Gerard Alessandrini Tag

Olivia de Havilland–The Golden Era’s Last Star

Olivia de Havilland--The Golden Era's Last Star

It’s very sad to say goodbye to Olivia de Havilland, who passed away yesterday at the age of 104. It’s a melancholy goodbye not only because she was a great lady of talent and grace, but because she was the last remaining star of Hollywood’s Golden Age. By that, I mean the era before World War II. It’s subjective, of course, if you choose this as the greatest era of filmdom, but the term is generally accepted to mean the years when seven major film studios produced hundreds of movies every year for a ravenous, loving film public that devoured all sorts of genres. The output was unsurpassed, and production values often outlandish.

 

At the center of this unabashed era of entertainment were several top actresses, which included Olivia de Havilland. She possessed a superb speaking voice and a lovely face that exuded warmth, deep concern, and romantic depth—in short, all 

the qualities perfect for leading ingénues of the 1930s. Her coloring also had a beautiful “blush” that was perfect for Technicolor. Indeed, she was the leading lady for several early Technicolor spectacles for Warner Bros.: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Gold Is Where You Find It (1938), Dodge City (1939), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

 

In 1939, she connived and convinced Jack Warner to loan her to the independent film company of Selznick International Pictures to play the part of Melanie Wilkes in the biggest film production of the year, Gone with the Wind. However, it must be remembered, Dame de Havilland had 

a very formidable film career beyond her lovely performance as Melanie. In fact, her best performances are in The Snake Pit (1948) and The Heiress (1949). By 1950, she had won two Academy Awards (for The Heiress and To Each His Own) and was the reigning queen of the dramatic cinema.

 

Her road from sweet ingénue to fine dramatic actress was long, frustrating, and professionally dangerous. And the reason for her respect from her peers in the Hollywood community includes three great achievements that had nothing to do with her film

performances.

 

The first and most famous was her courageous stand against Jack Warner and the studio contract system. In the ‘20s, ’30s, and ’40s, it was common practice for studios to sign stars to a seven-year contract. The studios would then assign roles to the actors. Supposedly actors had some choice of roles but in truth, very little. This worked very well for the stars for whom the Havilland be bound to his studio. Warner underestimated de Havilland’s determination to advance her art with better roles of more depth. She sued Warner Bros.—an action that made all other stars in Hollywood tremble in fear. The case dragged on for a year and a half but she finally 

Olivia de Havilland--The Golden Era's Last Star

This was Olivia de Havilland’s favorite dress from Gone with
the Wind—
but you never get a good look at it in the film

won out over Jack Warner when the California Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling in her favor in 1945. What became known as The De Havilland Law established that a studio could not arbitrarily extend an actor’s contract.

 

It was a courageous move that made life easier for other stars as well, but in doing so she put her own career on hold for a good amount of time—a time when she would otherwise have been at her peak artistically.

 

But after she won the case, her career did resume and she did her most outstanding work in Hollywood. She appeared in several excellent films in rapid succession, all released in 1946. In The Dark Mirror, she played twins, one good and one evil. In Devotion, she played Charlotte Bronte, and in her first Oscar-winning performance in To Each His Own, she was an unwed 

Olivia de Havilland--The Golden Era's Last Star

De Havilland in The Snake Pit

mother who gave up her infant son. Not only was her career back on the rise, but she had garnered the respect and gratitude of the entire film industry.

 

As her brilliant career continued, she did two other history-changing things. In 1951, because she had recently won her two Academy Awards, Warner Bros. offered her the type of role she had only several years before fought so hard for. She was to play Blanche DuBois in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. After a read-through of the screenplay with the original Broadway cast (Brando included) and for the original director 

Elia Kazan, she turned to Kazan and reportedly said, “I can do this part and I can do it very well, but I’ll never be able to do it as well as Vivien. I saw her do this role on stage in London. You should call her right now and asked her to do this film.” Vivien Leigh did star in the movie of A Streetcar Named Desire and not only won her second Oscar but became as indelibly associated with Blanche DuBois as she had been with Scarlett O’Hara.

 

By doing this, Olivia de Havilland demonstrated one of the greatest things an actor can be—sure of what they can and can not do, but also able to put their own ego aside so that true art can be created.

 

The third wonderful thing Olivia de Havilland achieved involves another great actress: Grace Kelly. By 1955, Olivia was out of the Hollywood rat race and only occasionally making pictures while she lived full-time in Paris.

When Grace Kelly was taking a European tour, she stopped by to give her regards to Olivia. (Their film careers must have given them a lot in common.) Grace mentioned to Olivia that she was having a lot of trouble meeting Eligible Bachelors in Hollywood—someone she could marry and raise a family with. Olivia suggested that she and Grace take a little trip down to Monaco where she knew someone Grace might like to meet. Of course, the man was Prince Rainier, who Grace married, raised a family with, and stayed with for the rest of her life. So, it appears Miss de Havilland was as supreme a matchmaker as she was an actress, legal eagle, and casting director.

