Screwball Comedy Month: Sullivan’s Travels

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This is the last week of my blog spotlight on screwball comedies. For my final piece, I’ve chosen a film that’s not only funny, but has moments where it’s downright profound. That would be Sullivan’s Travels from 1941. It was written and directed by Preston Sturges, arguably the king of screwball comedy films. And the cast isn’t too shabby either. The leads are played by Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.

The plot involves director Joel Sullivan (Joel McCrea). He’s tired of making the same fluffy, commercial movies. He wants to branch out and make a social message picture. Sullivan wants to make a film about what it’s like to be poor. The studio executives tell him that since he grew up privileged, he’s not qualified to make such a picture. Sullivan agrees. Then he comes up with the brilliant idea of masquerading as a hobo and starting off with ten cents in his pocket, then goes out into the real world to see what such a life is like. The studio agrees to let him to it, only if they can follow him and document the experience. The director has a few false starts where he can’t shake his privileged past. He gets the studio to agree to let him go it alone for a few weeks and then meet up with him to see how it’s going. Eventually he meets a struggling actress (Veronica Lake) who goes on the journey with him. Their adventures and misadventures make for an entertaining third act.

Sullivan’s Travels has some sight gags. But the screwball comedy aspect largely comes from the writing. That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with writer/director Sturges, a man known for his rapid-fire dialogue. Exhibit A is the opening conversation between Sullivan and the studio executives where he pitches his idea.

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!

LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.

John L. Sullivan: A little, but I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!

LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.

John L. Sullivan: With a little sex in it.

Hadrian: How ’bout a nice musical?–IMDB

What isn’t mentioned in that passage that I find worth noting is that one of the films Sullivan directed was called Ants in Your Pants of 1939. Another one of my favorite passages of dialogue is a passing dig at the city of Pittsburgh. Sullivan is discussing with the studio executives a serious film that was a box office flop.

LeBrand: It died in Pittsburgh.

Hadrian: Like a dog!

John L. Sullivan: Aw, what do they know in Pittsburgh…

Hadrian: They know what they like.

John L. Sullivan: If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh!–IMDB

I have nothing against the city of Pittsburgh. But that’s a great piece of comedy writing.

I could write extensively about Sturges’ brilliant writing, but I’d be here for days. So I want to touch on some of the sight gags.

Early in the film, Sullivan is trying to lose the studio executives that are tailing him. He hitchhikes in a car with an old lady who drives like a bat out of hell. The studio executives are following him in what they call a land yacht. Imagine a camper that’s the size of a zeppelin and has four star accommodations and you get a good visual idea of it. Trying to keep up with Sullivan, the land yacht pursues at breakneck speed, causing people and objects in the vehicle to fly around in a classic screwball comedy scene. It’s a great take on the old timey car chase.

Another great sight gag is when Lake and McCrea have a verbal fight. After having a few choice words, Lake pushes McCrea into a pool. Eventually she ends up pulled in too. The sight of them as drowned rats is one to behold.

I want to mention also a scene that’s funny and touching. Towards the end of the movie, there’s a mix-up that results in Sullivan being arrested and ending up in prison. One night, the prisoners are treated to a night of cartoons in a nearby church. This scene was groundbreaking at the time, because the members of the church were some of the first non-stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans in a movie. What Sullivan and the prisoners end up watching is a Pluto cartoon. Sitting watching the cartoon with the prisoners and witnessing the healing powers of laughter, Sullivan has a startling revelation. In troubled times, comedy allows people to forget their troubles. The comedy films he’s making were more important than he realized. *Spoiler alert!* At the end of the film when things are cleared up and released from prison, he delivers a line that’s one of the great film epiphanies.

John L. Sullivan: There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.–IMDB

In the end laughter really is the best medicine.

Sullivan’s Travels is a real hidden gem. McCrea and Lake have terrific onscreen chemistry. The script is smart and funny. It manages to be both a road picture and a buddy comedy. And on top of everything else, between the laughter we learn a lot about how the other half lives. It’s pretty impressive that one film could pull all that off. But Preston Sturges was a master storyteller. Sullivan’s Travels is one of his best films.

That’s it for screwball comedy month. Hope you found some new films to give you a belly laugh or two.

Screwball Comedy Month: Young Frankenstein

a78ba8286bcb788af3bb474f9ee27c06Greetings, readers! I hope you’re enjoying my month-long spotlight on screwball comedies. Most of my comedies have been from the 30s and 40s so far. This week I leap forward all the way to 1974. Yes, this week’s selection is Young Frankenstein. Director Mel Brooks has brought us some of the most brilliant and outrageous comedies over the years: The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and even the underrated Silent Movie. But of all his films, Young Frankenstein is my favorite. It brilliantly satirizes the Universal monster movies, especially Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. It’s smart, funny, and is a great love letter to classic monster movies.

