Three Smart Girls (1936)

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Here is a comedy born of a certain time and age when they made such trifles. It’s the kind of plot where you can read it off in a single sentence but it’s further cushioned by cutesy moments and musical asides. Where growing girls say “Mummy” and “Daddy,” always fussing and screeching and bickering over this or that.

It could all get tiresome and too sugary if it weren’t redeemed by how very pleasant it is in reflecting adolescence. Yes, you could even call it absolute claptrap but there’s something special thrown into the concoction: Her name is Deanna Durbin.

Perhaps I am overstating her significance and making her stake larger than it possibly could be but I’d like to think on the contrary. Deanna Durbin is presented as “Universal’s newest discovery” and what a find she was. Beginning a run of many successful box office hits continuing up on through the war years, she was a beloved part of Americana.

Here was a teenage girl who with a voice and a carefully groomed persona helped salvage an entire studio and became so well-known and admired that by 1941 she would be the highest paid woman in America and the entire world, bar none, at the age of 21 (Look it up for yourself but don’t quote me).

Three Smart Girls is a film that means the very best and Henry Koster guides it along this path of sunshine and cheerfulness. There are numerous moments that say as much as Penny (Durbin) floats along with her two sisters (Barbara Read and Nan Grey) on a lake riding lazily on their sailboat in Switzerland while she knocks out a tune. Maybe it’s the girls squealing as they make use of their father’s exercise equipment and we watch Durbin repeatedly swing toward the camera until her face completely fills up the frame.

But I’ve put it off long enough. Here is my one sentence of exposition. The Three Craig girls make it their mission to go to New York and break of their father’s (Charles Winninger) engagement to a young gold digger so he can get back with their mother (Nella Walker). It’s a noble project and it also has the touches of an early Parent Trap (1961) which takes obvious inspiration from this picture.

The girls bring their flurry of teenage drama into their father’s bachelor lifestyle as well as subsequent heartbreak and tears that do finally give way to marital bliss (of course they do).

There seems to be a paradox to Deanna Durbin’s appeal. She had the feisty sass of a younger girl and the voice of an older one that sweeps you off your feet. It’s the kind of voice that I must admit sounds dubbed at times. That cannot conceivably be her singing!

She makes a line of hardened cops do a double take when she breaks out into an opera number in the police station trying to pull off a little white lie that’s she’s a Parisian songstress. It almost works too.

Ray Milland is wonderfully witty as the rich young gentleman who finds himself pulled into the girl’s charade on a miscommunication. In fact, it’s easy to prefer him in these lighter roles to his more dramatic turns that sometimes leave him looking like a stuffy cad. He can be quite charming actually. Mischa Auer also shows up but unfortunately isn’t given much to do.

But in the end, this evolved very much into Durbin’s film anyways and she does well to oblige the audience while her sisters are happily saddled with eligible young men and her parents get back together. They’re all a happy family again and there Penny is standing at the center of it all smiling broadly.

3.5/5 Stars

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 obliviousness, 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 no doubt the greatest screwball actress though over the subsequent years the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck no doubt 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

 

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry-Rides-Again-1939Destry Rides Again is integral to the tradition of comedy westerns–a storied lineage that includes the likes of Way Out West, Blazing Saddles, and Support Your Local Sheriff. It takes a bit of the long maintained western lore and gives it a screwy comic twist courtesy of classic Hollywood.

The rambunctious town carries the fitting name of Bottleneck which runs rampant with guns, beer, floozies, and more beer. The town’s mayor has a permanent seat in the local saloon playing solitary games of checkers while turning a blind eye to many clandestine activities. Meanwhile, the bar’s proprietor and local hot shot (Brian Donlevy) keeps grips on numerous shady dealings including dirty poker and murder, if you want to get technical. Though he does put on a good time with a floor show courtesy of his best girl Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) who has the whole town swooning with her knockout looks. That’s the way the world works in Bottleneck and it’s a fairly crooked operation.

After the latest sheriff is laid waste the banjo-playing drunk is christened the town’s next lawman. It certainly is a fine joke but he does something somewhat admirable. He resolves to lay off the sauce and sober up. Calling in the grown son of one of his buddies from the old days to be his deputy.

Now he’s no longer a drunk. Just a blustering old fool who no one takes seriously for one moment. Still, when Destry comes into town he believes he will have the hulking spitting image of the boy’s father, a man who will instill fear in every local troublemaker. After all, that’s how things have worked in Bottleneck as far back as anyone can remember.

But instead of a leering heavy, he finds himself face to face with gangly Tom Destry Jr. who makes a memorable first impression on the town holding a woman’s parasol and a cage of parakeets as he helps a young lady off of the stage. However, in those opening moments he does a seemingly dangerous thing, instead of exerting his dominance he seems oddly comfortable in his skin. The townsfolk think he’s a pushover and he strings them along rather well. After all, he doesn’t carry any guns. He spends a great deal of time whittling and there’s a good-natured affability to his demeanor in nearly all circumstances. Added to that he has the oddest quirk of supplying an ever-ready stream of anecdotes for any given situation.

