The Lost WASP Screwballs of Old New York

12/11/2009 4:00 AM |

Madcap Manhattan
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.