Some Hollywood comedies of the 1930s.
Among my favourite films are the romantic comedies of 1930s Hollywood. A group of 12 of them I think of as among the greatest films ever made. These 12 are unique in all of cinema history, a superb union of wit, sophistication, subtlety, comedy – and romance. They include some so called ‘screwball’ comedies of the period, which sometimes add slapstick to the mix (‘screwball’ means eccentric, not doing the expected, originally used of a ball pitch in baseball). In these films thieves fall in love with their victims; heiresses elope with bums; lovers feud; married couples fall in love again; men exploit the women they love and the women their men; and love triumphs even in hell. Notice how many wealthy heiresses there are in these films: I counted six heiresses and two heirs, and that’s in just 12 films. Prosperity was indeed just around the corner, and Hollywood was pretty sure which corner.
1932 Trouble in Paradise
It all began with a magical film by Ernst Lubitsch called Trouble in Paradise, released in October 1932. Lubitsch (1892-1947) was born in Berlin, of Russian Jewish ancestry, and by 1922, when he came to America, was widely considered to be the world’s greatest film director. He collaborated with script writer Samson Raphaelson on Trouble in Paradise after a successful run of musical comedies. It must be remembered that the Production Code was not yet in force, a hypocritical attempt to legislate sex out of the movies, and that Lubitsch was a worldly and sophisticated European with a great love of life.
The story of the film is simple. Two thieves who prey on high society members in international resorts meet and fall in love. They are experts who successfully steal from each other without the other knowing, and their love is based on admiration and compatibility. You know this kind of love, when you meet your other self, one who always knows and understands what’s going on in your mind. But then Gaston, the male thief, falls in love with a projected mark, a reckless spender who has inherited a fortune and is fleeced by everyone. You probably know this love as well, romantic love, when the other person approaches some kind of ideal you had hidden away. Gaston must choose, and in the end he chooses wisely.
Gaston has to choose between Mariette (left) and Lily (right), a hard choice and I think I would have made the wrong one had I had to choose. Mariette the heiress is played by Kay Francis, one of the most popular female stars of the early 30s. Miriam Hopkins, who plays the part of Lily, the expert pickpocket, was another celebrated 30s actress.
The film is a masterpiece of composition. Sets, lighting, framing and script all approach perfection in this film. The dialogue is cynical, witty, and, in its way, profound. But more than dialogue, what you notice is the actors’ delivery. Lubitsch, like his contemporary Charles Chaplin, was both actor and director, and he directed like Chaplin did, by acting each character’s part and saying their lines. And he had been directing musicals for some time. The result is that the actors say, but seem to almost sing their lines, and the tone of nostalgic yearning is very often in the words, transforming the mere plot into a kind of longing for something lost but fondly remembered.
Here’s an example, from the first 10 minutes of the movie. We see a garbage collector taking trash away from doorways. It’s night time, and we don’t see clearly, but suddenly we make out the man’s gondola on a canal and know we are in Venice. Suddenly he breaks out into song, “O Solo Mio”, (my sunshine). The verses include the lines: When night comes and the sun has gone down,/I almost start feeling melancholy;/I’d stay below your window/When night comes and the sun has gone down. The contrast between garbage and love is comical, and suggests we don’t take Gaston’s yearning too seriously. It may be love but, we realise, it’s very much about making love.
A few minutes later we see Gaston in his room. He is in reverie.
GASTON (to waiter): It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous.
WAITER: Yes, Baron.
GASTON: (turning) And, waiter – you see that moon?
WAITER: Yes, Baron.
GASTON: I want to see that moon in the champagne.
WAITER: Yes, Baron. (Writing; very businesslike.) Moon in champagne.
GASTON: (groping for words) I want to see – (An ecstatic sigh escapes him).
The title “Trouble in Paradise” is appropriate as Gaston tries to make the right choice between one love and another. Gaston was played by Herbert Marshall, a famous stage actor from London who was a war hero of WWI, where he lost a leg. Subsequently he became one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men and was admired for his acting skills. Comic support is expertly provided by Charlie Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton as two of Mariette’s suitors.
There’s so much more to see in this 10 minutes and throughout the film you need several viewings, but the tone is overwhelming. Something precious, lost long ago, is just now within reach again. And this pervading mood of longing, which is romance, is bought into conflict with prosaic reality, accepted as inevitable, the contrast providing many comic moments. As the film progresses, all become a little wiser, yet all remain somehow regretful as well.
This is a film of a thousand loving details carefully applied, as if a Leonardo or a Rembrandt was making the film, and Lubitsch said he loved it more than any of his films.
