Category: Screwball comedy

The Wrong Box (1966)

The Wrong Box (1966)

Farce, murder, mayhem and comic energy abounds in this sometimes try-hard but fun enough knockabout comedy

Director: Bryan Forbes

Cast: John Mills (Masterman Finsbury), Ralph Richardson (Joseph Finsbury), Michael Caine (Michael Finsbury), Peter Cook (Morris Finsbury), Dudley Moore (John Finsbury), Nanette Newman (Julia Finsbury), Tony Hancock (Inspector), Peter Sellers (Dr Pratt), Cicely Courtneidge (Major Martha), Wilfrid Lawson (Peacock), Thorley Walters (Patience), Irene Handl (Mrs Hackett)

Do you know what a tontine is? For those who don’t (come on, own up!) it’s basically an investment named after the Florentine banker Lorenzo di Tonti in 1653. Investors pay into a scheme which gives a regular income while accumulating interest on the initial capital. As the investors die off, the individual payouts increase until the final surviving investor claims the full ‘pot’ of cash. It’s essentially a lottery for being the last surviving investor. That’s ripe for two things: murder and farce.

We got dollops of the latter in this slap-stick, old-school farce loosely (very loosely) based on a Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne novel. A Victorian tontine sees its members fall at regular intervals until there are only two survivors: estranged brothers, cantankerous Masterman (John Mills) and almost supernaturally tedious Joseph (Ralph Richardson). With Masterman pretending to be on his own deathbed to lure his brother out (to murder him), the blithely dotty Joseph is kept in health by his greedy nephews Morris (Peter Cook) and John (Dudley Finsbury). En route to see Masterman, a train accident leads to a series of farcical misunderstandings involving mis-identity, confusion and a dead body packed into a box and delivered to the wrong house.

Directed with an, at times, slightly too overtly zany bent by Bryan Forbes, The Wrong Box oscillates between being rather funny and trying too hard. It’s all too obvious to see the influence of the Oscar-winning Tom Jones in the film’s jaunty musical score and use of flowery-lined caption cards to announce events and locations. It’s also clear in the fast-paced, at times overblown, delivery of performances and dialogue, with its mix of improvisational humour and cheeky lines. Despite this though, The Wrong Box manages to be just about be fun enough (and it’s funnier than Tom Jones).

That’s probably because it’s not aspiring to be much more than a jaunt, an end-of-term treat in which a host of famous actors and comedians put on a show. Forbes might not have the inspired flair at comedy or the sort of timing this needs. But he’s got a nifty touch with dialogue and does a decent job of translating classic British theatre farce to the screen. The Wrong Box – even the title leans into this – is all about those classic farcical tropes of things being delivered to the wrong people because they have similar names, mistaken or misheard messages being passed on and people obliviously talking at cross purposes.

We get set-ups like Mills’ fake-bed-ridden old man trying multiple times to off Richardson’s bore, each attempt obliviously foiled by coincidence and accident. A body misidentified because its wearing someone else’s coat, then packed into a crate and delivered (to the wrong house) to disguise a death that hasn’t actually happened. Undertakers mistakenly taking away a man who has fainted at the foot of the stairs rather than a body in another room. All classic farce.

It’s not a surprise that experienced theatre actors emerge best. Richardson, in particular, is a delight as a man who has made such a study of trivia that he compulsively bores anyone he encounters. Fellow passengers on a train, a farmer who gives him a lift in his cart, attendees at a funeral – all of them glaze over in despair while Richardson’s Uncle Joseph, with monotonous eloquence, expounds mind-numbing trivia (including, at one point, in Swahili). He makes a fine contrast with Mills’ angry short-man, constantly fuming at a string of slights, real and imagined.

These two leads set the standard for the rest of the cast, a mix of comedians, theatre pros and star names. Peter Cook occasionally tries a little too hard as a bossy-boots determined to inherit the tontine – it’s remarkably that, even this early, Dudley Moore looks more relaxed in front of the camera (Moore’s later stardom would be inexplicable to the jealous Cook). Tony Hancock looks rather sadly like a rabbit-in-the-headlights as an inspector. Peter Sellers, not surprisingly, shows how it’s done: his two-scene cameo as a drunken doctor of loose morals, surrounded by cats and permanently sozzled is a master-class in low-key, rambling hilarity.

Michael Caine and Nanette Newman also acquit themselves very well. Throwing themselves into the spirit of things as our romantic leads – fulfilling the requirements of the genre by being both charming and sweet but also naïve and a little dim – they strike up a romance that manages to be both rather touching and also a neat parody of costume drama flirtation. Forbes shoots a rather nice scene where they breathlessly eye each other up, the camera cutting rapidly from exposed arms to facial features one after the other. Both are very funny, with Caine striking up a lovely double-act with Wilfrid Lawson as an almost incoherently drunk butler (Lawson’s finest hour since Pygmalion).

The film keeps its comic energy flowing well, with Forbes using a good mix of interiors and some attractive Bath locations (doubling for London). It’s also a film which – surprisingly since its written by a pair of Americans – really captures a sense of British eccentricity. I really enjoyed, in particular, the opening sequence that charts the deaths of the other members of the tontine – a parade of inept empire builders (soldiers, explorers, big game hunters) meting a series of surreal (often self-inflicted) deaths.

It probably does slightly outstay its welcome – 90 minutes would have been perfect. It’s a little too pleased with its semi-surreal set-up and stylistic flourishes – the floral on-screen captions definitely are far less funny than the films thinks. There is, at times, a little too much of the “isn’t this zany!” air about the film that can grate, with set-ups groaning with their desire to amuse (a late hearse chase scene falls into this) like a pub bore telling you a story in his self-proclaimed “inimical style”.

But at least The Wrong Box does make you laugh. And when that is all it is aiming to do, its hard not to have a soft spot for it.

Waiting Women (1952)

Waiting Women (1952)

Bergman experiments with form and genre in this fascinating collection of female-led short stories

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Cast: Anita Björk (Rakel), Eva Dahlbeck (Karin), Maj-Britt Nilsson (Marta), Birger Malmsten (Martin Lobelius), Gunnar Björnstrand (Fredrik Lobelius), Karl-Arne Holmsten (Eugen Lobelius), Jarl Kulle (Kaj), Aino Taube (Annette), Håkan Westergren (Paul Lobelius), Gerd Andersson (Maj), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Henrik Lobelius)

Waiting Women is another early step in Bergman becoming one of the great directors in cinema. It’s easy to feel it’s a film worth seeing largely for completeness sake – I certainly felt that, seeing this unknown nesting at the bottom of a BFI box set containing Wild Strawberries, Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal. But Waiting Women is a playful and inventive film that sees Bergman experimenting with form and genre and show-piecing his inventive use of the camera (it’s a key reminder this famed wordsmith also worked with two of the most gifted cinematographers in movie history, Gunnar Fischer and (later) Sven Nykvist).

Three women sit waiting at a country-side retreat (echoes of the holiday home in Wild Strawberries) waiting for their husbands (three brothers) to arrive. While they wait, they share stories. Rakel (Anita Björk) talks about her husband Eugene’s (Karl-Arne Holmsten) suicidal response to discovering her affair with childhood friend Kaj (Jarl Kulle). Marta (Maj-Britt Nilsson) remembers keeping her pregnancy from her now-husband Martin (Birger Malmsten), who she met thinking he was a penniless artist rather than the son of an industrial power-house family. And Karin (Eva Dahlbeck) remembers a night after a function which she and driven husband Fredrik (Gunnar Bjornstrand) spent trapped in a lift and almost rekindled the spark in their marriage.

