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Girl Power

You may not agree with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose members proclaimed in 1960 that “Pillow Talk” represented “the best writing, story and screenplay written directly for the screen” far better than the other obscure titles nominated that year: “The 400 Blows,” “North by Northwest,” “Wild Strawberries” and “Operation Petticoat.” But the film, which also represented the unlikely return to Hollywood of the blacklisted director Michael Gordon (“Another Part of the Forest”) has become some sort of a classic — at least enough so for Universal to pop for a major restoration of the faded Eastman Color negative, and release it as a bright and shiny Blu-ray in the studio’s centennial collection. It’s far from being one of the great romantic comedies, but there has proved to be enough in it to keep gender studies classes fired up for decades, and even justify a few hundred words on a sleepy Sunday in May in the New York Times.

The glimmerings of female desire that appeared in “Pillow Talk” — after 25 years of repression under the Production Code — had did not take long to explode into the camp excess of late 60s films like “The Girl on a Motorcycle,” which Kino has released this week as part of their burgeoning Eurotrash line. It’s not easy to recognize the Jack Cardiff who shot “The Red Shoes” in the gauzy soft-core porn of this 1968 British production, which stars Marianne Faithfull more or less fresh from her hit recording of “As Tears Go By” and Alain Delon, as the pipe-smoking, Hefneresque professor of philosophy who introduces her to the joys of easy riding as practiced in Old Heidelberg. I’ve got a few words on that one as well.

64 comments to Girl Power

  • jbryant

    “____ is no Cary Grant.” Funny–I was looking back over some short reviews I wrote of a couple of pre-Code comedies, and that phrase turned up in both. Robert Ames must have made a career out of being “no Cary Grant”–in La Cava’s 1931 SMART WOMAN, he’s the only cast member who doesn’t thrive under the amenable, McCarey-esque atmosphere La Cava creates.

    A more prototypical rom-com is Jack Conway’s JUST A GIGOLO (also 1931), starring William Haines. It even has a “wager plot,” like so many stories in the genre.

    Both films are also based on plays.

  • Barry Putterman

    jbryant, Robert Ames died in 1931 at the age of 42 of alcoholism. He was married four times and Frances Goodrich was one of his wives. At the time of his death he was romantically connected to Ina Claire. So, quite possibly he was a much more dynamic presence off the screen than he ever was on.

  • Alex

    David D.,

    You are no doubt correct about the “romantic comedy” as you wish to broadly, and iuncontrovertially, define it. However, I prefer to use it, like Harvey, to identify a certain sort of funny and sublimely graceful and blissful film, mostly of 1934-1942 Hollywood vintage.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Alex is I think correct in singling out 1934-42 as a peak in Hollywood romantic comedy. This era exactly overlaps but is not quite identical to the “screwball” comedy era, which runs from the Big Four Harvey identifies as starting the trend in 1934, thru the great three prewar Sturges commentaries on the cycle, which ends the cycle, in 1941-2. In addition to the screwball films you could include such films as THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER or even HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT as outstanding romances of the period (with strong comedic elements).

    Nonetheless there are prototypes of the screwball romance in the pre-1934 era, and successors after it (MY MAN GODFREY, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and NOTHING SACRED were all remade in the 1950s, the latter as a Martin & Lewis comedy). The Doris Day-Rock Hudson cycle (which could be extended to include comedies with Day and Cary Grant, and Day and James Garner) self-consciously builds on those prototypes. Hudson is (mis?)cast as Grant in Hawks’ reworking of BRINGING UP BABY, MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT?, in the same period (what is now considered in the popular imagination to be the MAD MEN era of the late 50s to mid 60s). The 70s and 80s were the era of the “nervous romance” of non-committment, in which Allen’s ANNIE HALL was central and a template. This was followed by a cycle of quasi-feminist romcoms in the 1990s that self-consciously harkened back to the 1930s, many of them with Julia Roberts; the scenario of RUNAWAY BRIDE was an overt reference to Colbert’s running away at the end of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, inspired in turn by Elizabeth Kendall’s book of that title on the 1934-42 era. 1990s-2000s Farrelly Brothers films, and their successor as dominant force in contemporary comedy the Apatow films, what few of them I’ve seen, all seem more male oriented (eg the “frat pack” of THE HANGOVER). Haven’t seen BRIDESMAIDS or GIRLS to elucidate how Apatow’s coarsening sensibility has transferred into this new, 2010s cycle of female buddy comedies. The toilet scene in BRIDESMAIDS was his major contribution to its screenplay.

    Alex writes “many of the classic romantic comedies are about married couples beleagured by threats of break up though love is still strong (e.g., THE AWFUL TRUTH, MR. AND MRS. SMITH, MY FAVORITE WIFE, PHILADELPIA STORY, PALM BEACH STORY).” This is of course “the comedy of remarriage” the philosopher Stanley Cavell has written about at length. He was induced to write a commentary on the recent “shoot ‘em up of remarriage” MR AND MRS SMITH (with the future Mr and Mrs Pitt) for Film Comment, which is worth looking up.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Cukor’s HOLIDAY (1938) would be another, very important, non-screwball romantic comedy of the 1934-42 era. It would be interesting to see the 1930 version (or for that matter the surviving 1923 version of THE AWFUL TRUTH Dave mentioned). Comments by not just Brian, but any Cukor fans and allies (say it fast) are still welcome!