The plot is pretty straight forward. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), grandson of Victor Frankenstein from the James Whale film, is desperate to prove he is not a mad scientist like his grandfather. Early in the film he is invited to his late grandfather’s castle in Transylvania. There he discovers the process via books in his grandfather’s library how to reanimate the dead. Eventually he creates his own monster, just like in the original James Whale film. Chaos ensues and so do plenty of laughs.

Where do I begin to narrow down my favorite scenes/gangs in this comic masterpiece? There’s barely a line in the screenplay that isn’t quotable or a moment that isn’t hilarious. But here are a few of my favorOne of the many things that Mel Brooks does so well is use a stock company of brilliant comic actors. In Young Frankenstein one of my favorites in the talented supporting cast is Marty Feldman. He plays Igor, an assistant to Dr. Frankenstein. Feldman has so many hilarious scenes/gags, including the running joke about the hump on his back switching sides. But perhaps my favorite is the scene where he is pressured to reveal to Dr. Frankenstein whose brain the Dr. put in the now reanimated body. Igor was supposed to get the brain of a brilliant man, but sadly dropped it on the floor of the brain depository. He grabs a brain marked,”abnormal.” This leads to this brilliant exchange.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [to Igor] Now that brain that you gave me. Was it Hans Delbruck’s?

Igor: No.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Ah! Very good. Would you mind telling me whose brain I DID put in?

Igor: Then you won’t be angry?

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: I will NOT be angry.

Igor: Abby someone.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Abby someone. Abby who?

Igor: Abby… Normal.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Abby Normal?

Igor: I’m almost sure that was the name.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half-foot long, fifty-four inch wide GORILLA? Is that what you’re telling me?–IMDB

The Abby Normal line kills me every time.

Another moment of comic gold is the iconic Puttin’ on the Ritz scene. After finally recapturing the escaped monster, Dr. Frankenstein decides to show the monster off in front of the scientific community in the village. He suits himself and the monster up in top hats and tails and the two do a brilliant song and dance number that I bet would have made the likes of Fred Astaire smile. What makes the scene, apart from the concept of a science experiment doing a song and dance routine, is Peter Boyle’s physicality and vocals. Him choking the lyrics of the song out in character as the monster is brilliant. So is how he manages to go through the dance movies looking both lumbering and elegant. It’s an iconic scene for good reason.

Another one of my favorite scenes is the cameo by the wonderful Gene Hackman. He plays a blind man living in the forest. When the monster breaks loose from the castle, he happens upon the blind man’s house. The blind man is lonely, so he is thrilled to have company, if it is a monster. The two sit down to dinner where some great gags ensue. What sells them are Peter Boyle’s priceless facial expressions and Hackman’s scene-stealing performance. He’s on screen for less than five minutes, but boy does he deliver. There’s a moment where the blind man tries to teach the monster how to light a cigar and accidentally sets the monster’s thumb on fire. There’s also the part where they try to have a toast with their wine glasses, but the glasses collide to forcefully and break, leading to a priceless Boyle reaction shot. And there’s also the part where the blind man tries to serve the monster soup, but in the process of pouring it into the bowl ladles it into the poor monster’s lap. But mere words do not do the sequence justice.

Finally, there’s a priceless scene of charades. Dr. Frankenstein thinks his reanimation experiment is a failure. When he finds out a success, he releases the monster from the lab table. The monster proceeds to attack him. This leads to rather hilarious scene of charades where Dr. Frankenstein tries to communicate through pantomime that he needs a sedative. Eventually Igor and Inga (another lab assistant played to comedic brilliance by Teri Garr) work out something close to the word: sedagive.

Side note: look for brilliant supporting performances by Madeline Kahn as Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth (she does a great send up of an iconic scene from Bride of Frankenstein at the end) and Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher, who has one of the funniest secret revealing scenes in movie history.

I’ve seen Young Frankenstein I don’t know how many times. I laugh just as hard each viewing. Credit the stellar cast, lead by the brilliant Gene Wilder who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mel Brooks. Once the laughs start coming they don’t stop. Spoofs are hard to do. And they don’t get much better than Young Frankenstein.

Screwball Comedy Month: Monkey Business

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This month on my blog it’s all about screwball comedies. Continuing my spotlight on films that give us great belly laughs, this week I bring you my write-up on Monkey Business. The Marx Bros were a comic gold mine. If you’re ever having a bad day, just put one of their movies on. Their high jinks are the perfect natural antidepressant. I could have picked any number of their movies. But Monkey Business doesn’t get enough love. So it’s my pick this week.