 

But when thinking of her achievements, we must not forget her vast and varied film career. Some of her other great performances that I personally love include The Strawberry Blonde (1941), In This Our Life (1942), My Cousin Rachel 

Olivia de Havilland--The Golden Era's Last Star

Grace Kelly and Olivia de Havilland

(1952), The Proud Rebel (1958), The Light in the Piazza (1962), and last but definitely not least, all the epic romantic films she made with Errol Flynn, including Captain Blood (1935), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and the magnificent The Adventures of Robin Hood.

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.

Can Live Theater Thrive Online?

Inside "Forbidden Broadway"

In Part One, I talked to Tony-winning writer/director Gerard Alessandrini about the genesis of Spamilton, his highly acclaimed spoof of the megahit musical Hamilton. Here we discuss the challenges of getting his show in front of the massive audience that was introduced to Hamilton when it appeared on Disney+, the prospects for touring the latest edition of his legendary revue Forbidden Broadway, and the impact the pandemic is having on the theater world in general.

—Michael Gaughn

It seems like a missed opportunity that you can’t have Spamilton on tour now that everyone’s seen Hamilton.

We’re a little disappointed that theater isn’t happening around the country, because we did have a tour of Spamilton out that was going to many of the cities where Hamilton had already played. Now that Hamilton has been on Disney+, I’m sure we 

would have been getting a lot of bookings and having a lot of fun touring.

 

One thing that bodes well is that Hamilton will probably remain in cycle on Disney+ or elsewhere, so there will still be interest in the show when you do get a tour out.

I absolutely think that’s true. It’ll still be there and everybody will know it from the point of view of the original cast, which is how I wrote Spamilton. So, yes, hopefully down the line, it’ll really make Spamilton more accessible and topical.

 

There is an interesting dynamic now in that Hamilton will still be prohibitively expensive to see when it gets to go back on tour—balcony seats were selling for more than $700 for the Atlanta dates—but you now have a mass audience that’s been exposed to the show through Disney+ that would probably be eager to see Spamilton live—partly because your ticket prices aren’t stratospheric.

That’s exactly right. But, of course, Hamilton is on hiatus, too—there’s no Hamilton in New York; there’s no Hamilton on tour. I’m sure they must be frustrated also.

 

Which of the other recent Broadway shows would lend themselves well to a broader audience via video?

The only show that followed Hamilton that sort of had a freshness and depth to it was Dear Evan Hansen. But I don’t know if they’ve done a video of that. The Hamilton video was done well because they had the money and the opportunity. The show was already a huge, huge hit. But 

most shows don’t have the budget to do a high-quality video production. Rather than record a performance, most producers were probably thinking in the old tradition of “Oh, this will be made into a movie.”

 

But a few other shows besides Hamilton have done high-end videos that are enjoying broadcast. One I saw was SpongeBob: The Musical on Nickelodeon—don’t laugh—and they did an excellent video of it. It was very fun.

You also had a cast for Forbidden Broadway all ready to go out on tour when this hit, right? So, now you’ve got two shows that are sort of sitting in limbo.

We had three or four individual productions of Forbidden Broadway planned for the summer. I know we had one in San Diego, and the San Francisco Gay Men’s

Can Theater Thrive Online?

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical

Chorus was going to do a special and hysterical version.

 

There’s a wonderful regional theater down the street from where I live in Connecticut that’s been celebrated for decades—The Ivoryton Playhouse. We were all ready to do Forbidden Broadway Comes to Ivoryton. I was directing it and writing special material for The Playhouse. We got right up to dress rehearsal. Then we had to stop. All those productions got either postponed or are indefinitely up in the air. So, we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen.

 

What’s your guess about how this is going to play out for those productions?

I think it’s going to be a long time. They’re going to have to have a vaccine before people go back in the theater. Even if the government lets us open these theaters, who wants to risk their lives to see any kind of musical comedy or even a good play? I think theater has been sort of damaged and may have to reinvent itself from the ground up.

 

But I do want to make a guess that the smaller, Off-Broadway theaters and smaller shows like Spamilton and Forbidden Broadway will come back first, because to make a big show work financially, you have to pack a 2,000-seat theater, whereas with Off-Broadway, believe me, we can run with a small audience and make it work. We can even take away seats and make

room.

 

I think the tourism of theater is pretty much going to be on hold for a long time in New York, but New Yorkers are actually going to want to go see something. Ergo, Off-Broadway may have a resurgence.

 

And it’s a lot easier to shoot a smaller show for streaming than a big Broadway show.

We do have some good video of Forbidden Broadway and Spamilton. In the old-school tradition, we also have terrific cast albums that are very professionally done. Cast albums are still viable entertainment.

 

If there’s one good thing for me about Broadway ending or freezing it’s that now neither Spamilton or Forbidden 

Can Theater Thrive Online?

Broadway: The Next Generation are dating in any way. They’re still right up to date.

