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Who’s Doing Livestreams Right?

Ben Folds takes requests—and gives piano lessons to kids—while stuck in Australia.

The audience for livestreams has exploded in recent weeks as people have exhausted their options for more traditional mainstream entertainment and musicians and other performers have embraced online performance as the best near-term solution for engaging their fans. I talked to acoustic designer Steve Haas about who’s doing a good job of broadcasting from the internet and what musicians can do to up the sonic quality of their streams.

—Michael Gaughn

Thanks to the boom in livestreams, a lot of people are being exposed for the first time to the idea of famous musicians doing intimate performances, but you’ve been aware of and helping to arrange home performances for a while now, right?

Yes. I’ve been very passionate about promoting house concerts, and have been creating private concert venues in people’s homes for a long time. Before the pandemic, hosts of house concerts were putting on monthly shows with some really great 

artists. It was just amazing, the quality and caliber of musicians you got to see several feet from you in someone’s living room. They would clear out the furniture, put 50 people in there on some loose chairs, and have a suggested donation of 15 to 20 dollars per person.

 

But of course now that can’t exist for a while in any environment, commercial or private—hopefully not as long as everybody’s predicting. Certainly when Mozart did his house concerts in the palace, he didn’t have to deal with a pandemic, and certainly didn’t have the internet to be able to convey his music to the masses. But people do now, and it’s amazing how many performers have jumped on this. They understand that the only way they can keep their music and their talents alive in the minds of their fans and the general public is through online presentations.

 

Whether it’s prerecorded videos or live streaming, some bands will go to great lengths to individually record their parts and overdub the video. And then somebody will put it together through video editing software and create a pretty amazing production.

 


In general, what is the level of quality you’ve been coming across over the past couple of months, from an acoustics perspective?

Most people are just finding a room in their home or their apartment—sometimes the bathroom, which everybody thinks has great acoustics. But that’s a little iffy—sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. It can also be their kitchen, their living room, wherever they can set up an iPhone or a simple microphone. That’s the bare bones.

Performers are realizing they need to use this vehicle to get their music out there. And some are realizing they have to rise above the tide and separate themselves from the masses.

 

I get dozens of livestreams every day on my Facebook and other feeds, but I just don’t have time to listen to all of them. And that doesn’t even include the highly produced streams, like the Together at Home concert with Lady Gaga, Elton John, and others. So there has to be a way for artists—not just musicians, but actors and dancers, too—to convey their craft. But they have to step up the production. And the thing is, the ones I’ve seen do that haven’t had to spend thousands of dollars.

 

It’s really about thinking, “OK, what can I do to create an environment that will give me something better than what sounds like a typical living room? How can I get a little better balance? How can I get some good audio equipment? What do I need to do 

to make sure my video and audio are in sync?” I’ve seen some videos that were out of sync, which is very annoying.

 

They also need to think about lighting. How many people are doing livestreams with a window behind them? I’m not a lighting designer, but Lighting 101 tells us don’t have a window behind you.

 

 

I realize it’s difficult to advise people on acoustics from a distance, but is there any general advice you could give? For instance, they should probably take a moment to listen to the room they’re thinking of using and get a sense of its sonic characteristics.

Most normal rooms—living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms—don’t have a neutral sound, but tend to sound very colored. Bathrooms usually have an excessively bright sound because you’re dealing with porcelain and plaster and other hard surfaces with nothing to absorb it. Kitchens can sound like that too because they don’t have any soft furnishings, so they tend to emphasize the higher frequencies.

 

Living rooms, family rooms, and dens can have a very midrange boomy sound because you typically have all of the low-end sound sucked out—that is, absorbed—by the windows and the thin sheetrock and plaster. The high end can also be muffled by some of the furnishings, especially if you have carpet or area rugs.

 

And that’s really indicative of what I’m hearing on a lot on livestreams—that midrange honkiness that’s left once the highs and the lows are sucked out. It’s better to simply try to soak up or absorb some of that sound. I joke about it, but bringing every pillow and blanket in your house or apartment into the room while you’re recording will actually make a difference. But it depends. If you have a huge living room, just having three or four pillows is not going to do it.

 

If you want to take it to the next level, you can buy or make 

A BRIEF SAMPLING OF STREAMS
Steve Haas on High-Quality Livestreams

Brad Paisley and special guests perform
in real time on Facebook 

The Doobie Brothers perform a video
sync-up of “Black Water”

Steve Haas on High-Quality Livestreams

Singer Maysa Leak (of Incognito fame)

your own acoustical panels. It’s pretty easy, getting some insulation boards, which are typically about one or two inches thick, and wrapping fabric around them. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it certainly can be very effective.

 

As a practitioner and somebody who designs spaces to sound fantastic, I don’t typically advocate the DIY approach to acoustical treatment. But, my goodness, in this situation we’re in, why not get something that will improve your recordings, improve your livestreaming, and set yourself apart a bit for a modest cost?

 

 

I know there are a lot of variables, but in general, should they be using smaller spaces?

It really does depend on what a space is giving you sonically. It’s all about the balance. Does it sound neutral? You can get a large space that has enough furnishings and other things to create that neutral sound, and have the added benefit of giving 

you a really nice visual backdrop, too.

 

There’s this thing going around the internet, a father and daughter out of Utah—Shaw, I think is their last name. They’ve gotten millions of hits for the songs they sing together. They sound wonderful and they’re in a very nice, voluminous living room. And yet you don’t hear excessive reverberation or other imbalanced sound because they seem to have paid attention to their room’s acoustics.

One option is to create the performance in two parts. I’ve heard people say they’ve recorded their audio literally in a closet to get the best sound possible and then dubbed it on the video. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you’re trying to get high-quality sound and visuals. They may not always go hand in hand.

 

 

I don’t want to go too far into the weeds, but how much impact does microphone selection or placement have on all this?

If they’re recording the audio and video at the same time and their space isn’t perfect, it makes a huge difference. There are professional artists where you can see they’re using closely held wireless or wired mics. And if you don’t have a balanced room, that allows the sound to be picked up much better without getting too much of the room. You want to make sure you have the best-quality microphone you can find with what you have to work with. You also want to make sure the mic’s control pattern is fairly narrow so it’s not picking up too much of the area around you.

 

 

I realize no one can know the future for sure, but where would like to see all of this go from here?

It’s great that during these difficult times people are still keeping that sensation of live music. We’ve been witnessing what I call the one-to-many type of presentations, whether it’s a single artist or band delivering a song or a performance or the big 

production concerts such as Together at Home. The Metropolitan Opera just did one. And I heard of a hip-hop artist who actually did one on Fortnite, a gaming platform. So everybody’s finding unique ways to deliver that one-to-many experience.

 

I do think the next step, as this continues, is that homeowners who can afford it will say, “You 

know what? I want a private concert.” Even if they have to do it on the big screen in their home theater and have Elton John or another type of artist use two-way communication where the performer can hear them applaud and they can interact in conversation between songs, ask questions, or whatever. That way they can react to the performance in a one-to-one or one-to-a-family or small-group situation.

 

I look forward to that happening because it really is amazing when you can have that experience with an artist. If they can’t physically be in the same room with you, then get the next best thing and have them be on Zoom or another stable platform. Have that same type of experience and same type of two-way communications instead of one-way. Feel the intimacy of the performance.

Steve Haas is the Principal Consultant of SH Acoustics, with offices in the NYC & LA
areas. He has been a leading acoustic and audio design & calibration expert for more
than 25 years in high-end spaces ranging from home theaters, studios, and live music
rooms to major museums and performance venues.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

Gattaca

Science fiction is a genre almost as vast as space itself, and even its sub-genres can be approached in wildly varying ways by filmmakers. Stepping away from Hollywood’s beaten path to indies and smaller releases can uncover astonishing imagination and daring. The following movies, all dealing with space travel and/or aliens, demonstrate this range. From energetic heroes tearing past the stars to exhausted travelers who never asked for such a strange life, these movies represent a bit of all of us.

 

 

THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984)

Thanks to the original Star Wars in 1977, space became a cinematic backdrop for both individual heroism and humor. Like many movies of the ’80s, The Last Starfighter, directed by Nick Castle and written by Jonathan Betuel, tends toward a particular flavor of sweet goofiness. And while it hardly qualifies as lofty art, it’s a fun family movie with excellent alien 

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-fi Films

makeup that looks ahead to the creative wackiness of the Men in Black films.

 

A young man named Alex (Lance Guest) longs to escape from the trailer park where he grew up. He keeps his sanity by obsessively playing Starfighter, a video game. When he reaches the top 

level, he’s visited by an alien named Centauri (Robert Preston, resurrecting his Music Man slickness), who recruits Alex as a gunner for a real intergalactic war. Call it Tron meets War Games. In space.

 

Castle wisely had the spaceships and battle stations animated rather than photographed from models. This not only avoided the inevitable problems of making viable effects for a movie without a Star Wars-level budget, but it also fits thematically with the video game Alex pictures as he fights. Dan O’Herlihy turns in a touching performance as Grig, the turtle-faced alien who pilots Alex’s ship.     A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

 

GATTACA (1997)

The longing to escape also underpins the much more serious Gattaca, but the focus here is on the longing, not the escape itself. Ethan Hawke, as a man born without the genetic preselection that has become commonplace, must take on another identity in order to reach his lifelong dream of flying in space. The underlying theme here is defiance of societal prejudice.

Writer and director Andrew Niccol employs the trope of a future society that looks perfect and ordered until one scratches the surface to reveal its rotten foundation.

