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!

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Fred Astaire

In our ongoing series of Classic Movie Beginner’s Guides, we focus on a single person from Classic Hollywood for those who want an overview.

This week let’s look at one of the preeminent film dancers of all-time: Fred Astaire! After starting out on the stage with his sister Adele, during the 1930s Astaire tapped his way toward cinematic immortality thanks to his coruscating partnership with Ginger Rogers.

They were paired in a number of screwball-infused musicals that still rank among the best pictures the Hollywood dream factory put out during the 1940s. What set Astaire apart was his tireless choreography, the graceful elegance of his figure, and his often underrated singing voice introducing the world to a bevy of classics.

Top Hat (1935)

The Movie Projector: Top Hat (1935)

The romantic rebuttals are only a pretense for this glorious extravaganza replete with Art Deco stylings and a stupendous screwball cast loaded with the likes of Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. Astaire introduced a pair of Irving Berlin classics in “Cheek-to-Cheek” and “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” as he and Ginger dance away off toward perfection.

Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time (1936) directed by George Stevens • Reviews, film + ...

A worthy successor to Top Hat, Swing Time assembled the talents of George Stevens and Jerome Kerns offering Astaire yet another immortal classic, “The Way You Look Tonight.” However, the splendor of Fred & Ginger together is magic with number after number feeling like an absolute knockout including the likes of “Pick Yourself Up” and “Waltz in Swing Time.” They balance charm with elegance divinely.

Easter Parade (1948)

Easter Parade (1948) directed by Charles Walters • Reviews, film + ...

Fred Astaire finally got paired with Judy Garland in this Holiday-themed looker blooming with glorious Springtime Technicolor and luscious costuming. “Happy Easter” and “Drum Crazy” start him off on a particularly jovial note, and he never looks back. The compositions of Irving Berlin are swell as is the easy-going rapport of Astaire and Garland carrying the picture away into loveliness.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Howard Hampton on Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953 ...

As his finest late-period work and an impeccable companion to Singin’ in The Rain, Fred is partnered with the always elegant Cyd Charisse as they dance their way through the sartorial splendor of Vincent Minnelli’s picture. Astaire gets one of his peppiest numbers with “A Shine on Your Shoes.” The real showstoppers are “That’s Entertainment as well as an epic film noir finale.

Worth Watching

Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Follow The Fleet, Shall We Dance, Broadway Melody of 1940, You’ll Never Get Rich, You Were Never Lovelier, Three Little Words,  Royal Wedding, Funny Face, Silk Stockings, On The Beach, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, etc.

Shall We Dance (1937): Fred, Ginger, and The Gershwins

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The name Gershwin is synonymous with “The American Songbook” and part of the draw of Shall We Dance is how it included two of them: both the brothers, George and Ira Gershwin. Ira would tragically pass away that same year. However, together they provided the compositions and lyrics for the film which, in some sense, feels like an atypical Astaire and Rogers vehicle.

While Mark Sandrich is in the director’s chair once more following The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Follow The Fleet (1936), there are some unprecedented deviations from the normal foolproof formula. Namely, Astaire plays Peter P. Peters, an American who trades in his taps for a Russian ballet company. He’s certainly will always be a hoofer in most people’s eyes, and it does feel oddly out of character.

What hasn’t changed is his instant infatuation with Rogers, a famous tap dancer in her own right, named Linda Keane. But he must contrive some sort of gimmick and thusly takes up the persona of the touchy Russian dancer “Petrov” to antagonize her on the road toward love. Meanwhile, he tries his very best to evade the flirtations of his former dance partner Denise (Ketti Gallian) who looks to snatch him up.

Of the earliest offerings, Astaire gives us the treat of his cane dancing like he did in Top Hat and then there’s a fine boiler room number, “Slap that Bass” supported by a host of African-American performers thrumming with a healthy dose of character.

The film’s most catastrophic mix-up comes when the newspapers begin promoting a secret marriage between our two stars, thanks to a cockamamie story Peters cooked up on the spot to keep his former suitor at bay as he leaves on an ocean liner.

