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Tag Archives: Comedy

Adam’s Rib (Nov. 18, 1949)

Adam's Rib
Adam’s Rib (1949)
Directed by George Cukor
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I haven’t seen all the movies Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made together, but of the ones I have seen, Adam’s Rib is easily my favorite. It’s hard to imagine a better vehicle for their talents.

In Adam’s Rib they play a married couple, Adam and Amanda Bonner, who are both lawyers. The Bonners have a loving marriage, but they’re both prickly and opinionated, and when they end up in the same courtroom on opposing sides of an attempted murder case, their quietly simmering battle of the sexes becomes a full-blown war. (Tracy and Hepburn were a couple in real life, but they were never married. Tracy was separated from his wife, but his Catholic faith precluded a divorce.)

Hepburn and Tracy

Before Adam’s Rib, Hepburn and Tracy had appeared together in George Stevens’s Woman of the Year (1942), George Cukor’s Keeper of the Flame (1942), Harold S. Bucquet’s Without Love (1945), Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass (1947), and Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948).

The director of Adam’s Rib, George Cukor, directed one of my favorite films from 1947, A Double Life. He is probably most famous for directing The Philadelphia Story (1940), which starred Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart.

Adam’s Rib was written by the same husband-and-wife team who wrote the screenplay for A Double Life, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon. (Ruth Gordon also acted, and had memorable turns as an older actress in Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude.)

Kanin and Gordon

I loved A Double Life, but it’s a dark psychological drama about murder and madness, and couldn’t be more different from Adam’s Rib, which is an effervescent comedy, so it was fun to see the same writers and director making an equally good film about a completely different subject.

Adam’s Rib is not just a yuk-fest. While I laughed a lot, its take on gender relations is thought-provoking stuff; not only because it’s so different from most other Hollywood movies of the time, but because so much of it is still relevant.

Society may be less forgiving of male infidelity nowadays, but double standards are still rife. There’s a great scene early in the film in which Amanda Bonner asks her secretary, Grace (Eve March), why infidelity is “not nice” if it’s a man stepping out but “something terrible” if a woman does it.

Her secretary shrugs and says, “I don’t make the rules.” Hepburn responds, “Sure you do, we all do.”

The acknowledgement that we are all complicit in creating standards of “male” and “female” behavior is rare in motion pictures today, and was even rarer mid-century.

I also loved all the subtle bits in the film, like when a shot of the exterior of the courthouse implies that Amanda Bonner’s client may not — as a woman — get a fair trial.

Equal justice

The woman in question is Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday), a ditzy simpleton who emptied a revolver in the general direction of her husband, Warren Attinger (Tom Ewell), and her husband’s mistress, Beryl Caighn (Jean Hagen). She wounded her husband, and is on trial for attempted murder.

Assistant District Attorney Adam Bonner pulls the case and prepares to prosecute Mrs. Attinger, but his wife, Amanda Bonner, begins to needle him about the specifics. When he decides he’s had enough and tells her he hates it when she gets “all cause-y,” it’s the last straw, and she offers her services as a defense attorney to Mrs. Attinger.

One thing I loved about the film was how well Tracy and Hepburn were able to convey their physical tenderness toward each other even when they were arguing. The Bonners are an extremely believable married couple, which is rare to see in the movies.

The supporting cast are all good, although David Wayne’s performance as the Bonners’ amorous across-the-hall neighbor was a little campy and over-the-top for my taste.

Still, this is a great film, and a truly funny and highly literate comedy. Adam’s Rib is a sure bet for my list of the best films of 1949.

I Was a Male War Bride (Aug. 9, 1949)

I Was a Male War Bride
I Was a Male War Bride (1949)
Directed by Howard Hawks
20th Century-Fox

Here’s what I knew about I Was a Male War Bride before I watched it: It’s a screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks. It’s the only Howard Hawks movie my cinephile friend Oskar doesn’t like very much. Cary Grant dresses in drag at the end.

Beyond that, I went in with no preconceptions, and I had a great time. I laughed more at I Was a Male War Bride than any comedy I’ve watched in the past few months.

I’m sure it’s hard for a lot of people not to unfavorably compare I Was a Male War Bride with Howard Hawks’s two previous screwball comedies with Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). Both films are widely acknowledged classics. Taken on its own merits, though, I think I Was a Male War Bride is great. It’s a really funny movie, with a wonderful blend of witty dialogue and physical comedy.

Ann Sheridan plays Catherine Gates, a lieutenant in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and Cary Grant plays Henri Rochard, a captain in the French Army.

