By Alan Hurst
The is the first in a series where I’ll attempt a very subjective selection of the best film comedy of each year – from the thirties up to present day. I’m starting with the thirties and the advent of both sophisticated and screwball comedies, as opposed to the dizzying physical and slapstick of the previous decade’s silent classics as they’re just so hard to find, once you start digging beyond Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton.
In selecting the comedies from the first part of the thirties, the pickings were a little slim once you excluded musicals from the mix. The mostly stationary camera and the creakiness of the early sound films proved to be a bit of an energy suck for a lot of comedies. But each year there were some gems, sometimes a plethora, making the exercise of picking one both difficult and fun. These are my choices for the best from 1930 to 1939.
Holiday was the first film version of the Broadway comedy by Phillip Barry, who later went on to write The Philadelphia Story. It’s more well known for the 1938 version filmed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, but the 1930 original is a fizzy and funny treat in its own right, with an Oscar nominated performance by Ann Harding that elevates the comedy. It’s the story of a young man (Robert Aames) who is struggling with the choice he has to make between two ways of life: his own more carefree and free-thinking lifestyle, which is the complete opposite of his wealthy fiancés’ family. Cinematically, this one is a bit of a grind – the camera stays mostly stationary. Instead this is all about the witty dialogue and nicely handled battle lines between conservative tradition and a more hedonistic way of looking at the world. Mary Astor is excellent as Ann Harding’s sister.
1931: City Lights
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 a 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 lightning 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.
1932: Trouble in Paradise
If you’ve ever heard any film comedy described as having the “Lubitsch touch”, this is where it started. Trouble in Paradise helped move film comedy forward in a major way with its stylish look, sparkling dialogue and terrific performances. The story and situations in Lubitsch’s films (particularly a pre-code film like Trouble in Paradise) were sometimes very risqué, even scandalous, but he never treated them that way. Everything just moved along at a brisk, light pace. Here Miriam Hopkins stars as a thief on the loose in Europe who comes across another thief (Herbert Marshall). Initially plotting to steal from each other, they fall in love and then team up to continue fleecing the wealthy, including Kay Francis as a rich widow who sparks the romantic interest of Marshall. The screenplay is filled with sly innuendo and Lubitsch leverages some wonderful visual gags as well. All three of the cast are terrific, particularly Hopkins. Her performance here and in Design for Living (1933), another Lubitsch classic, represent her finest film work.
1933: Duck Soup
This was a tough choice. I love Design for Living (1933), a risqué and interesting ménage a trois tale with Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March and Gary Cooper. And I also find George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight a hoot (until the drama kicks in) thanks to the performances of Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow. And Mae West had a couple of big and very funny hits that year with She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel. But I’m going with Duck Soup, even though 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 sixties during the counterculture 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 later recreated that scene in a classic episode of I Love Lucy, with Lucille Ball dressed as Harpo and matching the real Harpo move for move.
1934: It Happened One Night
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 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 87 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 “Walls 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 trying to hitch a ride, ensuring exactly that. 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.
1935: Ruggles of Red Gap
This Leo McCarey film is not as well known today (despite its Oscar nomination for Best Picture that year) but it’s a very funny look at the mixing of old word class (England) and new world gumption (America). Charles Laughton plays Marmaduke Ruggles, an English manservant who is “won” by couple of Americans – the very crude, but very funny Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland. They bring Ruggles back to Red Gap, Washington where Ruggles becomes a celebrity of sorts, mistaken for being a retired English colonel. Laughton is very good as the very British Ruggles, showing some excellent comedic skills after his attention getting success in the dramas The Private Lives of Henry VIII (1933) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). The comedy comes from his adjusting to his new world and way of life, with the oversized characters around him providing the impetus. What makes this work for me so well is the subtle skewering that both sides of the Atlantic get. Ruggles doesn’t have any say in being shipped to America, an interesting nod to Britain’s class system and the recent dark past of America. Laughton even gets to recite the Gettysburg Address in a saloon and mesmerizes everyone who is listening to him. The film became the basis for a Bob Hope vehicle in 1950 called Fancy Pants. While it was one of the better Hope films of the era (primarily thanks to co-star Lucille Ball), it isn’t in the same league as Laughton’s original.
1936: My Man Godfrey
Often considered the archetypal screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey is probably my favorite comedy of the decade 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 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 may of the decade’s comedic films. Along with To Be or Not to Be (1942), this is Carole Lombard’s best performance. 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.
1937: Stage Door
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 here. Next in line would have been Leo McCarey’s very funny The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. Adapted from a successful Broadway play, Stage Door is 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.
1938: Bringing Up Baby
Frank Capra’s adaptation of the zany Broadway hit You Can’t Take It with You won the Best Picture Oscar in 1938, but I don’t think it’s the best comedy of the year. It’s frenetic, sometime funny with a terrific cast (James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Ann Miller), but it’s ultimately exhausting. Instead, I’m going with Bringing Up Baby, a film whose reputation has grown since it’s relatively unsuccessful run in 1938. It’s now recognized as one of the best screwball comedies of the era, and one of the top comedies of all time. Directed by Howard Hawks and starring the dream team of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby is a fast paced, almost nonsensical story about a paleontologist (Grant) who meets Hepburn’s very ditzy heiress on a golf course. She “mistakenly” steals his car, they meet again later and then it segues into a search for a rare dinosaur bone that Hepburn’s dog has buried in the yard. If you’re looking for logic, this isn’t the place but the set pieces that Hawks devised for his leads are supremely funny – and both Hepburn and Grant know how to spar and volley with the best of them. In 1972 Peter Bogdanovich developed What’s Up Doc? as an homage to Bringing Up Baby – almost to the point it feels like a remake. Thankfully it’s also very funny, one of the top two or three comedies of that decade.
1939: The Women
Another great year for comedy films: Midnight, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Idiot’s Delight and Destry Rides Again. My choice – after double digit viewings over the years – is The Women. 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 by 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 the 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 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. There was a musical remake in 1956 called The Opposite Sex with June Allyson, Joan Collins and Ann Sheridan. They shouldn’t have bothered.
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.