Review: What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

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I’ve always been fascinated with individuals who have blurred the line between the film critic and actual contributors to the industry. Notable examples, of course, being the boys at Cahiers du Cinema, Frank S. Nugent, James Agee, Paul Schrader, even Roger Ebert, and certainly Peter Bogdanovich.

It’s this bridge between the intellectual and the actual practicality of the craft that seems so crucial. Because Bogdanovich might come off as an erudite individual who would end up making stuffy philosophical pictures. But What’s Up Doc is nothing like that. He loves the cinema and it shows.

Yes, this movie becomes a tossed salad of cinematic references and yet in the midst of the chaos, there is the finest rejuvenation of the screwball genre we’ve probably ever received. If neo-screwball were to be readily adopted in academic circles, you just might have to start the conversation here. It’s crazy; it’s destructive; it goes careening out of control. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it genuinely uproarious like a sprawling sitcom episode. It’s what the genre was made to be.

“You’re The Tops” plays, as the credits roll, sung by Barbra Streisand in a very casual manner that hints at the enjoyable jaunt we are about to undertake. Using the most basic terminology to break down the picture, What’s Up Doc is essentially a comic shell game. Except the shells are replaced with four identical plaid overnight duffles and the con is simultaneously being pulled on everyone on the screen and in the audience alike.

One bag holds the prized rocks of a musicologist Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) who is traveling to San Francisco from his conservatory in Ames, Iowa to vie for the prestigious Larabee Grant. If he is lucky enough to reel in the award, it will help fund his research on the musical properties of igneous rocks. Don’t ask me to explain.

The other case comprises the possessions of one Judy Maxwell (Streisand). It’s not the contents of her bag as much as her whirlwind personality that will wreak havoc on the picture. Then, a third bag holds one lady’s prized collection of jewelry and the fourth holds secret government documents. Again, don’t ask.

But everyone seems to have a shtick. That’s a product of a screenplay crafted by Buck Henry, David Newman, and Robert Benton. There’s a repetition to the script’s comedic cadence that puts an indelible stamp on the material. Coming from such people like Madeline Kahn it can almost drive you insane while O’Neal is playing a stereotypical sterile intellectual type that generally goes against his well-suited image.

Still, with some people playing the film straight, or at least as flat and square as they come, it makes other people pop even more. Is that Barbra Streisand I hear? She drives us crazy but in a different way — arguably a much better one.

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She throws the anal Eunice (Madeline Kahn) off the scent and winds up accompanying Howard to his important dinner to schmooze Mr. Larabee (Austin Pendleton) and outfox the competition represented by the snobbish Hugh Simon (Kenneth Mars). Alone Howard wouldn’t stand a chance but taking on the name Burnsy and masquerading as his fiancee, this intolerable girl who accosted him in a gift shop essentially wins him the grant.

Pendleton is an utter dork but there’s also something personable about him. He finds Burnsy to be just delightful and soon they’re on a first name basis. Howard’s trying to explain all the mix up as the real Eunice attempts to claw her way into the affair putting on a hissy fit. Meanwhile, Howard doesn’t know what to do because Burnsy’s got him all turned around amid the ruckus.

Various side plots continue crisscrossing as people sneak around the periphery involving the aforementioned travel packs. A concierge and the house detective are in cahoots to abscond with the priceless treasure trove of glittering gems. Meanwhile, a mysterious man is tailed every which way by another man saddled with a golf bag as a measly attempt at a disguise. It would be astoundingly absurd if we weren’t already distracted by everything else going on in front of us. As it is, these diversions only succeed in adding to the cacophony of it all. A perfect visual articulation comes in the form of a hallway lined with doors, leading to rooms, and the people inside.

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It comes to an abrupt end when they all wind up in Howard’s room with one girl out on a ledge, his outraged Fiancee asking him to turn the TV down, and everyone else making a cameo appearance. What follows is the total annihilation of a hotel room suite, a fitting foreshadowing of coming attractions.

Even if it can’t quite reach the same heights, What’s Up Doc is unabashedly homage to Bringing Up Baby (1938). We have a man’s coat being ripped, dinosaur bones being traded out for rocks, and the similar antagonizing relationship between our leads. However, I didn’t realize that we also have much of the character dynamic from The Lady Eve (1941) because Streisand like Barbara Stanwyck before her has an incredible aptitude for manipulating her male conquest. Katharine was the whizzing hurricane of constant disaster. Stanwyck was whip-smart. Streisand channels a decent dose of both legends.

