Love Crazy (1941); Dir. John Conroy

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”).

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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.

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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.

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The elevator scene (it comes at around the 4 minute mark):

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35 Responses to Love Crazy (1941); Dir. John Conroy

  1. Catherine says:

    Wow!! I ate this post up with a spoon. I haven’t seen Love Crazy (…yet. I see that the whole thing is on Youtube) but I was laughing to myself just reading your review. I totally agree with everything you wrote in your prologue about the “marriage comedies”. There’s something very sexy and very hilarious about watching Myrna Loy and William Powell spar, or Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, who are my all-time favourites. It’d be awesome to see the film where Jerry and Lucy Warriner are courting – I guess Penny Serenade comes closest to that, although it’s more serious than the screwballs – but I just love the built-up intimacy they share in The Awful Truth. They really do seem as if they’ve known each other intimately for years, and so there’s a comforting familiarity which means they can be cruel and ridiculous and goofy with each other in a way that perhaps a screen couple who are just getting to know each other wouldn’t be.

    Can I just add that I love Myrna Loy’s face? She doesn’t look like anybody else. She’s like a cat, or something. I love her.

    I’m just finished watching My Man Godfrey. So worth the wait!! It’s right up my alley, film wise. I love the dynamics of the family; the really bitter sibling rivalry between Lombard and Gail Patrick, and Alice Brady as the hysterical mother kind of floating around cluelessly, Eugene Pallette wandering around grumpily, irritated and harrassed and yet used to his crazy family. You can see he’s fond of his crazy daughters, really. And how Lombard picks up some of Brady’s mannerisms, like her little confused laugh trailing after her sentences, so they seem believably like mother and daughter. And then in the midst of all this you have Carlo (the way Alice Brady rolls her Rs every time she says his name is so funny, “You’re upsetting Carrrrrlo!”) stomping around and playing the piano and just being a NUISANCE, and then Molly, the hilarious deadpan maid. Oh gosh Sheila, this film is too funny. The scene at the start where Lombard drags William Powell back to the hall where the scavenger hunt is going on…it’s the first time we see the Bullock mother. She bustles her way through the crowds, dragging a goat on a length of rope (I’m dying), gets to the head of the queue, up to the poor harrassed man who’s trying to keep track of everyone’s score. She says “I have a goat” but he’s distracted, there’s fifty different people all yelling at him and passing him random objects and waving pieces of paper in his face and it’s all too confusing. And Alice Brady just fixes him with this intent glare, ignoring the teaming multitudes around her, and repeats “I have a goat. I have a goat. I have a goat!” over and over and over, jiggling the length of rope in her hand. For ages. Oh my God. I had tears streaming down my face. I could not keep it together. It’s a classic example of that trope that’s so prevalent in screwballs, a comic conceit that I think really works, where you have a character who has a fixed idea in their head of something they want to say or do, and they are determined to go through with it, no matter if the other characters aren’t listening or if it’s not working. It’s almost like an autistic impulse; pay no heed to anyone else, just concentrate blindly on your one fixed task. I have a goat.

    Carole Lombard is such a revelation. I love her in this and I can’t wait to see her other perfs. It’s so tragic, that she died so young. I mean, it always is, but I’m longing to know what kind of parts she could have taken when she was an old lady.

    I found this video, have you seen it? Blooper reels from the film. Carole Lombard has a mouth on her! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAP4qU4wJ8E&feature=related

  2. red says:

    Catherine – I so so agree with you about Myrna Loy’s face. A true original. In Love Crazy, she’s on the witness stand, trying to describe that she knows her husband is not crazy – he just likes to make jokes – and her face is so solemn, and she’s staring at her husband, who is chewing on his tie – and I honestly don’t know how she kept a straight face.

    Yes: we need more marriage movies. There’s such a comedic possibility – when you really KNOW someone else.

    Manhattan Murder Mystery (my fave of Woody Allen’s) – could be seen as a marriage comedy. Laugh out loud funny. The entire thing being a pretext for examining a couple who needs to spice up their marriage. By getting involved in a murder. Hysterical!!

