Inspired by the recent Sound on Sight radio show on Preston Sturges, I have decided to supplement the work of one of the great comic directors by providing a list of under seen and generally under appreciated comedies from Preston Sturges’ era. Whereas most connoisseurs will be familiar with his work, as well as films like The Philadelphia Story, To Be or Not To Be, The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday, this short list will be for those searching to look deeper into the great world of classic Hollywood comedy.
Nothing Sacred is an early example of three-strip Technicolor that pairs arguably two of the greatest actors of the 1930s in a dark comedy about the cruel nature of the newspaper business. Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard) mistakenly believes she has radiation poisoning and is within days of her death, and newspaper man Wallace Cook (Fredric March) picks up on the story and writes a series of articles depicting this small town girl’s last days of earth. The film is just about as cruel and absurd as it sounds, as both characters refuse personal responsibility due to fragile egos. Wellman’s camera keeps their romance at bay, and the film cleverly deceives the production code by conducting several clearly heated scenes “behind closed doors.” The film’s violent conclusion is uproarious, as well as shocking. The film is quite critical and takes to task the exploitative nature of the news business. Though His Girl Friday is certainly better known, this one gives it a run for its money as far as pure nastiness and ruthlessness goes.
Midnight (Mitchell Leisen)
Mitchell Leisen’s name is unfortunately unfamiliar with most film fans in spite of having directed a handful of the best comedies of the World War II era. Before Midnight he already scored with what may be perhaps Jean Arthur’s best film performance in Easy Living, a classic story of mistaken identity. This film operates under similar principles, however this film is based on deception rather then zany confusions. Stranded in Paris, Claudette Colbert’s character is hired by a millionaire to break off an affair his wife is having with another man. In the mean time, an abrasive and surprisingly oh so charming, taxi driver falls head over heels for her. The film is notable for a script penned by Billy Wilder before he started directing his own work, as well as being one of the very last films John Barrymore ever made. The entire cast is charming and the way the plot slowly unfolds into a series of madcap situations, each slightly more insane and convoluted then the last is an absolute marvel.
Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks)
A trend is emerging; like Midnight, Ball of Fire is written by Billy Wilder. With him writing, Howard Hawks directing and Barbara Stanwyck in the lead, there ought to be little reason for anyone not to see this film. Ball of Fire‘s rapid-fire inventive dialogue basically makes His Girl Friday look like a sluggish younger cousin that rides the short bus (I’ve been pretty harsh on His Girl Friday in this little article, but what can I say, it’s not deserving of its acclaim.) Though perhaps they have little to compare aside from the nature of their pace and words, they are similarly linked by a strong female power and a run-in with the law. Gary Cooper heads a group of lexicographers (people who write dictionaries) who come to realize that without going out into the real world to understand how people communicate, their work will never be complete. They somehow run into the quick-witted Stanwyck, a dancer with a penchant for glitter who also keeps company with gangsters, and enlist her in order to help them put the final touches on their masterpiece. Love and chaos ensue, with some of the most inventive dialogue ever put to page (or screen).
The More the Merrier (George Stevens)
I have a soft place in my heart for this film because it warmed my heart during a very difficult time. Nostalgia aside , this is a product of a lost era that transcends time through its ballet-like comic choreography and the ingenuity of its love story. During a WW2 housing shortage, Connie (the ever wonderful Jean Arthur) reluctantly allows two men to share her tiny apartment. One is an older grandfather figure (Charles Coburn), while the other is a handsome man down on his luck (Joel McCrae). Charles Coburn decides to match the two in romance, playing cupid under less then ideal circumstances. One of film’s highlights comes in the form of a ridiculously complex breakfast routine which is choreographed to the second, one that is comparable to the crowded cabin scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera but with a larger space that is made to feel small with the characters’ bustling movement. For me though, the film’s highlight is the use of a very thin wall and a window. Subverting the Hays code, Jean Arthur and Joel McCrae lie in opposite rooms, but the nature of the set-up puts them essentially in the same bed with just the faintest barrier between them. These night-time conversations feel incredibly intimate and are humorous and light for their subversive quality, but also how the incredible writing that charts their budding romance.
The only contemporary of Preston Sturges’ that consistently gave him a run for his money during the height of his career was Ernst Lubitsch. Luckily for both of them, their style and passion for comedy lay in different realms. Of all Lubitsch’s great oeuvre, Cluny Brown may very well be his best film. Like many of his great films, this one is driven by sex and insatiable desire, with the titular Cluny Brown attempting to pursue a career in plumbing while being pursued by the much older Adam Belinski, who wants to bed her. The film plays on this romance cleverly, focusing on the folly of youthful romance and affection, as well as the pitfalls that come with being an adult. The film touches on class issues, gender politics and greater virtues like courage and passion in the face of adversity, but all with the lightest of glances and the most tender gestures. The film’s comedy is at it’s best playing on the sexual chemistry between Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer, with the best scene of the film is Cluny naively describing a sex dream between them halting it just before it gets to the good stuff. If she were not so innocent and so naive, she would easily be a tease. Her unwavering adolescent qualities though make it so that Boyer cannot act in good conscious, though her circumstances eventually force her to become sexually open or else face a life of unhappiness. I am quite comfortable calling this one of the greatest films ever made.