Thoughts on Four Classic Comedies!

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Robert Crawford, Dec 1, 2002.

  1. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator
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    Spoiler Alert to those that haven't seen "His Girl Friday, "The Philadelphia Story, "Bringing Up Baby" and "Arsenic and Old Lace".
    As an offshoot discussion topic from the AFI 100 Revote thread, I thought it would be interesting to discussed four comedy classic films that were discussed during the revote process. First off, there aren't any wrong opinions expressed here, if the opinion is sincere as to what the person really feels and thinks about the particular film being discussed. The four films all starred Cary Grant and are considered among the best comedies ever made. The problem with any comedy is it's ability to remain timeless in it's humor which allows future generations to laugh with the film's comedic efforts, even if the film in question was made over 60 years ago. I'm not going to go into detail about any of the film plots because I'm sure that subject matter will be brought up during the discussion. I will try to focus my initial comments on some background information about the films and my personal opinion related to each film. Even though, I've seen each film countless times, I decided to view each film again prior to starting this thread. Over the last 24 hours, I watched my dvd copies of three of the films and my super-vhs copy of the fourth one. The four films are the following:
    • Bringing Up Baby - 1938
    • The Philadelphia Story - 1940
    • His Girl Friday - 1940
    • Arsenic and Old Lace - Filmed in 1941, but released in 1944
    "Bringing Up Baby" a screwball comedy that starred Grant and Katherine Hepburn and was directed by the great Howard Hawks was the first film I watched in the last day or so. Personally, I consider this the weakest of the four films, but that shouldn't be taken as any type of knock against the film. It's consider by many film critics and historians as the ultimate screwball comedy. However, back during it's initial theatrical run in 1938, the film was considered a box office failure. It was so much a failure that Hepburn was released from her RKO contract and was considered box office poison, thus leaving her to return to the Broadway stage in a little play that she bought the screen rights to called "The Philadelphia Story".[​IMG] Furthermore, Howard Hawks was let go by RKO which gave him the opportunity to direct a couple of films for Columbia named "Only Angels Have Wings" and "His Girl Friday".
    As far as the humor in "Bringing Up Baby" I felt this film was the least funny to me personally. The jokes and the humor hasn't age as well to me as the other three films. The supporting characters were fine, especially the frustrated sheriff, but except for him none of them made me laugh as I did with the supporting characters from the other films. Even with the help of Asta, the wirehairred terrier from The Thin Man film series, I couldn't totally believe a trained leopard could get along with a dog well enough without killing it. Since, the film takes place in my home state of Connecticut, the mere mentioning of my hometown in the film always brings a smile to my face, whenever I watched this movie.
    "Arsenic and Old Lace" a film shot in 1941, but wasn't theatrically released until 1944, because of contractual obligations. When Director Frank Capra and Warner Brothers secured the film rights to this Broadway play, the film couldn't be released until the play was finished with it's Broadway run. Capra shot the film in eight weeks. The actresses that played Grant's two aunts were the original actresses from the play, but Capra wasn't able to secure the release of the actor that played Grant's brother Jonathan in the original Broadway play. So instead of getting that actor, who's name was Boris Karloff, Capra had to settle for Raymond Massey in that role. That failure is one of the things that weakens the film for me due to the constant "he looks like Boris Karloff" comments made throughout the film. Massey did his best, but Karloff would've been better. Also, even though, Grant did well with the lead role, I always thought that maybe James Stewart could have been better. My favorite character in the film was the one played by Peter Lorre and his performance as Dr. Einstein is always a joy to watch. However, John Alexander who played Teddy Roosevelt Brewster was also outstanding. This black comedy had many funny scenes and some great dialogue, but the best line that ended the original play couldn't be used in the film version due to the censors. So instead of Grant yelling to his wife that "I'm a bastard" we instead are left with "I'm a son of a sea cook".
    "The Philadelphia Story" another Broadway play turned into a film. The film starred Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart. As stated earlier, Hepburn was involved with the play from the beginning and secured it's film rights which forced MGM to allow her to star in the film as well. Grant's role in the Broadway production was played by Joseph Cotton, but MGM was unable to get Clark Gable nor Spencer Tracy for either of the two male lead roles in the film, so Hepburn suggested Grant as her ex-husband. Also, Van Heflin was the original magazine writer in the play, however, Stewart was chosen by MGM to play the role after Gable and Tracy were unavailable. The film was directed by George Cukor and was shot in a matter of weeks. To this day, I still can't believe that Stewart won his only Best Actor AA in this film over Henry Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath".
    The film's humor might be a bit lost on some of today's audience especially as it relates to class structure. However, the film has always been a personal favorite of mine due to the sharp dialogue between the characters and the obvious film chemistry between Grant and Hepburn. This was the last of the four films they made together and you can see it in their relaxed performances together. The performances of the supporting characters were very good, but again, some of the lines of dialogue might not relate well to some, especially as it touches on the subjects of adultery and class structure. Today, as I watched the movie again, I laughed at several of the punch lines and found that watching it again is still an enjoyable experience for me.
    "His Girl Friday" I saved to the last to watch again, since it's not only one of my personal favorite films, I believe it's one of the best made films in the history of cinema. This groundbreaking comedy starred Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. The film was directed by Howard Hawks and is considered one of the most influential comedies ever made with it's overlapping dialogue. What's really funny about the film's casting is that several actresses turned down the Hildy Johnson role. Those actresses were a Who's Who of comedic actresses such as Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard, and Claudette Colbert. Oops![​IMG] As were talking about Who's Who listings then we need to take a look at all those great character actors playing supporting comedic roles in this film. Abner Biberman who played Grant's sidekick Louie is my favorite. When he's defending his platinum blonde girlfriend to Hildy his line of dialogue that "she's not an albino, she was born right here in this country" is too funny.
    In judging the performances of the two lead actors, I considered it the best pairing of any actor and actress in any comedy ever made. Strong words, but ones that I stand by wholeheartedly. Grant's and Russell's performances are second to none. The way both actors delivered their lines is impeccable and the facial expressions used throughout the film is nothing short of fantastic in my book. The look on Grant's face when he's asking whether Hildy's future mother-in-law is dead or not really cracks me up every time into tears of laughter. Also, Russell's performance as Hildy was dead on and I consider her character one of my favorite female roles ever captured on film.
    As I stated earlier, as people respond to this thread we can discuss each film in more detail as it relates to the script and plot, but this thread's main purpose is to solicit discussion about each film's merits or lack thereof.
    Crawdaddy
     