The Larabee Gala hosted at Frederick’s estate proves to be the beginning of the floor show as the camera leaps into action and the final act kicks into a frenzy of slapstick, flying pies, and all sorts of comedic violence.

This might be blasphemy, but as much as I admire Bullitt (1968), Bogdanovich’s film might feature my favorite car chase through San Francisco. It involves a famed giant pane of glass, wet cement, offroading down stairs, a Chinese dragon, and a big splash in San Francisco Bay among other visual kerfuffles. We even have a courtroom drama on our hands!

The laundry list of other references is nearly endless from Cole Porter to nods to Bogart and “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca. Ryan O’Neal even drops a fairly inconspicuous “Judy, Judy, Judy” in the airport terminal, no doubt a nod to Cary Grant’s misattributed catchphrase.

His plane is leaving to return him to his life of everyday tedium. But between in-flight Bugs Bunny shorts and one lethally pointed barb aimed at Love Story (1970), there’s also one final smooch. And we’re done. This is a movie you’re lucky to survive. It’s certainly laced with references, and, more importantly,  it’s a successful giggle fest. The screwball comedy proves to be alive and well in San Francisco.

4/5 Stars

Love Crazy (1941)

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Love Crazy puts William Powell and Myrna Loy in their wheelhouse as the lithe and sprightly romantic partners placed at the center of this screwball comedy.  Steve Ireland (Powell) is in a terribly good mood getting home in his taxi singing ditties as he makes his way up to surprise his wife Susan on their wedding anniversary.

All of which is an encouraging change of pace because Hollywood often made the nagging of marriage look like a real ball and chain. For once that’s not the case. They want a romantic second honeymoon full of dancing, escapades, and a dinner served backward. It’s the fact that he can never get enough time with his wife to suit either of them. Well, there you have the film in a nutshell anyway.

Except storytelling 101 tips us off that the film will have to begin swinging like a pendulum in such a way that both our lovebirds in this connubial comedy will no longer be so inseparable. The main instigators prove to be his overbearing mother-in-law who inserts herself into all their plans. The other is a former flame, Gail Patrick at the most delightful I’ve never known her to be, who playfully cajoles him to have some fun. She’s married but acts as if she’s still single and ready to mingle.

You would think he already had more excitement than he could take getting trapped in the elevator shaft with this frisky female and the elevator boy (Elisha Cook Jr.). Proving I’m no comic snob, I heartily enjoyed watching Powell’s head get clunked around. It’s a resoundingly hilarious image.

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However, he forgot about who was waiting for him back home. It’s the lesser of two evils to sneak out for a drink with Isobel and while his wife has to step out he uses his worst possible lifeline to get away from his aggravating mother-in-law. It doesn’t take too much for the root of doubt to sneak up and it only gets worse when Ward Willoughby (Jack Carson) is introduced as a studly archer in an undershirt. What else? Now both spouses have someone to be jealous of.

It hearkens back to the days where the sitcom hadn’t been invented yet because we didn’t have TV so instead, there were films like this which function around all the most cringe-worthy bits of comedic irony, namely mistaken identity and all sorts of misunderstandings. But like its predecessor from the year prior, I Love You Again, the steam slowly begins to evaporate off about midway through.

Because the main subplot becomes the whole plot in a way that provides some gags but on the whole feels tired and worn out. I want to see Powell and Loy together or at least more of Patrick and Carson who actually bring a lot of comedic chops to the picture. In fact, one of the more hilarious wrinkles involves Powell getting the other man interned at the sanitarium only to have him escape later. But it means very little to the integrity of the story. That’s part of what makes it so enjoyable.

Otherwise, Powell plays up his insanity to string along his wife so she can’t divorce him. His main showcase is at a party where he emancipates a fleet of hats trying to play up his looney side, followed thereafter by a string of other coincidental mishaps. His wife knows it’s a game but the man he’s christened “General Electric Whiskers,” who he met at the party, is actually a doctor who thinks he’s very sick indeed.

