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Tag Archives: Screwball Comedy

Nothing Sacred (1937)

downloadAlthough I didn’t watch it for this reason, Nothing Sacred turned out to be a perfect and hilarious companion film to Dark Victory. It is a satire of celebrity, media sensationalism and the strong urge of people to experience compassion via entertainment.

Wally Cook (Fredric March) is the best journalist at the Morning Star, though he is currently in the bad books of editor Oliver Stone (Walter Connolly) for a hoax involving a bootblack (Troy Brown) disguised as a sultan (the bootblack is found out when his wife, played by Hattie McDaniel, shows up with their children). But Wally is a very persuasive man and convinces Stone to relieve him of writing obituaries and let him follow up a story of a young woman dying of radium poising. His idea is to bring her back to New York, where she will naturally become the toast of the city (because she’s dying), which will sell lots of Morning Star papers.

The young lady, Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), lives in Warsaw, Vermont, the unfriendliest town around. People say “yep” and “nope” and won’t give information without first being payed, while their children are downright mean (one child bites Wally on the leg for no particular reason). Hazel wants out and it’s hard to blame her. She thought she was going to get a free trip to New York (because she’s dying), but when Dr. Downer (Charles Winninger) tells her that he made a mistake and she’s not really dying, she doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad (“It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice – and each time in Warsaw!”). So when Wally Cook arrives and wants to take her to New York, she jumps at the chance and brings Dr. Downer along with her to help her play at being terminally ill.

Hazel Flagg becomes a sensation. She’s in all the newspapers (which are then shown to wrap fish), goes to events where moments of silence are observed in her honor. She’s pointed out at nightclubs, receives the key to the city and encounters tearful people everywhere she goes, all drowning in admiration and sadness for her. She starts to feel guilty about making everyone so sad. But worst of all is that Wally starts to fall in love with her (in between arranging a funeral were a quarter of a million people will attend and a state holiday declared) and Hazel is afraid that when the hoax is discovered she’ll ruin his career.

they have both socked each other in the jaw

they have both socked each other in the jaw

Of course her hoax is discovered, but nothing goes as one would expect. People are simply too invested in the narrative of the girl heroically and inspirationally going to meet her death.

William Wellman directs this film (with an irreverent script by Ben Hecht) at breakneck speed. Sometimes, comedies can get tangled up in the end with sentiment, but not Nothing Sacred, which lives up to its title. But the romance still manages to be sweet, as Wally asks Hazel to marry him, even though he believes she’s going to die, and talks about how a few perfect moments are better than a lifetime. It’s funny – because she’s not going to die at all – but it’s also sweet. It’s also funny because she’s just tried unsuccessfully to fake a suicide (which he believes is real) because she can’t see any way out of the mess she’s gotten herself into. Dripping wet, they pledge their love in a packing crate and are then interrupted by a fireman. And then Wally forgets to offer his coat to his fiance, leaving the fireman to do the gallant thing.

Fredric March is not an actor I’ve thought about much one way or the other (though I’ve enjoyed many of his movies), but I was impressed with him here. As Wally, he shifts believably from journalist huckster to sincere lover without overplaying either, though in the end he remains a little bit of both. He’s a grounded comedian, but still gets his laughs.

Carole Lombard is another actor I have been warming to. I first saw her in My Man Godfrey, which convinced me for the longest time that I did not like Carole Lombard. She was hyper and generally too much for me. But Hands Across the Table changed my mind and I’ve come to agree that she is a very fine comedian. It’s hard to put my finger on just what makes her so funny. Oftentimes, it’s simply her facial expressions, though she can certainly do slapstick with the best of them.

There are so many laugh-out-loud moments (one favorite is the attempted-suicide scene – with practically the entire city looking for her). And though it was made two years before Dark Victory, moments still play like a satire, such as when Hazel says she wants to go off alone to die – “like an elephant.” And I got a big chuckle out of the four radium poisoning specialists who come to analyze Hazel. Sig Ruman leads the way as Dr. Emil Eggelhoffer, from Vienna. The other doctors are from Prague, Moscow and Berlin and I couldn’t help but wonder how they got these doctors together. This is 1937, so presumably one is a communist and the other a Nazi.