 

Visually and aurally, it’s a film of great beauty. Michael Nyman’s powerful score is the ideal match for the costumes and Oscar-nominated art direction, together evoking a sepia-toned Art Deco future world. The intriguing story, if a bit too reliant on narration, is given life by a fine cast: Jude Law as the man who sells his identity to Hawke on the black market and Uma Thurman as Hawke’s co-worker at the space-travel corporation, along with appearances by Tony Shalhoub, Ernest Borgnine, and Gore Vidal.
A / C / I / K / TV / Y

Where to See Some Sci-Fi

The letters after each movie description link to the major non-subscription streaming and download services that offer the title. Kaleidescape has all 5 films available for download in the best available quality. Gattaca is free on Crackle and Tubi, as is Midnight Special on Amazon Prime.

 

A = Amazon Prime / C = Crackle
G = Google Play / I = iTunes
K = Kaleidescape / T = Tubi
V = Vudu /
Y = YouTube

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

MOON (2009)

Not everyone in space wants to be there, as quickly becomes obvious in Moon. Laboring alone on a lunar energy-mining base, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of his three-year contract and can hardly wait to get home to his wife and daughter. GERTY, the computer and its robotic extensions (voiced with HAL-like eeriness by Kevin Spacey), keeps asking Sam if he feels all right. We watch Sam struggle with sudden physical and mental problems until they quickly become extreme, and we wonder with him whether any or all of this is in his imagination. It eventually becomes clear that the movie’s theme is not solitude, but corporate exploitation of workers.

 

Director Duncan Jones won a BAFTA for this film debut. Gary Shaw’s cinematography is gritty and gray to evoke the lunar atmosphere as well as Sam’s emotional state, while the base interior glows threateningly through orange filters. While the visual illusions are very different from those usually needed in science fiction—I can’t explain without spoilers—they are integral to the plot and well enough executed that they don’t become an annoyance. After Sam’s battle to learn the truth of his own existence, the film’s final moments are psychologically satisfying if physically nonsensical.     A / G / I / K / V / Y     

 

 

HIGH LIFE (2018)

Solitude in space has a different context for Monte (Robert Pattinson) in High Life, directed by Claire Denis, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Pol Fargeau. Monte started his voyage with a dozen fellow violent convicts as part of an

experimental space-survival program, acommpanied by a supervising doctor (Juliette Binoche). For him, space is just another version of prison.

 

At the movie’s opening, Monte is the only one still alive, with the exception of a baby girl. We learn his backstory through the rapid intersection of his

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

memories, both from his early life on Earth and the more recent time on his current voyage when his co-travelers were still alive. This is a violent tale of blood and sex, society’s outcasts reduced to their most primal urges. In that sense, it’s a horror movie.

 

The sound engineering is raw and thrilling. Occasionally Stuart A. Staples and his band, Tindersticks, supply spooky electronic atmospherics, but Denis is not afraid of long stretches without music, letting the aging ship’s creaks and groans be the score.     A / G / K / V / Y

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-fi Films

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

One might argue that this film is not about space or aliens. But there are many definitions of being not of this world, and while the child Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) was born of humans on Earth in our own time, he has powers that connect him with something beyond humanity.

 

In a feat of highly skilled storytelling, writer/director Jeff Nichols starts near the end of Alton’s story, yet explains what led to that point piecemeal throughout the movie without resorting to either flashbacks or the “info-dump” exposition so common in less well-crafted science fiction.

 

Michael Shannon is Alton’s father and a member of a cult called The Ranch, led by a pastor (Sam Shepard) whose sermons are interpretations of the mysterious phrases and numbers Alton speaks during his “fits.” Among those numbers are coordinates for satellites, which alerts the FBI to Alton’s existence. Alton’s father and a friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are trying to bring Alton to a certain place at a certain time, without knowing why; the cult leadership pursues them, wanting Alton back; the Feds chase both parties, thinking a terrorist attack is in the offing.

 

Despite this complex, high-stakes plot, the hallmark of this film is its underlying calm. Nichols hints at violence without showing it, thus maximizing the impact of the violent onscreen episode that starts Act Three. Throughout, the small-mindedness and greed of those in power is muted by acts of love—the father’s sacrifices for his son, Lucas learning to reopen his heart to a friend he lost to a cult, a social scientist (Adam Driver) who really listens, and a mother (Kirsten Dunst, in the best work of her career) who understands that someone can belong to this world and another at the same time.
A / G / I / K / V / Y

Anne E. Johnson

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Her music journalism appears
regularly in
Copper Magazine, Classical Voice North America, and Stereophile. She’s
also the author of several novels and over 100 short stories, mostly science fiction
and fantasy. Learn more on AnneEJohnson.com.

The Best of Tiny Desk

The Best of Tiny Desk

Given how quickly people are burning through entertainment at home right now, we’re hoping to open up some new avenues to explore by highlighting less mainstream content that’s readily available online and will look and sound great on a luxury entertainment system. First up is Dennis Burger’s quick tour of some of the most intriguing musical performances from NPR’s acclaimed Tiny Desk series.

—ed. 

 

 

I guess I just assumed that NPR’s Tiny Desk would be one of the first casualties of the pandemic. After all, this long-running series—in which artists and bands cram behind the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and jam their hearts out—doesn’t quite work in this era of social distancing. Turns out, though, like most things these days, Tiny Desk just reinvented

itself as Tiny Desk (Home), with artists from around the world and across all musical genres shooting intimate little shows from the comforts of their own living rooms or garages. I stumbled upon this almost by accident, when the latest Tiny Desk (Home) concert, by nuevo flamenco/rock duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, popped up on my YouTube homepage.

 

If you’re not already hip to Tiny Desk, you’re in for a treat, since over 

the past 12 years more than 800 of these mini concerts have been recorded and uploaded to YouTube. And there really is something for everyone, whether your musical tastes lean more toward roots and folk or rap and rock.

Part of the fun, though, is that since each concert typically runs less than 15 minutes, it’s easy to step outside your comfort zone and explore music you may have not been drawn to otherwise. That’s how I discovered what would end up being one of my favorite bands, Buke and Gass. (Now known as Buke & Gase to make the pronunciation a little easier to grok, I guess.) The duo’s 2011 turn at the tiny desk remains one of my favorites to this day.

If you’re looking for something a little more traditional, check out the amazing 2016 performance by Tedeschi Trucks Band. I’ve seen Derek Trucks live more times than I care to count (starting when he was just a wee 16-year-old playing honkytonks here in Alabama), but I’ve never heard him or his band sound better than this. The controlled environment and lack of screaming crowds put the focus right where it belongs—on the music and the performance.

Speaking of sounding great, if there’s any single Tiny Desk concert that makes the case for listening in a proper media room or home theater instead of hunching over your phone or laptop, that would be Andrew Bird’s incredible show, also from 2016. The performance is stunning, but it’s the recording quality that really makes this one a standout. It’s punchy, dynamic, in-your-face, and incredibly detailed. I’ve seen Bird in concert nearly a dozen times now, 

and I’ve never enjoyed this level of clarity and intimacy in person.

Another fantastic-sounding fav is the 2018 performance by jazz/hip hop/R&B-fusion supergroup The Midnight Hour, formed by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest and composer Adrian Younge (whom you may know from his work on the Luke Cage score). There’s not much to say about this one other than turn down your lights, turn up your sound system, open up your favorite bottle of wine or cognac, and get ready to groove.

I mentioned above that stepping outside your comfort zone is one of the best things about Tiny Desk. But the series is also at its best when it pushes the performers themselves out of their comfort zones. Take the 2016 performance by Blue Man Group, for example. A cramped little office space is probably the last place you’d expect to see this performance-art group playing their percussive contraptions these days, but this set is every bit as weird and wonderful as any of the 

stadium shows I’ve seen them play over the past couple decades, mostly due to the ways the group is forced to adapt to such an intimate environment.

 

Again, that’s just a tiny taste of what’s available behind the tiny desk, and if you’re a longtime fan of the series, I’ve almost certainly left off 15 or 20 of your favorites. And if you’re new to the series, consider this as more of a jumping-off point for your own exploration than a definitive best-of list.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Cineluxe Talks to Kaleidescape’s Cheena Srinivasan

Cineluxe Talks to Kaleidescape's Cheena Srinivasan

Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with Kaleidescape’s CEO Cheena Srinivasan about the current state of the movie industry and home entertainment. Among other things, with theater chains around the world being closed due to the pandemic, movies are being released in the home market far earlier than usual, and the studios have held the release of some major films and delayed production on others. Cheena shared his insights on Kaleidescape’s movie sales, the quality of streaming versus downloading, and day-and-date film releases.

—John Sciacca

We are in uncharted waters when it comes to traditional film distribution, with some studios releasing movies to the home market right after they were in theaters for only a short time. Are you seeing customers exploring catalog or older titles or are they primarily going for new releases?

Kaleidescape is interesting in that we cater to a movie-loving audience that has invested in a high-quality media room or home theater experience. These people are generally affluent and also tend to be very busy, so they are looking for great content to watch in the time they have. But when it comes to great content, it’s hard for the latest releases to make up for what a hundred years of movie-making has already contributed to people who love cinema, so there’s always good stuff to catch up on. Kaleidescape has a deep library of more than 11,000 titles, and historically we’ve always seen a 65/35 split between customers purchasing great catalog library titles and new releases.

 

We have agreements with 44 movie studios now, giving us a complete content offering. In general, the number of movie downloads increases each year, and for March we saw a 70% growth. New titles being released early certainly helped these 

numbers, and we also had a nice injection from the recent 4K James Bond releases.

 

Besides movies, we also have a large selection of concerts, TV series, documentaries, and even operas. If you want to enjoy a nature series, there is nothing better than the rendition of Blue Planet II available in 4K HDR from BBC. No one else offers that with the level of 

quality we do. Ditto with some of the Disney 4K HDR titles with full Dolby Atmos audio. We are very proud to have the kind of offerings we do for the cinema connoisseur, people who really care about that experience—because that’s what it’s all about, the experience.