Petrov and Keane develop some chemistry dog walking together on the deck of the ship only for the gossip swirling about to reach a fever pitch. Astaire’s bumbling boss, Mr. Beard (Edward Everett Horton) uses it as the perfect chance to get rid of her for good. Meanwhile, Eric Blore as his ever-huffy hotel clerk tries his best to figure out the marital status of Petrov and Ms. Keane when preparing their rooms. They leave him ceaselessly befuddled.

Then, a second nefarious scandal is cooked up by Keane’s road manager (Jerome Cowan feeling out of place with the screwball elements), who does his best to kill the upcoming marriage his star has embarked on.  Thanks to some late-night photography and a mannequin bearing a striking resemblance to Linda, the news spreads like wildfire. What are his motives, you ask? He’s got his own reasons.

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Not surprisingly, the closest thing we get to the Astaire and Rogers numbers of old are also the film’s finest entries, including the comic tune “They Laughed at Me” sung by Rogers before being joined in a routine by Astaire. After they sneak out to get away from the publicity hounds, “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” proves a handy follow-up number.

The extended sequence purportedly took a plethora of takes, upwards of 100, while the final fall into the grass left Fred and Ginger with black and blue backsides. They suffered and yet as the audience, we no doubt reap the benefits, especially because Shall We Dance hardly has their traditional big numbers like a Top Hat (1935) or Swing Time (1936) so seeing them on skates together is nearly consolation enough.

They show everyone by getting married, making it easy enough to get divorced so Linda can marry the man she’s meant to. Since their movies always took a page out of screwball comedies anyway, it makes sense this picture is another riff on the comedy of remarriage, which could be a sub-genre all its own.

Ultimately, two shows are merged in an instance of inspiration and yet that doesn’t mean that Petrov’s got the girl. An oddly disconcerting final number follows as Astaire dances with a host of gals all donning Ginger Roger’s face, disrupted by a shushing war instigated by our favorite misfits Blore and Horton. Though the picture could have used a feisty female like a Helen Broderick or Alice Brady, there’s also never enough of Blore and Horton to suit their faithful fans. They make every film a little more colorful, and it would hardly be an Astaire-Rogers picture without a stellar supporting cast of veteran jokesmiths.

Surveying Shall We Dance, it’s certainly not at the top of the pantheon of the movie musicals that these two icons made together, but it’s ripe with some of the usual delights in spite of a laborious plot and a different brand of dancing than we’re used to. It’s hard to complain too much about the results. There’s no doubt the entertainment value for true aficionados still remains.

3.5/5 Stars

The Gay Divorcee (1934): The Astaire & Rogers Foolproof Formula

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The plots to the Astaire and Rogers musicals are usually deceptively simple. Thus, thanks be to their dancing transcending it all. The affair opens in some posh corner of Europe where the always dithering Edward Everett Horton is sitting with Fred Astaire who has to prove his identity to get out of paying a check. They’ve both conveniently misplaced their wallets. After a routine complete with pretty girls and dancing fingers, he gives an impromptu performance of his own bringing down the house and proving he really is world-renowned performer Guy Holden.

Later on, at the docks, a fellow American, arriving in England (Ginger Rogers), is meeting her lovably fatuous aunt (Alice Brady) only to have her dress accidentally caught in a travel trunk. The man who comes to her aid and subsequently rips her garment is, of course, Astaire. Being a gentleman and genuinely taken with her, he gives her his coat to cover up, but the damage has already been done. She finds him a bit bothersome. You can tell it instantly by every look of disdain she throws him. Meanwhile, he eats up any pretense to talk with her, though she dismisses his advances. It’s how the story always goes.

He turns his resolve to find the girl, matched with the everyday occurrence of getting dressed to go out on the town, into the number “Needle in a Haystack,” which has Astaire exuding his typical elan on taps. Of the millions of women around, he’s looking for one very particular needle, and he’s not above canvassing the streets, even if it’s an insurmountable task, made increasingly apparent through montage. It goes to all this trouble only to very coincidentally rear-end her as he’s rubbernecking (adding yet another reason for her not to like him much).

Meanwhile, Egbert (Horton) is looking to make his father proud of him in the family law firm, though he’s never seemed to have much gumption or stomach for the trade. His worst nightmare, Hortense (the same Alice Brady) comes back into his life also bringing with her the proposition of a case that just might be his opportunity to assert himself. Mimi, the same woman constantly harried by Holden, is looking to get out of a loveless marriage and so the inept lawyer suggests setting up a rendezvous with a professional gigolo to end the union for good.