  2. SteveGon

    SteveGon Executive Producer

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    His Girl Friday:
    Perhaps. But the joke is that Lorre's character innocently fashioned Massey's face AFTER Karloff's. Of course, the reason for Massey's plastic surgery was to attain anonymity!
    Bringing Up Baby:
    One of the funniest movies ever made. The scene where Hepburn's dog runs off with Grant's priceless dinosaur fossil has me in stitches every time I see it. [​IMG] Where's the DVD?
    The Philadelphia Story:
    My least favorite of the four, though I certainly don't think it's a weak comedy. Perhaps I didn't get it for the reasons Robert stated. Time to give it another viewing...
     
  3. george kaplan

    george kaplan Executive Producer

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    It's late, so just briefly.

    I think 3 of these 4 are great films. In order:

    Bringing Up Baby
    The Philadelphia Story
    Arsenic & Old Lace

    For whatever reason, I am not impressed with His Girl Friday. It's not the acting, as I love Cary Grant. I just find the story clever, but not funny. I have literally watched this film more than once, and watched both the earlier version as well as the later Lemmon/Matthau/Wilder version. I literally never laughed once at any of them. And I like Ben Hecht in many other films (such as Notorious, Nothing Sacred, Monkey Business (1952)) although it's hard to really tell most times what he wrote since he was mostly a script doctor it seems. I can't explain it, but like Robert said, comedy is a strange thing in terms of what we find funny, and as much as I'd like to, I simply don't find His Girl Friday funny at all.
     