Bergman’s takes these three stories and presents each in strikingly different ways. The first he packages as a full-blown romantic melodrama, with heightened passions, elaborate threats of death and dramatic proclamations of affection and desperation. The second shifts gear into a moody expressionistic drama, almost a silent-movie, with minimal dialogue and the scene shifting from striking shadow-play on hospital walls to silent comedy in a Parisian nightclub. The third caps the film with a single-location farce with witty wordplay and a dollop of sadness and regret.

It makes for a film that constantly surprises you – and a director looking to experiment and stretch his artistic legs, finding new ways of expressing himself in film. (He even pops up for a Hitchcock-like cameo!) It’s also three entertaining (in different ways) short stories and another, superb, Bergman female-centric film. Because, make no mistake, our sympathies are all with the women, whose stories leave you with more than a little impression – for all they have joyfully prepared the house for their husbands – that each of them are not leading the lives they might have wished.

The first story is the most conventional – perhaps because Rakel’s hormonal love-affair with a long-lost school friend feels like a twist on Bergman’s Summer Interlude. But all is carefully dialled up to eleven in a romance that would not feel out-of-place in Emily Brontë. The flirtatious lust between Rakel and Kaj – centred around a joint trip to a bathing house which drips with illicit sexual energy – simmers. There is an early Chekovian introduction of a gun, before Kaj’s essential coldness is revealed and Eugen’s shock swiftly turns to anger and suicidal resentment. It’s a marvellous Bergman scripting touch that Eugen always feels like the sort of man who will shoot himself to make his wife feel bad about herself rather than because of his own pain.

Bergman shoots it with brisk tracking shots interspersed with close-ups and allows the action to become increasingly bombastic as it builds towards its melodramatic conclusion of Eugen shuttered away in a boat house, threatening to end it all. It makes for a striking gear change as our second story begins, and the visual mastery of Bergman and Fischer’s partnership comes to the fore in a middle-chapter that homages the Silent Masters. Marta’s memories of her pregnancy and her meeting with her husband, begins with the nightmareish image of a face behind frosted glass, distorted out of all recognition (Bergman, as always, the lost great-horror director) before she finds herself in a hospital ward, breathing in anaesthetic gas, and seeing the shadows of the branches from the tree outside, twist and dance like possessive hands on the walls around her.

Played with a sympathetic sweetness, tinged with just the right touch of edgy defiance, by Maj-Britt Nilsson, Marta’s memories of meeting her husband in Paris plays out in her memory like an expressionistic film. In a Parisian nightclub, the camera ducks and swerves around exotic dancers, beautiful compositions of body and movement in every frame. She drops her GI boyfriend for a Martin after a series of surreptitious glances across the room and passed notes. Their courtship and early relationship in his blissful studio play out like a romance – until his family arrive with a chilling explosion of words about expectations and duties that shatter the illusion. The chapter closes with something that could be either memory or dream – Martin and Marta, with the warmth of their early days returned, on a beach together. Reality or regret? Bergman gives reasons to believe both.

The final story is the most enjoyable, lightest and also (in its own way) saddest. Beautifully shot largely in a single confined location – and this is a workshop for Bergman to build his confidence with composition – it gains hugely from the witty and controlled performances of Dahlbeck and Björnstrand as the austere married couple. Home truths and flashes of attraction seep out – and Bergman makes us feel for a moment that a corner has been turned when they return (at last) to their family home. It’s all an illusion though – its still Bergman after all – as the mood is shattered by Fredrik’s almost immediate resumption of his professional duties after a chance phone-call.

If its one thing you can pick up from these three stories, its that finding love, contentment and satisfaction is difficult for women. As three very different women, Björk, Nilsson and Dahlbeck are all superb, and the little hints of sadness Bergman gives all of them turns what could be a collection of shaggy dog stories into something suddenly, surprisingly, profound. Yes they are waiting – but is it for their husbands, or for the lives they (privately) might wish they had? As Marta’s sister Maj (Gerd Andersson) considers elopement with Marta’s nephew Henrik (Björn Bjelfvenstam), the normal expectations of discouraging such an action are challenged. After all, why shouldn’t Marta try for happiness? What’s the worst that could happen: that they could gain wisdom (as the other women have done?) from a summer of forbidden and confused love? Perhaps Bergman wanted to find out: his next film was the romantic first-love fable that turns sour Summer with Monika.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Luscious visuals, hilarious gags mix with an air of sadness and regret in Wes Anderson’s masterpiece

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (M. Gustav), Tony Revolori (Zero), F. Murray Abraham (Mr Moustafa), Mathieu Amalric (Serge X), Adrien Brody (Dmitri), Willem Dafoe (Jopling), Jeff Goldblum (Deputy Kovacs), Harvey Keitel (Ludwig), Jude Law (Young Writer), Bill Murray (M. Ivan), Edward Norton (Inspector Henckels), Saoirse Ronan (Agatha), Jason Schwartzman (M. Jean), Léa Seydoux (Clotilde), Tilda Swinton (Madame D), Tom Wilkinson (Author), Owen Wilson (M. Chuck)

I wrote recently I could forgive the flaws I’ve found in Kurosawa’s work, for the majesty of Seven Samurai. I can totally say the same again for Wes Anderson. He is a director I’ve sometimes found quirky, mannered and artificial – but God almighty he deserves a place in the pantheon for directing a film as near to perfection as The Grand Budapest Hotel, a delight from start to finish, as beautiful to look at as it is whipper-snap funny, as heart-warming to bathe in as it is coldly, sadly bittersweet. After three viewings I can say it is, without a doubt, a masterpiece.

Like many Wes Anderson films, its storyline is eccentric, halfway between fantasy and absurdity. In 1932, in an opulent hotel, The Grand Budapest, concierge Monsieur Gustav (Ralph Fiennes) is the pinnacle of his trade: precise, fastidious, perfectionist, he can fix anything anywhere – opera tickets, the perfect table placement and a night of passion at any time for the elderly widows who visit his hotel. When one of them, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies leaving him a priceless painting, Boy with Apple he suddenly finds himself framed for her murder. Only his ingenuity, and the dedicated help of his protégé, best friend and surrogate brother/son, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) will save him.

You can’t escape on the first viewing that The Grand Budapest Hotel is an extraordinarily funny film. Crammed with superb one-liners, it’s a showcase for a breathtakingly, blissfully funny performance from Ralph Fiennes whose comic timing is exquisite and whose mastery of the perfectly structured monologue of flowery language is as spot-on as his ability to deliver a crude punch-line. Anderson fills the film with clever sight-gags, bounce and a supreme sense of fun. You’ll laugh out loud (I frequently do, and I remember most of the gags) and wind back to watch them again.