Almost 12 months later, October 1933, came Victor Fleming’s brilliant and innovative Bombshell, with a script by Jules Furthman and starring Jean Harlow as Lola Burns, a film star very like Jean Harlow. If Trouble in Paradise was a comedy about illusion, Bombshell is a comedy about exploitation. I’ve reviewed it on Bestquest in my essay on the films of Jean Harlow so I won’t say any more here. Its satire is even more relevant and effective today than when the film was first released, and one can only marvel at Harlow’s skill as an actress.
1934 It Happened One Night
Bombshell lambasted Hollywood hype unmercifully, but Harlow made it funny by giving depth to her portrait of Lola Burns. Now in February 1934 Hollywood tried an all-American version of a Lubitsch film, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (what a saucy title!) from a script by Robert Riskin full of Hollywood hype. Clark Gable plays an out of work reporter called Peter and the elfin Claudette Colbert a runaway heiress called Ellie trying to find her lost husband. Capra (1897-1991) was born in Sicily and came to America when a child. He found opportunities in the film industry and eventually became one of the most successful directors in the world. He believed in America and the opportunities it offered, and had an idealistic belief in the virtues of ordinary Americans which made his films doctrinaire at times. He also relied more and more on sentiment for the effect of his films and eventually became a much derided figure, purveyor of what some called “Capra corn”.
Colbert and Gable do not make a good couple. The early scenes of their disagreements seem a lot more authentic than their love scenes, which are effective more through the lighting. Both stars were at the start of their careers, Gable a little more secure than Colbert, who at first rejected the role of Ellie (as had other actresses) because of the poor script. Although Gable developed a good comedic style and proved more than adept as a spokesperson of Capra’s common man, Colbert was ill at ease throughout filming and afterwards described the film as the worst one in the world. Capra liked improvisation, and Colbert froze, and came to dislike Capra, and Gable, intensely.
The script is a nest of improbabilities which you only notice on second viewing. The heiress Ellen marries a wealthy man despite her father’s wishes. Her father imprisons her on his yacht and moves to have the marriage annulled, rather high handed of him, as his daughter is over 21. The marriage is not consummated for some reason. Ellie escapes from her father by diving overboard, and elects to travel to meet her husband Westley, known as ‘King’, by bus to New York. On route her suitcase is stolen by a thief, she having taken it off the bus and left it lying around for the thief’s convenience. It was where she kept her money, rather than her handbag, and now she is penniless. On board the bus is Peter, a rather alcoholic ex-reporter fired for abusing his editor once too often. He learns Ellie’s story and takes her in charge. The two don’t get on, but Peter proposes a deal: her story for his help in getting to New York. Fleeing the bus to avoid interested reporters on the missing heiress story, the two have all kinds of adventures meeting ordinary Americans, including a thief who steals Peter’s baggage, and motel proprietors who evict them for not paying the bill. They steal a car, Ellie learns how to hitchhike, and starts to have fun. Inevitably, they fall in love. There’s some misunderstanding and Ellie goes back to ‘King’, and her father for some reason organises a second wedding, from which Ellie flees at the last moment to meet Peter in another motel, whose proprietors let us know the couple have got married. The final scene is an account of how the twin beds get pushed together and the marriage consummated.
Capra must be acknowledged for his ability to fill the holes and implausibilities in the script, and in this film shows his skill in direction, pacing and camera movement. Here is one of the Walls of Jericho scenes. The way the film deals with sex is miles away from Lubitsch, and heavy handed. Remember though the Production Code was in force and sex in the movies had been abolished. Whereas Lubitsch can show desire and longing, and that’s enough to make his point, Capra has the couple sleeping in the same room, but separated by a blanket hanging between them, referred to as the Wall of Jericho. We see this twice in two different motel rooms, and it is meant to be mildly shocking. Then, at the end of the film in a third motel room we hear the sound of a trumpet, and are told the wall has fallen. It’s heavy handed, obvious, cute, and sentimental. The film won a lot of Oscars.
1934 Twentieth Century
Two months after It Happened One Night came Twentieth Century, directed by Howard Hawks with the speed of that legendary train and the help of John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. Hawks learned a lot from his friend Victor Fleming and from Bombshell’s fast pacing and overlapping dialogue. And he had a script by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and Preston Sturges. It was all about delusion, and how we need it, especially the glamour crazed people of the stage. I’ve reviewed Twentieth Century already on Bestquest in my essay on the comedies of Howard Hawks so will say no more here.