Capt. Rochard is an incorrigible skirt-chaser and Lt. Gates is a hard-nosed officer with a quick wit. When the film begins, they’ve already been paired on multiple missions, and have the easy romantic-comedy repartee of two bickering people who profess to hate each other but can’t get enough of each other.

The opening scene of the film mocks the military’s obsessive use of acronyms and initialisms, when Capt. Rochard is so caught up in making sense of abbreviations that he can’t decipher the door of the women’s lavatory. And the film as a whole mocks the endless layers of bureaucracy and red tape everyone in the military has to contend with.

I Was a Male War Bride is based on the memoirs of the real-life Henri Rochard, a Belgian who married an American Army nurse, which were published under the humorously verbose title I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress.

There’s a lot I loved about this film. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, with great gags and crisp dialogue that is frequently sexually suggestive, and Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan have wonderful chemistry.

My one problem with the film was that I could never accept Cary Grant as a Frenchman. Cary Grant is one of the all-time great screen stars, but he had two speeds: Comedy and Drama. He never altered his accent and barely ever changed his mannerisms. I wouldn’t have had trouble accepting him as a “French” military officer if it wasn’t so inextricably linked to the film’s plot. The film has a good deal of authenticity. Much of it was shot in Germany, and a lot of the throwaway dialogue is in German, so the fact that Grant doesn’t look French, doesn’t act French, and never speaks in French is really bizarre.

On the other hand, Cary Grant is perfect for this type of comedy, and I don’t think I Was a Male War Bride would have been a better film if his role had been played by Jean Gabin or Jacques François.

Grant and Sheridan

The final sequence with Grant in drag didn’t play as humorously for me as it probably did when the film first played in theaters. Seeing a popular male star dressed as a woman isn’t a novelty anymore, after movies like Tootsie (1982) and The Birdcage (1996). And this certainly wasn’t the first movie to feature a man in drag, as anyone who’s seen The Devil-Doll (1936) can attest.

The only thing funny about seeing Cary Grant in drag is that you’re seeing Cary Grant in drag. He plays a woman the same way he plays a Frenchman, only with a bit more discomfort.

But the scenes of him in drag take up a blessedly short amount of screen time, and didn’t diminish the overall good time I had watching this film. It’s a great comedy with great stars, and holds up really well. It was also 20th Century-Fox’s highest-grossing movie of 1949, and Howard Hawks’s third most financially successful film of all time, after Sergeant York (1941) and Red River (1948).

Kind Hearts and Coronets (June 21, 1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Directed by Robert Hamer
Ealing Studios

Alec Guinness isn’t the star of Kind Hearts and Coronets. Not exactly. Dennis Price plays the protagonist, a ruthless social climber who attempts to murder his way to a dukedom, but Guinness dominates the film by playing eight different characters of vastly different ages (including one who is a woman).

If the opening credits of the film didn’t clearly show that Guinness plays multiple characters, I’m sure a few viewers would miss that fact, since he disappears into each role.

Greenwood and Guinness

The film tells the story of Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), whose mother was disowned by her aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes, when she married an Italian organ grinder. (Guinness isn’t the only actor in the film who plays multiple parts. Price plays his own father in a short flashback, sporting a thick black mustache.) Mazzini’s father died when he was a baby, leaving his mother penniless.

Mazzini vows revenge on the D’Ascoynes. He keeps careful track of all the noblemen and noblewomen who stand in the way of his Dukedom. Sometimes the death notices bring good news. Sometimes the birth column brings bad news.

After a chance encounter with his playboy cousin, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, leads to Mazzini losing his job, he decides that waiting for everyone who stands in his way to die of natural causes will take too long, and he coolly takes to plotting murder.

Alec Guinness

Kind Hearts and Coronets is based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. I haven’t read the novel, but by all accounts the film improves on it. The dry, acerbic voiceover by Price apparently owes a lot to its literary source, but the comedic tone of the murders is amped up for the film. In the book, Israel Rank mostly disposes of his victims with poison, but in the film they meet their ends in wildly varied ways; drowning, explosion, falling from the sky, and a well-placed shotgun blast. And yes, a little poison.

Another difference between the film and the book is that the novel’s protagonist has a Jewish father. I think the name “Israel Rank” is a trifle too obvious for a half-Jewish man who attempts to improve his station through murder. And in any case, “Rank” was out of the question as the surname in the film since Ealing Studios’ films were distributed by J. Arthur Rank and most of Kind Hearts and Coronets was shot at Rank’s studios at Pinewood. The scale of the film was simply too large for the Ealing studio.

