I miss marriage comedies. The 30s and 40s were full of them, and they shimmer with light and fun and crazy shenanigans, as two people who once loved each other enough to MARRY, tailspin into misunderstanding and hijinx. The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, all of the Thin Man movies – These are not the movies of the 1950s, where marriage is captured in all its domestic claustrophobia (although it’s presented as a given that it is GOOD). This is marriage on the verge of catastrophic collapse, yet it’s handled always with humor and mania. These movies make marriage seem fun. It’s totally not the trend now, at all, to focus on a married couple, at least not in the way these old films did. If the plot of a movie involves a married couple, it is more often than not dealing with serious issues of infidelity, long-buried secrets, a body in the basement – Marriage is now serious serious business. Leading UP to marriage isn’t, which is why we still have “romantic comedies” by the truck-load (although I rarely find modern romantic comedies funny at all – they’ve lost the touch) – but once you get married, boom, things get serious.
Not so in the 30s and 40s when we had Cary Grant and Irene Dunne battling it out in movie after movie, and Myrna Loy and William Powell, shimmering and laughing at one another. These movies are true advertisements for marriage, actually. Who doesn’t want to be part of those couples? With their fabulous apartments and Manhattans before dinner, and going out to crazy whirling nightclubs? A fantasy, yes, but there are times when I prefer the fantasy. This is not Tracy and Hepburn. Their marriage-movies often deal with the fact that Hepburn needs to be tamed in some way, tamped down. Tracy is usually right in those films, and Hepburn needs to be taught some lessons. Enjoyable as all of that may be, they stand apart from the other “marriage comedies” with a more screwball aspect. Irene Dunne showing up unannounced at her husband’s family gathering? Pretending to be someone else, dressed in a flapper dress, and then accusing one of the snooty people there of stealing her purse? All of this just to embarrass her husband, Cary Grant? If Hepburn pulled a stunt like that with Tracy, it would backfire. But Cary Grant, so dignified, so proper, so soulless in the beginning of Awful Truth, is putty in her hands. He splutters with embarrassment and anger, and she laughs in his face. Human relationships are NUTS. “Calming down” and “settling down” may be a worthy goal, but try to make Carole Lombard or Cary Grant or Irene Dunne “settle down”. Not an easy task.
That’s the spark in marriage comedies. Because the couple are already together, we assume a level of intimacy between them, it’s already present. They’ve slept together, fought, they brush teeth next to each other … it is that casual everyday intimacy that creates the tension in these movies, a strange combo, but a killer one at that.
The modern Mr. and Mrs. Smith, famous now, I suppose, for breaking up Jennifer Aniston’s happy home, is a bit of a throwback, one of the reasons why I think it’s such a blast. The couple SPARS. Literally, but also linguistically. They love each other, are hot for each other, but they also drive each other insane. Typical 1930s married-couple behavior. Marriage is a sacred institution, my ass. That’s part of the problem. Lighten up, Francis. Let’s have some FUN with the institution. The couple, who drift apart in the marriage comedies, always come back together, usually in the very last SECOND of the film, so that we don’t see the reconciliation, the credits roll, and our imaginations fly off the handle, gloriously. So yes, marriage is once again triumphant – (this is not always the case in the pre-Code movies which are much darker) – but you can feel the filmmakers and screenwriters putting off the inevitable as long as possible. Domestic bliss may be lovely for those who live it, but there’s nothing more boring to WATCH onscreen.
