By Alan Hurst
The 1930’s were a heyday for comedy films. Other decades may have owned other genres, but the world needed – and wanted – to laugh during a decade of intense depression, poverty, and the slowly simmering build up to World War II. Comedy was the great escape. Gangster films also flourished, as did lightweight musicals, literary adaptations, and adventure films. But comedy – be it wisecracking, screwball, or sophisticated – reigned supreme.
Just look at the list of performers during the 10 years between 1930 and 1939 that were able to continue their career from silents to talkies, or those who became and remained iconic: Marie Dressler, Mae West, W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers, William Powell, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, the Marx Brothers, Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, James Stewart, and many others. Not of all them are known primarily for being a comedian, but each of them showed their skill at getting a laugh and achieved significant success in comedy during those 10 years.
These are my favourites from the hundreds of comedies still available to us:
10. DUCK SOUP (1933)
The Marx Brothers have always been work for me. I didn’t always “get” their humour. Their films had some amusing scenes, but the silly wordplay and slapstick sometimes left me scratching my head. It was only after a few tries at sitting through Duck Soup that I finally saw the appeal. And I think it had more to do with this specific film than their film work overall. Duck Soup is an irreverent story about the fictional nation of Freedonia. When it goes bankrupt, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is named President at the insistence of a wealthy benefactor (Margaret Dumont). Harpo and Chico Marx play spies from a neighbouring country and Louis Calhern shows up as an ambassador from another country, setting the stage for a multi-country revolution. Directed by Leo McCarey, the film flies by at a brisk 68 minutes with non-stop verbal and physical comedy. The film wasn’t well received at the time of its release, but its reputation grew starting in the 1960’s during the counter culture revolution. When you watch the film through that lens, it becomes a freewheeling riot. The irreverence and political games are way ahead of their time. My favourite scene involves Harpo dressed as Groucho’s character, and matching Groucho move for move in a mirror that isn’t really there. It’s brilliant physical comedy. Harpo recreated that scene in a classic episode of I Love Lucy, with Lucille Ball dressed as Harpo, with Ball matching the real Harpo move for move.
9. THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937)
Irene Dunne always left me a little cold, particularly in her more serious films. There was something just a little aloof about her, maybe she just came across as a little too genteel. But in some of her comedies she seemed to relax – her eyebrows were less arched, her tone less condescending and she could spar with energy equal to her male co-stars. This was never better illustrated than in Leo McCarey’s funny tale of marital discord, The Awful Truth. Dunne and co-star Cary Grant are superb as the upper class couple who doubt each other’s commitment. He thinks she’s having an affair with her music teacher, and she thinks he was up to much more than work on a recent business trip. They end up filing for divorce, meet other people, but ultimately realize they’re still in love with each other and then work to sabotage each other’s new relationships. The Awful Truth, along with Topper that same year, cemented Grant’s position as one of Hollywood’s top farceurs and established his screen personae: dashing, handsome, slightly sardonic, athletic. And Dunne was able to continue what she had started with Theodora Goes Wild (1936) the year before and break free from serious roles with a giddy, funny performance. Leo McCarey’s expert direction won that year’s Oscar for Best Director. The film received five other Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress (Dunne), Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Bellamy), Best Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Oddly Grant was overlooked for a Best Actor nomination, as he was for all of his expert comedy performances. He did receive two nominations over the years, but for the dramas Penny Serenade (1941) and None but the Lonely Heart (1944).
8. LIBELED LADY (1936)
MGM’s top films of the decade were the most sumptuously produced of all the big studio films and they were able to pull from their incredibly well stocked stable of stars and supporting players. Libeled Lady is a perfect example of the MGM factory at its peak: a very funny screenplay; crisp and fast paced direction by studio stalwart Jack Conway; and a quartet of stars that could not have been replicated at any other studio – William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow. Loy plays a wealthy socialite (the romantic foibles of the upper crust were a common theme in 1930’s comedies) who is accused of breaking up a marriage in an article in a high profile newspaper, so she sues. The editor (Tracy) enlists a former reporter (Powell) to woo Loy and then plans to have Powell’s wife show up, forcing Loy to drop the suit. The only problem is Powell isn’t married, so Tracy coerces his fiancé (Harlow) to marry Powell in name only to ensure the plan will work. Nothing really goes as planned, of course, but the stage is set for some hilarious screwball antics. All four leads are terrific, but this is really Harlow’s film and she’s a riot. As the long-time fiancé of Tracy’s character, Harlow has literally been left waiting at the alter when she’s pulled into the scheme. Her fury and frustration drive a great deal of the comedy, as her feelings wander from Tracy to Powell and back to Tracy again. This is a really funny and classy comedy. Its sole Oscar nomination was for Best Picture, but oddly nothing for its screenplay or for Harlow’s sterling performance. It was remade in 1946 as Easy to Wed, with Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Keenan Wynn in the roles played by Loy, Powell and Tracy, to diminished results. The only bright spot was Lucille Ball’s very funny performance in the Jean Harlow role.
