Libeled Lady (1936)

The Front Page

The opening credits of Libeled Lady are not your typical list of screen names, instead we get footage of the four main stars walking arm in arm very happily as their names come on screen one by one. Four heavyweights in roles which play to their strengths, giving some of the best dialogue the screwball comedy has to offer. Libeled Lady is my favourite newspaper comedy, a world in which journalistic ethics are nonexistent and people struggle to make relationships and careers in journalism mix. Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) is so preoccupied with his job as the managing editor of a paper he has missed his own wedding several times, so no surprise Jean Harlow gives a very comically angry performance throughout most of the film.

William Powell’s Bill Chandler has such cool and confidence, he even draws his own contract which will bring him back to the paper he was sacked from as he knows Warren Haggerty will come looking for him following a scandal. Powell gets the chance to show the full range of his comic abilities, not only as a master of words but also gets showcase slapstick comedy similar in vain to Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin during the film’s fishing scene. The subplot of Bill Chandler learning to fish would be the basis of Howard Hawk’s comedy Mans’ Favorite Sport?. Despite how incredibly fast he picks up the ability to fish like an expert it doesn’t feel contrived.

A portion of the story is spent trying to find William Powell with telephone, telegraph, and radio as their means of communication. Outdated aspects like in old movies always intrigues me and makes me ponder if stories like this could be told today. With the internet and other modern communication devices, they could have been able to recall those newspapers at the start of the film. Likewise, publications today are no less obsessed with covering the escapades of socialites and people famous for being famous; but Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) is not a typical socialite. She is down to Earth, has an image distorted by the media and can even outwit the paper. It’s appropriate this role would be played by Myrna Loy; the so-called only good girl in Hollywood.

Twentieth Century (1934)

Overacting at Its Finest

John Barrymore in Twentieth Century. Simply put. Every once in a while I may stumble upon a screen performance which leaves an indelible impression, brings me new levels of respect towards a performer and to even write a review. That’s the effect John Barrymore’s tour de force had on me in Twentieth Century. Barrymore is an absolute beast as the egomaniac Oscar Jaffe delivering one of my favourite film performances ever.

Barrymore had earned the reputation of being a ham actor although that’s perhaps the nasty way of putting it. Theatrical style acting may seem outdated and laughable to many nowadays but it is a style unto itself. When Barrymore asked director Howard Hawks why he should play the role of Oscar Hawks replied: “It’s the story of the biggest ham on Earth and you’re the biggest ham I know”. The film even foreshadowed Barrymore’s own future as he himself became a washed up actor in the final years of his life like how the character of Oscar Jaffe becomes a shadow of his former self. Really has there ever been a more impassioned performance which is hammed up to 11 than this. Barrymore doesn’t just chew the scenery in every scene he is in, he devours it like a ravenous dog; he’s the definitive representation of the angry stage director stereotype. Just look at his breakdown scene when his Tribley leaves him for Hollywood, one of the greatest displays of histrionic acting poweress. Oscar Jaffe really is a fascinating character. It isn’t just enough for him to tell an employee of his theater that they have been fired, he has to tell them in the most melodramatic fashion “I close the iron door on you!”, or what about his constant comparisons to his present occurrences to scenes from famous plays or historical events. Half of what this man says is more melodramatic than Charlton Heston and William Shatner combined. Barrymore was known as The Great Profile and rightfully so; talk about an enigmatic screen presence.

The sheer energy between Barrymore and Carole Lombard is incredible in this ultimate battle of the egos; both of these two performers cross that line in comedy of playing hateful, selfish, disciple characters you can’t help but love. Carole Lombard herself has an endearing, childlike quality to her, getting overly emotional when Jaffe insults her acting ability; appropriate though since much of the film is two adults acting like children. The first portion of the film is comprised of a stage rehearsal, showcasing an impressive display of actors playing actors giving bad performances with Jaffe insulting them at every turn (“The old south does not yodel”)  but it’s the film’s second half in which things really get crazy, taking place onboard the Twentieth Century Limited. When I first watched the film I found the subplot with the religious fanatic to feel out of place at first but trust me when I say the payoff is worth it. Twentieth Century is very screamy and very shoutey but there are many little subtle touches such as the establishing shot at the start of the film of a poster advertising the Jaffe theater (showcasing the man’s insane ego); possibly the funniest establishing shot I’ve ever seen. Also, keep an ear out for several references to Svengali, adapted to film in 1931 also starring John Barrymore. I also must give a shout out to Mary Jo Mathews, the actress who plays Valerie Whitehouse. She only has several lines in the entire film yet I’m intrigued by her; she appears to have star quality to her.

Along with It Happened One Night released the same year, Twentieth Century movie marks the birth the screwball comedy. I can never get enough of these films, they’re incredibly addictive and they always leave me with the feeling of wanting more. I don’t like to be labeled as one of those “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” people actually who am I kidding, of course, I do.

It Happened One Night (1934)

What Is the Deal With Donut Dunking?!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

It Happened One Night was my first exposure to what I now consider to be my favourite genre of film, the screwball comedy. I’ll never forget the feeling of exuberance at watching Clark Gable run to his boss at the newspaper to pitch a story about how he’s fallen in love with a princess, such energy, such emotion; I had never felt such a way from watching a movie before. It Happened One Night is the famous and most widely seen film of its genre and I believe it deserves such an accolade; something unforgettable is happening in every scene, whether funny or tender, jam-packed little details to spot on every viewing. It Happened One Night along with Twentieth Century gave birth to the screwball comedy, but it isn’t the only sub-genre it set a standard for. The runaway princess movie, the road movie and the newspaper comedy all owe their debts to it.

