I don’t pretend to be the expert on classic Hollywood comedies, and this list probably isn’t as comprehensive as it should be. That being said, I think many people are left wondering where to go next once they’ve seen the canon comedies of the Classic Hollywood Era. This is a short guide to some films that are underseen, but just as good (if not better), than films like It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, or To Be or Not to Be.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Tashlin, 1957)
There are few films that can grab you at the opening credits, but Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter is one of them. The outrageous nature of these malfunctioning products in a series of fake advertisements set the stage for the rest of the film, as even through the worst humiliations and situations, the characters were always forcing their grins and couldn’t help buying into artificial lifestyles that could never hope to meet their needs.
Set in New York City, the film is a surreal satire on the advertisement, television, and celebrity culture of the late 1950s. Rock Hunter (Tony Randall) is one of the pawns of an advertising agency, he writes jingles and invents catchy slogans for a variety of products. When he finds out his job is endanger because “Stay-Put Lipstick” wants to drop the firm, he works day and night to find the perfect campaign to keep the company and his job. He finally is hit with a brilliant idea, to get a famous actress famous for her kissable lips to endorse the product. He goes up to her hotel room, and finds himself being used as a tool to make the star’s jealous boyfriend angry. She agrees to sign the contract only if he pretends to be her “lover boy”, suffice to say chaos, laughs and success follows. Tashlin leaves no stone unturned as he transforms an entire culture into a roaring extended parody, however the film is only bearable because they are also often sympathetic, as it becomes clear that their search for success is unfulfilling, or used to fill an empty gap in their lives.
What makes this film truly shine is Tashlin’s deliciously self-conscious style. The characters acknowledge they are play acting, and usually at the end of the act the audience is addressed directly by Tony Randall who pokes more fun at television as the screen’s size fluctuates;
“Ladies and gentlemen, this break in our motion picture is made out of respect for the TV fans in our audience, who are accustomed to constant interruptions in their programs for messages from sponsors. We want all you TV fans to feel at home, and not forget the thrill you get, watching television on your big, 21-inch screens”
or in his mocking “TV voice” asks the stirring questions we all want to know, including “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?”. Even in the use of a cameo performance near the end of the film, they could not have used an actor who was more self-conscious in his cinematic performances, who made a career out of snide asides and comments to the audience who were in on the joke. As far as comedies go, few are as deliciously fun or visually interesting as this. It helps to know a little bit of American society/popular culture at the time, as the film is referencing them non-stop. Some are obvious, like Jayne Mansfield’s non-too subtle Monroe impression and on the opposite side of the spectrum plays and musical artists that have faded from the popular knowledge are also lampooned by the take no prisoners attitude of the film.
Unfaithfully Yours (Preston Sturges, 1948)
Preston Sturges can be classified as one of the first true auteurs of the Hollywood system. Whereas artists like Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray were held up by the French New Wave critics as developing and catering to a distinct style, and exploring a similar range of themes, Sturges was one step ahead being one of the few (and first) to both write and direct his films. Even today Sturges at his best is refreshingly modern, and one can’t help wondering how he got away with what he did. His comedy was singular, crass and unconventional as he explored through cinema the very nature of comedy.
Unfaithfully Yours is one of the darkest comedies of the production code era Hollywood. Only Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, which’s solemn setting sets a fatalist nature to all events ranks close. However, Unfaithfully Yours does not have the backdrop of war or horrific tragedy, it’s founded pure and simple on the jealous ambitions of a husband. Rex Harrison stars as Sir Alfred De Carter, a musical conductor who comes to suspect his wife’s infidelity. Instead of confronting her, while he is orchestrating music we enter his mind (quite literally), only to witness different scenarios in which he does away with his beautiful young wife. Set to the very music he is conducting, the sequences are linked through objects and the apartment, but
drastically different in tone and action.
Completely unreal, the medium itself is used to aid Sturges’ notion of comedy. Much like The Palm Beach Story, where Sturges shows his confidence as a writer by book-ending the film with an entirely different film, here he stretches the possibility of fantasy, daydream and the construction of art itself as the basis of his writing. The film is as dark as it is funny.
Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946)
Cluny Brown plays on class systems and societal rules as the foundation for it’s comedy. It’s message in plainest terms seems to be that rules are meant to be broken, especially when they are ridiculous as the British class system. Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones) is the niece of a plumber and on one her impulses she goes to perform an emergency unclogging without her uncle’s permission. This sets the thematic elements, as well as the story well into action as here we meet Charles Boyer (a Czech professor on the run from the Nazis) and by a set of circumstances she is “put in her place” (with little success).
Jones’ naive exuberance and Boyer’s seasoned appreciation for steeping out of the line blend wonderfully, creating a full portrait of those who don’t quite fit comfortably in the confines of society. Lubitsch’s direction plays off Boyer’s usual screen persona as the romantic European without (seemingly) a care aside from self fulfillment, and uses the audiences’ preconceptions to create a fuller narrative. While on the surface he is very similar to his performances in films like Love Affair, his charming demeanour is an expression for his love of life but also a need for survival. He is after all, on the run and without a penny to his name. His manipulation is not motivated by greed, and he never takes more than he needs. We, as the audience, realise that it is his temperament that not only sets him as a misfit (especially in his disregard for the class system), but is what allows him to take action against the Nazis in the first place. Lubitsch demonstrates this with the utmost subtlety and while it’s clearly his intention he never feels the need to overstate his point. Happiness and joie-de-vivre don’t always mean being carefree, nor does it come from being free of responsibility. He suggests it’s something far deeper, and requires far more personal responsibility than those who are cynical and have a general contempt for humanity.
Jones’ character is similar in personality, but lacking both experience and a deeper knowledge of self. Her energy is unfocused and anything that is new intrigues her. She is very naive, not only to their emotions (especially apparent with Charles Boyer’s non too subtle hints he’s madly in love with her), nor of the social expectations that people think she ought to live up to. All she knows is that she does not quite have a place, and even that she does not want one. Like Boyer, her eccentric nature and pursuit for self fulfillment are not greedy or careless. She cares deeply for those around her, and she has a natural glow that attracts people. The tragedy is, it’s the same glow and innocence that is the grounds for their dismissal of her later.
Most of the isolation and rejection that Cluny is subjected to is caused by strict societal norms, especially in relation to a rigid class system. The film is not about the oppression of the upper class over the lower class, as it shows that in every facet of society there are many nonsensical rules and expectations to live by. This is probably not the best film to deal with the subject (after all, the French arts prior to the Revolution often times seems solely dedicated to exposing the fraudulence of hierarchal society. Even today many French films/novels touch on these ideas, it’s probably more of a racial issue now though), but it is at the very least one of the funnier attempts. Notably through the exaggerated Head Maid and Butler who are so British, and even more proud of their place than the rich themselves.
Finally, the aspect that really made me love this film was the handling of love and romance. I think while there are others, the two important relationships in the film are between Cluny Brown and the pharmacist and Brown and the professor. They are tied deeply with each other, and I don’t think I could discuss one without the other. The first is an important one in revealing Jones’ naivety, as well as providing much of the films’ comedy. Jones thinks she has fallen in love with a stuck up and boring pharmacist in town. He has a nasal voice, is self absorbed and is determined to live forever in the same house. At first there is little to grasp in terms of why she wants to be in this relationship. It’s only when she is talking to Boyer that she reveals it reminds her of the family she never had (even though they aren’t particularly familial, it’s her imagination running rampant). She doesn’t appreciate the reasoning behind her actions, and even if Boyer does, he loves her too much to sabotage the affair. It’s unfortunate that she ruins it herself when she acts on an impulse that shocks the family and friends. Cluny Brown’s scenes with Belinski (Boyer) are wonderful though, and even though you can feel the sparks between them, you also believe how oblivious Cluny is to them. She makes silly insistences that they can never fall in love with each other, and without ever realising it lets herself slip into saying something suggestive, even though she never catches on. My favourite instance of this is when she tells Belinski her dream that of them in Arabia, and how just before they go into his tent she kicks herself so that they don’t break their pact. It’s amazing how well Jones delivers these lines and scenes that are so sensual without a single note of nervousness and awareness. Then you watch Boyer who is practically melting away. They make a great onscreen pair.