He invites Guy along for the ride knowing the sunshine, gaiety, and girls might do him good as a distraction for his lovesickness. He needs to forget this girl he’s so taken with. However, they’ve failed to compare notes. It doesn’t take extra-sensory perception to read where the picture will go from here, in fact, there’s hardly a need to continue. The human mind might do a finer job in its vivid imagination to derive what complications will arise from such a premise.

It’s a pleasant surprise to see Edward Horton doing a little saucy jig, “K-nock K-nees,” which also proves an early showcase for 40s wartime superstar Betty Grable if you’re able to recognize her. Likewise, in the subsequent scenes, Eric Blore is delightful as ever, this time as a waiter with his typical crisp & snooty delivery, ably sparring with the comic foibles of Horton.

Fortuitously, he turns up in several more instances to serve up the tea things along with idle chatter to anyone who will lend an ear. Astaire and Rogers’s first number together is the Cole Porter standard “Night and Day,” only to birth further misunderstands thanks to one ironic code phrase, “Chance is the fool’s name for fate.” Don’t ask for an explanation.

“The Continental” is an impressively glossy number that until Gene Kelly conjured up his American in Paris (1951) dream sequence, clocked in as the industry’s longest continuous dance number. Some of it involves our leads, but not the whole thing. It feels much more like a Busby Berkeley extravaganza.

And yet right there you understand the exquisite nature of Astaire and Rogers because they made dancing into something intimate and personal. It was between two people as much as it was a lavish production number, and that’s what resonates with us even after the curtain falls and we’ve been wowed by the expansive nature of the staging.

Yes, the geologist husband finally makes his token appearance as expected and the hired romancer Tonetti (Erik Rhodes) continues to bumble along in an effort to play his raffish role. Of course, Astaire proves far more convincing in the part of the lover finally getting the girl as expected.

Does any of this matter? Hardly. But it’s one final opportunity to get Astaire, Rogers, Blore, Horton, and everyone else in a room together. That’s surely enough to recommend this frolicking trifle of gaiety starring everyone’s favorite couple on taps. There’s nothing better to lift your spirits than Astaire and Rogers.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Ginger Rogers

As we continue to look at musicals our recent beginner’s guides have been focusing on stars at the center of some of the best films of the era. Today let’s focus on Ginger Rogers.

Aside from being part of the incomparable dance partnership with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers was also an accomplished comedienne and a tested dramatic actress who showed surprising elasticity throughout her varied career. Here are just a handful of her best movies.

Gold Diggers of 1933

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Some might forget Busby Berkeley started to choreograph a new syntax for the movie musical and crucial to one of the industry’s most successful Depression_era backstage dramas was Ginger Rogers. Joining forces with Joan Blondell and Aline Macmahon, among others, they build on the success of 42nd Street.

Top Hat (1935)

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For some people, this is the ultimate Astaire and Rogers movie featuring some of the most extravagant sets and career-defining numbers together. The cast is rounded out by old favorites like Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. However, of course, the main attraction amid the screwball foibles are our shimmering leads, Rogers sporting her iconic feathery ensemble.

Swing Time (1936)

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Others will say this George Stevens-directed feature is actually the greatest Astaire-Rogers pairing and who would blame them? The dancing is phenomenal and the songs equally amicable including standards like “The Way You Look Tonight.” Surprise, surprise, Ginger and Fred are magical together yet again.

Vivacious Lady (1938)

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So many films could earn this spot but Vivacious Lady is buoyed by the real-life chemistry and friendship of Ginger Rogers and James Stewart. The material is fairly light, but they handle it with ease. In a turning of the tables, Stewart was yet to be a big star and Ginger Rogers vouched for him. Greater things were yet to come for both of them.

Worth Watching

Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Follow The Fleet, Shall We Dance, Stage Door, Bachelor Mother, Kitty Foyle, Major and The Minor, I’ll Be Seeing You, Monkey Business, etc.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

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With the opening number “We’re In The Money,” this musical sticks it to The Great Depression and gives their audience a respite from the poverty waiting outside the theater doors. The tone is set as Ginger Rogers, surrounded by rows of scantily clad coin-covered women, sings out one of the song’s lines in Pig Latin. It’s one in a million.