 

We also offer a movie pre-download service enabling dealers to provide a turnkey solution for their clients. Clients can choose from the finest curated content that is important to them, which is then purchased and downloaded at the factory onto their new Kaleidescape system. When the system is configured in the client’s home cinema, all of their pre-purchased fantastic content is available to watch immediately.

 

Most other internet services rely on streaming for content delivery, but Kaleidescape employs a download-only model. Why is that?

To ensure that predictable, always-great experience we’re known for, content must be downloaded instead of streamed. This is something we have taken as an anchor for our brand. With Kaleidescape, you can schedule downloads to happen when everyone is asleep, and once downloaded, the content resides on a server in your home and you aren’t reliant on the

internet or delivery speeds to dictate the highest fidelity picture and sound playback.

 

With recent improvements to our system and a gigabit internet connection to your home, we’re able to deliver a full 4K movie with lossless audio soundtrack in 15 minutes or less. We can’t provide instant streaming playback without sacrificing what the brand stands for, which is the finest quality experience every time.

 

Increasingly, studios aren’t releasing 4K versions of movies on Blu-ray but instead sending them directly to the download and streaming services. The recent Kristen Stewart film, Underwater, is one example, as are the older, non-Daniel Craig James Bond films. Is this the next step in the demise of physical media?

Disc-based products have declined rapidly in the past couple of years, which makes total sense to me because there is more complexity with anything physical. You have to forecast how many quantities are needed for different markets, then edit, review, test, approve, and manufacture the discs. This is followed by working with retailers on the logistics of stocking the right amount, and, finally, working with the retailers to dispose of unsold inventory at a discount or loss. This is too much work, and you have none of this complexity or uncertainty with digital. Internet entertainment will be the way consumers will watch Hollywood’s greatest movies for years to come.

 

Universal tried something unprecedented with the release of the Trolls sequel as a $19.99 premium video-on-demand rental the same day it was scheduled to be released in theaters. Do you think we will see any long-term changes to traditional theatrical release windows after things open back up, and will this help ease the move to more widespread day & date releases at home?

We have not seen other studios following NBC Universal’s lead. Most studios, especially with big, blockbuster titles, have opted to push them out until later when theaters reopen. That’s because it’s very risky to release movies early. It all depends on how much money you put into producing the movie and what kind of confidence you have in terms of monetizing that content over a period of time to break even on the investment. There’s no proven model for doing early releases, and I think studios will embrace the age-old belief system: If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. And if you’re going to fix it, you better have very high confidence it’s going to work. What is clear is that more mid-range and low-budget films will be hitting the home entertainment window, skipping theatrical releases.

 

If consumers get used to the in-home convenience of enjoying movies, especially as they come closer after the 

theatrical release, they might decide to just wait and not go to the theater. But there is a case to be made that blockbusters and tentpole films are mutually beneficial for both content owners and theater chains. The big question no one can really answer is, “What can we expect in the future?” It doesn’t make sense to have a tentpole and require people to sit six feet apart from each other, because tentpoles are as much a social driver as the movie itself. And what if customers get frustrated that tickets are sold out because the theaters are operating at 50% capacity? This is why I think many studios have decided to push new releases out many months to when theater operation returns to normal.

 

Now that people are aware that they can find themselves at home for long periods, do you think they will start improving their entertainment systems and we will perhaps see a boom in media room installations?

The resurgence of interest in home theater and media rooms suggests that people are looking at it and saying, “It may not be a bad idea. We could enjoy it for many years to come.” And once they do that, that’s a psychological, mental preference change. But I think no matter what, content owners always win. It’s a mere matter of figuring out the economics, and the market will adapt and evolve.

 

It’s also very clear that the home entertainment experience is improving, and people are becoming more cognizant. Just look at the millions of soundbars and millions of 4K TVs, or even general consumer awareness of technologies like Dolby Atmos. The more that large-TV big-screen viewing happens, the more people will decide, “Hey, I’m going to find out if I could have somebody come and put a media room together!” We have always diverged from the general market in that our audience

tends to be pickier about how and with whom they spend their time—the emphasis is as much social, big-screen home cinema experience with the people you love. This is about quality entertainment time.

 

It’s been interesting to see the vibrancy of home entertainment in a very big way, and I’ve been happy 

Cineluxe Talks to Kaleidescape's Cheena Srinivasan

about recent reports discussing the shifting of content viewing and streaming services away from portable, mobile devices over to TVs. Kaleidescape has never offered any kind of mobile viewing experience because we don’t deem that to be cinematic. Anything cinematic is deserving of watching with family and friends, and we’re fortunate to be the purveyor of the highest fidelity content for home cinema owners.

 

I think there are going to be some major changes over the next couple of years that will make us look back and say, “You know, I’m glad I was on the side of internet home entertainment because this is a horse that’s destined to win!” Home entertainment has a lot of tailwind and that’s going to help it in the foreseeable future.

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Star Wars: A New Hope

Star Wars: A New Hope

As I mentioned in my review of The Empire Strikes Back, this year’s May the Fourth celebration (or Revenge of the Fifth, should you prefer the Dark Side) will be particularly festive, thanks to the recent release of the entire Star Wars franchise in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos soundtracks. Along with the impressive “The Skywalker Saga” box set ($250), which includes all nine films across 27 discs along with hours of bonus materials, the films are also available for sale individually from digital retailers. Even better, internet services are currently discounting the titles, with each movie available for download on Kaleidescape for $13.99.

Along with Empire, Cineluxe has featured reviews of the two latest films in the Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. But we thought it would be worth taking a look at the film that started it all: Star Wars. Or, as it is known now, New Hope.

 

While the modern usage of “blockbuster” started in 1975 with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, A New Hope took that to the next level in 1977. In our modern era where movies are in and out of the theater in a little over a month, A New Hope enjoyed a theatrical run that lasted over a year, including one theater in Beaverton, Oregon that ran it for 76 weeks! Images of lines wrapping around the block waiting to get a seat were commonplace.

 

I was seven when the film came out, and I can clearly recall seeing A New Hope for the first time. My family was visiting Carmel, California, and my parents dropped me and my 

NEW HOPE AT A GLANCE

The 4K HDR/Dolby Atmos treatment benefits A New Hope as much as it did The Empire Strikes Back, making the 43-year-old initial entry in the Star Wars saga feel surprisingly contemporary.

 

PICTURE     

HDR is used judiciously, but adds plenty of pop to lightsabers, laser blasts, engine thrusters, and the Star Destroyer’s cannons.

 

SOUND

Atmos really opens up the Oscar-winning soundtrack, making Tatooine, the Cantina, the Death Star, and even the garbage compactor feel more convincing.

cousin off at the theater while they went shopping. I can’t recall having any anticipation about seeing the movie, or even hearing anything about it prior to walking into the theater, but my world changed when the lights dropped and that opening fanfare blared from the speakers. When that Star Destroyer flew overhead for the first time, I remember thinking this was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and how was this even possible?!?

 

For two hours, my cousin and I sat engrossed, taking it all in. When it ended, we ran out to the lobby, told my parents that we had just seen the most incredibly movie of all time! and then turned around and went back inside to watch it again! We then spent the rest of the vacation lightsaber fighting each other with anything we could grab that could be imagined into a sword.

 

I was also fortunate enough to see A New Hope at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood—which also showed the film for a staggering 57 weeks!—where my biggest memories are of the giant auditoriums and eating an entire box of Red Vines that

I also used as straws to drink a large Coke.

 

Today, there are basically three different generations of Star Wars fans: Those who grew up with the original trilogy, those raised on the prequel trilogies, and those who have come in recently with the sequel trilogies. And, with no disrespect to these “newer” fans, it is difficult to fully appreciate just how important Star Wars is to someone who didn’t grow up with it. From 1977 to 1983, it played a massive role in our lives. It was what we played, what we talked about, what we imagined, what we dreamed.

 

With Star Wars, George Lucas created a universe so real and so unlike anything that had come before that it transcended just being a movie. And to have this come about at an age when you were old enough to understand just how special and different it was, and then grow up with it over the next six years . . . well, it’s not an exaggeration to say it shaped many people’s lives.

 

If you grew up during that time, you fantasized about making that trench run in your X-wing and using the Force to fire those proton torpedoes; or waving your hand and changing someone’s mind; or snapping open your lightsaber and standing down Vader; or playing space chess (technically “Dejarik”) with Chewie aboard the Falcon; or having a Princess place a medal around your neck while the galaxy cheers.

 

And, to think, it was nearly not to be.

 

Multiple studios passed on the film early on, and the first

edits were said to be nearly unwatchable. The film was basically “saved” in post production as the incredible models and special effects came together (it won an Oscar for Best Editing), and it was finally bolstered by one of the greatest soundtracks ever thanks to John Williams. (If you haven’t watched the fascinating and fantastic two-and-a-half-hour documentary Empire of Dreams—The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, I assure you it is worth the price of a month’s subscription to Disney+ for that alone!)

 

Taken from a new 4K scan, this transfer is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate, and images throughout are incredibly clean and detailed, with little film grain, but also little damaging effects or softening from heavy-handed use of DNR (digital noise reduction). It is difficult to believe you are watching a film that is 43 years old, especially when you get to the finale, which has visual effects that still impress. (Granted they’ve been digitally helped over the years, but still . . .)

 

Closeups reveal incredible detail, such as the scratches and textures in the metal of R2-D2’s dome, or the streaks of white paint on his body. You can see the fray in Obi-Wan’s (Sir Alec Guinness) robe along with every line in his face, and practically feel the velvet texture of Vader’s cape. In one scene on the Death Star, I was able to clearly read the text “THX-1138” on one of the monitor screens in the background, a homage to Lucas’ first film. You could also see that the masks of the Stormtroopers influenced by Obi-Wan were a bit sloppily finished, with paint that isn’t perfect.

