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Category Archives: Screwball Comedy

Cafe Metropole (1937) – Tyrone Power and Loretta Young

download (2)1930s Hollywood had a thing for impoverished royal Russians in exile who were obliged to take menial jobs to earn their living, like being a waiter, a taxi driver, elevator operator or dressmaker. Irene Dunne was the dressmaker in the 1935 musical Roberta and Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer go into service in the 1937 Tovarich. In Cafe Metropole, a charming and somewhat obscure screwball comedy, the exiled Russian is a waiter.

Set in Paris, a young American named Alexander Brown (Tyrone Power) loses a bet to Monsieur Victor (Adolphe Menjou), the manager of Cafe Metropole. But Victor offers to waive the debt if Alexander will pretend to be a wealthy Russian prince named Alexis. Victor is quite sure the real prince is dead. Alexander is then supposed to woo heiress Laura Ridgeway (Loretta Young), daughter of self-made businessman Joseph Ridgeway (Charles Winninger). The idea, never exactly stated, is to either get money from her father or to marry her without her realizing that he’s not a real prince. Alexander, however, falls in love with Laura for real (something of an occupational hazard in the movies).

What is funny is that the movie doesn’t pretend that Alex’s  Russian accent is anything but atrocious and Victor comments that he hopes Alexander will not meet any Russians. As Alexander explains to Laura, his accent, “it comes and it goes, comes and goes…” She doesn’t seem to mind, however, because he is handsome and rather sweet.

Though, of course, the real prince (played with elan by Gregory Ratoff) is not dead after all. He is a waiter at Cafe Metropole and when he realizes that he is being impersonated he is indignant and storms into Victor’s office. It turns out that Victor used to work for the prince, back in the days of Imperial Russia, but he had not recognized the prince working in his own cafe. Through some rather skillfully ingratiating flattery and obeisance, along with a hefty bribe, Victor manages to pay the prince off (so he can return to the dissipated lifestyle that the prince’s family was noted for).

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Loretta Young and Tyrone Power

Meanwhile, Laura has determined that she wants to marry Alexander and even proposes to him, though her father is uneasy about the whole thing. Alexander is too nice. All the nice men with titles that he’s previously met turned out to be frauds. The only man who truly had a title was rude. Besides, it seems odd that there should be a Russian prince who actually has money. But Laura doesn’t care if he’s a prince or not. She’s made up her mind to have him and she intends to have him no matter how much Alexander demurs (owing to his guilty conscience).

Cafe Metropole is a somewhat understated screwball comedy. There are no pratfalls, manic action (except a bit at the end with Young) or manic dialogue and the problems people must overcome are not serious. Humor is found in the situations and the tone of the film, the charming way that everyone deports themselves. For example, Alexander and Laura are having a serious conversation while Alexander is buying a hat and they are so absorbed by their conversation and too sophisticated, anyway, to pay attention to the whole serious of ridiculous hats that the clerk tries on Alexander’s head. And Victor is constantly getting himself into trouble, usually financial, and manages to extricate himself always with grace and charm, without ever breaking or sweat or registering rancor.

This was the third movie that Tyrone Power and Loretta Young made together (though the first movie, Ladies in Love, barely counts since he was a side-character, but audiences liked their chemistry, so they made four more movies together). They are one of the most glamorous Hollywood couples you will ever see, beautifully attired (Loretta Young appears in a whole serious of gorgeous, though improbable, dresses by Royer that no woman would wear except in a movie) and have good chemistry together. Tyrone Power only made his film debut the year before and looks extremely young (he was twenty-three) and he doesn’t have much to do, though he does it gracefully. Loretta Young, on the other hand, was twenty-four, but had been making movies since she was around fifteen and had over fifties movies to her credit already. It’s more her film than his. She is the one scheming (she schemes practically as much as con artist Victor) and although Alexander is supposed to be wooing her, it doesn’t take long for it to really be her who is doing the wooing.

Tyrone Power, Loretta Young and Adolphe Menjou

Tyrone Power, Loretta Young and Adolphe Menjou

Adolphe Menjou is extremely good as the dapper, though slippery, manager who never lets his troubles dampen his suavity. He is even too dapper to be  ungracious when Alexander fails him. Charles Winninger usually plays genial buffoons, but here he is a little more restrained as Laura’s highly skeptical father who doesn’t really trust foreigners. Helen Westley also has a fun role as Laura’s aunt, who has seen too many gangster films. Gregory Ratoff – who wrote the story, though not the screenplay – is hilarious as the hedonistic, down-on-his-luck prince who is insulted by the very thought of someone pretending to be him…who can’t even speak Russian, no less.