In his opening scene, Clark Gable is introduced as the king; couldn’t be more adapt. Watching the movie closely I can say that everything this man says is pure gold from his art of donut dunking, art of clothes removal, the different methods hitchhike signaling and his wall of Jericho. Then it dawned on me just how Seinfeldian this movie is. Much of Clark Gable’s dialogue in this movie could be a Jerry Seinfeld stand up routine. It’s easy to see how many screwball comedies have influenced modern day sitcoms; all that’s missing is the laugh track.

Claudette Colbert is one of the most famous incumbents of The Gable Treatment; what I like to call the macho manner in which Gable treats his leading ladies. Of course for any other actor to have this characteristic they would be an unlikable brute, but because it’s Gable it works. I also have to ask did the scene in which Gable eats a raw carrot while attempting to hitch-hike with his usual confidence and cockiness inspire Bugs Bunny? Ah Gable, has never ever existed a more charismatic human being?

Fours a Crowd (1938)

Release the Hounds!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Rosalind Russell in a screwball comedy? These are the kinds of cast ensembles which unleash the inner fanboy in me. Errol Flynn rarely got the chance in his career to perform comedy and here he proves he was cable of doing Cary Grant-esque comedy on the same level as well, Cary Grant. Sadly Four’s a Crowd’s lack of box office success prevented Warner Bros from putting him in more comedies

Although The Women is seen as the film which launched Rosalind Russell as a fast-talking comedic actress, Four’s a Crowd is the first film in which she plays such a character and her first turn as the working career woman (or “newspaper man” as she refers to herself here) which became synonymous with shades of Hildy Johnson coming through. She takes full advantage of the role, stealing the show with her impeccable timing which reportedly made Olivia de Havilland envious. De Havilland though is tasked with playing a dim-witted character which she performs without coming off as annoying as such characters can easily be.

Four’s a Crowd owes a certain debt to Libeled Lady featuring some similar plot trends and themes with its slam on the upper classes, the socialite lifestyle and the desperate lengths newspapers will go to in order to get a story and control the narrative. Even the opening title sequence is taken from Libeled Lady in which the cast do the same arm in arm walk but is full of moments of inspired zaniness to distinguish itself. The model train sequence which lasts for 16 minutes had to have come from creative minds; plus what’s funnier in an innocent, cute kind of way than grown men playing with model trains. However, there is one moment in Fours a Crowd which is one of the most bizarre gags I’ve ever seen in a film in which after escaping from a pack of guard dogs to the other side of a gate, he grabs one of the dog’s legs and bites it. I still don’t know how to react to it, whether I should laugh or be horrified or both! The plot gets very confusing very fast but in a good way culminating in a finale in which Errol gets the wrong girl at the end! Although the manner in which this happens is screwball antics at its finest.

Broadway Bill (1934)

A Day at the Races

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Broadway Bill is Frank Capra’s forgotten follow up to It Happened One Night, likely due to the film being out of circulation until the 1990’s and what a shame too. Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy are not romantic leads as she is his sister in law but both of them have great admiration for each other with Dan Brooks (Baxter) referring to her affectionately as The Princess and Loy clearly in love with the man and holding the same ideals as him but unable to go any further due to family ties; I find this dynamic is more interesting than a standard romance. Capra originally wanted Clark Gable in the lead role but had to settle with Warner Baxter who at least seems to be the next best thing as he holds much of the same rugged, footloose appeal of Gable.

Broadway Bill features many of the same Capra-isms as seen in his other films. The small town of Higginsvillie being run by business mogul J.L Higggins played by Walter Connolly is a much more light-hearted version of Mr Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. He is in control of his entire family who run his individual enterprises and even their own national bank as visualised in a gag in which the entire Higgin’s family proceed to eat dinner in perfect unison. They’re not the Rothschilds but they’re wealthy and powerful (“Higgins, that’s not a family, that’s a disease”). Yet at the end of the film J.L. gets rid of his businesses or as he puts it, gives back institutions to the people who founded them. Like the Sycamore family in You Can’t Take It With You, Dan Brooks want to leave behind his life of work in favour of leisure and enjoyment, ideals comparable to the counter-cultures of the 1960’s. After all what could be duller than running a paper box company? Unless you’re Seymour Skinner.

One of the most pivotal scenes in Broadway Bill involves one of the richest men in the world, J.P. Chase putting a $2 bet on Broadway Bill at 100/1 as a means to pass time will in hospital. When word gets out it spreads like wild-fire and the claims of what the amount of money he placed on the best become exaggerated from $2 to $20,000 to $50,000 all the way up to a quarter million. Simple message – don’t believe everything you hear.

I love Broadway Bill for its simple cheerful Innocence. This is one of several films which has managed to tug my heartstrings over the fate of a horse. One plot element even involves the horse Broadway Bill refusing to race because he doesn’t have his pet chicken called Skeeter. You wouldn’t find this kind of innocence today in a film which is supposedly made for adults.