BRINGING UP BABY (2 disc special edition - Warner Home Video)
THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (2 disc special edition - Warner Home Video)
TO BE OR NOT TO BE (Warner Home Video)
LIBELED LADY (Warner Home Video)
DINNER AT EIGHT (Warner Home Video)
STAGE DOOR (Warner Home Video)
THE PALM BEACH STORY (Universal Home Entertainment)
TWENTIETH CENTURY (Sony Home Entertainment)
Click on the radio to hear Joel's interview about Classic Comedy with George Feltenstein Sr., VP of Marketing for Classic Catalog for Warner Home Video!
Based on my latest viewing of Howard Hawk's BRINGING UP BABY (1938), the possibility exists that the critics and film fanatics who repeatedly declare this to be the greatest comedy ever made may just be right. One thing is abundantly clear: no film that blithely and enthusiastically thumbs its nose at anything resembling coherent comedy construction has ever been so continuously uproarious as this one.
I refer those readers who expect us to a supply a synopsis of the recklessly ramshackle series of disconnected events that populate this aggressively berserk film to look elsewhere, for any effort to make sense of the totally nutty series of events on display here would do an injustice to a masterpiece that revels in its ability to elicit non-stop laughs without obeying any of the standard "rules" of comedy construction. Suffice to say that all the characters on display here (including the dog and both leopards) are, in one way or another, not merely eccentric but certifiably insane, a fact that an incredibly inspired gathering of comic performers including Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Catlett, Charlie Ruggles, May Robson, Barry Fitzgerald and Fritz Feld are only too happy to illustrate with their extravagant enthusiasm and absolutely brilliant timing. BRINGING UP BABY creates its own world, a world where lunacy reigns supreme. It's a world you will want to revisit time and time again, as unlimited repeated viewings only enhance this lunatic laugh-fest.
THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) reunites BABY's Grant and Hepburn in yet another comedy classic, but the similarities end there. While the raucous BABY's loud and recklessly impolite quest for laughs doesn't bother to display even the slightest concern for finesse, good manners and etiquette, PHILADELPHIA is a sharply observant and sublimely disciplined comedy of manners that revels in its civility, and like BABY is probably the finest film of its type ever produced.
Here Grant and Hepburn display charmingly urbane grace and witty sophistication under the polite and disciplined guidance of director George Cukor that is a constant joy to behold, and hurting matters not one whit is the sharply precise (and Oscar-winning) delivery of James Stewart at his most sardonic and passionate, all of whom are aided and abetted by a sterling supporting cast that make this PHILADELPHIA STORY a cultured and well-bred delight from start to finish.
It's been reported that when he heard about the real horror and unspeakable savagery and brutality that transpired in the Warsaw Ghetto under Hitler, producer-director Ernst Lubitsch expressed regret at ever making TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942), a bitingly satirical anti-Nazi chronicle of a Warsaw theatrical troupe that outwits Nazi occupiers by playing the roles of (and for) their lives.
While it's impossible to argue with Lubitsch's understandable second thoughts, the fact is that had he never made TBONTB he would have deprived the great Jack Benny of his very finest film role, the luminous and spirited Carole Lombard of, tragically, her final triumph, a sublime supporting cast of some of the sharpest and wittiest dialogue they've ever uttered, and us of a film whose sheer brilliance grows more and more impressive every day. Take it from us: do not allow negative memories of Mel Brooks' witless and worthless remake to deprive you of the opportunity to see the one, the only, the original TO BE OR NOT TO BE.
If LIBELED LADY (1936) doesn't quite attain the heights of hilarity that the three films reviewed above do, there's no question that there are ample rewards to be derived from this engaging farce about the desperate maneuvers a reporter (Spencer Tracy) must instigate in order to deflect an heiress's (Myrna Loy) potentially ruinous lawsuit. Aside from the considerable joys of watching polar opposites Loy and Jean Harlow play off each other, the principle pleasure of this film comes courtesy of the wonderfully wry and witty performance that the great William Powell delivers with his seemingly customary elegance and effortlessness. Indeed, Powell accomplishes something here that no other actor could: he steals every scene from Tracy!