A little-seen modern movie that is a “marriage comedy” of the true old school is Nadine, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger. Now if we lived in a righteous world where things happened as they are supposed to happen, then the Hollywood powers-that-be would have realized what they had in that pairing, and put them in movie after movie together. They finally worked again in Door in the Floor, a terrific film, and they are both great in it, but it’s an example of a MODERN marriage movie – all unhappiness and torment and broken dreams. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, in and of itself, but watch those two spar and kiss and break up and make up in Nadine, and you will realize what a lost opportunity it was. They are married, but separated. She is a bombshell in a red dress with a Southern accent. He is a vaguely dumb good ol’ boy who doesn’t want to grow up. She had some erotic photos taken of her, because she’s an idiot, and they get into the wrong hands, and suddenly the two of them, enraged at their marriage breaking up, find themselves on the run. The plot is just an excuse, though. An excuse to revel in the chemistry and humor of the two leads. Because they once were married, it gives the film a different feeling – than if they were two single people thrown into these circumstances. Scenes are filled with more import and backstory automatically. They’re basically hiding from criminals, and they can’t stop bickering about “You ALWAYS do this …” “Why do you ALWAYS do this …” as bullets fly over their heads, and they escape from a dilapidated building by crawling across a ladder 5 stories up. Nadine may have come out in 1987, but it feels like it came out in 1939. Highly recommended.
The reigning King and Queen of marriage comedies were Myrna Loy and William Powell, and they were first paired in Manhattan Melodrama (so famously featured in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies – it was the movie Dillinger went to before biting the dust in the alley next to the Biograph), which was exactly what it said it was: a melodrama, a three-hanky weepie (I dare you to watch that final scene without feeling a little something-something gathering in your eyeball), and while there was obviously chemistry between Loy and Powell, having Clark Gable there as the vibrant third guy complicated their essential bond.
Obviously, the studio knew what it had in Loy and Powell, so they were put in film after film after film together – it is one of the greatest acting teams of all time. They always play essentially the same people, but if it ain’t broke, why fix it? One of the things I absolutely adore about watching them together (and this was present in Manhattan Melodrama as well) is how much they seem to enjoy each other. Not all men enjoy the company of women. They need to deal with them, because they are attracted to them, but they don’t like hanging out with them. Clark Gable has a bit of that. It makes him a devastating leading man, because when he finally falls in love, it hits him harder than other men, because he resists it more. But Cary Grant, as gorgeous as he was, always seemed like a good companion – like he actually enjoyed women, even when they were driving him batshit crazy. He didn’t have contempt for them, or if he did, he used it very subtly and specifically (his contempt in Only Angels Have Wings comes from having been hurt in the past – it’s not generalized contempt, like Clark Gable often has – or Spencer Tracy). But William Powell is the pal to end all pals. The way he is with Myrna Loy in Manhattan Melodrama … from the second they meet, you can feel him thinking, “Wow. This girl is a hoot. Who is she?” She cracks him up. He enjoys her presence. And yet he is not an un-sexual man. He’s not neutered. Watch him in My Man Godfrey, and you’ll see a valid and hot leading man.
He’s not AS improbable a leading man (surface-wise) as Humphrey Bogart, who was short, balding, and LISPED, for God’s sake, but Powell was not an obvious choice either for leads in romantic films. I mean, look at him. He’s handsome in kind of a dapper way, but he looks strictly middle-aged (even as a young man he did), with phony teeth, and thinning hair, and maybe starting to get a bit portly round the middle. He’s not Clark Gable. He’s not Cary Grant. He got his start playing villains. Naturally. Because people who aren’t classically good-looking are obviously evil to the core. Humphrey Bogart had the same trajectory, even though he came from a pretty chi-chi background, full of art and tennis courts and tea services. But he LOOKED kind of … off. So he always played a bad guy. It would take a couple of imaginative casting choices to give these men the chance to show their stuff, as leading men. The risks clearly paid off tenfold.
These guys are valid leading men. Who knew? I love careers like theirs because there is an element of luck and accident to it. Someone had to look at them and think, “Hm. Wouldn’t it be interesting to put Bogart with Ingrid Bergman in a romance?” Where he doesn’t play a criminal or the Peter Lorre part – but the LEAD. That’s a leap. It seems so obvious now, so inevitable, but it certainly wasn’t at the time.