Price and Greenwood

Guinness is a comedic juggernaut in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Price ranks with Hannibal Lecter as one of the most charming serial murderers in cinematic history, but the film also features two great performances by women: Valerie Hobson as Edith, the noblewoman whom Mazzini schemes to marry, and Joan Greenwood as Sibella, the seductive coquette who rejected him in favor of a boring, wealthy man, but with whom he carries on an extramarital affair for most of the film.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the most pitch-black comedies I’ve ever seen, but it never devolves into mere gruesomeness. The witty and irony-laden script is one reason, but the fact that Guinness plays all of the murder victims is another. It adds a layer of theatricality to the proceedings that makes it difficult to take any of the homicides too seriously.

Ealing scored a real one-two punch in 1949 with Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets. One is warmly human and the other is cold and biting, but they both rank among the best comedies ever made.

Incidentally, the title of the film is taken from one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems, “Kind hearts are more than coronets / And simple faith than Norman blood.”

Kind Hearts and Coronets will be shown on TCM on April 2, 2014.

Whisky Galore! (June 16, 1949)

Whisky Galore
Whisky Galore! (1949)
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Ealing Studios

I first saw Whisky Galore back in college. It wasn’t part of a class, it was just a Saturday-night feature shown in the film department.

I went to Bard College, which is in a beautiful, rural part of New York State. Procuring booze wasn’t exactly difficult, but it could be a challenge, especially if you didn’t have a car. So this rollicking tale of whisky drinkers on an isolated island suddenly facing the prospect of living without “the water of life” resonated with more than a few audience members. Hell, some of us were probably only there because we couldn’t find any booze.

I enjoyed Whisky Galore the first time I saw it, but I didn’t find it uproariously funny. This time around was different. I now think it’s one of the best comedies ever made.

Except for a few sight gags here and there — like a straight line of footsteps leading into a cave where whisky is hidden and a weaving, curving line of footsteps leading out — most of the humor is subtle and tongue-in-cheek. I realized that I’d completely missed some of the funniest bits of the movie on my first viewing. (If you have even the slightest difficulty understanding English or Scottish accents — or if you’re at all hard of hearing — you’re going to want to watch this film with subtitles. The DVD currently available to rent from Netflix has no closed captioning, and there are several reviews written solely to complain about that fact.)

Whisky Galore is based on the novel by Compton MacKenzie, which was inspired by the sinking of the S.S. Politician in 1941. The screenplay is by MacKenzie and Angus MacPhail.

The film takes place in 1943 in the Outer Hebrides, on the fictional island of Todday. The Second World War is raging, but far from Todday. The Home Guard goes on maneuvers and set up roadblocks that would be ridiculous even without the benefit of hindsight. The Home Guard in Todday is commanded by the puffed-up Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), who is English, and frequently mystified by the peculiarities of the Scottish natives of this far-flung island.

One day, disaster strikes. Not famine or pestilence, but something far, far worse. No whisky.

But then, one foggy night, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, a freighter carrying 50,000 cases of whisky, runs aground on the shoals.

When Waggett gets wind of the locals’ plan to “liberate” as much whisky as they can from the ship before it sinks, he jumps into action. Waggett feels strongly that order must be maintained. Allow a little looting, and anarchy will follow.

Basil Radford

Whisky Galore wrings humor out of more than just forced sobriety and drunken revelry. It’s an extremely well-crafted film about small-town life.

Todday seems to contain just two small villages, Snorvaig and Garryboo. The insularity of Todday is personified by the young schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), who assigns his students a composition assignment, “Why I like living in Garryboo.”

One of his pupils reads his essay aloud: “There are more people in Snorvaig. But they are not so nice as the people in Garryboo.”

Even though Campbell is an adult with a real job, he lives with his mother (played by Jean Cadell), who still treats him like a child. She doesn’t let him use the telephone on the Sabbath, and when he protests, she scolds and punishes him. “Go to your room, George Campbell! There’ll be no church for you in Snorvaig today!” And he sheepishly complies.

All the actors in this film are wonderful, and perfectly cast. Besides the pitch-perfect performances by Radford and Cadell (who have the funniest exchange of the picture when he tries to convince her to let her son out of his room because he needs his Home Guard second-in-command), I especially liked the lovely Joan Greenwood and the stalwart Bruce Seton as the man who loves her.

But, as I said, all the actors are wonderful. And this is a wonderful film. Even the ending, which seems to have been forced on the filmmakers by the censors, is hilarious.