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these stills are in black and white, but the film is in Technicolor, a relatively early example of this

Near the end, when Oliver Stone has discovered that Hazel is not really dying and is sputtering with anger, Wally says that the people of New York ought to be thanking the Morning Star for what they did, even if Hazel is a fake. It gave people what they wanted – an opportunity to feel maudlin and sorry for someone. That got my attention, because I had been reading an article a little while ago in the Wall Street Journal called “Leonardo DiCaprio, Meet St. Augustine,” by Daniel Ross Goodman. The author was discussing why people enjoy watching movies where people suffer (and why actors tend to win Oscars for portraying people who suffer). According to St. Augustine, it’s not sadism; it’s an innate desire to experience compassion and remind ourselves that there is goodness in us. As Goodman writes, “When we see suffering depicted in a movie, our empathetic itch is scratched, giving us the sensation that we have exercised true empathy.”

Nothing Sacred mocks this thoroughly…at least the hollow side of this phenomenon, where people can congratulate themselves secretly for feeling good without ever doing anything genuinely compassionate. Though I wouldn’t say that is the message of the movie. It’s not a message picture, but a very funny satire that shrewdly hits on some truths about human nature.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Lady Eve: The Joke’s On Her

I’ve been thinking about the adage that the best screwball comedies have leads who are roughly equal, able to give-and-take and be worthy opponents: Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. But my favorite screwball comedy, The Lady Eve, seems to defy that adage as Barbara Stanwyck appears to run all over the hapless Henry Fonda. So why do I love it so much?

I think it’s because everything is not as it seems. Director/writer Preston Sturges has deceived us, because his subtle joke is that the joke’s not on Henry Fonda at all; it’s on her and she’s the only one who’s in on it.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a tough, hard-boiled, unsentimental card sharp who takes advantage of poor suckers and then, like a sap, falls in love herself. She lays down her defenses and is rejected and humiliated. It’s the ultimate humiliation and she loses her self-respect. Because although it looks like she’s always in total control, manipulating Fonda at will, he’s the one who really is in control (though he doesn’t have the faintest idea that he is). She can captivate him, but because she’s so in love, he’s the one who can reject her or accept her.

That’s why she’s so bent on revenge; to regain her own personal self-respect. But she can’t help it; she still loves him. I think it’s that depth of emotion that I like so much about The Lady Eve (besides how hilarious it is). Her sincerity in love makes it clear that if her character doesn’t get her man, we’d be watching a tragedy instead of a comedy. Beneath the cynicism, the battle of the sexes, the ironic jabs at marriage and love and the rich, is a deeply romantic film because of how crazy the two leads are about each other. The Lady Eve has one of the most satisfying endings of any screwball comedy I’ve seen.

So basically, all the pratfalls, the humiliation that Fonda must go through is to make his humiliation equal to hers.

Random Note – in a fit of Sturges enthusiasm I named my cat Lady Eve, but sometimes I think I should have called her Buster. Lady Eve (the cat) has the most perfect stone-face as she watches life go by. She also needs to work on her sultry look.

 
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Posted by on January 11, 2016 in Movies

 

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Never Say Goodbye (1946)

lNeversaygoodbye1946Never Say Goodbye is a lesser known, but charming Christmas movie and I think what is most fun about it is seeing Errol Flynn in a non-typical screwball mode. He even gets to poke a little fun at his swashbuckling image.

Phillip Gayley (Errol Flynn) is an artist mostly known for his paintings of pin-up girls. But though his paintings have brought him fame, it has also lost him his wife, Ellen Gayley (Eleanor Parker). Now their daughter, Flip (Patti Brady), spends six months with each parent and when the film opens, she is about to go to her mother’s house for six months with her.

But Flip wants a baby brother to play with and reasons that the only way she can have one is to get her parents back together. And truly, her parents are more than willing to oblige. It’s clear that after a year of being divorced, they still only have eyes for each other. The only reason they divorced is because Ellen’s mother (Lucile Watson) talked her into it over the issue of Phillip’s pin-up models (and though he claims to be wrongly accused, he does seem to be a bit of a flirt).

Ellen still perks up at the mention of Phillip’s name, completely ignores the new suitor, Rex (Donald Woods), her mother has in mind for her and seems to be all-but encouraging Phillip to convince her that they should still be together. And Phillip does try awfully hard to convince her. Throughout the film he attempts wooing, cajoling, singing their song in her ear (Ellen asks, “You sang like that and I still married you?”), dancing, kissing, sneaking into her house dressed as Santa Claus, but something always comes along to break it up, usually in the shape of his current model, Nancy (Peggy Knudsen), who is trying just as hard to land Phillip.

