For those needing to go to a happy movie place today…
If I were asked to name the single scene in all of romantic comedy that was sexiest and funniest at the same time, I would advise beginning at six seconds past the 20-minute mark in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve, and watching as Barbara Stanwyck toys with Henry Fonda’s hair in an unbroken shot that lasts three minutes and 51 seconds.
—Roger Ebert (1942-2013), November 23, 1997
For this final chapter in the tale of screwball comedies, we are well into what I like to think of as the Preston Sturges years. While some directors we reviewed earlier will continue to direct comedies in this era, such as Howard Hawks with Ball of Fire in 1941, Ernst Lubitsch with To Be or Not to Be in 1942, and Frank Capra with Arsenic and Old Lace in 1944, Sturges dominates the first part of this decade, just as screwballs are mostly fading away with the onset of World War II.
One reason for this dominance is that Sturges was remarkably prolific in the early part of the decade, writing and directing eight films in the years from 1940 to 1944. Perhaps he was making up for lost time—he only began directing at age 42, after arriving in Hollywood in his mid-30s as a writer. Lest you think he was simply a clever wordsmith (although he certainly was that), his films are full of physical comedy, with a strong visual style, featuring extended takes and a carefully constructed mise-en-scène. His unique vision is evident from the first seconds, as even his opening credits are usually quite innovative.
As with Lubitsch and Capra, his screwballs don’t always strictly follow the conventions of the genre, but they are definitely screwball in spirit, with an unusual mix of fairytale and frankness. He consistently plays with audience expectations and the Production Code, particularly regarding sex. He also was extremely loyal, building true ensemble pieces with a core group of character actors who he used from film to film (my favorite is William Demarest, perhaps best known as Uncle Charley from My Three Sons).
The first film I looked at, Christmas in July (1940), is a brief (only 67 minutes!) fairytale about a young man, Jimmy (Dick Powell), who enters a slogan contest with a first prize of $25,000, or about $400,000 today. In a strange twist, after some of his co-workers trick him into thinking he has won, he ends up being promoted at work and goes on a shopping spree with the money he doesn’t know he hasn’t won. This fairytale is also a cautionary tale with conflicting messages about hope and the work world woven throughout. Whether it’s intentional or merely a modern-day reading of some of these themes, we will see this sugarcoating of a darker underbelly in most Sturges films.
It is certainly found in The Lady Eve (1941), perhaps his most overtly cynical film. The story of a wealthy heir and Amazonian snake expert (Henry Fonda) who becomes involved with a con artist (Barbara Stanwyck), this one takes many twists and turns that don’t always make a lot of sense, but it has a number of fine qualities, including some great physical comedy from Fonda. Personally, I’ve never really warmed to this film; as with Bringing Up Baby, I find the heroine too willfully cruel to be sympathetic, and the hero too unbelievably naïve (read: stupid) to live. At least in His Girl Friday, Cary Grant, who plays a creepily manipulative man, is fairly well matched in Rosalind Russell’s Hildy.
On the other hand, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) has always been one of my favorite films, mostly due to having had a wicked crush on Veronica Lake ever since seeing René Clair’s I Married a Witch. This is not really a screwball comedy in the traditional sense, it’s more like a funny road movie, “with a little sex in it.” I include it here because it is one of the best movies about movies ever and everyone should see it.
—I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!
—But with a little sex in it.
—A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!
—But with a little sex in it.
—[Reluctantly] With a little sex in it.
—Sullivan discussing his pet project with studio execs in Sullivan’s Travels
Sullivan’s Travels is a great send-up of and love letter to the movie industry, as popular comedy director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) decides he wants to make a “serious” picture entitled O Brother Where Art Thou? and sets out penniless to discover how the other half lives. As in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, he sets out four times, first walking, then driving, then by train, only to end up back in Hollywood each time. Along the way he meets The Girl (Veronica Lake), who becomes his travel companion.
—How does the girl fit in this picture?
—There’s always a girl in the picture. Haven’t you ever been to the movies?
—A confused policeman to wayward director Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels
When Sullivan actually does reach rock bottom, sentenced to six years hard labor on a chain gang, he realizes just how important comedies are when you have nothing else left.
I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do.
—Roger Ebert (1942-2013), Life Itself: A Memoir
Also featuring Joel McCrea, this time with Claudette Colbert, The Palm Beach Story (1942) is another longtime favorite, although I don’t think that as a film it’s as good as The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, or The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. But it is a classic screwball in every sense. This fast-paced picture, with the craziest of plots, from its opening freeze-frame credits to the final incredible twist, is yet another comedy of remarriage, when Colbert’s Gerry decides to take the train to Palm Beach in order to get a quickie divorce from Tom, for no real reason other than the fact they are broke. (Gerry plans to marry someone rich who will invest in Tom’s engineering project.) After experiencing the “hospitality” of the Ale and Quail club car, she sneaks off and meets eccentric millionaire John D. Hackensacker III, played by Rudy Vallée. In the meantime, Tom has followed Gerry to Palm Beach by air, where he gets introduced to Hackensacker and his sister as Gerry’s brother. Hijinks ensue.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) opens in a similar way to The Palm Beach Story, with two newspapermen rushing to make a frantic phone call to the governor. The audience doesn’t learn what this phone call is about at first, but it serves to introduce the story via flashback. Incredibly, the plot of this film revolves around Betty Hutton (Trudy Kockenlocker!!!) getting drunk at a farewell party, marrying a soldier, getting pregnant, and not remembering any details or having any proof of it the next morning. Luckily, since this is still Hollywood in the 40s, childhood friend Eddie Bracken, who has been in love with her forever, comes to the rescue and she falls in love with him for his good heart. What is not to love about that?
