Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Whatever Happened to Screwball Comedies?

That's Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, May Robson and Skippy the dog in Howard Hawks' 1938 quintessential Screwball Comedy (and my personal favorite movie of all time) Bringing Up Baby.

"But Uncle Prospero, we thought you loved Horror movies." Of course I do, but that doesn't necessarily mean my favorite movie is a Horror movie. I love all kinds of movies. And just as high on my list are good old-fashioned Screwball Comedies. Fast-talking dialog, outrageously complicated plots and smart but ditsy heroines are just a few of the mainstays of the Screwball Comedy. Films like His Girl Friday; My Man Godfrey and The Awful Truth were staples of Depression-Era films and their brilliant hilarity holds up, even after 60 or 70 years.

I know I've talked about Bringing Up Baby before, but this wonderful essay by Mike D'Angelo over at A.V. Club (via) analyzes the above-pictured scene in particular and conveniently ties in with the films of a director I mentioned just a few posts ago, Peter Bogdanovich. Interestingly enough, Bogdanavich's first credited film as a director was a 1967 television documentary called The Great Professional: Howard Hawks. It wasn't until 1971's The Last Picture Show that he came into his own. Then in 1972 he made his own Hawks-inspired Screwball Comedy, What's Up, Doc? starring Barbra Streisand and a then very hot Ryan O'Neal.

What's Up, Doc? concerns a musicologist (O'Neal); his fiancee Eunice (the brilliant and sorely missed Madeline Kahn in her film debut); a wacky heiress/perpetual student (Streisand); identical plaid bags; International spies and a host of characters played by Kenneth Mars; Austin Pendleton; Sorrell Booke; Randy Quaid and Liam Dunn, among many others. Without getting too involved, a suitcase containing rocks with which O'Neal's character intends to prove a theory about ancient music is mixed up with an identical suitcase containing secret documents. Streisand serves as the wacky heiress here, while O'Neal plays the hapless intellectual whose life is turned upside down by a chance encounter with said wacko. Set in San Francisco (one of Uncle P's favorite U.S. cities), the film culminates in an outrageous car chase through the city's many winding and hilly streets.

If you aren't panting over O'Neal in that scene, you're a straight man, a lesbian or blind. And the ripping of his pajama pants? Right out of Bringing Up Baby, thank you.

Streisand would again attempt the Screwball Comedy in the inferior, but still amusing 1974 farce For Pete's Sake. But without Bogdanovich at the helm (Peter Yates directed), it just didn't have the same impact.

After What's Up Doc? Bogdanovcih directed Paper Moon, again starring O'Neal, Kahn and O'Neal's then 10 year-old daughter, Tatum. Set against the Great Depression, Paper Moon is the story of conman Moses Pray (O'Neal) and Addie Loggins, a girl who may or may not be his daughter. Kahn is the temptress who may well come between them.

How sad to see talents like Ryan and Tatum O'Neal reduced to drug-addled tabloid fodder. And sadder still that the fast-talking, wise-cracking, smarter-than-they-let-on characters of the classic Screwball Comedy are things of the past. Hopefully, a screenwriter more talented than Yours Truly and a director whose talents match Hawks' and Bogdanovich's will come along and revive one of cinema's most beloved genres. Of course, I tried my own hand at a Screwball Comedy with a screenplay called Comatose Joe, which you can read here, should you be so inclined.

As for myself, I'd rather see a Howard Hawks or Leo McCarey comedy than anything Jud Apatow or Kevin Smith made in the last ten years or so. I guess I'm just an old-fashioned kind of guy, that way.

More, anon.


Stephen said...

I know that Bringing Up Baby is your fave. You have mentioned it a few times. I love it also, but my favorite from that period is BALL OF FIRE (in my to 10 of all time). I love WHAT'S UP, DOC? beyond all measure. Really a perfect movie. An astonishing screen debut for the very much missed Madeline Kahn...& then the treat of Paper Moon soon after...

A few tid-bits: Kenneth Mars daughter is a big star here in Portland & gets a unfair share of the big roles (Gypsy etc...).

I had Austin Pendelton for a teacher at HB Studios (1976-78) & he was just the most inspiring teacher. I love to re-watch WHAT'S UP & see him.

You are a man of astonishing good taste for the high brow & eben better taste for the low. I admire your writing. I have downloaded your screenplay.

Stephen said...

... & damn, wasn't Ryan O'Neal fine during that period. Yummm!

My favorite moment is Babs singing YOUR THE TOP to him.