But what lifts this is the wonderfully evocative, elegiac piece this beautiful film is. For all its comic zip, it unfolds in a romanticised past already a relic in 1932. We can’t escape the rise of Fascism that fills the film. Jack-booted soldiers accost and hunt Gustav and Zero. Adrien Brody’s furious heir to Madame D looks like a Gestapo officer, and his vicious heavy Jopling (Willem Dafoe so weathered, he looks like he’s been beaten by a carpet duster) has a stormtrooper menace. En route to Madame D’s funeral, Zero is nearly dragged off the train to be lynched by fascist thugs for being an immigrant and The Grand Budapest is taken over by this dreadful movement, filled with Mussolini-inspired ZZ insignia and blackshirts.

Under the jokes, the world Gustav represents has already died and been buried. We are never allowed to forget we are marching, inexorably, towards a very real-world war that will rip apart this fictional country and leave millions dead. Gustav’s gentile old-school charm ended with 1920s: and he sort of knows it. Fiennes, under the suaveness, conveys a man who falls back into potty language when he can no longer maintain his assured confidence that a straight-backed, polite assurance will solve any problem or a poetic reflection will allow them to put any unpleasantness behind them. Those days are gone and it makes for a deep, rich vein of sadness just under the surface.

It’s particularly acute because it’s made clear this is a memory piece. Anderson constructs the film like a memory box. It has no less than three framing devices. It opens and closes with a young woman in 2014 visiting a monument to a great writer, the author of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel. From there we flash back to the author (a droll Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 recounting how he met the man who inspired the novel, before heading again to a flashback to the 1960s where the young author (Jude Law) meets the man we discover is an older Zero (F Murray Abraham) who recounts the story we then watch. Each layer of the film descends deeper into Anderson’s artificial, carefully structured visual style, with its heightened sense of reality.

Old Zero – beautifully played by F. Murray Abraham – is introduced as a man of acute loneliness and sadness, who tells us early on the woman his young self loves, Agatha (a radiant Saoirse Ronan) will die and shuffles around the nearly abandoned The Grand Budapest (now a concrete nightmare of Communist architecture) with only his memories for comfort. No matter how jovial and bright the events of the 1930s are, we can’t forget that these are the reflections of a man full of regrets.

When old Zero’s narration turns to remembering Agatha, the lights around him dim: Agatha even enters the narrative almost by the side door: Gustav is arrested and imprisoned before she appears, along with a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks to Zero and her meeting and her first meeting with Gustav, as if Zero had to steel himself to remember her (as reflected in Abraham’s tear-stained face). Later, when remembering the fates of Gustav (his best friend) and Agatha (the love of his life) he almost draws a veil over it (even their final scenes in flashback play out in monochrome). There is a deep, moving sense of humanity here, a powerful thread of grief that adds immense richness.

But don’t forget this is also a funny film! Anderson is an inventive visual and narrative director at the best of times, and here every single beat of his playful style pays off in spades. The entire 1930s section of the film (the overwhelming bulk of the narrative) plays out in 4:3 ratio, which to many other directors would be restrictive, but seems a perfect fit for a director who often composes his visuals with the skill of an expert cartoonist. The frame is frequently filled in every direction when within the grandeur of the hotel, but then feels marvellously restrictive for Gustav’s prison cell or the train compartments that seem to constantly carry Zero and him to disaster.

Anderson’s wonderfully precise camera movements also reach their zenith here. His camera is deceptively static, often placed in a series of perfectly staged compositions that places the characters at their heart, frequently looking at us. But then the camera will turn – frequently in a fluid single-plain ninety degrees to reveal a new image of character. There are Steadicam tracking shots that are a dream to watch. It’s combined with some truly astounding model shots (parts of the set are not-even-disguised animated models and miniatures, adding to the sense of fantasia) and the detail of every inch of the design (astounding work from Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock) is perfection. The film is an opulent visual delight.

It’s a film of belly laughs and then moments of haunting sadness. But also, a wonderful celebration of friendship. The bond between Gustav and Zero is profound, natural and deeply moving – grounded, fittingly, in adversity from the agents of a hostile, oppressive state – and carries real emotional force. Newcomer Tony Revolori is hugely endearing as naïve but brave Zero, making his way in this new world (fitting the theme, he left his homeland after his family was destroyed by war) and sparks superbly with Fiennes and Ronan.

There is a wonderful beating heart in The Grand Budapest Hotel, amongst the farce, perfectly timed gags and cheekiness, that makes it a rich film you can luxuriate in. Anderson’s direction is faultless, Fiennes is a breathtaking revelation, both hilarious, affronted, decent and fighting the good fight. Gorgeous to look at, thought-provoking and laugh-out loud funny it’s a dream of a film.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Stealing, swindling and sex abound in Lubitsch’s masterful – and influential – early Hollywood comedy

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Cast: Miriam Hopkins (Lily), Kay Francis (Madame Colet), Herbert Marshall (Gaston Monescu), Charles Ruggles (The Major), Edward Everett Horton (Francois Filiba), C. Aubrey Smith (Adolph J Giron), Robert Greig (Jacques, the butler)

“Ah, that Lubitsch touch!” It was a slogan invented by the studio (probably to help turn Lubitsch into a brand – see also “The Master of Suspense!”). No one has ever been quite sure what it is exactly – but you can’t argue it doesn’t exist after watching Trouble in Paradise. A smoother, more charming slice of Wildean wit mixed with saucy naughtiness you couldn’t hope to find. All put together with effortless, cosmopolitan wit by Lubitsch, where every shot and camera movement has been planned for maximum effect. No wonder it’s one of the great early Hollywood comedies.

It’s Vienna and a Baron and a Countess are sitting down to a wonderful dinner together. But both know all is not what it seems: they’re both professional conmen. The Baron is Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), the Countess Lily (Miriam Hopkins) – and they can pick each other’s pockets as easy as breathing. Falling in love, they team up and head for Paris, there to relieve fabulously wealthy Marie Colet (Kay Francis) of some of her firm’s dividends. Gaston becomes Marie’s private secretary – but don’t you know it, he finds himself falling in love with her. Will he go through with the scam? And will Lily give him the choice? The answer is almost certainly not what you think.

Trouble in Paradise is so swift, smooth and gloriously comically inventive that its very existence is enough proof of that Lubitsch touch. The comic business here is so marvellously done, so hugely influential and inventive, that half the comedies existing owe it a debt. Take a look at that first sequence as the two of accuse each other of being thieves and liars, in between passing each other the salt, with consummate politeness then proceed to take part in a pickpocketing game of one-upmanship (purses, pins, watches, garters, you name it!). All shot and directed with a perfect mixture of one-take dryness, matched with perfectly chosen fluid camera movements that accentuate punchlines.

Then there’s that script (“Do you remember the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople?”). It’s crammed to the gills with sensational bon mots with more than a touch of Wilde or Coward but also a certain emotional truth (“I came here to rob you, but unfortunately I fell in love with you.”). Trouble in Paradise is an intensely suave and sophisticated film that delights in making its characters feel like the nimble-thinking smartie-pants who always know what to say, that you’d love to be, but never quite are.

It’s grist to the mill of Lubitsch, who coats the film in the three things that really makes it work: European sophistication and ruthlessly dry wit; playfully smooth direction; and more than a dollop of sex (and lots of people in this, let’s face it, are pretty impure to say the least). Sex is in fact what’s at the heart of this film: they may be criminals, but Gaston and Lily are at least as interested in getting some of that as anything else and Marie is more than a match for them.