Neptune’s Daughter (May 22, 1949)

Neptune's Daughter
Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Directed by Edward Buzzell
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Neptune’s Daughter was the third and final pairing of Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban. The two previously starred together in Fiesta (1947) and On an Island With You (1948).

In Neptune’s Daughter, Williams plays Eve Barrett, a swimsuit designer, and Montalban plays a dashing South American polo player named José O’Rourke.

The film also stars MGM’s big comedic draw, Red Skelton, as masseur Jack Spratt, and the manic, wild-eyed Betty Garrett as Eve’s sister, creatively named “Betty Barrett.”

Neptune’s Daughter was the second time Skelton and Williams appeared together. The first was Bathing Beauty (1944). (They both appeared in the revue film Ziegfeld Follies, but in separate segments.)

I love Esther Williams. She’s beautiful, athletic, and charming. And the fact that she was a swimming star made her unique. I also like Betty Garrett, who plays essentially the same man-crazy role in Neptune’s Daughter that she played in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). And Ricardo Montalban is Ricardo Montalban. He’s the smoothest Latin lover in Hollywood history.

Williams and Montalban

But I’m not totally sold on Red Skelton. I just don’t find him that funny. Plenty of his bits in Neptune’s Daughter are amusing, but I didn’t find them particularly uproarious, and I really don’t enjoy all his mugging for the camera.

The musical high point of Neptune’s Daughter is the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” by Frank Loesser. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, but there was some controversy over whether it should be eligible for the 1949 Oscars, since Loesser wrote it in 1944 and had performed it at parties with his wife, Lynn Garland. Since it had never been performed “professionally” until its appearance in Neptune’s Daughter, it was deemed eligible and went on to win the Oscar. Loesser’s wife, however, was furious that her husband had sold it to MGM, since she considered it “their song.”

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is first performed by Montalban and Williams; he sings the “wolf” part and Williams sings the “mouse” part. It’s performed later by Betty Garrett and Red Skelton with the roles reversed; she is the aggressor and he is the shy one.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was used in the film because MGM’s censors decided that the lyrics of Loesser’s song “I’d Love to Get You (On a Slow Boat to China)” were too suggestive. (Which explains its presence in a film that takes place in sweltering heat.)

This is ironic, since “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has lyrics that are more more suggestive than the lyrics of “I’d Love to Get You (On a Slow Boat to China).” Parts of the song even border on suggesting date rape, an aspect of the song that was recently satirized by Key & Peele.

I think some of the lyrics to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” sound worse now than they were intended to. For example, the line “Hey, what’s in this drink?” suggests roofies nowadays, but at the time Loesser wrote the song it was probably meant to imply the sentiment, “Oh my goodness this is a strong drink.”

I think it’s a playful and seductive song, and the fact that Skelton and Barrett reverse the roles when they perform the song adds to the acceptability.

What I found totally unacceptable in Neptune’s Daughter, from a gender standpoint, is the unquestioned assumption that Esther Williams’s character will have to give up her swimwear design business — which she built herself — if she gets married. The idea that she could remain head of a successful company and also be a married woman is unthinkable.

But for the most part, Neptune’s Daughter is a fun, vibrant Technicolor extravaganza. For my money, anything with Esther Williams is worth watching.

Neptune’s Daughter will be shown on TCM on April 6, 2014.

The Barkleys of Broadway (May 4, 1949)

The Barkleys of Broadway
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Directed by Charles Walters
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are back, for one final engagement!

The Barkleys of Broadway was their first pairing in a decade. It was also the only film they made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the only time they were onscreen together in Technicolor.

During the 1930s, Astaire and Rogers appeared together in nine films released by RKO Radio Pictures: Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).

In the 1940s, Ginger Rogers established herself as an actress in dramas and comedies, and Fred Astaire established himself as a successful solo star in musicals like Holiday Inn (1942) and Easter Parade (1948).

Astaire was set to make another film with Judy Garland, his co-star in Easter Parade. It was going to be called “You Made Me Love You,” after one of Garland’s hit songs. But when she was forced to drop out of the project, producer Arthur Freed cast Ginger Rogers to replace her … because the world can never have too much Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

When the two perform their first tap number in The Barkleys of Broadway, it’s joyful and exhilarating, and it’s hard to believe that more than 10 years have passed since they made a film together.

In The Barkleys of Broadway, Astaire and Rogers play Josh and Dinah Barkley, a married couple who are wildly successful onstage but who can’t go two minutes without bickering offstage. Their partner Ezra Millar (Oscar Levant) tries his best to keep them in check, but even he can’t keep them together when a handsome French playwright named Jacques Pierre Barredout (played by Jacques François) convinces Dinah that she should become a “serious” actress and star in his new play about Sarah Bernhardt.