The scene where Phillip accidentally ends up with two dates at the same restaurant is one of the film’s highlights. Luigi (S.Z. Sakall) – his real name is Schmidt, but when he bought a restaurant called Luigi’s he thought it was cheaper to change his name than buy a new sign – is a scene stealer as the friend who tries to get rid of Nancy so Phillip can devote his evening to Ellen and stop running between two different tables. Luigi tries everything from spilling soup on Nancy’s lap to an “accident” involving glass (“What are you trying to do to the girl? Kill her?” Phillip asks) to luring her away with a phone call, but it all ends in catastrophe (and the soup ends on him) with two very unhappy women. You almost feel sorry for poor Nancy, who seems to have some legitimate expectations from Phillip. As Luigi says, bemoaning with Philip that you “take a girl out two or three hundred times and right away she thinks that you are interested.”

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Errol Flynn is the first Santa on the right

Phillip also shows up at Ellen’s house on Christmas Eve dressed as Santa. It used to be a tradition every evening where he played Santa for Flip, but since Rex is also dressed as Santa, there is much confusion, best summarized at DVD Talk: “complete with Flynn running around the house and slamming doors, kissing an undressing Parker and slapping his ex-mother-in-law on the rump (much to their delight), as he pretends to be the stuffy Woods [Rex]. The scripters even drag up the old Marx Bros.’ “mirroring” bit (which Flynn performs flawlessly), before there’s a funny wrap-up as Flynn-as-Rex hands out gifts (none for the “old bag” Watson, he states) before smashing Woods over the head with a cocktail shaker (Woods does a hilarious crash into the Christmas tree).

Some actors work better with children than others, but Errol Flynn seems to be one of those who relates well. Phillip’s relationship with his daughter is actually just as central to the film as his relationship with his ex-wife and he and child actress Brady have genuinely sweet chemistry together as father and daughter. He plays a super indulgent father who does everything possible to make her life seem magical and she is a unique blend of worldly-wisdom who sees through it and children enthusiasm who embraces his fantasies fully. He likes to pretend to be Robin Hood or Sir Lancelot and calls her his Ziegfeld girl or Guinevere and talks a policeman into letting her ride his horse. He’s like a big kid and the two of them talking about how much they both want to be a family again is touching.

The film is very much Errol Flynn’s film, though it does have good performances from Eleanor Parker, Lucile Watson, S.Z. Sakall (Hattie MacDaniel is under-used) and the rest of the cast. Also in the film is Forrest Tucker as the marine, Fenwick Lonkowski. Flip has been writing to a marine because she heard on the radio that just because the war is over doesn’t mean there aren’t any lonely solders. With the help of Cozy (Hattie McDaniel), she has been penning romantic letters signed “Smoochie.” When she proposes including a pin-up picture of herself, her father argues that it could ruin a soldier’s moral by making him think that women in America are shrinking and instead swaps a picture of his wife in a bathing suit. Of course, when Fenwick comes back, he immediately thinks that Ellen is his “Smoochie” and she is happy to play along in revenge against Phillip.

Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker

Errol Flynn and Eleanor Parker

Errol Flynn must have been a really good sport for this film, because he completely allows Forrest Tucker to show him up as physically wimpy (Fenwick does calisthenics in Ellen’s kitchen with his shirt off while Phillip wears Fenwick’s too-big pajamas and falls over and hits his head on the refrigerator – his jumping jacks are a hoot, too…so half-hearted and uncoordinated). Flynn also gets to do a pretty good imitation of Humphrey Bogart (the voice for that scene is really provided by Bogart) as he desperately tries to scare Fenwick away from Ellen.

It’s a pity Flynn didn’t get to make more comedies; he’s very effective in them. He has a sometimes goofy charm and yet he’s so handsome, no matter what he’s doing. But he wears his good looks lightly and never takes himself too seriously. The best swashbucklers do approach their work with a light touch, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he should be adept at comedy as well (Douglas Fairbanks did comedy before he started making his famous swashbucklers). It’s not going to replace Miracle on 34th Street as a Christmas classic, but it’s fun, especially if you are a fan of Errol Flynn.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2015 in Movies

 

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