Here’s where we find ourselves–the proverbial wild west. A shapely blonde dancehall singer, clutching a smoking gun. She’s trembling with residual anger, surrounded by friends and allies who are aghast at her latest escapade. She’s just shot a judge, in the buttocks, for the second time in as many hours.
That’s what’s onscreen, in the opening salvo of Preston Sturges’ first Technicolor picture. To step out of the screen, though, we must acknowledge the disappointing truth. This was a disastrous flop for all concerned. Preston Sturges had just tossed 2 million of 20th Century Fox’s money into a hole. Betty Grable had just ruined her streak of profitable hits. Darryl F. Zanuck had just alienated one of Hollywood’s true geniuses. No one came out unscathed.
None of which is to imply that The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend is a waste of your time. Far from it. In fact, set aside that even lesser Sturges is still imminently watchable fun, let’s approach this more coldly. Not as a movie to be enjoyed, but as an archeological artifact to help us better understand Sturges’ genius, and its limitations.
Once upon a time there was a Hollywood director at the top of his game. He made movies that were widely popular, influential, critically esteemed, and profitable. He was a visual stylist and a practitioner of high Hollywood glamour. He coaxed great performances from top stars. He was on the short list for producers looking to staff their prestige pictures.
But say the name “Mitchell Leisen” today and be prepared for blank stares. I wager that many of the classic movie buffs who would spend their Saturday mornings reading this blog are unlikely to have much beyond a passing familiarity with his name.
So what happened? How did someone who flew so high fall into such obscurity? Ironically, the answer is his own success.
Jean Arthur is a writer for the Boy’s Constant Companion.
No, Jean Arthur is an actress, and in the movie Easy Living she plays a writer for the Boy’s Constant Companion, but let’s not get bogged down in such hairsplitting. In any event, she barely holds that job and is fired early in the film. It wasn’t much of a job anyway–the harridan spinsters who policed that magazine must have been insufferable coworkers.
But it paid the rent. Well, no it didn’t–she’s behind in her $7 a week rent when we first meet her, and has only a single dime for her bus fare, so it’s not like the job was some fabulous boondoggle. But things are tough all over–haven’t you heard there’s a Depression on? Of course, if times are so tough, how to explain the fur coat that just dropped out of the sky onto her head?
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on February 5, 2015
Tonight TCM is devoting its 31 Days of Oscar programming to the year 1938. Films on the schedule include Best Picture nominees THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938), FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938) and BOY’S TOWN (1938). Today also happens to be actor John Carradine’s birthday.
Carradine doesn’t appear in any of the films airing on TCM tonight he did make nine movies in 1938 including I’LL GIVE A MILLION, which I recently watched for the first time. I’LL GIVE A MILLION might not be Oscar material or worthy of the tagline “The Laugh Riot of the Century!” that accompanied trade ads for the film but it does feature two Oscar winning actors (Warner Baxter and Jean Hersholt) and includes two amusing comical performances from Peter Lorre and birthday boy John Carradine. So in keeping with TCM’s 1938 theme and in honor of the late great John Carradine I thought I’d shine a little light on this depression-era comedy directed by Walter Lang.
When you talk about “classic cinema” you talk about motion pictures that influenced the culture. Films that inspired other films, established careers, wormed their way into the memories of audiences, endured in our cultural heritage in some way…
Well, by that definition, you could argue Airplane! is of greater cultural significance than Citizen Kane.
It’s sure a lot funnier.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 20, 2015
Struggling stage actors Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan were married on December 25, 1931. They divorced two months later. In 1936, Fonda and Sullavan were both burgeoning movie stars, and appeared together in the romantic comedy The Moon’s Our Home, whose story of whirlwind romance and hurricane breakup recalled their brief fling. Recently released on DVD from the Universal Vault, the studio’s burn-on-demand service, the film is an aggressive farce that gained added oomph from Fonda and Sullavan’s fraught, passionate relationship (the transfer looks soft and interlaced, but it’s watchable). Director William A. Seiter was a sensitive shaper of star personas, having helped mold the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey and the blossoming sass of Ginger Rogers. The Moon’s Our Home, with the aid of some acidic dialogue contributed by Dorothy Parker, is a bumptious battle of the sexes, with Sullavan a bite-sized Napoleon and Fonda her arrogant outdoorsman opponent. Their fights are shockingly violent, and the film ends with one of them in a straightjacket.
What’s wrong with comedies?
I don’t mean that as in, “why aren’t today’s comedies as good as the olden days?” Because that’s nonsense—the breadth and depth of innovative, hilarious comedy being done today is staggering: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Portlandia, The Comeback, Nathan For You, Inside Amy Shumer, Parks and Recreation, The Daily Show, John Oliver, The Colbert Report, Drunk History, Arrested Development’s revival on Netflix, Bob’s Burgers, Veep, The Soup, Key & Peele… I mean, yeah, that’s a big ole’ list of TV shows not movies, but it’s not like 2014 was devoid of good comedies of different styles and approaches in theaters: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Muppets Most Wanted, 22 Jump Street, Top Five, and (infamously) The Interview.
So, no, my question isn’t why aren’t comedies better, but why don’t comedies get more respect?
I’m here to talk about farces. About romantic comedies, TV sitcoms, and silent slapstick. About Charley Chase, the Marx Brothers, and Charles Coburn. I’m inspired this week by the lovely 1943 romantic comedy The More the Merrier, with Jean Arthur, which TCM is running Monday night. But I’m also hoping you’ll not only set your DVR for that gem, but maybe seek out a DVD of Charley Chase’s Mighty Like a Moose… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 30, 2014
Paul Muni snarled to prominence as the amoral gangster kingpin Scarface (1932), and followed it up with an expose of the prison system, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1933). He had already received an Oscar nomination for his debut performance in The Valiant (1929), so by 1934 he was a star, and a serious-minded one. Born to a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire, he came up through the Yiddish theater, made it to Broadway, and eventually earned unprecedented freedom in choosing the parts he wanted to play in Hollywood. So when histories of Muni’s career are written, few mention his little newspaper comedy from 1934, Hi, Nellie. A standard Warner Brothers quickie, it packs in screwball, romance, mystery and gangster movies into one 75 minute package. Muni clearly revels in trying out comedy, channeling his wiry energy into the clipped, slangy dialogue of a Hecht/MacArthur knockoff. And the rest of the cast is up to his challenge, with acidic performances from Glenda Farrell and Ned Sparks. Hi, Nellie is now available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive’s Forbidden Hollywood Volume 8 set of pre-codes (also including Blonde Crazy, Strangers May Kiss, and Dark Hazard).
There’s nothing on the books that says that a “classic” has to have been liked much when it first came out. In fact, enormous swaths of what we now revere as America’s film heritage are comprised of what were flops on their first outing.
Take, for example, the Cary Grant- Katharine Hepburn romantic comedy Holiday by George Cukor (TCM is running it in the middle of the night this coming Monday–set your DVRs!). Right there, in that one sentence, I’ve probably already sold you on the merits of this picture.
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