I didn’t know this film at all before this project. It turned out to be a fascinating way to close out my review of Sturges’ work because it really represents the culmination of the director’s efforts to this point: sex as a driving force in the narrative, his overt playing to the letter of the Code instead of its spirit, his stock cast of character actors (with the opening phone call including a nod to his first film The Great McGinty), the emphasis on physical comedy and pratfalls, the weakness or naïveté of the male hero, the bitter or sarcastic female (found here in the younger sister, played by Diana Lynn), and incredible overlapping, sometimes nonsensical, dialogue.
—Listen, Zipper-puss! Some day they’re just gonna find your hair ribbon and an axe someplace. Nothing else! The Mystery of Morgan’s Creek!
—Papa, that’s really not being very helpful.
—Well, what do you want me to do, learn to knit?
—William Demarest with his daughters in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
The Best of the Rest
The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940), directed by Alexander Hall, didn’t have the class element of most screwballs, but I found it very endearing, and perhaps most like a Regency romance with its marriage of convenience plot. Last seen way back in Platinum Blonde, here, Loretta Young plays an independent feminist author who has just written a best-seller on the joys of the spinster life. Needing to get to New York in a hurry, she catches a ride with medical school instructor Ray Milland and a series of incidents leads the press to report they are married. For separate reasons, both decide it’s better to go along with the charade than to come clean. This one has some great one-liners.
—Wait a minute, that man in there really isn’t my husband. He’s a… a prowler.
—Lady, I don’t care what your husband does for a living.
—Loretta Young to a reporter in The Doctor Takes a Wife
I was really looking forward to Ball of Fire (1941), directed by Howard Hawks. With a script by Billy Wilder, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck as leads, a supporting cast that includes Dana Andrews (a favorite from Laura), and a plot revolving around a bunch of professors living together and writing an encyclopedia, how could I not love this? And, while you may think I am setting it up for a fall, I am not. I loved it.
It gets off to a slow start, but it sneaks up on you, especially the seven professors who are modeled on Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and include such friendly faces as Carl the head waiter and Sascha the bartender from Casablanca, Uncle Max from The Sound of Music, and Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life. I particularly loved the scene with Cooper trying to understand the garbageman’s slang.
Rings on Her Fingers (1942), directed by Rouben Mamoulian, is an odd little film. It has just a tinge of noir in it, which prevents it from being a complete screwball. Right on the heels of playing the naïve heir in The Lady Eve, here we find Henry Fonda playing an even bigger sap. After being mistaken for a millionaire, he is swindled out of his life savings by a team of con men, including a new-to-the-game Gene Tierney. She only learns that he is a simple clerk when they meet again at the home of the team’s next mark. If you like pretty, pretty dresses, this is the one to watch.
The More the Merrier (1943), directed by George Stevens, is a great showcase for Charles Coburn, who pops up as a character actor in quite a few of these pictures, but moves to the forefront of this tale involving the housing shortage in wartime Washington, D.C., winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the process. Coburn plays a retired millionaire who connives to get leads Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea together by subletting McCrea half of his sublet. The elaborate dance that is three people getting ready in the morning in one small apartment sets the stage for decades of romantic comedies to come.
Finally, we come to Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), directed by Frank Capra. This film is in a category all its own—the Halloween screwball. If you haven’t seen this, you need to. The flip side of Loretta Young in The Doctor takes a Wife, Cary Grant plays a famous author of several anti-marriage books who secretly marries his aunts’ next-door neighbor (Priscilla Lane) on Halloween. While visiting them to relate the news, he finds a corpse hidden by his “adorable” elderly aunts, commits his brother Teddy to a mental institution (he thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt), and deals with the return of his evil cousin, Jonathan, whose plastic surgeon (Peter Lorre) has made him look like Boris Karloff.
—Aunt Abby, how can I believe you? There are twelve men down in the cellar and you admit you poisoned them.
—Yes, I did. But you don’t think I’d stoop to telling a fib?
—Mortimer Brewster to his Aunt Abigail in Arsenic and Old Lace
I hope you have enjoyed this review of screwball comedies and that you are able to check out some of these great films for yourself if you haven’t already. Look here for the final screwball round-up and awards ceremony.
Screwball Filmography: Part IV
The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940)
Christmas in July (1940)
The Lady Eve (1941)
Ball of Fire (1941)
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Rings on Her Fingers (1942)
The Palm Beach Story (1942)
The More the Merrier (1943)
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
For previous posts in this Screwball 101 series, click below:
March Madcapness: Introduction to Screwballs
Early Screwballs and The Lubitsch Touch
1930s Screwball Classics and Forgotten Films
1940s Screwballs: Comedies of Remarriage
For the final word on screwballs, read Film 101—Screwball Wrap Party.