Like its predecessor, the smash hit 42nd Street (1933), this is yet another hybrid of backstage drama and semi-extravagant production numbers. An incoming rapid-fire line of close-ups featuring Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger Rogers all giving the camera a mouthful is a delightful portent of all that it to come from this bevy of talent. The sass meter goes through the roof.

But we never forget that it’s the Depression, though it would be an unnecessary reminder for audiences already living through the reality. As Carol quips when she hears the timeliness of their newest project, “We won’t have to rehearse that.” Because they’ve been living through it along with everyone else.

It means that they share a measly flat together. Get by from swiping milk bottles from the upstairs neighbors and fighting over clothes to make at least one of them look presentable for the prospect of an audition. There’s a lightness to it all as much as there is a camaraderie. They’re all in it together and that allows the picture to work. Otherwise, it would be too depressing. There needs to be that assurance and resolve driving our characters. They never get too low.

Ruby Keeler has time to fall for Dick Powell yet again, this time by simply sticking her head out the window to swoon over his piano ballads. Of course, things hit the pits when they find out that despite a swell idea, their backer and potential savior Barry (Ned Sparks), still is broke and so his visions of a showstopping triumph are all for naught. The insouciant joking of Powell has everyone a little hurt until he actually comes through in shelling out $15,000 just like that. He was never more serious.

So there we have it. Another stage production is in the works. Everything is coming together dandily but in a role reversal of 42nd Street, it is Powell’s Brad who is called upon to fill a void in the production when he’s needed most.

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The original juvenile lead is not able to make the cut due to lumbago and so despite his continuous rejection of the part, he finally folds realizing so many folks are counting on him. We’ve already said it and we’ll say it again. The show must go on!

Their first number, “Pettin’ in the Park” is a near-surreal exhibition in sauciness utilizing a midget dressed as a baby, a studio orchestrated rainstorm, and women donning metal garb to foil their male suitors. Weird but it’s an unequivocal smash.

So big in fact that news gets out. Brad’s family hears he’s been moonlighting in the theater and is appalled. Because you see, he comes from a well-to-do family. Such a line of work would never do. Cavorting with chorus girls and acting is out of the question. He returns home but to no avail as his older brother Lawrence (Warren William) and the family’s lawyer Fanueal H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) agree to come out to put an end to Brad’s career — not to mention his romance. After all, showgirls are reputed to be parasites, chiselers, gold diggers…

They get far more than they bargained for when a bit of mistaken identity causes them to get whirled away by the streetwise sauciness of Carol and Trixie who have these rich boys pegged and know exactly how to capitalize. It’s like taking candy from two stuffy, overgrown babies.

Beyond being Fred Astaire’s supremely talented collaborator on taps, it’s easy to rate Ginger Rogers as a first-rate comedienne even in this earlier juncture of her career. However, it’s Aline MacMahon with the juiciest part and the greatest showing which ultimately upstages Rogers and gives the picture its greatest buoyancy of sing-songy opportunism.

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Joan Blondell does herself proud in her own right romancing Warren William. For the first time, I actually feel sympathetic toward the poor fellow. He’s got no defenses. Peabody is simply putty in the hands of a woman — especially someone as delightfully conniving as Trixie. But remember it’s all for a good cause as Brad and Polly are able to stay together and that’s just the beginning…

It’s almost a misnomer to call Gold Diggers of 1933 a musical outright. The way that Warner Bros. ran things, there were two units one for the romantic drama led by Mervyn LeRoy and then another headed by Berkeley for the choreography of his decadent visions. So what we have is the quintessential Depression-era drama filled in with some song & dance routines. It could be completely disjointed in its execution. But on both fronts there or moments of undoubted noteworthiness. It begins with a cast that does oh so much and the baton constantly gets passed between players who readily play their part one after another.

Then, the rest is pure Berkeley first taking his dreams and turning them into a reality. “In The Shadows” in an exquisite gift to the audience showcasing swirling hula hoop dresses with showgirls gracefully flitting this way and that. Then the lights go out leaving behind the contours of violins dressed with fluorescent light,s which make for another entrancing dance of shape and light. Here we have art where the result is so much more than a mere sum of its parts.

