Screwball Comedies Provided Escape During The Great Depression And Make Good Viewing Now
Speaker 1: 00:00 Staying at home. Sheltering from a dangerous disease is not exactly relaxing. So if you'd like to lift your spirits during this crazy time, KPBS cinema junkie, Beth AHCA Amando would like to suggest watching some screwball comedies. She checks in with Nora Fiori, author of the nitrate diva blog for some suggestions and to explain why screwball comedies offer the perfect escape in these trying times. Speaker 2: 00:28 Nora, we met through TCM because we both have a love of old movies and classic films. Give us a little background on yourself and kind of how you came to love older movies cause you're not old enough to have been seeing these when they first came out. No, I'm, Speaker 3: 00:44 I'm a millennial. I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Vermont and these films really spoke to me from a very young age. My gateway to classic cinema was classic horror, but that quickly expanded to classic comedy through arsenic and old lace, which is, you know, this wonderful horror comedy hybrid. And I just got bitten by the bug. I loved the black and white. I loved that it showed a world that I had not lived through. They've been a very big part of my life. Speaker 2: 01:14 So for today we're going to choose to escape whatever anxieties and stress we may have and look to the world of screwball comedy, which you have a real love for. How do you define what makes a screwball comedy? Speaker 3: 01:30 For me, it's more about a sensibility that it's these wacky situations that people are thrown in that a lot of times it's about reversing the social order where somebody who would usually be on top of society is in a position where they're more vulnerable and is then they're dependent on the working man to save them. Or it's this battle of the sexes where, uh, you know, it's all the gender tensions and roles in society are being subverted. So they're, they're generally a very anarchic type of comedy. They're comedies that are really in revolt against the social order. It's rebellion, but it's rebellion in this breezy, flirtatious, extremely sexy way that that makes it palatable. I mean, it's, it's worth noting that these films were made under under some pretty strict censorship, you know, in the form of the production code. They, there were a lot of limitations of what you could show in ways you could, uh, be irreverent. You know, you had to stay within certain moral confines. But writers, directors, actors, everybody had to come up with all these creative and unusual ways to evoke that revolt and that sexual chemistry without crossing lines of propriety. So I feel like those films are kind of the sense of breaking through barriers and all of these creative and zany ways, this kind of subtle, uh, some subtle revolt revolt that is expressed in an acute breezy manner. Speaker 2: 02:51 Now, one thing that audiences today may have a little bit in common with the audiences in the 1930s was films were very much an escape during the depression, during the depression. However, people could actually physically go to a theater to seek that escape. So, um, do you see that connection in terms of audiences maybe being able to find a similar sort of escape route through these films as people like in the 1930s did? Speaker 3: 03:20 Oh, absolutely. I think these are great escapist films. I think what makes them really great escapism is that they're wacky, romantic fantasies that are still allowing us to process some of the underlying tensions in society. So I feel like you just have to think of these as fantasies as a dream world and yet a dream world that is still metabolizing and, and digesting the crux of, of issues that are still with us. Things like, you know, class 10 tensions in gender relations. Speaker 2: 03:47 Well, that seems to be a perfect point to start with. The first film on your list, which is Frank Capra's, it happened one night from 1934 and this sense of having kind of the escapism, but also that touch of realism is really clear in Capra's film. Okay. Speaker 3: 04:07 Yes, absolutely. I think this one has a little bit more of an aura of looking into the real world because it is about an intensely sheltered young woman who decides that she's going to Flay, that she's, she wants to marry a Playboy in her rich millionaire father says, no, you can't do that. So she escapes. But as soon as she gets out in the real world, she realizes that she doesn't have the skills to cope with that. And lucky for her out of work reporter Clark Gable comes along and thinks I'm going to get her story because by this point she's a sensation. You know, she's the escape runaway Erez. And in trying to get her story and keep her away from the cops and her father's hired goons, you know, they start to fall for each other and it has, you know, they have to become very resourceful to stay one step ahead of the people who are, are, are searching for them. Speaker 3: 04:52 And it's fun to watch all the identity play that takes place as they have to do that. You know, the famous scene that they have to share a hotel room for the night, which pretty racy for 1934 you know, good girl wasn't supposed to share a hotel room with some guy she just met in 1934 so what they do is they string up blanket in the middle of the room and they call it the walls of Jericho because nothing's going to bring that down. That's, that's their concession to propriety. And you know, the famous scene where Clark Gable to keep her on her side of the room starts taking his clothes. Speaker 4: 05:20 No, I have a method on my own. If you'll notice the Coke came first and the tie and the shirt now according to Hoyle, after that, the panel should be next. That's where I'm different. I go through the shoes next first, the right and the left after that, it's every man for himself. Speaker 3: 05:45 They pretend to be a, a plumber's daughter and her angry husband. And you know quickly you can see this era's who has lived this airless boring existence is really starting to enjoy this freewheeling that she's gotten herself into by escaping. You know, some of the most beautiful scenes are the ones that take place outdoors. I love the scene where they crossed the river and he just scoops her right up. And then there's this dreamy sequence where there they're finding a bed among hay bales and the moon shining on them. It just has this wonderful air of