Monday, March 10, 2014

Screwy Fast-Talking Comedies

By David Luhrssen
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With Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday as treasured examples, screwball comedy flourished from the early 1930s to the early ‘40s—spanning the period when Hollywood’s censorship code was first fully implemented through American’s entry into World War II. Perhaps censorship helped launch the sequence of wacky films whose dialogue raced by at such velocity that the censors couldn’t believe their ears? And maybe with the U.S. fighting for survival, the dangerous zing of the screwball genre gave way to cautious humor.

A pair of lesser-known screwball comedies has just been released on DVD: Danger—Love at Work (1937) and The Great Profile (1940).

Directed by Otto Preminger, Danger ranks with the genre’s best. The plot concerns the efforts by a plucky attorney (played by Jack Haley) to convince a wealthy, eccentric family to sell a piece of property. Although the task seems simple enough, the family is daunting, led by a daft matriarch and including a forgetful father, a pair of spinster aunts, a Surrealist painter, a 10-year old prodigy and the inevitable zany love interest (Ann Sothern). Her fiancé (the perennially flustered Edward Everett Horton) is a pompous promoter spouting a line of by-the-bootstraps, self-improvement jargon. The climactic coupling of Haley and Sothern is obvious five minutes in, but getting there is a hilarious ride.

The Great Profile is less successful, mostly for featuring only one madman and lacking the genre’s usual ensemble of lunacy. It stars John Barrymore, reprising his role in the hilarious Twentieth Century as a pretentious “thea-tuh” figure, while Anne Baxter plays a foretaste of her part as the naïve comer in the classic All About Eve. The daffy backstage shenanigans might also have inspired Mel Brooks, an idiosyncratic heir to the screwball heritage, to pen The Producers.

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