  4. Jason_Els

    Jason_Els Screenwriter

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    I love all these except Arsenic and Old Lace in which I thought Cary Grant miscast.
    These films build on Broadway comedy dialog in ways we don't see any more. The speed of delivery, witticism after witticism flowing so fast you don't have time to laugh, mate with a certain sort of carriage you just don't find any more. Maybe it's "star quality" or maybe it's the legacy of Stanislavsky but you don't see this kind of acting any more in comedies and it's a shame. It's as if everything must be slapstick or situation. Screwball and farce are dead. so are the actors (well nearly all) who could play it well, and the writers who could pull it off.
    The Golden Age of Hollywood was golden for many reasons and this was one of them. I, sadly, do not own any of them but I did buy the new release of The Women. Despite some maudlin acting by Shearer I was pleasantly surprised by how well it's held-up. Just the idea of an all-female cast is intriguing but that Cukor managed to pull it off without the concept seeming intrusive is a nod to his extraordinary talent and that of his cast and writers. The Women is a monument to the style comedies of the golden age. It dazzles with costumes, dialog, and wisely doesn't take itself too seriously.
    As I thought of that it occurred to me that formula is the common thread in all of these, as is, very importantly, they are all based upon plays. Playwrights have to be spare, succinct, and very talented to keep a live audience interested in a live cast. The constraints of the stage heighten the requirement that the talent be in the play, not in the dazzle (current Broadway not withstanding).
    It all goes back to the basic ingredients, given talented actors, a good script, and a perceptive director you can make a good movie no matter what you have for everything else.
     
  5. Joel Turpin

    Joel Turpin Agent

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    Wow. Rarely do I wander into a thread and find a discussion of so many of my all-time favorite movies.
    Of course, it doesn't hurt that they're all Cary Grant flicks.

    So, being as objective as possible (and with the usual caveats about this all being my opinion, of course)...

    His Girl Friday - I can't imagine anyone not finding this film funny (no offense, George). I've tried it out on friends from 11 to 60 years old, and every one of them has gotten into it. As perfect a comedy as there has ever been made, and one of the best movies of any genre, period.

    Arsenic and Old Lace - His Girl Friday is a better movie, but I like this one better. Chalk it up to nostalgia, as this and North by Northwest were the movies which made me into a Cary Grant fan. Watched it time and again as a kid, and still break it out on a semi-regular basis.

    Philadelphia Story - Ranks right up with the above two, losing a bit because of the changes in the world since its release. The class differences take some more imagination to get into, but the performances of the leads makes the movie an all-time classic.

    Lastly, Bringing Up Baby - I'm also in the camp which sees this as the weakest of the four films chosen, but still find it to be a solid comedy. Hepburn and Grant are fun together, and the comedy hasn't dated much. It's only the august company chosen which has it at the bottom of the list.


    Great topic. Hope that more can contribute to the discussion!
    Joel
     
  6. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator
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    That same formula was applied very well to all four films in this thread.





    Crawdaddy
     
  7. Seth Paxton

    Seth Paxton Lead Actor

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  8. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator
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    I never said I didn't dig Grant in Arsenic! I just mentioned that other actors might have been better and Grant thought the same thing. His performance in Arsenic was personally, one of his least favorite ones according to a couple of books I've read.



