Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movie Reviews: Four classic comedies from the Golden Age of Film that you probably aren’t familiar with.

I hope that everyone had a very Merry Christmas and is looking forward to 2010 getting the heck out of Dodge. I know I am, although the chances of 2011 being an improvement are rather slim.

Anyway, it seems traditional around the Intertoobs that everyone will have an “End of the Year List” of some kind. I think I have done something similar in past years. I certainly don’t want to go revisit politics, so I will pick a favorite subject of mine, classic movies! I don’t know what I would do without TCM.

Now, there are a huge number of classic comedies that I could pick to highlight. Some of the classic comedies are my absolute favorite movies. I could pick films such as any of the Marx Brothers films (except The Big Store, that is, which rather stinks), The Philadelphia Story, Arsenic and Old Lace (which was, if my memory serves, my very first exposure to classic comedies and also Cary Grant), W.C. Fields, the Road pictures with Bing and Bob, Some Like It Hot (which some say is the best comedy ever filmed, althoug hI am not sure I agree)… All of those are very worthy of attention, especially in these days of the big budget blockbusters (in 3D!) where subtle humor, satire and really witty dialog are not held in great esteem.

However, those films would be too easy. Everyone who is a fan of classic films knows about those. So, I picked a few films that may not be terribly well known but should be. Perhaps this will inspire you to go out and look for these. I will try to stay away from the big time spoilers, but I can’t be assured that I won’t say something that can be categorized as a spoiler. So, you have been warned! Sort of…

So, with that overly lengthy explanation that I could have probably done without, here is my End of the Year List of Fairly Unknown Classic Comedies that You Should Check Out Immediately, If You Like Such Things.

Murder, He Says: This one may sound like a film adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, but it isn’t. This screwball comedy is from 1945 and stars Fred MacMurray as a door-to-door pollster that gets caught up with a family of crazy and murderous hillbillies. Marjorie Main, who is famous for her role in the Ma and Pa Kettle series, stars as the matriarch of the crazy Fleagle family. Fred falls in the middle of a quest for a huge amount of stolen loot, as well as some dark scientific experiments by the step-father of the Fleagles. There’s a cute girl masquerading as a long lost cousin, in order that she can help clear up her father’s name who was wrongly implicated in the bank heist. There’s the twin boys, Bert and Mert, who look to be straight out of Lil’ Abner, except for the propensity of wanting to shoot most anything that moves. The climax of the picture, with Fred and the imposter Fleagle trying to evade the rest of the family, is worthy of a Marx Brothers picture. Although this has been seen in a number of cartoons like Bugs Bunny, I think this is the first actual film where I have seen real people fall into a hay baling machine and end up coming out where they are all nicely packed up in large bales of hay.

This one is worthy of a look. It is also interesting in that this role for Fred MacMurray came not long after his role in Double Indemnity. That’s quite a difference, and it shows MacMurray’s versatility. There’s even a very interesting direct reference to the Bob Hope film, The Ghost Busters, that I found particularly amusing.

IMDB link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037931/

Merrily We Live: From 1938, this one could be classified as one of the early screwball comedies. This film reunites Constance Bennett and Billie Burke, in almost a reprise of their Topper roles. Constance Bennett successfully plays Jerry Kilborne, a high society debutant who isn’t as shallow or as self-satisfied as her friends and suitors might think. Burke is at her ditziest best. Of course, everyone is familiar with Burke as Glenda, the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. However, that particular role seems to have been an aberration for her, as she usually played, with extraordinary energy, high-class society women that have a very tenuous grasp of reality.

In this one, Billie Burke plays Mrs. Kilborne, who has an intense desire to rescue all the “hobos” around and reintegrate them into society. The film opens with the family discovering that the last bum employed by Mrs. Kilborne has just made a fast getaway with not only the fine silver but also the kitchen silverware. The breakfast scene where everyone is attempting to eat slices of cantaloupe with large mixing spoons and strainers sets the mood for the film. Bonita Granville, who gained fame as the first film version of Nancy Drew, adds incredibly energy to the proceedings as the younger sister.

