Kudos to Universal for following its earlier film noir series with a one-week festival of comedy, starting Friday at the Nuart. Classic yocks are always welcome from the likes of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Doris Day, Rock Hudson, among others. And you can't argue with festival choices such as "My Man Godfrey," "Destry Rides Again" and "Harvey."
Too bad there are no risks this time around. After all, since the festival will be making the retro rounds across the country and not playing the multiplexes, why not be a little more daring? The audience wouldn't mind.
How about Abbott and Costello's "Time of Their Lives"? Or Charles Laughton's "Ruggles of Red Gap"? Or even some Preston Sturges? One week just isn't enough to comb any comedic depths--especially from the Paramount portion of the studio's vast library. (Universal's going to have the same problem when it comes time for its upcoming horror festival.)
And if you're going to include Ernst Lubitsch, a prince among directors, why choose "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" (screening Thursday) over "Trouble in Paradise"? It makes no sense when you have the opportunity to show something that's sublime as well as funny--and a film that audiences rarely get to see.
There are plenty of other offbeat choices, if you want to get creative with programming, like "Murder, He Says," a madcap farce with Fred MacMurray that is like watching Sturges on acid. Besides, you're not going to find enough screwball in Lubitsch anyway to justify pairing "Bluebeard" with Gregory La Cava's "My Man Godfrey." So why bother?
But even mediocre Lubitsch is better than no Lubitsch, especially when the script for "Bluebeard" is by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who, incidentally, did much better a year later with the ravishing "Midnight" in 1939.
Although "Bluebeard" doesn't glide as effortlessly as the director's best, you can't argue with its charming "meet cute" opening: Millionaire Gary Cooper wants to buy pajama tops without the bottoms and destitute Claudette Colbert can only afford the bottoms, so they split the bill.
Unfortunately, they don't date cute; there's just no chemistry between them. She's uncharacteristically stiff, and the director's famed touch falls flat, despite the writers' occasional wit. Lubitsch is obviously not comfortable trying to combine screwball with continental. For him, it's a contradiction. Sophistication and vulgarity don't mix--except, of course, for Sturges.
By contrast, La Cava's upper-class satire "My Man Godfrey" (1936) not only moves lightly but is full of honesty. His characters are divine; you can't help adoring William Powell's urbane hobo-butler and Carole Lombard's nutty socialite. Rarely have two people meshed so perfectly because of their shared vulnerabilities. It may start out as her protecting his"forgotten man," but it ends with his helping her discover her humanity. (Thanks must go to the UCLA Film and Television Archive for retrieving the film's visual luster.)
La Cava balances it all so well. He wraps chaos around layers of eccentricity. And his supporting characters are as good as his stars, among them Mischa Auer as the adolescent artist (also delightful in "Destry Rides Again") and Eugene Pallette as the bewildered head of the family.
They're all childish, except Lombard, who's childlike, and that makes all the difference in the world to the disillusioned Powell.
You can't go wrong with the anarchy of the Marx Brothers, who deserve to be seen on the big screen. They never seem to date or fail to deliver (unlike Fields and West, who starred in some duds), and you never grow tired of them, no matter how many times you see their films. If anything, they make us laugh even more today because of the dearth of great comedy.
"Duck Soup" (screening Monday and Tuesday), a failure when first released in 1936, has become almost everyone's favorite since the 1960s. That's partly because of its political plot and surreal tone and partly because Leo McCarey was the best director the brothers ever worked with. He managed to sustain the lunacy without a break and pulled off their greatest musical number, a rally-the-troops extravaganza that turns into a minstrel show, of all things. Hail Freedonia and Rufus T. Firefly!
Hail Jimmy Stewart, too. You'll get no better contemplative pairing than "Destry Rides Again" (1939) and "Harvey" (1950), screening Sunday. Although they represent different periods of his career, they both capture Stewart at his lightest and most contented. He could almost be playing the same character 11 years apart. They're both fun-loving dreamers who disarm a cruel world with charm, wit and wisdom.
As Thomas Jefferson Destry, Stewart beguiles dance hall girl Marlene Dietrich and her whole corrupt town. He doesn't carry a gun and for good reason; he's so damned honest and sincere that he renders his enemies helpless. He's a prophet who's come to redeem them, dispatching snappy parables to cynical fools, like the one about the man who misread a first impression and shot himself in the foot.
As Elwood P. Dowd in "Harvey," he's settled into middle-aged nonconformity, a sort of blissful denial of life's cruelties. So he's retreated into his imagination, creating a loving companion who happens to be a giant rabbit. No matter, he's still telling wise tales to the lonely hearted and still redeeming any lost soul within earshot.
Speaking of earshot, Doris Day and Rock Hudson fall in love sharing a party line in "Pillow Talk" (1959, screening Saturday). It was a cinematic breakthrough for both of them. He was liberated from his stoic roles, discovering a charismatic outlet through romantic comedy. She had a similar career epiphany.
Together, they ushered in the '60s with sexual fun and openness--on the surface, that is. They each had their dark side that slipped through now and then. In "Lover Come Back," (1961, also screening Saturday), their follow-up to "Pillow Talk," Hudson plays a promiscuous and unethical advertising executive who exploits sex to succeed, and Day plays a chaste and virtuous rival.
She discovers his weakness and hounds him. He falls into a trap, fabricating a campaign for a nonexistent product that spirals out of control when the public responds to the sexual hook.
It couldn't be timelier.
Universal Comedy, Friday-Oct.1 at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 478-6379.