Though it’s difficult to pinpoint specific moments of hilarity, the entire package is cute and worth seeing if you like screwball comedy or Tyrone Power and Loretta Young. The DVD is currently only available as part of the Tyrone Power Matinee Idol Collection, which contains 10 of his less-known films.

 
 

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The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) – Preston Sturges

260px-Miracle_morgan_creekI love Preston Sturges movies. They’re bit zany, a bit risque, a bit sweet without being sentimental, a bit idiosyncratic, irreverent, slapstick, tender. They always leave me with a slight “huh? what was that?”feeling, but in a good way, in between guffaws.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek was released in 1944 and was directed and written and produced by Preston Sturges. He did everything but act in it…though his method of writing the script was to dictate, all the while acting out the different parts. He supposedly wrote The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek to tweak the censors and in watching the film, it seems they must have been tweaked pretty good.

Ebullient Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is a patriotic girl who feels it is her duty to dance with all the servicemen before they ship out to Europe. Meanwhile, her childhood friend, dweeby Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) can’t get any branch of the military to take him. He always gets nervous and sees spots and is consistently refused on medical grounds. But he’s devoted to Trudy, though worried she won’t like him because he’s not in a uniform. But Trudy’s father, Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest), reads in the paper about the dangers of weddings made in haste due to the war and forbids Trudy from going to the dance given for the troops. Norval comes to the rescue, however, and agrees to help her get to the dance by pretending to take her to a movie.

Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton

Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton

Trudy dances the night away with dozens of men, drinks Victory Lemonade (which is spiked), accidentally gets her head knocked against the chandelier when she is lifted up in a dance, and comes home after eight in the morning. And discovers that she’s married! Or is she? She can’t remember anything after the chandelier. All she recalls is that someone kept talking about how everyone should get married. And there’s a curtain ring on her finger. She confides in dismay to her sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn), that she has some vague idea the man might have been called Ratzkiwatzki…or possibly Zizskiwizski. She thought it had a z in it.

But worse is to come when she discovers that she’s pregnant. She’s afraid to tell her father, but can’t find out if she’s really married, because she also has a vague idea that when she got married she didn’t use her right name. And the troops have all gone to Europe. The only person she can turn to is Norval, who’s always loved her and will do anything for her. At first she tries to trick him into marrying her without telling him (her sister’s pragmatic idea, though Trudy’s concerned about committing bigamy), but when he’s so sweet she realizes that she can’t do that to him and tells him the truth.

The rest of the movie is Norval’s super heroic attempts to help Trudy, which go seriously awry, so that the entire town gets sucked into Trudy’s affairs, which become so complicated that only a miracle can resolve everything.

Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Betty Hutton

Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Betty Hutton

The town Sturges creates is a charmingly realized small American town, where everyone knows everyone…except the troops who are temporarily stationed there. Norval and Trudy were in school together (he even took cooking and sewing class to be near her), Constable Kockenlocker knows everyone as he’s directing traffic in the middle of the street. It’s a fairly diverse small town, with a range of accents portrayed by the wonderful stock character actors that Sturges used in all his films, including William Demarest, Robert Dudley, Chester Conklin, Julius Tannen, and Porter Hall.

Although  filled with pratfalls (mostly by Demarest and Bracken) and clever dialogue, it’s a very sweet and tender film in it’s own way (Sturges has the remarkable ability to combine genuine feeling with comedy). Trudy’s wiser-than-her-years sister, Emmy, stands devotedly by her side from the beginning. Their father (played brilliantly and cantankerously by William Demarest) comes across as rather hapless in the first half, frequently complaining about “daughters” and trying to deal with Trudy’s flightiness and Emmy’s wisecracking comebacks, as well as the family’s many tousles, both physical and verbal. But truly, when he finds out the secret, he is as steadfast and loving as Emmy and a very good father. That’s what I loved about the film. They may be a screwball family, but they are a loving one.

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Trudy is trying to protect Norval from her father, while sister Emmy looks on

And Eddie Bracken as Norval is also incredibly sweet and loyal, as brave as any soldier in his own way. He’s nervous and meek and dreadfully afraid of Trudy’s father (who rather pointedly cleans his guns in front of Norval after he thinks that Norval and Trudy were out all night together and tells him to marry Trudy), but is a hero…without ever really losing the core of his personality. Betty Hutton is also excellent, a touch less hyper than usual (which still leaves her pretty ebullient), with the added sweetness of her genuine love for Norval as he reveals what a great guy he is.