Though both DINNER AT EIGHT (1933) and STAGE DOOR (1937) certainly belong in each other's company, the question arises whether two films in which leading characters commit suicide can justifiably be accurately labeled as straight comedies, but both showcase such generous amounts of sharply humorous dialogue and smart and snappy ensemble playing that their inclusion here is nonetheless gratifying.
DINNER AT EIGHT, by dint of its absolutely scintillating dialogue, fastidious and on the money direction by George Cukor, and top-of-their-form ensemble work by John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Billie Burke, and most particularly, Marie Dressler, is by far the finer of the two and deservedly is considered to be a true cinema classic. STAGE DOOR, on the other hand, has dated somewhat and is hardly in the same stellar class, though it still manages to derive considerable delight from the individual performances of a bright ensemble cast, which includes haughty Katharine Hepburn, sharp-as-a-tack Ginger Rogers, elegant Adolphe Menjou , sardonic Lucille Ball, and dry-as-a-martini Eve Arden.
I suppose there exists a remote possibility that some film vault somewhere in the world might hold captive a leading comedy performance of such feverishly and fiendishly brilliant moment-to-moment originality that it matches, or even exceeds that of John Barrymore's frenzied and fantastically funny turn as a truly maniacal Broadway theatrical director in Howard Hawk's raucously riveting TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934). Its just that I haven't seen it yet.
His is a performance of such fiercely inventive in-your-face audacity that the viewer is constantly tempted to repeat a scene or even a few isolated moments over and over again just to make sure that they haven't missed one single inspired second. That Barrymore's over-the top Broadway ham never for a moment descends into caricature is ample proof of his singular greatness, and Carole Lombard, while still a trifle raw around the edges, almost manages to keep up with him in her delineation of a shopgirl who is turned into a star by this domineering and demonstrative dervish. But Barrymore's spontaneous take-no-prisoners edge-of-your-seat fearlessness is what makes this film great. Without him it simply wouldn't exist. His TWENTIETH CENTURY is a one-man three- ring circus that can be savored again and again.
What compendium of comedy classics would be complete without at least one from writer-director Preston Sturges, and his wackily unruly and ebullient THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942) is a prime example of a riotous romp that has just one single goal in mind: to entertain.
Like BRINGING UP BABY, the "plot" of THE PALM BEACH STORY (if in fact there is one!) is but a tenuous excuse to throw meaty comedic bones to a ravenously rabid and hungry pack of actors who devour the comic morsels with loud and gut-bustingly funny relish. All of the Sturges Stock Company are here in all their glory, and they comprise a suitably loony backdrop for the three stars--Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, and Mary Astor--who also enthusiastically check their sanity at the door.
With the exception of one unnecessary group shooting scene on a train, THE PALM BEACH STORY is free of the undisciplined slapstick and social commentary that some (not me!) feel mar Sturges earlier work. This is his sunniest and funniest work, and it is not to be missed.
I always thought Warner's original single-disc dvd transfer of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY was very good, but the delectably smooth and sharp black and white full screen image on the new two-disc special edition puts the previous effort in the shade, so exemplary is its buttery grey scale, black level and crystal-clear degree of detail. The similarly full screen black and white transfers of BRINGING UP BABY, THE PALM BEACH STORY, STAGE DOOR, TWENTIETH CENTURY, DINNER AT EIGHT and TO BE OR NOT TO BE are rated, in that order, very good to good, with TO BE OR NOT TO BE exhibiting a slight lightness not evident in the other transfers. LIBELED LADY is the weakest rendering of them all, with intermittent flurries of damage, dirt and speckling. The monaural sound on all is confident and distortion-free, though THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is by far the richest sounding.