    Crawdaddy
     
  9. SteveGon

    SteveGon Executive Producer

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  10. Gabe D

    Gabe D Cinematographer

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    Wow, 4 of my all-time favorites.
    I think Arsenic and Old Lace is the funniest of the four. I can't watch it without laughing hysterically. Although I love Jimmy Stewart, I don't think he would've been the right choice for this movie. He was just too laid back for the frantic comedy of A&OL.
    His Girl Friday is also hilarious. The machine-gun dialog is delivered impeccably. Grant and Russell are terrific.
    If I rate A&OL and HGF each as a ten, I'll give Bringing Up Baby and 9.75. Maybe it's not quite as perfect as the other two, but it's still great. I'd call this Katherine Hepburn's best performance (except, maybe, for The Lion In Winter). Grant, as always, is excellent.
    The Philadelphia Story, while still a great, great movie, isn't as funny as the others. Honestly, though, I'm not even sure that's a criticism as much as an observation.
    How remarkable are these Cary Grant comedies that we can have this conversation about four classics and not mention my two personal favorites: My Favorite Wife and The Talk of the Town.
    Cary Grant was certainly great with Rosalind Russell, but I think he was just as great with Irene Dunne (both in My Favorite Wife and in The Awful Truth, which also deserves mention here). My Favorite Wife (remade as Something's Got To Give, Marilyn Monroe's unfinished final feature, and again as Move Over, Darling with Doris Day and James Garner) is, for my money, the funniest Cary Grant comedy. It's possibly my most-wanted movie on DVD.
    George Stevens made a lot of great movies (A Place in the Sun, Giant, Shane, The Diary of Anne Frank, I Remeber Mama, Woman of the Year, etc.), but (to me) no other compares to The Talk of the Town. It's a great comedy, to be sure, but it's a touch more serious than the flat-out screwballs. Cary Grant and Jean Arthur are wonderful together. Ronald Colman also delivers a great performance. I've always been surprised that this one isn't regularly included in the lists of classic movies. If you liked the other movies being discussed, I can't recommend this one strongly enough. Another sorely needed DVD.
     
  11. Randy_M

    Randy_M Supporting Actor

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    Bringing up Baby is my personal favorite of these; I can watch it over and over, and I laugh till I cry every time....Charlie Ruggles and Walter Catlett are hilarious!
    His Girl Friday is right up there, too. Rewatch factor is huge for me; I can enjoy this film "anytime, anywhere"; Diamond Louie is a total stitch, and John Qualen (Earl Williams) made 139 films...bet you've seen bunches of them.
    I like The Philadelphia Story , but to me it's more amusing and warm hearted than fall down funny.
    Arsenic and Old Lace is my least favorite (although Cary Grant is never bad). Seems too much like a filmed stage play (more than Philadelphia), and seems a bit forced to me...I agree that Peter Lorre is the high point.
    Cheers, and thanks for a great thread..I just hope Bringing up Baby comes out on DVD sooner rather than later!
     
  12. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

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    Echoing most everyone, ‘four of my favorites’. To be sure I need to rewatch them all to make sure that my opinions of today match those of the last couple of years, but overall as I think about these movies, its hard for me to imagine they could be equaled today: this style of comedy is not done often now, nor well, and I think is not so widely appreciated.

    Bringing up Baby, is, for me, the funniest of this quartet and I find the overall construction of the film to be seamless (notwithstanding the dog and the leapord). It has been said that the definition of a ‘screwball comedy’ is that it is a film noir as a comedy. If so, this film’s very dark view of life matches the definition perfectly—which is why I think that it did not do well when first released. It is pretty easy to see Hawks’ mastery and control, by watching the remake, What’s Up Doc.

    His Girl Friday, I put a very close second to ‘Baby’. So close, in fact that re-watching both might switch my rankings. But then, as I love both, I don’t have to really choose a first and second. Grant’s acting I find superb in this film. Perhaps his best in these four films. Everything I wrote about Hawks’ directing in ‘Baby’ applies to this film as well. Basically everything Robert wrote about this film, especially the overlapping dialogue.

    The Philadelphia Story, though perhaps not the best romantic comedy ever made, is still very funny. I think that the casting in this film is spot on.

    Arsenic and Old Lace, which I like better than the movie really deserves. I’ve seen this on the stage several times, and each time I thought it more well-realized than the film. Per the ‘is Grant well cast, or would someone else be better’ discussion, I weigh in strongly on the ‘I’m not sure’ side. I do think that Grant’s performance is not all that good. So in that sense, some other actor might have been better. But then, on another day, Grant might have been better himself.

    Good discussion all, and good idea, Robert. I find it satisfying to discuss the relative merits (and demerits) of good films. Especially comedies, which are often not considered as worthy of serious discussion as dramas.
     