Trouble in Paradise is pre-Code – and far racier than anything we normally expect from Old Hollywood. After all, this is a film that makes a series of perfectly timed punchlines out of a Butler constantly knocking on the wrong bedroom door to find Marie, unaware that Gaston and Marie are “spending time together” elsewhere. Gaston and Lily’s first meeting is capped with a “do not disturb” sign being hung on their bedroom door. The word sex gets bandied about. In case we missed the point, Lubitsch shoots a romantic clinch between Gaston and Marie by focusing the camera on the bed where their shadows are being cast, looking for all the world like they are lying down on it. Later Lubtisch will focus on a clock marching forward in time as we hear Gaston and Marie flirt (and clearly more than just flirt) as the time flows by.

No wonder when the Code was introduced, Trouble in Paradise was slammed on the shelf for years. It’s more than clear that Gaston has it away with Marie and Lily – and, even more scandalously, no one seems to mind that much. There is sexual liberalness to Trouble in Paradise. Marie is happily stringing along two boorishly foolish suitors (Charles Ruggles as a bluff retired major and Edward Everett Horton as a slightly pompous fop, fleeced in the past by Gaston – both very funny). Gaston feels many things, but never ashamed, while Marie seems sexually excited by the idea that he might be a crook. (Their first meeting is a simmering swamp of sexual tension.)

Lubitsch keeps the film flowing so effortlessly, it glides down barely touching the edges. The humour is spot on and perfectly delivered. At one point Lily (still disguised as the Countess at this point) phones her “mother” in front of Gaston. Her conversation is polite and giddy – then Lubitsch cuts to the other end of the call where her crude landlady is prattling bored on the end, and we realise it’s all part of a con. Gags like this have inspired filmmakers for years. You can see the root of half the screwballs that were to come in the love triangle flirtatiousness between Marshall, Francis and Hopkins.

All three of them are excellent. Marshall had few better opportunities to showcase his dry wit and sex appeal (he was so often cast as stuffy, dull husbands), and he’s the ideal arch gentleman here, with a twinkle in his eye at his daring smartness and very sexy in his confidence. (The constant shots of Gaston running up and down stairs is, in itself, a gag – Marshall had only one leg and all that running was a body double). Far from a rube, Kay Francis makes Marie a sexually curious, determined and out-going woman who knows what she wants and happily plays the game to get it. Miriam Hopkins has a punchier feistiness as a woman who can shift personae with effortless ease.

Trouble in Paradise – that Paradise being Gaston and Lily’s natural partnership – slides so smoothly from set-piece to set-piece, each of them shot with superbly smooth camera movements that perfectly accentuate their comic impact, that it continues to offer huge entertainment. Brilliantly acted, packed with superb set-pieces, it benefits above all from that glorious Lubitsch touch. Sophisticated, amoral, naughty but with a touch of heart among all the lying and cheating, it’s very funny and very cheeky and all about sex and stealing. It’s a landmark film.

Twentieth Century (1934)

Twentieth Century (1934)

A producer and his muse bicker, feud and fall in love in the theatre in this funny proto-screwball

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: John Barrymore (Oscar Jaffe), Carole Lombard (Lily Garland), Walter Connolly (Oliver Webb), Roscoe Karns (Owen O’Malley), Ralph Forbes (George Smith), Charles Lane (Max Jacobs), Etienne Girardot (Mathew J Clark), Dale Fuller (Sadie), Edgar Kennedy (Oscar McGonigle)

Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) is the biggest showman on Broadway. He can take the rawest stone and polish it into the brightest diamond. Lily Garland (Carole Lombard) is just such a stone, a lingerie model turned superstar of stage and screen. Trouble is, Jaffe is also a control freak who turns mentoring into manipulation. After three years Lily leaves – and Jaffe can’t get a hit without her. Smuggling his way onto the luxurious 20th Century Ltd express train from Chicago to New York, can Jaffe use the journey to win Lily back?

Hawks’ comedy is, along with It Happened One Night, one of the prototype screwball comedies. In some ways its even the best model. It has all the elements you expect: lightening fast dialogue, farcical set-ups, mistaken identities, ever more overblown rows, a dull second banana as the ‘new’ love interest, ludicrous misunderstandings and its heart a mismatched couple who get more of a thrill from fighting each other than they do from loving anyone else. You can see the roots for half the comedies that Hollywood produced over the next ten years here.

The film also captures the greatest screen performance by the leading actor of the American stage in the early years of the 20th century, John Barrymore. Barrymore’s performance is a delight –something near a self-parody – a larger-than-life role of bombast and wild-eyed eccentricity that should feel ridiculously over-blown, but actually really works. Jaffe is a force-of-nature, and that’s the performance Barrymore gives. He hurls himself into the fast-paced dialogue, delights in the physical comedy (from prat falls to swooning fits) and he gives the film most of its understanding of the mechanics of theatre (Hawks famously said he knew nothing about it). It’s a delightful, hilarious comic performance.

He’s well matched by a star-making turn from Carole Lombard, in one of her first roles. Initially overawed by working with Barrymore, Hawks coached Lombard to worry less about “acting” and to focus more on bringing her natural sharp-edged comedic instincts to the film. Something she does to huge success: you can feel the performance getting larger, wilder and more hysterically funny as the film goes on. By the time she’s half playfully, half furiously kicking at Barrymore’s stomach during one late argument in a train compartment, we’ve seen a brilliant comic actress find her stride. Lily goes from a talentless ingenue to a grand dame of stage and screen – but never loses (only conceals) her chippy rumbustiousness nature.

It’s all wrapped up in a neat parody of the artificial, overblown, performative nature of acting and theatrical types. These two are always putting on a show: either for themselves or for each other. Everything is filtered through their understanding of scripts and stories and their trade has made them artificial and unnatural people. If they feel larger-than-life, its because small intimacies don’t shift seats in the theatre. And the theatre is of course the real calling of an actor – not those shabby temptations of the big screen.

Not that the theatre is really that different. The film is book-ended by rehearsals for two almost identical Jaffe productions. Both of them are feeble Southern Belle dramas, with shock murders, deferential servants and stuffed with secrets and lies and plot reveals which could have been thrown together by chimps with typewriters. Between these, Jaffe stages a ghastly sounding Joan of Arc play and flirts with the most tasteless Life of Jesus play you could imagine (with an all-singing, all-dancing role for Lily as Mary). But then art seems to be less important than exhibitionism to these guys.

It’s not as if Jaffe’s style is designed to explore depth of character with his actors. For all his fine words in rehearsals, Jaffe is soon drawing chalk lines on the floor to tell Lily exactly where to stand on every line (the floor soon resembles a spider’s web of crossed lines and numbers) and finally gets the scream he wants from her in a scene by sticking a pin in her derriere. Lily is both infuriated and delighted by these methods – she keeps the pin as a treasured totem for years – but it’s clear acting is really an excuse for all the attention seeking screaming and shouting that they do anyway.

Twentieth Century makes for a neat little satire on the artificial nature of some acting, but at heart its mostly a very fast-paced, witty film that bottles two cracker-jack performers who engage in a game of one-up-manship to see who can deliver the wildest, hammiest and most entertaining line readings. Hawks directs with a confident assurance and the train-based finale (it does take nearly half the film to board the eponymous train) is a perfectly staged farcical comedy of entrances, exits and misunderstandings. The film itself is as theatrical as the personalities of its lead characters – and all the more delightful for it.