1936 My Man Godfrey
The lightness of touch of a Lubitsch film was recaptured in September 1936 with Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey, which was also the first film in this group to mention the plight of unemployed men during the Depression. The script was by Morrie Ryskind and Gregory La Cava, who like Hawks was also a more than competent writer. The film starred William Powell and Carole Lombard. The film called for Lombard, Powell’s ex-wife, to fall in love with the character he played, the eponymous Godfrey, and she does it convincingly. Indeed, no-one has ever been as smitten as Irene (Lombard) was with Godfrey. La Cava (1892-1952) had been directing films since the start of the 20s, but has gone down in history for directing the back to back masterpieces My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937), two of the best films of the 30s.
The film opens on the city dump, where a number of ‘forgotten’ i.e. unemployed men live in shacks and prospect the garbage. A group of socialites arrive on a scavenger hunt, and Irene (Carole Lombard) meets Godfrey (William Powell). It’s one of the great introductions in movie history and makes Romeo and Juliet look like a Quakers’ tea party. Over her mother’s and sister’s objections Irene hires Godfrey as the family butler, and he attempts to survive in their disordered household. Over time we find out Godfrey is really a Boston aristocrat saved from suicide over a failed love affair by the bums at the dump; his gratitude takes the form of him becoming one of them. Godfrey’s courtesy and consideration win the heart of all in his new family and in turn Godfrey tries to repay, saving the head of the household Mr Bullock (Eugene Pallette) from bankruptcy and starting a business for the bums, a fashionable nightclub on the city dump premises. William Powell is perfect as the good man getting on his feet again and trying to avoid making the same mistakes, and Carole Lombard shows herself one of the best comedians of the 30s, full of wit and charm, and leaves us happy that Irene gets her man in the end. When you see a masterpiece what’s obvious is not what’s done but the magical way it’s done.
Carole Lombard was in 30 films to no avail until she starred with Clark Gable in 1932’s No Man of Her Own. But it took the Howard Hawks film Twentieth Century of 1934 to unleash her extraordinary talent as a comedian. Two years later in Godfrey she was unsurpassable. William Powell started in the movies at the same time as Lombard and found fame in the same year as she, 1934, in the comedy crime thriller The Thin Man. He had been married to Carole Lombard and was engaged to Jean Harlow, so the man had good taste. (Both women however came to tragic ends, Harlow in 1937, Lombard in 1942). My Man Godfrey is all about the relationship between Irene and Godfrey, and watching these two actors interact on screen is one of the great joys of the movie as moments are played for laughs and at the same time show the couple developing a deeper relationship. Here she is lovesick, convinced Godfrey doesn’t love her. “Food! What is food?”
And after an hysterical outburst when Godfrey puts Irene in the shower to show he thinks she’s shamming, Irene is elated. “He loves me! He loves me! You love me, otherwise you wouldn’t have lost your temper”.
1936 Libeled Lady
Two weeks later in October 1936 Libeled Lady was released, a screwball comedy that really deserved the tag. The film was directed by Jack Conway from a script by Maurine Watkins (author of Chicago and Roxie Hart) and Howard Rogers, and starred Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracey. These four strike sparks off one another, especially Harlowe as Gladys. Her depth of characterisation allows the other three to be brilliantly funny. I’ve reviewed Libeled Lady on Bestquest in my essay on Jean Harlow’s films, so won’t say more here.
1937 The Awful Truth
Just over a year later, October 1937, came Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth from a script by Viña Delmar and starring Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant (the pair soon to be so effective in His Girl Friday) and Irene Dunne. McCarey (1898-1969) was an all rounder, actor, writer, producer and director who survived directing the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup in 1933, went on to direct Dunne in the weepie Love Affair with Charles Boyer and made it again as An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant. The Awful Truth is probably his best film, hovering on the edge of sentimentality but never quite sinking into it.
It’s misleading to talk about the plot. It’s more like a funny story: have you heard the one about the couple who were cheating on one another, so they divorced; but as soon as they started dating other people they both got jealous, and ended up getting married again – to one another. Lucy (Dunne) has a night away from home with her music teacher Armand which her husband Jerry (Grant) at least thinks highly suspicious, perhaps because of the way he’s been carrying on himself. The matter is conventional and the treatment likewise, and hardly humorous. But when an Oklahoma oil baron named Daniel (the great Ralph Bellamy) falls for Lucy, things develop. Bellamy has a talent for portraying guileless innocents with absolutely no idea of the situations they find themselves in. Almost all of the film’s humour involves the sub plot with Daniel and his mother. The film ends with Jerry and Lucy realising they still love one another, and there is a long rather sentimental coda involving Lucy stranding Jerry and herself in her aunt’s remote cabin, with some heavy handed humour about an adjoining bedroom door that won’t stay shut. It’s reminiscent of the ending of It Happened One Night and equally cute and sentimental.