  13. Dave Barth

    Dave Barth Stunt Coordinator

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    I haven't seen Arsenic and Old Lace, but I've seen the others. I consider all three to be very good films. My favorite, as well as the one I think the best constructed, is His Girl Friday. Absolutely wonderful. Of the comedies I've seen from this era, I rank it alongside The Lady Eve and To Be or Not to Be.
    I found the humor in Bringing Up Baby to be a little forced. The Philadelphia Story suffers IMHO from the exact flaw already pointed out: the story has dated sufficiently that today's audience sees the film from a very different perspective, and I don't think it's as funny or effective as a result. Whereas something like The Apartment is just as wonderful today, if not moreso, because of its prescient view of corporate life.
     
  14. GlennH

    GlennH Cinematographer

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    I like old movie comedies and really like Cary Grant in general, but something about HIS GIRL FRIDAY just didn't click with me. Certainly it had its moments and I did laugh at it, but it also was a bit grating and annoying. For me, the overlapping rapid-fire dialog got tiring after awhile. The pace got too frantic and it seemed it tried just a little too hard to be clever. I bought the DVD but later sold it because I just didn't think I'd be tempted to revisit it again for a long time.

    I enjoyed IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT much more.
     
  15. Rob Willey

    Rob Willey Screenwriter

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    Cary Grant is perhaps my favorite actor of all time and some of his best comedic performances are included in these four films.
    The Philadelphia Story is arguably my favorite movie ever. It just works for me on every level and the entire cast is hilarious. "C.K. Dexter Haven, you have unsuspected depth!"
    His Girl Friday is a triumph of overlapping dialog which was pretty cutting edge in 1940. Perhaps Grant's greatest performance of all.
    Arsenic and Old Lace is more of a curiosity to me than a passion. The mix of comedy and murder doesn't quite work for me as it is intended to.
    Bringing Up Baby also doesn't work for me as it does for others. That's the problem with slapstick, either you find it hilarious or you wonder what all the fuss is about. I'm in the latter category. I much prefer Grant and Hepburn's work from the same year in Holiday.
    I also second the recommendation of The Awful Truth. Simply one of the most hysterically funny movies I've ever seen and the laughs hold up on repeated viewings. After Grant smashes his hand in the piano, "Did you hurt your hand? Just the one?" [​IMG]
    Other Grant comedies I recommend: Topper, My Favorite Wife, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, I Was a Male War Bride, Operation Petticoat, Father Goose, and Walk, Don't Run.
    Rob
     
  16. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator
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    DVDFile has just put up an article about the upcoming dvd release of "The Talk of the Town". You can read it here.
    Crawdaddy
     
  17. Brian E

    Brian E Screenwriter

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  18. Jason_Els

    Jason_Els Screenwriter

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    Blandings! Yes! How could I forget that gem? Anyone but anyone who's ever built a house can immediately identify with the whole process. So much of it is perfectly spot-on that it's less a comedy of errors than a mirror theatre absurd. I do love Myrna Loy. Graceful, smart, witty, and lovely to look at. I don't care what movie she's in, I'll watch it.
     
  19. Brook K

    Brook K Lead Actor

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    His Girl Friday is the best of the four - Funny, intelligent, cynical, romantic, not a false note in the whole thing. It just sings! Grant and Russell are spectacular, I also love all the other reporters.
    The Philadelphia Story is also a favorite and I don't find it dated at all. Just the name "C.K. Dexter Haven" cracks me up. Like HGF, this has a great supporting cast backing up the stars.
    Arsenic and Old Lace I haven't seen in a long time, but remember liking quite a bit.
    Bringing Up Baby is my least favorite of the four. I like it, but would watch any of the others first. I generally prefer dialogue to slapstick, this one just gets to silly for me.
    But personally, I think Preston Sturges existed on a higher plane, and I would take any of his Paramount films (except The Great Moment) over any of these 4. He wasn't called "The Genius" for nothing.
     
  20. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

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    What Brook said about Sturges
     

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