Once again it makes the pretense of a stage performance but right away Berkeley throws off those shackles and lets his camera fly to whatever vantage point it wants proving itself essentially unencumbered and subsequently reworking how musicals could and would be staged.

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But in truth, it’s a back-to-back show stopper and Berkeley sees the film to its crescendo by completely changing his tune with the help of composer and lyricist duo Harry Warren and Al Dubin. They all come through to deliver what can only be considered a timely eulogy to the universal figure alluded to in its title.

“The Forgotten Man” is emblematic of this entire picture and Gold Diggers of 1933 is very much an offering of thanks to the everyday American. The men who stand in breadlines scrimping over cigarettes. The men who fought in the Great War. The women who maintained the diligence and rectitude with which the country could battle poverty. The same people who line up to go see movies every day.

In the end, the movie pulls off this startling balancing act — a tightrope walk of comedy, tragedy, and above all pathos. Gold Diggers is the real deal and I cannot begrudge anyone who would deem it the pinnacle of the Hollywood dream factory sent to reach those in the throes of desperate times. Granted, some might question the merits of fantastical escapism but this effort looks to be more than a diversion — moving beyond that to be a hardy rallying cry of hope.

4.5/5 Stars

42nd Street (1933)

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“Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!” – Warner Baxter to Ruby Keeler

42nd Street essentially feels like hallowed ground even today because it single-handedly gave an entire generation of films plentiful ammunition for tropes while jumpstarting Warner Bros.’s cottage industry of musicals. These included Footlight Parade, Dames, and a whole slew of Gold Digger movies among many others. Not to mention many heirs apparent from Stage Door (1937) to Cabaret (1972).

There are several angles from which to approach this film. One of them has to do with Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), an acclaimed theater director who is nevertheless broke thanks to The Crash and warned by his doctor that the undue stress of such a rigorous career is taking a toll on his health. He knows the clock is ticking for him and he deems that this will be his last Broadway show and it will his best even if it kills him. It probably will.

Meanwhile, the shining star of the forthcoming production Pretty Lady is one Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who keeps the picture’s lascivious financial backer (Guy Kibbee) onboard while never letting him get too familiar with her. Because you see, she has a secret romance going on the side with a young man (George Brent) who used to work with her in vaudeville. Now he’s jobless.

With all his reputation and finances dependent on the show’s success, Mr. Marsh quickly turns into a berating taskmaster, first, in casting calls and then through the grueling rehearsal regimen.

Three girls who manage to finagle their way into the show through some insider influence are Lorraine (Una Merkel), Anytime Annie (Ginger Rogers) and the wholesome newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). She knows next to nothing about the tooth and nail competition and so the two old pros gladly take her under their wing.

It just happens that she finds a romantic interest in the baby-faced crooner Billy Lawler (Dick Powell) as they both have parts to play. Meanwhile, the higher-ups catch wind of Dorothy’s male friend Pat (Brent) and he soon is paid a meeting with an influencer — someone to rough him up a bit and keep him from gumming up the show. To a degree, it works as he heads off to Philadelphia and Marsh continues to drive his stock company mercilessly. He doesn’t just want it good, he wants absolute perfection, and despite his greatest efforts, he’ll never be completely satisfied.

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The first number we’re acquainted with is “Getting to Be a Habit with Me” and with it soon comes the opening strains of Busby Berkeley’s kaleidoscope choreography — a mere taster of all the fine abstractions to come. But there must be a quarrel to further ignite the already bumpy proceedings. It starts when Dorothy gives it to the biggest sucker Abner Dillon (Kibbee) who is about as insufferable as they come, a buffoon as only Kibbee can play.

But the same night, in the process of blowing off steam, Dorothy is stricken with a fracture the day before her big debut. Things couldn’t be any worse with the pompous buffoon threatening to pull out his funding and Marsh is sunk without his leading lady. However, if you’ve seen any of the movies that this musical inspired, you already are well acquainted with the fact that “The show must go on!”

