To Be or Not to Be (1942): Lubitsch Vs. The Nazis

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“What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland.” – Ehrhardt about Josef Tura

Our story begins in Warsaw during peacetime. In some sense, this is a period piece because the gulf between the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the comparably idyllic years prior could not be more starkly different. The world still maintains its innocence.

And yet, what’s this! A stir in the streets. Taxis stop. Heads turn. What are they gaping at? It’s none other than Adolf Hitler walking down Main Street! How in Hades did he get there? It catches the audience off guard, though not as much as seeing Jack Benny in a Gestapo uniform.

Of course, this sequence is all part of a performance as the stage elements fall away. The story focuses on a theater troupe trying to carry on with Europe in an uproar. From a purely theatrical perspective, this allows To Be or Not To Be license to literally lift Hamlet’s own play within a play (or in this case a movie) structure. So now with the framework set in place, there is ample space for meta qualities, breaking of the fourth wall, and with it, satirical commentary.

Joseph and Maria Tura are an acting power couple with dueling vanities headlining Hamlet. Carole Lombard, in ravishing dress, is elegance personified. Imagine, this was my first impression of her before dipping into her screwball filmography. It suits her in her final screen performance.

What an odd choice Jack Benny seems for this picture. Even today, he’s far more well-known for his radio show, violin playing, and his public persona as the hand-to-cheek comedian. He was a contemporary of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby but never managed the same share of the box office. Regardless, Lubitsch saw something in him no one else was willing to consider. He’s not exactly Laurence Olivier, but that’s precisely the point.

However, we are also reminded how theater is communal. The hammy Lionel Atwill is always pushing the envelope, both in life and reality. It takes his colleagues to rein him in. The spear holders Greenberg and Bromski, meanwhile, dream of roles that might one day actually utilize their talents. Their exacting director Dobosh (Charles Halton in one of his more animated performances) keeps the egos in check and the performances grounded in the material.

Circumstances always seem to get in the way of the best-laid plans. Maria has a handsome admirer (Robert Stack), who repeatedly visits her backstage, much to her husband’s chagrin. No, he doesn’t know about their private meetings. It’s the fact the young man gets up repeatedly during his “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy; he doesn’t take kindly to the insult. Yes, he’s a jealous husband, but his whiny, puffed-up ego is the first thing to be affronted.

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Another slap to the face comes when their new play, “Gestapo,” gets nixed because it might offend Hitler, so they keep Hamlet going instead. It signals a change. It means War! The Nazis roll into Poland, and the city takes a hit. Bressart looks on glumly, uttering a fitting observation, “There was no censor to stop them.”

The embodiment of evil — in all its grotesque idiocy is Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) — his orders posted up all around the city. We don’t get the fine print, but we get the gist: concentration camps, the death penalty, and being shot on sight are frank enough.

But the roots of Nazism are even more insidious. They have snuck behind enemy lines. Stack is among those who band together in the Polish branch of the RAF freedom fighters. In good faith, they pass on goodwill to loved ones to a Professor Siletsky — only for his wires to get crossed. They must eradicate the mole.

This is no goofy charade and Lubitsch sells out to tell the story. In this regard, he lends his players an amount of dramatic integrity. The menace is overt throughout the picture. For instance, when Stack parachutes back into Poland and flees into the night as a patrol of German fan out to intercept him.

In her own harrowing arc, Maria Tura is taken by the Gestapo. However, there’s nothing quite so sinister about it — at least in terms of her person — they offer a proposal for her to become a spy. She has to think about it.

Her husband, Joseph, has his own conundrum in the form of a befuddling Goldilocks moment, finding a young man sleeping in his bed. He does one of his iconic double-takes followed by others in quick succession as he makes his way around the room leaning over the bed. It couldn’t possibly be his soliloquy defector, could it?

For the entire acting troupe, their greatest performances are called upon to intercept the Nazi spy with his incriminating cache of papers. They rebrand their theater as Gestapo headquarters with Tura cast as their irrepressible lead, struggling to originate such an uncharted role. He’s eventually relieved of his ad-libbing responsibilities when he can take on a more biographical role — based on, shall we say, previous experiences.

The petty feud and marital jealousies between Mr. and Mrs. Tura remain an undercurrent to all their valorous acts. One of their constant marks is the oaffish tyrant portrayed by Ruman and his bumbling underling Captain Schultz. In fact, with Rugman later playing a joking barracks guard in Stalag 17 (1953), it’s hard not to see the origins of Hogan’s Heroes own roly-poly Sergeant being conceived.

