Saturday, April 3, 2021

 


Watchingwell 

                                                                              

                                                             Curated classic films





Funny Ladies

     
     Women in comedy were a treasure of the classic era. Some were cast specifically for the comical character they regularly portrayed:  Marjorie Main, Betty Hutton,  Martha Raye, Judy Canova, Mary Wickes, for examples.  Some were skilled at any role they were given to play, funny when they had a funny script.  A number of fine actresses could be dramatic in dramatic roles, but had a particular gift for making a comedy script work by being willing to be un-glamorous, undignified, or just zany. 


Carole Lombard, whose career was cut short in 1942 at the age of 33 by a plane crash, created some brilliant comedy performances. In Twentieth Century (1934), directed by Howard Hawks, she plays an actress trying to escape John Barrymore as an outrageously, manipulative director.








The Princess Comes Across
(1936), directed by William K. Howard, is a combination screwball comedy and 
murder mystery, pairing Lombard with Fred MacMurray, with whom she made four pictures, and they had great chemistry.









Lombard’s dizziness plays off the sensible butler-in-disguise, William Powell, in My Man Godfrey (1936), directed by Gregory LaCava, for which she received an Academy Award nomination and Ernst Lubistch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) with Jack Benny (remade in 1983 with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), as members of a Polish theater group outsmarting Nazi occupiers, are both classics and not to be missed, but the lesser-known, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), is a gem with Robert Montgomery who had a real talent for comedy, directed by Alfred Hitchcock (his only real comedy).













With a unique voice, which some (well, me) could call whiney, Jean Arthur could play dramatic roles convincingly, like Saunders in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) opposite James Stewart, and in love with Charles Boyer in History is Made at Night (1937), directed by Frank Borzage.  But her voice is a little different in comedy -- slightly higher, more tentative and exasperated. 

I liked her Miss Shelley, torn between Ronald Colman and Cary Grant in The Talk of the Town (1942), directed by George Stevens. (Guess who she ends up with?)  But my favorite George Stevens comedy, The More the Merrier (1943) pairs Arthur with Joel McCrea in one of the most enjoyable romantic comedies.  Also starring Charles Coburn, who along with McCrea, end up as apartment mates in Arthur's flat in Washington during the war, when rooms were scarce.  Hilarity ensues, particularly when Arthur's fiancée enters the story.




She was also in another of my favorite comedies, Easy Living from 1937.  Directed by Mitchell Leisen from a screenplay by Preston Sturges, this is a prototypical screwball comedy with Jean playing her innocent, dizzy self, accidently drawn into the family drama and finances of father, Edward Arnold, and son, Ray Milland.  Besides having some crazy, funny scenes, it is a look at a New York City long gone -- who remembers the automat?






Speaking of distinctive voices, but one that is on the other end of the scale, Rosalind Russell had a low, authoritative voice that she modulated skillfully to portray sophisticated, unflappable women.  In His Girl Friday (1940), the Howard Hawks direction makes it all about the dialogue:  the breakneck speed, the breathless overlapping, the sarcastic tone -- all perfect for Russell's skill.  Paired with Cary Grant, who is no slouch at comedy, and with Hecht and MacArthur's script (from their play, The Front Page, which was first made into a film in 1931 with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien), and a terrific supporting cast, this cynical look at the world of the big city newspaper biz is over-the-top funny. This is a film that I have seen dozens of times and am still discovering bits of dialogue or nuances of performance each time.  One of my five fave films  of all time.


In 1942, Roz sparkled in a witty, career woman role that only she did so
well.  Mitchell Leisen directs Take a Letter, Darling with Fred MacMurray as a struggling artist who takes a job as Russell's secretary/companion, because in 1942, as the head of an advertising agency, she needed a man sometimes to fend off admirers or disarm the wives of clients.  The business arrangement becomes complicated as MacMurray grows resentful and Russell becomes jealous when the pair try to land an important account.

Russell had a lock on these types of roles: a judge in Design for Scandal in 1941, a literary agent in What a Woman in 1943, a psychiatrist in She Wouldn't Say Yes in 1945 and an attorney in Tell it to the Judge (1949). Lesser known, A Woman of Distinction (1950), directed by Edward Buzzell, shows college dean, Russell, willing to give her all for the comic effect, in a love/hate relationship with co-star, Ray Milland.





The blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow, another actress whose life was tragically short – she died at 26, was actually more effective (imo) in comedy than in dramatic roles.  She had a knack for playing with her image, as in – Bombshell from 1933 in a story that could be seen as a self-parody of her own private life, with Lee Tracy as a studio press agent who won’t allow her to stray from her sexy image, thwarting her attempts to adopt a baby and take on serious roles. Directed by Victor Fleming, this is pre-code comedy at its best with Franchot Tone and an impressive supporting cast.



Harlow's comedy skills are not at all diminished by the top-notch cast in Libeled Lady  from 1936. Harlow plays the continually-postponed bride of editor, Spencer Tracy, who persuades her to pretend to be married to William Powell in a scheme to get heiress, Myrna Loy, to retract a 5 million-dollar lawsuit for libel. It gets even more complicated than it sounds. And funny. Directed by Jack Conway.




Can't overlook 2 funny ladies:  Eve Arden in Doughgirls,(1944) is worth a look just to see her as Sgt. Natalia Moskoroff, a hoot of a  Russian soldier forced to share quarters in wartime Washington with an all-star cast. 





In Tea for Two (1950) she perfects the wisecracking character, tossing off one-liners in that droll voice, as Doris Day’s best friend, that she displayed in The Kid from Brooklyn 1946, the early Danny Kaye film.  

 






Lucille Ball, who most people associate with the most iconic TV comedy, had an unusual film career – and not always funny. She had a few good lines in star-studded Stage Door (1937) but I think one of her best roles was not in a comedy. In Without Love  (1945), the stars are
Hepburn and Tracy, but in a supporting role, she has some good lines and delivers them in a sophisticated tone. Watching, one feels that it was too bad that she was not given more of this kind of role.


Ball is probably at her comic best in Easy to Wed from 1946, a remake of Libeled Lady, --  a good comic performance by Ball even though the film is nowhere near as good as the original.

 





Need to mention one other film star who made us laugh and at the same time took herself seriously enough so that at one time she was the highest paid woman in the U.S. (1936), and basically saved Paramount studios from going under.  I’m speaking, of course, of Mae West. She adapted the plays she wrote to film, so most of her lines were her own. Her innuendos eventually brought on the censors and she used tone and expression with more discreet lines that slipped by the censors but somehow sounded risqué.  Her mission was to ridicule puritanical society and although she only made 12 films, she made an impact, her one-liners still quoted often because she was very much ahead of her time. Probably, her best work in film, She Done Him Wrong , directed by Lowell Sherman, and I’m No Angel (When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better), directed by Wesley Ruggles, both written by West from 1933.

 

A few of her best lines:

 Ya know it was a toss-up whether I go in for diamonds or sing in the choir.  The choir lost.  

Goodness had nothing to do with it. (Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!)

His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.

 A woman in love can't be reasonable -- or she probably wouldn't be in love.

To err is human - but it feels divine. 

JUDGE: Are you trying to show contempt for this court? MAE WEST: I was doin' my best to hide it. 

She's the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.

I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it.

Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.

Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.









 





Monday, February 1, 2021

 

Watchingwell 

                                                                              

                                                             Curated classic films





Love and 

Marriage


and Hollywood




    All right, folks, now that the shouting has died down…. Something frivolous, perhaps?  Heart stuff.  

But on the subject of hearts, allow me to get something off my chest.  A bunch of people have no idea of what a pictogram is. 

When you write, "I you", it does not mean, I heart you. That’s all I’m saying on the matter.

 


    Now -- it may surprise you to learn that in Hollywood, there are some love stories that last.  Most of us know Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman were one of these couples. But here are some you may not know about. So, in honor of St. Valentine, watch a romantic film or two with some of the following stars.




Jeannette MacDonald was married to Gene Raymond for 28 years until her death.  My favorite Jeannette MacDonald film was one of her several with Nelson Eddy, New Moon (1940), directed by Robert Z. Leonard, because I love the music.  But she was the lead opposite Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in W.S. Van Dyke's San Francisco (1936)and survives the quake!









Gene was the star of Flying Down to Rio (1933), directed by Thornton Freeland, wooing Delores Del Rio, even though Astaire and Rogers stole the show.



 













Fred MacMurray was married for 37 years to June Haver.  I loved him in Hands Across the Table (1935) with Carol Lombard. He was at his most romantic in this one, as they both try not to fall in love. Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

Catch June as one of three sisters with a plan to catch a rich husband in Three Little Girls in Blue (1946). Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone.