 

Colors look terrific and natural throughout, with laser blasts and lightsabers appropriately bright, as well as the bright blue of the Falcon’s engine, the red of the X-wings’ thrusters, and the bright green of the Star Destroyer’s cannons. (I’m also happy they fixed the saber “fizzle” during Obi-Wan and Darth’s battle.) You can see the crags, cracks, and textures in the rocks near Obi-Wan’s cave, and all of the fine little details put into the interior of the Falcon to make it look like a ship that has logged a lot of miles, errr, parsecs, traveling the galaxy.

 

Black levels are deep, and space looks appropriately inky, but not at the expense of crushing shadow detail. This really gives nice pop to all of the spaceships, as they stand out in stark contrast to the blackness of space around them. Notice the early scenes aboard the Tantive IV as Leia and the droids move around darkened corridors and passageways, or the prisoner detention bay on the Death Star with its deep-black walls, but you can still make out detail in the guards’ black uniforms.

 

HDR brightness is used sparingly—the Falcon’s glowing engines, big explosions—however, the overall depth of contrast added by the extra dynamic range provides enhanced images throughout, adding depth and dimension.

Sonically, A New Hope was game-changing when it came out, winning an Academy Award for Best Sound and a Special Achievement Award for Ben Burtt’s sound effects. And they have definitely done an admirable job of amping up the sound mix for the 21st century while retaining the classic elements that made it so memorable. From the opening, the Star Destroyer flies overhead, an iconic moment now expanded with overhead explosions as it bombards Leia’s ship. And when the tractor beam grabs it, you hear and feel the ship being pulled overhead. When the Falcon escapes the Death Star, TIE fighters fly over and around in pursuit, but the biggest sonic moment is held for the end, during the attack on the Death Star, with trench guns blasting all around, TIE’s screaming past and roaring overhead.

 

Every scene is brought to life with its own sonic space. You get the winds blowing overhead in the Tatooine desert, the background hum of life and little mechanical noises aboard the Death Star, the sounds rattling around in the Cantina, the appliance sounds in Owen and Beru’s kitchen, or the squeaks and groans of metal twisting and crushing in the garbage compactor.

 

Blaster fire is nice and dynamic, and bass is deep and engaging when called on, 

Star Wars: A New Hope

such as the deep thrum of the Falcon’s sub-light engines, the Death Star priming its main weapon, or the buzz of lightsabers. Deeper bass comes from the Falcon jumping to hyperspace and the massive explosion of Alderaan, with the Death Star’s spectacular destruction sounding particularly good, featuring a concussive bass wave that ripples and travels back through the left side of the room.

 

Yes, you can bemoan that this isn’t the original theatrical cut we grew up with. And that Lucas has tinkered yet again with the (now) infamous “who shot first?” Cantina scene. (Just Google “Maclunkey,” if you aren’t aware.) Or that the CGI creatures outside Mos Eisley that were added for the 1997 Special Edition bring nothing to the film—and now look even more jarringly out of place given the quality and look of the rest of the film. And that the added Jabba scene just steals the greatness of his reveal later in Return of the Jedi. I’ll grant you all of that. But to that, I’m still going all-in with this: This 4K HDR version of A New Hope is hands-down the definitive, best the movie has ever looked and sounded, and if you don’t watch it, you are punishing only yourself.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Disney and Lucasfilm gave Star Wars fans a real gift this year, making all nine of the franchise films (plus offshoots Rogue One and Solo) available for the first time in 4K HDR transfers with Dolby Atmos immersive audio soundtracks. And, as an even more special May the Fourth present, the films are also all currently marked down at sale prices through digital retailers, with each movie available for download at Kaleidescape for $13.99 (opposed to the usual $33.99). A bargain in any galaxy
. . . no matter how far, far away!

While I’ve reviewed the two latest films in the Star Wars canon—The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalkerwe thought it would be interesting to take a look further back in the franchise and view one of the installments widely considered to be the best of the bunch: The Empire Strikes Back.

 

I was seven when Star Wars—now known as A New Hope—was released in 1977, and I can’t remember being as excited about seeing a sequel as when Empire came out in 1980. (In retrospect, it’s clear Empire only set me up for a lifetime of disappointment, expecting that all sequels would be fantastic and surpass the originals.) I clearly remember begging my dad to take me on opening night, and then breaking down and sobbing when he said he wouldn’t—a devastating blow to 10-year-old me having to wait even one extra day! (For the record, I have seen every Star Wars film since—including the Special Edition re-releases—on opening day.)

EMPIRE AT A GLANCE

Even if you already have Empire in every previous format, you’ll want to add this 4K HDR/Dolby Atmos transfer to your collection. Both picture and sound are reference-quality.

 

PICTURE     

Space has never looked blacker, the pinpricks of starlight have never looked brighter, and you can see every wispy strand of hair on Puppet-Yoda’s head.

 

SOUND

The Atmos mix is not only dynamic—with resonant AT-AT foot stomps and lots of impressive flyovers—but detailed, revealing all the activity in the Hoth rebel base as the blizzard rages outside.

As impressive as the first film was, Empire ratcheted everything up several notches: Exciting new locations—Hoth, Dagobah, Bespin; new weapons—snow speeders and AT-AT walkers; Jedi training, and a far more impressive lightsaber battle between Vader and Luke (Mark Hamill); new characters—scoundrel/frenemy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the Emperor (Ian MacDiarmid), a character so powerful even Vader kneels before him, and a new Jedi Master, Yoda! Plus, a huge—you actually want to hear an audience let out an audible gasp!?revelation from Vader, along with the introduction of everyone’s favorite bounty hunter, Boba Fett.

With all that going on, it’s no wonder this movie is both the best reviewed—Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score of 94—and most fan-loved—audience score of 97—of the nine-film series, along with being my personal favorite. And, let me assure you, it not only holds up after 40 years, but, oh my DAMN! does this film look and sound absolutely amazing! Fully restored and taken from a new 4K digital intermediate, Empire is clean, detailed, sharp, and visually stunning, and never looked as good as we have it now.

 

As stunning as the audio and video transfer is, nearly as impressive to me was not only how well the film holds up after all this time, but just how impressive the visual effects still are. Sure, you can tell that the Tauntauns and AT-ATs are stop-motion miniatures, and some of the matte paintings can’t compete with modern CGI, but overall, the film still absolutely delivers. (Leia calling Han “laser brain” and Luke oddly scratching Chewie under the neck still remain cringeworthy.)

 

George Lucas famously broke away from the Hollywood machine after the first film, deciding to take full control of his story and opting to finance Empire entirely on his own (a story documented in the fascinating two-and-a-half-hour Empire of Dreams—The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, available for streaming on Disney+). Doing this not only made him fabulously wealthy, it made him realize he would be too busy to take on the directing chores, instead asking a former film professor, Irvin Kershner, to take over at the helm. Besides managing finances, Lucas also looked over the special effects of his other budding enterprise, Industrial Light and Magic, and remained involved as executive 

producer, writer, and editor, something you get an interesting glimpse into via one of the included special-feature docs “George Lucas on Editing The Empire Strikes Back.” 

 

Literally from the film’s opening seconds, you will notice the improvement in picture quality. The starfield is black and crisp, with hundreds of bright pinpoints of starlight (were there always that many stars?), and the opening text scrawl is a glorious vibrant yellow that leaps off the screen.

 

All of the space shots are wonderfully deep and black, with bright star points and little lights illuminating the various ships, along with a variety of colored engine plumes. These shots now have far more contrast, and the Imperial Star Destroyers look gorgeous. Featuring a beautiful shining-white leading edge, they’re illuminated by hundreds of lights, making them appear more ominous and alive and massive, and allowing you to appreciate all the detail.

The Empire Strikes Back

Edges are just razor-sharp and clean throughout, with closeup detail so good that you see every line and pore in the actors’ faces. Leia (Carrie Fisher) looks incredibly fresh-faced and young and beautiful. You also notice that the shoulder restraints of the snow-speeder pilots appear to be just bubble wrap. These tight shots reveal individual strands of Chewbacca’s fur, along with each single wispy piece of hair on Yoda’s head, face, and fingers, and each wrinkle and expression. Puppet-Yoda is more alive and real than ever, and you can really appreciate the master work done here by Frank Oz.

 

There were a lot of practical sets and props used during production, and the image quality really lets you appreciate the detail and care that went into them. The detail and texture along the Falcon is amazing, and you can see all of the little nicks and scratches and wear on the various pilots’ uniforms and helmets. The details of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) frozen in carbonite—with little dimples and cracks and pits—are also clearly visible. We get several nice interior shots of the Falcon’s cockpit, alive with hundreds of glowing and blinking lights of different colors, all vibrant in HDR.

 

While the Hoth battle scene is one of my very favorites—and is as exciting today as ever, enhanced with both better images and audio, and with the details of the snowy landscape now more visible thanks to HDR—I think one of the most visually striking parts of the film is in the carbonite freezing bay. Here the deep black of the room is accentuated with glowing orange, with bright blue lights and with smoke all around. When Vader and Luke face off here in the first saber duel, it looks

absolutely phenomenal. The visuals are crisp and sharp with tons of contrast, creating incredibly cinematic images that are every bit as dynamic and compelling as anything you’ll see in modern film.

 

As good as the images are, the sound does an equally impressive job of bringing Empire up to modern sonic standards, with the mixers taking every opportunity to have ships and objects flying or rumbling past overhead. Right from the start, probe droids launched from the Destroyer whiz across your ceiling, not to mention all the flyovers from tie-fighters, snow speeders, mynocks, and more. Ghost Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) and the Emperor’s voice boom from overhead and all around as appropriate.