There’s an obvious issue at the core of the story. Because, despite their best efforts, there are now two Siletskys running about. It leaves a lot of explaining to do, and the Nazis are reasonably suspicious.

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The final act is the finest. They make the most solemn Nazis out of the bunch the night of the show. Even if it is fiction, it still makes the hair on my arms stand on edge — all the men in Nazi uniforms streaming into the theater, standing in unison to salute.

Felix Bressart finally gets his chance to play Shylock in the most crucial turn of his career, and he brings every ounce of pathos he has into the performance. The recontextualization of the passage takes on new import pregnant with so much meaning. It is an assertion of such dignity in the face of such an egregious and ugly juggernaut as the Nazi war machine.

Truthfully, one of the hardest elements to appreciate about To Be or Not to Be is just how layered and multifaceted it remains. Being bred on Hogan’s Heroes and knowing a bit of the Lubitsch repertoire, there are some preconceived notions about what we might be exposed to. And the film certainly has wit, but we must be careful here lest the indignant get the wrong idea.

It’s quite alright to not like the film. I can only gather there are many detractors because this history is so deeply devastating. It carries so many wounds and grievances for the atrocities committed against not only Poland, but the Jews, and anyone else who was considered a target of the Nazis. The controversy is founded for these reasons. Rightfully so, I might add. Perhaps the picture is making light of this.

In my earlier days, I even believe I tried to defend this and other earlier films suggesting they could not have known the extent of the Nazis. This too seems a weak argument. And yet when I watched the film this time, I was reminded just how sincere even profound it is in-between the lines.

Yes, Benny at the center seems vain and conceited — this American comedian known for a very particular shtick — but then I look to Carole Lombard. Never has she been more majestic and extraordinary. Then the likes of Felix Bressart and Tom Dugan are forlorn while still carrying a quiet dignity about them. They get the laughs but with a straight face. They understand the gravity of what they are taking part in.

It’s too convenient to say To Be or Not To Be was ahead of its time. Certainly, there was controversy and the resolution to WWII was far from a foregone conclusion. Thus, it makes Lubitsch’s perceptiveness all the more startling. Likewise, there’s the defense he made of his work even going to the papers to do so. This is an excerpt of what he said:

“What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless how dangerous the situation might be, which I believe is a true observation. It can be argued if the tragedy of Poland realistically portrayed in To Be or Not to Be can be merged with satire. I believe it can be and so do the audience which I observed during a screening of To Be or Not to Be, but this is a matter of debate and everyone is entitled to his point of view.”

Ironically, here the touch of Lubitsch is not so much a comic fingerprint or sophisticated implementation of visual or even sensual comedy. What I am left with is the veracity and the bravery of his humanity. Not many men would be bold enough to make this film and then double down on what they had created.

4.5/5 Stars

Hands Across The Table (1935): MacMurray and Lombard

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Regi Allen (the inimitable Carole Lombard) is a manicurist schlubbing along, working away at people’s cuticles, and jamming away on the subway two times a day. She’s looking for a major catch to grab hold of. Ralph Bellamy is a charming man with money, albeit resigned to a wheelchair.

This could be the perfect start of a rom-com right here. However, in the year 1935, the thought of such a romantic “couple” might have been too startling for conventional Hollywood hegemony. There must be another, and he’s soon introduced.

They meet as he plays indoor hopscotch like a weirdo right outside Mr. Macklyn’s apartment. The face belongs to the most boyish-looking Fred MacMurray I have ever seen. Because again, if you’re doing the math it’s 1935; Disney professorship and My Three Sons fatherhood would be decades in the making.

For the sake of this story, it’s fortuitous he too is another affluent moneybags or at the very least his family name has enough numerals after it to suggest he is a long-time member of the “vieux riche.”

Being an unabashed gold digger, she looks to seek him out even if he is a bit on the odd side. What matters to her is the bottom line. Namely, money. Of course, the perceptive viewer might have already guessed something is amiss here somewhere. There must be a catch or a gag or a complication of some sort.

To put it bluntly, he’s as much of a high roller as she is. Because The Crash conveniently took all his family’s fortunes in its wake. He now might as well be a member of the “new poor” though he still spends money like it grows on trees. To put a positive spin on it, he is radically generous with his capital.

They have a formal dinner date with an entree of the hiccups and onion soup. And their shenanigans continue even as she begrudgingly allows her new confidante to crash on her couch.

