FOR the fourth Christmas season in a row, the American Cinematheque is celebrating the holidays with a lot of jolly cheer, belly laughs and guffaws.
"Screwball Comedy Holidays!," which rings in Thursday at the Egyptian Theatre and Dec. 27 at the Aero Theatre, features some well-known farces, as well as some rarely screened gems starring comic giants such as Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Lucille Ball, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello and W.C. Fields. The series also spotlights some of the most influential comedy directors of the 1930s-'50s including Ernst Lubitsch, Leo McCarey, George Stevens and Preston Sturges.
Comedy was a super-genre during that era, says Rick Jewell, a professor at USC's School of Cinema and Television. "They made more comedies than any type of movie back then. And the range was extraordinary, from the kind of European-centric sophisticated comedies that Lubitsch did to the pure, unadulterated Three Stooges kind of slapstick. And then you had all these different kinds in between."
So was there a plethora of comedies because actors, writers and directors were just funnier back during that golden age?
"I think they had better writing back then and better performers," reflects Jewell. "And possibly -- this could be argued -- better directors as well. You really had an opportunity to grow and hone your craft because they did so many comedies. Some of the supporting actors were in a dozen or more comedies a year, so you were constantly working. Nowadays, they are still making comedies, of course, but somehow it's a whole different system. If you are involved in one a year you are lucky."
Jewell says the retrospective is rich in films that aren't shown much these days on television or at festivals, and some aren't out on DVD. Among the rarities in the series is the 1936 screwball comedy "Theodora Goes Wild," which marked Dunne's first foray into the genre; McCarey's 1935 classic "Ruggles of Red Gap," starring Charles Laughton as a very proper English valet who is won by a cowboy in a poker game; and Lubitsch's lovely last completed film, 1946's "Cluny Brown," starring Jennifer Jones as a plumber and Charles Boyer as the penniless Czech intellectual who loves her.
"Lubitsch could balance romance and comedy probably better or as well as any director who came along," says Jewell. "That is why [his films] work so well today."
The festival is also screening one of Jewell's favorites, McCarey's 1937 "The Awful Truth," with Dunne and Grant. The film, which chronicles the wacky divorce of a wealthy couple, solidified Dunne's stature as one of Hollywood's premier farceurs and got her an Oscar nomination. Dunne had been reluctant to go into comedy, says Jewell, "but she had a great flair for it. She and Cary Grant were wonderfully matched."
He also has a soft spot for 1943's romantic comedy "The More the Merrier," starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn. The farce revolves around the housing crunch in Washington, D.C. during World War II.
"There were a lot of different films that dealt with the housing crisis in Washington," says Jewell, "but this one stands out from the rest."
Where: American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; and the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica.
When: Thursday-Jan. 1 at the Egyptian; Dec. 27-Jan. 1 at the Aero
Contact: 323-466-FILM or go to www.americancinematheque.org
Thursday: "The Awful Truth," "Theodora Goes Wild," 7:30 p.m.
Friday: "Ruggles of Red Gap," "Cluny Brown," 7:30 p.m.
Saturday: "The Long, Long Trailer," "The First Time," 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 25: "Unfaithfully Yours," "Christmas in July," 5 p.m.
Dec. 26: "The Egg and I," "It's a Gift," 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 27: "George Washington Slept Here," "It's in the Bag," 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 28: "The Ghost Breakers," "Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid," 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 29: "The More the Merrier," "Too Many Husbands," 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 30: "Phffft!," "Everybody Does It," 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 1: "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," "Arsenic and Old Lace," 5 p.m.
Dec. 27: "The Bank Dick," "It's a Gift," 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 28: "The Awful Truth," "Ruggles of Red Gap," 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 29: "My Man Godfrey," "I'll Give a Million," 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 30: "Unfaithfully Yours," "Christmas in July," 7:30 p.m.