 

Beyond the big action scenes, we get a ton of ambience and atmospheric sounds in nearly every scene. Take a moment and listen to all the little things that are happening inside the Rebel bases on Hoth . . . there are shouts from off screen, ambient little buzzes and droid noises, and mechanical sounds of repairs going on. Outside on Hoth, the blizzard whips wind and snow around the room. On Dagobah, we are immersed in jungle sounds, with creature noises and leaves rustling, and a brief rainstorm that showers the room.

The Empire Strikes Back

Bass is deep and powerful when called for, whether it is explosions or the mighty foot stomps of the AT-AT walkers. Perhaps most important, dialogue is always clear and properly placed, not always in the center channel but tracking characters as they move off screen.

 

I honestly can’t say enough about this 4K HDR transfer of The Empire Strikes Back; it is truly reference quality in every way. And having purchased the Star Wars films in so many formats and versions over the years—VHS, letterbox VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray—I was seriously planning on sitting this round of Star Wars releases out. But after watching Empire, I am starting to question that decision. If you are a Star Wars fan, you have never seen the movies looking like this, especially in a fine home theater. In many ways, it feels like seeing them again for the very first time. And that is a priceless experience.

 

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

The Greatest Classic Screwball Comedies” highlighted 30 zany gems from Hollywood’s Studio Era. Here, we’re going to trace how the screwball spirit has survived—and even thrived—in the modern era. Of course, these latter-day variations wander into areas their forbears never would have considered exploring. But that basic sense that anything can happen, and probably will, continues to define the genre almost 90 years on. 

The 1970s

What’s Up, Doc?

(1972)

Barbra Streisand, the great actress and film persona (and filmmaker) that she is, uses all her comedy skills, unique beauty, and talents in this revisit to the screwball comedy. Because she can be glamorous and funny (not crass or vulgar), she appears to be at ease fulfilling the classic 1930s role of the sexy girl who makes big trouble for everyone else. Ryan O’Neal is at his Cary Grant best. Madeline Kahn makes her screen debut with her brilliantly funny performance as O’Neal’s rejected fiancée. Indeed, the entire cast (Austin Pendleton, Kenneth Mars, and, in a surprise comic tour de force, Liam Dunn as the night court judge) reigns supreme and the result is a true screwball comedy—and it might just be the best one ever. It has all 

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

the comedic perfection of mix-ups and ridiculous coincidences, but with an added chase scene. By 1971, this could be done realistically full-scale. It’s as thrilling as the car chase in Bullitt (also set in San Fran), but the results are a laugh a second. What’s Up, Doc? was a critical and box-office bonanza and created a whole new generation of screwball comedies.   Gerard Alessandrini

A / G / I / K / VY     

 

Sleeper

(1973)

Woody Allen, the great film historian as well as great writer/director, certainly knew what screwball comedy was, and when the genre became big box office again, he jumped right on the bandwagon with this semi-science-fiction farce that brought back the zaniness of the Marx Brothers. Diane Keaton is his Myrna Loy/Claudette Colbert, and she is as wonderful and crazy as any 1930s movie queen. Although many Woody Allen films contain elements of screwball, Sleeper is his purest one.  G.A.

 

Blazing Saddles

(1973)

Mel Brooks, one of the great kings of satirical comedy, 

crosses the border here directly into the center of screwball-comedy territory. While his Young Frankenstein, The Producers, High Anxiety, and Silent Movie are superbly entertaining, they are parodies of film genres. Yes, Blazing Saddles is a spoof of westerns but it transcends parody with its zaniness and non-sequitur plot. Cleavon Little is Cary Grant to Gene Wilder’s Carole Lombard here (although Harvey Korman is the one named Hedley Lamarr). Inspired Madeline Kahn is the Dietrich-like Blonde Bombshell (who’s a bit “tired”). Near the end when the actors cross from western soundstages into a Dom DeLuise musical, the film really goes screwball. Bravo, Mel!   —G.A.
A / G / I / K / V / Y     

 

Foul Play

(1978)

With the multiple revivals of screwball comedy films, it was inevitable a blonde star should take on the reign of Queen of the 1970s screwballs. Goldie Hawn had already won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her special brand of comedy. In Private Benjamin, she proved she was a formidable comedy force. 

But with Colin Higgins’ screenplay and Chevy Chase as her 1970s Cary Grant, she became the Queen of Screwball Comedy for the next decade. And any film that has the Pope in it has to be considered a screwball comedy.  G.A.

The 1980s

Seems Like Old Times

(1980)

Neil Simon, who certainly knew his comedic genres and classic films, wrote this second screwball for Goldie & Chevy. Simon pays tribute to screwball comedies by putting in a lot of surprise entrances and crazy exits and irrational mix-ups. The result has a good amount of decent belly laughs, even if the film doesn’t add up to be a brilliant work. At the time, critics were only moderately to nonchalantly impressed. But it’s fun all the way, and now that we have some distance from it, we can appreciate this charming film and enjoy the genius of Neil, Chevy, and, as always, Goldie.   —G.A.     A / CGIV / Y     

 

Arthur

(1981)

The breezy and fun-loving 1980s continued to surprise and delight with this box-office surprise. The wonderfully different story about a lovable alcoholic is a perfect fit for the talents of the late, great Dudley Moore. Liza gets one of her few good roles after Sally Bowles in Cabaret as the object of his affection. The music is also appealing and includes

Where to See Some Screwball

Of the 20 films here, only Sleeper, Foul Play, and To Be or Not to Be are currently unavailable on non-subscription streaming. Kaleidescape has gathered 15 of the titles into a “Modern Screwball Comedies” collection. And Crackle offers Seems Like Old Times, Clue, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles for free. (The boldface alphabet soup after each movie description indicates who’s got what.)

 

A = Amazon Prime / C = Crackle
G = Google Play / I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / Y = YouTube

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

the Oscar winner “Between the Moon and New York City.” But the best surprise is the stunt casting of the superb Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud as Arthur’s stalwart butler. His dry performance in this marvelous film did not go unnoticed as Gielgud won an Academy Award for his subversively witty turn here.    G.A.     AGI / KV / Y    

 

To Be or Not to Be

(1983)

Mel Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft finally get to star in a film together in this color remake of the Jack Benny/Carole Lombard gem from 1942. This version is at least as funny as the original, but it also expands (and arguably improves) on 

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

most of the absurd situations. Brooks wrote one or two of his special brand of “Nazi songs,” and they give the proceedings a Producers-type lift. Charles Durning as the befuddled S.S. Col. Erhardt is off-the-charts funny. Tim Matheson as Bancroft’s young paramour has the looks, the tongue-in-cheek delivery, and perfect Cary Grant lightness to give the film a romantic layer. And not to detract from the classic original, it’s fair to say that the arrival of Mel Brooks as Hitler at an English Pub is a terrific addition and a hilarious surprise. (Well, I guess I just spoiled that surprise!) It should be noted that Brooks didn’t direct this jewel of comedy, Alan Johnson did. Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham re-wrote the screenplay of the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch version, so Mel gets to relax and fly to uninhibited heights. It’s particularly wonderful to see Ms. Bancroft sing, dance, do comedy-drama, and use so many of her God given talents.  G.A.

 

Trading Places

(1983)

Directed by John Landis and starring Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy, this is the story of an upper-class commodities broker and a homeless street hustler whose lives cross paths and switch places when they are unknowingly made part of an elaborate bet. It’s a classic 

screwball comedy setup worthy of Preston Sturges from 40 years earlier. Murphy and Ackroyd are both at the top of their comedic game. And most appropriately they are joined by Jamie Lee Curtis, herself an expert screwball comedienne. The production values are wonderful. Elmer Bernstein’s Academy Award-nominated music score is perfectly period. And Landis certainly knew he was making a 1940s-type comedy by casting true Hollywood screwball veterans Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy in the senior roles.   G.A.     A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Clue

(1985)

This comedy mystery film based on the popular board game by Parker Brothers initially did poor business at the box office but has since gained cult status. In a similar vein as the 1976 film Murder by Death, it is an all-star-ensemble whodunit where a

bevy of guests is invited to a big mansion, a murder occurs, and the suspects have to figure out which among them committed the crime. Where Clue and Murder by Death differ however is that the former is filled with much more slapstick and silliness, albeit with a less witty screenplay, catapulting it into the screwball comedy genre. With a tour de force performance by Tim Curry

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

as the butler Wadsworth and brilliant comedic turns by Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren, this film is notably quotable, with my personal favorite being Kahn’s line “Flames, on the sides of my face!” To add to the fun, there are three different endings!   Glenn Bassett     A / CG / I / K / V / Y     

 

Overboard

(1987)

Starring real-life power couple Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Overboard was neither a critical or commercial success, but has become a cult classic screwball comedy. Hawn, the queen of ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s comedy films, seems to be having a ball here playing Joanna, a rich, uptight snob who gets amnesia and is tricked by her carpenter, Dean (Kurt Russell), into believing she is his wife and mother of his four boys. The down-and-out Dean does this as payback for her refusal to pay him for work done and for throwing his tools into the ocean. The premise is ludicrous but in the hands of the charming and sexy Goldie and Kurt, as well as director Garry Marshall, the film manages to be heart-warming and witty amidst a very silly plot.    G.B.     AI / KV    

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

(1987)

Steve Martin has his own niche in the modern screwball comedy. Roxanne, The Jerk, and L.A. Story are just a few. But Planes, Trains and Automobiles has a special place in the hearts of screwball-comedy lovers. Of course, adding the genius of John Candy doesn’t hurt this wild road-trip romp. Here, Candy‘s obnoxious but lovable behavior comes across so effectively that it adds a certain dramatic layer to the film. John Hughes (Home Alone), at one of his peaks, wrote, produced, and directed this perennial holiday favorite. It has been noted that Hughes wrote his films quickly, and perhaps in doing so he gave them a driving urgency. Of course, this is always good for any film but even better for a comedy. Planes, Trains, and

Automobiles all takes place in a 24-hour period, and the unity of time adds excellent momentum to this “Traveling Home for the Holidays“ roller-coaster ride.    G.A.

