Thursday, 5 October 2017

Screwball comedy round-up: Topper, My Man Godfrey, Monkey Business, and I Married a Witch

Marilyn Monroe, Monkey Business (1952)
For some reason, I always associate the term "screwball comedy" with the 1938  picture Bringing Up Baby, which starred Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Despite being a fan of both actors, the frenetic pace, ludicrous plot and general hysteria defeated me on each of the three or four occasions I've tried to make it to through to the end. I've also never really understood the appeal of His Girl Friday, The Palm Beach Story,  or You Can't Take It With You - and I found Peter Bogdanovich's attempt to revive the genre in 1972 with What's Up, Doc? as toe-curlingly embarrassing as a Theresa May party conference speech. Consequently, I've never really considered myself a fan of screwballery - which is silly, really, because...

... some of my favourite feelgood films belong in the category - e.g. It Happened One Night, The Philadelphia Story, To Be or Not to Be, Arsenic and Old Lace, and Ball of Fire. But for every delightful classic I've enjoyed, there are at least two others I've avoided. Time to check some of them out.

I started with My Man Godfrey, the 1936 film in which blue-blood down-and-out William Powell is hired as a butler by ditzy Carole Lombard (his ex-wife in real life), one of the two spoilt out-of-control daughters of the Bullocks, a dysfunctional nouveaux riche Manhattan family. Lombard is as bonkers as her mother, while her sister (played by Gail Patrick) is a total ratbag. Daddy is a gruff but good-hearted businessman. There's a tough but likeable downstairs maid and a spectacularly annoying, pretentious, arty prat called Carlo, whom Mrs. Bullock keeps around - until Mr. Bullock takes the wretched poseur off camera, beats him up, and throws him out of the house. It's all very funny and lively and loveable, the actors are in top form, the script sparkles - and even the opening title sequence is a little visual masterpiece. William Powell is the still, calm, intelligent, rational centre around which the rest of the cast whirl, dervish-like - he was a truly superb comic actor, especially when underplaying. I only felt let down right at the end when (SPOILER ALERT) Carole Lombard bullies him into marrying her: he should have married her less frenzied sister.

Topper is a film title I've been bumping into for years: all I knew was that it starred Cary Grant and had something to do with the supernatural. If My Man Godfrey was about a basically sensible man bringing order to a rich, feckless family, Topper is about a rich, feckless couple bringing some much-needed chaos - some genuine fun - to the dull, orderly life of a staid banker. The bored banker's name is Topper, and he's played by Roland Young,  a buttoned-up English character actor (well, under-actor, really) who played the lead in another comedy with a supernatural plot,  The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), which has always been a personal favourite. The filthy-rich young feckless couple - the major shareholders in the bank Topper runs - are played by Grant and Constance Bennett, who pay for their carefree hedonism by dying in a car-crash on a country road. Their ghosts decide that their only hope of getting into Heaven is to do one good deed (having avoided doing any while alive). So they set about liberating Topper (of whom they are both fond, as he is of them) by making him loosen up and have some fun for once. Meanwhile, Topper has their smashed-up sports car repaired and, ignoring the protests of his flint-faced, hen-pecking, social-climbing wife, takes it out for a drive...and encounters the dead couple. Japes ensue.

Just as William Powell holds My Man Godfrey together, Roland Young is the key to Topper's success: without his ordinariness to anchor it, Cary Grant and Constance Bennett would have started to get on my nerves a lot earlier than they did (which was around the hour mark). A chap can only take so much gay, brittle madcappery before he starts hankering after a dark, violent film noir full of really miserable characters. Still, Topper just about managed to retain its fizz most of the way through.

Yet more supernatural shenanigans followed, with I Married a Witch (1942), directed by René Clair and starring Frederic March and Veronica Lake. A 17th Century witch returns to plague the descendant of her persecutor by making the thrusting young political hopeful in love with her, thereby wrecking his marriage to his well-connected termagant fiancée (played by Susan Hayward), which is due to take place the very next day. Only the witch (Veronica Lake, in case there's any doubt) accidentally swallows the potion meant for Frederic March, and fall head-over-heels in love with him instead - and, despite not having been placed under s spell, Frederic March falls in love with her (obviously).

It's an amiable candy-floss ball of well-made, diverting fluff. The problem I had with it were the two leads. I'm so used to seeing Frederic March in big, meaty dramatic roles that I couldn't really buy him in this one - and I didn't feel any genuine sexual chemistry between him and his tiny, peekaboo hair-styled co-star. (I subsequently read that the two didn't exactly hit it off - not surprising, given that March had slighted her talent in the press beforehand.)  Joel McCrea had been slated for the March role, but turned it down because he hadn't enjoyed working with little Veronica on Sullivan's Travels (I'm guessing she may have had personality issues). As for Ms Lake, I know I should find her sexy and alluring, what with her deep, dreamy voice and her cat-like languor... but she comes across more like someone who's just downed half a bottle of Scotch and a handful of downers. Speaking of low, dreamy voices and cat-like languor, I suspect Lauren Bacall would have been far more effective in the role (but it would be another two years before she made her screen debut in To Have and Have Not).  Still, it's a well-made film, and, at 77 minutes, doesn't outstay its welcome.

I'll end with a movie I'd never heard of - Monkey Business (1952), directed by Howard Hawks, starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, and featuring Marilyn Monroe as a ridiculously sexy and extremely dumb secretary (she gets to the office early, she explains, because her boss has criticised her poor punctuation). The plot? Well, if I must... Cary Grant is a scientist working on a formula that will reverse the ageing process by restoring people's health and vigour. He and his team are experimenting on chimps, one of whom escapes from its cage, mixes up a load of chemicals (he's been watching Cary Grant at work), and the result somehow ends up in the water-cooler (Esther the chimp gives a brilliant performance, I must say). Impatient for results, Grant takes some of the mixture he has prepared himself - and unknowingly washes it down with the monkey mixture in the water-cooler. His eyesight is immediately restored, his bursitis vanishes, and he turns into a goofy 20-year old version of himself, getting a buzzcut, buying a loud sports jacket and a loud sports car to go with it, and setting off with Marilyn Monroe for a day of kooky high-jinks. With pretty much any other actor, this would be embarrassing - but Cary Grant pulls it off, and he and Marilyn Monroe are great together.

The chemicals wear off, and Grant has to placate his wife. At first, you really just want Ginger Rogers to get off the screen so we can get more of Grant and Monroe together: I even found myself feeling sorry for the much older actress. But then Ginger Rogers takes some of the elixir and turns into a teenager, out come her comic chops (that sounds wrong, somehow), and we understand why she's in the film. It's all bloody silly, but the script, the direction and the actors somehow make it all work (although shaving 15 minutes off its 97-minute running time wouldn't have done it any harm). Monkey Business isn't a "must-see" film, true - but I'd definitely class it as a "why-not-see", especially if you enjoy Cary Grant in comic mode, find Marilyn Monroe attractive (!), and enjoy the occasional double-entendre (of which there are quite a few).

As for Bringing Up Baby, I was unaware until now that it initially fared badly at the box office - RKO never really recovered from its unexpected failure (Howard Hughes bought the studio in 1941), Howard Hawks was released from his contract with the company, and it led to Katharine Hepburn being (temporarily) dubbed "box-office poison" by distributors. That makes me feel slightly less like the man in the Bateman cartoon for not responding to it.

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