William Powell the unflappable. That was his screen persona—memorialized in the likes of The Thin Man. He had a voice like single malt Scotch and a suave manner somehow equal parts immensely cultured and rough. In the glory days of 1930s romantic comedies, he was a king. William Powell was the 1930s equivalent of Fonzie. He was untouchably cool.
On screen, that is. No man is ever really so unmoved. And in 1938, the off-screen William Powell was in personal and professional turmoil. The love of his life, Jean Harlow, died tragically of renal failure at the age of 26. Still reeling from grief at this loss, Powell found his contract at MGM, the studio that practically made him a star, over. He was adrift, in more ways than one—but he would be called on to put on a happy face for the cameras to play opposite French actress Annabella in her American debut for a one-off romantic comedy made at 20th Century Fox. Almost immediately after completing the film, Powell would be diagnosed with cancer, and spend most of the next two years fighting for his life. That The Baroness and the Butler is even watchable is a testament to Powell’s professionalism. (Watch it tonight on TCM, or use the spiffy new TCM app to stream it at your leisure)
“One of the dullest towns in America is the dreary community of Hotchkiss Falls in the mid-Hudson Valley. The odds are 1000 to 1 against our finding anyone there with an interesting story. However that’s where we are, so let’s take a look around.”
Screwball comedies generally came in one of two flavors. The Heiress On the Run, as the name implies, presented rich girls fleeing their lives of privilege to take up with working-class men (see It Happened One Night, Next Time I Marry, Lady in a Jam, My Man Godfrey, Holiday). The Cinderella Story is also self-descriptive: a destitute and desperate girl is mistaken for a rich debutante, pampered by an older Sugar Daddy, and ultimately takes her place among the social set (see Easy Living, Midnight, and Fifth Avenue Girl, and Ruggles of Red Gap is a gender-reversed variant).
But once, the world of screwball combined these two flavors: Slightly Dangerous is both an Heiress on the Run film and a Cinderella Story, and it gives us a chance to dig into what made these two screwball subgenres work.
Gregory La Cava’s 1939 comedy Fifth Avenue Girl is an excellent example of the 1930s style of romantic comedies, and possibly my favorite Ginger Rogers film of all. It is also a decidedly deviant 1930s romantic comedy that breaks more rules than it follows, and uses Ginger Roger’s natural downtrodden deadpan persona to tamp down the usual screwball shenanigans in favor of something altogether more quiet, and bitter. And if that doesn’t quite sound like comedy to you, then read on…
Ruggles of Red Gap is an odd duck. It is a crucial turning point into the formative genre of screwball comedy, but it isn’t easily recognizable as a romantic comedy nor is it especially female driven. It was Charles Laughton’s favorite screen role, but he’s not known for comedy, and his performance here consists substantially of standing still and trying to suppress an awkward smile. It’s a 1930s Hollywood comedy for the Downton Abbey set, whose most famous scene involves a British valet reciting the Gettysburg Address to a bar full of Wild West toughs.
In other words, it’s a movie that calls for some unpacking. So let’s get started!
Up above, that’s a picture of the back of Joan Crawford’s head.
You might be wondering why I think that’s worth looking at, or how I expect to squeeze 1500 words out of it. I happen to think this is a potent and symbolic moment in the history of American screen comedy.
Longtime readers are used to my familiar soapbox rantings by now—I’ve spent most of my time here at TCM’s Movie Morlocks spinning my argument that the transition from silent slapstick to talkie screwball is *not* about the advent of sound. Most historians, if asked to demonstrate why screen comedy changed so radically in the 1930s, would point to a blackface Al Jolson singing his heart out and say, “here, lookit.” Not me. I’m going to point to the back of Joan Crawford’s head. “Here, lookit.”