  3. red says:

    Oh! I didn’t see the second part of your comment about My Man Godfrey. I am laughing out loud just reading it.

    Carlo is one of my favorite characters ever to grace the silver screen When he is hanging on the screens in the background, in full-on gorilla mode, and the family is completely LOSING IT – I have never seen anything so funny.

    I LOVE the father. Yes, so grumpy, overrun by females, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Okay, let me go back to reading your second comment.

  4. red says:

    // where you have a character who has a fixed idea in their head of something they want to say or do, and they are determined to go through with it, no matter if the other characters aren’t listening or if it’s not working. It’s almost like an autistic impulse; pay no heed to anyone else, just concentrate blindly on your one fixed task. I have a goat.//

    YES!!!

    Like Cary Grant trying to find his dinosaur bone and he doesn’t even care that he has been reduced to wearing jodhpurs and Japanese sandals and digging through the dirt of a house belonging to a woman he doesn’t even know ….

  5. red says:

    And yes – it just shocks me how Lombard died. I really think she would have been an awesome batty old dame. Like Sylvia Sidney was. Still fiery and inappropriate, and fabulous.

    I still haven’t seen all of her films. Nothing Sacred (with Fredric March) is terrifically funny – and of course the original Mr. and Mrs. Smith!!

    She is so FUNNY. Wait til you see her get punched in the jaw by Fredric March in Nothing Sacred. She was such a brilliant physical comic.

  6. red says:

    I have to watch that Blooper reel. The stories of Lombard’s profane mouth are legendary.

    She said of Clark Gable, her own husband, “Lord knows I love Clark, but he is the worst lay in town.”

    Funniest part of it is: HE AGREED. “Oh yeah, I’m awful. She loves me, though.”

  7. Catherine says:

    hahahahahaha I’m close to tears remembering that gorilla scene. It is so bizarre and hilarious; Carole Lombard having a fit on the couch and William Powell just kind of standing there holding a tray and looking bemused and Carrrrrlo climbing up the walls in what is actually a really spot-on gorilla impression and then Alice Brady (I am nuts about her, really, everytime she spoke I doubled over) cackling and being totally inane. When Carole Lombard wails “Oh he’s SCARING me!” and Alice Brady breaks off her shrieks of laughter and patiently says “Oh no dear, it’s not a REAL gorilla, it’s just Carrrrrrlo!”, oh my God. So so so so funny. I want to go watch the whole thing again now.

    And yes, Cary Grant and his intercostal clavicle was exactly the example I had in my head! Trying to think of other examples. Every fibre of Katharine Hepburn’s body in the same film, waffling on about the ‘love impulse’,etc. Ralph Bellamy singing “Home on the Range” so so so badly in The Awful Truth, totally oblivious to Irene Dunne’s wincing. Claudette Colbert’s obstinate refusal to adapt herself to life on the road in It Happened One Night. Eugene Pallette in The Lady Eve, sitting down for breakfast, realising there’s no food on the table and banging his cutlery and the tureen lid around in a hysterical little musical beat, waiting for somebody to come serve him. Henry Fonda in the same film attempting to read his snake book at the dinner table, anxiously fixing his eyes on the book, trying not to notice the dozens of women literally throwing themselves at his feet. Oblivious, fat-headed, crazy people…I love them.

  8. george says:

    Sheila,

    Myrna Loy, as Mrs. Charles especially, nearly ruined me for all other women. Any wife who found the ‘little boy’ in her husband charming and fun, even in large doses, and was, more than occasionally, happy to join him at that level was okay by me.

    That’s a great observation about the leading men who are or are not at ease in the company of women.

    Also recall Libeled Lady in which Spencer Tracy actually joins Powell and Loy in a screwball comedy – have to get that out and watch it again.

    Pratfalls, more pratfalls, yes, yes, yes.

    Were they pygmies? Cannot stop laughing.

  9. red says:

    “Were they pygmies?” It is just such a funny contemptuous moment, and he’s so worked up he SHOUTS it at this old biddy (who is actually William Powell in drag). Favorite moment in the movie, although it is hard to choose!!!

