Blithe Spirit (1945)

Blithe Spirit (1945) movie poster

director David Lean
viewed: 12/22/2017


I love falling into a world of “blushing Technicolor,” and David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit is just the ticket. It’s a very British form of Screwball comedy, with wry and suggestive witticisms for which Coward was so well-known.

Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings are a happily married pair, both on their second marriages via widowhood. Happy, that is, until they toy with the supernatural through the help of Madame Arcati (the sublimely scene-stealing Margaret Rutherford). This brings back Harrison’s first wife, in blushing Technicolor green, the playful Kay Hammond, whose haunting at first only Harrison can see.

Maybe it’s not as perfect as Coward’s original theatrical version, in which both Hammond and Rutherford both appeared as here. But for my money, it’s a dark and coy frolic. Lustrous in color, charming all around.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Unfaithfully Yours (1948) movie poster

director Preston Sturges
viewed: 04/19/2016

I’m still working my way through Preston Sturges, and thusly I am still working my way to reckoning my overall feelings about him.  The first of his films I saw was the absolutely terrific Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  The next of his films I saw was The Lady Eve (1941) which had some qualities, but I felt it flopped hard on Henry Fonda, who just didn’t feel right in the comic lead.  More recently, I watched The Palm Beach Story (1942), which was a lot of fun and featured Joel McCrea who had also starred in Sullivan’s Travels.

Why say all this before saying a word about Unfaithfully Yours?  I think because Unfaithfully Yours, while having a lot of interesting things in it, actually being really interesting and clever overall, falls flattest when asking star Rex Harrison to be particularly funny in a physical manner.  It’s been several years since watching Fonda in The Lady Eve but that’s my key memory of the film is him just landing hard and flat.  Maybe Sturges is best when he’s got the right actor in place.  Maybe that’s not always Joel McCrea?

Unfaithfully Yours is a dark screwball comedy about a famous musical conductor (Harrison) who comes to suspect his wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) of cheating on him with his his valet (Kurt Kreuger).  These suspicions are sprung upon him much against his personal belief but eventually take over his mind, which leads him into fantasies of murder and revenge, all set to musical numbers he is conducting at a live concert.

These three fantasies are the film’s most interesting conceit, each coming as the camera zooms into Harrison’s eye as the musical number he is conducting gets underway and then cuts to a scene supposedly post-concert.  The first of these isn’t entirely clearly a fantasy until some ways in as the plot becomes arch and silly, following a convoluted set-up of recording himself with a acetate record machine and then slashing his wife and framing his valet.  The murder itself is kind of shocking and brutal (even if happening out of frame) and this flavors the film with its darkness.

As each sequence starts anew, we come to recognize the fantasy as fantasy, but when the concert ends, Harrison hurries back to his apartment to attempt to live out each of the strange delusions, failing miserably with each and busting up the apartment as he struggles with technology in what could have been funny, but falls, as I’ve said, flat.

It’s weird because Harrison is good in other sequences and scenes, but I the big finale flops for me, lessening the film.  Overall, it’s very interesting, even its dark tenor, which could be ripe for analysis could have worked.

Apparently this was late in Sturges’s career, having switched studios from Paramount to Twentieth Century Fox in a deal while not as disastrous as Buster Keaton’s move, was apparently a death knell for Sturges overall.

Like I said, I’m still trying to get my read on Sturges.  More to come.

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

The Palm Beach Story (1942) movie poster

director Preston Sturges
viewed: 11/27/2015

I watch a ridiculous amount of movies.  Well, maybe not as ridiculous an amount as some people I follow on Letterboxd, but I have 2 kids and a full-time job and other interests as well.  And I try to write about each one that is a feature film.

This excuse is made in reference to the many types of films I enjoy and explore and how I haven’t watched a Preston Sturges film in 7 years.  Back in 2008, I watched the terrific Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and the lesser but still pretty great The Lady Eve (also 1941) and then…seven years of lots of other stuff.  Heck, the last film I just watched was the first Federico Fellini film I’d seen in the same interim.  It’s a bit of a thing in my film-watching.

The Palm Beach Story stars Joel McCrea (who was great in Sullivan’s Travels) and Claudette Colbert, one of the Screwball Comedy’s best leading comediennes.  It fits nicely into the subset of the Screwball Comedy which deal with a married man and wife whose marriage is up for inspection, playing heck with the institution while usually winding up right back in the arms of one another in the end.  In this case, Colbert and McCrea are unhappy in their nearing poverty.  He’s never made it big with his crazy innovative ideas and she is a woman who likes to live well and won’t do for living cheap and meager and openly expresses it.