Of course, a dashing young man who appears at the front door, looking to use the phone, is taken to be a hobo and inserted into the position of head chauffeur without his understanding how it happened. All sorts of mayhem ensues, with Jerry falling for the handsome Wade Rollins, who has taken to his role in the family a bit more than was expected. Of course, it turns out that he wasn’t a hobo at all, but a novelist on a vacation, but played along because it suited him. The entire premise is very much like My Man Godfrey, which was a bit hit only two years earlier. I like this one much better.

Give it a whirl, if you can find it or the next time it shows up on TCM. The jokes and witticisms are fast-paced to the point of barely being able to react to one before another one comes zinging at you.

IMDB link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0030442/

The Palm Beach Story: From 1942, starring Claudette Colbert and Joel McRae. This one is of the best of the Preston Sturges screwball comedies. Rudee Vallee has a great role as the straight-laced J. D. Hackensacker III, a society tycoon who has fallen for Ms. Colbert. Unfortunately for Mr. Hackensacker, although she and Joel McRae are presenting themselves as brother and sister, they are actually married. The comedic set-up comes from the fact that the two are very much in love, but Gerry Jeffers (Colbert) is trying to divorce her husband Tom (McRae) and then marry a millionaire, so that Tom can achieve his dream of designing and building a flying landing field for airplanes.

This film has some of the funniest one-liners around, usually delivered in a dead-pan style. It also features some great support from what would normally be considered to be bit-players. Robert Dudley as the Weinie King and William Demerast as a member of the Ale and Quail Club are perfect in their roles.

Gerry Jeffers: Isn't it wonderful?
Tom Jeffers: Sensational. But you haven't quite answered my question yet.
Gerry Jeffers: What question, dear?
Tom Jeffers: Why this alleged old man gave you - how much is it?
Gerry Jeffers: Seven hundred dollars.
Tom Jeffers: Seven hundred dollars. Why?
Gerry Jeffers: No reason.
Tom Jeffers: Oh, is that so? He just - seven hundred dollars? Just like that?
Gerry Jeffers: Just like that.
Tom Jeffers: I mean, sex didn't even enter into it.
Tom Jeffers: Oh, but of course it did, darling. I don't think he'd have given it to me if I had hair like excelsior and little short legs like an alligator. Sex always has something to do with it, dear.
Tom Jeffers: I see.
Gerry Jeffers: From the time you're about so big and wondering why your girlfriends' fathers are getting so arch all of a sudden. Nothing wrong - just an overture to the opera that's coming.

IMDB link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0035169/

Beat the Devil: From 1943, directed by John Huston and has a absolutely blockbuster cast of Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morely, and Peter Lorre.

I can’t figure out why this one isn’t better known and appreciated. Perhaps it is the fact that Bogie really isn’t known for his comedic roles. I think this is one of his best films, for no other reason that he kind of plays the same tough character as in his other, more well known roles, but in a way so tongue-in-cheek that it is hard not to laugh out loud.

Morely and Lorre are part of a criminal gang on their way to South America to try to get a claim to a what could be a substantial fortune in uranium ore. Jennifer Jones, who is cute as a button as the wife of a very dour and proper Englishman, constantly invents a fantasy life for herself and anyone she meets (including Bogie), such that it becomes difficult to tell what is reality and what is her dreamworld. Bogie and his wife (Ms. Lollobrigida) get entangled with both sets of characters while waiting for their ship to get repaired so they can resume their journey.

The plot almost doesn’t matter with this. It’s situational comedy as its best. There is an interesting story associated with this film, as recounted in the IMDB link below. Bogie has a serious accident during the filming of this move, which knocked out several of his teeth and made it difficult for him to speak some of his lines. Peter Sellers actually provided some of the dubbed dialog for Bogie. I would have never guessed that one.

Don’t let some bad reviews scare you away from this. It certainly isn’t what might be expected from a cast like this. But for unusual humor and a change of pace from all the actors and actresses (who would ever think that Gina Lollobrigida would end up as about seventh on the billing), you may not be able to find a better film to spend an evening with.

IMDB link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046414/

No comments: