The main theme of the 2017 TCM Film Festival was “Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy in the Movies.” Committing acts of comedy is an occupation fraught with danger. Appreciation of a pie in the face, a slip on a banana peel, the droll remark, the sly comeback, an embarrassing circumstance and the dry observation all other sorts of jesting is purely subjective.
Writers, directors and actors all contribute and have to be aware of the audience they hope will find their work appealing. And it is work. When I was an actor, on stage at the Variety Arts Club or in the street at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, material, timing and delivery all contributed to a chorus of guffaws, mirthful howls and chuckles or, in the words of Woodrow Wilson, a riot of silence.
Many comedic favorites filled the festival’s four days. In addition, I was fortunate to become acquainted with Eric and Allissa Letts, on their second visit from Hillsbourgh, New Jersey. Their good spirits and joie de vivre made the festival all the more agreeable.
Eric impressed me when he told me that he never thought of these as “old” movies when he was a boy. It took him a while to realize that if it was in black and white, it was a movie much older than he is. Allissa cheerily admitted that, although she had always liked old movies, “I came to really appreciate them by marriage.”
Along with presenting old movies, TCM performs an excellent service by inviting speakers who bring depth to the movies and how they were made. Film restoration techniques were explained in one presentation. My dear friend Lynne Kirste, special collections curator at the Academy, then described a few silent home movies taken by celebrities preserving such memories as: Alfred Hitchcock in a mystery starring himself and his wife, Alma; the hijinks of movie stars during the 1938 “Leading Men vs. Comedians” annual baseball game; light moments with Loretta Young and Celeste Holm, costumed as nuns , between takes for “Come to the Stable” (1949); and Errol Flynn with Patric Knowles, attired as Robin and Will Scarlett, clowning around the set of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938).
Due to scheduling, I missed a discussion with film historian Leonard Maltin, one of my heroes, but was able to sit in for a conversation about “Second Bananas” presented by Kliph Nesteroff, a historian of American humor and humorists. He pointed out that, while Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis were well-known comedic teams, other teams have long amused us that were never thought of as teams. He cited Milton Berle and Arnold Stang; Lucille Ball and Gale Gordon and Jack Benny and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson as teams in their own right, though never billed as such.
I took the occasion to purchase Mr. Nesteroff’s new book, “The Comedians” (Grove Press), which I found superbly written and easy reading — with just a few lapses in language. Otherwise a magisterial presentation of the history of American humor, the book describes vaudeville shows before and at the turn of the 20th century. Nesteroff fills in many details overlooked in the autobiographies I’ve read, written by such talents as George Burns, Jack Benny and Fred Allen, who honed their acts on the Keith-Albee and Orpheum circuits. If you’re at all interested in radio and early TV comedy, stand-up comics, variety and late-night talk shows, this book will give you much pleasure
As I pointed out in my previous report, godliness suffuses comedy and TCM chose their examples pretty well: Many titles below should be part of your home film library since they rely on wit and humor, not law-breaking, foul language and indecent situations.
“The Awful Truth” (1937): This gem of a film might have been a disaster. Leo McCarey, the director, found the improvisations of Cary Grant, Irene Dunne and Ralph Bellamy so much fun, the story is he tossed out the script and just told the actors the action and let them work out the lines for themselves. Grant and Dunne decide to divorce, but can’t keep from messing up each other’s possible romances. The scene where Cary intrudes on Irene’s home concert, falls and knocks the drawers out of a small end table is a masterpiece of acrobatics — hilariously capped by Irene’s perfectly-pitched three-note laughter concluding her aria. Ralph Bellamy, as the square, eventually jilted boyfriend, here perfected a role he would so often play.
“Born Yesterday” (1950): Junk tycoon Harry Brock realizes that his ditzy, uneducated chorus girl “companion” Billy Dawn (Judy Holliday) is holding him back from getting deals made at parties in Washington, D.C. He hires Paul Verrall (William Holden), a bespectacled reporter, to teach her to be couth. Paul, realizing that Harry is attempting to subvert the system with his lobbying for personal gain, teaches Billie the beauty of the U.S. republic and how it’s supposed to work. This doesn’t sound like a plot for a comedy, but the actors make it work — and give the audience a painless civics lesson at the same time.
“Bye, Bye Birdie” (1963): This film was based on a Broadway play satirizing the shock when teenaged girls learned that Elvis Presley was drafted. Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh are press relation types who come up with a contest for a girl to kiss the drafted Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) farewell. Kim McAfee (Ann-Margaret in her first film role) wins the competition. Mix-ups, merriment and teenage angst follow in this tuneful snapshot of the early 1960s BTB (Before the Beatles).
