Back when I started my endless ramblings about the transition from silent slapstick to screwball comedies, I led by singling out Harry Langdon’s Tramp, Tramp, Tramp as a fulcrum point where screwball becomes imperative. So it’s time to come back to Harry Langdon, and indulgently celebrate what made him so gloriously awesome, even if his style of comedy was unsustainable over the long run. Harry, this one’s for you.
For the last several weeks we’ve been looking at romantic comedies of the 1930s/40s, specifically the talented filmmakers and (mostly female) comedians whose careers flourished with the transition from slapstick to screwball. But in this story there are some gaps—potholes in history where was supposed to be, for some reason, wasn’t. Consider poor Jimmy Parrott, doomed to live and die in the shadow of his brother Charley.
Jimmy Parrott, or James Parrott, or Paul Parrott, call him what you will, was a talented screen comedian with real gifts for gag construction and physical business. Off camera he was a brilliant comedy writer and director who helped shape the careers of numerous comedy stars, and helped define the unique magic of the Hal Roach studio. Many of his contemporaries who followed the same career trajectory ended up as leading lights of the new screwball mode (as we’ve seen these last few weeks). But Jimmy Parrott was haunted by various personal demons that would bring him to a tragic and untimely end before he had a chance to reap that reward.
If you have patience for yet one more Cinderella story, I’ve got a 1935 romantic comedy with an interesting behind-the-scenes twist.
This week’s Cinderella is Alice Adams, a Katharine Hepburn vehicle by ex-Laurel & Hardy cameraman George Stevens, adapted from a Booth Tarkington novel of the same name. It garnered Academy Award nominations for both Best Picture and Best Actress, and revived the moribund career of Hepburn (or at least until the next time her popularity hit the rocks, or the next time after that) and was a breakthrough career moment for Stevens, who reinvented himself as a serious director of significant Hollywood pictures and not just that guy who used to make “Boy Friends” comedies for Hal Roach (never heard of ‘em? You’re not alone). And yet, both Hepburn and Stevens fought to prevent the film from being as successful as it came to be. And therein lies our story.
“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 April 20, 2015
Twice in one day I was reminded of one of the strangest lines from one of my favorite television series. It’s not like “You bet your sweet bippy”—which was muttered every week for four seasons on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In—is part of contemporary slang or TV-speak. After all, Laugh-In was cancelled in 1973. And, yet the word “bippy” crossed my path twice last week. While looking over the TCM schedule last Thursday, I noticed that The Maltese Bippy is airing tomorrow, Tuesday, April 21 at 6:15pm. Just a few minutes later, while watching General Hospital, one of the characters blurted, “You bet your sweet bippy.” You know you are a true TV-geek when a nonsense word like bippy makes you instantly nostalgic for a 40-year-old series.
The series’ full title was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In because it was hosted by the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin. The two met in 1952, though both had been kicking around show biz for several years. The son of carnies, who were killed when he was a boy, the hard-luck Rowan had been a junior writer at Paramount before WWII, while the college-educated Martin wrote for radio comedy programs. After teaming up, they honed their act on television and in clubs. In 1958, they starred in a lackluster comedy western called Once Upon a Horse, which I actually saw on television decades ago, but they did not come close to the big time until Dean Martin tagged them as regulars for his summer show in 1966. Like all comedy teams, the two developed personas that formed the basis for their shtick. Rowan was the pipe-smoking straight man to Martin’s loony skirt-chaser.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 31, 2015
Pity the poor DVD. Its death has been foretold for years, yet it soldiers on, providing pleasure for those not yet hooked into the HD-everything ecosystem. DVD sales have declined overall, but it remains the lifeblood of boutique distributors like Flicker Alley. Makers of luxe box sets of Chaplin’s Mutual comedies, Mack Sennett shorts and Cinerama travelogues, Flicker Alley is trying to get the good stuff out there. They’re our kind of people. But the shift to higher resolutions abandons films that have never had expensive HD transfers, making them cost-prohibitive for Blu-ray. This is the case for a huge number of silent films now out-of-print on DVD. In an admirable effort to get classics out on disc, in good transfers superior to the muddy messes on YouTube, Flicker Alley has partnered with the Blackhawk Films library to release nineteen classics (mostly silents) on manufactured-on-demand DVD – the same route the Warner Archive has gone to plunder their deep library. They plan to add two new MOD titles every month. Flicker Alley doesn’t have the deep pockets of WB to back them, but with the help of a modest crowdfunding campaign were able to get the program off the ground. From their initial slate I sampled D.W. Griffith’s tale of plainspoken rural heartbreakTrue Heart Susie (1919) and Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated urban bed-hopping roundelayThe Marriage Circle (1924).
Walt Disney had a problem. Technically, he had several problems, but they were all knotted up with each other like a set of headphones that had been left too long in someone’s pocket (great metaphor, huh? That’s why they pay me the big bucks).
And his response to this problem was in many ways mean-spirited and venal, cheap and short-sighted. But listen, Walt Disney is one of my heroes. He didn’t have the luxury of seeing the future, of knowing how his decisions would pan out. He did what he could to keep his studio alive, and while I might wish he had made some different choices, I also get why he did what he did.
And thanks to his choices—good, bad, or indifferent they may have been—he seeded to the world a deliriously weird film called The Three Caballeros. This oddity will be on later this week. You have to rearrange your schedules to see it. Cancel your plans, turn your phones off.
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