 

One of the problems with New York theater being closed through at least early next year is that the talent is dispersing out of economic need. It’s too expensive to stay hunkered down in Manhattan. Actors traditionally make money as waiters but the restaurants only have limited service.

Right. Restaurants are attached to theatergoing in New York. And you’ve got to remember that an actor’s range of talent is time-dependent. In other words, you want to see young, beautiful people in a show—and in the movies as well. A lot of talented younger actors are missing their window of opportunity.

 

For example, they were planning to do that big revival of The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. But now the stars might be too old for the parts by the time they get around to doing the show. The same is true in sports. Even with the most talented player, that physical prowess and ability to do those wonderful things only lasts a few years where they’re at top peak. By the time they’re in their thirties, they’re too old.

 

There might be a similar problem with hanging onto movies to release them in theaters instead of taking them straight to streaming. Given how quickly everything is changing in society, they could feel out of date by the time they’re released.

How true! I saw a questionable post online that said even Hamilton is out of date because it’s from a different, pre-coronavirus era. I don’t know if that is exactly true but all this has sort of put the kibosh on me as a writer because I write topical humor. So, how do I know something’s going to be funny in six months? I don’t. So, there’s no sense guessing. In the meantime, I’ll stay home and enjoy watching Hamilton and Disney+, and TCM On Demand.

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.

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.

How “Hamilton” Became “Spamilton”

the original cast of Spamilton (l to r):
Nicholas Alexander Rodriguez, Nora Schell, Chris Anthony Giles, Juwan Crawley, Dan Rosales

Nothing is sacred for Gerard Alessandrini. The various editions of his Forbidden Broadway have been skewering New York theater’s best and brightest for more than 30 years. So of course Hamilton—the most successful Broadway show by far in decades—was way too big a target for him to pass up. But rather than take a single jab at it as a number within Forbidden Broadway, Gerard decided to turn his affectionate but incisive lampoon into an entire show. And thus Spamilton was born.

 

The full-length Hamilton parody was not only a success in New York but spawned both national and international productions. In Part 1 of this interview, I talk to Gerard about Spamilton’s genesis and reception. In Part 2, we’ll discuss the challenges the pandemic poses for getting his acclaimed show in front of the vast new audience created by Hamilton’s airing on Disney+ and about how theater in general is faring in a locked-down world.

—Michael Gaughn

As a parodist, what was your initial reaction to Hamilton?
Hamilton was the biggest new hit show to arrive in New York since I’ve been here, so I thought, “Well, I have to spoof this.” I quickly jumped into learning the show and learning more about Lin-Manuel, who was just an acquaintance at that time.

 

Not really knowing him very well, I thought, “I’ll make this a complete fantasy of what might have been going through his mind at the time he wrote Hamilton.” It was a silly but effective idea. I then mixed in my ideas regarding the show’s effect on Broadway. One of the main thrusts of Spamilton is showing you how Hamilton changed Broadway forever. What would new 

musicals be like? What about all the older divas like Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters and Liza Minnelli? Would they be able to work after Hamilton?

 

Now that they’ve shown the video of Hamilton on Disney+, people know what it was like to see the show with Lin-Manuel and the original cast—which, of course, is what Spamilton is spoofing. So it makes Spamilton more relevant or topical, and it remains topical even though things have changed on Broadway in the performance or monetary sense.

 

Is this the first time you’ve parodied a complete show?
The closest thing I ever did by way of spoofing a whole show was Les Misérables. When it opened in 1987, I immediately included it in Forbidden Broadwaybecause what better thing to spoof than a serious musical about one of the French Revolutions.

 

So, from 1988 to 2015, I kept adding different spoofs of Les Mis. Christine Pedi—a dear friend who was in Forbidden Broadway and has a radio show about Broadway on Sirius/XM—kept saying, “Oh, you have so many Les Misérables parody numbers, you should put all of them together in one evening.” It’s true, and that may happen yet.

 

Other full-length parodies I mounted were a show I created with Robert Hetzel called Madame X—The Musical, which was performed at NYMFThe New York Musical Festival. It was a very clever spoof on the genre of “women’s pictures.”

In 2010, we presented The Singing Nutcracker with a book by Emmy-winner Peter Brash. Since then, I did a parody of La La Land, which I think has a lot of potential as a spoof of movie musicals through the decades.

 

When Spamilton opened, did people get what you were doing out of the gate or did it have to develop an audience? And did the show appeal to more of a Hamilton audience or more of a Forbidden Broadway audience?

Well, I must say, our timing was perfect. I said, “Let’s do this in July 2016, after the Tonys are over and Hamilton has won all the awards.” It was also the second anniversary of the show premiering downtown, so I thought that gave them plenty of time to celebrate the great thing they’d done. So, by July, it was time to make Hamilton and Lin-Manuel a comedic target. It seemed the All-American thing to do. So, voila! Spamilton: An American Parody.

 

We first presented it in a cabaret, which was small and informal. We didn’t even take out an ad, but as soon as we just put a poster in the window of the Triad Theater, we completely sold out. The audience was full of Hamilton lovers—and, believe me, they clearly knew what we were doing. Everybody already loved all the songs, because the Hamilton cast album was out. So, it was a bullseye, based on timing and place.

