8 Underrated Screwball Comedies

theodora goes wild

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!

National Classic Movie Day Blogathon: 6 Favorite Films of the 1960s

Thank you to the Classic Film and TV Cafe for having me!

Following-up last year’s ode to the 1950s, I secretly relished the addition of another film to make already tough decisions even a little bit easier. But let’s be honest…

All my intellectual posturing and punditry must go out the window. This is not about the best movies alone. It is about the favorites — the movies we could watch again and again for that certain je ne sais quoi — because they stay with us. They always and forever will be based on highly subjective gut reactions, informed by personal preferences and private affections. As it should be.

Drum roll please as I unfurl my picks. Each choice says as much about me as the decade they come out of. Here we go:

charade_2

1. Charade (1963)

Charade has always been a highly accessible film and not simply because it’s fallen into the public domain. Its elements are frothy and light calling on the talents of two of Hollywood’s great romantic charmers: Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. Their rapport is lovely, and the spy thrills are surprisingly cogent for a romantic comedy thanks to Peter Stone’s script.

Last year I acknowledged the loss of Stanley Donen, but this picture reflected his range as a director, taking him beyond the scope of musicals. By this point, it’s positively twee to acknowledge his movie verged on a Hitchcock thriller like To Catch a Thief. I am also always taken by the supporting cast. Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy all had more prominent performances throughout the 1960s, but they supply a lot of color to the story.

Likewise, as amiable as the chemistry is to go with the blissful French streetcorners and Henry Mancini’s scoring, there is a sense Charade represented the dawn of a new age. It came out mere days after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The happier times were snuffed out, and we could never go back. The decade would be forever changed in its wake.

a hard days night

2. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

The Beatles were the first band I could name at 4-years-old. A Hard Day’s Night was probably the first album I could sing along to. So already I have such a significant connection with it, recalling bumpy roads in the British Isles on summer vacations. And that has little to nothing to do with this film. It only serves to evoke what the Germans might aptly call sehnsucht. Warm, wistful longings for the exuberance of youth. At least that’s what I take it to mean. But we must get to “Komm gib mir deine Hand!”

Because, all levity aside, A Hard Day’s Night is the best Beatles “documentary” any fan could ever ask for. Not only does it showcase some of their greatest music, but Richard Lester’s style also keeps the story feeling fresh and free. Even as the schedule and hysteria of Beatlemania look to suffocate the boys in their own stardom, the film is the complete antithesis of this rigid mentality. It goes a long way to showcase their individual personalities, real or mythologized.

What’s more, it’s simply loads of fun, packed with Liverpoolian wit, shenanigans indebted to the Marx Brothers, and a certain lovable cheekiness helping to make the Beatles into international sensations. Again, it’s a film on the cusp of something new. They would kick off the British takeover of American music and usher in a cultural revolution up until the end of the decade. When they disbanded in 1970, the world had changed, and they were arguably 4 of the most influential cultural catalysts.

girls of rochefort

3. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Jacques Demy began as a revelation for me and quickly evolved into one of my most treasured directors. What makes his film’s magical is how they truly are incubated in their own self-contained reality influenced by near-Providential fate and unabashed romanticism. They too can be wistful and heartbreaking, but equally spry and joyful — maintaining a firm, even naive belief in humanity and love.

The Young Girls of Rochefort is no different. In fact, it might be the great summation of all his themes. Umbrellas of Cherbourg shows the tragedy, but Rochefort is merry and light in a way that’s lovely and intoxicating. The palette is a carnival of color, and real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac are incomparable in their title roles.

As someone who appreciates contextualization, Demy populates his films with footnotes to film history among them Gene Kelly, who was a beloved figure in France, then Michel Piccoli and Danielle Darreux who might as well be considered national institutions for the substantial bodies of work they contributed both domestically and abroad. Even his wife, 21st-century celebrity Agnes Varda, helped choreograph the movie’s action from behind the scenes. It’s a positive delight.

le samourai

4. Le Samourai (1967)

If I have a deep affection for Jacques Demy, my affinity for Jean-Pierre Melville runs deep for entirely different reasons. Like his fellow countryman, he had an appreciation for a subset of American culture — in his case, the pulp crime genre — so it’s a fitting act of reciprocation for me to enjoy his filmography.

Le Samourai is without question his magnum opus, at least when his noir-inspired crime pictures are considered. Like Demy, his images are distinct and particular in their look and appeal. Cool grays and blues match the clothes, cars, and demeanors of most of his characters.

Alain Delon (along with Jean-Paul Belmondo) was one of the great conduits of his methodical style, clothed in his iconic hat and trenchcoat. Anything he does immediately feels noteworthy. While it’s never what you would call flashy, there’s a self-assured preoccupation about Le Samourai.