ordinary romanticism of the way in which the [inaudible] for her everyday life becomes a Wonderland. It's this whole side of human existence that she has not discovered and she, we get to see it almost through her eyes were things that ordinary depression era audiences would have been annoyed by. We know this would have been the, the daily, the mundane annoyance of their life. She sees as this the world of freedom for her. So I think that's an interesting inversion in the film. Speaker 2: 06:45 As much as I hate to move on from, it happened one night, but another film, which is one of my top films because it features a couple of actors I adore, is my man Godfrey, which is from 1936. And this stars the absolutely effervescent Carole Lombard and William Powell playing a, uh, a homeless man, which usually we think of humans as this very area who died, you know, Nick and Nora Charles and, uh, very classroom. Yes, yes. And so he's a, a homeless person in this. What about this film? Um, do you find particularly memorable? Speaker 3: 07:19 Well, I, when I do think about it, I do always think about the sequence where Carole Lombard finds him at the city dump. Like you said, if only you could find William Powell at the city dump, you do not expect to see William Powell just hanging around. But I think that that's such a key part of the movies commentary is that somebody from the upper-class you middle-class, you know, might look at, you know, somebody's fallen on hard times and think that it's their fault or just discount them when you, you can see it's William pal. You know, it's, it's a film that really reminds you to always understand that you are where you are because you're, because of your luck in many cases that the vagaries of fortune can take us all in strange directions. And I love that from the first she listens to him, you know, her sister comes and they will, the setup is that Carole Lombard and her sister Gail Patrick are both these Daffy socialites who are doing a scavenger hunt. They're looking for things to bring to the club and to show off so that they can win a prize. And one of the things they have to get as a forgotten man, which you know in depression era terms would have meant a man who probably was a world war one veteran who had lost his job, who had fallen on hard times and was living as a bum. Speaker 5: 08:24 Do you mind telling me just what a scavenger hunt is? Well the scavenger hunt is exactly like a treasure hunt except in a treasure hunt. You try to find something you want in a scavenger hunt. You try to find something that nobody wants like a forgotten man. That's right. And the one that wins gets a prize on it. There really isn't a prize. It's just the honor of winning because all the money goes to charity. That is if there's any money left over, but then they never is. There's the whole matter up beautifully. You know, I have decided I don't want to play any more games with human beings as object cause kind of sorted. When you think of that, I mean when you think it over. Yeah. I don't know. I haven't thought it over. He had don't like change the subject. But you tell me why you live in a place like this and there's so many other nice places you really want to know. I'm very curious because my real estate agent felt that the altitude would be very good for my asthma. Oh, my uncle has asthma. No. Wow. I was there as I went to them. Well I suppose I should be going there. She'll lie. Speaker 3: 09:24 That's with them. Ellie Andrews. And it happened one night, Carol Lombard's character and my man Godfrey, she is open to hearing other perspectives. So she hires him to be her Butler and you know, pal and Lombard. They had been married and divorced by the time they made this film. But fortunately they stayed on good terms. William pal even recommended her for the role. He just thought she'd be perfect. And I think that they're friendly chemistry makes this really a very sweet film to watch again. Like it happened one night. It's a film about finding your better self because even though the wicked Gail Patrick comes around at the end, so it's a, you know, it's definitely about personal growth. Um, and it's interesting because on the one hand, while it's still doing all this social commentary on the idle rich, it still does have this glamour that is very attractive. Carole Lombard in these to die for Travis Banton gowns and the fancy house there is, there is more Daphnis per minute in this film than maybe in any other films. So well, you know, I make it sound like it's this serious social commentary and that's there. But the paradox of it is that's all there while all this crazy stuff is happening at the same time, that's really what screwball comedy did so well, Speaker 2: 10:32 so to wrap this all up, what do you think about screwball comedies offers the kind of escapism that might help people through some of this self isolation? Speaker 3: 10:41 That's a great question. I think that the sheer speed and amount of wit and joy in these films can really take a load off your mind. They're so fast paced and they're so beautiful. Look at, they're so well acted. They're so well directed and in most cases that you kind of can't take your eyes off them. You can't take your mind off them. So they really do pull you out of reality for that span of time and plunge you into this other world. And yet, you know, it's not, it's not brain candy. It's not just totally numbing you out or taking you out. I mean, in many ways I find that these films are like exercise for the mind because as I said, I've watched a bunch of them many times and I still feel like I notice new details and new lines and new nuances to the characters. So I feel like they're kind of keeping you alert and keeping you engaged with human emotions, uh, with, you know, both high and low emotions. Um, even while they are delighting you with this, this make-believe world, uh, that Hollywood created so exquisitely all those years ago. Speaker 2: 11:46 Well, I want to thank you very much for taking some time to escape from some of the stress and anxiety of today's. Oh, Speaker 1: 11:54 thank you. This has been a delight. This is talking about screwball comedy has been a tremendous, the delightful escape for me. So thank you so much for inviting me to talk about them. That was Beth Armando speaking with the nitrate diva. Nora Fiori. They will suggest more screwball comedies later this month on Beth's cinema junkie podcast.