DVDs for 8/4/09 – Ladies of Screwball and Italian Culture Wars

Jean Arthur is one of the greats of screwball comedy, at once the girl next door and the sardonic smart cookie, the idealist and the sophisticate rolled into a snappy, sassy, yet still romantic package. Sony has come up with a nice way of showcasing some of the lesser known films by their marquee players in their new Icons of Screwball Comedy collection. The first two volumes debut with a quartet of films on two discs, each volume spotlighting a pair of actresses with two films apiece: Volume One featuring Arthur and Rosalind Russell, Volume Two with Irene Dunne and Loretta Young.

Jean Arthur leaves lipstick traces on her co-stars
Jean Arthur leaves lipstick traces on her co-stars

Jean Arthur had been more than ten years in the business, bouncing between stage and screen, when she made If You Could Only Cook (1935), but she had only recently come into her own as a leading lady, a talented comedienne and a formidable actress with a personality that bursts out of the frame. She’s second billed to Herbert Marshall, who plays an auto company president frustrated by a conservative board of directors and about to marry a woman he clearly doesn’t realize is all wrong for him. Marshall may have been no matinee idol – he was ten years older than Arthur and looked even older, with his thinning hair and doughy frame – but he was one smooth, suave, elegant leading man, a real class act with a wonderfully wry and underplayed sense of humor. He’s the society gent without the aristocratic snootiness and he seems to sense a kindred spirit in Joan (Arthur), who meets while she scours the want ads in the park. Before he knows, he’s posing not just as her husband but as a butler and takes a job serving a nouveau riche gangster (Leo Carrillo) with gourmet tastes. It’s a light little trifle of a romantic comedy with larger than life characters who carry the film for director William A. Seiter. It’s a treat watching Marshall get tips from his butler without a trace of self-consciousness and it’s not hard to see his attraction to Arthur, who is all spunk and street smarts but drops her no-nonsense front when flustered by the pangs of romance.

It’s paired with Too Many Husbands (1940), with Arthur top billed over Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas (the husbands of the title). It’s a pretty predictable set-up (lost at sea husband comes back to find wife remarried – to his business partner, no less) and a fairly conventional script, based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham, of all things. The minor pleasures come from Arthur’s sly delight in watching the two men compete for her affections. The two-disc set also includes a pair of Rosalind Russel comedies: the original screen version of My Sister Eileen (1942), co-starring Brian Aherne and Janet Blair, and She Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945) with Lee Bowman, both directed by Alexander Hall.

The gem of the collection is on Volume Two: Theodora Goes Wild (1936), one of the great comedies of the thirties. Irene Dunne is magic as small town girl Theodora Lynn, a grown woman living under the suffocating strictures of her moralistic aunts. She vents her frustrations and indulges in her fantasies of uninhibited living by writing (under a pseudonym) a scandalous novel that she is forced to condemn when her own town paper starts serializing it. Melvyn Douglas is pure, unbound charm and impish attitude as the social butterfly determined to “free” Theodora from her double life and unleash her inhibitions. He succeeds all too well and she moves to New York to return the favor: it turns out self-styled artist Michael Grant doesn’t live the life he preaches. He’s an unhappily married man playing at bachelor while careful to keep out of the paper, lest he tarnish his politician father’s image. I would never have pegged Richard Boleslawski for a sense of humor, let alone a talented director of comedy, but he masterfully guides his cast through Sidney Buchman’s sparkling screenplay. “There’s nothing more deadly than innocence on the manhunt,” remarks one New York observer as Theodora embraces the reputation of her alter-ego and tramples through the polite manners and paper-thin veil of appearances of New York society. The film hammers the small-town hypocrisy much harder than the parallel high society double standards (gossiping biddies jumping on every scandal they pretend to abhor is an easy target), but it’s still a fun double reflection when it’s Dunne blowing through the social events of New York’s high and mighty. Her spirit is adorable, her laugh is to die for and her drive is commendable. This is screwball at its finest. The set also features Dunne and Charles Boyer in Together Again (1944) and Loretta Young in The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940) and A Night to Remember (1942).

Cult Epics continues to explore the wild early career of Tinto Brass with The Howl (L’Urlo), a surreal 1969 odyssey with runaway bride Tina Aumont wandering like Alice through a socio-political slapstick wonderland. She dumps her groom at the altar to run off with a handsome stranger after sharing nothing more than a glance and they both manage to change costumes with every scene change: she bouncing between mod outfits and funky hippy dresses, he in a prison outfit, then made up like a mime, then offering blessings from behind a priest’s frock. This self-conscious puncturing of culture and counter-culture could only have been made in the wake of Weekend and If…, Godard and Pasolini. Brass is no Godard, mind you – this is less political satire than sloppy Keystone Kops chaos with farcical political references, punctuations of cartoonish violence, bohemian color, cannibalism and oodles of nudity, without any discipline or sense of purpose – but it is an undeniably entertaining cultural artifact from the free-form frontier of the late fifties. Much of it seems to have been reworked in the dubbing booth, as the dubbing is haphazard to say the least and half the dialogue has little connection to the mouths on screen. This uncut presentation is said to be taken from Tinto Brass’ own personal print, but the print itself is faded and worn, with scratches and grit throughout and damage at the reel ends, and the master decidedly low definition, at times hazy and always soft. The commentary by Tinto Brass is more about the production than the inspiration and meaning, but it could use it’s own subtitle track; his accent is pretty thick and at times impenetrable. The disc also features a still gallery.

Long before reality shows took over the TV airwaves, Elio Petri made The 10th Victim a campy social satire based on a novel by Robert Sheckley about a future where the bored, the ambitious, and the just plain violent can sign up for a deadly game of cat and mouse. “The Big Hunt is necessary as a social safety valve,” explains one TV personality, “Why control births when we can control deaths.” Marcello Mastroianni plays the womanizing Italian media darling with a gift for ingenious assassinations who becomes the target of sexy champion Ursula Andress, a New York Amazon with a wardrobe as deadly as it is chic. She’ll pocket $1 million if she can successfully kill Mastroianni, her tenth and last victim, and even more from a deal she concocts to do the deed in concert with a live song-and-dance filled extravaganza mounted by a tea company. Directed with tongue firmly in cheek, Petri lampoons the whole media obsession with high risk contests and games of chance with cool style, absurdly chic fashions, a bouncy score of organ riffs and funky lounge sounds, and a comically blasé performance by Mastroianni. It’s like Fellini gone ballistic with a hint of Divorce, Italian Style: a battle of the sexes in a world where spontaneous shoot-outs are forever erupting in the fringes of the frame. Out of print for years, it’s now back on DVD through Blue Underground.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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