A / CGI / KV / Y    

 

A Fish Called Wanda

(1988)

A Fish Called Wanda stars John Cleese (who also wrote the 

screenplay), Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. I remember first seeing this movie when it had just come out, not knowing anything about it or expecting anything special. Well, what a surprise. Cleese’s screenplay is comic gold, as are his and all of the performances. It’s hard to pick a favorite among the leads as they are all doing their very best onscreen work here. And although this is a heist comedy, the hilarious situations, endless slapstick, and a trouble-making femme fatale (Curtis) at its center make it a screwball comedy classic. Deservedly nominated for three Academy Awards including Director (Charles Crichton) and Original Screenplay (John Cleese), Kevin Kline won for Supporting Actor in perhaps his funniest role to date.   G.B.     AGI / KV / Y     

The 1990s

Soapdish

(1991)

What a screwball brilliant cast this film has. Sally Field, who is always at ease in improbable screenplays, and modern comedy masters Kevin Kline and Whoopi Goldberg are just the headliners. Add in Elisabeth Shue, Carrie Fisher, Robert 

Downey Jr., and Cathy Moriarty in exquisitely broad comic performances, and it’s a star-studded screwball treat. The screenplay by Robert Harling and Andrew Bergman is as wild and improbable as it gets (but then again aren’t TV soap operas, too?) It’s exceptionally well directed by Michael Hoffman with just the right amount of frantic abandon. Also, the “look” of the whole film is

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

terrific and matches perfectly the outrageous tone. “The Look” is a great time capsule of life in glamorous 1991 New York City. Those were the candy-colored days!    G.A.     AGIV / Y    

 

Housesitter

(1992)

This is one of my personal favorite screwball comedies. It pairs the incredible comic talents of Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin, with Martin hysterical as Newton, an architect who has built a dream house in his small hometown for his girlfriend Becky (Dana Delaney) as a wedding-proposal gift, only to be turned down by her when he pops the question. He leaves the house abandoned and ends up having a one-night stand with a supposedly Hungarian waitress, Gwen (Hawn), to whom he tells the story of the house. An artful opportunist and a compulsive liar, Gwen hunts down the house, moves right in, and soon has Newton’s parents and the whole town convinced she is Newton’s new wife. Screwball comedy heaven ensues when Newton returns to his hometown and realizes this unorthodox arrangement may be the only way of winning Becky back. This is an absolute must-see Goldie Hawn performance!   G.B.     AGI / KV / Y     

There’s Something About Mary

(1998)

Everything about this escapade into romantic obsession screams “True Screwball!” With Cameron Diaz as Mary, the carefree and unaware blonde center of attention, and her three crazy suitors (Ben Stiller, Matt Dillon, and Lee Evans), every bizarre plot

twist and slapstick ballet is a set up for provoking laughter, just like the broadest and best of the 1930s screwballs. But the big difference here is that now a comedy like this can use sexual situations, crude language, and politically incorrect setups. The result may be a bit crude, but it’s always hilarious. It’s all so well directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly. And you’re sure to notice this film has a small, very drugged-up but indestructible cute little dog in it, so very Awful Truth-like!   —G.A.

AGI / KV / Y     

 

Runaway Bride

(1999)

Runaway Bride was a commercially successful re-teaming of director Garry Marshall and his two mega-stars from Pretty Woman (1990), Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. With a similar premise as It Happened One Night (1934), this screwball comedy has New York columnist Ike (Gere) traveling to small-town Maryland to write a factually accurate article about Maggie Carpenter (Roberts), whom the tabloids have dubbed “The Runaway Bride” for leaving numerous men at the altar. A somewhat cliche story, Roberts and Gere manage to rekindle some of the magic that made them box-office gold, and with a supporting cast including Joan Cusack and Héctor Elizondo (also of Pretty Woman), it has enough charm and laughs to entertain and amuse more than 20 years later.   G.B.     AGI / KV / Y    

The 2000s

Superbad

(2007)

After 30 years of screwball-revival films, a new type of “buddy” screwball emerged. In these comedies, the crazy female figure is nearly non-existent and the boys take the irrational behavior lead. There are some elements of the “Drug Comedy” in this

film, although the culprit here is alcohol rather than drugs. The “Drug Comedy” is actually its own sub-genre (Up in Smoke, Dazed and Confused) but in Superbad, the string of outrageous situations comes so fast and furious, it feels screwball throughout—at least till the end, when it very satisfyingly slides into a real and moving friendship story. By the way, this sentimental friendship has been used effectively again and again, and in other Jonah Hill films like 22 Jump Street.   —G.A.     AGI / K / V / Y 

 

The Hangover

(2009)

You could classify this hysterical adventure as a “Drug Comedy,” however it has a certain layer to it that is rather like a Billy Wilder movie. Rather than sit back and be amused, we are asked to participate in solving a certain mystery. What did happen “the night before”? This quality of “we need to do a little brain work here” is a sure trademark of any Wilder film, comedy or otherwise. It adds a certain wit and wryness to the proceedings, and elevates this bachelor-party flick. Of course, the fabulous and frantic direction by Todd Phillips of the Jon Lucas/Scott Moore screenplay

doesn’t hurt! This is the movie that catapulted Bradley Cooper to stardom. Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, and, yes, Mike Tyson and a friendly but man-eating tiger (shades of Bringing Up Baby?) add toothy support.   —G.A.     AGI / KV / Y     

The 2010s

Bridesmaids

(2011)

Not since The Women (1939) has there been an all-female ensemble comedy as hilarious or as much fun to watch from start to finish as Bridesmaids. Directed by Paul Fieg with an Academy Award-nominated screenplay by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, this screwball comedy about a woman named Annie (Wiig) who has lost everything and is about to lose her best friend is not only chock-full of slapstick, the troubled-woman trope, and witty dialogue, it also has enough raunch and ridiculousness to make modern audiences laugh till it hurts. The outstanding cast includes Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi 

McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Chris O’Dowd, Jon Hamm, and Melissa McCarthy in a shameless, uproarious Oscar-nominated performance.   G.B.   

AGI / KV / Y     

 

 

Walk of Shame

(2014)

Although this isn’t a film that’s on everyone’s most-famous list, it nonetheless is an undiscovered gem of screwball comedy. Like 

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

many (or most) of the great screwball comedies, it has a beautiful but screwy blonde in the central role. Elizabeth Banks is perfect and superbly comic as a TV news anchorwoman who has a wild night of fun, but through improbable circumstances has a lot of trouble getting home to change her clothes. Improbable is right, but writer/director Steven Brill pulls all the terrific fun off breezily and hysterically. Some critics found the story laced with broad caricatures and broadly drawn stereotypes. But should true screwball comedy do it any other way? This is uproarious fun.   —G.A.     AGI / KV / Y     

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton
. He has been the
lyricist (and sometimes 
composer) 
for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker
& I, Scaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. 

Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. He was set designer for
a production 
of On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Connecticut and
for the Salt Marsh Opera’s 
production of Pagliacci. He also did the production design for the
independent shorts 
Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner. Current writing projects include
a mystery 
novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical thriller, Dig a Little Deeper.

The Greatest Classic Screwball Comedies

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I gave my definition of a screwball comedy. In the list below, I describe 30 of the best screwball efforts from Hollywood’s Studio Era, focusing on the wildly fast-paced, slightly illogical and slapstick-laden films that can still make us double over with laughter today. They are listed here in order of their first theatrical release so you can see the progression of the genre and also how the studios were affected by the latest trends and what rival studios were up to.

The 1930s

Duck Soup

(1933, pre-Code)

This is the film where the Marx Brothers solidify their zany comedy style. It barely makes sense but that’s the beauty of it. The success of this movie gave the Depression audiences exactly what they wanted to see, and all the major studios soon followed with their own screwball comedies. Other Marx Brothers films in the same vein include Horse Feathers, Animal 

Crackers, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, and on and on . . . G I / K / V / Y

 

Bombshell

(1933, pre-Code)

Although this MGM Victor Fleming (director) movie is nearly forgotten as an original screwball comedy, screwball it is! Jean Harlow proved a woman can be at the center of the farce, and the fast pace and surprising turns of the plot make it one of the best comedies of the 1930s. Harlow is the blonde bombshell of this Hollywood satire, but the real troublemaker is Lee Tracey as her press agent. It contains one of moviedom’s funniest lines, as spoken with great depth by Franchot Tone: “I want to run barefoot through your hair.”  A / G / K / V / Y

 

It Happened One Night

(1934, pre-Code)

This is one of everybody’s favorites. A runaway bride (Claudette Colbert) and a hard-nosed newspaper man (Clark Gable) take a night bus to a zany romance. It proved that this type of comedy can be big box office in the 1930s and was lauded, with awards for Colbert, Gable, and director Frank Capra.  A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Twentieth Century

(1934, pre-Code)

In this film, Carole Lombard creates the ultimate blonde prima donna actress and sets the bar for all leading ladies in screwball comedies for the next decade. Not far behind her for broadness and insanity is John Barrymore. He 

Where to See Some Screwball

All but seven of the classic films listed here are readily available for streaming. Kaleidescape has gathered 16 of the best into a Classic Screwball Comedies collection, and Tubi offers His Girl Friday, Merrily We Live (which isn’t available elsewhere), My Man Godfrey, and Nothing Sacred for free. The boldface alphabet soup after each movie description indicates who’s got what.