 

By the end of 2016, we moved to the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater on West 47th Street—a block away from the real HamiltonIn total, we ran for over a year and a halfan amazing run for a parody show. Our producers included John Freedson, the producer of Forbidden Broadway for the past 30 years, and David Zippell, the great Broadway and film lyricist. They also mounted a production in Chicago.

 

After that, we had a wonderful and lauded production in LA at the Center Theatre Group in Culver City. Next came a spectacular production in London at The Menier Chocolate Factory. David Baboni and The Chocolate Factory had mounted three very successful productions of Forbidden Broadway before. So doing Spamilton went very smoothly and was delightful fun.

 

Then, we came back and launched a national tour, hitting the cities where Hamilton had already played. Of course, Hugh Fordin of DRG Records also recorded an excellent cast album, which is still very popular.

 

I would say more people who love Hamilton are interested in Spamilton than Forbidden Broadway fans. It’s Hamilton lovers who are coming to hear the songs they love turned inside out.

How "Hamilton" Became "Spamilton"

What was Lin-Manuel’s reaction?

He’d come to Forbidden Broadway to see In the Heights spoofed twice, and that was very flattering. He’s a good sport and he’s got a great sense of humor.

 

I think he had been a fan of Forbidden Broadway since he was young. He told me once that, in 1996, he got up very early in the morning to run down to

Sam Goody’s, the record store, to buy the first release of the Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back cast album. He was excited because it contained an extended spoof of Rent, which he loved.

 

So, when we were doing Spamilton, I emailed him and said, “Come see it.” And he came with Tommy Kail and Alex Lacamoire, his superb director and fabulous musical director. It was such a thrilling evening. People knew who they were, so the audience was psyched. And the cast knew they were there because the Triad is only 30 feet deep, so you can see

everybody in the audience.

 

That’s got to be intimidating.

It was a little intimidating for some of the younger cast members, but everybody delivered an excellent performance. You could just see Lin-Manuel laughing hysterically. After the show, he was very attentive to the cast and me. He said, “How did you know all that stuff about me? Now I have to go to therapy after seeing what you put on the stage. ” And I said, “Well, I didn’t know anything, really. I looked everything up on line and made up the rest!”

How "Hamilton" Became "Spamilton"

Gerard and Lin-Manuel

He was just a doll. They stayed and talked with us for maybe over an hour. The cast—they are very young, talented people—they were just so thrilled to meet him. He was very generous to them. He said, “Have you seen Hamilton?” Of course, none of those kids could afford to see Hamilton. So, he arranged for everyone to see it, including me and my partner Glenn.

 

And Glenn—who was playing King George in Spamilton and was the stage manager—went down to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to pick up the tickets for everybody. When he came back with them, I joked, “That’s $10,000 worth of tickets. Let’s sell them and run away forever to Rio.” Of course, the truth is we would rather stay in New York and see Hamilton!

Lin-Manuel saw Spamilton again a few months later with his wife and in-laws. When he first came to see it in July of 2016, everybody certainly knew who he was, but when he came back the second time, he had just been the host on Saturday Night Live the night before, right? And it was like the Beatles were coming to see the show. There was a huge crowd outside the theater just because Lin-Manuel had walked in.

 

After the show, he was again being nice to the cast, but people were coming up from the street and crowding onto the stage and bothering poor Lin-Manuel and his wife. People who hadn’t even seen the show were asking for his autograph and things like that. He had become a superstar in just six months.

 

I sent him the cast album when we recorded it, and he let us put his quote, “I laughed my brains out,” on the front cover. In order to tour the show, we had to get permission from him and his producers because a good three-quarters of the show is real music from Hamilton. We do have some restrictions. We have to do Spamilton in small theaters—we can’t park it in a huge theater. But we’re happy to do that because it’s the kind of show where you should have a drink in your hand.

 

It feels like a much bigger show than it is. The choreography seems to have a lot to do with that.

I’ve worked with Gerry McIntyre before on Forbidden Broadways and Forbidden Hollywoods as a performer, but he’s also a great choreographer. He’s like top, top notch. He should be choreographing Broadway shows, and maybe he will when theater returns. He did a fantastic job with Spamilton, because he knows all the great Broadway choreographic styles through the decades. Add to that his great sense of humor and unabashed showmanship. Having done Forbidden Broadway and Forbidden Hollywood, he knew it had to be funny as well as really sharp.

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.

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.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I presented five films, ranging from the silent classic Metropolis to possibly the greatest musical ever, The Band Wagon, that have been restored with questionable results. Here, I will tackle some more recent films—if you consider the period from 1954 to 1972 recent—that weren’t necessarily improved by the efforts of the restorationists.