Irene Dunne was a singer of some fame when she began to act in movies. She excelled both in sentimental films about heart broken women and in wry romantic comedies. Notable weepies were Roberta (1935) with Rogers and Astaire where she sings “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, Love Affair (1939) with Charles Boyer and Penny Serenade (1941) with Cary Grant (above). Her distinctive style of humour can be seen in The Awful Truth, My Favourite Wife (1940), almost a pastiche of that film, and Life With Father (1947). Dunne proceeds in The Awful Truth with embarrassed smiles, mutterings and throat clearings and, when she has the rare chance, biting wit. And she always manages to get in a song or two to display her admittedly fine voice. Somehow, because of her considerable charm, it just works.
Cary Grant was in many films throughout the 30s, where he did his best work, and in The Awful Truth we can see him becoming ‘Cary Grant’, a figure he was to adopt as screen persona for 30 years. Legend has it that his style was based on that of Leo McCarey. The following year he was directed by Howard Hawks, who developed what Grant had, bringing out a manic quality and superb physical humour that clashed with his odd accent and hesitant interactions with other actors and somehow the mix worked for him, making him perhaps the best comedian of the classic period of Hollywood. He was less convincing in dramatic parts but could always, even in his middle age, fall back on leading man parts. Here he interacts beautifully with Ralph Bellamy, as he was to do in His Girl Friday (1940). He’s convincing Daniel (Bellamy) to buy his shares in a coal mine that has no coal and Dan is just the man to see that as an opportunity.
1938 Bringing Up Baby
Four months later in February 1938 Howard Hawks released the second of his three classic 30s comedies. Bringing Up Baby was written by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde – and Howard Hawks; and starred Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Nerdy Dr David Huxley (Grant) gets mired in the lunacy generated by heiress Susan Vance, played by Katherine Hepburn (Grant knew the family well; in The Awful Truth his character Jerry escaped from her sister Barbara, but not this time). And then there’s that leopard called Baby. An almost perfect film, which seems inspired by the Marx Brothers. I’ve reviewed it on Bestquest in my essay on the comedies of Howard Hawks so will say no more here.
1938 You Can’t Take It With You
And still they kept on coming. Eight months after Bringing Up Baby came You Can’t Take It With You, with a script by Robert Riskin from the famous play by George S Kaufman and Moss Hart of 1936, directed by Frank Capra and starring Jean Arthur and James Stewart. Capra was a natural for this film, which is all about an evil industrialist who comes to realise the only worthwhile things in life are the ordinary values of the average American. Alas, the so called ‘eccentric’ family of Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) now just seem a bit odd (and their act a bit stagey). But Edward Arnold is good as Anthony Kirby the munitions monopolist wanting to evict the innocent Sycamores from their home. And Arthur, Stewart and Capra were to make movie history. While it’s hard to believe that banker Kirby would give up his plans for making millions because he finds he hasn’t any friends and take up the harmonica to gain some, all because he’s heart broken because his son Tony has rejected him, it’s also hard not to respond to Jimmie Stewart’s charisma and Jean Arthur’s charm (and her marvellous voice). As for Lionel Barrymore’s philosophising, it’s pure capra-corn.
Jean Arthur was in 90 films 1923-1953 but became a star only in Capra’s 1936 film Mr Deeds Goes to Town. From then on, in 18 films, she was one of the most popular stars of the 30s and 40s. She was with William Powell in The Ex Mrs Bradford and Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings, and worked for Capra in Mr Deeds Goes to Town with Gary Cooper, but her teaming with James Stewart is her best work, in You Can’t Take It With You and Mr Smith Goes to Washington, two more Capra films. One of the greatest of film stars. James Stewart had a similar career, acting in many undistinguished films until he starred with Jean Arthur in You Can’t Take It With You and Mr Smith Goes to Washington. He was the male equivalent of Arthur, an ordinary Joe who wouldn’t be pushed around, and who stood for the things Capra believed in, honesty and friendship. Here, from You Can’t Take It With You, Arthur is the poor stenographer who won’t be pushed around, in love with the rich boss’ son, played by Stewart with his winning mixture of shyness and sincerity, offering him not just love but giving him heart and moral support, a role she took on in many of her films.