Fred is game now because they are actually quite alike — birds of a feather you might say. He does his most uncomfortable impression of a Japanese manservant as he becomes Ms. Allen’s live-in cook trying rather unsuccessfully to whip up dinner.

Imagine my surprise when William Demarest shows up behind the door as a new suitor for Regi. Ted has a ball of a time masquerading as her demonstrative husband scaring off the hapless chap from the adjoining room. Surely neither knew they would be reunited one day on the small screen. It’s a coincidental piece of happenstance only available in hindsight.

In turn, he tells Regi he’s supposed to be in Bermuda by now with his fiancee — an heiress of a pineapple empire — so they pay her a giggly prank call long distance. The way Lombard and MacMurray warm to one another is in one sense lovely but also a bit of a disappointment.

The best sorts of screwball, are the fall apart come back together passionately type of rom-coms involving red hot tension. All the elements are here, even the romantic foils, but for whatever reason, because the characters are so charming — no fault of their own I might add — it winds up being a lightweight iteration of the genre.

It’s funny in starts and spurts but never to the point of fever pitch or raucous absurdity. It’s never really prepared to go the extra mile off the deep end beyond hopscotch, hiccups, and heat lamps. Again, it’s a minor shame, but you also can’t take away from Lombard and MacMurray.

If you’re already a fan, it’s a delightful trifle courtesy of Mitchell Leisen who’s skill with this kind of material is often underrated. For their part, the Lombard-MacMurray partnership birthed three more pictures in rapid succession to meet the public demand.

If you’re like me, you pity Ralph Bellamy as he graciously contents himself playing the matchmaker for the two lovebirds running off into the street looking for the coin they flipped. Heads means they’ll get married. Tails they go out to lunch. The giddy couple instigates a traffic jam just to find out and wouldn’t you know it, the coin stands on end in a manhole cover. Ah, love. How sweet it is.

3.5/5 Stars

The Eagle and The Hawk (1933): March The WWI Flying Ace

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There are two elements in the opening of The Eagle and The Hawk that might catch some viewers off guard. First, is the matter of a plane landing upside down. Second, being the fact the pilot is an uncharacteristically abrasive Cary Grant. He’s still playing support to our true lead Fredric March.

It’s alright to admit the shoe never quite fits and, thankfully, Grant was not forever relegated to such unseemingly roles again (well, there is Suspicion or Notorious). Regardless, in this WWI picture, a group of American aviators ship out from London to give their British allies a lift in France.

New forms of technology like aeroplanes still feel a bit rudimentary, yet to be time-tested, and therefore they carry with them a bit more danger. They must take recon photos flying close to the ground and often engage the enemy in aerial combat. The footage of the dogfights is lively if equally rudimentary.

It’s Grant’s Lt. Crocker who has aspirations to be a pilot, not an observer — the less glamorous posts going to those who take pictures and gun. Cary’s got a chip on his shoulder, and it’s turned him sour. Jack Oakie is the complete opposite — chipper, well-liked by all, and conveniently supplying comic relief.

However, it is the final star, the leading man, Fredric March who stands head and shoulders above the rest, at least on this occasion. He goes through a startling transformation over time. He soon learns the hard lesson. For every two kills of a jubilant Jerry Young (March), there’s the searing reality of a comrade dead.

We are instantly reminded war never allows a man to rest on his laurels before inundating them with the sheer callousness of such a conflict. It shows no favoritism. Officers or enlisted men alike. Doughboys or flyboys. It makes no difference. Everyone is susceptible.

In a matter of minutes, the weight of war is made obvious. It happens between a letter written to a dead man’s spouse and a blackboard with names constantly being erased and added.  Beyond being indiscriminate, war also waits for no man.

As time progresses, the dogfight sequences maintain quite the impressive pace for their day and age. The sequences use the resources at their disposable and varied shots to develop something fairly immersive beyond mere back-projection fillers.

Finally getting his first go, Grant shoots down an unarmed parachuter with great relish, his first day on the job, only to kill the mood after hours. They say he’s a “dirty deuce,” but perhaps he’s the only realist around. He treats it like war. They treat it like an exhibition in some contrived form of chivalry.

There are rules to war and gentleman’s agreements to be abided by on one side and then the “killed or be killed” mentality of Grant. And yet even as March remains one of the righteous ones, he starts medicating with alcohol to get over what he’s been privy to.

Soon he can’t get over the insanity or reconcile with the consequences set before them. They are bestowed medals by the French military with the rain pouring down — it’s a wet affair — and he’s still soused. 