Posted by Susan Doll on March 17, 2014
One of my favorite tropes from Golden Age romantic comedies is the “faux marriage” in which the leading man and leading lady either pretend to be married, or they actually wed for reasons other than true love. As they scheme, maneuver, or fight their way through the plot, they fall in love for real, though circumstances, stubbornness, or other characters prevent them from confessing their true feelings until the inevitable happy ending. The plot device is still commonly found in romantic comedies as a way to bring the main characters together while creating major obstacles for them to overcome.
Later this week, TCM is running a programming block to pay tribute to all of the 1937 Best Supporting Actor Nominees. Which is one of those gloriously random, weirdly specific programming decisions that makes TCM such a delightful destination for obsessive compulsives. The channel will run Leo McCarey’s screwball classic The Awful Truth, in honor of Ralph Bellamy’s Best Supporting Actor nod. And that’s all fine and well and good—Bellamy is excellent in his “Right Wrong Man” role—but if you really want to celebrate the best supporting performance in this film, you need to be looking at Asta the Dog.
Let’s start with a rarely seen 1940 screwball comedy, Roy Del Ruth’s He Married His Wife. While I won’t pretend that this is anything but a minor but somewhat enjoyable trifle, there’s something rather weird about it that deserves discussion. A number of social scholars—admittedly some of them film historians, but quite a few of them not film people at all—have written about this movie in a specific context: how Hollywood treats romantic love.
The “he” of the title is horse racing mogul Joel McCrea. His preoccupation with—and incompetence at—the horse trade crowds out any other consideration. Ex-wife Nancy Kelly grew weary of perpetual also-ran status in her husband’s life, and divorced him. Ironically, divorce provides her with the opportunity to force her way higher on his list of priorities: as he is now committed to a punishing monthly alimony, he can’t help but think of her constantly. McCrea conspires with his lawyer Roland Young to end the alimony by getting Nancy married to someone, anyone—say, their mutual friend Lyle Talbot. The plan goes awry when she snubs poor Lyle for a flashy, oily gigolo Cesar Romero. McCrea starts to realize he cares about something much more than horses or alimony… (there’s no real surprise where any of this is heading—just check out the title of the movie if you have any questions).
What makes this interesting to social commentators is that the idea of making a romantic comedy about a divorced couple getting back together didn’t just happen the once, or even twice—it’s an idea you’ll find in: The Awful Truth, (1937), Philadelphia Story (1940), My Favorite Wife (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), That Uncertain Feeling (1942), and Palm Beach Story (1942). Add He Married His Wife to that list and you have four such comedies appearing in 1940 alone—eight within five years.
Posted by Susan Doll on November 11, 2013
This could be the title of my autobiography, since I do not cook for anyone—not even myself. But, it is really the title of a minor screwball comedy. Released in 1935, just a year after It Happened One Night launched the subgenre dubbed screwball, If You Could Only Cook stars Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall as the mismatched couple destined to be together. The film airs on TCM this Friday night, November 15, at 4:45am.
To be honest, this is not a long-lost gem that will rival classics like It Happened One Night, Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, or other films that defined the genre. I did not feel it was special to recommend it as one of my “Forgotten Films to Remember.” The script lacks the fast-paced dialogue and snappy comebacks associated with screwball, the supporting characters are not zany enough, and the actual screwball situations are few and far between. But, the film provides a good example of how the systems and practices of the Golden Age could elevate the most mediocre of material, and I found myself admiring If You Could Only Cook for that reason.
Posted by David Kalat on June 15, 2013
There is a fairly well-regarded American comedy called Artists and Models. It has Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine in it, and was directed by Frank Tashlin. This post is not about that film at all, but rather a wholly unrelated comedy from about 20 years previously that just happens to have the same name.
I’d post a link to the next TCM airing of Raoul Walsh’s 1937 Artists and Models if it was on the schedule anytime soon—you’ll just have to keep an eye out for it on the schedule yourself. But don’t expect it to turn up in any plum primetime slot—this is strictly filler stuff, what TCM jams into the late night hours to avoid having to broadcast dead air.
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