The film’s comedy is centered on the unique quirks of eccentrics, or the black sheep of society. It’s never taken in a mocking tone of either Boyer or Jones, but rather an appreciation for their very humanity and what makes them wonderful. The laughs are centered on their misunderstanding, and especially on Jones’ naive understanding of what is expected of her, and how she really is. The film is filled with incredible joy, and the comedy is born out of good will and kinship with the characters. The fall of sophistication as a ridiculous societal creation and goal is a joyfully ironic turn for Lubitsch’s last completed film.
The More the Merrier (George Stevens, 1943)
Though hardly one of the most revolutionary or original films out there, The More the Merrier succeeds in perfecting a formula of misunderstanding and misunderstanding. Taken almost verbatim from the model of Lubitsch’s Design for Living, a young woman finds herself sharing her small apartment with two men. The film lacks of the sex of Design, but is none the lesser for it. Jean Arthur is an incomparable comedic talent, and it’s no surprise that Capra considered her the greatest actress he ever worked with. She had incredible depth and understanding of writing and human relationships, perhaps benefiting from being just a touch older than most Hollywood starlets (she certainly didn’t look it however).
Set during World War Two, a Washington housing crisis leads Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur) to rent a room in her apartment because she believes it’s her patriotic duty. Initially intending another woman to join her, she is surprised and eventually convinced by an older gentlemen to let him the space. Him being mischievous, and generous, he then proceeds to sublet half of his room to a young airplane mechanic played by Joel McCrae. Upset by the turn of events, Connie is too good natured to throw them out with nowhere to go, so she gives them a week to find their own home. Chaos ensues as she finds herself falling for the mechanic and finding herself in scandal with her own fiancée as he finds out her living arrangement. All of it created and orchestrated by the older gentlemen who takes it upon himself to play cupid.
The film is a delightful commentary on the nature of wartimes, championing Connie’s efforts and rewarding her with “truth”. Her own fiancée a contradiction of true human nature in times of crisis, he favours privatization, organization and a sort of white bread egoism that allows him to ignore the plights and responsibilities as a citizen. The very nature of private and public breaks down in this film as Connie’s “private” world and it’s expectations are broken down by the invasion of her tenants. It makes for both unexpected hilarity and misunderstanding as her regimented life is forced to reckon with those who are more nature driven, who exist to live, not to succeed. It also makes for some incredibly tender and honest moments as her defences fall and she’s able to see the full commitment of her decision to be patriotic, and to open up her life to the world. It’s not simply an act, but a necessary lifestyle for better understanding and full human realization. The film’s best moments are perhaps her talking through the window to Joe. The thin wall between them an artificial barrier, the film overcomes the production code in an ironic and beautiful way. It also doesn’t exploit the moment, focusing more on the personal bonds forged than the sexual attraction between them.
Midnight (Leisen, 1939)
One of the very best underseen screwball comedies, Midnight is a sort of re-imagining of Cinderella with a modern and surreal twist. The joy of the screwball comedy was the focus on the sheer absurdist of human relationships. These were not necessarily focused on physical comedy and stupidity, nor were they high minded rifts of the sophisticated. It’s caught in between as nothing is too ridiculous, but at the same time, nothing is more real. Though a heightened and stylized view of reality and relationships, the emotions and situations always seem somehow palpable, at least in spirit of intentions. The way I see it is, a screwball is a story about life, without the inhibitions. If you had no qualms about doing and behaving any way you saw fit without having your reason get in the way, you would find yourself in a world much like this.
Colbert stars as a broke chorus girl who ends up being paid with a millionaire to have an affair with his wife’s lover. An American ex-patriot, she finds herself broke in France where she meets a taxi driver who is generous enough to drive her around with little expectation to being paid. He falls head over heels in love with her, and when he loses her, he volunteers all the taxi drivers in Paris to help find her. Meanwhile, she is caught up in a scheme with a millionaire. He is acting for love, she is acting for money and suddenly when Ameche re-enters the picture, the twists become even more absurd, and the improvisations reach their peak. In an attempt to woo Colbert, Ameche pretends to be someone he’s not and her pretending to be someone else, can only play along with his game so that she can reap the rewards of her venture.
The film really hits it’s stride in the final act as the stakes and emotions hit their peak. This final stretch is among the very best one will find in a screwball comedy, ranking among the very strongest of the era. The rest of the film builds up to that moment, but is not quite as consistent as it could be.