Same with William Powell. But watch his first encounter with Myrna Loy in Manhattan Melodrama, and you can see the sparks just flying. These are not just sexual sparks, but intellectual-kinship sparks, sense of humor sparks – They are so much fun to watch together because of this dynamic, which cannot be faked or pretended. William Powell, in his real life, had some pretty babealicious girlfriends (and wives) – Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, to name a few – and he’s one of those people who just gets more and more attractive the more you look at him. He was probably a blast. These were funny funny women, and he exudes the qualities of a man who loves funny women. Not every man does, you know.
Love Crazy, from 1941, is a marriage comedy that has, at its center, the craziness of marriage, its precarious nature, even when you love each other – and what do you do when circumstances beyond your control (a busybody mother, an old girlfriend, the cops, no less) enter into your marriage? What happens when trust is destroyed? It may all be based on a misunderstanding, but while you’re in that maelstrom you can’t see that. William Powell and Myrna Loy play Steve and Susan Ireland, a couple about to celebrate their 4th year of wedded bliss. They have a big ritual planned, something they do every year, where they re-live the night they got married, and it involves a 4 mile walk, and a row on the river, and then dinner at midnight, and then …. lights out. They plan everything down to the minute, and have their maid (because, you know, these two always have a maid) ready to serve them dinner at midnight on the dot. It’s all a little bit OCD and their opening scene with one another, as they get ready for their night out, is so fun and whimsical. They are still hot for one another. She sits at her dressing table, getting ready, and he attacks her and they end up lying on the floor, laughing and kissing. It’s beautiful, their dynamic is so fresh. At one point, she stands in the window, looking out, and he says to her, “It should be against the law for you to stand in the moonlight like that.”
But the course of true love never runs smoothly, even when you’ve got wedding rings on your fingers. Susan’s nosy annoying mother (played by the great Florence Bates, great-grandmother to my good friend Rachel) shows up, completely oblivious to the fact that they want to be alone on their anniversary. She sends Steve down to the lobby on a quick errand.
As he returns to the apartment via elevator, he runs into an old flame, Isabel Grayson (played by Gail Patrick, an actress I love, she who was so funny and good in My Man Godfrey), and she seems a bit, well, forward. She’s married now too, to a painter, but her marriage doesn’t seem to have “taken”. She happens to have moved into the apartment just below Steve’s. They ooh and ahh over the coincidence, and then tragedy strikes. The elevator jams between floors. The doorman struggles to fix it. Steve begins to panic. What will his wife think?
It all begins with that damn elevator getting stuck. The three of them (Steve, Isabel, and the doorman) climb up through the roof of the elevator, and attempt to pry open the door to the floor. Steve hangs there, his chin on the floor, and then suddenly, the door closes – and at the same moment, the elevator shifts back into gear and plummets down through the shaft, leaving him hanging there, as the doorman and Isabel crouch on the roof of the elevator. It’s an incredible shot. You look down the shaft and see the elevator disappearing, with two figures standing on top of it, as William Powell hangs there, his HEAD caught between the door. So if you were on that floor, and you walked by, you would see a man’s head ONLY, sticking out between the elevator doors. This is a visual gag, hard to describe, but it is so well-conceived, so well-done, that I was howling watching it. The elevator suddenly returns, and Steve, his head still caught, is moved up, and then back down, and up and then back down, his head careening up and down through the slot in the elevator doors. He is terrified. He has no idea what is happening. He is panicked. I am laughing out loud as I type this.
Love Crazy is so funny, so consistently, that I actually did a spit-take alone in my apartment last night, just THINKING about one of the moments.
So this begins the long journey of Steve’s anniversary night. It is the first error. Steve’s second error is that Isabel takes him into her apartment to recover from his terrible ordeal, hanging in the elevator shaft, and she turns on the hots for him. He resists, but he is already, to some degree, a broken man, due to the craziness of what had just happened. He tries to get away from her. She starts to tickle him. William Powell, a frayed mess of a man, rolls around on the couch, laughing uproariously as she tickles him, but it is a terrible and desperate sound. He finally gets away.