A Star is Born (1954)

The 1954 A Star Is Born ranks with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed as one of the most ruthlessly cut films of all time. When missing songs, footage, and soundtracks were found in the early 1980s and restored for a 1983 re-release, it was all quite exciting. Since two of the songs—“Lose That Long Face” and “Here’s What I’m Here For”—had been included on the best-selling LP soundtrack album, everyone knew something was missing, and a whole generation of Judy Garland fans had wondered where the footage could be.

This was finally and blissfully restored. However, there was also about 15 minutes where only the soundtrack existed, so production photos were shown over the audio to suggest what had once been there. At the time, this was fascinating and

lovely. However, the stills now look grainy, blurry, antiquated, and sometimes tasteless. But we are stuck with them.

 

In truth, A Star Is Born feels about 20 minutes too long anyway, and the “talking stills” only make that worse, interrupting and dismantling the fine dramatic story. Recently investigating this myself, I became suspicious that the scenes represented by these added black & white sections may have only been part of a preview print, not the opening-night presentation.

 

As regards the trimming of the film, one must remember that almost all road-show versions of films—which typically included an overture and intermission—were trimmed for general release. Only a handful of very popular epics like The Ten Commandments and musicals like The Sound of Music were never trimmed. Even Ben-Hur was trimmed by 1969. All films were trimmed of at least their intermissions and overtures.

 

So the actual problem with the butchering of A Star Is Born is not that it was cut down, but how and when. When Rodgers & Hammerstein movie musicals such as South Pacific, The King and I, and Carousel were trimmed, special versions were prepared in pre-release so, one, dramatically nothing was compromised; two, no songs were cut without approval from R&H; and three, you would never even notice anything was missing.

 

The producers of A Star Is Born should have prepared a 150-minute version for general release. It might have made 

it a better film, and Judy could have won her Academy Award! As it is now, we all have to suffer through the antiquated 1983 restored version, which now looks messy and choppy. Can’t the fascinating extra “stills” footage just be an addendum to the live-action version? We have all the songs now—that’s all we really want.

Touch of Evil (1958)

This oddball crime drama was seen for decades in a somewhat conventional 93-minute version that Universal-International prepared. It was always fascinating because of its set of major stars: Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, and Marlene Dietrich. And, of course it was directed by Orson (Citizen Kane) Welles. Universal’s version contained a jazzy score by Henry Mancini and a few additional scenes that were shot without Welles on hand. Directed by Harry Keller, these were primarily shot to clarify some of the more ambiguous plot points.

 

Because of the film’s team of stars, and Welles’ appeal to a growing audience, in 1976, Universal released a 108-minute version to cinemas and later issued it on video, billing it as “Complete, Uncut, and Restored.” In fact, this print was not a restoration at all but a preview version.

 

By 1998, interest in the film had developed to the point where a full restoration was produced, based on Welles’ 58-page memo to Universal on how to re-edit the preview version. This version is certainly more complete, but eliminates Mancini’s music over the credits. This is a valid choice, meant to showcase Welles’ celebrated long take, but the opening isn’t as exciting sans the excellent score. Some of the scenes shot by Keller for clarity were also removed.

 

Today, the film makes less sense than it did in 1976. While it is fascinating to see what Welles’ envisioned, the more conventional Universal version is easier to follow. What went wrong is not that the 1998 restoration was done (or whether it is better or worse than the Universal version), but that it is now considered the only valid version of the film.

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

True, this was one of the greatest films of all time. And it still is. But, thanks to its restoration, it’s not quite as much of a great film as it was in the 1960s. Some footage was added in the 1990s, and the resulting edit was deemed to be the “Director’s Cut.” However, I suspect this was done to create a new copyright, and even to compensate David Lean financially. This longer version may have indeed been what Lean handed over for the film’s premiere, but the subsequent cuts made it much tighter and smoother.

The footage restored for the current version includes a shot of Lawrence’s motorcycle goggles in the bushes. Lean uses the same exact shot in Dr. Zhivago when Tom Courtney’s eyeglasses are flung into a snow drift during a World War I battle. Would he really have wanted to restore this shot once it had been seen in Zhivago? (Or would he have used it in the later film if Lawrence’s goggles were actually in the first road-show version?) The next restored scene is in front of a marble bust of Lawrence. This seems a bit campy, and I’ll wager Lean was happy to see it go in 1962.

 

The second half of the film suffers from the restoration of several scenes. This is exactly where Lawrence does not need to be longer. The lengthening of Lawrence’s torture by Jose Ferrer as the Turkish bey is slow, moody, and also a bit tasteless. But the scene that is simply overly long is the political discussion between Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal and Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley. Peter O’Toole as Lawrence is far away. We wait patiently (or not) as we watch Alec Guinness in brown face affecting a singsong phony Arab accent. Add an always less-than-stellar Arthur Kennedy with his one-expression disgruntled face and you have a scene that looks straight out of South Park. Further add to this embarrassment overdubbing done by an older Alec Guinness in 1992 (that is noticeably dropped in) and the scene becomes a blot on the film.

