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This week we’ve got three comedies that are as different as night and day, but are guaranteed to make you LOL. Or maybe even LMAO. Or … maybe we’d better just stop there. Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal star in a zany send-up of the screwball comedies of the 1930s with Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?. Dick Powell only has eyes for Ruby Keeler (like, all 1 million of her) in Busby Berkeley’s delightfully mad Dames (1934). And Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard star as a quirky couple who love each other, but have an awfully strange way of showing it in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941).
Wade’s Pick: WHAT’S UP, DOC? (1972)
Although Peter Bogdanovich had already directed two feature films and a documentary, a common misconception is that his fourth, 1971’s The Last Picture Show, was his first; as he was lauded as a “wunderkind” upon its release. Known both as a critic and film scholar, Bogdanovich used his considerable cache to next tackle a project that hearkened back to the Golden Age of Hollywood; the screwball comedy, something which he knew quite a lot about. What’s Up, Doc? Starring Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand cleaned up at the boxoffice, and laid the groundwork for his third major hit, Paper Moon. While Picture Show and Paper Moon are highly respected and viewed ad infinitum, you just don’t see What’s Up, Doc? screened very often, which is a shame. It’s something of a curio, as interesting for its many misfires as its on-target hits.
Barbara Streisand plays Judy Maxwell, a strange and screwy girl who becomes instantly fascinated with Ryan O’Neal’s Howard Bannister, a PhD in music in town to hopefully win an endowment for his study in rocks. Along with his domineering fiancée, Eunice (Madeline Kahn in her feature debut) he carries a bag that is similar to three others, one filled with diamonds, another with secret documents, and the third, filled with Judy’s clothes. Grabbing some carrots from a passing waiter, Judy introduces herself to Howard, uttering Bugs’ famous salutation, “What’s Up, Doc?” From that point on, she makes a wonderful mess out of Howard’s life, all the while the four bags are chased, lost, stolen and swapped.
The film doesn’t necessarily “work” in the traditional sense, because it’s not really a faithful parody or re-imagining of the screwball comedy. It’s a mashup of comic styles and periods, and as such, works about 50% of the time. Borrowing from Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers, not to mention Bugs Bunny, Bogdanovich cast his net almost too far. Not quite as slapsticky as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, or paced with the brilliance of Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday, the cast gets an “A” for effort. Streisand and Kahn are the real stand-outs, as the former is allowed to not only show off her ability to machine gun fire convoluted statements like Rosalind Russell, but merge her comedic timing with a sexiness she was rarely able to use to such winning effect. And Kahn already shows the ability to embody her role, a shrewish harpy, from the annoying voice to her frumpy walk, to a “T.” (That same year she would explode with her performance in Blazing Saddles). O’Neal, living somewhere between Cary Grant’s David Huxley and Harold Lloyd, is adequate, but doesn’t have the charm or timing of either; sometimes coming off less than the genius he’s supposed to be, and more like a compete dimwit.
Still, some of the film is snort-out-loud funny. A third act car chase is well-paced and directed, and includes many of the sight gags reminiscent of silent comedies. And the many references and inside jokes, from O’Neal’s Howard looking for Judy Maxwell and calling “Judy! Judy! Judy!” (the age old Cary Grant cliché, mis-attributed though it is) to an avalanche of trash cans chasing a man down the street a la boulders rolling after Buster Keaton in Seven Chances, are fun touchstones to the past.
What’s Up, Doc?, rather than a departure for Bogdonovich, strangely became standard form. He tried to captured the lunacy again and again in At Long Last Love, They All Laughed and Illegally Yours, all to a worsening effect. Whatever the reason you approach What’s Up, Doc? there’s a little something for everybody, and five will get you ten you’ll find yourself snorting out loud and not even know the reason why.
Carley’s Pick: DAMES (1934)
It’s ridiculous. It’s madness. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. There’s dancing laundry and neon violins and kissing cousins and plenty of Joan Blondell’s side-boob and about 1,000 Ruby Keeler’s and NO I have NOT been drinking. This is Busby Berkeley, ladies and gents, and that woozy boozy just-how-much-did-I-drink-last-night effect is achieved entirely without the help of alcohol. (Or any other stimulant du choix.) Dames is delightfully fun insanity (and gosh darn pretty to look at too) all wrapped up in a big melodious ball of WTF.
If you’ve ever seen any of the Powell/Keeler/Blondell/Berkeley concoctions, the ingredients are always pretty much the same. There’s always a hungry hoofer, even hungrier chorus girls, and in keeping with Depression-era themes, pursuit of the ever-elusive almighty dollar. Yet somehow, the results are always deliciously caffeinated confectionery. Dames is no exception. This time around, Dick Powell is an aspiring showman with plenty of talent but not a penny to his name, thanks to having been axed from the family fortune courtesy the disapproving Uncle Ezra (Hugh Hebert). On the moral side of the family are Matilda (Zazu Pitts) and Horace (Guy Kirbee) who will do anything to get their early $10 million inheritance from pious teetotaler Uncle Ezra (who has a fondness for hiccup medicine with a 70% alcohol content), and are determined to keep their pretty young daughter (Ruby Keeler) away from Powell. (Yeah. Powell and Keeler are cousins. I know, I know, just … go with it.) But Powell finds an unexpected financier for his show in jittery old Guy Kirbee, who is being blackmailed by sexy showgirl Joan Blondell. Kirbee is of course terrified of being found out by Uncle Ezra as the silent partner in a Broadway show, and even more terrified that Keeler is the show’s star performer. The predictable mishaps result in light (make that very light) comedy as they gang stops at nothing to produce their reeeally big sheew.