Irene Dunne was married to Dr. Frank Griffin for 38 years.  My favorite romance of her many terrific romantic comedies is not a comedy. It is Leo McCarey's beautiful romance, Love Affair from 1939 with terrifically romantic Charles Boyer. But for something lighter, see Theodora Goes Wild (1936) with Melvyn Douglas, directed by Richard Boleslawski.


 


Speaking of Charles Boyer, he was married to English actress, Pat Paterson, for 44 years. Before the above favorite from 1939, he made History is Made at Night in 1937 with Jean Arthur at her most stunning.  Directed by Frank Borzage.



Retiring in 1939 after her film roles were mostly in B pictures, former child actress, Pat Paterson can be seen in Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935) directed by Louis King.
















James Stewart was married for 45 years to Gloria. I recommend Come Live with Me (1941) with Hedy Lamarr, directed by Clarence Brown.  Hedy is very sophisticated as a refugee and Jimmy is not in this story and it makes for a good romance. 

 


 










Melvyn Douglas and Helen Gahagen were married for 49 years. His most famous romance is probably the Ernst Lubitsch comedy, Ninotchka (1939) with Garbo. Third Finger, Left Hand (1940) is less known, but it is a nice comedy with Melvyn acting as a pretend husband for independent Myrna Loy. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.














 




Alexis Smith and Craig Stevens (of Peter Gunn fame), were also married for 49 years, starred together and possibly  fell in love on Doughgirls, a wacky comedy from 1944. The film about the wartime marriage of Jack Carson and Jane Wyman and how the shortage of hotel space in Washington leads to sharing the honeymoon suite with pal, Ann Sheridan, Alexis and Craig, and Eve Arden as a Russian soldier. Lots of laughs and doors slamming. Directed by James V. Kern.


 









Dana Andrews and Mary Todd -- 53 years of marriage.  I couldn’t decide between the mystery-romance, Laura with Gene Tierney from 1944, directed by Otto Preminger, or a very tender sub-plot with Teresa Wright in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), directed by William Wyler. You decide what moves you.























Joel McCrea was married for 57 years to Frances Dee.  My favorite Joel McCrea role is Claudette Colbert’s husband in Palm Beach Story (1942), a typically-hilarious script and direction from Preston Sturges with Rudy Vallee and Mary Astor. But I also loved him in The More the Merrier (1943) with Jean Arthur, also about the wartime housing shortage in Washington. Directed by George Stevens.









Frances stars in Wells Fargo (1937) with husband, Joel, in this story of the company's founding.  Directed by Frank Lloyd.

 









Jeanne Crain and Paul Brooks were married for 58 years.  Watch Leave Her to Heaven (1945), directed by John M. Stahl. Although it’s really about her sister, Gene Tierney, Jeanne does end up with her love, and it’s a good movie.


 








Cyd Charisse was married for 60 years to Tony Martin.  Cyd was always worth watching, but take a look at her dancing with Fred Astaire in Silk Stockings (1957), directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the musical remake of Ninotchka.



Also with Astaire in The Bandwagon (1953), directed by Vincente Minnelli, – you can choose. 












Tony’s singing was on display in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), directed by Robert Z. Leonard and Busby Berkeley and in Music in my Heart (1940) with Rita Hayworth. Directed by Joseph Santley.








Can’t not mention Dennis Morgan who was married to Lillian Mae Vedder for 61 years.  Catch him in the holiday favorite, Christmas in Connecticut, with Barbara Stanwyck. From 1945, directed by Peter Godfrey.


 





 



Also can’t not mention the all-time winner here, Louis Jordan and childhood sweetheart, Berthe Takar, married for 68 years! Of his American films, the best bet is Gigi, the lovely musical directed by Vincente Minnelli from 1958 with Leslie Caron.





















Other enduring marriages:




Claudette Colbert and Dr. Joel James Pressman - 33 years

Norma Shearer and Martin Arrouge - 41 years

James Cagney and Frances Cagney - 44 years

Jim Backus and Henny Backus - 46 years

Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy - 52 years

Angela Lansbury and Peter Shaw - 54 years

Ann Blyth and Dr. James McNulty 54 years

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee - 57 years

Lloyd Bridges and Dorothy Dean - 60 years

Robert Young and Elizabeth Henderson - 61 years

Ricardo Montalban and Georgianna Young - 63 years


Happy Valentine's Day, All.