That same timorous yet sprightly chorus girl, Peggy has her chance at the big stage. Marsh drives her mercilessly through song, dance, and dialogue. Never praises her and essentially tells her that the entire weight of the hopes and dreams of all the cast is on her shoulders. Her quivering shoulders must carry the brunt of the production. That’s a terrible amount of pressure to place on one human being but the true miracle is that, of course, the new starlet manages brilliantly. The crowds want to love her and when she’s through with them they do.

In the latter half of 42nd Street, the dramatic elements give way to the actual musical numbers. “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” is a fine introduction full of romance and cheeky innuendo, spearheaded by Merkel and Rogers consorting in a compartment, chomping away on fruit. The camera is on the move as well, scanning across the train facade between faces hidden behind curtains and the shoes that ultimately get left out for the porter.

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Then, Dick Powell takes the lead in “Young and Healthy” opposite a nameless platinum blonde (Toby Wing in a memorable bit role) which is elevated by more novel shot selections. Namely, the fact that the bench our two performers are romancing on promptly sinks into the floor with them now sprawled out together. We get a signature Berkeley pirouette right after that which still never ceases to amaze me, followed by a tracking shot through a tunnel of legs. It succeeds in being far more cinematic than stagebound and that’s the key.

“42nd Street” is the tip-toppest number of them all by breaking away from any confinement with the sheer scale and mass of humanity that it puts forth. Only a few camera setups in and one realizes we are no longer a theater audience, unless we transition from sitting in the balcony to the ground level, and finally end up in the rafters looking down on the entertainment with the most impeccable of overhead views.

The final extravaganza is great fun to behold with a plethora of dancers performing in what feels like all but perfect cadence, constructing a cutout city of their own by turning around in unison. Then, they pull away and the camera gives us this wonderfully curious illusion that we are looking up the full length of the Empire State building, our two beaming starlets popping up at the top of the towering heights. The asbestos curtain drops and they have all but sealed the success of their show and the film.

While the musical ends on a rather inconclusive note, it in no way neutralizes the effervescent numbers and performances that bloom out of an otherwise theatrical backstage drama. 42nd Street is still important to us because it is the origin of so many musical traditions but it subsequently still manages to enrapture with even a few feats of artistic ingenuity. It deserves its place among the seminal musicals even if its staying power is moot.

4/5 Stars

Bachelor Mother (1939)

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Of course, Bachelor Mother is a blatant oxymoron and it’s a perfect summation of that vestige of a genre the screwball comedy — a genre that’s about marriage and divorce and the gray areas in between conveniently skirting past issues such as adultery or people “living in sin” as it were. The norm was not a genre of divorce but of remarriage.

As such this Ginger Rogers vehicle has her playing a woman who doesn’t actually have a child out of wedlock but it’s assumed as much and that’s where the roots of the comedy get their traction. Because therein dwells so many societal taboos that are subsequently turned into marvelous fodder for misunderstanding though no actual moral statutes have been broken. It’s that line of dramatic irony that the rom-com, in general, has always needed in order to survive.

Just think how perfectly it all happens. In one moment Polly Parish (Ginger Rogers) finds herself laid off from her department store gig just in time for Christmas and between the unemployment agency and home she happens upon a lady leaving a cute little bundle of joy on the doorstep of the local orphanage. She says it’s not hers. She found it somewhere and now she’s leaving.

But Ginger Rogers being our concerned heroine can’t just let the baby sit there so she takes a course of action, delivering the child inside and enlightening the staff about the situation. Of course, they all believe she’s simply shirking her maternal responsibility and running out on her child and they pass the news along to David Merlin (David Niven), one of her former employers.

By now, Polly is already long gone. She’s agreed to take part in a dance competition at the local hall the Pink Slipper. There’s $50 in it for her and her partner Freddie (Frank Albertson of It’s a Wonderful Life prominence) if they can win. Waiting, babe in arms and valet in tow, Mr. Merlin tries to rectify the situation and get Polly to take back her child.

If the film was born on the steps of the orphanage, then it is solidified right here as a full-fledged screwball comedy of motherhood and misconstrued circumstance. Polly finds herself called into Mr. Merlin’s office and is offered her old post as long as she takes her child back. Still, they don’t listen to her renunciation so she has no course but to become a mother, after all, babies are cute. They can’t be that much work…

The fact that this is a screwball and not so much a domestic comedy is made clear by the fact the baby is more of a plot element than an actual character and Rogers and Niven find time to fall in love even with the added strain of motherhood.

