As usual, a lot of movies available on the Criterion Channel will disappear at the end of February. If you like screwball comedy, and other genres, check out these films before it’s March.
A+ The Lady Eve (1941)
Like most great screwballs, Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve looks at class differences. It also examines the problems between a free-spirited woman and an uptight man (Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda). Stanwyck plays the younger half of a father/daughter team of card sharks, who makes the mistake of falling in love with her current mark – a shy, scientifically minded, naïve aristocrat played wonderfully by Fonda. The result: crazy hijinks in glamorous settings. Read my appreciation.
A+ McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
With all his great work, Robert Altman never made anything as brilliant as his rethinking of the western genre. The plot sounds like a western cliché: A lone rider with a rep as a gunfighter comes to town (Warren Beatty). He doesn’t act like a killer. He launches a peaceful business – a whorehouse. He knows nothing about the business, and that’s where Julie Christie comes in. But when a big, criminal-run organization wants to take over his now-successful company, he makes a very bad choice. What makes the film a masterpiece is Vilmos Zsigmond’s golden cinematography, Leonard Cohen’s atmospheric music, and…well, just everything else about this film. Read my essay.
A+ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)
In 1944, it was impossible for a Hollywood picture to criticize the American military in any way. To suggest that it was even biologically possible to get pregnant out of wedlock was unmentionable (even the word pregnant was not allowed). Yet Preston Sturges managed to make a comedy, and a hilarious one, about a single, teenage, small-town girl who goes out with some soldiers and comes back in a family way. The real miracle is that this movie got made–and came out so good. Read my essay.
A The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)
Here’s an exceptional, low-budget children’s fantasy. Young Fiona (Jeni Courtney) comes to live with her grandparents. From them and others, she learns about her mysterious family history. Along with Fiona, we learn why her grandparents no longer live on the nearby island of Roan Inish, how her baby brother was lost to the sea, and why one local seal takes such an interest in Fiona. From writer/director John Sayles.
A The Long Goodbye (1973)
Philip Marlowe in the 1970s? That’s exactly what screenwriter Leigh Brackett and director Robert Altman did with excellent results. Marlowe (Elliott Gould) still lives in a crummy apartment, but now he has a bunch of hippie chicks next door, constantly offering him brownies. The movie starts as a comedy, with Marlow trying to find the only cat food his feline will eat. But as you’d expect in an adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel, it turns into a labyrinth of fear and violence. A not-yet-famous Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up briefly. Read my Blu-ray review.
A Psycho (1960)
You may never want to take a shower again. In his last masterpiece, Alfred Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us several times, leaving the audience unsure who we’re supposed to be rooting for or what could constitute a happy ending. In roles that defined their careers, Janet Leigh stars as a secretary turned thief, and Anthony Perkins as a momma’s boy with a lot to hide. I’ll always regret that I knew too much about Psycho before I saw it; I wish I could erase all memory of this movie and watch it with fresh eyes.
A His Girl Friday (1940)
Director Howard Hawks turned Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play The Front Page into a love triangle by turning ace reporter Hildy Johnson into a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns her soon-to-be ex-husband (Cary Grant). And so was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all–with some of the fastest dialog ever recorded. And as a side bit, there’s some serious drama thrown in about an impending execution.
A Seven Beauties (1975)
Lina Wertmüller’s 1975 masterpiece is a Holocaust film, an examination of Italian machismo, and a witheringly sad and disturbing drama. It’s also a very funny slapstick comedy. Wertmüller’s muse, Giancarlo Giannini, stars as a charming but somewhat dense egomaniac. We learn about his pre-war life in flashbacks, where he dresses smart and guards the virtue of his seven sisters. But during the war, he deserts the Italian army and ends up in a concentration camp. Here he discovers something much more important than honor – survival. Read my Blu-ray review.
A Billy Liar (1963)
This is how a stage play should be converted into a film – by making it look like a movie. As Billy (Tom Courtenay) moves through his day, he goes between reality, his constant stream of lies, and his own private fantasies. A young man living with his parents, he’s completely unable to do anything mature or reliable. He’s engaged to two women. His lies and fantasies supply the film’s laughs, but as the day goes on, the laughs drop out and the film becomes a sad tale of arrested development. A very young Julie Christie plays the one woman who understands him.
A It Happened One Night (1934)
Frank Capra’s breakthrough hit foreshadowed the screwball comedies of the late 30s and 40s. Like them, it’s a romantic comedy that crosses class lines–in this case an heiress falling in love with a newspaper reporter. And as one would expect from a Hollywood movie made in 1933 (and released early in ’34), it takes poverty seriously. People are desperate and often hungry. It lacks the fast pace and over-the-top comedy of the screwballs to come, but it has a warmth and humanity that they lacked.
A- Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
Only Preston Sturges could find a way to satirize patriotic hoopla at the height of World War II. A draft-board reject (a very funny Eddie Bracken) feels too disgraced to return to his small town. So, a group of real marines set out to help him by loaning him a uniform and taking him home, praising his heroism all the way through. Of course, there are complications.
A- Holiday (1938)
This romantic comedy doesn’t seem quite crazy enough to be called a screwball. The laughs don’t pile up the way others do. But it has something else – a believable romance between intelligent people discussing their lives and their loves, and how they became the people they are. On the other hand, it stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and plays with class differences, so maybe it is a screwball. Grant plays a self-made man who discovers his fiancée comes from a very wealthy and aristocratic family. And Edward Everett Horton gets to play an intelligent man. Read my Blu-ray review.
A- Little Big Man (1970)
Dustin Hoffman plays a young man and a very old man in this unlikely and often comic epic about the one white survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Hoffman is a white man raised by the Cheyenne. Going back and forth between two cultures, he’s always at his best among the indigenous people. The film swings between broad comedy and horrific violence. The white cast includes Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, and Richard Mulligan. It was ahead of its time by using only native actors to play native characters, and Chief Dan George stole the movie. But by today’s standards, it feels like a white savior movie.
A- The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Although it doesn’t quite come up to the brilliant level of The Lady Eve, this Preston Sturges screwball is still a great time at the movies. It’s not just the absurdity of casting singer Rudy Vallee as the millionaire rival ready to win Claudette Colbert from husband Joel McCrea. It’s also the Weenie King, the Ale and Quail Club, Toto, and the most ridiculously happy ending ever filmed.
A- Tootsie (1982)
Gender roles turn upside-down in what is easily the second best Hollywood comedy about straight men in drag (the best, of course, is Some Like It Hot). Dustin Hoffman plays a struggling actor who no one wants to hire, so he disguises himself as a woman, gets a job in a soap opera, and becomes a sensation. Things get complicated when he falls for one of his co-stars (Jessica Lange). The very funny screenplay was written by Larry Gelbart, who also created Corporal Klinger on TV’s M*A*S*H. Teri Garr and Bill Murray show off their exceptional comic timing in supporting roles. Directed by Sydney Pollack.
B+ The Awful Truth (1937)
One of the few comedies to win Best Picture – along with five other Oscars. Like most of the screwballs of the 30’s and 40’s, it’s about very wealthy people falling in and out of love. Irene Dunne and Cary Grant play a married couple who get a divorce. But somehow, they keep running into each other. The ending is obvious, but that’s because of the Production Code. It’s surprisingly slow for a screwball, but that allows us to get to know the characters a bit more.
B+ My Man Godfrey (1936)
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). The movie goes off the train badly in the last act, but that shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the first two.
B+ Ball of Fire (1941)
Unlike most screwball comedies, the romantic couple in this one (Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck) doesn’t generate most of the laughs. Instead, most of the jokes come from the supporting cast, which contains S.Z. Sakall, Henry Travers, Leonid Kinskey, and several other supporting comedians. They play a gaggle of very funny and cuddly academic eggheads writing an encyclopedia. Cooper plays the youngest and handsomest of the group – a linguist trying to learn more about slang. He falls for Stanwyck’s nightclub singer, and she falls for him. But there are gangsters in the way. Good as it is, I would have expected something better from a screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, with directing by Howard Hawks.
B The More the Merrier (1943)
George Stevens’ last comedy before joining the army plays fun with wartime Washington’s housing shortage and the city’s then 8-to-1 ratio of women to men. The best scenes come early, with Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn trying to share a small apartment (at one point she doesn’t know she’s living with two men). A seduction scene (or the 1943 variation) is both witty and surprisingly sexy. Funny and romantic, with a taste of sadness due to the war that McCrea’s character is about to join (as did director Stevens).
B- Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)
Ernst Lubitsch proved that he could make a sexy romantic comedy at the height of the extremely prudish Production Code. Gary Cooper plays the owner of a major bank who falls for Claudette Colbert (an easy thing for a man to do). But at their wedding, it comes out that he has been married and divorced over and over again. Edward Everett Horton plays the father of the bride, which is surprising because he usually played characters who have no concept of human reproduction. Silly, funny, and very much with the Lubitsch touch.
B- The Birds (1963)
Alfred Hitchcock’s only out-and-out fantasy has some great sequences. The scene where Tippi Hedren calmly sits and smokes while crows gather on playground equipment behind her, and the following attack on the children, are classics. The lovely Bodega Bay location adds atmosphere and local color, and many of the special effects were way ahead of their time. But the story is weak, the ending unsatisfactory, and lovely scenery plays side-by-side with obvious soundstage mockups. Worse yet, newcomer Hedren doesn’t provide a single believable moment. She’s beautiful, but utterly lacking in acting talent or charisma.
Other films probably worth watching
These aren’t all the films that will go away in March.