03/20/2012 10:38 am ET Updated Apr 05, 2013

When Comedy Was Clean and Comediennes Were King

First, let's acknowledge that I laughed as hard at Bridesmaids as most anyone else. It was a consistently diverting, often very clever romp, and I thought Kristen Wiig and the rest of the cast were, on the whole, first-rate.

That said, even with the extra smarts and wit that distinguished this movie from so many imbecilic contemporary comedies, Bridesmaids still got most of its laughs from "below the belt" humor: gags involving sex, bodily functions, and drug use.

The great comedians of yesteryear -- Bob Hope, Jack Benny, even Bill Cosby -- referred to performing this type of material as "dropping your drawers." It was a last resort they themselves would never resort to.

Today, it seems that "drawer-dropping" comedy is all there is, and beyond any taste issues, I recognize what the old masters felt- the fundamental issue of going for the easy laugh... As one wag put it: "You laugh, but you're not happy about it."

Every so often, I like to be happy about what I laugh at... so much as I admire Ms. Wiig, my heart belongs to those fabulous silver screen comediennes that populated the evergreen comedies of yore: Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck and Rosalind Russell.

In fairness, unlike Ms. Wiig, these folks did not write their own material (neither in fact did Bob Hope or Jack Benny). Instead, they were skilled interpreters of a certain type of gossamer, highly sophisticated comedy that's long been extinct.

To animate those words and scenes required a keen sense of comic timing and instinct, all of which these actresses possessed in abundance. They also recognized the inherent absurdity of the human condition, and understood the therapeutic value of poking fun at it.

As a result, these special ladies made us laugh -- and feel smart -- at the same time.

For those wanting a respite from today's low, "in-your-face" brand of comedy, here are a few tried-and-true classics featuring these top screen comediennes:

Carole Lombard: Twentieth Century (1934)- Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) creates a star in the beautiful Lily Garland (Lombard), then alienates her, causing a decline in his own fortunes. Some time later, he happens upon Lily, now embarked on a glamorous Hollywood career, on the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited train. Taking full advantage of her on-board captivity, Oscar launches a no-holds-barred campaign to woo her back into the Jaffe fold. Howard Hawks's Twentieth Century stands as one of the great early screwball comedies, with an over-the-top Barrymore delivering perhaps his funniest screen performance as the desperate, histrionic Jaffe. As Lily, Lombard manages at once to be leading lady gorgeous and more than slightly nutty herself. The inspired script, which Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht adapted from their own play, moves just as fast as that train. All aboard, comedy fans!

Jean Arthur: Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936)- Simple country boy Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) inherits an immense fortune from a wealthy distant relative he doesn't even know, and must then navigate a sea of handlers and hand-out requests to make sense of his new life as multi-millionaire. But those who think they can manipulate this tuba-playing rube are in for a rude awakening. At the top of that list is Babe Bennett (Arthur), a beautiful but ruthless reporter who's sent undercover to get a scoop on Deeds, but soon finds her personal feelings getting in the way of business. This quintessential Frank Capra charmer is one of Cooper's most appealing comic forays, as his plain-talking, homespun personification of rural America outfoxes all those smug and greedy city slickers. Arthur is also terrific as Babe, the hard-nosed lady journalist who first ridicules, then falls for Longfellow, much to her own surprise. One of the screen's authentic classics, this is pixilated comedy at its very best. Beware the execrable Adam Sandler re-make.

Irene Dunne: The Awful Truth (1937)- Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play Jerry and Lucy Warriner, an affluent, attractive young couple who temporarily drift apart and initiate divorce proceedings. Both are unwilling to admit the obvious fact that they're still in love. Jerry plays the field, but always seems to be turning up (mostly to visit their dog, Mr. Smith). His visits only increase once Lucy gets involved with oil man Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy), a wealthy rube from Oklahoma. The couple's slow but inevitable rapprochement becomes one hilarious, delightful dance. Director Leo McCarey was renowned for his comedic flair (he had directed the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup), and this consistently sharp, often sidesplitting picture shows why. Reportedly the director actually improvised many of the comic set pieces right on the set, causing rising star Cary Grant much anxiety. He needn't have worried. The film was a hit, and cemented the reputations of both stars as much more than pretty faces, but in fact, gifted comic players with superb timing. Both Dunne and Bellamy received Oscar nods, while McCarey won for Best Director. Among the top screwball comedies ever made- and that's the truth!

Claudette Colbert: Midnight (1939)- Arriving at midnight in Paris without a penny to her name, American showgirl Eve Peabody (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. Claudette Colbert was never better than in Mitchell Leisen's classic screwball comedy, 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!

Rosalind Russell: His Girl Friday (1940)- Sneaky, slimy editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) will stop at nothing to prevent his best reporter (and former wife) Hildy Johnson (Russell) from leaving the exciting newspaper business for a dull marriage to the chronically normal Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). As fate would have it, the year's biggest story is breaking, as condemned killer Earl Williams (John Qualen) breaks out of jail, and even Hildy can't resist the lure of the scoop. Will Walter's nefarious scheming prevent Hildy from reaching the altar? The legendary Howard Hawks directs what may be the fastest film comedy ever. A remake of The Front Page, this version's inspired plot twist is that Hildy is a female reporter, formerly wed to loveable scoundrel Burns. The conceit works, as underneath Walter and Hildy's scathing, rapid-fire repartee we sense a strong (though somewhat twisted) attraction. Both Grant and Russell are in top form, and all we have to do is keep up with them. A rip-roaring good time, start to finish.

Barbara Stanwyck: The Lady Eve (1941)- Colonel Harrington and daughter Jean (Charles Coburn and Stanwyck) are skilled card sharks who intend to ply their lucrative trade on board a chic ocean liner. Also on board is Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), a shy, naive heir to a brewery fortune. He's the perfect mark, but Jean starts to fall for him. Once off the boat, Pike resumes his normal life, but his ordered world gets disrupted once more when he meets an English lady with a striking resemblance to Jean. Could it be? Preston Sturges's crazy genius jumps right off the screen in this hilarious movie. A highly successful screenwriter before adding directing to his resume, he had an off-the wall sensibility that was way ahead of his time, and more than anything he'd done up to this point, this release proved it. Sturges's brilliantly anarchic script is brought to life here by a first-rate cast: Stanwyck is at the peak of her appeal as a husky-voiced con lady with a surprisingly vulnerable heart, and Coburn is incongruously cuddly as her father. Fonda also makes for a surprisingly effective straight man. This is one Lady you should stand up for.

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