What seems to do it is a lovely night together on New Year’s Eve which is highlighted by an extended gag where Niven introduces Rogers as his date from Sweden who conveniently does not speak a lick of English. It’s punctuated by the definitive punchline of the film. Simultaneously, Rogers struts her stuff all night long (though we miss Fred Astaire) in a reverie of pure joy.

But that’s not all that’s capped off amid the pandemonium of the festivities. Love Affair is far from just the movie up on the nearby theater billboard. It’s also something coming to fruition between our two stars. However, if this was the end it could hardly claim the name screwball. That’s when the baby comes in. J.B. Merlin (Coburn) finds his son with this single mother and draws conclusions of his own and…he’s very happy to be a grandfather and not so happy with the spineless conduct of his son.

What follows is a mad dash by our two leads to try and conjure up other stand-ins for a game of Who’s the Father? Three eligible contenders are brought in to play the charade. We already know Merlin, then there’s the dancing fiend and disgraced floorwalker Freddie, and the landlady’s bespectacled son.

In the end, everything is squared away nicely and the corkscrew comes full circle. Though Charles Coburn plays a very small part it proves to be a crucial one. Meanwhile, I adore Ginger Rogers and once more following Stage Door and Vivacious Lady, she proves in yet another film her genuine skills as an actress of immeasurable smarts and humor. Sometimes I’m admittedly unfair to David Niven — he’s never been the most compelling actor — but he’s fine in this picture.

This film also shares much the same world as the Devil and Miss Jones (including Charles Coburn) and the toy store environment provides the perfect arena for a terrifically comical shoplifting sequence full of excitement. It’s this movie to a tee. Positively quacking.

3.5/5 Stars

Vivacious Lady (1938)

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The first moment Pete Morgan (James Stewart) actually catches sight of alluring nightclub singer Francey (Ginger Rogers), the gangly botany professor proceeds to knock over a drink cooler. He’s enamored. In the movies, it’s that magical trope called “love at first sight.” For other pictures that’s where they go to die as the two loved birds get wrapped up in the throes of romance exploring New York City together. With Stewart and Rogers as our guides, there’s no place we’d rather be. Soon they are married and on their way to meet the parents in the idyllic town of Old Sharon.

Except they never get there or rather they get to the town but Pete never gets to the part about telling his parents he’s married. Charles Colburn is bullish as Peter Morgan Sr. the obdurate, overbearing intellectual who will not allow his son to get in a word edgewise. That’s aggravated by the fact that in his typical manner Stewart is always beating around the bush, never quite able to get the words out and so the happy news never finds an audience.

Besides Mr. Morgan has his sights on his son marrying the prim and proper Helen (Frances Mercer) while he turns his nose at the blonde woman that his nephew Keith (James Ellison) is traipsing around with it — that undoubtedly unsophisticated creature who also happens to be his actual daughter-in-law!

Thus, begins the film’s longest digression as wife becomes a student for the sake of being close to her husband and Pete tries his darndest to break the news to his parents while still getting time with his wife. But the guise of student and teacher isn’t helping much. They probably broke the whole code of conduct book on student-teacher relations circa 1938.

One of the favorite hot spots for late night extracurriculars just happens to have an outboard motor right next to it and it can make quite the din if accidentally pulled. Otherwise, Pete has an awful time trying to see his wife as the lobby clerk (Franklin Pangborn) is a real stickler and so the only access to her room is of a clandestine nature up the fire escape.

And still his father won’t listen to him and his former fiancee is still trying to nab him. It’s getting so hopeless that Francey thinks it might be best if she leaves Old Sharon behind for good. A memorable dance party with the parents in Francie’s room proves the kicker. Though she forms a bit of a rapport with the kindly but frail Mrs. Morgan (Beulah Bondi in 1 out of her 5 turns as Stewart’s mother), an indignant Mr. Morgan will have none of this tomfoolery.

Soon enough Francey decides to leave town of her own accord.  But even at the cost of his professorship if need be, good ol’ Jimmy Stewart won’t let her get away that easily. Whether or not this film drags a bit in the latter half is beside the point because you couldn’t have two more likable stars than Stewart and Rogers nor a Hollywood director more competent than George Stevens in balancing the breadth of slapstick comedy and romantic drama.

