Only yesterday I posted an article about a series of movies at The Criterion Channel, and here I am doing it again. Only this time, I’m discussing two series, and they’re all about funny movie stars.
I haven’t seen enough Carole Lombard movies. This series, Starring Carole Lombard, should give me a chance to know her better. But I’ve seen enough to know that she was beautiful, talented, and very funny. She also died way too soon, in a plane crash after entertaining the troops early in World War II.
In the 1930s, she was the queen of screwball, a sub-genre of romantic comedy. In screwball, glamorous stars acted like low, slapstick comics. These films also often dealt with economic class differences.
I’ve seen four of the ten films in this series, and only two of them I have seen recently enough to write about. My favorite is To Be or Not to Be (1942).
The Nazis conquered Poland with frightening speed. But they prove no match for Lombard and Jack Benny in Ernst Lubitsch’s World War II comic masterpiece. As a married pair of egotistical stars of the Warsaw stage, Lombard and Benny lead a theatrical troupe of slightly lesser egos as they outwit the gestapo. The rare screwball comedy that’s willing to get serious when the story demands it. Read my Blu-ray review. I give it an A+.
My Man Godfrey (1936) isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a fine screwball.
Few screwballs turn up the class warfare as high as this one. A wealthy family hires a homeless man (William Powell) to become their new butler. His kindness and intelligence save the family while he romances one of the daughters (Lombard). Godfrey blows it badly in the last act, but that shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the first two. I give it a B+.
The Marx Brothers
The Marx Brothers used comedy to deflate the pompous and tear down the establishment. They turned respectable, upper-class society into anarchy and surrealism. They also made us laugh.
I think Criterion was right to call this series The Best of The Marx Brothers, even though it has some stinkers (if I recall them properly). In general, the earlier Paramount movies were better than the later MGM pictures.
The series jumps over the first Marx Brother movie, The Cocoanuts, an amateurish effort from Paramount with occasional scenes of brilliance. But the rest of the Paramount movies, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and especially Duck Soup, are the Brothers at their best. They’re outrageous, surreal, anarchic, and hilarious. If you want to know more about the best Marx movies, read my Blu-ray review of the Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection.
Then the Brothers left Paramount and went to Metro Goldwyn Mayer, where they were tamed and taught to be nice. Their first MGM film, A Night at the Opera, has some of their best comic scenes, including the “The Sanity Clause,” and the very tiny and overloaded cabin. But between the comic business, you have to sit through a lot of pointless plot. Their follow-up, A Day at the Races, is significantly worse, has a very racist scene, and yet is still enjoyable.
It’s been decades since I’ve seen the last films in this series: Room Service, At the Circus, Go West, and The Big Store. I remember enjoying all of them, except maybe Room Service. I’ll return to them soon and let you know what I think about them.