A new batch of fresh-faced youngsters come to replace those who have already expired. He’s enlisted to speak to the new recruits, sharing a message for the sake of moral, though it’s evident he barely believes what he’s spewing. Because some of them will die before even getting to the front. What’s the purpose of it all? So the folks back home might cling to some misguided patriotic fervor?

The night terrors begin — Jerry’s mind now filled with burning, blood, and snipers at night. A change of scenery is suggested and so he’s given leave.  But in the households, the conversations are boorish and needlessly taken with the romanticism of war and glory.

Here are people drunk on the same wine. Men laugh about the enemy going down in flames. Curious young boys ask questions about what it’s like to meet the enemy with hopes to be up there one day. No one seems to understand, and how can they. They haven’t been there.

Watching from a distance, there is at last one pair of perceptive eyes. They belong, of course, to Carole Lombard. She slides her way into Jerry’s cab as he tries to leave the idle chatter behind. Instead, they find a quiet park, out of the way, to share some champagne and engage in genuine conversation.

She has only a momentary part — it really is a glorified cameo if we should call it that — and this is a movie that’s already so succinct. Still, it’s a memorable spot, and she offers a sympathetic countenance in a world all but lacking such consideration. It makes her all the more attractive.

Still, Jerry must go back to the lines and maintain the burden of being a shining example for others. After all, he is the fitting emblem of what a military hero should be. Fearless in the face of the enemy. All but indestructible with a stirling flying record.

However, we become jaded with the same persistent cynicism of Jerry pulling him from the airs above back into the parties and routines down below at the base. He can’t even manage to muster any kind of good-natured sentiment in such a jocund company.

All he sees are the chunks of flesh and bone on his chest in the form of medals. And all he can think about are the boys who have died either by his hands or at the hands of others. He’s gotten his medals, gained hero status and adulation from his peers, for killing kids. What’s worse, few seem to acknowledge him, going on their merry way. Surely he’s merely drunk. He’ll get over it in the morning. Except he doesn’t.

The film’s ending is a brutal shock to the system, but it settles into an honorable arc. If anyone was worried, Cary Grant is redeemed in the final moments preparing to soar off toward bigger and better successes.

What I’m most impressed with is how The Eagle and The Hawk does such a phenomenal job distilling some of the most pressing themes of war in its harshest and most bitter realities in such a meager allotment of time. It’s like All Quiet on the Western Front lite, and I mean this as the most sincere of compliments. It adeptly hones in on the essential elements of the prior film as another stark, unfaltering statement exploring human conflict on this seismic scale.

It comes not through heedless idealism but a sobering, unblinking examination of what war really is. Any pretense is stripped away in a matter of minutes while March gives one of the most piercing performances, arguably, of his entire career. If you haven’t already, go seek it out. My hope is that you’ll be glad you did.

4/5 Stars

In Name Only (1939): Carole & Cary

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If you know very little about In Name Only and only see the two acting forces who lead the charge: Cary Grant and Carole Lombard, you would come to expect a comedy on almost any given occasion. Oddly enough, this movie is very much a melodrama, though our two stars have fine chemistry and meet in what very well could have been the beginnings of a fine screwball romance under different circumstances.

Julie Eden (Lombard) is doing her best to fly fish, but the overhanging trees are trying even harder to impede her progress. The typical scowling Lombard stanky eye is hard at work, while another familiar face wonders into view from on horseback — only to have her line snag on the tree right near him. He eyes it wryly.

A moment later Alec Walker (Grant) introduces himself as she sheepishly continues — this was all perfectly normal and she meant to do everything — only for him to tell her there hasn’t been any fish in the pond for 20 years. They are one pratfall away from screwball comic proportions, and yet they chart an alternative course.

She has a young daughter. Her husband has died and so she gets by on her own. And Alec, while it’s easy enough to surmise he’s yet another happy-go-lucky Cary Grant playboy, not so fast with your judgments.

He wanders back to a family estate, uncomfortable in the rooms, dodging the needling questions of his concerned father (Charles Coburn), and avoiding the gaze of his perfectly upstanding wife (Kay Francis)…That’s it, isn’t it? He’s already married and these first impressions suggest, unhappily so.

Ironically, divorce proves a crucial element of the plot on this occasion like its counterparts within the subset of “Comedy of Remarriage,” most of which came into being solely because of the rigid structure of the Production Codes. The fact divorce is uttered at all — beyond simply a euphemistic trip to Reno — is, in itself, slightly novel.