He returns to his apartment to find Myrna Loy dressed for dinner and wondering where the hell he has been.
To describe more of this hilarious movie would be to ruin it. Suffice it to say, there are some belly laughs of the kind you really don’t see nowadays in modern movies. The elevator scene, for one – who the hell thought that up – and then to make it not only clear, it is totally obvious what is going on at all times, and it’s a very complicated sequence, but also funny? It works so well. Then there is a new rug placed in the slippery foyer of their apartment, and one by one, people wipe out when they walk on it. Pratfalls. Give me more pratfalls in modern movies. People falling on their ass for no other reason than it is funny to watch people fall. I would find myself forgetting about the rug for a while, (and of course they never just say, “This is crazy”, and roll up the dangerous rug) and then, once again, someone would step one foot onto it, and go flying into the air, and I would erupt into laughter yet again. A pratfall is not a tough sell. I would like more of them, please.
Myrna Loy finds herself truly distrusting her husband. It looks really really bad. It looks like he spent the evening in Isabel Grayson’s apartment. It also looks like he is lying about it. This is devastating news for her. Powell pleads with her that this is all “circumstantial evidence” that doesn’t tell the whole story, but his wife is firm. She won’t be conned. She has no idea how she will ever trust him again.
Divorce proceedings begin. And Powell is advised that if he “acts crazy”, the divorce settlement will have to be put off, because he is not in his right mind. So begins the second act of the film, just as hilarious as the first, with Powell behaving in a lunatic manner, eating his tie as though it is a piece of pizza, and at one point, he is wrapped in a sheet like a toga, trying to chase a cockatoo out onto a branch, and the sheet falls off and he plummets, stark naked, into the middle of a garden party below.
Most of these visual gags are handled with surgical specificity and perfect timing, which is just what is needed for this kind of stuff. Anything extraneous, or too messy, and you wouldn’t get the joke.
Steve has an appointment with the “Lunacy Commission”, hired to weigh in on his sanity. I loved the big sign on the door: LUNACY COMMISSION, which, to me, is a metaphor for the entire world portrayed in Love Crazy. The experts (who all have German accents, of course) decide, merely from the shape of his cranial lobes, that he is schizophrenic, so he is placed in a mental institution.
There is also a “world class bow and arrow man”, named Ward Willoughby, played by Jack Carson, in a very very funny performance, who also lives in the Ireland’s apartment building, and spends most of the film in his T-shirt because he “needs his torso free when he shoots his arrows”. I mean, come on.
Through a very funny scene of mistaken identity and incorrect assumptions, Ward gets roped into the Ireland’s marital mess. He has the funniest line in the film. “WERE THEY PYGMIES?” he shouts at William Powell (only he doesn’t know it’s William Powell, because by that point, William Powell is dressed in drag, and posing as his own “sister”).
With a consistently laugh-out-loud funny script by William Ludwig, Charles Lederer and David Hertz, Love Crazy is not just its gags, although the gags come fast and furious, with people tangled up in nets hanging from trees, with people falling into swimming pools, and forgetting, repeatedly, that the rug in the foyer is slippery, so down they all keep going like ninepins – the script is also razor-sharp, smart, and witty. In an early scene, Steve is trying to reassure Susan about Isabel, that she is now married, and no threat to their marriage. But Susan knows about Isabel, and her wiles, and is having none of it. Steve says, “Susan, she has a husband!” and Susan coos, “Oh! Whose husband has she got?”
Of course, Myrna Loy and William Powell must end up together. It is the only thing that will right the world on its already wacko axis. As long as they are apart, nothing, but nothing, will make any sense.
Everyone in this movie starts out relatively normal, and everyone, by the end, is stark staring mad.
Because that’s what love does to us all. That’s what marriage is. A crazy-making proposition. It drives people out of their gourds.
And not one of us would pass a test given by the LUNACY COMMISSION when we are in the throes of love. Not one of us. And thank God for that.
The elevator scene (it comes at around the 4 minute mark):