In fact, the story opens as they are about to be put on the street, saved by a strange little rich guy, only giving over for Colbert to realize her best bet is a quick divorce and to land a new shiny rich husband.  She loves McCrea and wants to do well by him by getting whoever her new hubby will be to help him out with his crazy plan for a suspended airport above a major city.  She jumps a train full of rich drunks with guns for Palm Beach, Florida and the wackiness ensues.

She meets, of all people, Rudy Vallee, the squarest of squares, a nearly infinitely rich guy with seriously lacking social skills.  And while she woos him, McCrea swings down to try to win her back.  I won’t ruin it for you in going over the ins and outs of the plot or its most bizarre and hilarious ending but I will say it’s great stuff.

McCrea plays a bit of a stiff compared to Colbert who really gets the best lines and gags and moments.  Mary Astor has a small but pretty funny role as Vallee’s sister.

All I can say is it’s time to line up more Preston Sturges in my queue.

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)

What's Up, Doc? (1972) movie poster

director Peter Bogdanovich
viewed: 11/06/2015

Following our October horror film-a-thon, Felix suggested making November comedy month, a bit of a palate-cleanser, especially since he gets actually really scared in horror films.  So, I went through my queue to pick out some comedies I thought the kids would like.

Peter Bogdanovich’s throwback screwball comedy, What’s Up, Doc?, was one of the movies that I grew up on, one I remember liking quite well as a kid, watching with my mom.  I hadn’t seen it in years and years and years.  It also has the notability of being filmed in San Francisco, and living here, that makes for another keen angle on a film, glimpsing the old streets of the city and on its ever-changing landscape.

Bogdanovich is an interesting director, perhaps in part because his career went downward almost immediately after he parted ways with his wife and collaborator Polly Platt, listed on this film as others as “Production Designer”.  It’s been suggested that she was a significant creative force with him through his films and that it’s not really surprising that his work went to pot after they separated.

Barbra Streisand is the best single thing in the film, and I can say that in most cases that might really be an off-putting statement.  But here she is in her youth and charm and beauty and her timing and patter are spot-on.  Ryan O’Neal does an affable job as the ineffectual straight man, a musicologist who wants to get a grant to study igneous rocks to prove that cavemen made music.  Madeline Kahn is utterly hilarious as his over-bearing frumpy fiancée, Eunice.  And the film is packed with smaller character comedy roles played to a T, none better than Liam Dunn as the ever-suffering Judge Maxwell.

It’s a comedy of capers and mistaken identities, primarily a set of look-alike satchels containing secret documents, jewels, rocks and undies.  And of course Streisand in her pretend Eunice role.

It all ends in a classic chase across those streets of San Francisco, madcap, and funny, winding up in the Bay and eventually in Maxwell’s courtroom.  The kids both really enjoyed it.  And I did too.  Maybe not so side-splitting, but charming and fun, invoking the classics of screwball comedy and hitting the notes pretty well.

It’s a little weird to find yourself attracted to Barbra Streisand, but I remember liking her in this movie as a kid and, you know,…she really was something.


His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday (1940) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 01/03/2015

I love His Girl Friday.  Back in film school, I wound up seeing it multiple times as part of a class that I was TA’ing.  But it had been a long while.

The kids hadn’t seen it.  They really liked it a lot.

Cary Grant and Rosiland Russell are superb in Howard Hawks’ rattatat machine gun dialogue, snappier and funnier and faster than you can shake a stick at.  Ralph Bellamy is also hilarious as the squarest square in all of Albany, NY.

Screwball comedy at its sharpest.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Some Like it Hot (1959) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 12/29/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I finally got to take the kids to see the marvelous Some Like It Hot, and at the Castro, no less.  I last saw it at the Castro three years ago and had contemplated taking them to see it with me then.  Ever since, it’s been on the periphery of our film queue.  But I’m glad that we got to see it on the big screen, the last of a series of Sundays at the Castro that started with To Catch a Thief (1955) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

They didn’t have a lot to go on about the film.  I told them it was about two musicians who witness a mob hit in Chicago and join an all-girl band, dressing as women, to escape the gangsters.  I also told them that it was one of my favorite movies, considered by many to be one of the best comedies of all time, and that I’d been into it from a time when I was younger than they are now.

Still, I wasn’t entirely sure how they would like it.

But they loved it.

It was the biggest hit of the three classics that we screened in those three weeks and it made it to both of their “best of” lists for the year (something I’ve only just queried them on for the first time.

What can I say?  It, like so many things, was even more fun for me to watch with them in tow, laughing and smiling at each other over the silly, madcap fun.

And I kind of fall for Marilyn every time I see it.