Monkey Business was the first Marx Bros film written especially for the screen instead of the stage. That format allows the zany bunch to go to town with their antics. The result is a hilarious romp. There is a plot, albeit a loose one.

While stowing away on a ship to America, the boys get involuntarily pressed into service as toughs for a pair of feuding gangsters while trying desperately to evade the ship’s crew. After arriving stateside, one of the gangsters kidnaps the other’s daughter – and it’s up to our unlikely heroes to save the day.–IMDB

In typical screwball comedy fashion, the plot on the surface is ridiculous and the situations get more and more outrageous. The genius of Monkey Business is that it embraces what makes the Marx Bros movies magical: inspired anarchy.

Now let me tell you about some of my favorite scenes. There’s the opening with them harmonizing Sweet Adeline while in barrels, humorously with no one else noticing. While not a laugh out loud scene, it’s a fun setup for the film.

One of the funniest scenes is one of the Marx Bros’ numerous attempts to evade the ship’s crew, particularly Inspector Gibson, After crashing a stage show on the ship for children, Chico and Harpo go around the ship masquerading as barbers. One of the best laughs comes after a botched attempt at trimming an officer’s mustache.

Another great scene is the one that brings the gangster plot into the mix. Groucho hides in the closet of gangster Alkie Briggs (Harry Lewis). He is fighting with his wife Lucille (Thelma Todd). When Briggs leaves, Groucho and Lucille hit it off (Groucho is such a scamp). This encounter leads to this great dialogue exchange that ends with one of my favorite Groucho Marx lines.

Groucho: Oh no, you’re not gonna get me off this bed.

Lucille: I didn’t know you were a lawyer. You’re awfully shy for a lawyer.

Groucho: You bet I’m shy. I’m a shyster lawyer.

And I have to mention Zeppo’s contribution to this movie. For once his just as much of a con artist as his brothers. The part where he romances a bootlegger isn’t a particularly long sequence and he doesn’t get tons of screen time. But what he has he makes the most of. It’s one of the film’s best surprises.
There’s also a long-running gang about a stolen passport which leads to some hilarious impersonations. And of course there’s the chaos that ensues when Chico and Harpo become body guards for Briggs and Groucho and Zeppo work for Briggs’ rival Big Joe Helton (Rockliffe Fellowes). He’s on the ship too, because of course.
But I don’t want to just give you a laundry list one one-liners and sight gags. The Marx Bros movies are an experience. Just put Monkey Business on and enjoy watching the mayhem unfold. Your sides will hurt by the time the end credits roll.

Screwball Comedy Month: Love Crazy

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This is week two of my spotlight on screwball comedies. Anyone familiar with classic comedy teams no doubt knows of William Powell and Myrna Loy. While their most famous collaboration was The Thin Man film series, they made a slew of other films together. Of all of them, my favorite is Love Crazy. It’s worth a watch for the great chemistry of the stars, as well as the image of William Powell in drag. More on that later.

Like many screwball comedies, the laughs come from misunderstandings and increasingly preposterous situations. But even in a preposterous movie there has to be some semblance of a plot. So here’s a summary:

Steve (William Powell) and Susan (Myrna Loy) Ireland are about to celebrate their 4th wedding anniversary by re-enacting their first date. When Susan’s meddling mother interrupts and injures herself, Steve is left to take care of her. When he meets an old flame in the elevator, Susan’s mother takes the opportunity to break-up their marriage. She convinces Susan that Steve is cheating on her-Susan files for divorce. Steve has one solution to save his marriage…Pretend he is insane.–IMDB

And who hasn’t pretended to be crazy in order to delay a divorce? The problem is that pleading insanity leads to Steve being put in an insane asylum. From there the film just gets funnier and funnier.

Let me break down some of my favorite gags. The whole sequence where Steve and his old flame get stuck in the elevator is a scream. Powell gets his head stuck in the elevator door and keeps getting his head smacked as the elevator car goes up and down. In one particularly funny moment, Powell is stuck between the elevator door on the lower part and a dog that he freed in the process of attempting to get out stops to lick his face. While this sounds very broad and an easy laugh, Powell’s facial expressions make it absolutely priceless.

Another great series of laughs happens when Steve crashes Susan’s posh party. Pretending to be crazy, he takes the hats of all the guests and puts them in the pool. Steve pretends to be Abraham Lincoln and says he’s freeing the hats. When Susan’s mother confronts him he shoves her into the pool, saying she needs to be freed as well. It’s a great sight gag.

Finally, there’s the scene of Powell in drag that I mentioned earlier. Steve eventually escapes the asylum and hides in the apartment of his old flame. Steve then has to dodge Susan’s new beau by wearing some of his old flame’s clothes and posing as his sister. It’s not only hilarious to see Powell in drag. But it’s funny seeing him without his trademark mustache when he shaves it off for the disguise. I don’t want to say much more. That would spoil some great belly laughs. But after the farcical sequence Steve and Susan patch things up.