If the material is simply adequate enough, they are the type of talents that take us along and we will willingly be their audience through every complication. It’s our privilege.

In case there was any doubt whatsoever Ginger Rogers is awesome and it’s put on full display when she has a slap fight with her archnemesis before taking her in a headlock. If you liked her before simply for dancing prowess, she proves to be a savvy cat fighter as well.

Jimmy Stewart was still in the fairly latent stages of his illustrious career but Rogers recommended him for the role and he provides his homespun charm and length to every frame like we are accustomed to seeing from him. Not to mention his forays in home brewing. They’re quite impressive.

The only major blot on the film is an appearance of the prolific Willie Best playing his typical googly-eyed waiter — the walking stereotype that always feels like a cringe-worthy addition to any picture of old as does a cameo by Hattie McDaniels. At least there weren’t any chinamen. Not that there’s much consolation in that. Shall we just say that Rogers’ vivacity and Stewart’s universal affability make for a quality viewing experience and leave it at that?

4/5 Stars

Review: Top Hat (1935)

tophat1Perhaps Astaire and Rogers most famous film together, Top Hat has them in top form once more, seemingly defying gravity at the full peak of their powers. The beauty of their partnership is that they’re able to tell the progression of a love story through dance, but they do it with such ease and grace it looks like so much fun. For a brief moment, you almost forget what the plot line of the movie is even about. It doesn’t seem to matter. All that matters is these two harmonious beings in perfect unison with each other.

But for those who take some interest in the plot, it is once more a simple screwball story of mistaken identity and romantic entanglements. Jerry Travers is supposed to perform in the show of one Horace Hardwicke, played impeccably by the stuttering Edward Everett Horton. However, Jerry gets smitten with the girl downstairs, but she gets the wrong idea. After all, he is staying in Horace’s suite. They rendezvous in Italy at a lavish gondola getaway where they meet up with Horace’s wife Madge, the always entertaining Helen Broderick. She’s playing matchmaker for Jerry because he has a girl named Dale Tremont (Rogers), who she wants him to meet. Of course, they already know each other, but again she mistakenly believes he’s Horace.

It’s all very awkward, however, all Travers knows is that he’s infatuated with this girl so he goes headlong after her. She’s aloof with him and eventually tries to marry the overly-honorable Alberto Beddini as a defense. Horace over the entire course of the film is bickering with his butler Bates (Eric Blore) and it seems like he’s constantly getting thrown under the bus. But this time Bates does something that makes everyone happy. All that matter is that Astaire and Rogers are back together because in their universe anything else would be unthinkable.

Astaire’s opening number “Fancy Free” is especially lively setting the tone of the story, while “Isn’t a Lovely Day” taking place under the gazebo in the rain is an important starting point for the love story. “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” honestly is not one of my favorite numbers, but it is worth it alone to see Astaire twirl around with his stick using it to develop rhythm and act as almost a third leg.

An American classic from Irving Berlin, “Cheek to Cheek” is undoubtedly the apex of this film, because by now our stars are in love and in this dance they have entered almost a suspended state of bliss personified by their floating forms. All the other players fade away and the dynamic dancing duo gracefully glides into heaven together.

The final number “The Piccolino” is rather decadently extravagant to match the flamboyant set, but again when all else fades away and we are left with only Astaire and Rogers, that’s when the scene truly feels magical. It’s as if within all the noise there is once again a moment of beautiful intimacy. But intimate in the sense of two wonderful performers being seemingly so connected in their art form. They hold the sinews of the screwball romance together if only through their exquisite dances.

Most opinion on film is essentially subjective, and in my opinion Swing Time (1936) from the following year is a stronger picture. It has a few more memorable numbers and it is perhaps a little more well balanced all around. Although you do lose Edward Everett Horton for Victor Moore, a lot of the other players remain the same. Also, Top Hat‘s script feels a little weaker, not that it’s of great importance. Because after all, most people don’t go into a film like this ready to analyze the script. We want to be dazzled by two of the great icons of Hollywood, as much now as during the Depression years, and they certainly do that to perfection.

4.5/5 Stars