Nothing Sacred (Wellman, 1937)
Another dark comedy, this one tackles journalism, especially in it’s willingness to exploit and sensationalize human interest stories. Though clearly in the same vein as something like His Girl Friday, Nothing Sacred tackles a far different angle of the seedy world of newspapers. In this film, the story being covered is founded on a mistake, and is fraudulently continued because of rising newspaper sales.
Carole Lombard is mistakenly diagnosed as being a terminal patient, and when Fredric March picks up the story, he decides to treat her to the sweet life in Manhattan for her last days. There is a point of realisation when Lombard finds out she isn’t going to die, but being too sweet and curious, she can’t bring herself to tell the truth. The film turns the idea of the “big city con” on it’s head, as Lombard’s ambitions are hardly selfish and she could not be sweeter. Well…they’re a little selfish, she just thinks it’s a victimless crime. That is before the reporter played by March (criminally underused in comedy) falls for her. What attracts him to her though, is all founded on lies, her bravery, her honesty and in a way her “impermanence”. This complicates the adventure as she not only falls for NY, but she falls for him as well.
When she can’t hold it in any longer and makes the big reveal that his love and his story is based on a lie, both of them do anything and everything to keep up the illusion of her facade. As with Midnight, the film’s final act is a whirlwind of insanity, twists and laughs. This film is also of note for being one of the very first true Technicolor films, and New York as the backdrop, it was a wonderful choice.
Theodora Goes Wild (Boleslawski, 1936)
Few stars are as wonderfully charismatic, and have the talents to pull off drama and comedy with the same grace and sophistication. Irene Dunne was one of them, and just looking at some of her greatest roles, I can’t help ranking her as pulling off some of the very best performances the silver screen has known. Though the Awful Truth is probably her best comedic performance, it’s a little too mainstream for the intended purpose of this list. Theodora Goes Wild is more of a vehicle for her own talents, though she shares the screen and spotlight, it’s less of a collaborative piece, as her best known works. It’s able to best capture the sort of skill she has with balancing different tones and her unique handling of comedy.
Theodora lives in a very conservative small town, and with the publishing of the best-seller novel, “The Sinner” the town is sent on a moral crusade against the novel and everything it represents. Little do they know, it’s little Theodora, daughter of a good family and event organizer who was the author using the moniker Caroline Adams. In town to collect her pay check, Theodora encounters Grant (Melvyn Douglas) who falls head over heels for her, and follows her home and “disrupts” her life. She cannot help buy into his act, just to prevent her identity as an artist be revealed. Like Theodora, Grant is an artist who feels crippled and trapped by societal expectations. A common theme in comedy, I can’t say this is the best execution of the premise, but Theodora is so delightful and honest that she sells all the film’s weaknesses. She seems to accept the society that also works so hard to repress and confine her, while Grant rejects it entirely.
There is however a moment of desperation that drives Theodora to go “wild”, and embody the fiction she writes. In something of a parody of the women’s picture, the film takes on new heights as Theodora attempts to live an unliveable and unattainable lifestyle that isn’t’ nearly as fun as anyone would hope. Though unlike the real “women’s picture”, that works to affirm the places and rules of convention and societal roles, this one manages to subvert it, allowing for a happy medium where neither extreme is embraced. Theodora’s freedom comes in her acceptance of her identity.
Libeled Lady (Conway, 1936)
More journalism and misunderstanding, Libeled Lady has a cast to die for. Featuring none other than Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy and William Powell, Libeled Lady is about lies and contrivances that eventually lead to real emotions and relationships. Few actors or directors could pull off such extreme and extraordinary circumstances and exaggerations, but there is never a moment of disbelief and insincerity. It’s one of those films that comes together perfectly, realising fantasy and absurdist with real characters with real emotions. Most great comedies are rooted in reality, and the idea that it’s just one step away from tragedy. Some of my very favourite comedies realise this, notably Chaplin, Wilder and Lubitsch. The laughs have to be balanced against the gravitas of the possibility of pain and loss. Though founded on lies, the relationships founded in this film are all too real.