The film builds to an incredible pitch of farce at the end. Even Mussolini and Hitler make an appearance in the film. It’s definitely a war film. There are the gas cards (Norval has one and offers it to Trudy, as well as his car), wool and cotton shortages, big band, swing dancing, hasty marriages, all the young men are in uniform (except Norval). In fact, Norval is the only young man in the film apart from the troops who temporarily in Morgan’s Creek.

When reading about Preston Sturges, I usually heard about The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, and The Palm Beach Story, but The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is just as good. There’s cynicism regarding institutions like marriage and politics and small town America and patriotism, but also affection for the characters. I never feel like Sturges despises them, whatever their difficulties or weaknesses.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2015 in Movies, Screwball Comedy

 

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Girl Trouble (1942) – A Wartime Screwball Comedy

girl-trouble-affiche_463166_16938Hollywood has always liked stories about rich people pretending to be domestics, usually not successfully; though William Powell was an exception as an unsurpassed butler in My Man Godfrey. There is often overcooked toast involved in these kinds of tales. Merrily We Live (Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne) and If Only You Could Cook (Herbert Marshall and Jean Arthur) are also lesser known entries into this genre. However, what all three movies have in common is that it is the man who is pretending to be a domestic when he is, in reality, quite wealthy.

Girl Trouble takes a different tack, in that the domestic is a woman and she’s no longer rich. Without being a war propaganda film, the movie is firmly set during WWII and much of what the characters are doing are the result of the war. There is June Delaney (Joan Bennett) who has lost all her fortune because, for some reason, she can no longer get her money out of London (presumably due to the war). There is also the South American playboy, Pedro Sullivan (Don Ameche), who has come to America to negotiate a loan for his father’s rubber plantation so that they can start selling rubber to the Americans. It is a loan that the US government very much wants, partly because they are in desperate need of rubber and partly to cement good relations with South America – both rubber and South American relations really being genuine concerns of the US at that time.

And then there is Mrs. Rowland (Billie Burke), who is the ultimate in fluttery women, always organizing charities (usually for the war effort) and red cross meetings. And June seems to have an awful lot of spoiled, rich friends (some in uniform) who go from home to home, participating in these meetings. Even the fluttery and spoiled must help the war effort.

1407210366_3Because June is now broke, she must rent out her apartment and Pedro Sullivan (his name is explained by the fact that his father came from America) must stay in New York for a while, so he rents her apartment and mistakes her for the maid because she is dressed like a maid and running the vacuum. June’s friend Helen (Helene Reynolds) thinks it’s all very funny and is glad that June will no longer be in competition for the men now that she is poor. However, when Pedro asks June to stay on as his maid, June says yes and she has the advantage over her friend in that, though he thinks she’s the maid, it allows her to be on the spot where he is most of the time.

Joan Bennett is by far the calmest screwball comedienne I have ever seen. No matter what happens, like burnt toast, a vacuum that spits dust all over her dog, Mrs. Rowland taking Pedro’s clothes away with her for charity (she believes they are June’s father’s clothes), she always remains calm and never visibly reacts. There is no making faces, wringing hands, screaming or looking frazzled. She simply moves on, unflappably, with whatever she is doing, finding some way out of her difficultly or coming up with some sort of lie when necessary. She even takes the news about her impoverishment relatively philosophically and never utters one word of complaint. Perhaps complaining would have seemed unseemly during the war.

It’s not the greatest comedy ever made; it’s only 81 minutes and there’s not a tremendous amount of character depth, but it’s cute and I especially enjoyed Joan Bennett’s comedic style. I was also fascinated with how effortlessly WWII grounded it is. Even the decision to have the romantic lead be from South America is partially war related since South America was about the only continent that didn’t have most of it’s young men in uniform or off fighting

girl-trouble_478199_47588June also has the cutest little black terrier (I think it’s a Scottish Terrier) who is always frisking about and accompanied by lively Scottish (or Irish) music. What is also pretty funny is how blithely unaware Pedro and June are of the massive impropriety of having a female maid living in the same apartment with her male employer. Whenever people hear about the arrangement, they are shocked, but June and Pedro don’t seem to notice.

The irony is that he is a playboy and isn’t all that good at his business. It is June who seems to display business acumen. She reads his papers and asks him intelligent questions that he can’t answer and is also the one to resolve his business difficulties. For being a spoiled, rich young lady, she turns out to be pretty competent, except she can’t make toast.

 

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