It’s such displays that earn the glee of the local thugs and hoodlums and the ire of not only his sheriff but the folks who feel he’s aiding their enemies. And yet in certain moments, he surprises them, proving to be an incredibly humble marksman (a precursor to Atticus Finch), breaking up a vicious catfight between two women with a pail of water, and getting buddy-buddy with the town’s rebels only to turn on them.

He seeks to bring law and order to the town on his terms looking to pin a murder on Kent in order to put him away for good. Of course, he’s not about to take it lying down and the town blows up into a scatterbrained finale that equals any of the zaniness in any of its aforementioned brethren of western comedy. As the menfolk fight it out with guns, Frenchy with a new resolve gathers all the womenfolk in an assault on the opposition using all blunt instruments imaginable from rolling pins to gardening tools. It’s sheer madness.

That’s not to say that Destry does not have its share of tragedy and that might be its greatest fault. Sometimes it doesn’t quite know where to fall between the lines of comedy and drama. Still, with the two legendary icons as luminary as James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, it’s hard for this one not to be a winner though they seem so diametrically opposed to each other.

However, Cooper and Dietrich worked surprisingly well in Morocco and so Stewart and Dietrich work in a pinch here.  There’s also an abundant stock company including future stars like Brian Donlevy and Jack Carson not to mention small time funnymen like Billy Gilbert, the long-suffering bartender, and Mischa Auer, the man who unwittingly loses his pants in a poker game. Moral of the story is, don’t gamble. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Destry would come in with a story right about now.

4/5 Stars

 

Hellzapoppin (1941)

Hellzapoppin_movie.jpgIt essentially begins with a fourth wall break. That’s all you need to know. Because that gives you exactly an idea of what you’re in for with Hellzapoppin’ or rather it gives you no idea whatsoever what you’re in for but really they’re one in the same. I’ve seen the movie and I still don’t quite know what it was.

If you wanted to put labels on it, I think it would be relatively safe to say that this is a comedy. In some small way, it transplants the feel if not the entire success of Ole Oleson and Chic Johnson’s Broadway hit of the same name. And Hellzapoppin’ was a big hit. It only makes sense that Hollywood would want to try and commoditize it.

But fearful of such a fearless anything goes endeavor the studio got cold feet and wanted some “substance” too. And not to be outdone the film’s two stars gave them a plot, ironically, about Ole and Chic finding a plot for the movie they’re in. So there you have it. Problem solved and everyone’s happy. The two nutcases go from an opening routine in hell with a steady barrage of gags to a mediocre plotline at a stately mansion still strung out with a line of gags and it wears its movie within a movie reality right on its sleeve, brazen enough to bring in its director and plucky screenwriter (none other than the always imposing Elisha Cook Jr.). So it’s as close to an “Anything Goes” musical as you can actually get. Yes, you heard that right. Cole Porter eat your heart out.

Anyhow, it’s a testament to the front half of the film, it’s so wonky and zany with wall to wall gags, non-sequiturs, and bits that by the film’s latter half it just cannot maintain that same frenetic pace. And how can you blame it? It does absolutely, insane, inane, and absurd things in the course of an hour or so.

To begin with, it’s barely functioning as a story or if it is a story only for the purposes of its fourth-wall breaks, sight gags, stupid puns, slapstick, and general stretching of all narrative conventions for the sake of some guffaws. But it also happens to be absolutely uproarious in nearly all the right ways — a sheer delight of pure nuttiness.

It’s a comedy disguised as a musical on top of a romance all wrapped up in a metanarrative that will make you scratch your head again and again. You’ll have no idea what you’re watching. You’ll question if the real-life director (not the one in the film) went through a midlife crisis, or if the scriptwriter (again, not the one in the film) was on something, or the projectionist (also not the one in the film played by Shemp Howard) accidentally spliced together multiple reels from different movies right before the film was sent for mass production.

As such, there are no comparisons to be made. Nothing comes close. Maybe Night at the Opera (1935) is the closest I can come– somehow matched with the fourth wall breaking of Rocky and Bullwinkle serials and the metaness of some of Community’s most self-aware episodes. Unfortunately, that’s the best I can do.

When you keep throwing mud up against a wall hoping it sticks comedically speaking, making funny faces, having random people walk in front of the camera, talking to people behind said camera, inserting a storyline to give the pretense of narrative, using every kind of prop imaginable, all while taking some allotted time for song and dance and random asides, this is what you get. Nothing more. Nothing less. That’s all I can say. Because there’s no possible way to even begin to describe what this is.  It’s Hellzapoppin. That’s what. Just watch it. Unless you’re Stinky Miller. Then, go home. Your mother’s calling you (wink, wink)…

3.5/5 Stars