Monkey Business (1952)

Monkey Business (1952) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 01/18/2013

I have fond memories of this movie from childhood, watching it with my mom.  I’m wont to say that it was one of her favorite films, but I’m don’t remember that specifically and she’s no longer around to ask.  But it’s easy enough for me to think that. Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe.  Maybe it’s not Howard Hawks’ personal best but it’s still good fun.

Grant plays an absent-minded scientist, married to the lovely Rogers.  He’s working for a lab trying to evoke a sort of “youth formula”, a fountain of youth serum, which his elderly, eager boss, the hilarious Charles Coburn is keen to try out.

Testing on chimps has led nowhere.  That is, until a chimp gets into the act, mixes a serum and dumps it in the water cooler.  Then Grant takes a shot of his test serum (washing it down with the water cooler water) and suddenly he’s a vivified as a teen.  He runs off with Coburn’s sexy secretary, Monroe and plays hooky, buying a sports car, roller skating, and high-diving.  Getting into a lot of trouble.

When he comes down from his high, Rogers gets in on the act, testing the waters herself (still thinking it’s Grant’s formula and not the water doing the work).  She becomes playful and histrionic and more screwball silliness ensues.

And then, toward the end, drinking up a pot of coffee made with the water, Rogers and Grant revert to childhood, getting more and more silly and deeper into their shenanigans.

Clara wound up getting pretty into it.  Felix thought it was a bit “weird”.  I think it certainly has its moments.

Rogers is vibrant and funny and has a very amusing scene where she balances a glass on her forehead as she lies down on the floor and rises again without tipping it over.  Grant’s comedy is typically charming.  Besides Some Like It Hot (1959), I think that this was the only other film from which I was really familiar with Marilyn Monroe as a kid.  It’s a small role and the classic dumb blonde.  But she’s sweet and charming too.

Still, the best element of watching the film was recollecting seeing it with my mom.  It was very much of her era (she would have been nine when it came out).  And it was nice to watch it with my kids, rounding out the experience.

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The Gay Divorcee (1934) movie poster

director Mark Sandrach
viewed: 09/08/2012

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  This was the third Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie I’ve watched, the second with the kids.  Clara had really enjoyed Swing Time (1936) and since I had Clara and no Felix this night, I thought we’d try a go again.  We invited a friend over for her to spend the night and set ourselves down to watch and enjoy.

The story, about a guy (Astaire) who falls for a girl (Rogers) who is trying to wrangle herself free from a loveless marriage to a roving archaeologist, is not overly complicated per se, but required a lot more explaining than made for an easy go of it.  See, she’s hired his best pal, the very funny Edward Everett Horton, to find her a fake romantic interloper and pretend to catch her “in flagrante delicto”, giving her grounds for divorce.  But because her aunt fancies Horton and the Italian “Latin lover” pretender is a goof, Rogers thinks that Astaire is the gigolo du jour and, well, it’s a comedy of misunderstandings.

While it features the terrific Cole Porter song “Night and Day” and the big dance number toward the end is the charming “The Continental”, not everything is quite as hummable as it could be.  The dialogue is actually snappy and fun, but snappy and fun for me, a bit over the heads of the 8 and 9 year olds.  Which is fine, just that their interest kind of lagged, and half-way through the film, the girls started playing and paying less attention.  I did try to direct them back to it and Clara’s friend was enjoying it.  Clara was pretty blase about it.

Swing Time was more fun, had better music, too.  But The Gay Divorcee is good fun, at least for me it was.

Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby (1938) movie poster

(1938) director Howard Hawks
viewed: 05/29/11

My latest “with the kids” experiment was introducing them to the classic Hollywood screwball comedy.  And to Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and Howard Hawks.  I don’t know if this was the ideal film from this period to start with, but I’d long been wanting to re-visit it myself and thought we’d go for it.

While neither of them laughed out loud much or at all, they both said that they liked the film.  Though they kept thinking that someone was going to get eaten by “Baby”.  Maybe that is just from seeing more black-and-white horror films than comedies.  Who knows?

Bringing Up Baby has been the template for wacky romance comedies since it came out in 1938.  Grant plays a scientist who is building the first complete “Brontosaurus” (which even in my youth was still a dinosaur, though now is not).  He is about to marry a chilly gal who wants him to land some big funds for their museum and his work.  Then into his life walks Hepburn, a flighty, goofy, silly, lovely woman who takes an immediate shine to him, and quickly destroys all of his best chances at making a good impression on his would-be philanthropist.  And into her life drops “Baby”. the tamed leopard.

What can I say, it’s a classic.  Great stuff from Grant and Hepburn (it may be her most appealing role).  Hawks is indeed part of the American auteur group, and this is one of his best comedies.