December 11-January 5 at Film Forum
What was it about the 30s and Manhattan? Or, more appropriately, the 30s and "Manhattan"? With the Great Depression decimating the workforce and turning the nation (to the West) into a wasteland of homelessness, famine and desperation, and fascism turning much of Europe (to the east) into a wasteland of an entirely different sort, Manhattan must have been seen as a kind of cultural safe haven, a home base where the now-laughable excess of the 20s was sounding itself out in its last ironic echoes. If nothing else, it was certainly idealized as such by filmmakers over 3,000 miles to the West, as Hollywood cranked out one spectacular New York screwball comedy after another. No city could have been better suited to the genre, as the glitter and glamour of the city that never slept made the perfect complement to Hollywood sheen, complete with big stars, big set pieces, and the most ornate apartments you'll ever see.
A Manhattan-centric screwball comedy retro at Film Forum would seem like a natural choice, especially considering the "new hard times" the country is facing (and especially at Christmastime). However, overachievers that they are, the folks at Film Forum have focused on not only those films, but also their children and grandchildren, right down to The King of Comedy and Broadway Danny Rose (1983 and '84, respectively), the most contemporary entrants. What emerges from the selection is a fascinating depiction of a shimmering Hollywood genre-perhaps the greatest of them all-that has dirtied, cracked, and eventually shattered over time.
There are plenty of standout screwball picks here, most notable among them the opening night double feature of Holiday and The Awful Truth. As these are the only films starring Cary Grant, the master purveyor of the genre, they stand out amongst the rest of the field, but one would be amiss to not catch gems like You Can't Take It With You - Frank Capra's first collaboration with Jimmy Stewart - and Adam's Rib, the best of all the Tracy-Hepburn screwballs.
What is it about Manhattan that lends itself to the madcap genre so perfectly? Perhaps it's the condensation of space in the tiny island-the super-rich and super-poor living side by side, that famed social mobility. These are qualities of the genre just as much as they are mainstays of Manhattan existence. Take the class tensions as Johnny Case (Grant) shuttles between his middle-class professor friends, the Potters, and his absurdly wealthy fiance's family in Holiday; or better yet, take the delightfully bizarre pairing of the Kirby and Sycamore families in You Can't Take It With You. Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart) proposes to his secretary, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur)-but Kirby's stodgy, aristocrat parents still have to approve of the young lady's family, who are an eccentric bunch, to put it mildly. The film's piece de resistance is a nightmare of a dinner sequence where the Kirby's arrive at the Sycamores' home on the wrong night. Russian dancing, bizarre masks and a whole bunch of firecracker explosions are just a few of the things that ensue. The expressions on the faces of Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, unable to deal with the class disparity laid before them, make for the most satisfying shots in the film.
Going through this series, one can't help but notice that the screwball comedy declined alongside the northeastern WASP society it glamorized even as it mocked. The film with the most obvious WASP-adulation, The Philadelphia Story, is exempt from this retro for obvious reasons, but every screwball pick here turns on the WASP culture: the infidelity, the mid-Atlantic accents, the alcoholism. As the public's infatuation with WASP culture began to dwindle, screwball comedies' satirical idealization of this world began to lose its luster. The country's social dynamics were shifting: with a swelling of Levittowns popping up all across the country, the GI Bill sending an entire generation to college (many of whom were the first in their families to do so), and goods being mass-produced and marketed to the median income in a way never done before, a new middle class emerged. Suddenly, WASPs in cities were not the alluring figures they once seemed - the suburbs and their amenities provided a new, exciting alternative to urban life. The problem, however, is that the screwball genre is naturally suited to the old world of the WASPs: the affectations of the characters, the dryness of the humor, the repression of overtly sexual imagery, the glamorous lifestyle-these cinematic qualities owe as much to the WASPs that inspired them as to any directorial decisions.
This isn't to say that all of the descendants of the screwballs were simply trying to rework the same formula with different elements-on the contrary, most of them use screwball as a jumping-off point for their own ventures into the world of madcap. The genre has rematerialized in countless manifestations. We get the sexed-up retread (The Seven Year Itch), which is particularly jarring, as the genre shuns sexuality so fervently; the attempt at a faithful reiteration (Breakfast At Tiffany's), which winds up having to sentimentalize itself in order to maintain appeal; and of course, the totally cracked-out distant descendant, which is almost unrecognizable (The King of Comedy). Not to mention comedies which utilize the zaniness, pacing and verbal swordplay of the genre, albeit in order to investigate a very different universe-one in which, amongst other things, Jews exist (The Producers and Broadway Danny Rose).
The King of Comedy is interesting in context here, and worthy of discussion as the second-latest film in the series. As Woody Allen's work typically feels out of time, one could argue that The King of Comedy is in fact the retro's most contemporary selection. The film's deranged protagonist, the beautifully named Rupert Pupkin (played by Robert De Niro as the most ingratiating-yet-terrifying creep he's ever channeled) is kind of like an old-time screwball movie fan who imagines that the films that he's been watching present plausible options in terms of how to live one's life. Of course in the 30s, hordes of unemployed, hopeless Americans took to the movies to imagine a world in which their troubles were no more, to peek into a society which - according to the rags-to-riches tales Hollywood so often presented - they might one day belong. Pupkin's mind has been captured by such twisted logic. What he doesn't understand, of course, is that the upward mobility he has been promised in the movies is as big an illusion as the cinema has ever worked to perpetrate. Having been seduced by such images of fame and success, Pupkin continually pushes himself on talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, perfectly cast), deluding himself into believing that he is destined for fame and fortune. When things don't go as the movies would lead him to believe, Pupkin takes matters into his own hands and, in madcap fashion, decides to kidnap Langford in order to get on his show.
What The King of Comedy represents is, naturally, the dark flip-side of everything else we seen in this retrospective; we find these films charming, but often do not consider the nature of what we're really being charmed by. King is a harsh critique of the excesses of the genre, the madcap world breaking up and destroying itself.