    William Powell, to me, embodies that very rare thing: a totally friendly man – but not neutered, or “the friend”. He is clearly a lover and a husband. He is completely believable. But he doesn’t have that “God, you DAMES” hostility that Gable has, or Tracy sometimes has – or most male movie actors have today, in our different climate. How can romance be possible in that atmosphere of contempt??

    Gable doesn’t read as vicious – just kind of annoyed by women – which is very very funny in its own way – but William Powell … it’s like these parts were just MADE for him. Not the perfect husband – no – he has his little vanities and quirks – but a real MAN.

    And she? She knows how to handle HIM, boy. Without belittling him.

    Boy, is it fun to watch them spar!! What a joy to see two EQUAL opponents!!

  10. red says:

    George – just checked my Powell/Loy collection – I don’t have Libeled Lady – haven’t seen that one, I’ll have to check it out!

  11. red says:

    Catherine – yes, it is just the best when someone who is so dignified – and so CONCERNED with being dignified – is then made to look ridiculous. But not like they’re the butt of a joke – they look ridiculous because they are FORCED into a position where they MUST act in what will look like a foolish manner – but it’s all because they need to get this one certain task done.

    Henry Fonda tripping and falling into every room in The Lady Eve, and how mortifying it would be for that type of man to make such a spectacle of himself.

    Cary Grant falling on his ass when he slips on the olive.

    HAHAHAHAHA

    Awesome!!!

  12. Catherine says:

    Another thing I was just thinking about, another reason I love screwballs – they’re not cruel in any way. This is where a lot of modern comedies fall down, in my estimation. I’m not the type of person to denigrate the state of current cinema, not at all, but I find that many comedies that have come out recently are laughing AT people or they have a streak of cruelty running through them. This is nothing new, of course – plenty of pre-1960s films feature cruel jokes at the expense of a character, especially ethnic minorities or “swishy” effeminate men, but there’s nothing like that in any screwballs, not that I can think of anyway. I’m not including the Tracy/Hepburn films here, which I do think can be slightly cruel. Okay, sure, Ralph Bellamy is a laughable hick in The Awful Truth, with his farmboy accent and his mother and his atonal singing, but I don’t think the film ever actively dislikes him. It’s a fond kind of ribbing, and I think Irene Dunne is actually sorry for him. There’s a lovely gentleness to the genre, I think. Never sugary, no no, just a genorosity.

    Consider a character like Molly the maid in My Man Godfrey. She’s basically just there to deadpan at opportune moments. A character implanted there just to add to the general wacky hysteria of the family, one more ingredient in the mix. BUT the film allows her to be so much more. Carole Lombard, lovesick and forlorn, wanders into the kitchens to mope, and she realises that Molly is ALSO enamoured with Godfrey. Molly turns away, trying to hide her face. Lombard goes up to her, says so tenderly “You too?” and Jean Dixon gives this little shuddering, heart-breaking nod, and the two women embrace. It’s really touching. It displays a grown-up-ness, that the film gives her this little compassionate beat. I love it.

    This is why Whip It is my favourite contemporary film I’ve seen in aaaaages. It’s so funny and primary-coloured and exciting and all, but it’s also generous with its secondary characters. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but the way it deals with Marcia Gay Harden’s character is so beautiful. She’s this terrible, ridiculous, pageant-Mother, small-minded, whatever. She could have just been this figure of fun, somebody for Ellen Page to rail against. But it shows the quiet tragedy of her life beautifully, and the resolution of the mother/daughter relationship is so balanced, so generous. Whip It is a film that is fond of all its characters, no matter how crazy or unlikeable they may be, and I see something similar in a lot of screwballs.

  13. red says:

    Very very nice observation. I love the bit about Molly the maid – I had forgotten that lovely moment. I agree, that generosity of this nature is very grown-up.

    It’s not mean-spirited. These movies were meant to be uplifting and hilarious – and pretty much everyone in them is nuts.

    And yes, poor Ralph Bellamy – in His Girl Friday, too – this kind of mama’s boy rube … there for Cary Grant to snicker at – and everyone to make fun of – but you honestly feel for the guy having to deal with those two insane maniacs. Who could deal with those two?? He’s the SANE one there, everyone else is NUTS.