1940 His Girl Friday
14 months after You Can’t Take It With You came Howard Hawks’ superb His Girl Friday, in January 1940, perhaps the best comedy ever made in Hollywood, with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell (and Ralph Bellamy), and a script by Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht, from a play by Hecht and MacArthur called The Front Page. Grant does his best work, is equalled by Russell, the dialog flies. The film covers the evils of the Depression, the cynicism of press reporters, political corruption, the blancmange of comfy provincial life in America, and sexual politics within marriage, but you have to be quick on the uptake, very quick. I’ve reviewed the film on Bestquest in my essay on the comedies of Howard Hawks so will say no more here.
1941 The Lady Eve
By now we’re in the 1940s: Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve was made 14 months after His Girl Friday and seems a bit like Hildy’s revenge for her treatment in that movie. Sturges had written plays and film scripts through the 1930s, but in the magic year of 1941 wrote and directed what might be two of the greatest romantic comedies on film, The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels. Eve has Barbara Stanwyck in her best role, and Henry Fonda doing wonderful slapstick. It’s sublime, ridiculous, heartbreaking and contains some good advice on what to feed snakes. I’ve reviewed the film in my essay on the films of Preston Sturges so will say no more here.
1943 Heaven Can Wait
Now we’re well in the 1940s, as Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait came out almost two and a half years after The Lady Eve. Lubitsch had done some great work since 1932’s Trouble in Paradise. Angel in 1937 with Marlene Dietrich; Ninotchka in 1939 with Greta Garbo; the much loved The Shop Around the Corner of 1940 with James Stewart; and with Carole Lombard and Jack Benny in To Be Or Not To Be of 1942 (two years after Chaplin’s Great Dictator, and just as effective as a satire of Hitler). Heaven Can Wait was from a Samson Raphaelson script (originally a play by Lazlo Bus-Fekete called Birthday) and starred Gene Tierney and Don Ameche. The film is often confused with the Warren Beatty one of the same title, but the Beatty film is a remake of Here Comes Mr Jordan, with Robert Montgomery (that film in turn based on a play called, you guessed it, Heaven Can Wait). The Lubitsch film can be seen as his defence against attacks by puritan critics concerned at the ‘amoral’ stance of many of his films. Or generous, warm hearted love of life as you prefer.
The story is much more a romance than a comedy, though it does have some witty lines. Henry (Ameche) has died, and according to the usual procedure, ends up at the gates of hell for punishment for his sinful life. He’s been self indulgent, lascivious, a seducer of women, and a deceiver of his wife Martha (Tierney), whom, however, he loves passionately. It looks bad, but the Devil has some doubts. Henry’s great love for Martha is counting against admission to hell. So we have a look at Henry’s life. And we see someone who has enormous love of life, great affection for others, is susceptible to feminine charms, and absolutely devoted to his wife, with whom, however, he has had a stormy relationship. He has just never grown up. It’s an immensely charming film, and somehow a lesson for us all not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Gene Tierney was a Broadway actress when she started in movies in 1940, but it took 10 films before she found any success, and it was in Lubitsch’ Heaven Can Wait. The following year she was in Otto Preminger’s Laura, then, despite her beauty and talent, nothing really worthwhile till she retired in the 60s. Don Ameche, of Italian and German parents, had a 60 year career in films, and was successful in theatre, radio and television as well. None of his films was very distinguished and Henry Van Cleve in Lubitsch’s film was possibly his best role, though he did star with Claudette Colbert in Mitchell Leisen’s Midnight in 1939. Here Henry discovers that when it comes to other women, wives just don’t understand (even though he can explain everything).
There have been several theories about this sudden outbreak of genius in Hollywood comedy, which lasted barely a decade. Some say the influx of European directors fleeing oppression at home, with a very different sensibility but aware of Hollywood expertise; others the continuing influence of silent techniques on a new medium, as many directors were schooled in the silents, which had attained a near perfection by 1929; others claim the influence of stage works and writers for the stage, as Hollywood looked to models to help deal with the opportunities of sound; others again cite the Depression and the urgent need to raise the morale of film goers. I think it was all due to Ernst Lubitsch, a man of immense influence, whom many, if not most, directors admired extravagantly, and who had a great deal to do with just what films were produced in Hollywood, even at other studios than his own. I think of this group of films as ‘the school of Lubitsch’.
With three films of these 12 almost certainly among the greatest and another five almost as good, these films have to be taken seriously. The fact that the achievement was never to be repeated or equalled should not mire them in the classification ‘old black and white films of the 1930s’. For one thing there is an excellent colour version of My Man Godfrey. And there’s a certain touch of class about them all which if we miss, then it’s our loss.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.