You can’t help but invest in both the world and the story of the characters — in this case a bushido-inspired assassin: Jef Costello. With hitmen, gunmen, and gangsters given a new lease on life in the 1960s, Delon’s characterization still might be one of the most memorable.

odd couple

5. The Odd Couple (1968)

Here is one that’s stayed with me since the days of VHS. I’ve watched it countless times and always return to it gladly like time away with old friends. It just happens to be that one friend is fastidious neat freak Felix Ungar (F.U. for short) and the other a slobbish couch potato Oscar Madison.

Despite being one of the great onscreen friendships across a plethora of films, The Odd Couple is Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau’s most enduring film together from purely a comedic standpoint. They bring out the worst in each other, which subsequently supplies the conflict in Neil Simon’s smartly constructed tale, as well as the laughs.

I must admit I also have a private fascination with cinematic poker games. The Odd Couple has some of the best, bringing a group of buddies around a table, with all their foibles and eccentricities thrown into a room together to coalesce. John Fiedler and Herb Edelman are great favorites of mine and The Odd Couple has a lot to do with it. That Neal Hefti score is also just such an infectious earworm. I can’t get it out of my head, and I hardly mind. What better way to spend an evening than with Felix, Oscar, and oh yes, the Pigeon sisters…

butch cassidy and sundance

6. Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid

You can tell a lot about a person depending on what western they pick from 1969. There’s True Grit for the traditionalists. Then The Wild Bunch for the revolutionaries. And Butch Cassidy and Sundance for those who want something a bit different.

Because out of all the westerns ever made, it doesn’t quite gel with any of them. William Goldman writes it in such a way that it feels like an anti-western in a sense. His heroes are outlaws, yes, but they are also two of the most likable anti-heroes Hollywood had ever instated. Whether he knew it or not, Goldman probably helped birth the buddy comedy genre while the partnership of Paul Newman and Robert Redford fast became one for the ages.

My analysis of the film has waxed and waned over the years and not everything has aged immaculately. However, at the end of the day, it’s one of the most quotable, rib-tickling good times you can manage with a western. I’ll stand by it, and when we talk about endings, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid is as good a place to end as any: immortalized on tintypes for all posterity. What a way to go.

Thank you for reading and happy national classic movie day!

The Rage of Paris (1938)

752px-The_Rage_of_Paris_Poster

It’s one of those anomalies of life that only a few days before I write this, the renowned Danielle Darrieux celebrated a century on this earth and I watch a film from some many years ago that showcases her budding screen presence. While so many others deteriorate with age, she seems the epitome of aging gracefully. Perhaps it’s the French way in some respects.

But going back into her catalog of films and finding The Rage of Paris you see a fairly straightforward romantic comedy that’s sweet, adorable, cute all those apt superlatives but there’s that one thing stands out nigh 80 years later. I am always squeamish about praise sounding shallow but at 21 years of age, this young actress who came on the world stage with Boyer in Mayerling is a bouncy precocious beauty–a real looker–absolutely mesmerizing to watch as bright eyed and bushy tailed as she manages to be.

Yes, the script follows that time-honored tradition often found in these types of screwball storylines where two individuals who initially despise even to look at each other ultimately fall madly in love and into the same bed with the wedding bells chiming soon thereafter. It’s that sexual tension that is able to develop some sort of romantic passion that gets audiences invested supposedly.

However, as the years have rolled on and I’ve seen more films by Henry Koster I have grown affectionate of his very particular outlook. There’s a certain vein that runs through all the material that he directs–an inherent good-natured charm to it no matter the topic that is always and fundamentally enheartening. He never leaves you melancholy because each picture ends with a smile.  That’s the greatest compliment I can honor him with.

So despite the typical nature of the material, Koster’s always sincere perspective and Darrieux’s intoxicatingly endearing performance as a gold-digging yet genuine French model make this one a minor winner.  The class divide that always seemed to find its way into screwball plots of the 1930s such as this (sentiments left over from the Depression no doubt), helps to complicate matters but also allows for the necessary amount of empathy to be developed for not only Nicole, the girl desperately trying to find a husband just to survive, but also her main opponent Jim (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who has a rustic background of his own.

To be honest, for me Fairbanks doesn’t hold a candle to his father or Darrieux for that matter but the film does have a wonderful assortment of supporting players. The most important ones include Nicole’s core conspirators the worldly wisecracker Helen Broderick and her maitre d’ accomplice (Mischa Auer). All minor criticisms aside and barring any complaints about being overly sentimental or somewhat predictable, The Rage in Paris really is the paragon of a cute picture. I bow in deference to Danielle Darrieux’s career and thank my lucky stars that unabashed sentimentalists like Koster are still available in this oft cynical world that we live in now.