“The Court Jester” (1955): In this jolly sendup of Hollywood swashbucklers, Danny Kaye ineptly impersonates a murderous assassin disguised as a jester to cloak his skullduggery until placed under a witch’s spell. Basil Rathbone, the screen’s suavest classical villain, had long been acknowledged as Hollywood’s best fencer. In his autobiography — “In and Out of Character” — Rathbone expressed his wonder and admiration at how fast Danny Kaye mastered use of the sabre. This is the film in which Mildred Natwick, as the witch, cautions Danny, “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace holds the brew that is true,” in one of film’s most uproarious exchanges.
“What’s Up, Doc?” (1972): Director Peter Bogdonovich’s homage to the screwball comedies of the 1930s uses “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) as an outline for this farce. Ryan O’Neal, a small-town academic, comes to San Francisco and has his life turned topsy-turvy by madcap Barbra Streisand. In the meanwhile, his airline carryon bag resembles three others, including one being carried by a Soviet spy being chased by the CIA. With everyone chasing after different bags the laughs are fast and furious.
“Out West” (1937): This is the quintessential Laurel and Hardy film. Stan and Ollie are commissioned to bring the deed to a prosperous mine to a young woman in the Old West. There’s much sweetness and naive fun until James Finlayson, the boy’s perennial Scottish nemesis, causes mischief by substituting his dance-hall girlfriend to impersonate the young woman. The sidesplitting efforts to get the deed into the hands of the young woman are among the cinems’s finest moments.
“Twentieth Century” (1934): This is a swiftly-paced screwball comedy in which producer-director John Barrymore, sought after by bill collectors, chases after Carole Lombard, the counter girl he had bullied into becoming a star, who plans to get married and boards the famous Twentieth Century train leaving Chicago for New York City, just to get away. Barrymore and his minions, Walter Connolly and Roscoe Karnes, chase after her to star in his next show. Lombard, up to this time merely a glamorous presence onscreen, proved herself one of the best comedic actresses ever to be found in Hollywood.
“Unfaithfully Yours” (1948): Rex Harrison is a complicated man, a composer and conductor who believes his beautiful wife, Linda Darnell, is having an affair. While listening to three works of music, Rex concocts three ways of eliminating Linda. This hardly sounds funny, but in Preston Sturges’ expert hands the trio of imagined homicides is amazing for the originality of his fancy.
“The Palm Beach Story” (1942): Claudette Colbert loves her husband, Joel McCrae, but after five years of marriage she finds herself a millstone around his neck. She decides to leave him, find a new wealthy husband and thus be able to provide Joel with the $90,000 he needs to build his innovated airport, where the plans land on a steel-cabled net. She chances on Rudy Vallee, a multimillionaire. But before she can put her scheme into effect, Joel appears — only to be chased after by Rudy’s much-married sister, Mary Astor. Rudy Vallee, whom I had the good fortune to meet a few decades ago, told me that it was his best role. Many think this is Preston Sturges’ masterpiece.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” (1941): Seventy-five years ago, Warners previewed this movie to overwhelmingly good previews, but then had to shelve it for two years, until the play on Broadway closed at last. Playwright Joseph Kesselring, tired of watching actors dying so badly on stage, wanted to write a murder mystery in which no dead body is ever seen. He also made it a comedy — and people flocked to see it.
Newlywed drama critic, Cary Grant, and his bride, Priscilla Lane, come back to the Brooklyn home of his youth to learn that his two dear old aunts, with the help of their whacky nephew who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt, have murdered 12 elderly men. The plot thickens when homicidal nephew, Raymond Massey, and his nervous friend, Peter Lorre, decide to use the house as their hideout — specifically because Massey looks too much like Boris Karloff. They, too, have murdered 12 men and they have their eye on Cary to break the tie.
This is my all-time favorite comedy. I even had the pleasure of playing Teddy Brewster in a little theater production 25 years ago. Frank Capra, taking a break from his social comedies, wanted very much to direct this film. Warners’ top script doctors, Philip and Julius Epstein (who wrote “Casablanca”), punched up the script with marvelous running gags.
There isn’t enough room left for me to describe so many of the other sterling comedies at the festival, such as: “Some Like it Hot,” “The Great Dictator” (Charlie Chaplin savaging Hitler), “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (with Gene Wilder), “The Egg and I” (with Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert), “High Anxiety” (with Mel Brooks), “The Front Page,” “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” (with W.C. Fields), “Harold and Maude,” “Stalag 17,” “Love Crazy” (with William Powell and Myrna Loy), “Monkey Business” (with the Marx Brothers), “The Princess Bride,” “Postcards from the Edge” and “I’m All right, Jack.” They’re all top notch and, if you have time enough, enjoy them with your children.
The Academy never really appreciates comic performances and seldom dishes out Oscars to comedy films. I truly believe the art of cinema would be better served if acting, directing and writing awards were split into Best Dramatic and Best Comedic categories.
But what do I know?
Sean M. Wright, in addition to being a cinemaphile, presents workshops and enrichment courses on Catholic topics at parishes across the Los Angeles Archdiocese.