Working off a script by a young Delmer Daves (who was on the cusp of becoming a Hollywood heavyweight in his own right with The Petrified Forest, Love Affair, Dark Passage, etc.,), the film’s directorial credit is attributed to studio director Ray Enright. In fact, during Busby Berkeley’s explosive two year period of 1933 and 1934, he held a single “directed by” credit—his directorial debut She Had to Say Yes (1933). The classics 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Roman Scandals, Fashions of 1934, Wonder Bar, and of course Dames, were all directed by a studio man, with Berkeley holding the title of either choreographer or director of musical numbers. And yet, with every last one of these films, they are very much “Busby Berkeley”. Berkeley was give complete creative control with Dames, and was even allotted his very own unit. Berkeley’s signature geometric choreography which transformed hundreds of beautiful dancing girls into human kaleidoscopes, was dubbed “cinematerpsichorean” by Warner Bros, and Dames features some of the master choreographer’s most ingenious creations.
The transcendental screen magic of a Berkeley number is typified with Dames. As author Lucy Fischer states, “The Berkeley production numbers posit their existence in the realm of pure imagery. The space in which his sequences transpire does not conform to that of the concrete world. It is abstract and, in its fluid chain of metamorphoses, essentially ambiguous. From this perceptive, it becomes the perfect vehicle for fantasy.” And there is nothing more fantastic that the monumental, 20 minute long closing production sequence which culminates with the dizzying “I Only Have Eyes for You” starring hundreds of Rube Keeler’s. Literally.
Dames and the rest of those early ’30s Busby Berkeley musicals are the type of escapist Hollywood entertainment that was designed to bring relief to Depression era audiences, and today they are time capsules that have precisely the same effect on the modern viewer. We are allowed play around in its impossible universe for 80 minutes before having to go back home to our dreary reality. And I wonder … how much of it has to do with the timelessness of the material, and how much of it has to do with the fact the unstable world we live in is as hard pressed for audiences today as it was for audiences then … maybe it’s both.
Jill’s Pick: MR. AND MRS. SMITH (1941)
Ann and David Smith are a rather unusual couple. They are madly in love, filled with fun and passion, but they must follow a number of self-imposed rules to guarantee they will never leave each other’s presence while angry. With each fight (the bad ones, anyway), David (Robert Montgomery) and Ann (Carole Lombard, in her penultimate film prior to her tragic death) agree to hole themselves up in their lavish master bedroom suite, refusing to leave until matters are resolved. It’s kinda like John and Yoko’s bed-in for peace, but without the peace. And the singing. And the signs of protest. And … OK, it’s really nothing like the bed-in except there’s a bed, a room to go around it, and they’re staying in. Once a truce is called, the once-quarreling lovebirds become reacquainted with some good ol’ make-up sex (implied, anyway), finally going about their daily lives more in love than ever. Now, it’s worth mentioning these fights are rarely short ones. Lasting for days at a time (we’re told of one time when they went a whole EIGHT days without leaving the bedroom), this quirky relationship “rule” isolates Ann and David from the real world. Which means David can’t work (he’s a lawyer with his own firm), and yet this makes virtually no impact on their financial status (read: they’re loaded).
When we first meet our couple they are embroiled in a three-day standoff. Their servants, co-workers, and neighbors all wonder if this one will beat their current 8-day best (or worst, depending on how you look at it). Luckily, the argument ends on the third day, and things are looking great for Ann and David. During a footsie-filled, post-coital breakfast, Ann asks a rather pointed question that’s rooted in truth, respect, and love (the truthful answers to these kinds of questions always cause loads of trouble): ” If you had it all to do over again, would you still have married me?” And in the name of honesty and respect, David answers with a “no.”
What a dumb ass.
Later that day, David is informed that his marriage to Ann is null and void due to a silly bureaucratic technicality/mix-up in the county where they were married. Ann is made aware of this, too (although David doesn’t know she knows), and decides this is the perfect time for David to step-up and make the right decision again.
But he doesn’t.
So, in violation of the very rules she laid down on their relationship, Ann throws David out of the house, vowing never to be with him again. And through David’s silly, pathetic attempts to win her back, Ann stubbornly rejects David at every single turn. You know, that is until the very end when all screwball comedies find a way to bring couples back together.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) is a fun, but rather odd little film. The director of this wacky screwball comedy is none other than the master of suspense himself: Alfred Hitchcock. Now, this film was made fairly early on in his long Hollywood career (he’d already made a name for himself in his native England), and definitely sticks out like a sore thumb amongst his darker, suspense classics. That saying, Hitchcock had a wicked sense of humor, and you’ll find many cheeky a moment throughout his filmography. Also, this is one of a few films where Hitchcock wasn’t involved in the script writing process. He took this film on as a favor to Carole Lombard.
And really, no one can turn down Carole.
What we have is a very un-Hitchcockian film directed by Hitchcock. But if you know what to look for, you’ll see his hand prints all over this film. For instance, when Ann is shaving David with a straight-razor, there’s an awkward combination of sexiness and “oh my god, she may slit his throat.” Or the blatant sexual double entendres and imagery Hitch is famous for, which are too many to count in this film. And more importantly (although we don’t want to spoil things too much) but remember the train tunnel in North by Northwest or the bursting fireworks in To Catch a Thief? Yeah, think along those lines. The end result is a fast-paced comedy with hilarious performances by a very handsome Bob Montgomery and a luminous Carole Lombard (who is a bit more reserved and not at all frantic and high-pitched as she was in, say, Twentieth Century), and makes you wonder what it would’ve been like to have more Alfred Hitchcock directed comedies.