 

I think the trims done in 1962 were all wise, meant to keep the film moving and word-of-mouth excellent. I’m suspicious someone at some point said, “Hey, if we can find 15 minutes to expand the film with, we can re-release it in 70mm again and market a new video!” I’m glad they found this footage, but can’t both versions be available in 4K HDR instead of only the overly long, questionable one?

 

My Fair Lady (1964)

This is one of the greatest movie musicals of all time based on probably the best Broadway musical of all time. It’s all expertly done, because as Bette Davis said to George Cukor: “You’re directing My Fair Lady? You’d better do it right or they’ll shoot you.” Every detail is meticulously done—even right from the first frame of the main titles. “Wait! What’s this?” you say. “All they do is flash grainy photos of flowers under the hard-to-read script credits?” Well, do you think in 1964 George Cukor really wanted to be shot? No! What you see in this most recent restored version is not the original main title!

 

Now remember, My Fair Lady was a very important film and it had to look that way from the top. Whether it was George Cukor’s idea or perhaps art director Cecil Beaton’s, here’s how it originally looked, as designed by Wayne Fitzgerald (The Music Man, Imitation of Life). The movie fades in to a picture of a beautiful rhododendron. It’s clear, detailed, and gorgeous. It then dissolves to a picture of a delicate carnation—but we begin to realize these are not freeze-frame pictures but actually live flowers filmed in 70mm! There’s another dissolve to another gorgeous flower! It seems to breathe as it sways in the soft breeze. The next set of flowers subtly waft in the wind. In Super Panavision and widescreen, it was glorious! After a while, you could swear you could smell the flowers’ perfume. The title card “My Fair Lady” appears over the soaring bridge of “On the 

The title sequence from the restoration

Street Where You Live” as the flowers seem to open up right in front of you.

 

It’s a very different and entirely special way to start a film. It says. “This is important. We spent a lot of extra money to do this ‘live’—and, like the story you are about to see, it’s subtle and intelligent.” That’s 1964 to 1993.

 

Now fast-forward to 1994 when the film is being restored so CBS can take back control of it from Warner Bros. Probably to save costs, it was decided 

to dump the old main title and create a new freeze-frame version rather than restore every frame. Presumably, no one would notice. Who would? Well, the answer to that is, yes, you don’t really notice outright, but (as with any brilliant detail) you do subliminally. Think of all the subliminal visual elements of, let’s say, Citizen Kane. Who really notices those shots that include a ceiling? Hmmm?

 

To make matters even more disturbing, the newest video restoration of My Fair Lady seems to have redone the credits yet again. There is still no live footage of the flowers, but now the timing of the dissolve between the names is slightly off, probably because it was done with video instead of real film. Each credit comes up a split second too fast so you can’t clearly read them. For the generation that isn’t used to reading (or writing) in script, the credits must look like strange markings in Sanskrit. As for the music, it’s mixed rather strangely too. The strings are too soft and fairly far off in the background.

 

In addition, on my video version, more than a few of the songs are out of sync with the actors’ lips. Now, this could have been a sound/sync problem with my home theater, but I have never noticed it on earlier video versions of My Fair Lady, or any other musical for that matter. Most egregious was “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Now I know Audrey was dubbed by the great (and better) singer Marni Nixon here, but other songs were out of sync as well—even songs performed by actors who did their own singing, like Stanley Holloway, and at times, even Rex Harrison, who sang all his songs live on the set! I’ve seen this film over many decades and it’s never been out of sync till now.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2
1776 (1972)

This movie was originally filmed as a very straightforward adaptation of the Broadway blockbuster hit from 1969. It was planned to be a road-show presentation like My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof—a film over two hours long, presented in two “acts” with an intermission. It also was the last film produced by Jack L. Warner, although it was filmed and released by Columbia Pictures.

 

But by 1972, road shows were a thing of the past. Either Jack L. Warner or Columbia decided not to present the film in that format, which meant it needed to be shortened and given a more modern or “cinematic” feel. Having witnessed that first version, I can attest it was quite excellent, and exactly the right choice. Even though I am a fan of the Broadway show (which, by the way, was originally performed in one act), I found the more cinematic version snappier and more contemporary for the 1970s.

 

In the 1990s, all the missing footage was added back in for home video. The additions include the second chorus of “Piddle Twiddle and Resolve,” the entire “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” two reprises, and a “new” (or perhaps original) main title that looks like a ripoff of the main title of Oliver! In this case, longer is not better. The songs now prove why the original producers eliminated them.

 

As far as stage-to-screen photographic efforts, these are the stodgier stage-bound segments, and, in the case of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” very bizarre. It has been said this number was cut by Warner at the request of then President Nixon because the lyric makes unflattering references to the political “Right.” However, on viewing the film version of the number, it is strangely overly stylized and doesn’t fit with the more realistic look of the rest of the film. My guess it was cut because it didn’t come off well and was an easy edit to shorten the film for general release.