His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday header
Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant bicker and spar in His Girl Friday, one of the all-time classics I’ve never quite clicked with

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: Cary Grant (Walter Burns), Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson), Ralph Bellamy (Bruce Baldwin), Gene Lockhart (Sheriff Hartwell), Porter Hall (Murphy), Ernest Truex (Bensinger), Cliff Edwards (Endicott), Clarence Kolb (The Mayor), Roscoe Karns (McCue), Frank Jenks (Wilson), Regis Toomey (Sanders), Abner Biberman (Louie), Frank Orth (Duffy), John Qualen (Earl Williams), Helen Mack (Mollie Mallot)

There’s always one film classic that the world and his dog love to bits, but every time you watch it you just don’t get it. That classic for me is His Girl Friday. I’m not sure many films have appeared more than this one on film buffs’ lists of Top Ten Movies of All Time, but while I admire its many, many qualities, every time I’ve watched it – and it’s at least three now – I just don’t love it. More to the point I don’t find it funny (I know, I know I can practically hear your jaws hitting the floor), neither do I engage with or root for its lead characters (please don’t hit me).  I admire a lot of things about this film and how it is made. And I chuckle from time to time when I watch it. But for some reason even I’m not sure of, I’ve got no click with this film. Compared to The Awful Truth or The Lady Eve or The Philadelphia Story (all films this bears a lot of comparison with) I just don’t feel it.

It’s an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page. In quite a modern touch, one of its lead characters is gender flipped. In the play, a newspaper editor tries to persuade his star reporter not to quit the game: in His Girl Friday the star reporter not only becomes a woman but, don’t you know it, the ex-wife of the editor, about to walk out (in more ways than one) to marry her dull fiancé. Cary Grant (who else?) is the fast-talking editor Walter Burns, Rosalind Russell the fast-talking star reporter Hildy Johnson. In fact, everyone is fast-talking, in the film that holds the world record for dialogue speed. Can Burns persuade Hildy to hold off leaving with fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy – sportingly playing up to his dull reputation) for one more day so she can cover the story of strangely naïve convict Earl Williams (John Qualen)? Let the madness ensue.

Let’s focus on all the good stuff first. Not least because my general lack of connection to a film loved by all and sundry is so personal, it almost defies analysis. Hawks was, rumour has it, won round to the idea of gender-swapping Hildy by hosting a read-through of the play at a dinner party with a shortage of people, meaning Hildy was read by a woman. That opened up a host of ideas around combining this with the classic re-marriage genre and bang away we go. It is, needless to say, a brilliant idea and adds such a spark to every single interaction between the two characters that it distinctly improves the play (later productions have often carried the idea – and the dialogue – across from this film).

On top of this, Hawks wanted to make this the fastest talking comedy film ever made. And boy does he succeed at that. The dialogue of this film is delivered with such rat-a-tat speed that clock watchers report it hits a rate of over 300 words a minute (try reading that many words out in one minute to see how fast that is). It gives the film a ferocious manic energy and thunder-cracker momentum and keeps the punchlines coming fast. It also needs gifted actors, which it sure-as-hell gets here. Grant possibly hits his comedic peak here, managing to still remain suave, cool and collected, even as he’s ripping through words and shifting verbal goalposts at dazzling speed. This is also Russell’s career highlight, embodying the image of the sort of spunky, arch and no-nonsense professional woman of screwball comedy that all others (even Hepburn) are measured against.

They race through a film that makes excellent use of long-takes, intelligent single-shot camera moves and careful, intelligent editing to highlight the electric speed of the zany dialogue. In particular, Hawks makes a brilliant motif of telephones (those old candlestick phones), which characters are forever hurling instructions down, using as escape tools from awkward moments and juggling conversations with (either from multiple phones or between the phone and people in the room). They are used for short, sharp, punchy lines – and it fits a film that is all momentum and short-hand. The ultra-smart, quotable banter, littered with one-liners, is the ultimate epitome of the popular style of dialogue at the time, which favoured this style over the speeches and deeper content that was seen as more of the preserve of theatre.

Walter and Hildy in this version also become the epitome of “the screwball couple”. The divorced partners who of course still love each other, largely because they recognise that no-one else will share their insane energy and obsession. Not to mention that fighting and feuding with their intellectual equal is a million times sexier (and better foreplay) than a thousand dinners at home with someone average will ever be. Ralph Bellamy does good work here (essentially, like Grant, repeating his role from The Awful Truth) as that dull, trusting man – the only one in the film who vaguely resembles a human being and therefore, obviously, the character the audience likes the least (who goes to the cinema to see someone like themselves on the screen, eh?)

There is so much right about His Girl Friday. The actors are sublime, the dialogue delivered perfectly, Hawks’ direction is pin-point in its mix of old-Hollywood classicism, and it’s very well shot. So why don’t I like it more? It’s that most personal feeling: I just don’t find it funny enough. Maybe that’s because I need to connect with characters more – and I don’t connect with Hildy and Walter. In some ways I don’t even like them. His Girl Friday is frequently an unapologetically cruel film: Hildy and Walter treat several people like crap, largely for their own amusement or as collateral damage in their own war of foreplay. At one point a desperate, lonely woman attempts suicide (she jumps out of a damn window falling a couple of floors) – Hildy and Walter are joking about it in seconds. They are cold, self-obsessed people and for all their superficial charm, there isn’t any touch of warmth to them at all. They are very artificial people in an artificial world. In all, I don’t really like them and I find it hard to careor want them back together (other than recognising that they deserve each other).

Believe me, I understand some comedy is cruel, I don’t have a problem with that. But I don’t think His Girl Friday realises it’s that kind of film. The Awful Truth has a very similar plot – but that had its characters recognise their own faults and also gave us reasons to care for them as human beings. His Girl Friday doesn’t do either of those things, meaning I laughed a lot in The Awful Truth and not so much in His Girl Friday.

Can you still bear to read on after such blasphemy? But there you go. Everyone has that stone-cold classic that they just can’t get on board with. This film is mine. I respect so much about it, but it neither tickles my funny bone nor makes me feel welcomed. I find it a cold and cruelly minded film, that looks down on people with scorn – from Bruce to criminal Earl Williams and most especially to his distraught girlfriend Molly – and invites us to do the same. It wants us to love the popular kids in the class and join them in spitting paper balls at the losers. This doesn’t do it for me. I know everyone loves it. Hell, I know I’m probably wrong. But I just don’t love His Girl Friday.

The Awful Truth (1937)

Irene Dunne and Cary Grant flex their comic muscles to outstanding effect in The Awful Truth

Director: Leo McCarey

Cast: Irene Dunne (Lucy Warriner), Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner), Ralph Bellamy (Dan Leeson), Alexander D’Arcy (Armand Duvalle), Cecil Cunningham (Aunt Patsy), Molly Lamont (Babara Vance), Esther Dale (Mrs Leeson), Joyce Compton (Dixie Belle Lee), Robert Allen (Frank Randall), Robert Warwick (Mr Vance), Mary Forbes (Mrs Vance), Skippy (Mr Smith)

Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Johnny (Cary Grant) Warriner divorce because both of them are constitutionally incapable of being faithful. But yet, they also pretty much can’t stand the idea of the other being with anyone else. Can they face The Awful Truth that they are, in fact, perfect for each other? This is a feuding husband and wife who enjoy the horrified looks on the faces of other people as much as they enjoy seeing how far they can push each other.