Warren (Spencer Tracy) is the editor for a big newspaper and keeps delaying his plans to marry because problems and worries always arise at the last moment. His soon-to-be-wife (Harlow) is already at the church, him already in tux when a suit is levelled against his paper at the sum of $5 million dollars. He’s being accused of fabricating stories about a heiress, claiming that she is a home breaker. If she wins the suit, his business will go under and he will lose everything he’s ever worked at. An apparently unfounded lie, the only way to win the case is to create a truth that doesn’t exist (at least not yet). He hires a fixer (William Powell) to pretend to be the husband of his unmarried fiancée, with the promise that when this is all settled he will marry her no questions asked. The ploy is to get Powell to seduce the heiress (Loy), and have a photographer catch them in each other’s arms. Undeniable proof that she is indeed an adulterer enabler.
Of course hilarity ensues, as Loy proves far more clever and human than initially believed. She is not nearly as shallow or unbearable as was initially assumed and Powell can’t help falling for her. The stakes are high though, as he’s made a promise and it’s more than just his feelings on the line. The marriage of his best friend and his fake wife, as well as the livelihood of all those working on the newspaper are hanging in the balance. His affection for Myrna Loy though, prevents him from humiliating her and ruining her reputation. Every actor gives a career comedic performance, all coming together to create one of the very best comedies of the Hollywood era.
Twentieth Century (Hawks, 1934)
It was no surprise that I loved this film, Lombard? Barrymore? Hawks? Delivering on a delirious and haughty exploration of theatre, this is All About Eve without the consequences but with all the ego. It’s not quite as sharp as the former, but it’s nonetheless one of the best films about theatre I’ve ever seen. Considered by many to be the first screwball comedies, this is not a film to watch when you want to relax. The characters are all high strung and emotional, and the stakes rise quickly as the egos interfere with communication.
John Barrymore is an unparallel Broadway director, and in true Barrymore nature is eccentric and could not be more of a ham if he tried. He takes a young female star under his wing, and moulds her into a star. His controlling nature of his “protégées”, interferes with her desire for a Hollywood career. She wants to make the transition from stage to screen, while he won’t let her leave, claiming that Hollywood is a destroyer of talent. The irony being that once a humble and meek young woman, in coaching her, Barrymore implanted the ambition and ego necessary to defy him. It’s almost too late when he takes the opportunity to confront her on a train ride to the city of stars, and try and convince her to come back to him.
The film is perhaps one of the most divisive on my list, as some claim that both performers and the general mood is anything but relaxed. There is a lot of screaming, and whining. The kinetics of their relationship matches the ever moving train. In traditional Hawksian form, this is a battle of the sexes, and it escalates to almost violent proportions as the emotions run wild. The film is fully centered on John Barrymore, who at this point has become a parody of himself. His mannerisms and body language larger than cinema, better suited to the stage, lends to the lack of sincerity to his actions or words. It lends an extra dimension to the film, as the actors of the stage become actors in life. What works on the stage however, never feels quite right in the real world. The out of touch nature with action and words perfectly synthesises Hawks’ efforts.
Show People (Vidor, 1928)
King Vidor only ever made two comedies and here is perhaps the most famous of both their limited foray into the comic world. Much like Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels this film becomes a thesis in sorts for the value of comedy as a means of entertainment and art. The film is genuinely funny, as well as being a great satire of the Hollywood system. Perhaps the film means a little more to those familiar with the actors and the system of the time. The “nudge-nudges”, and the cameos of stars like Jon Gilbert, or Theda Bara may be lost on those who are unfamiliar.
The film itself is a re-telling of sorts of Gloria Swanson’s rise to fame, engraving her lore once again into the under-belly of Hollywood lore (those too lazy to look up, Swanson is in Sunset Blvd). Peggy has come to Hollywood to become a famous actress, but finds the industry not as friendly or easy to break into as she had hoped. She meets Billy, a small time comedy actor who helps get her first break in a studio. From her work in these short comedies, Peggy is discovered and hired to work with the big studio, doing big and serious films. Her new career brings new snobbism and she ignores all the “little’ people who helped her get her to the top. Billy though has since fallen in love with her, and won’t let her go and do something stupid as a dismissal of her “unknown audience”.
Even if someone were to miss all the little inside jokes, or allusions the film is funny enough on it’s own. Davies is hilarious, especially while she’s “acting”. One of my favourite scenes may be as a director goes to a screening, and re-acts as if he himself were going through the action to a very surprised and much taken aback audience member who was unfortunate enough to be seated beside him. The film is just over an hour long, and extremely fun.