If one is to find fault with In Name Only, in retrospect, the plot feels akin to putting such talented actors as Grant and Irene Dunne in a drama like Penny Serenade when you already had them together in such an uproarious movie like The Awful Truth.

In other words, despite the quality of the movie,  it’s a minor letdown because, in this case, we don’t even have another hilarious pairing of the two heavyweights to fall back on (although they were paired in two earlier dramas).

Regardless, we must take it for what it is and enjoy what does work. To dispel any fears, In Name Only isn’t primarily a sudser — at least not in the beginning. In fact, with a pair such as Grant and Lombard as they drum up their romantic rapport together, they can’t help but be sweet, sprinkling in their normally humorous proclivities.

It comes naturally when dealing with the situations around them. Namely, for Grant, it involves the gossips and snooty company he’s forced to parley with — folks he has no tolerance for. On one occasion over Thanksgiving, he very blatantly requests the waiter to bring a very sharp knife with his steak. All the better to poke or, better yet, cut the throat of the insufferable Suzanne (Helen Vinson).

For that matter, it’s a positive delight to see Kay Francis make a prominent return to the screen. Her box office pull had waned significantly since the first half of the decade. Still, despite the change in genre, she comes to play. Francis proves wonderfully manipulative — positively lowdown and conniving — those iconic features of hers intent on any cold mode of deception to get their way.

As Alec’s wife, she’s constantly nettling him in subtle ways — playing mental games to make his life miserable — as he’s made to look the cad. However, she hides her perfidiousness between a perfectly manicured matrimonial mask. The in-laws remain constantly on her side as she easily casts herself as the victim and makes her husband the unsung villain. But for the movie to work, we must be in his corner, despite all else. Who are we kidding? He’s Cary Grant. Despising him is a tall order (Notorious wasn’t released yet).

Mere friendship cannot be maintained under such conditions. Not only does society frown upon it, Julie cannot bear to exist in such a manner. Instead, she desires to never see him again, in an effort to not make life any harder and the feelings more complicated than they already are.

Because left untethered, humans can always play the wishful what-if games until you must actually deal with cold, hard reality. In this story, Grant is married and there’s no dismissing the facts.

Remember these were the days when the institution of marriage was taken very seriously (which is not necessarily a bad thing), but it does become an issue when people get into it who never seemed to love one another in the first place — it’s a bit like living a lie. The solution seems easy enough. They aren’t happy together. Surely an amicable split is in order. Cary asks. Kay condones it. Easy as pie…

And thus, the film lulls into an interim period that all comes too easily — no kicking and screaming spouse, no broken furniture or anything like that. After all, Maida’s M.O. is far more cunning. She has an altogether more insidious plan laid out for her husband, who is thanking his lucky stars he’s had such an easy time of it. He could not be more mistaken.

As alluded to, Maida is prepared for the long haul. She drags the proceedings out, tying them up with “red tape,” and handcuffing Alec and Judie in a constant state of prolonged limbo, month after month. It’s no life existing in purgatory. One after another, holidays come and go without any change, capped off with a Christmas surprise.

Narrative logic says reality must get worse before it can get better. In Name Only goes for the jugular. Maida seems to have achieved a satisfactory victory. Then, a defeated Alec goes on a binge and comes down with a horrible illness in the aftermath. It’s uncertain how any amount of solace or romantic equilibrium can be reestablished.

Gratefully, in one final moment of catharsis, she is ousted in front of the parents. We’ve waited long and hard for this justice, and it feels good. One is forced to ask, “At what cost?” The credits roll in providentially so we don’t have to linger on the consequence, only the emotion. Cary Grant on his deathbed isn’t an altogether familiar image or a welcomed one, for that matter. Still, this drama has its share of welcomed interludes bolstered by the main triumvirate of talent.

3.5/5 Stars

8 Underrated Screwball Comedies

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Screwball comedies, like film noir, have a fairly devoted following and although they were very much of their time, they still have descendants and influences on the movies coming out today.

Many of the heavy hitters from the 30s and 40s are household names, but I thought it would be fun to highlight a few titles that fewer people might think about in conversations surrounding screwball comedies. Let me know what you think!

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Irene Dunne is a great person to start this list off with because I always enjoy her films and yet she oftentimes feels woefully forgotten. In this zany vehicle, she is the eponymous title character who, while living a life of propriety in a small town, actually moonlights as quite the titillating author. Her life gets flipped upside down when one of the city slickers (Mervyn Douglas) finds out her secret.

