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‘Screwball’ Films From Past Get a Serious Look

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some of the funniest movies ever made are about to be screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Starting Friday and continuing through March 3, the museum will present “Screwball,” a program of comedies from the 1930s and ‘40s, including “You Can’t Take It With You” and other classics as well as such rarities as Alfred Hitchcock’s sole screwball effort, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

Ronald Haver, director of the museum’s film department, said his inspiration for the program was friend Ed Sikov’s recent publication of “Screwball,” the first book-length study of vintage madcap.

Haver said he first became enamored of them as a film-smitten adolescent in the 1950s. He would sit up half the night to catch a butchered-for-TV version of “His Girl Friday” or some other classic, then desperately try not to wake up the whole house with his guffaws. At the museum, he noted, people will be able to see first-rate prints of the films as they were meant to be seen--larger than life, in an auditorium of people roaring with laughter.

According to Haver, the form was born in 1934 with either Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” or Howard Hawks’ “Twentieth Century.” He would give honors to the latter because its humor was so pioneeringly off the wall. Hawks’ 1952 “Monkey Business,” in which Marilyn Monroe plays a secretary whose walk is more memorable than her typing, is the last of the screwball classics, Haver said. More recent comedies, such as Peter Bogdanovich’s “What’s Up, Doc?” are too derivative to include.

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“Wacky” is one of the terms inevitably used to describe the screwball comedies. It is hard to think of a better word for a movie like “Bringing Up Baby” in which Cary Grant croons a love song to a leopard and wears a feather-trimmed negligee.

The term screwball, film historian Sikov reports, was coined around 1930 by Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants to describe his most famous pitch. It moved in the opposite direction from a curve ball, leaving the batter wondering what had happened. The convoluted plots and breakneck speed of the screwball comedies sometimes leave audiences slightly dazed as well. “They are really pinwheels,” Haver said.

“Nothing Sacred"--the title of one of the two films that opens the series Friday--could serve as a two-word summary of the form.

“The thing that makes these things still so wonderful,” Haver said, “is their irreverence--toward pomposity, institutions, money, fame.” Among the favorite targets: big business, rural America, tabloid journalism, the pretensions of the rich and especially marriage.

While the surface of screwball is inevitably comic, the view of the world reflected in the films is often cynical, even jaundiced, Haver said, which makes many of them more palatable to contemporary audiences than sentimental movies of the time.

The tart quality of screwball extends even to romance. However much in love they declare themselves to be at the fade-out, screwball couples are invariably making war, not love. As Haver explained, screwball was born the same year as the establishment of the Production Code, which filled the bedrooms of the movies with unrumpled twin beds. “Overt sex was banned,” he said. “What replaced it was the battle of the sexes.” (“In the world of screwball comedy,” Sikov writes, “there is one primary axiom: Hatred is no reason to give up on a relationship. Just because two people seem to despise each other doesn’t mean they’re not in love.”)

The code led to movies in which Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn bicker and banter and skewer and squawk with the kind of intensity that is associated in the real world with more conventional coupling. As Haver put it: “They flirt with it, they talk about it, but they never actually do it.”

A perfect example of the form’s preoccupation with, but oblique approach to sex, is Preston Sturges’ “The Palm Beach Story,” where the forbidden activity is termed “topic A.” Not surprisingly, infidelity, especially infidelity that never actually occurred, is a favorite theme. In spite of the fact that the couples must keep both feet on the floor at all times, or perhaps because of it, films such as “The Lady Eve” are considered among Hollywood’s most erotic.

According to Haver, one of the reasons the movies hold up so well is their liberated attitude toward women. As played by Ginger Rogers, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne and other “stalwarts of screwball” as Haver calls them, the women in these movies “were always equals, if not at the beginning by the end.”

Although the form is full of madcap heiresses, it also features boss ladies and other independent women. Among the most notable examples is “His Girl Friday,” the rewrite of “The Front Page” in which star reporter Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russell, is every bit as smart and cynical as the male reporter of the same name in the original. Professional women often fared better in such films, Haver said, than they do in contemporary movies such as 1988’s “Working Girl.”

Although many notable directors, including Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges, are associated with screwball, Haver sees these films as far more than expressions of a director’s vision. “The director is one element in the success of these films,” he said, “and it’s arguable whether he is the most important element.” Haver pointed out that one of the best films, “Theodora Goes Wild,” was directed by Richard Boleslawski, still a virtual unknown.

Screwball also owes much to writers such as Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and to actors who could do silly things with dignity and deftness. Even the Art Deco sets and swanky costumes contribute to the success of screwball.

Besides “My Man Godfrey,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and other well-known examples, the program will include such rarely screened films as the original “Front Page,” “Nothing Sacred"--one of the first Technicolor movies--and “It’s Love I’m After” with Bette Davis. “You never associate Bette Davis with screwball comedy,” Haver noted. “They manage to loosen her up a little, but she never loses her stridency.”

The program starts Friday with screenings of “The Awful Truth” and “Nothing Sacred” at 1 p.m. and again at 8 p.m. “It Happened One Night” and “Twentieth Century” will be shown Saturday, beginning at 8 p.m.

Subsequent films will be screened on Wednesdays, Fridays or Saturdays (see Sunday Calendar for upcoming films). The program will close Saturday, March 3, with a seven-movie screwball marathon.

All screenings will be held in the museum’s Leo S. Bing Theater. Most weekend screenings are $6 general admission, $3.50 for seniors. Wednesday matinees are $1 for the general public, 50 cents for seniors. Tickets for the screwball marathon are $12, $7 for seniors.

For more information, call the box office at (213) 857-6010.


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