    I am dying to see Whip It – I read an interview with Drew Barrymore where she said she used as her main inspiration Slap Shot, and I just love her for it.

  14. red says:

    Also, the war between the sexes actually looks like FUN in those movies from the 30s and 40s. Now? Not so much.

    There are certainly exceptions – but they’re usually in non-mainstream movies that somehow tap into these issues – not the big romantic comedies that seem to feature people who are mainly brain-dead and only act because the plot tells them what to do. You know? THAT’S what I don’t like. Movies that assume we watching them are stupid.

    But there are exceptions. They don’t quite classify as romantic “comedies” – but they certainly have respect for us, the audience, and also the characters.

    Movies like Stranger Than Fiction, 500 Days of Summer, Adventureland, Lost in Translation, Shopgirl, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ghost Town (another screwball throwback) …

    I love these movies. They’re all quite “grown up” too.

  15. Catherine says:

    This is totally stretching it, but oh well; I read Middlemarch last month and I can totally relate the treatment of Molly in My Man Godfrey to Middlemarch. Yeah, totally stretching it, but bear with me. You know how George Eliot is so gentle in her treatment of even the most odious of characters, how she allows us access into, say, Casaubon’s mind, so we can see that yes, even this dry old vampire has an inner life and his own worries and foibles and hopes? I totally saw the same impulse in the treatment of Molly. She’s not just this bitter, wry maid who turns up to make a few jokes. She also has an inner life and her own hopes and disappointments. Eliot’s mature genorosity is something I really latched onto during my reading of Middlemarch, it really moved me and it kind of forced me to think about the way I treat people. Ever since then I’ve become more attuned to seeking out similar genorosities in art, and I definitely found it in this film. I know, Middlemarch is way more systematic and probing than My Man Godfrey and they really have very little in common, but still, the two just chimed for me.

    I am dying for you to see Whip It!!! I cannot believe it did so poorly at the box-office in the States. It just opens here this week and I am really curious to see how it does. It deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. I’ve already seen it twice – I went to see it during the Dublin film festival, and I was raging because I went on my own and I was dying to have someone beside me so I could hiss in their ear every three minutes “THIS IS THE GREATEST FILM I HAVE SEEN ALL YEAR”. It was the kind of film where you sit there in the cinema, literally trembling about how good it is and how you already cannot wait to see it again. That was two months ago and I’ve been raving about it to everybody I know, telling them “You have got to see Whip It when its released in cinemas, trust me”. Anyway, it’s finally out and my sister and I went to see it yesterday and she loved it as much as I’d hoped. It’s like a shot of pure joy being injected into my heart.

  16. brendan says:

    i have to see this movie. i laughed about a hundred times just reading the review and looking at the stills.

  17. red says:

    Oh Bren, you have to see it!

  18. red says:

    Catherine – I’ve heard really good things about Whip It – I am really looking forward to it.

    I love the connection you hav made between George Eliot’s omniscent outlook (how does she do it??) and the way all characters are treated in screwball. Yes: you can’t point to one person and say, “That’s a bad guy”. He may seem bad from Dorothea Brooke’s point of view, but when you see how trapped HE is – you have to feel for the guy. It is amazing how many different sensibilities and lives she can tap into in that magnificent book.

  19. red says:

    Look at William Powell’s face in that last screengrab of the elevator moment. He is muttering, in a panicked tone, “DOWN …. DOWN ….” It is sooo funny!

    There’s another awesome scene when Isabel’s husband is going to take a shower – and Isabel has hidden William Powell in the shower – so she (she is so funny) tries to persuade her husband to use another bathroom, take a shower at another time – they have a long scene standing in the bathroom which is even funnier because you know William Powell is right there, behind the shower curtain. Naturally, the husband reaches into the shower while talking to her and blasts the water onto scalding hot (he keeps talking about how he loves really hot showers) – and then they cut to poor William Powell, fully clothed in the shower, being blasted by scalding water, and not being able to scream. It is so funny I wish the scene could have gone on forever. He is LOSING IT – he looks like Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

    THEN: the husband steps into the shower, and at that very moment, Powell pops out – so that they miss each other – and he and Isabel run back out through the apartment – and funniest bit:

    STEAM is emanating off of William Powell through their entire next scene. He is soaking wet, and literally STEAMING.