This all feels like fairly uninteresting fluff. Meanwhile, the film’s finale relies on another bout of concealed identity but to its credit, it circles back on the things that made it laudable before, entering back into the apartment complex. There the chaos of all those individuals from earlier is heightened in close proximity with a supposed crazy man on the loose and the police after him. They are aided by Willoughby and Steve is helped first by Isobel and then his wife.

But the crowning piece of comedy has to do with Powell’s ultimate masquerade as he even sacrifices his beloved pencil-thin mustache for the sake of it all. While not particularly inspired by today’s standards, Love Crazy boasts Powell and Loy in as fine a form as ever. That is enough to enjoy the picture even in its middling moments.

3.5/5 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

The Rage of Paris (1938)

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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

Divorce Italian Style (1961)

Divorceitalian.jpgI never thought I’d get so fed up with hearing the name “Fefe.” But it’s true. There’s a first time for everything. In fact, Fefe is the name of our main character played so magnificently by Italian icon Marcello Mastroianni. In my very narrow view, he still very much epitomizes Italian cinema for me.

As for the film, a Sicilian Baron Ferdinando finds himself in rather an unfortunate conundrum — at least from his point of view. He relates through voice-over his family dynamic, with his parents, his soon to be engaged sister, his doting wife (Daniela Rocca), and of course his beautiful ingenue cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli). Aside from not being particularly enthralled with married life, the bigger problem is that Ferdinando is infatuated with Angela. He can’t take his eyes off her.

For those who are paying attention this comedy from director Pietro Germi, at times feels strikingly similar to the screwball comedies of Classic Hollywood where men such as Preston Sturges made light work of society by skirting censorship and building a barrage of gags almost to the point of being incomprehensible. But they might also conjure up comparisons with the darkly funny Ealing comedies out of England. And it’s true that films like Divorce Italian Style also carry a very particular name, “Commedia all’italiana” or comedy in the Italian way.

What becomes evident in a film such as Divorce Italian Style is the pointed attack on Italian social mores — the very framework that the culture is built on — and all involved are poking fun. Morality, class distinction, even the institution of marriage, are all dissected satirically as our protagonist goes through his life dreaming of knocking his wife off and living happily ever after with Angela — a girl that shares his affection — if only society didn’t say otherwise (she gets whisked to a life in a convent to maintain her purity).  Not to be deterred, the Baron attempts to hitch his wife up with a suitable suitor and as the shameful scandal finally breaks over his wife, he secretly jumps for joy. He’s getting a step closer to what he wants.

Meanwhile, the men about town all ogle at every girl that happens to walk by. Fefe’s old man is constantly harassing the maid, and more than once he walks in on his sister and her beau making out passionately.  There’s even a theatrical screening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (also starring Mastroianni) which literally seems to break any form of censorship in the town. The crowds flock to it joyously — men and women alike — because they want to see the lavish romance projected up onto the screen.

Mastroianni is not surprisingly a long way off from his debonair lovers taken the likes of La Dolce Vita, La Notte or 8 and 1/2. He goes through the film with a certain comedic despondency. He’s hardly a real figure. Comic and dismal with overblown ideas of how to make his existence invariably better. It’s quite a display because while it’s easy to laugh it’s also rather pitiful.

So Divorce Italian Style is perhaps even more audacious than the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. Because it gives the plotting Fefe the “happy” ending he was hoping for. It actually gives it to him, but the comic (or sad) thing, in the end, is that his girl is already playing footsies with another man. You see if we look at what is going on here,  he’s never going to find contentment. The ultimate irony, if there was a sequel, is that it would probably show Fefe actually trying to kill his wife because she’s cheating on him. Then it wouldn’t be so funny.

Yes, the strict societal pressures put on the members of this Sicilian community undoubtedly deserve to be questioned. There is so much obvious hypocrisy bubbling up through the layers of society and it makes for provocative comedy. But also there’s something to be said for living life under some sort of moral framework. Otherwise, life is purely about our pleasures, what makes us feel good, what our desires are and oftentimes those fail to regard what is beneficial for others. Needless to say, I’m partial to “Marriage,” not “Divorce” Italian Style — or any other way for that matter. However, I won’t even try to tackle the whole marrying your cousin thing. This is a comedy after all and Stefania Sandrelli is quite pretty. I don’t blame “Fefe” too much. He’s only human.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Lady Eve (1941)

theladyeve3“You have the darndest way of bouncing a fellow down and bumping him up again” ~ Henry Fonda as Charles Pike

The story goes that screenwriting wunderkind Preston Sturges penned The Lady Eve with Barabara Stanwyck in mind. He promised her a great picture and he most certainly delivered a stellar screwball like only he could. It plays off the archetypal biblical temptress with comic effect, and it finds the greatest of comic couples in Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. They both are iconic stars, but the narrative works so well, due to that, but also the fact that the film constantly undermines the typical plotting. As the title suggests the woman is really the focal point of the film — she’s the one in control.