3.5/5 Stars

La Ronde (1950)

LarondeposterIf you know anything about director Max Ophuls you might realize his preoccupation with the cycling of time and storyline, even in visual terms. He initiates La Ronde with a lengthy opening shot that, of course, involves stairs (one of his trademarks), and the introduction of our narrative by a man who sees the world “in the round.” He brings our story to its proceedings, introducing us to the Vienna of 1900. It’s the age of the waltz and love is in the air — making its rounds. It’s meta in nature and a bit pretentious but do we mind this jaunt? Hardly.

It’s many vignettes of love and romance take us through drawing rooms and bedrooms, past bacchanalian gardens and statues involving a menagerie of figures from prostitutes and soldiers to poets and actresses. By the standards of the 1950s, it’s a highly overt and provocative film — even cheeky. And despite being set in Austria, it undoubtedly brings to mind the Rococo work of the likes of Fragonard or even Watteau’s “Embarkation for Cythera.”

Ophuls seems fascinated with the metaphor of carousels because, in a way, everything turns. Life is constantly of a cyclical nature just as film and the stories it tells always fluctuate from high to low and so on.

When I began my fledgling investigation of world cinema Simone Signoret and Simone Simon were two names that I egregiously intertwined. Now, forced to confront my confusion, I can say definitely that there is a clear distinction in my mind. They stand alone and really this is a film with some of France’s greatest female icons with Danielle Darreiux being another name of note.

However, this is hardly a story about a certain character, but more the themes running through the story and it gives Ophuls the means to exert his artistic mores. His shot lengths indicate just how assured he was in his work — commanding every detail.

When you think he’s going to fall back on a cut and move on, he finds yet another way to keep the shot going. It really is remarkable and it becomes noticeable just how continuous this film is at times. He’s also very much in his element with figures pirouetting on the dance floor. It’s only matched by the elegantly whimsical refrains of the score.

La Ronde actually brought to mind the biblical allusion from Ecclesiastes sung about so iconically by the Byrds. There is a season turn, turn, turn. Except in Ophuls’ case, he seems only interested in the idea of this carousel of romantic encounters. He never actually looks at the inverse of these fluffy tete-a-tetes — what happens when people are alone or their hearts are broken.

It’s very convenient actually, and it allows the film to maintain it’s light, airy quality. For instance, it never looks at the underlining issues that become apparent in a film like A Brief Encounter (1945). Still, I suppose its exquisite elegance and manners are meant to cover up the more base qualities of mankind. In the end, everything goes round and round. Whether or not there is a purpose to it all is for the viewer to decide.

4/5 Stars

4 Living Legends Part 1

800px-danielle_darrieux_five_fingers_2I said a while back that I wanted to acknowledge a few living legends who are still with us in a series of short posts and I’ve finally gotten around to it. Enjoy!

Olivia De Havilland (1916 – )

One of the famed sisters who starred in numerous Hollywood especially in the 30s and 40s, Olivia De Havilland will always be synonymous with her pairings with swashbuckler Errol Flynn and my personal favorite with always be The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Other films of note included Hold Back the Dawn, The Snake Pit, and The Heiress.

Norman Lloyd (1914 – )

I regret to say that I don’t know more about Mr. Lloyd and I  have yet to watch Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942) which has been on my to-do list for some time now. St. Elsewhere is also on the watchlist.

Kirk Douglas (1916 – )

The credits belonging to Kirk Douglas as an actor and producer are long and illustrious. He started out in film-noir with such films as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Out of the Past (1947), and Champion (1949). However, his career continued to evolve including a lifelong collaborative partnership with Burt Lancaster and landmark films such as Ace in the Hole (1951), Paths of Glory (1957), and Spartacus (1960). His son Michael Douglas has continued the families acting dynasty well into the 21st century. He was named # 17 on the AFI list of greatest actors of all time for good reason.

Dannielle Darrieux (1917 – )

A mainstay of French cinema as well as Hollywood films, Darrieux is especially memorable for her work with Max Ophuls and I personally know her for roles in both the thriller 5 Fingers (1952) and Jacques Demy’s lovely musical The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967).