  • Robert Regan

    Gregg, the 1930 Holiday is not as bad as one might fear, judging from Edward Griffith’s less than inspiring track record. Though it doesn’t come near the masterpiece of George Cukor and his exemplary players, the cast is generally not bad at all. Ann Harding is less cool and distant than usual, and Mary Astor in her usual top form, leaves no question as to why Johnny fell for her. Robert Ames was more along the lines of Lee Tracy than Cary Grant, and cannot be blamed for not being Grant when Cary himself did not become Cary Grant for another five or six years. And, of course, Edward Everett Horton Is just fine in the role he repeated eight years later. All in all, it is not a bad film, but it cries out for the mature and generous sensibility of an artist like Cukor.

  • Gregg, What an exhaustive little history of American film comedy.

    I tend to look at contemporary American film comedy a little differently, through its auteurs. With the two directors that, I think, have had the strongest influence in terms of an approach that intelligently blends comedy, romance and drama; and they are Woody Allen and James L. Brooks. (Though I’m sure some people are excluded in the following generalization.)
    With Allen, whose milieu is the upper middle-class (usually Jewish New Yorkers), and his schtick being that of stand-up wise-cracks and punch-lines; and whose influence can be felt on Apatow, Solondz, and Stillman.
    While Brooks, whose origins are The Simpsons, and perhaps because of his theater background, aims for character studies which gets his actors to work through their contradictions while also being able to humanize unlikeable people; and whose influence can be felt on Cameron Crowe (whose Say Anything, Brooks produced), and Alexander Payne.
    While the non-realism comedic aberrations being Adam McKay and the Farrelly brothers who are more of the Frank Tashlin lineage. Though curiously enough Ethan de Seife does not bring either of them up in his new book Tashlinesque (he discusses the Tashlin influence on J.-L. Godard, Joe Dante and Pedro Almodovar), even though the Cahiers guys repeatedly highlight the connection.

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, you say that MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT? is a re-working of BRINGING UP BABY. I’m not so sure about that. But I am sure that it re-cycled major plot points and sequences from LIBELED LADY.

    The 1930 HOLIDAY isn’t terrible because the play itself is pretty good, the adaption is faithful, and the cast (other than Ames) is respectable. But if suffers from just about all of the deficiencies we associate with early sound theatrical adaptations. Another reason why romantic comedy doesn’t really come into its own until later in the decade is that Hollywood needed to gain its footing in terms of camera fluidity and dialogue pacing after the transition to sound.

    The Apatow film I would look to in terms of its relation to romantic comedy would be KNOCKED UP. Which isn’t a prequel to BRINGING UP BABY.

  • Barry Putterman

    David, James L. Brooks’ origins go back a lot further than “The Simpsons,” which I expect is more Matt Groening than Brooks in any case. He is part of a very long tradition of television situation comedy which can be said to have taken up the mantle of 30s-40s film comedy after it went out of fashion in the movies. This isn’t his origins, but a good place to start on Brooks would be “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

  • Gregg Rickman

    David, my précis necessarily left out many important people. Solondz, Stillman, Crowe and Payne (among others) are certainly significant figures of the past two decades. My mention of Allen aside, I left out star comedians (such as Albert Brooks) who have influenced/usefully commented on romantic comedy. Adam Sandler is a black hole as a romantic comedian, but he’s made a couple. It’s probably worth mentioning that Apatow’s first gig, if I’m not mistaken, was working on the James Brooks-produced cartoon THE CRITIC (which was Brooks and not Groening. Groening so objected to Brooks including THE CRITIC’s protagonist – a cartoon film critic, can you imagine? – in a SIMPSONS episode that he took his name off the episode).

    To the list of important non-screwball comedies of that great 1934-42 era of romantic comedies we can add the outstanding Mitchell Leisen films discussed here a thread or two ago (scripted though they were by Sturges, Wilder, or Virginia von Upp).

  • tygreg

    “David, James L. Brooks’ origins go back a lot further than “The Simpsons,” which I expect is more Matt Groening than Brooks in any case.”

    I was under the impression that Groening had relatively little creative involvement in “The Simpsons,” especially once the show moved past Season 2 and he stepped down as co-showrunner. I believe James L. Brooks brought in Sam Simon to help develop the show, as Groening had no experience in television at the time, and the common opinion these days (as stated in the John Ortved book about the series, for example) seems to be that Simon and the writing team he assembled (in particular George Meyer and John Swartzwelder) were the major architects of the show. Is this not the case? I’m an enormous fan of the show’s early years, but I have only a casual familiarity with its behind-the-scenes history.

  • Alex

    Hitchcock’s superb, and much underappreciated, 1941 MR AND MRS SMITH is on TCM tomorrow at 1:00PM

    Two cheers, by the way , for Woody Allens sometimes delightful and (for me at least ) always tolerably amusing efforts to revive the romantic comedy

  • Barry Putterman

    tygreg, I’m also no expect on the show’s behind the scenes history, but I suspect that what you say is right. No doubt the way I should have put it was that “The Simpsons” is more representative of Groening’s world view and comic sensibility than it is of Brooks’.

  • Robert Regan

    An off-topic question for Mr. Kehr about Bernard Vorhaus and Seventh Heaven. He is not mentioned in Herve Dumont’s authoritative and comprehensive Borzage book, which you have shown familiarity with. So I am wondering about the source of your information. The Vorhaus memoir? Any verification?