Easy Living (1937)

It’s true a whole movie can be born out of a fur coat dropping from the sky, and it builds into a wonderfully raucous narrative thanks to the wonky scripting of Preston Sturges. Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold make a fine pair and send the town into a tizzy when rumors start circulating about the extent of their relationship. Ray Milland also proves why he was a much sought after rom-com lead.

It’s Love I’m After (1937)

It’s a dream cast with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland in a dream scenario: a love triangle dressed up with Shakespearean theatricality. What better bedfellow for screwball comedy as Howard puts on a performance to rebuff a starstruck fan girl and earn back his jealous co-star. Eric Blore is stupendous as per usual.

True Confession (1937)

It’s courtroom drama meets screwball romance with Carole Lombard giving one of her most frenzied performances as a serial fibber who pleads guilty to an egregious crime so she can drum up some publicity for her husband (Fred MacMurray), a struggling lawyer in need of a big case. Una Merkel and John Barrymore show up to supply some added character.

Merrily We Live (1938)

Here is a movie that’s good-naturedly built out of the mode of My Man Godfrey. It’s about a family of idle rich: Constance Bennett, Billie Burke, Clarence Kolb, and Bonita Granville, of all people! They’re a constant whirlwind of ditzy entertainment around the breakfast table, and they quite unwittingly pull a passerby (Brian Aherne) into their comic vortex. Chaos ensues.

Vivacious Lady (1938)

Ginger Rogers and Jimmy Stewart have a glowing chemistry. However, their recent marriage has a wrench thrown into it when they head home to meet the parents. The word never got to them, and Charles Coburn, in one of his most obstinate performances, will never approve. Ginger uses all her tricks to woo her husband’s family over and fight off any rivals with her unparalleled catfighting skills. It’s as delightful as it sounds.

The Rage of Paris (1938)

Spunky Danielle Darrieux and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. spar across social lines with your typical screwball romance riddled with conflict transplanted to Paris and the French countryside. What Henry Koster brings is his usual heart-warming tone, and with support from the likes of Helen Broderick and Misca Auer, the material receives a dose of extra comedic oomph.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Here is the original uncover boss with the always cantankerous Charles Coburn slinking around his own department store. Not only does he come to understand his employees’ dissatisfaction with their work, through the eyes of Jean Arthur and Robert Cummings, he also learns what real friendship is. The movie is blessed with that wonderful one-two combo of uproarious antics and genuine heart.

Let me know what screwball comedies you would include!

My Man Godfrey (1936)

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There’s a key moment in My Man Godrey where the ditzy Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) giddily announces to her mother, “Godfrey loves me. He put me in the shower!” Her mother’s response could best be described as one of indignance but it’s a barrel of laughs for the audience. Because this film is full of off-the-wall remarks which taken out of context are so peculiar you don’t even want to attempt to understand.

That’s the beauty of this screwball comedy from the often underrated Gregory La Cava, best known for this picture and the following year’s Stage Door. Otherwise, the script is courtesy of Morrie Ryskind a veteran of some of the Marx Brothers’ comedies.

It opens as a biting satire of the affluent masses occupied by inane decadence and a multitude of frivolous diversions from scavenger hunts to parading livestock around in front of their friends. The screenwriter’s efforts were well worth it no doubt but the cast indubitably breaths incredible gales of life into the material with each battling for laugh after laugh.

The following interludes repeatedly exhibit perhaps the wackiest, most melodramatic family of comedy from most any decade. It comes from having too much time on their hands, too much money, and not enough sense. They’re a real screwy bunch. We meet the two Bullock daughters (Lombard and Gail Patrick) as they try and outdo each other in the middle of the previously mentioned scavenger hunt, searching out “a forgotten man.” They have no concern for who he is and how he lives. Only that he might win them the game.

Still, the said man plays along and somehow finds himself hired on by young Irene as the family’s latest butler to not only spite her older sister but also so that she might have a protege and maybe due to an inkling of a girlish crush. It makes little sense, only to say her mother’s protege is a musician named Carlo (Mischa Auer) who is good for very little except offering up the pretense of culture and eating them out of the house.

But Godfrey proves to be just about the best butler that the Bullock’s ever could muster, navigating their morning routines of hangovers and playing straight-man to the incessant chaos that constantly swarms around him. On their part, they are so self-absorbed and oblivious, they never seem to question how perfectly he has transformed into a butler. Surely, he cannot actually have been “a forgotten man” from off a trash heap? But no, they don’t concern themselves with such things. It goes unnoticed.