When winning the Oscar for Best Director for this film, Leo McCarey believed he actually deserved it for his more serious melodrama about the struggles of the elderly, Make Way for Tomorrow. While Make Way for Tomorrow might well be a more serious work, and not the souffle of The Awful Truth, I’m pretty sure far fewer people over the past 80 odd years have found revisiting it such a delight as going back into The Awful Truth. Perhaps the eponymous truth for McCarey was that we are never the best judges of our own work.

The Awful Truth is possibly the best, funniest, remarriage comedy ever made. It was pulled together almost from nothing onset. Nominally an adaptation of a play by Arthur Richman, McCarey effectively dumped almost the entire plot and instead largely improvised the film and its plot on set as he went, throwing in jokes, plot developments and bits of business depending on what worked with the actors on the day. Producer Harry Cohn would arrive on set to find McCarey plinking on a piano, swopping stories and coming up with ideas for what they would shoot that day. From this the director would decide on the structure of the scene, the jokes and most of the dialogue. No wonder Cohn was pulling his hair out.

Sounds like chaos right? The stars certainly thought so. Grant was terrified. Prior to this a reliable Studio actor, used to being given the lines and standing where he was told. Finding out here that McCarey wanted something loose and improvisational, at first he was all at sea – even offering instead to buy himself out of the film. But McCarey saw something in him: in fact what he saw was “Cary Grant”. The Awful Truth is the moment the Grant we all know came to be: sophisticated, arch and a masterfully relaxed light comedian (rumour has it, at least partly based on McCarey himself). From hating the experience, Grant suddenly realised it was inspired. The same went for his co-stars: Dunne, Bellamy and the rest all excitedly contributed their own ideas and business into what became one of the greatest comedies of all time.

The Awful Truth is frequently laugh-out loud funny, a perfect combination of witty lines delivered with pin-point perfection. Many of the best lines fall to Irene Dunne’s Lucy, from denying an affair with her latest beau (“That’s right Armand. No one could ever accuse you of being a great lover. That is, I mean to say…”), to archly responding to Jerry’s “I know how I’d feel if I was sitting her with a girl and her husband walked in” with a “I’ll bet you do”. Grant though gets plenty of his own – “The car broke down? People stopped believe that one before cars started breaking down.” – and only he could make “I only just met her” a laugh-out loud moment. Nearly every scene has a perfect bon mot, brilliantly delivered.

McCarey’s direction also adds hugely to the comic effect. The Awful Truth is so smooth, polished and assured you can overlook how skilfully and brilliantly it’s been put together to accentuate the comic effect. From cuts that reinforce or set up gags, to characters entering and leaving at the edges of frames at the perfect moment for a laugh, the entire film is a masterclass in how to shoot and frame comic business. The film is a triumph of reaction shots: watch Grant, Dunne and Bellamy respond to the appalling singing of Jerry’s new girlfriend Dixie Bell (Lucy: “I guess it was easier for her to change her name than her whole family to change theirs”). Best of all a superb sequence where we hear Jerry and Armand fight off screen (with crashes aplenty) while Lucy attempts to maintain a banal ‘nothing to see here’ conversation with Daniel and his mother.

The entire film is a triumph of comic set-pieces, with Grant and Dunne sparking off each other like two whirligigs of static electricity. Both actors are absolutely sublime. Grant manages to make everything not only funny, but also effortlessly cool and his archness and confidence are hilarious. Dunne throws herself comedy with a full-blooded commitment and a total willingness to look silly. Like Grant, she also has the ability to tip the wink to the camera and flag up just how ridiculous many of these situations are. Ralph Bellamy, on paper, has the dullest role as the straight man but as well as being winningly naïve, he also has two show-stopping moments, most strikingly his hilariously enthusiastic dancing (made even funnier by Dunne’s increasingly uncomfortable efforts to keep up with him).

It’s all wrapped up in a plot light as air, perfect for the jokes to latch themselves onto. You’ll laugh almost from the first, but you’ll also care about these two dotty eccentrics who are clearly perfect for each other. With Grant creating his entire screen persona in front of your eyes and Dunne absolutely radiantly hilarious, The Awful Truth will carry on entertaining the masses for decades to come. Hopefully McCarey doesn’t regret that Oscar decision too much.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert as the original odd-couple who find love in It Happened One Night

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: Clark Gable (Peter Warne), Claudette Colbert (Ellie Andrews), Walter Connolly (Alexander Andrews), Roscoe Karns (Oscar Shapeley), Jameson Thomas (“King” Westley), Alan Hale (Danker), Arthur Hoyt (Zeke), Blanche Friderici (Zeke’s wife), Charles G Wilson (Joe Gordon)

Two contrasting people thrown together over a set period of time, at first rub each other up the wrong way but then, doncha know it, frustration turns to love and suddenly we’re nervously watching to see if a last minute complication will throw a spanner into the works. If it sounds like a classic set-up – that’s because it is. Where did you think the set-up came from? Capra’s comedy – which scooped the Big Five at the Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay) is one of the most influential films ever made – and one of the funniest and sharpest examples of great film-making from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

“Daughter escaped again, watch all roads, airports, and railway stations in Miami.” Heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) has eloped with daring-but-dull flying ace “King” Westley (Jameson Thomas) but her father Alexander (Walter Connolly) won’t wear it as he’s sure Westley is only after her money. So, Ellie literally jumps ship in Florida (swimming to shore from her father’s yacht, she’s got some guts that girl) and decides to make her way to New York to reunite with her husband. Hopping on a Greyhound bus to New York, she meets recently fired New York reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable) and, after a series of unfortunate incidents, the two of them end up penniless and travelling across America together. Will their waspish banter blossom into something else?

It Happened One Night is so delightful, as soon as its finished, you fancy skipping back and watch it again. It’s such a brilliant, sexy, romantic comedy it’s odd to think nearly everyone involved wasn’t even sure they wanted to do it. Re-named from the less catchy Night Bus (and who cares if the film actually takes place over several nights), it was rushed into production to take advantage of Colbert’s availability (she only agreed to do it if it filming took four weeks). Gable was loaned out by MGM against his will. Capra and Colbert didn’t really get in and screenwriter Robert Riskin re-wrote the script on set. If you ever needed proof adversity leads to a classic, take a look at this.

It Happened One Night beautifully charts how two mismatched people can be surprised by how much in common they have. Both are, in their own way, fiercely independent. Ellie will marry the man she wants, and hang the consequences. Peter gets the spike permanently because his unique way of doing things doesn’t fit with his editor. They are both quick-witted people with dreams who don’t suffer fools. At first she thinks he’s smug (and in a way he is), he feels she’s entitled (after all its day two before she asks his name). But they bounce off each other from the start, each an equal match for wit (not to mention they both clearly fancy the pants off each immediately).

What’s going to bring the “walls of Jericho” tumbling down between these two? Forced into sharing a hotel room at night, Peter astounds Ellie’s expectations by throwing a sheet up between them, their own little wall of Jericho. Colbert judges perfectly this scene how Ellie’s exasperation also mixes with something pretty close to disappointment. After all she’s already cuddled up to Peter, sleeping on the bus – and Peter in no way objected. Later, in a mirroring hotel room scene Peter will speak openly about how he’s longed for a woman with freedom and spirit (and Gable does this with a beautiful wistfulness) – exactly the qualities he has seen grow in Ellie over their days together.