7. THE WOMEN (1939)
George Cukor’s reputation as a great director of women was probably forever cemented with this film, where not one male actor makes an appearance. Oh, men are definitely talked about but this one is all about the ladies. Based on a hit Broadway play by Clare Booth Luce, it focuses on a group of well-heeled society women with a little too much time on their hands. Norma Shearer stars as Mary Haines who is the perfect wife and mother and is devoted to her perfect husband. But it turns out the perfect husband is having an affair with Crystal, a predatory salesgirl played by Joan Crawford. Ensuring that things do not resolve themselves quickly or smoothly are a gossipy pair of “friends” played Rosalind Russell and Phyllis Povah. Also along for the ride are a much-married Countess (Mary Boland), an opportunistic showgirl (Paulette Goddard), a rich newlywed (Joan Fontaine), and the very funny Marjorie Main as a housekeeper at a ranch in Reno where the women go to wait for their divorces to be finalized. The characters and plot are definitely of their time – the film presents a very two-dimensional view of most of these women – but it’s also very, very funny with an all-star cast clearly loving the juicy dialogue. Russell and Crawford are the most fun with roles that were a change of pace for both of them. No one had ever seen Russell this wild before, or Crawford this bitchy. They’re both perfect. Cukor keeps everything moving along and manages to ensure that each of his actresses have their moment to shine. Tales of the off-screen shenanigans on this one are legendary.
6. STAGE DOOR (1937)
This one is a comedy with some of the wittiest dialogue of the of the decade, but its climax is quite tragic so it almost didn’t make the list. But since 80% of the film relies on the comedic interaction of its sensational female driven cast I’m going to keep it in the comedy category. Adapted from a successful Broadway play, it’s the story of a group of actresses who live at the Footlight Club in New York, a theatrical boarding house. Katharine Hepburn stars as Terry, a new arrival at the boarding house who is determined to push her upper-class roots aside and pursue a career on the stage. Ginger Rogers plays her roommate Jean, who has been slugging away trying to break into show business and has zero patience for Terry’s more refined ways and opinions. This is probably Rogers’ best film performance – she’s very funny, a little tough and jaded, and entirely believable. Rounding out the cast are Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller and Andrea Leeds – all terrific – as some of the younger house occupants. All of these actresses are responsible for the very funny, very bitchy verbal jousting that goes on. The dialogue is delivered at a breakneck pace – everyone trying to get their say, talking over each other, putting up a brave front. There is a startling energy during the first part of the film that is driven entirely by dialogue, as well as the fact that director Gregory La Cava knew how to bring out the best in his young but willing cast. The film has a very theatrical feel and provides one of the best cinematic looks at the less glamorous side of show business. Constance Collier plays one of the older house residents in a wonderful performance as an actress who has seen better days, and now functions as something of a mentor for some of the girls. The film received four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Leeds) and Best Screenplay. Ginger Rogers should also have been in the running that year for Best Actress.
5. CITY LIGHTS (1931)
Probably the best loved of all of Charlie Chaplin’s films and the one that you would insist people watch if they had never seen a Chaplin film before. Chaplin plays his beloved and indefatigable tramp again, this time falling in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). With the aid of a drunken benefactor, Chaplin is able to help the girl and her grandmother get the money they need for a place to live and to eventually restore her sight. But that doesn’t happen without incident or some wonderfully funny moments, and the little tramp goes through a series of comical sequences to help get them the money. The most memorable is the comical prize fight sequence where Chaplin dazzles with his fancy footwork, ensuring the referee stays between him and his opponent. One of the treats of City Lights is the fact that it started development as a silent film and, even though sound films had taken over with lightening speed, Chaplin insisted that City Lights remain silent except for the musical soundtrack. The comedy was allowed to remain visual, and the sentiment – although present – didn’t overwhelm. The film’s final scene between Chaplin and the girl (who can now see) pulls at your heartstrings BECAUSE there’s no dialogue. When she realizes he is the one who has helped her – and he senses that she’s not disappointed – it’s doubly poignant.