It seems like each member of the family has their special calling card.  They are a bunch of bubbleheads and Carole Lombard is the queen of them all, though mother (Alice Brady) is equally effervescent and a tad asinine. That’s  a part of her charm. She also flatters very easily.

Meanwhile, the other daughter Cornelia (Patrick) is more acidic, purring like a feline ready to pounce and make her sister pay for whatever trivial affront she’s perpetrated. Because, truthfully, they’re just a whole clan of boorish rich people who have no idea what’s happening to the world on the outside — if that point has not already been asserted enough. They’ve probably never heard of The Great Depression much less felt its true effects.

Mr. Bullock (Eugene Pallette) probably has it the worst as the long-suffering father — the nearest thing to a sane individual in the entire family. Still, you can’t live in a house of such madness and not have a few unhinged moments of your own. He’s constantly finding himself piping up amid the bedlam his gravelly voice trying to secure even a moments peace. He rarely succeeds.

Again, Godfrey is the calming force that brings a modicum amount of stability to such a place. He along with the veteran maid Molly (Jean Dixon) navigate the choppy waters of melodrama every day as Irene becomes increasingly infatuated, her emotional outbursts becoming more frequent, and Cornelia looking for any way to possibly make his life miserable to get him fired. Still, he goes about his duties.

And that’s part of the joke at the core of this film. The “forgotten man,” this tramp coming up against their own upper-class sensibilities and coming out looking like the true human being with brains and class and culture. Except it’s really a joke within a joke because maybe Godfrey is more than we first perceived him to be. In fact, he’s a lot more.

Pair such a raucous cast with some top tier comic patter that sizzles with wit and you’ve just happened upon the most wonderful mess imaginable. There might be other screwball comedies I enjoy more, but few are as hairbrained as My Man Godfrey and that is a grand word of praise for this brand of comedy. If it’s not stark raving bonkers it can hardly claim the name screwball honestly. No such problem exists here.

William Powell is a natural in this role showcasing that typical dry wit of his that effortlessly pokes fun at these people but also seems to appreciate them for all their shortcomings even finding time to truly respect them in the sincerest of ways. As per usual, Carole Lombard is so over the top to the nth degree with her sniveling zaniness spilling over into every scene.

In the past, I mistook her performances as a sheer annoyance but now I see how perfect she is for such a part. There’s an overwhelming commitment to the craziness that pays heavy dividends and by the film’s end, she’s overrun everyone with her energy — even Godfrey. He has no rebuttal.

For a time she was the greatest screwball actress though over the subsequent years the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck gave her a run for her money. Still, there’s something undeniable about being the first and, in many ways, she was that woman.

If there were any residual ill feelings between Powell and Lombard now three years out from their divorce, there’s no visible animosity and together they succeed in forging My Man Godfrey into a classic screwball through and through.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Nothing Sacred (1937)

 13094-nothingsacred2Before His Girl Friday (1940) came, there was another screwball comedy about journalism, the perfect scoop, and deception. After getting on the bad side of his boss, newsman Wally Cook (Frederic March) is demoted from the living and forced to write obituaries. It’s quite the awful setup and Cook desperately looks for another story to get him in the good graces of the Morning Star’s editor.

The perfect news flash has just come up in the form of a woman who is soon going to die of radium poisoning, and so Wally Cook goes to meet her. Heading up from New York, he ends in the one horse town in Vermont. He meets a lot of unobliging people whose vocabulary is limited to “Yup” and “Nope.” He finally comes across the crying girl who has just left an appointment with a doctor. He comforts the girl cheering her up by promising a trip to the big city where she will be treated like royalty (And he’ll get his story). So Hazel Flagg soon becomes the sweetheart of New York with public appearances at Madison Square Garden, parades, poems, articles and special honors. It’s all going according to Cook’s plan, the only thing is that Hazel is not actually ill.

That’s a wrench in the plan and soon it becomes evident that Cook will look like a cad. To make matters worse, he’s falling for her and his editor Oliver Stone is all over him. Now he must take part in Hazel’s charade, despite his annoyance. She too is annoyed and ends the game so the two lovebirds can elope. Still, the story of Hazel is given a romanticized ending that the public deserves.

