotion with just a raise of his eye-brows or a smirk. This was my first Spencer Tracy film and he seems like a pretty good actor.

There was one scene in the film that actually had me in stitches laughing where Tess tries her hand at cooking and causes an enormous disaster. Otherwise, it was a terribly dull film that I could never really get into. If you like Katharine Hepburn or Spencer Tracy, you should check it out. She was nominated for an Oscar for this one and the movie won a screenplay Oscar. I’m probably not going to be re-watching this movie again anytime in the near future though.

 Final Score: B-

If we disregard the fact that I’ve already reviewed two Fellini pictures as being the first time this happened, then I suddenly feel that this blog has somehow made a little circle in a strange but interesting way. In one of the first films that I reviewed, Gosford Park, Bob Balaban’s character was a Hollywood producer making a new Charlie Chan film and in the role of the maid, he was interested in casting Claudette Colbert. He was very concerned as to whether she was “British or just affected”. Well, in the film I just watched, The Palm Beach Story, Claudette Colbert was one of the stars. I just wish my blog could have done this little trick in a film that I enjoyed more than this one.

The film follows the story of Gerry Jeffers (Colbert) and her husband Tom (Joel McRae). Tom is a failing architect and they are about to get kicked out of their apartment for not being able to pay the rent. Gerry comes up with a rather novel idea. She’s going to divorce Gerry and move to Palm Beach so that she can meet a wealthy man and marry him for his money so that she can support Tom. She finally meets this wealthy man in the form of John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), one of the richest men in the world, along with his trampy sister, the Princess Centimillia.

The concept of the film is actually pretty funny. And I was hoping that I would enjoy this film more. Unfortunately, it just isn’t particulary funny for the vast majority of the film. There’s a hell of a lot of talking but no one is saying anything funny. However, the film is saved from utter mediocrity by a couple of scenes that are just absolutely hilarious, especially the scene on a train where a group of rich men in a hunting club get extremely drunk and start shooting their shotguns and forming a posse on the train. It was just so absurd that it was hilarious. Also, Rudy Vallee is a delight as the rich billionaire. There was just something very understated and dry about his performance. I could care less about her acting but Claudette Colbert herself is a knock out. One last complaint about the film. There are some African-American characters in the film. And lordy was their presentation just absolutely, ridiculously racist. For a minute, I thought I had put in The Birth of a Nation or Song of the South.

Final Score: C+