What works wonderfully is how naturally this relationship becomes first a friendship, then something deeper. Improvising a marital argument, pretending to be a plumber and his wife to put detectives off her scent, they complement each other perfectly. What’s fabulous about this scene, is that (to their surprise) they are equally delighted by how smart and witty the other is. Their gleeful giggling is not only very sweet, but also the start of a new chapter in their relationship. The scene culminates with one of the few moments of intimacy on film involving clothes going on, as Peter helps Ellie button up her blouse.

What’s endearing about them – helped by Riskin’s sparkling dialogue – is how they settle into ‘roles’ and eagerly bounce off each other. Peter increasingly effects a parody of self-importance, claiming to be a world expert on everything from donot dunking to hitchhiking. Ellie gleefully punctures his grandiose claims, but enjoys playing up to her own image of the heiress, at sea in the real world. This is how real people fall in love – and the film is confident enough to have them exchange private jokes we can’t hear on the backseat of a car. It’s gloriously romantic because it feels true.

Gable and Colbert’s chemistry is scintillating. Both are supremely funny, but also grounded. When they lark about they feel like real-life sweethearts. Colbert gives Ellie a wonderful vulnerability under the self-entitlement. She’s snappy and quick-witted but confused and even a bit frightened by her growing feelings. Gable’s easy charm also has a slight chip on his shoulder: but he’s also laid-back and more than willing to look silly, proud but self-aware with it. He’s also a hugely adept physical comedian (his demonstration of how to hitch-hike is hilarious).

Moments have passed into film lore. Gable’s extraordinarily silly hitch-hiking routine, cars streaming past, until Colbert flashes a bit of leg. This is a beautifully staged scene, a cheeky bit of sexuality a brilliant punchline to an extended showcase for Gable’s comic timing and Colbert’s reactive skills and composure. The dialogue exchanges between the two are superbly delivered. The film was a massive sleeper hit – it even has one of the best examples of reverse product placement, when the reveal Gable’s character didn’t wear an undershirt allegedly led to sales of that garment plummeting.

The direction from Capra is spot-on, classic Hollywood but mixed with some beautiful framing and some dynamic camera movements, including some lovely tracking shots particularly through the bus (Capra’s visual direction in a confined space here doesn’t get enough credit). Capra also ensures we don’t forget this was the time of depression: money is tight for everyone, many of those on the bus are desperate for work and the out-of-touch affluence of Ellie rightly raises heckles.

Above all, Capra creates a hugely sweet romance – with lashings of sexy chemistry but not a jot of sex. Wipes and fast transitions keep the pace up. The dialogue pacing is perfect. He uses light wonderfully: in the two hotel room scenes, light carefully divides up and then unifies our two leads, dancing off their Ellie’s eyes and reflecting how they are beginning to see each other in a new light. It has a reputation as a screwball comedy, but really its a carefully paced character comedy, where Capra lets the relationship flourish organically from scene-to-scene (only Peter’s “hold-the-press” editor and irritating fellow bus rider Shapely – the inspiration for Bugs Bunny – are characters who could walk into screwball unchanged).

Above all, he draws fresh, relaxed and emotional performances from the two leads. The bond between them has been so comfortably formed – and resonates so strongly – that the film can get away with being possibly the only romantic comedy in history where the couple never kiss and don’t share the screen in the final act. It’s a film where two characters bantering and sharing heartfelt truths, sleeping in separate beds on opposite sides of a sheet has more sexiness and emotion to it than a world of rumpy-pumpy. It Happened One Night is just about the perfect romantic comedy, oft-imitated but never-bettered. You’ll want to watch it again as soon as it finishes.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Charles Laughton wonders what he’s got himself in for in Ruggles of Red Gap

Director: Leo McCarey

Cast: Charles Laughton (Ruggles), Mary Boland (Effie Floud), Charles Ruggles (Egbert Floud), ZaSu Pitts (Mrs Judson), Roland Young (Earl of Burnstead), Leila Hyams (Nell Kenner), Maude Eburne (Ma Pettingell), Lucien Littlefield (Charles Belknap-Johnson), Leota Lorraine (Mrs Belknap-Johnson), James Burke (Jeff Turtle)

Ruggles (Charles Laughton) is the perfect gentleman’s gentleman. So how will he react when his gentleman, the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young), loses him at cards to nouve riche American Westerner Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles) and his social-climbing wife Effie (Mary Boland)? Wodehousian antics meet societal culture-clashes, in Leo McCarey’s witty and rather sweet comedy from Charles Laughton’s annus mirabilis (Ruggles, Bligh and Javert all in the same year!) that’s a celebration of American egalitarianism and the well-hidden warm cordiality of the polite British.

Directed with a fine sense of comedic timing by Leo McCarey, Ruggles of Red Gap is refreshingly heart-warming and a celebration of the rewards of decency. For all his initial reserve – and Jeevesian distaste for his new employer’s brashness and love of chequered suits – Ruggles emerges as a decent man, liberated by the classless openness of America. In fact, the idea of all men being equal opens Ruggles eyes for the first time to the idea of making his own decisions (after all he doesn’t question being told he will be moving from Paris to Washington State) and being seen as something other than just an extension of his employer.

Ruggles makes this point with some excellently delivered set-pieces. Most of these revolve around the enjoyable cultural clash between Ruggles and his new employer, the relaxed Egbert, who can’t imagine not calling Ruggles by a host of invented names (from “Bill” to “The Colonel” – the latter causing no end of trouble later) or inviting this staid servant to sit down and have a beer. Egbert’s obliviousness to the careful social rules that Ruggles has lived his entire life by works, because there is not a jot of meanness or correction to it. Egbert genuinely doesn’t understand the fine points of class difference and sees no reason not to treat Ruggles like a friend rather than a servant.

It makes for some terrific moments of comic business. Ruggles and Egbert conduct a running battle where Egbert’s natural politeness and Ruggles’ duteous deference leads to them constantly insisting the other walks first through doorways. Their first day together sees Egbert and a friend taking Ruggles to a Parisian bar and getting him roundly pissed (probably for the first time in his life). Later Egbert’s insistence on introducing him when they arrive in Red Gap as his friend “the Colonel”, combined with Ruggles patrician manners leads to him being mistaken as a genuine aristocrat by the snobbier element of Red Gap society.

Regular Americans may be overly boisterous – you can’t miss the increasingly irritated reactions by Parisians at Egbert’s reunion on the streets of Paris with an old friend, which escalates from embraces, to loud whoops to riding each other like horses – but generally they mean well (good natured fun is poked at the American’s hopelessness with foreign languages – “je voodrais ham un eggs”). In Red Gap, the patrons of a saloon greet Ruggles as one of their own. In turn Ruggles – and even the Earl of Burnstead – are charming and respond far more warmly to their decency than the snobbery of the hoi polli.