4. NINOTCHKA (1939)
“Garbo laughs” blared the headline on the advertising of this top-notch comedy, a take-off on the headline “Garbo talks” from her sound debut in Anna Christine nine years earlier. Garbo laughing, or at least appearing in a comedy, was a big deal. The high priestess of suffering, melancholy and opulent romantic dramas needed a vehicle to lighten her image, and a well produced and expertly written comedy from director Ernst Lubitsch and writer Bill Wilder (among other writers credited) was the perfect solution. Garbo plays Nina Ivanovna Yakushoya, aka Ninotchka, a diplomat from the Soviet Union who arrives in Paris to oversee the sale of some jewelry that was seized during the Russian Revolution. The jewels were originally owned by the Grand Duchess Swan (Ina Claire) and Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas) tries to get the jewels back for the Grand Duchess. Ninotchka soon warms to the charms of both the Count and Paris, letting her guard down and providing the impetus for a very funny comedy. Garbo is wonderful – she seems accessible for the first time on screen, both stoic and vulnerable. It’s an expert and layered comedic performance. Douglas and Claire are also good. You’ve probably seen Garbo’s laughing scene as part of a compilation of other clips, but it still works 80 years later. Her uncontrolled laughter – springing as it does from her severely disciplined façade – is as funny as it should be. The film received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Garbo) and two for its screenplay.
3. MIDNIGHT (1939)
Describing a romantic comedy set in Paris as “sparkling” seems a trite adjective, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind with yet another viewing of this witty, sophisticated comedy starring Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche. From Colbert’s first scene – arriving in Paris by train during a rainy night in a glittering gown, but without any other clothes, money or means – director Mitchell Leisen gives the film a romantic glow with some beautiful black and white cinematography that ensures everything sparkles, including the rain. Colbert plays an out-of-work showgirl, trying to figure out what to do next and hooks up with a cab driver (Ameche) who drives her around from club to club. She senses some interest from Ameche but, not wanting things to go too far, she ends up deserting him by heading to a charity concert where she pretends to be a Hungarian baroness, arousing the suspicions of fellow concert patron John Barrymore. The story moves along at a fast clip, thanks to the wonderful script by Billy Wilder and Charles Bracket. This is a prime example of the art of screwball comedy that was so popular at the end of the decade – a mix of snappy dialogue, contrived situations, flighty protagonists, and glamourous settings that really combine in some cases to create magic. This is one of those cases. Rounding out the quartet of actors was Mary Astor, in a jaded and funny performance.
2. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)
A favourite of many, It Happened One Night still dazzles with a pair of expert and sexy comic performances form stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The movie is quite simply one of the best comedies of all time, and the gold standard of the tried and true romantic comedy device of “opposites attract”. The Oscar winning screenplay by Robert Riskin sets most of the action on the road where the brash, charming reporter played by Gable meets a spoiled socialite (Colbert) on the run from her father, determined to stay married to someone her father considers a gold digger. Gable senses a scoop and agrees not to turn her in if she will give him the exclusive story about her run from her father back to her husband. Both Gable and Colbert were reluctant participants in the film, in roles that now seem perfect for them. They have a relaxed, playful chemistry that still feels very contemporary, despite the fact the movie is now 85 years old. The antagonism turning to love is beautifully done thanks to their expert playing, the well constructed script, and director Frank Capra’s leisurely paced direction. Capra allows gags and scenes to build to perfect climaxes, each one bringing the two leads closer together. Highlights are the famous “Wall’s of Jericho” scene when Gable uses a blanket and rope to separate their twin beds, and the scene with Colbert hiking up her skirt while hitchhiking, ensuring the pair get a ride. We also get a genuine sense of what it was like to be on the road during the depression thanks to the location shooting and the well cast supporting players. This was the first film to sweep the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor and Actress for Gable and Colbert. All of those awards were deserved.
1. MY MAN GODFREY (1936)
Often considered the archetypal screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey is my favorite of all the films on this list because of the way the silliness of the upper class is pointedly skewered with the juxtaposition of The Great Depression. The film was directed by Stage Door’s Gregory La Cava who expertly balanced both the satire and the screwball elements of the screenplay – everything is both glittering and grounded at the same time. The story kicks into high gear immediately with a socialite (again) trying to find a “forgotten man” (William Powell as Godfrey) as part of a high society party scavenger hunt. He’s first approached where he lives (in the dump by the East River in New York) by the snootier of a pair of sisters (Gail Patrick), but eventually agrees to help the nicer sister (Carole Lombard) win the contest. There’s a bit of as spark between the two and some genuine compassion in Lombard’s spoiled character, so she hires Godfrey to be the butler for her wildly out-of-touch family. This is a terrific, iconic film and a near perfect example of the art of screwball that defined the decades comedic films. Along with To Be or Not to Be (1942), this is Carole Lombard’s best performances. She’s a zany, luminous delight – flighty but funny. Powell is at his acerbic, witty best as Godfrey – just suave enough to be believable as both the butler and the “forgotten man”. The film was nominated for six Oscars that year including Best Picture, Best Actor (Powell), Best Actress (Lombard), Director (La Cava) and Screenplay. Mischa Auer and Alice Brady received supporting nominations for their work as members of Lombard’s crazy family. This one is a vintage treat – and it looks spectacular on the Criterion Blu Ray.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.