 

The main title sequence the film was released with in 1972 is inventive. The film begins with founding father (“hero”) John Adams in contemplation beside the Liberty Bell. When the Continental Congress convenes, he rushes down the long staircase from the bell tower as the credits roll. He then begins “Piddle Twiddle . . .” It’s quite stylish and cinematic. Both versions are available on the 4K Blu-ray, which means you can enjoy it all and decide for yourself.

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.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

Film is a living art form. Even though we may think a movie is a photograph frame permanently set on film and will exist as such forever, that isn’t actually true. The film frames and sound may stay exactly the same but how they survive is always an issue.

 

Beyond technical deterioration, there are other factors that influence how we view or comprehend a film from another era. How we perceive a film changes as much as society, morality, and language change for us day to day. A film from the 1930s is viewed quite differently by contemporary audiences than it was by an audience watching it in 1935. Of course, some films transcend time while others become dated, confusing, and sometimes even incomprehensible.

But there is another kind of aging, beyond physical decay and changing times, that might alter a film, decade to decade. What did the movie actually look like to the first audiences that viewed it? How did the creators intend it to look? What was the original (intended) length? Now that technology has progressed so much with digital photography and editing, many film distributors, creators, and owners have come up with various ways to “restore” a film. But that is a very broad term. What is being restored? A director’s vision? The color? The sound? The length? If so, is a preview print of a film as valid as the version shown when the film was released?

 

With the arrival of home video, and the potential for an older film to be financially lucrative, there has been a trend to restore classic films. Often this is done out of love of the art form, but sometimes financial issues play too big a role in the process. To be sure, most older films are beautifully presented for home video, but there are more than several classic films where the restoration effort may have gone wrong.

I am going to take a look at 10 films that have yielded questionable results, beginning with five from 1927 to 1953. In Part 2, I’ll consider some more recent classics like the 1954 A Star is Born and Lawrence of Arabia.

Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s incredible German Expressionist science-fiction film was trimmed substantially after its opening. It’s this shorter version that has been admired for decades. A damaged full-length print was found in a museum in Argentina in 2008. A long restoration was begun, and additional footage was found in New Zealand. The film now runs 148 minutes (still shy of the original 153-minute version). Length aside, the restored material is so damaged and scratchy, you are taken right out of the story and plunked down in a photo-lab class. Certainly, the power and horror of this masterpiece is diluted, not improved. This super-long version should be an extra on any video release of the film, not the feature presentation.

Lost Horizon (1937)

This classic Frank Capra film of James Hilton’s classic novel was a critical if not financial success in 1937. For years, many film lovers enjoyed the 118-minute version. Then, perhaps in an effort to mine more cash out of the film, a new video version was released with 14 extra minutes from, presumably, the original, extended “road show” version or possibly from a preview print. But not all the footage still existed, so some scenes consist of only audio tracks playing while production stills are shown. The footage that did exist was not from the exciting Tibetan or Shangri-La sections, but conversations on a small airplane. In both 

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

cases, the additions very much slow the action of the film. The shorter, more concise version should be made available. While it’s fun to see what’s missing, that material should only be included in the extras.

 

The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

This is certainly one of the greatest movies of all time, and it’s a Technicolor triumph. However, in order to return it to its true splendor, so many “restorations” have been done that we are further from the truth than ever. Since the Technicolor company

of 1939 isn’t doing the restoring, what we have now is only a Technicolor simulation. As with The Band Wagon (see below) and other MGM musicals, the imaging is often too bright with low contrast, and more pleasing to the high-def generation’s eye than representative of what was originally there. In fact, the film is so clear and sharp now that all the sets look ridiculously phony.

 

That look isn’t so far off the mark for a film fantasy, so it is tolerable—except when 

Judy Garland turns into Rita Hayworth. Judy’s hair is now unabashedly red, but if you look at any color still of the film (shot on Kodachrome, etc.), she is clearly a brunette.

 

Another issue is the new “sepia-tone” wash on the film, which doesn’t come close to sepia. Just go find a photo of your grandparents from 1940 to see what sepia really looks like. In the current Wizard of Oz restoration, the front part of the picture simply has an orange-brown wash over everything. There are no true blacks or soft flesh tones.

 

In the color segments, the colors are bright, vibrant, and fun, but where are the subtle pastels? The last time I viewed an original color nitrate print of the film (made in the film’s premiere era), it was notable how the process could capture pastel colors side-by-side with the more vivid primary colors. The newer version is simply more saturated, so the pastels are no longer soft.

The Red Shoes (1948)

The great Pressburger/Powell film from 1948 certainly deserves to be transferred to home video with great care. But this magnificent and important movie has been so cleaned up, it looks like a vibrant video today. A lot of the scenes (for example, on the balcony with the train smoke blowing by) look positively phony. It seems reasonable to surmise this is not what the creators were going for. Also, the watery softness of the original British Technicolor is now bright, harsh, and cartoonish. I would much prefer to see a dusty (or even scratchy) old, true Technicolor print of this masterpiece.

