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May 16, 2015
David Kalat
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Ginger Rogers: Sad Sacks of Fifth Avenue

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…

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KEYWORDS: Fifth Avenue Girl, Ginger Rogers, Gregory La Cava, Screwball Comedy
COMMENTS: 3
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May 9, 2015
David Kalat
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Downton Valley, or Ruggles Conquers the West

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!

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KEYWORDS: Charles Laughton, Leo McCarey, Ruggles of Red Gap, Screwball Comedy
COMMENTS: 3
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May 2, 2015
David Kalat
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The Back of Joan Crawford’s Head

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.

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KEYWORDS: Frank Capra, Harry Langdon, Joan Crawford, Screwball Comedy, Slapstick, Tramp Tramp Tramp
COMMENTS: 12
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February 21, 2015
David Kalat
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Masters of Screwball 3: Sturges After Sturges (or, The Keystone Pipeline)

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.

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KEYWORDS: Betty Grable, Preston Sturges, The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend
COMMENTS: 4
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February 7, 2015
David Kalat
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Masters of Screwball Part 1: Sturges before Sturges

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?

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KEYWORDS: Easy Living, Jean Arthur, Mitchell Leisen, Preston Sturges
COMMENTS: 6
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Comedy of Remarriage: The Moon’s Our Home (1936)

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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.

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January 3, 2015
David Kalat
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Magic Pixie Dream Grampa

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.

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KEYWORDS: Charles Coburn, charley chase, George Stevens, Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Mighty Like a Moose, The Marx Brothers, The More the Merrier (1943)
COMMENTS: 5
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A Marriage Made in Screwball Heaven: ‘Third Finger, Left Hand’

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One of my favorite tropes from Golden Age romantic comedies is the “faux marriage” in which the leading man and leading lady either pretend to be married, or they actually wed for reasons other than true love. As they scheme, maneuver, or fight their way through the plot, they fall in love for real, though circumstances, stubbornness, or other characters prevent them from confessing their true feelings until the inevitable happy ending. The plot device is still commonly found in romantic comedies as a way to bring the main characters together while creating major obstacles for them to overcome.

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November 16, 2013
David Kalat
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2B/not2B (or, Lubitsch vs. Hitler)

The repetition of certain lines of dialogue is one of the defining characteristics of Ernst Lubitsch’s cinema.  Lubitschean characters repeat certain lines as a way of creating double-entendres on the spot.  Audiences are expected to recognize the repetition, and to remember the context of the original lines, so that those memories get overlaid on top of the repeat, imbuing the words with a weight of additional meaning beyond the literal significance of the words themselves.

To single out an especially piquant example from To Be Or Not To Be, consider what Lubitsch does to the phrase “Heil Hitler.”  Over the course of 90 minutes it is yawned by Jack Benny, treated like an Abbot and Costello routine by most of the rest of the cast—Heil Hitler!  No, I Heiled Hitler first!—there is Bronski’s fake Hitler says “Heil myself,” and of course Carole Lombard’s orgasmic moan.

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The central conceit of the movie isn’t about making fun of what the Nazis took from Poland, it’s about creating a fictional space where the Poles take everything from the Nazis.  This isn’t a movie about the German invasion of Poland—it’s about a Polish invasion of Germans.

During the course of the film, our heroes subversively appropriate the Nazis’ uniforms, their identities, even their salute—and as these icons of Nazi terror are systematically taken over by the Polish actors it simply serves to undercut the power of those totems.  They turn “Heil Hitler” into a punchline before the first German troops set foot in Poland. [...MORE]


KEYWORDS: Carole Lombard, Cluny Brown (1946), Ernst Lubitsch, Greta Garbo, Ninotchka, To Be or Not To Be
COMMENTS: 6
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Extruded plastic dingus, for kids

Last week I posted here some embarrassing anecdotes about my experiences as a color timer in the early 1990s—and I’d intended to immediately follow it up with a sequel.  The first post was about Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—a film I knew was a commercial and critical disappointment, and I thought it was funny trying to pretend I was the reason for its problems.  And so the sequel would flip the story—a Hollywood film I came near, but which soared to great heights because I was kept safely far away from it.

Except when I sat down to start writing this, I was absolutely jaw-droppingly gob-smacked to discover that my whole premise was flawed.  To my utter astonishment, I learned that the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy was not considered a success.  I’m still trying to wrap my head around this.

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