Josh continues performing on his own. The high point of his solo career is the impressively surreal number “Shoes With Wings On,” in which a bunch of dancing shoes live up to their name.

Dinah struggles under Barredout’s dictatorial direction, so Josh takes to impersonating the Frenchman over the phone after rehearsals to give Dinah the kind of direction he knows will help her.

Eventually they are brought back together by Ezra’s machinations, which leads to an emotional performance of the song “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which Astaire had previously sung to Rogers in the film Shall We Dance, but which they had never danced to on film before.

The Barkleys of Broadway is a lot of fun. It’s great to see Astaire and Rogers back together, and Oscar Levant is his usual acerbic, deadpan self. (He also gets a chance to do what he does best — entertain on the piano.)

The film’s music is mostly by Harry Warren, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is by George and Ira Gershwin.)

The story is inconsequential, but that’s the case with most movie musicals. This film is an excuse for some singing, dancing, and comedy, and it’s all wonderful. The fact that Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire would never make another film together makes it a slightly bittersweet viewing experience, but it’s not that bittersweet. After all, they left us with a tremendous cinematic legacy, and nothing lasts forever.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (March 9, 1949)

Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
Directed by Busby Berkeley
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

By 1948, when Take Me Out to the Ball Game was filmed, legendary musical director Busby Berkeley was suffering from problems with alcohol and with his own temperament. No studio trusted him to both direct and choreograph a picture, so when he was given Take Me Out to the Ball Game to direct, the choreography was handled by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.

Just judging by what’s on screen, Berkeley had no problem putting together a fun, well-made Technicolor musical for M-G-M.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game reunited Frank Sinatra with Gene Kelly. The two had previously starred together in Anchors Aweigh (1945). Sinatra’s career had hit a bit of a lull in 1948, and M-G-M thought it would be a good idea to pair him with his co-star from the most financially successful film he’d ever made.

Sinatra plays Dennis Ryan, the second baseman of the baseball team The Wolves, and Kelly plays O’Brien, the shortstop. When Ryan and O’Brien aren’t playing baseball, they’re one of the most popular Vaudeville duos in the country. Take Me Out to the Ball Game takes place in 1909, so the notion of two professional baseball players also working as Vaudevillians is only half as ludicrous as it would have been in 1949.

When Ryan and O’Brien report for spring training in Sarasota, they find out that a new owner — K.C. Higgins — has inherited the team. None of the players are happy about this, and they all assume that this Higgins fellow will be a fathead who doesn’t know the first thing about baseball. Unsurprisingly, K.C. Higgins turns out to be a woman (see also Major League).

Of course, K.C. is a baseball whiz, and since she’s played by swimmer Esther Williams, she gets some time in the water, too. The first time Ryan and O’Brien see her cavorting in the hotel pool, one of them remarks, “Not bad for a dame who can field a hot grounder.”

Sinatra and Kelly

The comedy in Take Me Out to the Ball Game is passable, but it’s the singing and dancing that make a musical, and the picture succeeds on both counts. Kelly isn’t quite the singer Sinatra is, and Sinatra isn’t quite the dancer Kelly is, but the same magic they worked in Anchors Aweigh is onscreen here, and it’s a joy to watch.

The songs are all pretty good. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is heard more than once, and there are also highlights like “The Right Girl for Me,” which Sinatra croons to Williams in the moonlight, and “The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day,” which Kelly sings while doing a jig, wearing a battered green hat, and brandishing a shillelagh.

If you listen to the lyrics of “Yes, Indeedy,” which is about loving and leaving gals across the country, you’ll catch a line about a lovesick Vassar girl who committed suicide after Sinatra loved her and left her, and a Southern belle who turned out to be 11 years old, which is why Gene Kelly had to leave her. The risqué things you can get away with really change from generation to generation, don’t they?

Just like in It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), plenty of humor is wrung from Sinatra’s slender frame. We see him gorging himself on steak and buttered rolls to gain weight during spring training, as well as sucking down milkshakes like they’re water. But alas, he remains a beanpole, and the vivacious and lovesick Shirley Delwyn (played by Betty Garrett) is able to sling him over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry during one of their musical numbers together.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game is, by all accounts, not as good as Kelly and Sinatra’s next collaboration, On the Town (1949), which I haven’t seen yet. But I enjoyed the heck out of it.

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