In this instance, Stanwyck is shady trickster Jean Harrington, who joins forces with her equally conniving father (Charles Coburn) to take people to the cleaners in any way possible. They’re real smooth operators with cards and any other type of con you could think of. A luxury ocean liner seems like the perfect place to set up their business. Out of all the many high profile passengers, one man stands a head above the rest. His name is Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). He keeps his nose buried behind a book, tries to avoid the gazes of all the pretty girls, and has a penchant for reptilian wildlife after getting back from a long expedition. He also just happens to be the heir to a gargantuan Ale fortune. That’s what catches everyone eye, including the beautifully sly Stanwyck.

theladyeve2In fact, we have a brilliant introduction to her as she narrates the scene unfolding in front of her with the aid of her compact mirror. She trips up the bumbling bachelor and their introduction is the first exclamation point in a bumpy relationship. She’s ready to play him and marry rich and famous, because he’s a pretty naive fellow, and stiff around the ladies. Fonda’s nervous charm proves the perfect recipe for success as he is constantly being overwhelmed by Stanwyck’s frenetic barrage. His defenses are down and he hasn’t the foggiest what has hit him. Either he was really that uncomfortable or otherwise, he does a superb job of faking it since there’s never another moment where he’s not being fondled or manipulated.

Jean is very quick to get cozy with “Hopsy” (after alcohol and not a rabbit), but something strange begins to happen. For some strange, ludicrous reason she begins to fall for her mark — this goofy guy with loads of cash. That certainly was not in her cards, yet she doesn’t seem to mind. What follows are some wonderful card playing antics between Charles Coburn and Barbara Stanwyck as she tries to stave off her father from pulling one over on her new beau. But of course, just as Pike is getting his sea legs he catches wind of the whole charade quite by chance, and he’s quick to turn off Harrington for the fraud he thinks she is.

theladyeve4The story could end there, but Sturges has set his story up perfectly for a killer second act. Jean plans a perfectly sneaky revenge plan to get back at “Hopsy” by posing as the British niece of another con man (Eric Blore). He uses his own wily charm and influence to get them an invitation to the Pike household for dinner. There we see several other great character actors in action including Horace Pike (Eugene Pallette), and the perennial sourpuss Muggsy (William Demarest). Jean shows up now as the Lady Eve and successfully convinces her “Hopsy” that she is a completely different individual. The film works wonderfully on this axle of ludicrousness because  young Pike is completely befuddled and awestruck again. He goes thudding, clanking, and crashing all evening long, a true victim of love. Pike thought he lost one girl for good and here’s another even better prospect. A whirlwind romance follows and everything is falling into place beautifully. There’s a frantic montage in preparation for the big day and then it happens. They get hitched. Afterwards, it’s all done and the two lovebirds are on a train barreling down the tracks interspersed with the long laundry list of all Eve’s beaus from Angus, to Herman, and Cecil and so on. It’s Charles’ worst nightmare, and he hopes to get out of it as quickly as possible.

But then by chance, he runs into the first girl, who is, of course, Stanwyck as well. He’s genuinely happy to see her, and they embrace like nobody’s business. Being the honorable man that he is, Pike acknowledges that he is, in fact, married now, but the joke’s on him. She is too! It’s an entirely irregular ending, but that’s screwball comedy for you.

