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John Farr

John Farr

Posted: December 8, 2008 07:39 AM

The Best Depression-Era Comedies by Farr


As we confront an uncertain and bewildering economic downturn, it's instructive to look back at the factors that sustained the public through the truly desperate conditions brought on by The Great Depression.

Part of what differentiates that period from any fiscal downturn since is the lack of safeguards then in place to blunt the impact of sudden joblessness and destitution. The safety nets that have existed since, while hardly ideal, have helped, but they were only created in response to that unprecedented crisis that began close to eighty years ago.

Stories abound of the fallout from that first shocking collapse: Wall Street millionaires turned penniless hurled themselves out of office windows or simply put a gun to their head. But most Americans, of course, survived. How did they manage it?

Believe it or not, movies contributed...more than one might guess. But it wasn't simply the intrinsic nature of motion pictures that accounted for this palliative effect. It was a savvy Hollywood that responded to challenging times by recognizing what a transformed public would want to see and leveraging the full might of the studio system to provide it.

Entering the '30s, the film industry itself was in a precarious place. Just as Black Tuesday hit, the business was in massive flux converting from silent films to sound. Careers had ended and been launched virtually overnight, and Hollywood was investing heavily in sound technology, focusing feverishly on making the new technology work better so that "talkies" could reach their full potential.

There was no guarantee that movies would survive in this new environment. In fact, conventional wisdom held that filmed entertainment was a luxury that few could or would be able to access. The moguls then decided that the best possibility for success was to make movies literally indispensible to people's lives and well-being. First, they would move heaven and earth to get the public back in theatres, offering another free plate for their plate set with each theatre visit, and giving them a whole string of entertainment to make their experience richer and more varied: cartoons, newsreels, serials or "B" film entries, and finally, the "featured attraction".

Doubtless all the extra inducements, both on- and off-screen, helped boost initial ticket sales, but primarily what made people skip meals to go back to the movies again and again had more to do with the main features- known as the "A" pictures.

Hollywood knew that the most precious commodity for the times was escape, and they were in a unique position to deliver it via their best films. Such productions were intended to boost industry prestige, as well as serve as a tonic for battered souls in dire need of some laughter and reassurance. These movies showcased the talented and glamorous stars which the studios shaped and groomed so assiduously, and employed the talents of the finest directors, writers and craftsmen then under contract.

So if the public had to survive without all the good things money could buy, at least they could live vicariously through on-screen characters that did possess them. They'd laugh at the absurdity of the leisure class and their contrived, shallow problems, while also drinking in their heady style and sophistication. Having done so, they would emerge from the theatre with enough renewed hope to get them through one more week of grim reality.

Thus was born the screwball comedy- a form very much of its time, as more recent attempts to recreate it have almost invariably fallen flat. Yet the best screwballs also remain timeless, as fresh and clever today as they were on release.

Following in chronological order are my own selections for top screwball entries from the 1930's:

Trouble In Paradise (1932) - Parisian jewel thieves Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) fall in love over dinner-trying to pick each other's pockets. With a wealthy widow, Mme. Colet (Kay Francis), as their latest mark, they craftily install themselves as her secretary and typist, respectively. But things get complicated when Gaston must pretend to fall for the beautiful heiress (or is he pretending?), and she returns the compliment. German-born director Ernst Lubitsch specialized in soufflé-light, sophisticated comedies that poked sly fun at conventional mores. "Trouble" is one of his best outings, cheerily touting the marvels of sex and riches. Along with the rarefied atmosphere, the snappy dialogue and witty ripostes exemplify what came to be called "The Lubitsch Touch." If you like your chuckles with a touch of class, here's your movie.

Twentieth Century (1934) - Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) creates a star in the beautiful Lily Garland (Carole Lombard), then alienates her, ultimately causing a decline in his own fortunes. He happens upon Lily (now embarked on a successful Hollywood career) on the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited train, and while she is a captive audience, attempts to woo her back into the Jaffe fold. Don't pass up this opportunity to see Barrymore in his funniest performance as the histrionic Jaffe. Meanwhile, Lombard is leading lady gorgeous, but also exhibits her trademark comic flair in the ripe role of Lily. The screenplay, by partners Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, moves as fast as that train. By all means, get on-board!

It Happened One Night (1934) - Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), a mixed-up heiress, hits the road incognito to escape a loveless impending marriage and a chronically over-protective father (Walter Connolly). Riding with the common folk on a bus, she meets reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable), who grudgingly befriends this unusual creature, who appears curiously oblivious to the ways and customs of real life. When Peter discovers her true identity, he knows he's got hold of the story of the century, but by this time, he's also started to have feelings for Ellie. What's a smitten newsman to do? Frank Capra's sublime romantic comedy swept the 1934 Oscars, and it's still easy to understand why. Few seventy-five year old movies hold up like this one. Colbert makes a winning, deft comedienne (check out that hitch-hiking scene!), and Gable was never more natural and appealing, winning his only Oscar for this role. The scene where Peter takes off his shirt and exposes his bare chest was a first, and reportedly, sounded a death knell for the undershirt industry. Hail to the walls of Jericho!

My Man Godfrey (1936) - Through a charity contest only the idle rich could invent, a daffy family chooses a forgotten man from skid row to become the new butler in their chaotic household. Younger daughter Irene (Carole Lombard) proceeds to fall in love with him. However, Godfrey (William Powell), the object of her affections, is not precisely who or what he seems. Gregory La Cava's sublime comedy blends screwball elements with more serious overtones on Depression-era class injustice, to create a wildly entertaining yet thought-provoking movie that holds up beautifully. The term "debonair" must have been coined for Powell, and Lombard makes for an adorable ditz. (Trivia note: the two stars had been married briefly several years earlier, but had divorced amicably). Highlights: comic actor Mischa Auer as Mrs. Bullock's "protégé", along with the rotund Eugene Pallette as Mr. Bullock, the family's frustrated industrialist father, who appears more like an impotent keeper at an asylum.