 

A = Amazon Prime
G = Google Play / I = iTunes
K = Kaleidescape / T = Tubi
V = Vudu / Y = YouTube

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

plays a Pygmalion-like creator and Lombard’s nemesis. This is one of the wittiest and earliest of the screwball comedies. If you’re wondering if any of the classic screwballs ever made great Broadway musicals, Twentieth Century became On the Twentieth Centurythe 1978 Broadway musical that starred Madeline Kahn.  A / I  V 

My Man Godfrey

(1936)

Carole Lombard is back and at her zaniest. William Powell plays her “forgotten man” butler who suffers through an insane asylum of a wealthy family’s home. This is one of the best examples of screwball comedy and in fact one of the best movies ever made. Lombard and Powell were both 

nominated for Academy Awards. A / G / I / K / T / V / Y  (be warned: it’s colorized on Google Play, iTunes, and Tubi)

 

Libeled Lady

(1936)

Nominated for Best Picture of 1936, Libeled Lady is MGM’s witty answer to the screwball comedy. The star-studded quartet of Myrna Loy, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow topped the charts for sophistication and outright slapstick.
A / G / K / I
V / Y

 

Theodora Goes Wild

(1936)

Irene Dunne entered the race as a screwball comedienne with this movie about a hometown girl who writes a novel about her friends and family, thereby creating a near riot. Up to this point, Dunne had done mostly dramas or lovely musicals and had

great trepidation about taking on comedy. She was so successful in this film, not only did she receive an Academy Award nomination, but she was crowned the Queen of Screwball Comedies (though arguably a co-reign with Carole Lombard).

 

Easy Living

(1937)

Jean Arthur jumps on the bandwagon as a fun-loving screwball comedy star. This is a very improbable story of a girl who accidentally catches a mink stole that’s thrown out of a window by millionaire Edward Arnold. There’s a Depression-era dream come true if there ever was one!

 

Topper

(1937)

Talk about unrealistic fun, this is a ghost story meets frantic farce! It features Cary Grant’s first appearance in a screwball comedy; he will remain king of comedy over the next 20 years. Roland Young is the “haunted” leading man and Constance Bennett is the lovely blonde comedy queen. This is a top-notch production from MGM, which at this point certainly was in the forefront of screwball comedies. The “special effects,” which are actually mimed by the actors, are amazing and hysterical.

 

The Awful Truth

(1937)

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

Director Leo McCarey won an Academy Award for this classic screwball comedy starring comedy king and queen Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. It is charming, surprisingly sophisticated, and, thanks to Cary Grant (and a spry little dog), full of slapstick.  A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Nothing Sacred

(1937)

Carole Lombard regains her place as the queen with this outrageous story of a girl who pretends she is dying of radiation poisoning in order to be the toast of New York City. It’s far-fetched but fabulous, and David O. Selznick, the producer, filmed it 

in three-strip Technicolor!  A / K / T  (free on Tubi)

 

Bringing Up Baby

(1938)

This is perhaps the ultimate screwball comedy. Katherine Hepburn proves that Irene Dunne and Carole Lombard have nothing on her in the comedy department, and she is at ease yet over-the-top with her frequent co-

star Cary Grant and a sweet leopard called “Baby.” This is the film to start with if you’re just entering the arena of screwball comedy.  A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Merrily We Live

(1938)

This is a sometimes-overlooked screwball comedy from MGM and a bit of a rip-off of My Man Godfrey. But Merrily We Live holds up in its own right. It’s fun, fresh, and quite lively. Hal Roach, the great comedy producer, cast it beautifully, too. 

Most notable is Billie Burke as the scatter-brained mother who has no control over her equally scatter-brained family. It’s an 

Art Deco delight to look at, thanks to the MGM budget. It’s terrific from beginning to end and worthy of being listed with the best of screwball comedies.  T

 

You Can’t Take It with You

(1938)

Although this is based on a sophisticated Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin have virtually turned it into a free-wheeling screwball comedy, accentuating all the wackiness of a poverty-stricken family, headed by Lionel Barrymore. Jean Arthur is the screwball blonde in this one, and James Stewart makes

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

his first foray into the genre very successfully. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1938, coinciding with the peak of screwball comedy in Hollywood.  A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Midnight

(1939)

Claudette Colbert returns to the genre in this delightful and upscale romantic comedy that has most of the elements of screwball comedy to boot. Don Ameche provides a lot of the slapstick and quick-talking dialogue. Directed by Mitchell Leisen, it also features John Barrymore and Mary Astor at their peak.

The 1940s

His Girl Friday

(1940)

This is a perennial favorite, with comedy king Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at their fast-talking best. It’s an adaptation/ remake of The Front Page, and in fact improves on the original, which is quite a feat. This is one of the ultimate comedy

pictures of the pre-war era and it must be seen to be believed.  A / G / I / K / T / V / Y  (free on Tubi & Vudu)

 

Christmas in July

(1940)

Writer/director Preston Sturges arrives at the top with this 61-minute romp about the common man’s struggle against wealthy corporations, yet it’s also a wild satire on the advertising industry. It might be noted that it has nothing to do with Christmas. Although it’s a joy, it is certainly not a holiday film. It’s fast moving and full of laughs thanks not only to Dick Powell but a supporting cast, including William Demarest, Raymond Walburn, and the lovely Ellen Drew.

 

The Lady Eve

(1941)

Preston Sturges marches on to add this great comedy to his long list of triumphs. Here Barbara Stanwyck tries her hand at the screwball genre, and she more than proves herself an expert right from the get-go. The great Charles Coburn is there too, adding his special zing of mature man’s comedic genius.  A / G / I / V / Y

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 1
Love Crazy

(1941)

Since Libeled Lady, William Powell and Myrna Loy had been busy at MGM making the great detective comedies of “The Thin Man” series, but they return to screwball here with a truly insane and over-the-top “screwballer” that actually includes mental institutions. It’s silly but great fun. It’s the kind of comedy that couldn’t be made after World War II started when life and love had to be taken a bit more seriously. A / G / Y

Ball of Fire

(1941)

Barbara Stanwyck had already proven her excellence at screwball with The Lady Eve but here she’s with Gary Cooper and directed by Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), so she’s even more effective. She received an Academy 

Award nomination for this film that’s a modern allegory of the fairy tale “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”!

 

Sullivan’s Travels 

(1941)

Preston Sturges is at his best (again) with this comedy that perhaps has a bit too much social conscience to be considered pure screwball, but it’s full of enough 

laughs and wit to make the grade. It also has a great screwball beauty, Veronica Lake, in the lead. Joel McCrae does the soul searching, Sturges provides the fast-paced direction.  A / G / K / I / V / Y

 

The Major and the Minor

(1942)

Ginger Rogers finally gets her crack at a real screwball as she impersonates a 12-year-old girl in order to buy a cheap train ticket. She keeps up the masquerade to hysterical effect and fascinates Ray Milland and a military school full of young boys to enormous comedic effect. It foreshadows the coming era of the sex comedy. Billy Wilder (of course) wrote and directed. He’ll

hit this high mark again and again.

 

To Be or Not to Be

(1942)

Ernst Lubitsch is at his directing best here with this early-World War II screwball farce. Carole Lombard, still one of Hollywood’s reigning queens of comedy, is on hand to bounce off the brilliant Jack Benny (in one of his very few films). You can feel the screwball comedy is changing with this gem, becoming more slyly paced and sophisticated.

 

The Palm Beach Story

(1942)

Again, Preston Sturges hits the

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

To Be or Not to Be

bullseye with comedy diva Claudette Colbert. Here, romance warms the proceedings a bit more than usual, but it never shortchanges us on laughs, wit, or improbable circumstance. Its conclusion is a wonderful inevitable surprise—“. . . but that’s another story!”  A / G / I / K / V / Y

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek

(1944)

Well, here is the zaniest, most fast-paced, and unbelievable screwball comedy ever! And who better to bring on the insanity than 1940s crazy lady Betty Hutton. Preston Sturges continues his avalanche of comedic gems. He continues right on with
. . .  A / G / I / V / Y

Hail the Conquering Hero

(1944)

Eddie Bracken, the male star of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, takes front and center as the 4F draft reject who lets himself be passed off as a returning war hero. Cantankerous William Demarest gets his share of laughs too.  A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

(1947)

After the war, the screwball comedy faded or morphed into Danny Kaye or Bob Hope musicals. But Cary Grant and Myrna Loy were still ready, willing, and able to serve up the laughs, albeit with a little more sophistication and class. Here the “out of her mind” trouble-making zany girl is none other than a pubescent Shirley Temple. When her raging hormones get the best of her, it’s nothing but trouble for Cary and Myrna, and side-splitting laughter for us. The original screenplay by Sidney Sheldon won the Academy Award for the best of 1947. Deservedly.  A / G / I K / V / Y

The 1950s

Monkey Business

(1952)

Writer Ben Hecht and director Howard Hawks were still happy to deliver screwball as late as 1952. With old screwball veterans like Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers, it’s a charming throwback to ten years earlier when this genre reigned supreme. Hawks knew it needed a sexy airhead blonde, and Marilyn Monroe was cast in her first (but not last) screwball classic. To be sure, this improbable story of a college chemist’s “fountain of youth” may not be the best film comedy ever, but the formula bubbles up just fine, especially with Charles Coburn on hand to add his special fizz. Hawk’s next screwball comedy would 

be a musical: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, also starring Marilyn Monroe.
A / G / I / V / Y

 

 

Some Like It Hot

(1959)

Billy Wilder wrote and directed this all-out screwball comedy in 1959, well after the peak of the genre. But he must have known there was still plenty of juice left in this fruity delight because many have

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 2

called this the funniest movie ever made. But notice, like most screwball-type films from the postwar era, it contains a good amount of music. Although it’s not a musical, it exemplifies how songs became important to comedy in this era. Wilder also gives the screwball comedies of the past a sly wink. Even though there is no screwball king like Cary Grant, Billy Wilder has Tony Curtis do a Cary Grant imitation during the high-comedy sex scenes. And talk about the nonsensical element of the screwball: Does Joe E. Brown really end up with Jack Lemmon at the end? Now that’s screwy—or very modern.
G / I K / V / Y

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

What Makes a Comedy Screwball?

