Monday, 7 May 2018

I take it all back - screwball comedies absolutely rocked: "The More the Merrier", "Midnight", "Easy Living", "The Palm Beach Story"

Let's hope the #MeToo crowd never see the 1943 film, The More the Merrier, because they'd probably try to get it banned. Jean Arthur (who's engaged to a boring, anal, wig-wearing government bureaucrat) and serviceman Joel McCrea (who's about to be shipped overseas) have been thrown together by Washington's chronic wartime housing shortage. In this scene, they get to know each other a little better:
Sexual predator alert! These days...

...they'd have hopped into bed within five minutes, Joel McCrea would be sporting a gym-honed six-pack, Jean Arthur would be in possession of a silicone-enhanced 38-DD bust - and it would all have been about as erotic as a darts match. 

Having watched a lot of old Hollywood movies recently, I've been astonished by Joel McCrea's ubiquity - and by his effectiveness as a screen actor. He's a big, good-looking lug who excelled at action and comedy roles; he had presence, energy and sex-appeal - and he was always immensely likeable. He never pursued superstardom, as he didn't fancy all the hassle that went with it, and he was aware of his limitations: apparently: he would always tell directors that he knew he hadn't been their first choice for the part. This is the film that finally persuaded me that all those directors were lucky to get him. 

Charles Coburn - another unsung Hollywood stalwart who appeared in dozens of of films, and whom I had never previously rated - was 65 when he made this movie, and he pretty much steals the whole damn thing. Here, having practically forced his way into Jean Arthur's apartment, he tries to fit in with her precise morning schedule - the result is a little comic masterpiece
Jean Arthur - whose antecedents were Norwegian and English - was the Queen of Screwball Comedy. She served a long and relatively undistinguished apprenticeship in movies before Frank Capra cast her - aged 36 - opposite Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936): Capra would use her again in You Can't Take It with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). She was cute (but not cutesy-pie), petite, and, somewhere along the line, she developed a unique, attractive, intimate voice, which was both throaty and scratchy, and was quite unlike the one she had used in her earlier talkies. Her ability to reinvent herself was no doubt helped by the fact that she looked much younger than her age - you wouldn't guess it, but she was 43 when she made The More the Merrier! The whole film is available on YouTube, here

Miss Arthur's girl-next-door glamour had served her well six years earlier, in Easy Living (1937), a truly sparkling Preston Sturgess-scripted comedy in which she plays a hard-up 9-5 New York girl whose dull life gets turned upside-down when she tries to return a $58,000 fur coat (thrown out of the window of his penthouse flat by America's third richest banker) which has landed on her while she's riding along on top of a double-decker bus. Unfairly suspected of being "loose", she gets fired from her humdrum job, ends up staying (for free) in a ridiculously luxurious but failing hotel, and becomes embroiled with the banker's estranged son. Ray Milland's a bit underpowered as the son, but Edward Arnold is brilliant as the irascible banker. The full film is available here, but, if you just fancy a snippet, here's the scene in which Jean Arthur tries to return the fur coat:
Midnight (1939) is another real gem. Scripted by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, it starts with penniless, out-of-work American showgirl Claudette Colbert arriving in Paris on a train from Monte Carlo. She first hooks up with dashing Hungarian taxi-driver, Don Ameche (much better at this sort of thing than Ray Milland). Mistaking his intentions, she escapes from him by gate-crashing a swanky recital, where she pretends to be the wife of a Hungarian nobleman (who just happens to have Don Ameche's name). Within the blink of an eye, she finds herself ensconced at the Ritz, courtesy of aristo John Barrymore (evidently as pissed as a rat in every scene, but still able to do the business), and pursued by the lover of Barrymore's wife (Mary Astor, whose allure I've always found elusive), and being hunted by lovesick Don Ameche. It's all very sophisticated and glittery and Mittel-European and very funny - the scene where Don Ameche turns up unexpectedly at a glamorous party at Barrymore's country estate is quite superb. It isn't available on YouTube, but I did find it here. Here's the rather lumpy official trailer for it (don't be put off by it):
Claudette Colbert also stars in my fourth and final screwball comedy, The Palm Beach Story (1942), a typically frenetic Preston Sturgess movie which also features Joel McCrea and Mary Astor (looking distinctly matronly). As with Easy Living and Midnight, it involves poor young people being given the money they need to get ahead by insanely rich men (in The More the Merrier, Charles Coburn turns out to be an eccentric millionaire, but his role is more that of Cupid). I'd tried to watch The Palm Beach Story before, but had given up during a prolonged and irritating sequence on a train involving a group of drunk, middle-aged men - members of the Quail and Ale Club - behaving like unsupervised five-year olds: it was no funnier second time round, but the film gets back on track once we leave the train (geddit?).  The singer Rudy Vallée is surprisingly good as the weird multi-millionaire who wants to marry Claudette (not knowing she's already married to Joel, whom she tries to pass off as her brother), and Robert Dudley is hilarious as The Wienie King, the deaf multi-millionaire with an enormous wad (as it were). The dialogue is wonderful: 

John D. Hackensacker III: [Referring to Gerry's husband, whom Gerry has claimed she is divorcing] There is a name for such reptiles, but I won't sully this sweet ocean breeze by mentioning it. I may not be exactly in the best of shape, but if ever I meet this Mr... "Jeffers," I'll thrash him within an inch of his life.
Gerry Jeffers: Oh, well then I hope you never meet him.
John D. Hackensacker III: I suppose he's large?
Gerry Jeffers: Well, he's not small...
John D. Hackensacker III: That's one of the tragedies of this life - that the men who are most in need of a beating up are always enormous.

The Wienie King: I'm the Wienie King! Invented the Texas Wienie! Lay off 'em, you'll live longer.

John D. Hackensacker III: Do you happen to remember how much tip I gave the taxi driver?
Gerry Jeffers: Well, I didn't see the coin, but from his face, I think it was ten cents.
John D. Hackensacker III: Tipping is un-American.

Princess Centimillia: I'd marry Captain McGloo tomorrow, even with that name.
John D. Hackensacker III: And divorce him the next month.
Princess Centimillia: Nothing is permanent in this world - except for Roosevelt.

Tom Jeffers: Where'd you meet this Weenie King?
Gerry Jeffers: You'll die laughing!
Tom Jeffers: All right, convulse me.

Tom Jeffers: So this fellow gave you the look?
Gerry Jeffers: At his age it was more of a blink.

Again, The Palm Beach Story isn't available for free on YouTube - but you can "rent" it for £2.49, here. Or, if you're feeling mean, it's available for nothing here. (I would recommend paying for it - the quality of the HD versions of old black and white movies available on YouTube and Amazon is absolutely extraordinary.) Meanwhile, here's a trailer for it:

1 comment:

  1. I always dismissed Joel McRae [and his contemporary, Randolph Scott] as dull, B-movie actors until they came out of retirement and starred in Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country" [1962]. In my book, it is one of the great "westerns" - especially the ending which contains some great acting from the old-timers [see You Tube]. Next time I see McRae's name attached to a film I will definitely watch. Yours is a timely reminder.