If there are unsympathetic characters in the film, it’s the snobs of the American elite, desperate to grab a bit of that old world glamour. Egbert’s snobby brother-in-law Charles sticks out as dyed-in-the-wool snob, concerned mostly with position and being seen with the right people. Effie (hilariously played by Mary Boland) is interested in Ruggles largely as a status symbol, and spends her entire time crafting Egbert into her idea of a gentleman. By contrasts the actualupper status chap, the Earl (delightfully under played with a hilarious uber-poshness by Roland Young) is relatively decent, humble and far prefers the fun-loving social crowd of Red Gap the stuffed shirts.

The film was a very personal one for Laughton, deep into his decision to take up American citizenship. Ruggles’ (and Laughton’s) love for American society is captured in the scene where he recites the Gettysburg Address to the rapt patrons of the saloon (none of whom could remember a single word of it when asked beforehand). In previews, the audience sniggered at Laughton’s emotional rendition (he couldn’t get through it without weeping) – so McCarey re-cut so we only see Laughton from behind and instead focuses on the faces of his audience: suddenly the scene carries real emotional force.

Laughton’s performance is an odd mix. Some moments – such as the Gettysburg address – he nails. His interplay with the other actors is highly effective, but many of his reaction shots often feel overplayed. He over eggs the pudding with the comic eyebrows and, like the scenes when he plays drunk, he sometimes seems to be trying too hard to be funny. But his ability to offer several different versions of shock and surprise is pretty faultless and he captures beautifully Ruggles growing sense of independence and delight at there being more opportunities in life than he ever imagined.

The rest of the cast bounce off each other with all the ease of a relaxed repertory company. Charles Ruggles (who knew Ruggles was such a common name!) is brilliant as Egbert, loud, brash but overwhelmingly kind and decent. His comic timing is exquisite and his chemistry with Mary Boland (one patient the other long suffering) is a constant delight. The comic playing of the cast, with assured – if at times visually disjointed – direction by Leo McCarey helps craft this into a delightfully heart-warming comedy of manners with just the right touch of slap-stick. At the end of which you’ll be as willing to jack it all in and set up a grill in Red Gap as Ruggles is.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Three stars at the top of their game in the classic comedy The Philadelphia Story

Director: George Cukor

Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Tracy Lord), Cary Grant (C.K. Dexter Haven), James Stewart (Mike Connor), Ruth Hussey (Elizabeth Imbrie), John Howard (George Kittredge), Roland Young (Uncle Willie), John Halliday (Seth Lord), Mary Nash (Margaret Lord), Virginia Weidler (Dinah Lord), Henry Daniell (Sidney Kidd)

In 1938 Katharine Hepburn’s career was over. After the flop of some now forgotten (wait, hang on…) screwball comedy called Bringing Up Baby, she took centre place on the Independent Theatre Owners list of “Box Office Poison”. Flops after flop hit Hepburn (all of them are classics today of course), and the studios did their damnedest to drop her. So, Hepburn returned to the stage, developing The Philadelphia Story with Philip Barry – and creating a lead role for herself that would play to all her strengths and help win back public affection. And which (with a little help from Howard Hughes) she would own the rights for: so, if and when they wanted to make a film, she could insist she starred. The rest is history.

The Philadelphia Story is perhaps the best example of the Code-approved genre, the “remarriage comedy” (because the code wouldn’t countenance the idea of a couple cheating). Daughter of a rich Philadelphia family, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is to marry her dull fiancée George Kittredge (John Howard). George’s main attraction is he’s the complete opposite of her charismatic ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Dexter crashes the build-up to the wedding, bringing along reluctant society journalist (he’s really a renowned short-story writer) Mike Connor (James Stewart) and press photographer Elizabeth (Ruth Hussey), promising to introduce them as distant friends of the family so they can report on the wedding. But then Tracy finds herself drawn to Dexter and Mike and George as well – who will she end-up walking down the aisle with?

Perhaps the best thing about The Philadelphia Story is that you really don’t know who it will be – and the film successfully keeps the question both up-in-the-air and deeply entertaining. There even seems a chance (unlikely as it is) that Tracy really will stick with George (a tedious nouveau riche businessman with priggish middle-class morals who can’t even mount a house – imagine!). Directed with the sort of unfussy smoothness Cukor excelled in – and helped get the best out of actors – it’s a superb comic treat, with a sparkling adaptation by Donald Ogden Stewart.

At the heart of it, Hepburn is superb in a role that riffs considerably off her own public personality. Hepburn was smart enough to know most audiences saw her as far too clever by half. Her sharpness, acidity and no-nonsense unwillingness to suffer fools had made her hard to relate to. Quite correctly, she felt she needed a role where she could “fall flat on her face”. Which , by the way, is more or less the first thing she does – a hilarious prat fall while throwing Cary Grant’s Dexter out, him responding to her snapping his golf clubs by gently putting his hand on her face and pushing her off-balance (only Grant could have got away with that by the way).

Tracy Lord is a version of the Hepburn many people felt they knew. Tracy genuinely believes she’s smarter and better than anyone else, with unquestionable judgment and superior morals. The film is a gentle exercise in pricking her balloon, showing her she is as prone to mistakes, prejudice and, above all, getting giddy and silly in love, as anyone else. This is a fiercely practical woman, who sets high standards for those around her, suddenly finding herself falling in love with three men at once. It’s the exact flighty lack of commitment she spent years condemning her estranged father for.

This is all scintillatingly played by Hepburn, at her absolute best. The rat-a-tat dialogue (with its classic, Wildean comedy of errors and mis-identification) is under her complete control. She’s delightful when, under the influence, she flirts with Mike – Hepburn showing the world (clearly they missed it in Bringing Up Baby) that she could be as silly and vulnerable as the next girl. Hepburn knew people wanted to see her personae deconstructed, and for her character to learn that (in the words of another comedy) nobody’s perfect. It works a treat – and this remained one of her greatest (and funniest) performances.

It helps she had two of the greatest to riff off. Cary Grant is at his light-comedic best here, turning Dexter – a manipulative reformed alcoholic it would be easy to dislike – into the embodiment of sophistication, charm and playful wit, who we adore as much Tracy’s family does. James Stewart won an Oscar and matches Grant gag-for-gag in a comedic masterclass. He’s a master of hilarious comedic and physical reactions – and lovable enough to turn a chippy newspaperman into a sort of hilariously droll sage. His ‘drunk’ acting is also some of the funniest you’ll see on film (even Grant can be spotted cracking up just a little as Stewart hiccups his way through a scene).

Hepburn’s chemistry with both actors is sublime. Her romancing scenes – both the worst for wear for drink, but also empowered to say things they’ve clearly been burying all day – with Stewart are not hugely romantic, but also rather sexy (Cukor’s direction here is also exquisitely spot-on). It’s a masterclass in on-screen flirtation – and you can see why George gets as pissed off as he is. Hepburn and Grant meanwhile bicker and taunt each other with all the chemistry of a match and a fire.

Each scene has a bounce that teeters between heart-felt and farcical. The set-ups are frequently silly – but they work because they hinge on characters that feel immensely real. Every performer is spot on – credit also goes to a superb Ruth Hussey, one of the few grown-ups in this weekend of flirting, feuding children. Set in a sumptuously rich Philadelphian mansion, for all of Mike’s chippy criticism it’s a celebration of the smooth upper classes over hard-working, dull prigs like George. Its sole fault might be it’s too long (at just under 2 hours, a few scenes and set-ups outstay their welcome). But, as a classic Hollywood comedy, it’s pretty much the top of the class. Box-office poison no more.