theladyeve1What makes Sturges’ film so wonderful is all the parts making up the whole. His script is perfectly contrived mayhem. He sprinkles it with his typical slapstick, his loudmouthed stock company lends an added layer, and his typically lightning-quick repartee is brought to life by his leads. Stanwyck was the quintessential leading lady of the 1940s and in 1941 she was in fine form (Balls of Fire and Meet John Doe). She can dance so effortlessly between dynamic comedy to heartfelt drama that is positively palpable.  She overshadows Fonda in a sense, but they still work together, because he is her perfect foil, the precise innocent fool to fall into her web of feminine wiles. She can muss up his hair, manhandle him, and completely manipulate his feelings. Yet we still like both of them in spite of it. They are a hilarious match, and there’s space for some passionate canoodling as well. It’s probably one of the most perfectly wonderful, utterly dysfunctional relationships we could ever hope to see put on screen.  By continually whipping out punch line after punch line to the very last quip, Sturges makes this comedy look positively effortless.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Bringing up Baby (1938)


bringingup2“Our relationship has been a series of misadventures from beginning to end, so if you don’t mind, I’ll see Mr. Peabody alone and unarmed.” –
David Huxley

Bringing up Baby is really and truly one of a kind, almost headache-inducing with its sure energy and dizzying with its scatterbrained tracks, but nonetheless it is a screwball masterpiece. From Hollywood master Howard Hawks comes arguably one of his greatest films, boasting the rat-ta-tat-tat of some killer dialogue, some fantastic comedic sequences, and a number of memorable performances.  Honestly, if I learned anything from this film, you can’t watch it just once, because you’re bound to get bowled over, and afterward you probably won’t realize half of what you saw. For instance, there’s so much talking you hardly realize that there’s not much of a score.

Young Katharine Hepburn is at her most radiant and almost smothering with her constant barrage of words. You either love her or hate her. There’s no way to ignore her performance here because it’s completely out there. It’s hard to believe she was a novice when she came into comedy. There’s no inhibition whatsoever. Not in the least.

Cary Grant is the bookish paleontologist who is content with constructing the skeleton of his prized Brontosaurus and then marrying his admiring, no-nonsense sweetheart Ms. Swallow. It sounds like a pleasant albeit mundane lot in life. In an effort to gather a $1 million in funding, he goes out to the golf course ready to do a little business on the side with Mr. Peabody. That’s when hell strikes in the form of one scatterbrained lady extraordinaire Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). First, she swipes his golf ball (quite certain it is her’s), then she batters up his car (sure it is her’s again), and to top it all off she causes him to sit on his hat when they cross paths again at a club. Poor Dr. Huxley doesn’t know what’s hit him. He just wants to get away from her and all the fury that comes in her wake.

Good luck with that Cary, because she’s a force of nature! She misunderstands everything, and he gets endlessly caught in her web of miscommunication.  Susan initially roped him into coming along with her, thinking he was a zoologist who could help her take care of “Baby.” Of course, it turns out to be a tame leopard that they must get to her aunt’s home out in Connecticut (Only in a screwball comedy). By now he’s bothered. She’s falling in love.

So she does what any resourceful girl would. She keeps him occupied. First, she swipes his clothes. Then the dog George runs off with his prized possession, the intercostal clavicle. Initially, they want to get rid of the leopard. Then they want to keep it. Auntie comes home along with her gentleman friend Major Horace Applegate. A not so friendly leopard escapes from a carnival. The police get involved led by their bumbling leader Constable Slocum.

bringingup1It’s a doozy of a masquerade and most everything and everyone is utterly confused. It’s as if everything that enters the world of Susan Vance is further complicated. To her, it’s simply a day in the life and Huxley begins as an outsider, but despite all the madness, he becomes accustomed to it.  Running after the dog, getting soaking wet, tripping, falling, fending off a leopard, getting thrown into the clink. Dr. Huxley realizes that he’s never been happier and it ends pretty much as it began. Never a dull moment.

This has to be one of Hepburn’s greatest performances earlier in her career because she has everyone in a tizzy. Although he’s literally getting the run around from Hepburn, Grant is her perfect comedic foil. He dons the glasses at first and carries the sensibility that goes with them. However, he is equally equipped to go without them as a scatterbrained gentleman ready for all the pratfalls, quips, and escapades that ensue. And they are surrounded by a solid set of character actors including a drunken Barry Fitzgerald, the easily distracted Walter Catlett, the big game aficionado Charles Ruggles, and the peppy dog Asta (of Thin Man fame) among others.