 

The Band Wagon (1953)

This is one of the great MGM musicals, produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minelli. It famously stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in their peak years in glorious Technicolor. The film has always been treated with great care by MGM (and by WB, the company that currently owns it). However, the art of restoring Technicolor can be a very tricky and 

subjective job. Since the process used to create Technicolor prints no longer exists, a restoration isn’t really a restoration but a simulation of “the Technicolor look.”

 

Most of the color looks fine today, except for one key scene: The “Dancing in the Dark” number is too brightly lit and with low contrast. The great dancing couple, who are dressed in white, are now upstaged by a very phony-looking backdrop. Originally, as it was processed by 

Technicolor, the company was able to add deeper black tones and more contrast to the background so the New York City skyline viewed from Central Park actually looked quite true to life.

 

The original designers, D.P., and colorist knew what they were doing. I saw one of the last new prints made by Technicolor in the mid ‘70s in a screening hosted by Vincente Minelli, who explained how he requested Technicolor to make the soundstage set look like an actual location shoot. The version we see today is so bright and digitally cleaned up that Fred and Cyd look like they are “Dancing on a Community Theater Stage.”

 

If one wants proof of the restoration mishap, one need only look at the original trailer for The Band Wagon. If you find a print of this from 1953, you’ll see the difference in color contrast. By the way, if you look at most of the trailers of color musicals of the 1950s, you can see what the original Technicolor looked like.

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.

Screwball Odds & Ends

When writing up the best classic screwball comedies and their modern counterparts, I knew I was likely overlooking some films that arguably belonged on the list. But how could I forget . . .

Screwball Odds & Ends
10

(1979)

This is the ultimate Blake Edwards screwball comedy. Most of Edwards’ comedies contain elements of classic screwball, certainly always slapstick. Films like The Pink Panther, The Great Race, and even Victor/Victoria qualify as terrific films that use the best of all comedy elements. Edwards even has a later film entitled Blind Date that is an over-the-top and dark screwball comedy. But 10 is a small masterpiece of insane comedy and slapstick.

Here, the beautiful girl causing all the trouble (by just being mindblowingly sexy with a corn-row hairstyle) is Bo Derek. And the slapstick prize goes to the film’s star Dudley Moore. By 1979, he certainly was an expert at this genre. (Let’s not forget the original Bedazzled!) And speaking of “Julie Andrews! Julie Andrews!,” Andrews herself is on hand, providing fine support. She also adds excellent contrast to Derek and some much-

needed rationality for Moore. This film also doubles as a classic sex comedy, but since sex doesn’t change much from generation to generation, this film holds up marvelously!

 

When listing the best recent screwball comedies, it’s easy to overlook a great favorite, so my apologies to Blake Edwards and Dudley Moore.

 

In fact, since Peter Bogdanovich’s re-introduction of the screwball comedy with What’s Up, Doc?, the last 50 years of cinema have been laced with all kinds of related comedies. Some are screwball-like, some are “drug comedies” or contemporary 

“sex comedies.” Some are great “genre spoof” comedies like Spaceballs, High Anxiety, or 21 Jump Street.

 

Here’s a comprehensive list of the many other truly wonderful screwball-comedy-like films that also deserve a mention:

 

Animal House

American Pie

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Blast from the Past

Caddyshack

Clueless

50 First Dates

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Groundhog Day

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days

In and Out

Isn’t It Romantic

Legally Blonde

Liar Liar

Napoleon Dynamite

Meatballs

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Splash

Tootsie

Trainwreck

27 Dresses

Weekend at Bernie’s

Wild Child

Zoolander

All of the Mel Brooks genre spoofs like Young FrankensteinSilent Movie, and High Anxiety.

 

Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor I & IIComing to America, and Bowfinger.

 

Will Ferrell movies like Talladega Nights, Anchorman, and Blades of Glory.

 

Chevy Chase movies like Funny Farm and the “Vacation” series.

 

And last but certainly not least . . .

 

Any of Tyler Perry’s “Medea” movies. They are all outrageously inventive and wonderful.

 

So, grab a “screwball” and a highball drink, and look at the world in a whole new and topsy-turvy way. Between all the great comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the contemporary comedies of the last 50 years, you’ll have months and months of laughter at your disposal, so live, love, and laugh with the best!

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.

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.

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

In “The Lost Art of Souvenir Movie Programs,” Tony-winning director Gerard Alessandrini talked about his efforts to hunt down the promotional programs for classic movies spanning the entire history of film. Here, as promised, is an extensive dive into that unique and diverse collection of movie ephemera.

 

Click on any of the images to enlarge them.

SILENT FILMS

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

click on any of the images to enlarge

MUSICALS

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

click on any of the images to enlarge

EPICS

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

click on any of the images to enlarge

SCI-FI / FANTASY

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

click on any of the images to enlarge

DRAMAS

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

click on any of the images to enlarge

1950s WIDESCREEN

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

click on any of the images to enlarge

. . . and lastly

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

As promised, Gerard’s copy of the movie program for Star!, signed by both Julie Andrews and director Robert Wise.

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.