Frederic March is decent as the desperate and long-suffering journalist. Carole Lombard is her typical light-headed, whimsy, high-strung, scatterbrained, sniveling self. It proves to be a volatile combination partnered with Ben Hecht’s script. The news industry loses a lot of its self-respect for the sake of laughs because nothing’s sacred. Some might be interested to know that it was shot in glorious technicolor and it was the only time Lombard would appear in a technicolor film. She would, of course, die in a tragic plane crash in 1942.

This film was quite short so the story moved quickly and there were definitely some screwy moments. I am however partial to His Girl Friday and some of the other more well-known screwballs.

3.5/5 Stars

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard with director Ernst Lubitsch, the film follows a group of actors in Poland during the outbreak of World War II. All too soon their act seems to be in jeopardy and they must put on the most important performance of their lives. Benny and Lombard are a husband and wife acting duo, who with the help of their troupe must stop a spy from giving damaging information to the Nazis. With the help of their acting and disguises, they are able to pull off the monumental task. This satire is so extraordinary because it made fun of the Nazis and found humor in that subject at the same time their villainy was occurring. Benny certainly seems out of place in Poland and he is not much when it comes to performing Hamlet, but I suppose that’s part of his charm. He is so vain and suspicious of his wife and yet he ends up a hero.

When I first saw this film I expected major laughs and it really does not have that, at least not in the way that Chaplin lampooned Hitler in the Great Dictator. Here Lubitsch weaves a somewhat darker story and yet it causes us to smile because of this Polish acting troupe that embodies the words of Shakespeare that “All the world’s a stage.” He meant it to be metaphorical but they take it to heart and their acting turns into reality. The bit player Greenberg goes as far as reciting the Jewish part of Shylock from the Merchant of Venice and it ultimately saves their lives. As such the film often switches back in forth from stage to actuality and pretty soon it is hard to separate them. The the plight of these people was close to Lubitsch, but he also was adept at the romantic comedy. Thus, despite the constant bickering and the trials faced by Joseph and Maria Tura, we cannot help but laugh at their love story. To Be or Not to Be is not your everyday comedy, but instead it occupies its own unique niche. Hopefully no one walks out on it!

4/5 Stars

My Man Godfrey (1936)

24635-my_man_godfreyStarring William Powell and Carole Lombard with a zany cast of others, the film follows a funny socialite daughter who takes a “Forgotten Man” as her family’s butler. Godfrey takes the job and soon learns how to cope with the scatterbrained girl, her stuck up sister, their ditsy mother, their long suffering father, and Carlo who is the man patronized by Mrs. Bullock. On accident Godfrey comes in contact with an old friend and his secret almost comes out. In the cover up Lombard’s character believes him to be married with children. Because she loves him, she goes away to Europe to try and forget him. However, upon hearing the truth, she is ecstatic and Godfrey finds himself being married all of the sudden. This is a good example of the screwball comedies of the 1930s and I will admit, it is a pretty good film.

4/5 Stars

Twentieth Century (1934)

63742-twentieth-century-post1Starring John Barrymore and Carol Lombard with direction by Howard Hawks, this archetypal screwball comedy revolves around a frenetic impresario and the emotional girl he made into a household name on Broadway. 

Oscar Jaffe is the undisputed king of Broadway and after he christens the inexperienced Mildred Plotka, Lily Garland, she becomes his box office Queen. He makes her into a great actress and their numerous collaborations turn out success after success. However, as several years pass Lily is fed up and she ends her connection with Jaffe in a volatile falling out after she finds that he has hired a private investigator to keep tabs on her. Without his starlet Jaffe produces flop after flop and he is endangered of being jailed by his backers. He escapes in disguise and boards the Twentieth Century Limited train. He is accompanied by his two quirky assistants and it just so happens that Lily has boarded that same train. Jaffe sees it as a chance to make amends, but Lily will have nothing of it. They have some more frenzied confrontations on the train as Jaffe tries to convince her to star in his next project. In a last ditch effort he pretends to be deathly ill after a scuffle so that she will sign a contract in her distress. In the end she proves to truly care for him and once again they are back on Broadway, Lily Garland star extraordinaire, and Oscar Jaffe the domineering visionary. 

Along with It Happened One Night, this is one of the early examples of the screwball comedies. This was a perfect practice run at it for Howard Hawks who would direct the more well-known Bringing Up Baby in 1938. The leading performers are absolutely chaotic and over the top in their performances, but it’s the way it should be. Furthermore, like most screwball comedies the odd supporting characters are often a great source of laughs. The extended train sequence here reminded me somewhat of The Palm Beach Story another raucous film.
 
4/5 Stars