Howard Hawks once said that “a good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes.” In Bringing up Baby some of the memorable moments include the fateful meet cute at the golf course, the chuckle-worthy encounter at the club, and of course the sequence leading up to jail. But it’s also the little comedic moments wedged in between. Maybe Hepburn’s parked in front of a fire hydrant and trying to pull the wool over the policeman’s eyes. Or perhaps Grant dons the only piece of clothing, a frilly bathrobe, and is forced to answer the front door. It’s utterly absurd. It’s become classic and it shows the ability of Hawks behind the camera to make the action flow so organically.

It’s amazing that this film was a flop, Hepburn was labeled “Box Office Poison” by this point, and Cary Grant had yet to become an established star. Oh, how things changed. Because this film, in a sense, was the beginning of something truly wonderful. When two of the greatest stars aligned with one of the great directors.

5/5 Stars

Easy Living (1937)

easyliving1Easy Living is a sizzling screwball comedy propelled by a Preston Sturges script and the direction of Mitchel Leisen (a former costume designer). It finds humor in the stratified 1930s society and the so-called easy livings of the affluent. But it also has it’s fair share of rip-roaring slapstick. Really the whole plot revolves around a rogue fur coat.

J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) is the third most prominent banker in New York. His wife has a penchant for fur coats and his son John Jr. (Ray Milland) is fed up with his father’s constant criticism. He’s ready to leave the luxury and make a go of it on his own. Fed up with his wife and not all that pleased with his son, Mr. Ball tosses one of his wife’s sables off their balcony. Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) is the unsuspecting recipient of the coat as she rides by on a passing bus. By chance, she and Mr. Ball strike up a conversation and they hit it off after he resolves to buy her a new hat, in lieu of the one that was ruined. Of course, the clerk gets the wrong idea about their little friendship and it has major repercussions.

Many folks want to get on her good side since they’ve heard through the grapevine that she’s connected to Mr. Ball. This includes the befuddled hotel owner Louis Louis, who offers Mary one of his finest suites and she has no idea what she ever did to deserve it. Of course, Mary crosses paths with John Jr. who is smitten with her right off the bat. But she has no idea who his father is.

A joke from him, relayed by Mary, ends up having overwhelming consequences on the stock market and it ends up spelling major trouble for Mr. Ball. But of course, father and son and Mary all wind up in J.B.’s office together as the comedy of errors finally synchronizes. Son finally proves his acumen to father and gets the job he desperately needs.  Mary has her guy now and Mr. Ball’s marriage is all intact.

easyliving3Edward Arnold is an absolute riot and at his pushy best as the affluent banker. Jean Arthur has always been one of my favorite comediennes. She has such a great voice for delivering quips; there’s a certain lilt to it that is always invariably funny. She’s also the perfect independent working woman like a Barbara Stanwyck or Rosalind Russell. She’s no pushover. I knew Ray Milland for later films like The Lost Weekend or Dial M for Murder, but I saw here firsthand that he has some comedic chops. I also learned what an automat was and at the same time got treated with some top-notch slapstick. Thank you, Preston Sturges.

4/5 Stars

Review: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Veronica_Lake_and_Joel_McCrea_in_Sullivan's_TravelsIf Preston Sturges was a comic wordsmith then Sullivan’s Travels was his magnum opus. It has so many pieces worth talking about, despite it only running a meager 90 minutes. It is the kind of comedy that director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) would want to make, and it’s a message movie against message movies. It’s a film about filmmaking (including mentions of Capra and Lubitsch). There’s even a scene where an ecstatic actress goes racing around the studio lot, completely disregarding the period piece she is acting in. The script has the undeniable frenetic poetry of Sturges and even takes time to wax philosophical at times. Sullivan opens the film with some very grandiose vision of what film can mean for the everyday filmgoer (I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!).

Sturges’ film is scatterbrained and insane in its pacing at times. Take the opening speeding sequence as a newly bedraggled Sullivan tries to shake his caravan so he can really get a feel for the common man’s plight. It almost gives you a heart attack as they blitz down the road, people and everything imaginable flying every which way. It’s faster than most modern action sequences could achieve.

However, although Sturges is undoubtedly known for the strength of his scripts, it’s important to note that Sullivan’s Travels has some wonderful visual sequences. Many of them lack his typical lightning dialogue and instead rely on music and images to develop scenes. Sometimes it’s the plight of the homeless on the road as Sullivan and his companion make their way across country. I would have never thought of this comparison before, but sometimes his heroes elicit the same type of empathy that would be given to Charlie Chaplin or the Gamine (Paulette Goddard) in Modern Times. In that same way, this film so beautifully fluctuates between comedy and heartfelt drama.