    Oh man, such a funny movie.

  20. red says:

    Catherine – doesn’t the father in My Man Godfrey take an entire tray of martinis and go up to his room? What’s his line there?

  21. red says:

    Like, he’s just going to go get quietly loaded alone in his room as his family goes nuts downstairs.

  22. jennchez says:

    Have you seen Powell/Loy in I Love You Again? Another wonderful marriage comedy.

    Libeled Lady is a hoot! Jean Harlow is also in it and I believe she and Powell were engaged at they time it was filmed. They have an excellent rapport and flow that you know carried into their personal life as well.

  23. miker says:

    Brilliant, as always. Somehow, between then and now, comedies as a genre turned from intelligent, sparkling gems into dumb-as-a-post rhinestones.

    I’m looking forward to seeing Whip It as well.

  24. Steven_O says:

    I can’t wait to see Love Crazy. It sounds amazing. I have loved Myrna Loy since childhood — her as a judge in the Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer is just amazing… and fairly groundbreaking.

  25. red says:

    Mike – you gotta watch it with those generalizations. They are way too broad.

    Tastes change, sensibilities change – you may PREFER the former, but to throw out all contemporary comedies with the bathwater? That’s just silly.

  26. red says:

    Steven – yes, you’re right – very groundbreaking! I loved her in that. She was so good in movies where men were just FLIPPING OUT around her, and she tried to remain cool and collected. I love her pre-code stuff, too – very political angry stuff. I need to do some more Myrna Loy posts on her pre-code years. I have some of those movies, and they’re fabulous. She is extraordinarily beautiful.

  27. red says:

    Jennchez – I gotta see Libeled Lady, you’re right! There are some interesting stories about Powell and Harlow – he somehow got roped into paying for her funeral, by Harlow’s crazy mother – and for years after, he made sure there were flowers on her grave. A good guy.

  28. Nicola says:

    As usual after reading one of your reviews I’m now absolutely dying to see it. I’ve put it on my wishlist but they’ve only got it as part of a boxset which includes Double Wedding, Evelyn Prentice; I love you Again and Manhattan Melodrama. If it’s as awesome as you make out I’m sure it will be worthwhile.

    Have you seen Date Night yet? I absolutely loved it. Laughed the whole way through. It really felt like a throwback to those awesome screwball marriage movies you’ve all been talking about. I love Tina Fey and Steve Carell they can do no wrong in my book.

  29. Pingback: It’s so funny when William Powell lies | The Sheila Variations

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  32. Nick says:

    I love seeing all this enthusiasm for these great films (even though I’m months late)…

    Glad to see that someone mentioned the wonderful Harlow, as being part of that great cast from Libelled Lady (it was one of her best and funniest roles, I thought). And yes, she and Powell were engaged during the filming of Love Crazy, but if I’m not mistaken, her death occurred during its filming, which obviously had to be postponed for awhile.

  33. sheila says:

    Nick – I love the screwballs of the 30s and 40s and basically prefer movies that are from before 1950. That’s where I gravitate towards. Look through my archives (I’ve been doing this since 2002), there’s a lot there.

    Yes, Harlow was hilarious in Libeled Lady! That whole movie is insane.

  34. Nick says:

    You are precisely right about the sea-change in films that occurred @1950. This is when the Golden Age ends. The apple is eaten, and awareness ensues—and while many wonderful films have been created since, much of the magic is gone.

    Harlow was a wonder. “Bombshell” will always be one of my favorite movies. “The day Baby died there wasn’t one sound in the commissary for three hours.” When it comes to the kind of comedies they made in those days, Hollywood’s been silent, for a helluva long time.

  35. sheila says:

    I totally agree with your point about comedies. I have a couple that I love from the last 20 years, and it’s not a coincidence that many of them hark back to those screwballs. I loved Ghost Town, for example – you could totally have plopped Cary Grant and William Powell and Carole Lombard into that, no problem – the SPIRIT of it was the same.