William Powell and Myrna Loy are two of my favorite people from classic Hollywood. They made great films together and look like they had fun in the process. Their chemistry isn’t something you see in comedies of today. That’s a testament to what great actors they were. Love Crazy isn’t as well-known as The Thin Man films and their sequels, but it’s worth a watch if you need a hearty chuckle. Side note: look for the wonderful Jack Carson as Loy’s new beau. A prolific character actor, Carson is always fun to watch. He is a welcome addition to the talented cast. If you need a good pick-me-up, you can’t go wrong with William Powell and Myrna Loy in the underrated comic gem Love Crazy.

Screwball Comedy Month: Bringing Up Baby

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Greetings, readers! Last month you may recall I did a spotlight on movie villains. This month I’m going in the opposite direction. My April spotlight is going to be on screwball comedies. To start things off, I’ll be writing about the 1938 classic Bringing Up Baby. Directed by Howard Hawks and starring the dynamic duo of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, it’s one of my favorite screwball comedies ever.

Let me start this piece off by making a confession. As much as I love dramatic Cary Grant, I adore screwball comedy Cary Grant. Arsenic and Old Lace, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday…the man had a real flare for comedy. Bringing Up Baby is another great example. Here’s the plot to get you up to speed:

Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) at the Stuyvesant Museum of Natural History is absorbed in his work with skeletons of prehistoric animals, and so is his assistant Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), whom he is going to marry the following day. She sees their marriage only as a practical arrangement, and dismisses his thoughts of a honeymoon and of having children. The museum is vying for a one million dollar donation from Mrs. Carleton Random, and David is sent to a meeting with her lawyer, Mr. Peabody (George Irving). There the introvert and impractical David bumps into the extrovert and energetic heiress Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn). When a psychiatrist explains to Susan, that the love impulse in men often reveals itself in conflict, she interprets David’s behavior as an example of this, and falls in love with him. From now on she has only one thought in her mind: to stop David from marrying his assistant, and to win him for herself. Without knowing how it happened, David suddenly finds himself with Susan in a car, transporting her tame leopard Baby to her aunt’s farm in Connecticut. Susan’s aunt Elizabeth (May Robson) turns up, and she happens to be the prospective donor David has been looking for. Suddenly David is entangled in a hodgepodge of misunderstandings and a nocturnal chase after animals on the run.–IMDB

The plot is preposterous. But what else would you expect with a screwball comedy? Bringing Up Baby is hilarious from beginning to end. Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn have superb chemistry on-screen together. They starred in another classic screwball comedy: The Philadelphia Story. When two of the best actors team up for a movie the results aren’t always successful. But this movie is a home run.

Credit for this comic gem must go not just to its A-list lead actors. Some of it has to go to Howard Hawks. His signature rapid-fire dialogue is on prime display here. And that’s one of the many reasons it works, along with the physical gags and increasingly ridiculous situations. Cary Grant would re-team with Hawks on His Girl Friday, featuring some of the fastest comedic exchanges ever put on film.

There are too many great lines and gags in Bringing Up Baby to put in one blog post. But let me highlight a few. There’s a scene early during Grant and Hepburn’s first meeting where Hepburn accidentally tears the back of Grant’s tuxedo. Grant then accidentally tears the back of Hepburn’s dress. He comically tries to conceal the missing part of her dress by covering it with his hat as the two walk through the restaurant having a heated argument.

Another great scene is when Grant and Hepburn go to meet Hepburn’s aunt. Along the way, Grant’s wardrobe goes missing. So naturally Grant ends up rocking one of Hepburn’s bathrobes. When he goes off wandering through the house looking for more appropriate attire, he runs into Hepburn’s aunt. When Grant tries to explain why he’s wearing such a ridiculous outfit, he blurts out, “because I just went *GAY* all of a sudden! ” It’s one of the film’s many priceless lines.

There’s also the scene where Grant and Hepburn end up in jail and Hepburn tries to get out of jail by channeling characters she’s seen in different movies. As Grant exclaims,”constable, she’s making all this all up out of motion pictures she’s seen!”

There are of course a lot of great comic bits with the leopard, including a great scene where the leopard is in the car with them. And of course there’s Grant’s priceless comic reaction to seeing the leopard for the first time.

One of the great things about Bringing Up Baby is that it gets funnier the more exasperated Grant gets with the Hepburn, the funnier it gets, The film works as a screwball comedy, a buddy movie, a road picture, and a star vehicle. If you ever need a movie to put a goofy grin on your face, I recommend Bringing Up Baby.