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 1

During this difficult time in our national history, it’s important to remember and screen some of the best comedies Hollywood ever made. Here are some recommendations for one of the most beloved movie genres: The screwball comedy.

A successful and truly funny film can endure over many decades. The gems from the silent era by Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd continue to be tremendously entertaining. But comedy is ever-changing, almost to the extent that fashions in clothing can be. To be truly funny, audiences must relate to the situation, and that includes economy, social structure, and politics.

 

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, this was clearly evident. Slapstick was still effective to generate laughs, but a new element was added—dialogue. In the early ‘30s, this slowed most of the comedy of Lloyd and Keaton down too much, thereby ending their careers at the forefront. Chaplin, of course, resisted dialogue in his films till 1940. But along with the sound era came the Marx Brothers. Their dialogue (delivered mostly by Groucho) was as fast and silly as silent slapstick. With Animal Crackers, Duck Soup, and Horse Feathers, they laid the basis for the screwball comedies that were to follow in the next two decades.

 

The absurdity of the plots’ situations and of the banter in their films also played right into the feelings of most 

moviegoers of the 1930s. The hard-knock life and social injustices of the Depression must have made daily struggles seem not only hard but absurd. So, comedy also took on an absurdity.

 

Most all of the zany screwball films that followed the Marx Brothers’ have a nonsensicalness about them. Romantic elements are present, but are never too heartfelt, deep, or sentimental. Most often, the plots are inane, often with holes in the logic.

They are just a fun rollercoaster ride for a movie audience to jump on to, ride with glee, and forget about the harsh demands of life.

 

Beyond the Marx Brothers, there arose several female stars who seemed perfectly suited to the antics of irrational behavior. Their behavior was socially unacceptable yet always charming. People loved seeing vibrant women break through the social and moral constraints of the day. Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Katherine

Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, and, later, Betty Hutton all could pull this off beautifully. Writers and directors sought to create properties especially for them. These beautiful women acted quite crazy—nearly insane! The plots, like life and bank accounts in the 1930s and ‘40s, didn’t quite add up. These comedy queens would drive men to “screwy” distraction. Ergo the

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 1

“screwball comedy” was born. 

 

(The term “screwball” was probably derived from America’s Favorite Pastime of the 20th Century—baseball. A screwball was a spinning wild pitch that was laughed at, ridiculed, and illegal.)

 

Danny Kaye and Bob Hope starred in many screwball-like movies in the ‘40s and ‘50s but they are musical movies. And during those decades, all the best 

comedies are also musicals. For example, the Martin & Lewis movies all had songs like “That’s Amore.” Bob Hope comedies always contained new hit songs written expressly for them like “Buttons and Bows” and “Silver Bells.” All the zany Kaye movies are full-blown musicals. Even the Bing Crosby/Frank Capra comedy classic Here Comes the Groom has six songs, including the Academy Award-winning “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” Although all the musical moments in these films are excellent, they tend to soften sharp dialogue and smooth out the fast pace of screwball comedies.

 

In my next post, I’ll describe 30 of the best screwball comedies from Hollywood’s Studio Era. It is possible that many of your favorite “regular” film comedies may be absent from this list, maybe because they are either too logical or too witty (like

those that came from Broadway plays, such as The Man Who Came to Dinner or Arsenic and Old Lace) or they are more heartfelt and three-dimensional (like Holiday and The Philadelphia Story).

 

In the 1960s, most of the successfully funny films were “sex comedies.” With TV sitcoms like I Love Lucy filling in for family entertainment, the movies took up the subject of “Who’s sleeping with who?”. Of course, it all starts off 

The Greatest Screwball Comedies, Pt. 1

rather mildly in 1959 with Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk but by 1967 films like The Graduate brought a whole new realism and rawness to the film comedy. Gone was the innocence of the 1930s screwball comedy.

 

But . . . by the early 1970s comedy changed yet again when What’s Up, Doc? brought back the screwball comedy. In Part 3, I’ll talk about the screwball-comedy revival from that watershed moment to the present.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

6 Questions to Ask About a Private Cinema

This theater’s sleek decor conceals finely tuned engineered acoustics and a high-performance, high-channel-count immersive audio system. An admirable place to shelter during the crisis and to celebrate when it’s over!

Why private cinema?

Film, television, and music are three of the most important art forms and media of modern society. While music has existed for ages, film and TV are more recent phenomena. All, however, share a timeless attribute that fulfills a necessary aspect of our lives: Entertainment. 

 

In times past, we would go to the theater for our drama or to a hall for our music. Now we carry them with us, but at what cost? Arguably at the cost of the experience and quality. Private cinema can reverse this trend. In the case of film, even noted directors have publicly stated that a private cinema, properly executed, is superior to any commercial theater. The beauty is

that a private cinema can deliver all three of these important entertainments at the highest level in a setting designed to be shared with our dearest friends and family!

 

What attributes should you look for?

A quiet room that delivers your choice of entertainment without distraction or interruption. An acoustically balanced room that is skillfully designed to also be ergonomically correct for your desired audience size. That design should be elegantly integrated to provide beauty but without compromising the performance. Your cinema should be properly equipped with a system engineered to deliver a defined level of performance, and that system should be calibrated, tuned, and programmed to provide reliability and ease of use. Finally, the room and system must be skillfully constructed, finished, installed, and managed so the engineered performance and designed elegance will be successfully delivered, assuring that you can enjoy your entertainment reliably for years.

 

How can you be assured your private cinema includes these attributes?

Just as there are several attributes to consider, all of which are vital, this assurance will mandate a closer look. Resist the trend to favor convenience and compromise over perseverance and performance. There are many home theater solutions that promise a one-stop, turnkey solution but leave many vital elements unaddressed. Unfortunately, when the truth comes out, it is too late to correct these oversights. Construction and design considerations, no different than with any residential project, must be addressed. Acoustics and aesthetics need to be integrated to bring out the best of both worlds. Ergonomics and engineering combined to assure comfort and an unequalled experience. Technical expertise is needed to provide the cutting-edge systems that drive the action. There are many moving parts that alone, would fall short. 

 

Who can bring it all together?

Someone will need to take responsibility for all the essential attributes, advise you on the impact of every decision, and help you make the right choices. Once these choices are 

made, these directions need to be documented and verified through a reliable design and engineering process. Subsequently, the team necessary to bring it all to fruition must be coordinated and supervised in order to assure quality control and verify performance.

 

In the past, a vendor for one or more sub-categories found within a private cinema has attempted to provide this project management and oversight with mixed results. The better approach is to engage a professional who, like a project

architect, has the overall objective in sight. Like a symphony orchestra, a conductor is needed to keep all the parts in harmony. The grand finale, the responsibility of the maestro!

 

When should I get the process started?

The correct answer is simple, however, rarely given. The response will differ depending on who is asked. The provider of seats may quote the lead time for manufacture of the furniture. A manufacturer of electronics may look at inventory to provide the answer. A finish subcontractor, their current pipeline and backlog of work. These considerations and others are coming from a limited perspective and wrought with potential pitfalls.

 

The correct answer is, “immediately”!  A private cinema is possibly the most complex and interdependent design specialty in any architectural project. The potential for missteps is tremendous. A designer may like the idea of a refrigerated snack bar that could be located in a lobby but 

TRENDING IN PRIVATE CINEMA

Current events have spurred some unique feedback and inquiries from both current and prospective private cinema owners. Here are a few examples:

 

Video conferencing
Current owners are commenting about how great it is to reach out from an ideal environment to others, while prospective owners are seeing the potential benefit. Any private cinema can serve as an unparalleled environment to conference in, and pre-planning can raise the quality of this experience.

 

Healthy break
It can be hard to find respite in stressful times but private cinema owners have the advantage of a space designed to be insulated from the outside world. A refuge in which to read, listen, and relax. It’s good for our health.

 

Entertainment is good for us, too!
There are many things we cannot do currently, but enjoying entertainment together is one of the most beneficial activities of all!

 

The new normal movie theater experience?
The film and theater industries were in flux even before the crisis. What will the future hold? We are already seeing developments for bringing the movies home. For those with private cinemas, the “new normal” may be better than the old!

S.C.

instead compromises the noise level of the cinema. Poured-in-place seating platforms “cast in stone” create poor listening positions. An unfortunate entry-door location skews the immersive system configuration, negating a smooth and believable immersive experience. A shared mechanical system shares not only ventilation with the adjacent powder room but the sounds. These defects and more can simply be eliminated with early planning. Some, however, cannot be corrected after the fact. The price for early consultation is no more, but the cost of oversights can be irreparable.

 

Where?

Your home. Do not allow yourself to be compromised. It is your home, your life, your time with those you love. There are many choices we make when we design our homes. From kitchen appliances to living-room furnishings to swimming pools and spas. Likewise, we make many acquisitions that bring us joy. From fine automobiles, jewelry, and watches, even fine art. All worthy rewards for a life well lived! But consider this. A private cinema is one amenity that serves to enhance and even facilitate the most elusive and irreplaceable asset: Good times in the company of those we love.   

Sam Cavitt

Sam Cavitt is the founder & president of Paradise Theater in Kihei, HI and Carlsbad,
CA. 
Sam hails from Maui, where he can be found surfing, sailing, drumming, and paddling
when he is not designing.