Another beautiful thing about Sullivan’s Travels is the cast. Our star is Joel McCrea, who is sometimes known as the poor man’s Gary Cooper, but that is rather unfair because he’s a compelling actor in his own right. Just look at this film to prove his case. Also, he and Veronica Lake (Ms. Peekaboo Haircut herself) have a fun relationship going from the beginning when they first meet in a diner. You might say the shoe’s on the other foot since she thinks she’s doing a good deed for this down on his luck nobody. She has no idea that her “big boy” is actually a big shot movie director. However, it makes no difference, because in some ways she feels responsible for him, and so she takes part in his noble experiment even afterward. That’s where we build respect for them, and she, in turn, falls for him. It’s what we want as an audience. And we finally get it when Sullivan beats his death and a chain gain to return to civilization. His nagging wife has married some other boob, so Sullivan gets his girl.

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but it definitely seems like they don’t make character actors like they used to. It helps that Sturges has a stock company of sorts and the studio system probably helped in propagating certain actors. However, there’s no doubt that players like William Demarest and Porter Hall are so memorable. Their voices. Their look. There’s no escaping them and there are numerous other faces that you get deja vu with. We’ve seen them before somewhere and just cannot place it.

Within this whole story of comedy, romance, and a heroes journey, there is, of course, a moral. However, I don’t mind Sturges and his simple didacticism. Because he ditches high rhetoric or sickening idealism for a simple conclusion (There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh). A Pluto cartoon short that brings a few giggles can be just as impactful in this world of ours compared to the next big Oscar drama. That’s what Sullivan’s Travels led to. A change in perspective through a hilarious itinerary.

5/5 Stars

Libeled Lady (1936)

Poster_-_Libeled_Lady_01Libeled Lady has screwball comedy written all over it and that’s perfectly alright with such a glorious cast. Myrna Loy and William Powell reunite once again (for one of their 13 pairings), but we also get Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy. Amazing!

The set-up is easy and pretty self-explanatory. Warren Haggerty (Tracy) is the managing editor of the New York Evening Star, but while he is reluctantly getting ready to walk down the aisle, he gets the horrific news that the paper sent out a misinformed scoop by mistake. Now Haggerty is faced with a $5,000,000 libel suit from wealthy socialite Connie Allenbury (Loy), and it brings his weddings proceedings to a halt, much to the chagrin of his peeved fiancee (Harlow). This isn’t the first time that their big day has been postponed after all.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, he goes to one of his former reporters, Bill Chandler (Powell), who really rubs Haggerty the wrong way, but he also happens to be a whiz when it comes to libel. He’s the only man who can get the paper out of the major jam so he leverages his position. Things go down like this. Chandler will ingratiate himself to Ms. Allenby and soon afterward Gladys Benton (Harlow) posing as his wife, will rush in on them. Presto! The suit will be dropped. Simple, right?

It’s the consequences that get even dicier. At first, Gladys absolutely despises being cooped up in a hotel with Chandler and she’s still fed up with Warren. But over time, the close quarters cause Chandler to grow on her. Meanwhile, Chandler tries to learn everything he can about angling, to charm Allenby’s father (Walter Connolly), who is a fishing aficionado.

From the start, his daughter has Chandler pinned as a fake (which of course he is), but by some act of heaven his act actually works and he wins them both over. Worse, Connie is falling for him and he’s reciprocating, but Haggerty is still waiting for the plan to be executed. Gladys is waiting impatiently for her “husband” who she seems to genuinely miss. It’s all a big mess to be sure.

The finale involves the four leads together for one final climactic barrage of pandemonium and spouse swapping. As you would expect everyone ends up with the right partner, but it was sheer craziness to get there. It had been a while since I had seen a screwball, and Libeled Lady is a striking reminder why the genre is so fun. It had me laughing pretty hard whether it was the utter absurdity of the fishing sequence or any of the other madcap moments. It boasts quite the cast too. It’s crazy to think that in only a year Jean Harlow would be gone, a short but vibrant career behind her.

4/5 Stars