 

The Earrings of Madame De… (1953)

MadamedeposterThe Earrings of Madame De…, in essence, feels like the perfect incarnation of an Ophuls’ film. In fact, sometimes I forget that Ophuls is actually German because his films are full of French sentiment. I mean that not because of their cast, although we do have Charles Boyer and Danielle Darieux, but more so due to the fact that his films are about elegant, melodramatic romances that fit the decadence of Parisian high society. For instance, in Madame De… Danielle Darrieux is positively swimming in luxury, whether it means dresses, furnishings, or especially jewelry. Materially her husband Andre (Boyer), a French general, has lavished all the worldly possessions upon her. Except that’s not what she wants. At least that’s not what will make her happy. She may be obsessed with the material, but even the material which she so desires is ultimately poisoned over time. Over time Andre cannot even win her over with trinkets and gifts. She cares little for the eponymous earrings until they come from her true love Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica).

These are the same earrings that she sold to pay off a debt. The same earrings that Andre reacquired from the jeweler and then made the rounds once more. Ophuls said himself that he was drawn to this narrative because “there is always the same axis around which the action continually turns like a carousel. A tiny, scarcely visible axis: a pair of earrings.” And really it is a fascinating plot device that ties the entire narrative together, while also seeming to reflect the utter frivolity and triviality of it all. How can these earrings hold so much weight to one person? And yet that’s only the face value, because, to begin with, they are only an object to be coveted and maybe cherished. Over time they become a token, a symbol of true love and Louise gives them away to the parish because she no longer needs them. She has some notion now of what true love actually feels like.

For the majority of the film, Andre is forever civil with her. He knows that she does not really love him, and he even has time for a mistress on the side. He handles her opportune fainting spells and little charades with grace and at times amusement. But when he gets a hint at Donati’s relationship with his wife, he does what any honorable gentlemen would do. He’s indignant of his rival and builds a huge feud out of nothing. What follows is a duel and the rest is history.

Madame De… probably does not get as much acknowledgment as it should, because Ophuls was a champion of so-called “Women Pictures,” which actually take on the point of view of women, in an industry that’s so male-dominant even to this day. Thus, Madame De… is a little different in perspective, and it tries to hide all of its tragedy behind superficiality. It makes for an interesting lesson in romance and the female psyche. Yet again the director shows his immense affinity for staircases turning them into the personal playground for his camera. He loves to twirl, pirouette, and glide just as much as Louise and Donati do as they dance the night away at the ball. De Sica is a champion director in his own right, but it was especially fun to see him in front of the camera and he seemed an apt player opposite his costars. The worthy equal of Boyer and a suave love interest on top of that. There’s nothing more romantic than Danielle Darreux dreamily repeating to him, “I don’t love you, I don’t love you, I don’t love you.” The sad irony is that those words ring true with her actual husband as reflected by a pair of earrings.

4.5/5 Stars

5 Fingers (1952)

5fingersHonestly, this doesn’t feel like a typical Joseph L. Mankiewicz film. It was written by someone else and because he was nearing the end of his contract with 20th Century, he didn’t end up editing the project. Supposedly the overseeing of Daryl Zanuck led to several scenes being scrapped which Mankiewicz thought were good. Also, as a director, his name does not usually scream spy thriller like an Alfred Hitchcock. He’s more in his element with cultured dramas about relationships. However, 5 Fingers is still an engaging tale based on the historical wartime events surrounding the informant code-named Cicero.

In real life, Elyesa Bazna was an Albanian born valet who worked under the British ambassador to Turkey. He played both sides, first ingratiating himself as a gentleman among the Brits and then taking pictures of top secret information and passing it off to the Germans in the period between 1943-44. Cicero, as he was called, could easily come off as an abhorrent traitor and yet James Mason plays his character Diello with an adeptness that is underlined with an air of civility. We don’t particularly care for the man, but he’s not a monster, just a bit crooked and concerned with personal gain. Mason certainly did have a knack for playing the criminal type and I must admit I’m curious to watch more films with him because his performances have not quite won me over yet. There’s still time for that.

The film altogether is not that tense, but it does set the groundwork for some interesting interactions which all seem to stem from Cicero. He is subservient and aloof when it comes to serving the ambassador. He’s quite open with the Countess Anna Staviska (Danielle Darreux), who turns into a confident, romantic partner, and in some ways an accomplice — just wait. Meanwhile, he deals with the Germans self-assuredly knowing what he wants and how he’s going to get it. He’s no slouch and he seems devilishly good at the spy game.

Throw in some double-crossing from the countess and a dynamite word like “Overlord” (aka D-Day) and Dellio finds himself on the run with the Brit’s counterintelligence operative (Michael Rennie) hot on his tail. Thanks to his assistance, the Germans are trying to protect him as he gets ready to hightail it to South America. There’s one small thing he didn’t account for. He’s been duped. He and the countess both. All he can do is break out in a fit of laughter. I’m not sure if that’s how the real story ended — probably not, but it makes for a fitting conclusion of this tale as his money slowly drifts away in the wind.

3.5/5 Stars