Libeled Lady (1936) - The ever-smooth William Powell returns as Bill Chandler, a freelance journalist hired by his old newspaper to squelch a libel suit brought by society heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). To do this, Bill must make Connie fall for him and then place her in a compromising position. Ultimately, he melts her icy exterior, but ends up falling in love himself. What's yet another smitten newsman to do? Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1936, Jack Conway's underexposed gem is a raucous farce buzzing with zany humor, thanks to a flurry of impeccable one-liners delivered by Powell and Loy, reunited from their first pairing in "The Thin Man." Playing Haggerty, the newspaper's frantic editor, and Gladys, his continually jilted fiancée, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow round out a stellar foursome in this fast-paced, ingenious laugh-fest.

Topper (1937) - George and Marion Kirby (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) seem to have it all: they're rich, attractive, and live the high life- that is, until they're killed when driving their roadster a bit too fast. Now bona-fide ghosts, it seems the couple have one final errand to do before going to their eternal rest: help their stifled, hen-pecked banker Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) get more out of life-while he's still living! This uproarious comedy represented another crucial step to super-stardom for Cary Grant, who proves himself a gifted comic player as well as handsome leading man. Bennett (older sister of Joan) is the essence of high-toned style and effervescent charm as wife Marion. Still the revelation is Young, who proves a consistent delight as the put-upon Cosmo, a man who must cope not only with a rigid, controlling wife (Billie Burke), but a couple of goofy, upper crust specters who keep turning his well-ordered world upside down.

Easy Living (1937) - Frustrated with his wife's spending habits, financier J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold) throws his wife's new $58,000 sable coat out of the window, where it alights on the shoulders of working-girl Mary Smith (Jean Arthur), who's riding to the office on a double-decker bus. When she tries to return the coat, the blustering "Bull of Broad Street" indulges her with a new hat and a ride to work, unwittingly opening the door to a world of instant fortune--and a heap of personal troubles. The great Preston Sturges penned this farcical, rags-to-riches romance, in which an innocent secretary is assumed by her snitty coworkers and a hotelier to be the mistress of an older, married tycoon. As always with a Sturges picture, this is only the beginning of delightfully nutty entanglements, and director Mitchell Leisen's light touch with the script allows the future director's comic vision to unfold without a hitch. A young Ray Milland also shines as Ball's independent- minded son, who becomes Mary's bumbling love interest.

The Awful Truth (1937) - Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play Jerry and Lucy Warriner, a wealthy young couple who temporarily drift apart, stray and finally, initiate divorce proceedings. Both are unwilling to admit the obvious fact that they're still in love. Their eventual rapprochement becomes one delightful, often hilarious dance. Director Leo McCarey was considered a comedic genius, and this consistently sharp, side-splitting picture supports that claim. The film cemented the reputations of both Grant and Dunne as gifted comic players with superb timing. Ralph Bellamy also stands out in the thankless role of the other man opposite Grant, a part he would assume again in the classic "His Girl Friday" several years later. Finally, look for the pooch who plays the Warriners' pet, Mr. Smith. He is none other than Skippy, who played Asta in "The Thin Man" and George in "Bringing Up Baby".

Bringing Up Baby (1938) - Paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) leads a quiet, studious life, and is engaged to a proper, like-minded young woman. Then, quite by accident he runs into dizzy heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), who immediately takes a shine to the handsome, bespectacled scientist. Used to getting just what she wants, Susan simply won't let David go. Before long, Huxley's life gets turned upside down, as Susan kidnaps him to her starchy aunt's Connecticut estate, along with her explorer brother's recently arrived present, a tame leopard called "Baby". The comic mayhem escalates from there. Howard Hawks's quintessential screwball outing remains one of our most riotous and inspired screen comedies. Grant and Hepburn (who'd do "The Philadelphia Story" two years later) are in fabulous form, with Grant wholly convincing as the nerdy, befuddled victim, and Kate on fire as a flaky but determined lass who's finally found true love, and intends to hold on, come what may. This "Baby" is fun, fast and oh-so-funny.

Midnight (1939) - Arriving at midnight in Paris without a penny to her name, American showgirl Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) meets Hungarian cabbie Tibor (Don Ameche), who takes an instant shine to this beauty in gold lame. Eve has other plans, though, and ditches Tibor to crash a Parisian high-society party, using his exotic-sounding surname. There, the "Baroness Czerny" meets aristocrat George Flammarion (John Barrymore), who, once he learns of Eve's clever disguise, makes her an irresistible proposition. Colbert was never better than in this inspired comedy directed by Mitchell Leisen, which has lost none of its punchy wit or saucy flair with time. That has a lot to do with the cheeky script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who keep things delightfully ripe with the threat of Eve's exposure: Barrymore lures her to Versailles, where her job is to distract Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer), playboy lover of his wife, Helene (Mary Astor). When Ameche shows up in pursuit of Colbert, the fun really begins. The impeccable plotting and cynical banter will keep you in stitches.

Revisiting this impressive and enduring movie legacy inevitably begs the question: will Hollywood again raise their sights and put out some first-rate comedies to help us weather this latest mess? Considering the structure of the industry today and the quality of their recent output, I wouldn't bet on it--but how I would love to be proven wrong!

For more great movie recommendations, visit Best Movies by Farr.


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